“The summer before I turned ten was idyllic—until August 3, 1970. It perfectly describes a time when I thought the world was safe and good things lasted forever..."
Christy Award Winner!
Nine-year-old Abby McAndrews has just experienced her greatest loss, and in its wake, her family is unraveling with guilt, grief, and anger. Her father, Reverend McAndrews, cannot return to the pulpit because he has more questions than answers. Her older brother Matt’s actions speak louder than the words he needs to confess, as he acts out in dangerous ways. Her mother tries to hold her grieving family together, but when Abby’s dad refuses to move on, the family is at a crossroads.
Stars in the Grass, set in a small Midwestern town in 1970, is an uplifting novel that explores a family’s relationships and resiliency. Abby’s heartbreaking remembrances are balanced by humor and nostalgia as her family struggles with—and ultimately celebrates—life after loss.
|Publisher:||Barbour Publishing, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Ann Stewart and her husband, Will, raise two daughters and a flock of sheep on their Virginia farm where fireflies light up the sky on warm summer nights. Music, theater, teaching, and an MA in Film and Television, propel Ann’s creative storytelling.
Ann originated the series and wrote three of AMG’s Preparing My Heart books, and writes “Ann’s Lovin’ Ewe” for The Country Register, contributes to Mentoring Moments, and has written for Proverbs 31.
Read an Excerpt
Stars in the Grass
By Ann Marie Stewart
Barbour Publishing, IncCopyright © 2017 Ann Marie Stewart
All rights reserved.
We rushed upward into the night sky, lifted by an unseen force. The higher we climbed, the cooler the air, the fainter the smell of hot dogs and cotton candy, and the softer the music from the merry-go-round below. With my arms outstretched, I traced a wide curve, embracing a crescent of beach fires, twinkling lights, and dimming pink sunset. Birch Bay was black, nearly invisible, the people now dots on the landscape. I leaned against Dad's shoulder and stared up at the stars. Then we crested the top and plunged downward.
After a dizzying return up, the Ferris wheel slowed and then stopped, leaving us hanging in the sky.
"What happened?" I asked.
"They're letting people off at the bottom. The ride's over."
Now with each lurch we measured time; my stomach sagged in disappointment. I could see my brothers swinging below at ten o'clock. Kicking my legs up and down, I tried to make our carriage rock back and forth. Was it really over? Each time the wheel stopped, more riders dismounted. And then it was our turn, and the man unlocked our lap bar. As we left the amusement park, I turned to see the carriages filled and beginning another circle, like hands on a clock.
"Joel rode the Ferris wheel," I told my mom as we returned to our campfire.
"I rode with Matt," Joel burst out, looking up proudly. Joel's "wiff" instead of "with" always made me smile. But not Mom, who turned to Dad and gave him a scolding look.
"I'm fifteen, Mom," Matt reminded her, his arm around Joel.
"But he's only three," Mom answered.
"It's safe, Renee. There was a safety bar across his waist," Dad explained. "You worry too much."
I gazed back at the Ferris wheel spinning in the distance, a moving spiderweb in the sky. Mom dug into the grocery bag and pulled out marshmallows, Hershey's chocolate, and graham crackers.
After s'mores and storytelling, Joel fell asleep, cradled in Dad's arms at our campfire on the beach. We lay in a circle, our feet to the fire like spokes, our heads pillowed against beached driftwood, the sound of the waves lapping the shore. The air was warm and still, and I wished we could stay there forever. Washington felt so far from Ohio and yet so familiar beneath the same canopy of stars.
"Vega, Antares, Altair, Arcturus. And there's Polaris — the North Star," Dad said, outlining the dotted sky. "'He determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names,'" Dad added gently, not in his minister voice. Poking the fire with his stick, Matt kicked up a hot flame. Sparks sputtered and crackled.
"Cygnus is the swan." Dad traced his fingers along a band of dots, connecting stars into shapes. I blurred my eyes, trying to see a swan, though it looked more like an umbrella. "And that is Pegasus, the winged horse." He drew what looked like a hairy spider. I could only find the Big Dipper.
The warmth from the fire made me blissfully drowsy and I closed my eyes. Mom played with my hair, running her fingers through it before letting it trickle downward, just how I liked it.
