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the sister circle
By vonette bright nancy moser Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2003
Vonette Bright and Nancy Moser
All right reserved.
Chapter One O my people, trust in him at all times. Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge. PSALM 62:8
Evelyn wanted to throw the coffee in his face.
As if reading her mind, the man fl inched. " I'm sorry, Mrs. Peerbaugh," he said. "I feel really bad."
Evelyn looked at the life insurance check in her hand. Ten thousand dollars. After paying the funeral expenses, there would be little left. "It's not your fault."
The man fidgeted in his chair, the china cup balanced precariously on his thigh. He looked down at Peppers the cat nervously, as she rubbed against the lower part of his leg.
Evelyn put a hand near the floor. "Come here, kitty." Peppers accepted the invitation and performed a graceful arc, finishing it against Evelyn's right ankle. She was rewarded with a scratch behind the ears.
"Perhaps your husband had other policies?" the man said. "People often have policies from more than one insurance company."
Evelyn shook her head. After the shock of Aaron's car accident a month ago, she'd gone through the drawer that held all their important papers and had found only the one effective policy-effective being the key word. There were other policies-one for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and one for fiftythousand-but both had been cashed in, and Evelyn had no idea where the money had gone. Unbelievable. Now this insurance check, combined with their minuscule bank accounts, was it.
Why hadn't Aaron confided in her about their financial situation? Their lifestyle had been comfortable but not lavish. He had offered no clue that they were struggling.
And she hadn't asked.
Why hadn't she asked?
Of course, for Evelyn to have known the extent of their troubles meant that Aaron would have had to admit them, and that was a whole new cake to cut. Aaron had worn a cloak of confidence like a king wearing a royal robe. Whatever life had to offer, he could handle it.
Ha! Who was left to handle it now?
Aaron had been as impractical as Waterford crystal at a picnic. Evelyn doubted he had ever allowed himself to consider the possibility of death. He was always high on dreams and low on common sense. If it hadn't been for Evelyn's insistence that they hold on to the Peerbaugh family home that had been in his family since 1900, Aaron would have uprooted her and their son multiple times. They'd have left Carson Creek and ended up in Seattle or Tampa on some get-rich scheme that would have left them living in a rented trailer with a telephone line strung over the branches of the nearest tree. Holding fast to the house had been one of the few times Evelyn had taken a stand-
She blinked her memories away. "Mmm?"
"If there's anything I can do ..."
She set her cup on the coffee table that separated them. A plate of cookies lay untouched, but she realized it was too late to offer them again. And the way the man shifted in his seat and avoided her eyes told her he wanted to leave ASAP. Even though she didn't mind his company, there was no reason to make him uncomfortable any longer. It wasn't his fault her inheritance was so pitiful, and she was sure he had better things to do than to sit around comforting a widow about her husband's lack of foresight.
She stood, signaling the end to their meeting. "Well, Mr. ..." She felt herself blush. She'd forgotten his name.
"Walker. Jim Walker."
She moved toward the door. "Yes, Mr. Walker. Thanks for coming by. I really appreciate your visit-and the check."
He raised a surprised eyebrow as if he didn't believe her last statement, wisely held the platitudes to a minimum, and left.
Evelyn leaned against the closed door and listened as his footsteps traveled down the porch steps and onto the stepping-stone walk. A car door. An engine. Then silence. Utter, complete silence except for the ticking of the mantel clock counting down the seconds that were left in her life.
The silence became a vacuum that sucked away all her energy. She let the solidity of the door guide her as she slid to the floor. Her challis skirt got hung up on a knee, revealing her slip. She moved to pull it primly down, but when she realized there was no one around to see, let it be. That would take getting used to, having no one around.
The tears began to flow uncontrollably-sobs she never expected. Thoughts of her life began to unfold like a book being opened.... She'd lived a pleasant, respectable life, enjoyed good friends, and reared an independent son. Now, in her golden years, was this all she had to show? This was it? Decades of humdrum, monotonous existence coupled with financial struggle?
She sniffed loudly and used her skirt to wipe her face. Then, without warning, she spoke aloud, "God, if You're out there ... help! Tell me what I'm supposed to do next."
With effort, she took a deep breath, but the air entered in ragged pieces. Why did she feel so worn-out? She used to be full of energy, and yet now, as a widow, her strength vacillated between the frenzy of a worker ant and a bug squashed beneath someone's foot. As if sensing her mood, Peppers nudged her face into Evelyn's calf. Evelyn picked her up and let the calico find her favorite position on Evelyn's shoulder, like a baby going to be burped. Peppers' purring resonated against Evelyn's chest like the comforting sound of cicadas on a summer evening.
Balancing Peppers with one hand, Evelyn drew the check front and center and stared at it. Add another zero and it would have been doable. What had Aaron been thinking?
