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Song OF THE BROKENHEARTED
By Sheila Walsh Cindy Martinusen Coloma
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Sheila Walsh and Cindy Martinusen Coloma
All right reserved.
Chapter One"You need to Wake up," Ava told herself as she gripped the steering wheel between quick gulps of the coffee she'd grabbed at an all-night gas station.
She turned onto Walnut Street and the directions to the Gibson residence became unnecessary. Her destination was obvious by the cars parked at awkward angles around the two-story stucco house.
Tonight was not the night for casseroles, sympathy cards, or flowers. That would come tomorrow, and in the days that followed. This was the time to arrive empty-handed and with as few words as possible.
She rose from her car into a warm autumn night, pausing to watch gray puffs of clouds drift across the nearly full moon. The moment gave her the strength to go toward the front door and to become the helpful stranger in a house of deep grief.
A bouquet of silver balloons hung unmoving from the lamppost at the end of the walkway. Jars lit by candles lined the path to the house; most had already burned themselves out. A large banner hung over the front door: Congratulations, Joshua and Jessica!
Ava wondered if she should suggest taking down the reminder that hours earlier this had been a house of celebration and joy. Perhaps she could do it herself a little later.
An older man answered her knock wearing rumpled clothing and a deep frown drawn in the corners of his mouth.
"Are you a friend of the family?" he said, studying her in her designer jeans and beige sweater.
"No, I'm Ava. Hannah called and asked me to come."
His frown softened slightly. "Come in. We had the media stop by already. Sharks. I don't know how they heard so fast. Most of the family is in the formal living room. I'm their neighbor across the street there. I've known Jessica since she was nine ..." His voice trailed off.
"I'm sorry. It's very painful."
"It is," he muttered.
Ava followed the man beyond the foyer and sweeping staircase and toward a silent gathering of people who stood at different places around the room. A half-eaten cake rested on the table.
"Hannah? This lady said you called her."
The woman from her Bible study stared at Ava a moment, then recognition dawned on her face. She rose quickly from the chair.
"Ava. Thank you for coming."
"Of course," she said. As they embraced, Ava felt the woman lean heavily against her. For a moment, she feared Hannah would collapse.
"She was my only niece, and more like a daughter to me," Hannah said within the sobs that shook her. "Such a beautiful girl, and such a lovely heart. They were so happy ... How can they be gone, just like that?"
Ava offered no answers as she held the middle-aged woman while she cried. Ava felt the pain echo in her own heart. Though she often was around tragedies since starting the ministry at church, Ava had yet to become desensitized to the grief.
"I can't believe you came out this late at night," Hannah said, wiping the tears from her face. "I'd heard you talk about the Broken Hearts, but I had no idea ... Do you come out in the night like this all the time? Your husband must hate it."
"It's not just me. Our team takes turns being on call. But nighttime seems to be when most people need help," Ava said, picking up several of the tissues that Hannah dropped on the floor. "Is there anything specific you need right now?"
"I don't know." Hannah stared at her with a blank look as many did when Ava asked the question. Still, she asked instead of taking over—that, too, would come later.
"My sister is upstairs, but she wanted to be alone. Joe, my brother-in-law, was trying to drive to the ... the site."
"Oh no," Ava muttered. On the drive into Fort Worth, Ava had passed the remains of the wreck along a lonely stretch of highway. Red flares dotted the road, dividing drivers from the tragedy strewn in broken glass and bits of metal across the asphalt, off the shoulder, and into the darkened farmland. Ambulances were gone, and a tow truck was loading a mangled twist of metal that had once been the car of this newly engaged couple who believed their entire lives stretched before them.
Ava shuddered to think if it were Sienna and Preston. Her daughter and fiancé had celebrated their engagement over the summer. Nothing would comfort these parents tonight or for many nights to come. Such a loss was unfathomable, and Ava's heart felt a physical ache for this family who was planning a wedding several hours earlier, but now would begin planning two funerals.
"Seems someone stopped him from going. But I don't know where he is."
Ava placed her hand on Hannah's shoulder.
"Well, I'm available for whatever you need. The team has helped make funeral arrangements, we can organize food, and we've started memorial funds in some cases. We can do a little or a lot, just let me know what's needed."
The woman cried again. "Thank you. I can't believe we're talking about this. Their engagement announcement was just five hours ago. It doesn't seem possible that they're both ... gone."
"Hannah," a voice called.
Hannah hurried toward the entry and looked up the oak stairway.
"She's asking for you," a woman said, peering down from the top.
Hannah glanced at Ava as if asking permission.
"I'll be down here if you need me, or you can call me in the morning. Try to help her rest for now."
Hannah nodded and headed up the staircase with her jaw clenched and eyebrows rumpled.
