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Without warning, on a clear blue August morning, danger barreled onto New Friends Street. Glancing over his shoulder, Marc Chambers saw the cement truck take the corner a little fast. At the same moment, he glimpsed a boy running across the street. Not looking. No!
The cement truck's brakes squealed like a trapped animal. Marc raced for the kid. Scooped him up. The wheels of the cement truck, just feet away, jumped, skipped—trying to stop in time.
People were screaming. Marc wrapped himself around the small boy's body. Threw himself into a roll…
I can't stop in time. The horrible wrenching sound of metal chewing into metal churned through his flesh like the grinding of some vicious machine. His heart pounded in his ears—
"Marc," a familiar voice came through the din in Marc's head. "Marc, it's all right. You and the boy are safe. The truck missed you both."
Marc blinked. His mind tried to grasp his grandmother's words. What had just happened to him?
Marc looked into his grandmother's soft round face, surrounded by her wavy white hair and straw hat. Her kind blue eyes were dark with concern. He realized suddenly that other people were crowded around him. Staring at him.
Then he heard—felt—the boy in his arms sobbing. He released him. Marc shook his head as if that could shake off what had just happened or what had just flashed through his mind.
A pretty young woman claimed the boy and encircled him with her arms. "You could have been killed, Johnny!" she cried out. "You could have been killed!" She sank to her knees, clutching the boy to her.
Marc slowly pulled himself up until he was sitting with his back against the curb. He held his head in his hands, not trusting himself to speak or to try to rise. His stomach sloshed back and forth in a giddy tide. A deluge of memories wanted to saturate him with fear and carry him back to January, back to that awful day.
"Man," someone with a deep, gruff voice said loudly. "Man, am I glad you were able to get to him. I couldn't have stopped in time."
Marc glanced toward the voice.
It came from a man in gray work clothes. He was sort of leaning limply over the back fender of the cement truck. "I don't know what I would have done. I got kids of my own."
I don't know what I would have done. The man's words sent shivers through Marc. And from the corner of his eye, he saw the same shivers go through the young denim-clad woman. Life was so fragile—he'd learned that lesson this year painfully. He put out a hand and patted the woman's slender shoulder awkwardly, briefly.
A horn honked and then another. Marc looked around at the crowd in the middle of the street and the cars that had halted on either side of them.
A new brisk voice, a woman's voice, intruded. "Let's all get out of the street. We're blocking traffic."
The people around Marc moved away reluctantly, returning to the dedication at the Habitat site. Many kept casting glances back at him. Marc tried to avoid their gazes, and calm the roiling in his midsection. The truck driver climbed into his rig and drove off much slower.
Marc's grandmother lingered protectively beside him. That bothered him. He didn't want her worrying again. He forced a smile and glanced up. "Go on. I'll be all right. It's just the heat and running like that. The excitement—that's all." I thought I'd put it behind me. What just happened?
Another older woman with salt-and-pepper hair was standing by the young mother who was still on her knees. "Rosa," she began, "por favor…"
He couldn't follow what she said after that; it sounded like Spanish, sounded worried.
"No, Abuela, Grandmother," the young woman said, shaking her head. "You go. I'll come…soon."
His own grandmother tucked her hand into the Spanish-speaking grandmother's elbow. "Come. We'll go and let them have a few moments to compose themselves."
"Si," the woman agreed in a pleasantly accented voice, "yes, I must represent la familia." Still, the woman looked concerned.
The two grandmothers walked together across New Friends Street to watch the dedication of the Habitat for Humanity house that was being built in their little town of Hope, Wisconsin. August heat, dripping with humidity, wrapped around Marc. It made it harder to breathe, harder to calm his racing heart.
The mother of the boy looked at him and then slid from her knees to sit beside him against the curb. The little boy sank between them, leaning against her. "I'm Rosa Santos." She offered him her hand. "And this is Johnny."
She still looked shaken. He forced another smile, a reassuring one. He gripped her small hand in his for a brief moment, comforted by touching her soft palm. "Marc Chambers."
