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The Weight of ShadowsA Novel
By Alison Strobel
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Alison Strobel Morrow
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIs it truly a birthday party when the guests don't even know it's your birthday? Kim pondered the question as she slipped on the slacks she'd borrowed from her roommate Corrie. Certainly it was an improvement over eating a store-bought cupcake alone in front of reruns. She'd done that more times than she cared to remember.
The intercom buzzed the arrival of the first guest. She spread her hands over her stomach, willing death to the butterflies that had come to life. She sucked in a deep breath and blew it away as she put on her only pair of earrings and secured her locket around her neck. Fingering the pendant brought to mind memories of the day she'd received it. She replayed them in her mind, conjuring every detail she could as she pulled a brush through her hair: the blanket of snow on the bushes outside, Sinatra serenading the restaurant's customers, her foster parents ordering four desserts for everyone to share when no one could decide what they wanted. That was the last good birthday she'd had.
Corrie's voice rang out over the stereo, welcoming whoever had arrived and bringing Kim back to the present. She bit her lip, debating whether or not to go out yet. These weren't her friends, she wasn't good at small talk, and with only one guest there was no way for her to disappear into the crowd or avoid interacting. Three strikes. She'd better wait.
A pair of black flats, their toes and heels repaired with a marker, were the finishing piece to her ensemble. She gave her red blouse a tug at the bottom and examined herself in the mirror, happy with what she saw. It was possible she wouldn't talk to anyone all night, but at least she looked nice. In fact, part of her hoped no one would talk to her-she'd met a few of Corrie's friends before, and they were all out of her league. The thought of trying to hold a conversation with any of them resurrected the butterflies. She frowned at her reflection as the familiar self-doubt crept in. The less she said tonight, the better.
Kim hated battling the voice of inadequacy that resurfaced whenever she met new people. She reminded herself of the same things she told her Club girls and gave her head a shake to dislodge the negative thoughts. Your roots may form you, but they do not define you. You are not less of a person because you lack the things most people have. Your worth as a person is not determined by what you have, but by who you are. When she talked to the girls, she was referencing money, social standing, academic success, the perfect body-the things teen girls usually stressed over. When she gave herself the pep talk, though, she was thinking of family.
The buzzer sounded again, followed a minute later by multiple voices calling out cheerful greetings. No more hiding. Kim left her room and joined the party.
Six people had arrived, an equal mix of men and women who had the same casual sophistication as Corrie, though two of the women had a sort of polished hippie look that Kim envied, knowing she lacked the fashion sense to be like them. Her coordinating abilities ended with slacks and blouses.
Three of the guests sat on the couch, paging through one of Corrie's photo albums, while the others were filling their plates with snacks. Kim flashed a smile to the one person who acknowledged her presence, then walked to the kitchen to get herself a drink. She took her time so as not to look as harried and nervous as she felt, and sighed with a small smile when the intercom buzzed again. A bigger crowd meant easier hiding.
Corrie propped open the front door and returned to her conversation. Kim walked to the snack table and began to load a plate with some veggies and dip. She really wanted the chocolate chip cookies Corrie had baked the night before, but she wanted to make a good impression, and these folks looked like veggie people.
The next wave of guests entered, and instantly the party felt more like a party. More talking, louder calls of "Hello!" across the room, and, to Kim's great relief, less sophisticated dress. The last one in shut the door behind himself and handed his scuffed leather jacket to Corrie as he greeted her. Kim couldn't peel her eyes away from him. He doesn't seem to belong with these people any more than I do. Who is he?
The guest who had entered with Scuffed Leather Jacket introduced him to Corrie. Kim was too far away and the room too noisy for her to hear any of what they were saying, but Corrie, ever the gracious hostess, made the universal mi casa es su casa arm-sweep with a bright smile before carting the coats to her bedroom.
He stood with his hands half-jammed into his pockets and looked around the room. When his gaze neared Kim she ducked her head, though what she really wanted was to look him in the eye, smile and welcome him, and commiserate. When he appeared at her side, she almost couldn't breathe.
"The snack table is my favorite place to hide at a party too," he said. She couldn't tell if he was sympathizing or making fun of her. But his face, when she glanced over at him, was open and honest-looking. There was no twinkle of teasing in his green eyes nor the tug of a smirk at his lips. She laughed faintly and searched in vain for something clever to say.