Ava had an awkward moment of not knowing what to do with herself. Her eyes swept the rooms that veined off on both sides of the foyer. She moved quietly to pick up cups, plates, and half-empty champagne glasses left over from the engagement party. She found the kitchen still disheveled and set to work. It was obvious the people living here usually kept the house neat and tidy. Having the house clean might not be noticed tomorrow as shock slowly wore off, but a messy one would certainly add to the stress.
After cleaning as much as she could, Ava made coffee and set out mugs beside the cream and sugar on the long tile bar. A few people came in here and there, though none spoke to her. Some took cups of coffee with mumbled thank-yous.
As Ava swept the dining area, she saw a small face under the table staring up at her. She jumped in surprise, then bent down to meet the dark eyes staring back at her.
"Hello. What are you doing down there?" she said gently despite the racing in her chest. A child beneath a kitchen table— it touched a memory she'd tried to bury long ago. "Come here, sweetie. I won't hurt you."
The girl didn't move toward her, but she also didn't move away as Ava knelt on the floor and inched toward her.
"How long have you been there? Would you like something to drink or eat?"
The girl nodded. Ava reached for the little hands clenched around her knees. Finally she coaxed the child out.
The girl wrapped her arms around Ava's neck as she picked her up. Ava guessed she was about five years old, close to the age she'd been on a night when her childhood home had been the hub of a tragic gathering. No one had seen her hiding beneath a table as people talked about her mother's death.
"Oh no, I thought she was asleep," a woman said, flying toward the child. Ava handed her over, but the girl's dark eyes stared after Ava.
"Thank you," Hannah said, standing in the doorway with her hands hanging from her sides as if too heavy to do more than dangle there.
"I think she's thirsty or hungry," Ava said, scooping up the last of the dirt beside the table. She dumped it in the trash and returned the broom and dustpan to the pantry.
"Little Grace adored her Uncle Josh," Hannah said, sitting on a bar stool. She played with the rim of a coffee mug. "My sister isn't doing well."
Ava turned on the dishwasher and joined her at the bar.
"She won't for a long time. I'm sure none of you will. Would you like to pray?"
Hannah nodded. Ava took her hands and prayed quietly. When she finished, she opened her eyes to find Hannah gazing at her.
"Thank you for being here."
Ava paused after closing the front door. She stood on a patio chair and pulled down the banner over the door, then folded it up. She'd give it to Hannah at the right moment.
Chapter TwoThe next morning, as Ava whipped eggs in a bowl for baked French toast casserole, she caught something amiss in the green of the backyard through the kitchen window.
It was a rare Sunday morning with all three of them at home. They'd attended the Saturday service at church, Dane hadn't bustled off to the office as he'd done most weekends in the past months, Ava had said no to helping with an afternoon fund-raiser, and Jason didn't have any friends or football buddies staying over for once.
The pleasure of waking past seven to a quiet house sent Ava to the kitchen, following the scent of freshly brewed coffee—brewed by timer as usual—with her thoughts flipping through her aunt's old book of recipes.
She'd left the Gibsons' house after two a.m. with the promise to return later today. But the family remained heavy in her thoughts after she arrived home and slid into bed. Perhaps Sienna's engagement made the tragedy more poignant—a reminder to cherish what they had.
Now, between the cinnamon and heavy cream, Ava paused from savoring the morning light to focus harder through the clear glass window over the sink. Out beyond the shimmer of the swimming pool among the manicured lawn and hedges, the wispy branches of the weeping willow tree seemed jaundiced and more sparse than usual.
The door to the mudroom opened, and Dane's slippers padded across the tile floor. He carried a coffee cup and held up a newspaper. "Look what I found. An actual Dallas Morning News made with ink and paper. When was the last time I read one of these on a Sunday morning?"
"I can't even remember. It's like listening to music on our record player. I didn't know they made newspapers anymore," Ava joked as she poured in the heavy cream and stirred the batter. The cinnamon swirled through the white liquid.
Dane gave an approving grunt at the ingredients stretched across the granite counter. "I'll cook the bacon. Let me know when." He moved behind her, bending to kiss her neck. It sent a shiver down her skin, reminding her of younger days when such a kiss would have meant that breakfast wouldn't be made. Dane topped off her coffee cup, then his.
"You came in late. What happened?" he said.
"A family lost their daughter. She and her fiancé had their engagement party last night, then they were both killed in a car accident."
"It's in the paper," Dane said, turning the front page toward her. The mangled car in the photo looked haunting, lit up against the dark night.
"That's fast—sharks indeed," Ava said.
"Be careful driving around so late. You should call me when you're on the road."
"All right," she said, not wanting to talk further about the night before. The little girl beneath the table and that congratulatory banner struck a little too close to home for her liking. "Where did you get a paper at this hour?"
"I stole it from the Lopez yard."
"No you didn't."
He gave her a mischievous grin. "I traded Jason out. He has to mow their lawn."
"He's going to love that."