"Thank you so much," Rosa said, feathering the boy's bangs with one hand. "Thank you for saving my Johnny." Her voice caught on the boy's name.
He looked into the woman's pretty face, her olive skin smooth and lightly tanned. Her large eyes—so brown they were almost black—captured him. Not only because they were beautiful, but because fear blazed there.
He had experienced that kind of flaming, consuming fear. Evidently it still lived in him. I thought I got over all this. He sucked in the hot, moist air. "No problem." He shuddered involuntarily. "No problem."
Then he noticed the boy, Johnny, was looking down, looking shamed. It cut into Marc's heart.
Marc bent his head to eye level with the boy. "Johnny, that's your name, right?" Marc waited till the boy had nodded, bouncing his brown bangs. Then with his hand, he lifted Johnny's trembling chin and looked into the boy's tear-streaked face. "It's okay. We weren't hurt. Just be more careful next time. Look before you cross." Even when a man doesn't take foolish chances, bad can happen.
Rosa's heart still pounded against her ribs like a wild bird trying to escape from a cage. How could she have let this happen? Johnny had been standing right beside her. Then she'd heard the truck's brakes squealing and seen her son running into the truck's path. She had to get her emotions under control. She didn't want to raise a fearful child, just a careful one.
Rosa's heartbeat began to slow as she stared at the picture of this man, Marc Chambers, comforting her boy. He was a big man. His legs stretched out long and strong. His hand was tanned brown by the sun and his hair was light brown with a reddish tone, his expression filled with compassion.
"I saw a dog running across the street," her son mumbled. "I wanted to…" Johnny tried to lower his chin again.
A dog. All this because of a stray dog. Rosa closed her eyes for a moment. The image of Johnny running into the path of the oncoming truck was now burned into her memory. She opened her eyes, hoping the glittering sunshine would blot it out.
Then Marc softened his voice and let his hand fall back to his side. "Just be more careful next time, okay? Bad things can happen in this world."
Johnny nodded while she repeated what this kind man had said. Bad things could happen in this world, had happened to her. She looked away so neither of them would see her blinking away a tear.
"Should we join the others?" Marc asked.
She turned and looked fully into his blue eyes. She read concern there and something else lurked in their recesses. "A little while longer, please." Her knees still felt like soft-set gelatin.
He nodded and glanced across the street.
She appreciated his not questioning her or urging her to do what she couldn't yet. "It's just because…" Her voice faltered. She looked down at the pebbles along the curb. Should she say this with her son listening?
Marc made a sound, something like a chuckle. "My mom always points to the gray hairs my brother and I gave her. She claims she can name each gray hair by incident."
His unexpected understanding nearly undid her composure. Then his humorous comment about his mother knowing which incident caused each of her gray hairs made her smile. It was just what she needed to help her come back to herself. "I'm ready now." She started to get up.
"Let me help you." Rising, Marc offered her both his hands. She took them and he pulled her to her feet. His strength flowed through her hands and up her arms. Marc released her hands and she immediately missed their reassuring support.
She noticed then that he had grazed the side of his face which had been away from her. She claimed his chin and turned his face, examining it. Then she blushed at doing something so personal to a man she'd just met. "Sorry, but I'm so used to bumps and scratches. Here."
Avoiding his gaze, she dug into her jean pocket, pulling out a plastic pack. She waved it. "I came prepared." She lifted out a square packet antiseptic swab, tore it open and wiped the grazed flesh. And did the same to his lower arm, hand and wrist which also had been scraped. The sensation of touching him was peculiar, made her a little breathless. "There, that will help start the healing." She made her voice strong, masking how being this close to him affected her.
"Thanks." He looked uncomfortable and pained.
"I have ibuprofen—"
"No, I'm fine," he said, holding up the uninjured hand. "Just bumped and scraped a bit. I'll live."
She wanted to pursue this but recognized his dismissal. She looked down at Johnny. "Before you lead me across the street, look both ways first, please," she said, stopping her son from running across the street again.
"Si, Mama." Johnny looked both ways. "We can go now."