Yet she couldn't blame it all on him. Hadn't she let him be irresponsible? Maybe if she'd been another type of person she could have told him, "Enough, Aaron! Quit going after the quick money, the big break, and settle for a better, steady job that can provide for your family."
But she hadn't said that. She couldn't count the number of times she'd sat across from him as he'd explained his latest big idea. He had been just successful enough to keep up their hopes that the big break was soon to come, that his invention ideas would solve their problems. He'd taken such pleasure in his schemes, his projects. High hopes that were never realized. His failures stemmed from two problems. He had a penchant for being one step behind in his inventions (they'd first seen Velcro in a store the same week Aaron had shown her his prototype for a similar product). Plus, he had a habit of not finishing what he started before moving on to the next project. Add the two qualities together and you got nothing done. Nothing accomplished.
But Evelyn hadn't held her tongue because she was a lady, or superior. She'd held back and let Aaron do his thing because she was a coward. She hated confrontation and avoided it at all cost. Go along to get along. Aaron used to become angry at her for saying, "I don't care."
"Don't you care about anything, Evelyn?"
It's not that she didn't care, but she often found decisions daunting and figured it was much safer-and easier-if she let someone else make the choices. Besides, most of the time it made the other person happy, and that was always a good thing.
Peppers squirmed and Evelyn let her go. Then she carefully balanced the check on one knee and sent it flying with a powerful flick of her finger. It didn't fly very long but slid to the floor by the stairs, nudging a defenseless dust bunny. Would a larger check have floated longer? Garbage to garbage, dust to dust.
She wasn't without assets. The front hall of the Peerbaugh home loomed before her, the oak staircase a massive Victorian sculpture, its faded flowered runner held in place by brass rods that would cost a fortune to duplicate. Solid brass light fixtures and doorknobs, lovely antiques. The entry table was crowned by a carved mirror and held an azalea plant from the funeral, an anniversary clock they'd received on their thirtieth, and a pink Depression-glass dish forever empty of Aaron's keys and loose change.
Or was it empty?
Evelyn pushed herself to her feet, suddenly desperate to see if the dish held a souvenir of her husband's last days. For a whole month she'd walked past and never noticed. But there it was: a quarter, two dimes, and three pennies spotting the glass. She reached to grab them, then withdrew her hand. The array of coins was a still-life composition, each coin placed just so to give an air of haphazardness to its art. She would not move them. Those coins would remain in that dish, undisturbed, until further notice. They were her legacy.
Which left the grand total of her inheritance at ten thousand dollars and forty-eight cents.
Suddenly, a new thought: What about their son, Russell? Where was his inheritance?
An answer loomed. Emotionally spent and physically weary but with new purpose, Evelyn staggered up the stairs to her bedroom and opened the top drawer of Aaron's dresser. She pawed through a haphazard array of paper scraps, pens, and newspaper clippings.
There it is!
Her hand closed around the Peerbaugh family pocket watch, a valuable and coveted possession-even if it no longer worked. This would be Russell's.
It was better than nothing.
Closing the drawer, she noticed a thin five-by-seven box and read the printing on the top: The New Testament. Ah yes. It was the Bible Aaron had received from his mother one birthday when she'd been especially disgusted with his fl itty ways. "There's direction for your life in this book, Son. Read it," she'd said.
As far as Evelyn knew, Aaron had never even removed it from its box, much less read what was on the pages. The fact that it was still in its original package was testament to her husband's stubbornness at accepting his mother's-or anyone else's-advice.
Evelyn set her fingers upon it. Could there be advice for her within its pages?
She withdrew her hand and shut the drawer. Maybe. But not today. She had enough to think about today.
* * *
Evelyn spooned another helping of cashew chicken onto her plate, digging the final morsels from the white box.
Her son's fork stopped midway to his mouth. "Glad to see you've got some appetite back. What's the occasion?"
She retrieved a fallen cashew and licked her fingers. "Desperation."
Russell gave her a look that reminded her of his father. "Mom, it'll be all right. I'll help out. You know I will. What's mine is yours."
She shook her head vigorously. "That's not the way it's supposed to work, Russell. The child is not supposed to give money to the parent. The parents are supposed to leave money to the child."
"I wasn't expecting anything." His inability to look her in the eye told a different story.
She put one hand on his, and with the other pulled the gold watch from the pocket of her skirt. She held it out to him, its chain slithering off the side of her hand like a lifeline being extended. "I know it's not much, but I want you to have this."
Russell hesitated a moment, then retrieved the watch and turned it over. He flipped open the cover then held it to his ear. "Does it work?"
"I ... I don't think so." Her next words spilled out in a flood. "But it's been in the family for three generations, and you make four. I remember seeing your grandfather pull it out of his pocket and-"
"Dad never used this."