"Gossamer," she said softly.
"What's that?" Matt asked.
"Something delicate." Mom closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. "Sort of how this night feels."
"Gossamer ...," I whispered, trying it on for size.
* * *
The next day at Birch Bay, after digging for clams, building sand castles, and splashing in tide pools, we headed back to our car, strolling the remaining crescent of beach. Joel picked up a long piece of seaweed tethered to a rubbery ball and dragged it behind him, leaving a trail in the sand. He was slowing, the time for his afternoon nap long past. Now the tide was coming in and we were running out of beach, so we shifted to the narrow strip of sidewalk between the surf and the road, the tide pressing us on the right, cars inching along the road on our left. Whenever we strayed too close to the road, Mom gently nudged us back toward the beach.
"Go to Bossy Cow!" Joel whined.
"We're not there, Joel," Dad said. "We can't stop now. Just keep walking, buddy." The Bossy Cow, a diner at the tip of the crescent, served the best shakes. Thick, muddy chocolate milkshakes Joel could never finish.
We walked in slow motion, in no hurry to get anywhere, Joel's pace becoming ours. Even now I wish we had stopped. Like an unwound clock. Time never ticking forward.
"Bossy Cow?" Joel asked again.
"No Bossy Cow, but how about some boats?" I looked to Mom, hoping she'd agree with my suggestion.
"Oh, all right," she said, seeing Joel clap his hands in excitement. Joel and I had discovered the diamond-shaped caramels covered in white chocolate with an almond for a sail. We crossed the street to the Sea Shoppe to buy half a pound. Matt wanted to play in the game rooms, but Dad said it was time to get back to our campsite. I savored a boat, first licking off the white chocolate, then relishing and finally chewing the caramel.
"Carry me, Matt," Joel asked, dropping his r's but not his chocolate sailboat.
"C'mon, Joel, just a little farther." I pulled him along by his wrist, avoiding the sticky candy in his fist. "Mom, Joel's tired. He's too slow."
"Matt, please?" Joel begged, his polite "pwease" making his whining endearingly effective. "Mattie, Mattie."
"Hop on board, little buddy." Matt bent low so Joel could jump on his back. They looked like such a pair, Joel's head resting on Matt's shoulder, his arms around Matt's neck.
"He's going to fall asleep and let go," Mom warned as Joel's eyes closed.
Dad stepped forward. "I'd better carry him."
"Me and Matt." Joel yawned.
"C'mon, Dad, he wants me," Matt argued. "I won't let anything happen to him."
"Mattie, Mattie," Joel agreed sleepily.
But Dad pried him off Matt's back and stretched out his arms to lift Joel high in the air, Joel's back blocking the sun's rays. Dad's smile was warm and his eyes so tender. He lowered Joel as if he couldn't resist giving him a hug. Joel's legs wrapped around Dad and his arms circled his neck, his head nestled beneath Dad's chin.
I've heard that people block out traumatic moments, but I remember it all. The line of cars was moving slowly, like a processional, until a blue Chevy lurched free and swerved off the road. In the filmy haze of that afternoon, it almost looked like the car was heading straight toward us in slow motion.
My mother screamed and pushed me out of the way and I stumbled backward, but with enough time to see the car hit Dad, tossing Joel into the windshield and away. Then all I could see was the car.
I remember the Washington license plate and the broken windshield with spidery veins across the glass.
I remember the driver, a woman who jumped out of the blue car, screaming, "I'm so sorry. I just don't know what happened. I missed the brake. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry!"
I remember my mother screaming, "Where is he?" I remember people helping my dad up. I remember him walking, then wincing in pain as his leg buckled beneath him. He stood again and hobbled, searching for Joel.
I jumped up and ran for my dad.
"Abby!" Mom screamed as she crossed the line of cars now at a standstill. I caught up to Dad and followed him, gripping the back of his T-shirt. He staggered toward a group huddled around something on the road. Everybody was pushing Dad away until he yelled, "I'm a minister!" — his ticket to join the circle — and then they all just let him through.
Matt was already there with the group, his fists balled up against his sides. He was shaking his head.