"My name is Rick, by the way."
"I'm Kim. Nice to meet you."
"You too. How do you know, um ..."
"She's my roommate."
"Oh!" His face brightened. "Wow, this is your place?"
She slid her eyes back to her plate. "No. I wish. I just rent a room from her."
"Oh, that's cool." He leaned in a little closer. "It's a nice place, but not my style, you know? A little too ..." He waved the hand that wasn't holding a snack plate. "Calculated. Like those model homes that are so decorated it's like walking into a design magazine."
Kim looked around the living room, trying to see it through the eyes of a stranger. Corrie had added most of the room's contents since Kim had moved in, so the change had been so gradual she hadn't noticed the overall effect. "You know, you're right." She grinned. "I've never thought about it, but you're right." She swirled a carrot stick in a puddle of dip. "It's not really my style, either, but I'll take it over just having a room any day."
"I'm sure you'll have your own place someday."
She laughed a little. "I hope so!"
They crunched on their respective vegetables in silence for a few minutes before Kim got up the courage to speak again. "So who did you come with?"
Rick pointed to the couch with a celery stick. "Guy I work with. Adam. I think he knows Corrie from college or something like that. Life has kinda sucked lately, so he invited me to cheer me up."
"That's a shame. I hope it works."
"It already has."
Kim felt her cheeks heat. She smothered the smile that stretched across her face with a long sip from her soda.
"That's a really cool necklace."
"Oh, thanks." She pulled it along the chain a few times before patting it back into place. "I got it for my seventeenth birthday."
He grinned. "How long ago was that?"
"Seven years ago-today." She almost didn't say it, but his attention was making her bolder. And it would take a lot of attention to spoil me, so I'm going to get it while I can.
"No way. It's your birthday?" She giggled in response, instantly wincing inside at the childish sound. "So this is for you, then? This party?"
"Oh, no. Corrie doesn't even know."
"Your own roommate doesn't know it's your birthday?"
She shuffled a little. "Well, we're not really friends, you know? I've only lived here a few months. I just found the room through an ad. We share space-that's about it."
Rick shook his head. "That's just a shame. So all these people-just friends of Corrie's?"
"You're spending your birthday with a bunch of strangers. That's just wrong. I feel like I need to go find you a cake or something." She laughed. "No, I'm serious! Did you do anything special for your birthday? Did anyone acknowledge it?"
"Well- one person did." She smiled, remembering her conversation with Patricia, the case worker who had shepherded her through the foster system for so many years. "But no, I didn't do anything special. Just went to work like I usually do. But this-" she waved her hand towards the room full of people, "is more than I usually do. Birthdays weren't a big deal when I was growing up."
He didn't ask why not, to her relief. But he asked plenty of other things, and eventually she reciprocated. Over time they migrated to the kitchen, and then to a couple dining room chairs in the corner. When Adam came to say he was ready to leave, Kim was stunned to see they'd talked for two hours.
"I'm really glad I came," Rick said to Kim as he shrugged into his jacket. "I'm glad I met you."
"I'm glad you came too." Her mouth hurt from smiling so much, but she couldn't seem to stop. "I had a great time talking with you."
"Do you think I could take you out for dinner sometime?"
Her heart nearly burst. "Yes, definitely, yes. I'd love that."
Rick smiled and ran a hand through his blond bed head. "Great. I'll call you this week, I promise."
"He's totally not going to call."
Corrie laughed as she spread plastic wrap over the bowl of dip. "What makes you say that?"
"I don't know-I just don't think he will. I don't have luck like that."
"Maybe you will now."
"Maybe." Kim cinched the trash bag shut and pulled it free from the can. "But even if he doesn't, it's okay. I've never had that much fun talking to a guy before. No one's ever even flirted with me before." Memories of her unattractive teen years surfaced briefly but lacked the sting they usually held. Even thoughts of her life until now- nights alone, undeclared infatuations, awkward introversion-weren't as painful. "I hardly knew what to do. But ..." She trailed off, a smile still tugging at her lips, and carried the trash to the door. "If nothing else, it was a perfect way to spend an evening." And a birthday.
Excerpted from The Weight of Shadows by Alison Strobel Copyright © 2010 by Alison Strobel Morrow. Excerpted by permission.
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