"But it was his."
"Did he want me to have it?"
All words died. Oh dear.
He looked up. Then down again. Then he set the watch aside, next to the salt and pepper shakers.
"I wish there was more to give you, Russell. And if there's anything in the house that would mean something special to you, just ask. I mean it." He shrugged, and her heart squeezed with the pain of inadequacy. "I'm just glad you're financially stable in your own right."
With a pause, then a shuffling of his shoulders and a blink, Russell seemed to erase the past minute and move on. "I am financially independent. Which means I can help you." His jaw tightened. "Like Dad should have done."
"Don't be bitter, Russell. I'm ... I'm trying not to be."
"But ten thousand dollars ... what was he thinking?"
"You know your father. He was thinking of a thousand ways to get rich. Always the entrepreneur, always expecting the big turnaround. He didn't mean to leave me in such a desperate situation. And he certainly wasn't contemplating a premature death."
Russell snickered and Evelyn let it go. It would do no good to rehash Aaron's failings. He was dead. She was alone. Those were facts that couldn't be disputed. "There has to be a way for me to earn some money."
"As in you getting a job?"
His incredulous tone pushed a button on her anger, and all intentions to be gracious were shoved aside. "Tell me what choice I have, Russell. After thirty-one years of marriage I'm left with nothing. Nothing! The way I figure it, I've either been a weak fool or a dupe. I sat back and let your father take care of me, never confronting his flighty ways, never making him look past the moment. So now I've gotten what I deserve-which is nothing. I feel like I'm the victim of a con, a thirty-year con in which I've handed over my life savings-both monetary and emotional-and come up with nothing. If your father were here, I would tell ... I would ..." She realized she'd been ranting.
"You'd want to yell at him, but you wouldn't. You'd escape to the porch, where you'd hope he would come find you to talk, only he never would. Then after a while, after you'd calmed down, you'd go back inside and pick up as if nothing had happened."
She retrieved her fork, focusing on the food. "Don't mock me, Russell. That's my life you're talking about. Our life. And your father ... he's dead. I loved-"
He stopped her hand with his. "I don't mean to hurt you, but the issue is not whether you loved him or whether he loved you. Or even how you argued and made up. Right now the point is, he failed to provide for you. He was negligent. He was wrong."
"But it does no good for me to ... it doesn't change anything."
"It doesn't change anything, but I disagree with you about it not doing any good to express your anger. Anger, in itself, is not wrong. You need to let it out. The trick is not to sit and soak in it."
She managed a smile. "Or your skin will prune?"
"Something like that." They each took a bite and chewed in silence. "You mentioned getting a job ..." His head shook back and forth.
"I promise not to become a brain surgeon-or a banker like you."
He looked at his plate. " I'm sure you can do anything you set out to do. But you have to be realistic. You've never had a job. Who's going to hire you with no experience? Plus, there's the issue of your age ..." He glanced up, then down again.
He had a point. Getting a first job at age fifty-six was a stretch. "Isn't there a law against age discrimination?"
"Sure, but ..." He shrugged.
"In an entry position between me and a pretty young thing, I'd lose?"
He shrugged again.
Evelyn took a big bite of rice, hoping the physical fuel would spark some brilliant idea that would solve every thing. Her mind was blank.
Russell shoved his plate aside. "Moving on to another question ... what are you going to do with this house? It was big when it was just you and Dad, but now that it's just you ..."
"If only you'd do your part and give me some grandchildren."
"Gotta have a wife first." He grinned at her wickedly. "Actually, I don't have to have a wife ..."
She pinched the tip of his nose. "You may be thirty but you're still my baby boy, and as such, you'd better watch your mouth-and your morals."
"I didn't say anything."
"But you were thinking naughty thoughts."
"Since when did you become the thought police?"
"Since I became your mother."
He didn't argue; he took his plate to the sink and rinsed it off before putting it in the dishwasher. He returned to his chair, and she was suddenly struck by how much he looked like Aaron, and Aaron's father, Oscar. The Peerbaugh nose made its recipients more interesting than handsome. And the receding hairline-
"Mom, you're looking at me funny."
Evelyn nodded. "You remind me of your father and his father." She looked around, realizing where she was. "In fact, the first time I met your Grandpa Peerbaugh was in this very kitchen. Your father had brought me to dinner to meet his family. It was a full house then, full of Aaron's younger brother and sister, and two renters who lived in two of the bedrooms upstairs. Your grandfather had even had an extra bathroom installed-" Evelyn sucked in a breath. "That's it!"
Excerpted from the sister circle by vonette bright nancy moser Copyright © 2003 by Vonette Bright and Nancy Moser. Excerpted by permission.
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