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The Big 5-OH!
By Sandra D. Bricker
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Sandra D. Bricker
All rights reserved.
Prudence leaned over the edge of the pond and gazed at her reflection.
"What's happened to me?" she exclaimed. "I looked like a perfectly normal young donkey when I left home this morning."
"The journey has taken its toll," Horatio HootOwl replied. "But just one dip in the Enchanted Pond, and you'll surely be revived."
Prudence lifted her head and closed her eyes.
"Braaaaaaaay," she whimpered. "Oh, me, oh, my. Braaaaaay."
"No, no," Horatio said, rubbing his feathered wing over the fold of Prudence's smooth ear. "One dunk in the water, and then a nap in the sun, and you'll be good as new. You'll be a new Prudence."
She chuckled at that. "Do you promise?"
"I promise," said her friend. "You'll be a brand new Pru."
* * *
Liv dug the shovel into three inches of snow and pushed as hard as she could, then tossed it to the side of the driveway. Three more reps followed before the muscle down the back of her arm throbbed in response. It used to take much longer for her old body to react to physical labor in this way.
Time marches on, she thought. Whether we like it or not.
Liv looked across the white meadow between them and waved at her friend Hallie, who stood at the edge of her garage next door.
Three kids filed past Hallie, all of them bundled up in coats and boots, hats, scarves, and gloves. At thirteen, Jason was the oldest. He had reached the bottom of the driveway by the time Scotty, the ten-year-old, hurried past his mother. Katie, age six, scampered behind her brothers, then she turned and waved at Hallie.
"Hey, wait up, you guys," the little girl called.
"Boys, wait for your sister and walk with her all the way to the bus stop, please."
Jason didn't so much as slow down, but Scotty came to a full stop until Katie reached him. The two of them skated along the patches of ice on the sidewalk.
Liv's heart pinched a little as she watched them. She'd had more than her share of obstacles over the years that had kept her and Robert from having children of their own. Hallie was blessed to have a houseful, and Liv envied her that.
"Coffee?" Hallie called out to Liv.
"Half an hour?"
"I'll bring cake."
The thought of cake cheered Liv right up, and she returned to the chore of shoveling a channel up the driveway so that Hallie could bring it safely to her.
A few minutes later, the snow started to fall again, and Liv leaned on the shovel, breathless, and watched the path she'd just created disappear under a layer of white.
Looking around at the colorless landscape of her suburban Ohio neighborhood, Liv realized there was a time when she had considered her hometown to be one of her greatest loves. Nestled into rolling green hills and bellied up right next to the Ohio River, it was such a beautiful and thriving town. Summers in Cincinnati were blue skies and picnics, and winters were powdered sugar-covered treetops and ice skating on Winton Lake. But all that had changed.
Five years had passed since Robert had died, but passing months on the calendar had a curious way of fogging up the glass through which she peered to try and find the time when she still had him with her. It made her head ache to work so hard at looking back for him, struggling to break through the wall of cancer that stood between present day and her beloved past.
Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer. The English language didn't hold four more terrifying words, and, on the chilly morning of Olivia Wallace's forty-eighth birthday, those words were hurled at her like a dagger with four sharp blades. She remembered it like it was yesterday; this particular glass was as clean and clear to look into as a freshly hung window pane.
Two surgeries, six weeks of chemotherapy, and exactly twenty-seven radiation treatments—all of it as translucent and visible as a neon sign on a spring morning. And now, on the other side of the monster, nothing looked the same anymore. In fact, the first snow of winter had fallen overnight, and it seemed just as dreary and dull as everything else within Liv's recent frame of reference.
As she pulled Robert's old canvas fishing hat from her head and shook off the snow, Liv glanced at the mirror hanging over the cherry buffet in the dining room. It didn't escape her notice that her tedious life and gloomy surroundings weren't the only uninspiring things in the room. Her own reflection looked rather bleak as well.
In the six months since making its original escape, her red hair had finally begun to grow back. Lackluster though it was, and despite those silver streaks all through it, at least she had hair again. Her cheeks were drawn, her green eyes seemed slightly sunken and hazeled, and her fair, freckled skin had gone somewhat ashen. Although her energy levels had finally peaked again, she still looked just as tired and drained as she had felt throughout her recent past.
Liv pressed the button to open the garage, and then quickly latched the door before the outside wind had a chance to make its way through. As she counted out scoops of ground coffee, the thump-thump-thump of Hallie's boots on the garage floor signaled her friend's arrival.
"Buenos días," Hallie called as she came through the door into the kitchen. Hallie was always learning something new. Spanish lessons on CD were the project of the moment.
"Morning," Liv returned, setting two oversized cups and saucers on the kitchen table.
"I brought coffee cake."
"What kind?" Liv hoped it didn't have anything healthy attached to it, like fresh fruit. At the moment, she just wanted a pure confection of sugar and sweet.
Liv slid across the padded leather bench and settled into the corner of her kitchen booth as Hallie grabbed plates and flatware before she took the outside chair. Liv watched her as she tangled her fingers into her blonde hair and shook off the flakes of fresh snow and then poured two cups of coffee.