"Let me through! Let me through!" I could hear my mother scream. I turned to see someone holding her back. There was something we weren't supposed to see. Something Matt had already seen.
Joel lay on his back. He looked asleep but so different from the way he slept on the beanbag chair in our family room at home. There was blood on the road. Was it Joel's? I knelt down as my dad touched Joel's damp forehead and whispered to him. I wanted Dad to make Joel open his eyes.
"He's bleeding," Mom moaned as she burst through. "Where's he bleeding? Where's he hurt?"
I studied the growing pool of blood and realized it was coming from Joel's ear. Matt stared as if straight through Joel to the pavement below.
"Somebody call an ambulance! He's bleeding!" Mom cried as she stood to plead with the growing audience. And then Mom saw the woman from the blue car. "You hit my son! It was you! You hit my son!"
Dad grabbed Mom's arm to keep her close, away from this woman who stood crying, clutching the hand of her little girl. Maybe it was the sight of the little girl holding her mother's leg, sobbing in fear. Mom turned and knelt back down.
"He needs a doctor," she whispered.
"Don't touch him!" Dad warned and Mom gasped. "Not yet," he said more gently. "Just don't move him right now." Dad put his hand on her shoulder.
Mom caressed Joel's arm and brushed the hair from his forehead. "Oh Joel," she said, crying. "It's all right. Mommy's here. It's going to be all right. Open your eyes, Joel." As she pulled her stained hand away, I saw the blood she couldn't feel.
The strap on Joel's overalls had slipped off his shoulder, and I pushed it back up. Then I remembered I wasn't supposed to touch him. Where was the ambulance? Dad took off his T-shirt and put it over Joel, as if he needed it on that warm summer day.
Right then I knew something was very wrong. "He'll be okay, won't he, Dad?" I asked.
"He's my son," Dad said to someone hovering over us. But not to me. Still, I was satisfied with the answer. Dad had always taken care of everything. "We have to do something," Dad said, his voice hazy, as if a cloud had suddenly covered the warmth of that day. He looked around at the growing congregation. "We have to get him to a hospital."
"He's not breathing, John. I don't think he's breathing!" Mom exclaimed as Dad bent over and listened.
"Is there a doctor?" Matt yelled and then ran through the growing crowd, even stopping at the cars stalled in the train of traffic. "We need a doctor! Are you a doctor?" Matt banged on car windows as he ran farther and farther away from us.
"Heal him, God," Dad said softly. I thought Dad should remind God that He had a Son, too. I really wanted to pray with him, but the only thing I could remember from Sunday school was the Twenty-Third Psalm, which began with "The Lord is my shepherd" and had that scary line about the valley of the shadow of death.
A fire truck, the sheriff, then finally an ambulance arrived in quick succession. A woman with red hair kept repeating, "He was in his dad's arms." One officer took her aside to question her while another officer talked to the woman from the blue car. The men from the white ambulance broke our circle and dispersed the crowd, then huddled over Joel, blocking our view. Not a minute later, one man stepped back and announced, "He's got to go now."
"I want to go with him," Dad said as a man in a uniform placed Joel on a cot in the back of the wagon.
"Don't leave me, Dad!" I cried, choking on the forgotten melting caramel.
"I've got to go," Dad said as he released my grip.
"I'm going, too," Mom cried.
"Your husband's been hit," one officer said, pointing to Dad, who stood with his weight on one leg. "He needs to go with your son, ma'am," the man explained. "You can ride in the sheriff's car with her." He pointed at me. Mom stood, slack-mouthed, as they helped Dad into the ambulance.
"Where's Matt?" I asked, suddenly feeling strangely alone. I looked across the faces and trail of cars. "Where's Matt?" I repeated more urgently. "Wait for Matt!" I screamed, but nobody was listening.
"Where are they taking him?" Mom asked, and then I realized we didn't know the way. We were strangers here. And where was Matt?
"St. Luke's," the officer said, "Bellingham." But where was that? They slammed shut the back of the ambulance.
As the siren screamed and the wheels turned, I saw Matt running to catch the ambulance, knowing he had been left behind.
And suddenly it was over and they were gone, leaving Mom and Matt and me standing there in the summer sun, by the side of the road, which was so very hot on our bare feet.CHAPTER 2
I've always wondered if Joel heard our prayers as we stood over him on that sidewalk.
