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ERIN MATHIS PULLED OPEN ONE of the new glass double doors leading into the hollowed-out warehouse that would soon become Kimberley Square's gymnasium and held it open so Sonya Connelly could enter first.
Judging by her smile, Sonya appreciated the gesture, until she took two steps inside the warehouse, stopped in her tracks, raised her chin, and shrieked, "Christina McIntyre! What on earth do you think you're doing?"
The sudden intensity and sheer volume of Sonya's normally pleasant southern drawl startled Erin so much, her sharp intake of breath sounded to her own ears like a puppy's yelp. She hurried inside. Isaiah Sadler stood on the other side of the room. He held a rope in his hands. Erin's gaze followed that rope up into the rafters of the old warehouse.
Her mouth fell open. High above Isaiah, at the other end of the rope, Christina McIntyre, one of Erin's dearest friends, dangled upside down by her knees from a rafter, clutching what looked like a plastic Safeway bag in her teeth.
Well. No wonder Sonya stopped in her tracks. A smile worked its way across Erin's lips.
"Why are you--?" Sonya's drawl echoed across the warehouse.
"Christina! You come down from there!"
Erin's smile faded as a thread of fear laced itself around her heart.
"Right now, young lady! Before you fall!"
Isaiah's soft voice carried to them. "She's fine, now, Sonya. She's almost done." Standing there, holding the rope Chris had obviously used to climb up into the rafters, Isaiah's eyes reflected a hint of sheepishness.
"What is she doing?" Sonya peered heavenward as she and Erin walked closer. "Christina? Are you all right?"
Chris pulled the bag from her teeth. Her voice raineddown from above. "Hey, Sonya! Hey, Rinny! What's up?"
Erin couldn't help it. She started to laugh--until Sonya turned and gave her a don't-encourage-her scowl. Her laughter died on a fake cough.
"Yep, Isaiah, I think that'll do it," Chris said. "This bulb is definitely defective. We should take it back."
"Um, okay, Chris." Isaiah didn't look up as he said the words.
"I'll take care of that Monday." He looked at Sonya. His face bore a strained smile.
"A lightbulb?" Sonya stopped a few feet from him and put her hands on her hips. "She climbed up there just to change a lightbulb?"
"Little slack," came from above.
Isaiah fed a few feet of rope through his fingers.
Erin glanced up--just as Chris slid down the rope, still upside down, Safeway bag in her teeth, feet flying. She dropped to almost perfect eye level; the rope creaked as she bounced once, then twice.
She pulled the bag from her teeth, handed it to Isaiah, then beamed an upside-down red-faced smile at Sonya and said, "Hi there."
For a second, nobody moved. Nobody said a word. But then Chris, hanging like a yo-yo, slowly started to turn as the rope she hung from, the rope she had twisted together around the rafter, started to unwind.
Erin stole a glance at Sonya. Saw a mouth that gaped, cheeks that had flushed into a deep, dark pink.
Chris lowered her feet and lightly touched back down on earth.
As the silence lingered, she tugged off her thick leather gloves and rubbed her nose.
Sonya quickly shook her head. Then looked at Isaiah. "Where's Amanda?"
"She's, um . . ." He coughed quietly. "She's in the office pumpin'
Sonya's voice pierced Erin's eardrums. "AMANDA!"
The little girl's head popped through the office door. "Hi,
"Get your jacket. It's time for lunch."
"Aww, do I have to, Grammy? I'm not finished yet."
"Yes, child. You can come back later." Sonya lowered her voice.
"Unless the two of you have more lightbulbs to change."
"Um, no, Sonya. We're done." Chris tossed the rope away, though it came back and slapped against her backside.
The expression on Chris's face eased the fear in Erin's heart.
Chris looked like she had just gotten caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
Good. Because she had.
"Hi, Auntie Erin!" Amanda's sweet voice shook as she skipped toward the group. "Guess what! I was blowin' up volleyballs!"
"Very cool!" Erin swept the little girl up into a half hug. "I bet your lips are tired." She let the girl's burst of giggles carry her own.
"Are we havin' pizza for lunch, Grammy?" Amanda pushed her arms into the sleeves of her jacket. "Pep'roni, huh? Or maybe chicken!
Yay!" Her sparkly blue eyes peeked out through flyaway blonde curls.
"Let's go, Grammy. I'm hungry. Bye, Uncle 'Saiah! Bye, Auntie Chris!" She turned and skipped toward the door.
Happy good-byes and waves came from both Chris and Isaiah, until they glanced at Sonya. Silence descended. Smiles became sheepish grins.
With a quick shake of her head, Sonya turned and started for the door.
Erin stood there another second, then smirked at both Chris and Isaiah before turning to follow Sonya and Amanda outside.
On the other side of the gym's glass doors, outside under the trees, a cold, misty dampness had settled in with the afternoon. The heavy air fell over Erin gently, as it always did. She breathed deeply and enjoyed all the familiar fragrances of her forested inner-city home.
Sonya seemed to be waiting for her, standing there, watching her granddaughter skip and hop, skip and hop across the cracks in the sidewalk.
"You okay?" Erin said, her voice soft as a whisper.
The long silence concerned her. Sonya's face appeared hard and set, until she looked at Erin and said, her voice hushed to protect her little one's tender ears, "She has this thing about . . . being upside down on a rope, doesn't she."
Erin tried to restrain a smile.
"This is what Benjamin told me about."
"He told you about the time she repelled out of the Huey?"
"Yes. But I hardly believed it. Until now."
She couldn't help it. Her outgoing breath carried a hint of laughter.
"How could she do that?" Sonya's voice raised to the next octave.
"How could she fall upside down out of a hovering helicopter?"
Erin shook her head. "I really don't know."
"Why would she do it?"
She drew in a deep breath. "I don't know that either. For a while,
I used to wonder about her."
"Well, I should say so. After what I just saw, I'm beginning to wonder about her."
"Don't, Sonya. She's all right. She just lives life on a different plane than us."
"What is she thinking? Is she trying to prove something?"
"No, she's not trying to prove anything. She can just do these things. She's not like anyone I've ever known before. She's strong.
And she's not afraid of anything."
"I didn't even know women like this existed."
Erin only smiled.
"Shows you what I know."
"Look, Grammy! A worm!"
Sonya rolled her eyes. "Don't touch it!"
Erin's smile widened.
"All right, well, I guess . . ." Sonya blew out a deep breath, then turned toward her grandchild.
She stopped and looked back at Erin.
"Don't be too hard on Chris," Erin said softly. "She's still trying to find her way here."
"Mercy, child. Listen to you." Sonya's eyebrows lifted. "Do you forget who you're talking to?"
Erin's gaze fell away as she smiled.
"I love that child. Just because I don't particularly understand her at the moment doesn't mean I've stopped loving her."
Erin slowly nodded.
"She's a precious treasure, and we're all so glad she's here. Don't you ever forget that."
"Yeah. I'm sorry."