"The first snow of the season," Hallie announced. "Isn't it beautiful?"
Liv tilted into half a shrug, leaned onto both elbows, and propped her face up with her hands.
"Or not," Hallie said, raising an eyebrow at her friend. "Feeling a little blue?"
"Blue and blah."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Anything I can do?"
The funny thing was Liv knew Hallie meant it. If she thought it would raise Liv's spirits to do a little barefoot jig across the linoleum floor of her kitchen, Halleluiah Parish-Dupont would certainly oblige. Her friend was a true-blue cheerleader that way. And at forty-seven years old, it seemed almost wrong that all she needed were the pom-poms to actually look the part.
Liv gave her a smile and shook her head.
"Well. There's cake," Hallie said with hope.
"There is that."
Liv took a large bite and her eyes opened wide at Hallie, and then she smiled.
"This is sheeriously delishush," she said through a full mouth. "Did you make thish?"
"No. Bender's Bakery on Compton."
After swallowing a couple of times, Liv let her fork clank to the plate. "It's kind of sad that this is the best thing that's happened to me in days, don't you think?"
"This isn't like you," Hallie observed.
"It's not, I know."
"Can't you tell me what's going on?"
Liv cringed and shook her head.
Suddenly, Hallie gasped and slid a hand over her mouth. "Oh, I get it," she said deliberately, nodding her head. "It's the birthday thing, isn't it? Next month is your birthday."
"Liv, you've got to give up the idea that your birthdays are cursed. You know that's not how our God works."
Our God. Sometimes Liv wondered if she still knew Him. But Hallie sure did, and that was a comfort somehow.
"I know it up here," she said, tapping her temple with her index finger. "But it doesn't quite make it down here." She smacked herself dead center in the chest several times.
"So what's the plan then? Just mope around and wait for a piano to drop on your head next month?"
Liv shrugged again, and then plopped forward into her folded arms. "Jimmy DiPlantis dumped me on my sixteenth."
"You dated someone named Jimmy Durante?"
Liv raised her head and grimaced. "Not Jimmy Durante. Jimmy DiPlantis. He made out with Rachel Wagner at my Sweet 16 party."
"Well, it's good to know you're not still holding a grudge."
"And on my twenty-first birthday, I slipped on the ice and fell down a flight of stairs. I had a cast on my leg and my arm for eight weeks."
"That's awful," Hallie said. "Really. That's terrible."
"On my thirtieth birthday, I had pneumonia, and a fever so high that I lost several days and didn't even realize I'd passed the thirty mark until my birthday the next year. When I finally discovered I was actually turning thirty-one instead of thirty, I was devastated."
"Oh!" Hallie exclaimed and covered her grin with both hands. "Honey. That's ... horrible."
"I know. And then there was the big blizzard on my thirty-eighth—"
"—thirty-ninth and fortieth."
"All three years?"
"And you were there for my forty-eighth."
"Ovarian Cancer. Stage 3. The worst day of my life."
"But you're healthy now."
"Yep, I am. And here comes my fiftieth, Hallie. Like a locomotive chugging straight at me." Liv leaned back down into her folded arms again, and the dishes on the table rattled when her head dropped. "I'm just too young to be this old."
"You've got to do something drastic, Liv," Hallie told her. "You've got to bust out of this prison you're in. Gloomy weather, birthday blues, expectations of doom. It's just not healthy. You're acting like Prudence, the lop-eared donkey from my mother's books."
Liv raised her head and looked at Hallie curiously.
"She writes children's books, remember?"
"Yes, I remember."
"Prudence only sees the dark clouds."
"You're comparing me to a donkey?"
"Prudence is more than a donkey, Liv."
"That's not my point. I think you need a vacation."
"So what are you suggesting? A trip to Club Med?"
"No. Not Club Med. But you do need a break."
"No Club Med? That's disappointing."
"But what better place to take a vacation than ... Florida?"
Hallie curled her hands into the sleeves of her blue cable-knit sweater and grinned from ear to ear. "Did I mention to you that my mom has been talking about coming to visit?"
Liv didn't respond. She just stared at her friend with narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow, trying to catch up.
"She hasn't seen the kids in a while, so Jim and I thought she should come for a couple of weeks."
"That's nice. I guess. Since she hasn't been here in a while."
"Do you remember where my mom lives?"
"Okay. What are you get-ting at, Hal-lie?" she mimicked.
"While my mom comes to Cincinnati, her house on Sanibel Island will be completely empty."
"Uh huh." She still wasn't getting it.
Hallie groaned, and then she leaned in toward Liv for emphasis.
"You could go there, Liv, and lie in the sun, get away from Ohio in winter, and celebrate your birthday at the beach."
"I don't think so."
"You have to do this."
"No. I really don't."
"Wait. You're right," Hallie exclaimed. "You shouldn't go lay by the pool and work on your tan and try to get back some of the strength and joy that all those months of cancer robbed from you. Instead, you should just go back to work in the O.R. Spend your time shoveling snow and getting your birthday sick on. Maybe try some pneumonia again. It's been a couple of decades."