When we arrived at the hospital, we ran into the emergency room looking for Dad. A nurse at the main desk took us to a waiting room, where we stood around until a doctor arrived. Mom studied his face and then slowly shook her head as she backed away from him.
"No, no, no!" she said, louder and louder, as if she could make it not true.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. McAndrews." And then the doctor turned to Matt and me. His eyes looked sad.
"No!" Mom cried out. "Don't say that. He was just here! He was fine! The car wasn't going that fast!" Her voice pleaded as she gasped for breath.
"His head struck the windshield and then the road," the doctor continued. "The brain injury was more than he could survive. He never suffered," he added, as if that would make us feel better.
Matt slipped out the door and I didn't know if I should go to him or stay with Mom. Mom sat down and began to sob so loudly I couldn't hear myself cry.
Joel is dead, Joel is dead, Joel is dead. I couldn't believe it. I started shivering, and I couldn't make myself stop. Was it my wet bathing suit or was the hospital so cold? I smelled like salt water. My hands tingled and I shook them back to life.
"Where's my husband?" Mom's voice was paper thin.
"They're treating his leg," the doctor answered.
Mom stood shakily and staggered. I rushed to steady her.
"Oh, Abby." She wrapped her arms around me. I held her and she held on to me, and I never wanted to let go of her again.
The doctor waited and then escorted Mom into the second room down the hallway. He talked with Mom and Dad in Joel's room while Matt and I sat outside the door on folding chairs. I could feel wet sand grind against smooth metal. When I took Matt's hand, he didn't pull away.
I watched the sterile black-and-white clock on the wall, the second hand circling and the minute hand shifting almost imperceptibly. I could anticipate each subtle movement. How long would they stay in there?
When the minute hand had moved more than seventy-two times and I had stopped counting, the door opened.
A doctor pushed a man in a wheelchair. It was my dad in a blue robe, but not really my dad because he didn't seem to notice us. I don't know what he was staring at. I started to say something, then closed my mouth.
"Dad," Matt said as he slid his hand from mine and stood. But Dad didn't turn. At last Matt put his hand on Dad's shoulder and Dad turned to look. That face is the one I don't want to remember. A rope of fear tightened across my chest. I could hold Mom's sadness, but Dad's grief was overwhelming. He seemed broken in a way I wasn't sure could be fixed. The clock behind Dad now read 4:27, and then the hands blurred with my tears as I watched them wheel Dad down the hall.
I wanted the day to be over. But then again, if the day was over, my brother was really dead. Today Joel had been alive. If only we could go backward, our afternoon would be morning and we'd wake up and Joel would say, "Get up and play with me, Bee!" and this would not be happening.
When we returned to the cabin, Mom rummaged through our suitcases, laying out Joel's clothing on the bed. The little suit from the wedding, another pair of overalls, a few shirts and shorts.
"I don't know," she said. "I just don't know."
Neither did I. What was she doing?
"They asked what we wanted him to wear ..." Her voice drifted off. I picked up the suit and threw it back in the suitcase. Definitely not that. Then Matt removed the shirt with the scratchy tag on the back. We were left with a T-shirt and Joel's blue overalls.
That night we went to bed with our clothes on. Now there were just four of us. This was our family. I closed my eyes and then quickly opened them, staring at the ceiling for so long my eyes felt dry. My stomach growled. We hadn't eaten since the candy, but I wasn't hungry. My mind would not stop. Oh, to sleep and never wake up.
"You're having a nightmare!" Matt whispered as he shook me awake later that night. "No!" I cried out in a strange voice, the memory of yesterday rushing back. I had fallen asleep? I actually fell asleep even though my little brother had just died? How could I have fallen asleep?
In the other room my mother wept, a soft, haunting moan, accompanied by the unfamiliar sound of my dad's low, muffled sob. Whenever my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see Matt on the cot nearby, his eyes wide open, staring straight ahead. Somehow I wanted it to be a shared secret that we were all awake. As if that could be a secret.
Excerpted from Stars in the Grass by Ann Marie Stewart. Copyright © 2017 Ann Marie Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc.
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