"He will because I'll mow ours for him, and the Lopez yard is smaller." Dane settled into a chair in the breakfast nook. Ava bit back a smile at Dane's salt-and-pepper hair sticking up on one side. She loved him rumpled with bed head. Dane was always put together for business with his designer suits and ties, hair perfectly cut and smoothed in place. At home, Dane was Dane again.
"Seeing you like that makes me expect Sienna and Jason to come running in wearing their footed pajamas ... what did Sienna call them? Feet jammies."
Dane lowered the paper, watching Ava as she dipped the bread in the batter and layered it into a baking dish.
"Let's call her. We'll tell her to forget the wedding, forget college, and come be our baby girl again."
"It's not even six a.m. there. She'd kill us." Ava pictured her daughter sleeping with the covers all kicked off like she always did. They were planning Sienna's dream wedding, extravagant and luxurious, and Ava's binder of wedding plans over flowed with designs, schedules, and brochures. The months were moving too fast, like a locomotive barreling down a mountain picking up speed and gathering more and more weight.
Dane turned a page of the paper. "Not sure I'm loving this newspaper as much as I'd hoped."
"Missing technology already?"
"It's pretty nice to scroll through all my papers at once. And no ink on the fingers." He rubbed his fingers together.
Ava opened the lower oven and set the casserole dish inside. Then she tapped out a text to Sienna, hoping she didn't wake her but missing her daughter too much to keep the words in.
The only thing missing this morning is you, Ava typed and hit Send. She pictured those words traveling across the state of Texas, then New Mexico, Arizona, clipping the edge of Nevada, and up California to her daughter at Stanford University.
No one had wanted Sienna to attend Stanford—too far from home, too liberal, not Texas. It made Ava secretly proud that her daughter would venture into the unknown. But then, Ava's one year outside of Texas living with Aunt Jane had been much more than her own parents had done. Her entire life looked nothing like her parents', but Ava hoped her own daughter wouldn't feel the need to build a life wholly contradictory to the family she'd grown up in.
"I need to go in to the office today," Dane said, glancing up from the paper.
Ava's Sunday morning peace rattled like windows in an earthquake. Before she could respond, he continued.
"And ... could you hold off using the credit cards for the next week? I may switch them over to a line of credit or consolidate a few, and I want to make sure the balances on all of them are accurate." Dane kept his face in the paper, and Ava took a moment to consider his words. In all their years of marriage, Dane had never asked her to avoid using their credit cards.
"Everything okay?" she asked, keeping her voice casual.
"Of course. It'll be worked out soon. I know wedding and Christmas shopping is on the horizon—it's just a few weeks." He chuckled slightly, but Ava knew him well enough to know he was concerned about something.
She let it go. He'd talk when he was ready.
"Have you noticed the willow tree?" Ava asked, standing at the window with her coffee cup cradled in her hands.
"Yeah, I think it's dying." Dane turned another page.
"No, you think so?" Ava muttered as she swallowed back an ache at the back of her throat. She set her cup on the counter and headed outside. The gentle autumn morning met her with the scent of leaves, freshly cut grass, and swimming pool.
Ava padded in her slippers, weaving around patio furniture at the pool and down the path to the tall willow. She touched a long weeping strand of leaves, and several fell off into her hand.
"No," she whispered. This wasn't the normal changing of the seasons. Something was definitely wrong with the tree. A sudden wave of panic flooded over her as she gazed upward into the branches and cascade of leaves. She wanted to paste the leaves back onto the branches.
It doesn't matter that much, she tried chastising herself. Compared to the heartache and tragedies she witnessed every week, like the family last night, a tree was nothing. But this willow was important to her. It had been growing in their backyard for fifteen years, given to her by her brother as a gift when Jason was born. Clancy had dug it up from the land they'd grown up on. Her brother knew her attachment to the weeping willows, and Ava had cherished this tree all these years. Through the ups and downs of the past decade and a half, it was a reminder of how far she'd come, and she'd spent countless moments of prayer sitting on the bench Dane had built beneath its branches.
Years earlier, Ava had saved the willow tree from landscapers who wanted to pull it out because it interfered with the Mediterranean style. Their plans had a tall fountain drawn in its place. The pool guy complained about the leaves cast in the water with every summer breeze. But Ava would never risk it being moved, and she certainly would have never removed it.
"You must make it through this. You're my prayer tree," Ava whispered, looking up at its weave of branches that stretched toward the blue sky, then fanned into the shape of an umbrella dripping all the way back to the ground. She'd never asked her brother but wondered if Clancy had dug the tree from the stand by the riverside. As a young child, she'd hidden within the umbrella fan with her books and dolls. Ava hadn't told her family those stories. While most of her life was an open book, there were a few secrets to keep within a tree.
Excerpted from Song OF THE BROKENHEARTED by Sheila Walsh Cindy Martinusen Coloma Copyright © 2012 by Sheila Walsh and Cindy Martinusen Coloma. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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