Liv's stomach stood up and fell down again at the mere thought of going back to work. She'd always loved her job. The operating room at Providence Hospital was a well-oiled machine, and she'd always been excited to be a part of it. But now, post cancer surgeries and medical reports of doom that she'd barely overcome, it just didn't seem to be the right place for her anymore.
Becky from Human Resources had contacted her twice in the last week, her messages ripe with friendly enthusiasm. But the thought of returning to work, or even just returning Becky's calls, brought such an ominous feeling to Liv's heart that she hadn't been able to bring herself to dial the phone.
Just that morning, she had lain in bed, her eyes clamped shut and the blanket pulled tight against her chin, and she'd done something she hadn't done in a very long time. She prayed that God would guide her in what to do.
"I don't want to go back to my old life," she'd whispered. "But I can't seem to muster up the desire to move forward either."
Hallie reached across the table and squeezed Liv's hand, yanking her back to the moment. "This is the answer for you," her friend stated, as if she'd been in on every moment's thought. "You haven't had a vacation since the trip to Galveston with Robert six years back, Liv."
The memory pinched her. "I can't, Hallie."
"Yes. You can."
* * *
Liv propped the phone on her shoulder with her chin and sighed. She'd forgotten where Hallie had gotten her cheerleaderness. Josie Parish was Hallie's mother. She was Hallie times two.
"Oh, of course, you can, Pumpkin. The house will just be sitting here with nothing to do but provide you a little nesting place."
"Ms. Parish, honestly, I appreciate the offer. I really do."
"Didn't we establish when I was there visiting the last time that you were not going to call me that anymore?"
"Okay then. We're on a first-name basis. As close as you are to my Halleluiah, my goodness, we're nearly family. The least you can do is come and babysit my home for a couple of weeks. Oh, do you like dogs, Pumpkin?"
Liv shook her head briskly to make the leap with her.
"Dogs? Umm, yes. I like dogs."
"Oh, that's so good, because my little baby has recently had surgery. She had a bit of a bad jump across the sofa. She's won't be able to travel, that's for certain. You wouldn't mind looking out for her while you're here, would you, Pumpkin? It would really help me out."
"Josie, really, I just can't see my way clear to take a trip right now."
"Of course, you can. In fact, from what my daughter tells me about everything you've suffered through in the last year or so, I'd say you really have no choice. Now, I'm going to make my flight arrangements, and I'll tell Missy Boofer that you'll be here the same day to look after her—"
"—and I'm thinking of arriving on Wednesday. Would that work out all right for you?"
"Oh, good. Now I'm off to call Halleluiah and give her the good news. I'll leave you all the information you'll need on the dining room table, and the key to the house will be under the neon pink palm tree in the garden."
Neon pink palm tree?
"Olivia, I want you to know that I do appreciate this very much. If you weren't going to be here to take care of Missy Boofer, there's no way I could come to see Halleluiah and her family before I get tied up with my next book deadline. You're a little angel is what you are, and I know Jesus will take good care of you here on the island. I have a good feeling about it. I do. My insides tell me your whole outlook is going to change down here, Olivia. The Florida sun has a way of baking up fresh possibilities, you know. And that's all you really need, isn't it? Some new possibilities?"
Liv tossed up her hands and dropped her chin to her chest.
"Okay. Why not?" she said in surrender. "Thanks, Josie. I'll be there next Wednesday."
"Oh, that's wonderful, Pumpkin. Boofer will see you then."CHAPTER 2
Prudence saw the rickety bridge stretched out before her.
She didn't know if she had the courage to make the trek across. The ravine below was jagged and steep. She didn't really want to get to what was on the other side anyway. And certainly not enough to go about it this way!
"I wish I'd just stayed in my meadow this morning," she brayed. "Why, oh, why, did I leave the grasses of home to set out on this terrible journey?"
"You know why," Horatio hooted from his perch at the other end of the bridge. "Now come along and put one hoof in front of the other. Before you know it, you'll have put the hardest part behind you."
* * *
Have you left your bags unattended at any time?"
"Did you pack your luggage yourself, or did another party pack them for you?"
"I packed them."
"Are you carrying anything sharp in your bags, such as tweezers, scissors, or other cutting instruments?"
"All right, Ms. Wallace. Here's your boarding pass and your gate assignment. Have a pleasant flight."
As she headed for the gate, Liv remembered the toenail clippers in her pedicure kit, and she wondered if she should have declared them.
"Please remove your shoes and place them in the bin with your purse and carry-on."
Remove my shoes?
It had been a long time since Liv had flown, and she'd heard the stories, but this was far more elaborate than she had imagined. She slowly made her way through the security tower, setting off the buzzer as she did.
"Please step back and come through again."
Groans from the line behind her set her pulse to pounding, but she did as she was told, and the buzzer sounded again.
"Step forward, please, ma'am. Stand here and raise your arms."
Excerpted from The Big 5-OH! by Sandra D. Bricker. Copyright © 2010 Sandra D. Bricker. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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