She ruffled her son's hair and reached for Marc's hand again. She didn't speak a word but tried to convey to him with a smile her gratitude once more.
He squeezed her hand, dropped it and reached for Johnny's hand. So did she.
The three of them walked across the street, linked together. Somehow this lifted her mood. At the curb, they parted and joined the crowd listening to the end of the dedication. Marc murmured a few polite words and drifted away. She took a deep breath, trying to appear normal. Her emotions, however, did not obey her will.
Rosa had met the woman speaking, Eleanor Washburn, who would be coordinating the project. Trying to listen to Eleanor, Rosa folded her arms in front of her and covered her mouth with her hand. She didn't want anybody to see her lips still trembling. She captured her lower lip with her upper teeth, willing them to still.
Eleanor said, "Without arguing over theological differences, everyone can put love into action by swinging a hammer as an instrument to demonstrate God's love."
Rosa couldn't stop herself from glancing toward the man who'd saved her son. There was so much she'd wanted to say. How could she let him know how grateful she was? Words didn't seem enough. And somehow his expression had warned her away.
At the front, Eleanor beamed at everyone. "To date, Habitat volunteers and supporters have made decent, affordable housing a reality for more than three hundred thousand families worldwide. Now I'd like you all to meet the Santos family." During the applause, she waved at Rosa to come forward.
Rosa swallowed down the tears that were still trying to surface. She took her grandmother and Johnny's hands and led them forward. Eleanor smiled and turned them to face the crowd. "Rosa, why don't you introduce yourself and your family?"
Rosa swallowed again. Her throat was thick. "I'm Rosa Santos." Her voice cracked on her last name. "This is my grandmother, Consuela Santos, and my son, Johnny." An embarrassing tear trickled down her cheek. She tried to ignore it. "We are very happy to have this opportunity for a new home of our own." More tears slid down her cheeks. She tried to rein them in and failed. "Thank you all for coming to help us."
Ignoring Eleanor's prompting for her to say more, Rosa hurried her small but very precious family back to where they had been standing. That of course was the problem. Her family had not always been this small.
I almost lost Johnny this morning. That was her greatest fear, that she wouldn't be able to take care of her son. Tears, one by one, slid down her right cheek and refused to stop.
"Rosa," her grandmother whispered, "he is a boy. You cannot always be there. You must trust the Lord."
Rosa nodded, but one tear and then another dripped down her cheeks and then fell to the rough ground. Her grandmother spoke the bare truth; Rosa accepted that with her mind. But in her heart, she carried her son and her grandmother on her back alone. Lord, please help me stop feeling this way. I know I can't guard Johnny from every danger. But, Lord, no more losing, please.
Her eyes sought out Marc Chambers again. Opposite her and farther back in the crowd, he was standing close beside his grandmother who was looking up at him with stark anxiety on her face. Marc was rubbing his shoulder and rotating it as if in pain.
Then he looked up and his gaze connected with hers. She knew that harassed look, the "How much more can I bear?" look. In fact, she had in the past looked into a mirror and seen it reflected in her own eyes. Her reaction was immediate. The urge to comfort to him swept over her.
Suddenly she recalled how disoriented Marc had been immediately after saving Johnny. She'd been in the midst of her own shock. Now she replayed the incident in her mind.
There was no reason for Marc to look so burdened by what had just happened. So this could not be about saving her son. What, then, had unnerved a brave man like Marc Chambers?
Two mornings later Marc stood at the open window of his apartment on the second floor of his grandmother's house. He watched the pink-gold of dawn finally gild the green fields that spread out on three sides of his grandmother's house on Chambers Road. He had been waiting for dawn all night. He'd watched the predawn glow hover on the horizon for what had seemed hours and then the brightening had come. At last.
He rubbed his forehead. He hadn't slept at all the night before and not more than a couple of hours this night. Nightmares had kept waking him up. Each one had featured the screams and din from that awful day in January. He'd driven his semi onto the interstate; mist had iced the pavement. He'd lost control—a twenty vehicle pile-up, a fatal one. The intense sensations of that treacherous morning had tried to reclaim him, entrap him.