There’s a new jazz singer on Sandhill Island. Billie Stone, named for the late jazz great, Billie Holiday, has her own set of pipes. She grew up on Sandhill Island and has come back home to heal her psyche after a tragic accident took her family. Billie’s mother falls ill, and now, she has a new role as caregiver. Once again, her mental health takes a back seat.
Joe Franks, drunk and on the wrong side of the road late one night, crashes into the minivan that came out of nowhere. But after a year in jail and penniless, he thinks he deserves another chance. No one will hire a jail bird, and he’s not cut out for pizza delivery.
Just when Billie seems to be on the cusp of healing—and finding a new love—Franks’ rage spirals out of control. Have Billie’s losses made her strong enough to overcome once more, or will this final disaster be her undoing?
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Balance. According to the therapist, Billie needed to achieve balance between her spiritual and physical life — and balance between her social and private life. Meditation could be the vehicle to get her there if practiced well.
Perched one on top of the other and rocking in the breeze, the smooth wet stones glowed in the filtered sunlight. Waves crashed on the shore and mist brushed her cheek as she let go of the topmost pebble. It wiggled slightly, then tumbled as a gust blew up from the sea scattering the entire tower of rocks onto the sand at her bare feet.
She'd try again tomorrow. She breathed deeply. Maybe some different stones. The tide would come in and take these anyway. Life was like that. Here today and gone tomorrow — she should know. But now she needed a shower. She needed to fix dinner for her mother, Giselle, and then get ready for her set at Le Chez. Maybe the diners would enjoy a little Janis Joplin tonight since the piano would be set up outside. The raspy voice of Janis could get a little noisy in a small restaurant. There wasn't room for a jazz singer with a microphone, so they moved her outside when they could.
Rising, she picked up the yoga mat and rolled it, placing it in the bag with the iPod and ear buds. She almost never listened to music when she meditated and balanced rocks. The sound of the ocean set her mind free. She listened to spa music for her yoga practice. The fishermen who sometimes came down to the rocks looked at her strangely at first, but soon got used to the figure of the dark-haired woman, barefoot in yoga pants, sometimes playing with rocks like a child on the shore.
But she was not a child and she had responsibilities — like a job, and her mother. Billie had grown up on the tiny strand made mostly of sand aptly named Sandhill Island many years ago. One end of the island — the one she loved best — she found rocky and mysterious with blue-green water foaming over rocks then pulling back out to sea. Her breathing synced with the never-ending back and forth of the water. She couldn't believe she'd ever lived anywhere else. Why would she? But she knew why. There were no night clubs for singers on the tiny island except during the tourist season, which was never long enough. But now back to heal, and to help her mother heal as well, she would do her best.
Slipping into flip-flops she walked the short distance toward her mother's weather-beaten home. It needed repairs. The wind and salt were relentless. Paint could be stripped in a season if the storms were frequent, and washing salten-crusted windows was an almost constant chore, something she needed to do again. She kept her mother's bedroom window clean, so the ailing woman could look out to sea. Mom had so few good things in her life these days.
Billie stopped by the post office in town before heading home. She often forgot to check the mail, used to home-delivery when she lived in Corpus Christi. But Sandhill Island was not a normal town. The ferry, the only way back and forth to the mainland, made the postal area necessary. Each home had a box at a central location instead of on their own porches.
She kept the key to the mail box in the tiny pocket of her yoga pants. Inserting it into the keyhole, she found a few bills, magazines, and a notecard addressed to her with a return address of Keesler AFB. She knew only one person at Keesler.
Maj. Sandra Miller was her oldest friend from high school. The jazz singer and the scientist made an odd mix, but they spent a lot of time together when they were younger. Then Sandy went off to college to become a meteorologist, followed by joining the Air Force, marrying, and having two kids. Billie moved to Corpus Christi and the limelight to follow her dreams on stage. Sandy saw the world, while Billie saw the Gulf of Mexico from a larger city than the one she grew up in. Sandy had two children while Billie had none — not anymore.
She opened the door to her mother's residence. No key needed. They never locked the door on the island, unlike Billie had in Corpus. It was also her home — something Billie reminded herself of over and over. She grew up in this house. Then she became an adult and moved away. Now that she was back, it had once again become her home; her mother told her that, and Billie tried to remember.
"I'm home," Billie called out.
"Your mother is such a dear." Raven stood in the doorway to the kitchen in scrubs with her dark hair pulled back in a French braid. Jamaican born, she studied nursing and moved to Corpus Christi. The home healthcare group she worked for assigned her to Giselle Martin on Sandhill Island. Raven was well suited to island life. She came in five days a week and worked her schedule around Billie's. That way Billie's mother, Giselle, never stayed alone. She helped with the cooking and cleaning along with health care and bathing Giselle. Billie knew the domestic chores were not in her job description, but the nurse did the things necessary for her patient. Giselle had Parkinson's, a painful and debilitating disease, and Billie watched her mother live with it daily.
When the car accident happened two years ago, Billie came back home to visit and heal, only to find her mother falling on painful legs. Then the tremors started, and Billie knew her mother needed help. Billie was not the only one who knew pain. They found the diagnosis of Parkinson's devastating, maybe even more painful than the disease itself. Giselle was a beautiful, vibrant woman and more determined to help her daughter heal than herself. Her health problems were put on the back burner until the diagnosis came. Then they had to trade roles.
"Yes, she is. What did she do this time?" Billie placed the mail on the antique buffet and pulled a letter opener from the top drawer, slicing the envelope open, excited to see what her friend had to say.
"You know she's having trouble swallowing her food, so I started putting it in a blender or mashing it up for her. Well, today she wanted an apple, and I mashed it. She told me she used to put allspice on it for you and you would eat it right up. I sprinkled some on her apple, and she insisted I try it too. She said it could be used as an anti-oxidant, and with nursing, I might be exposed to disease. Like I could catch what she has. But she is a dear. And apples are better with the spice on it. I'm surprised my mama didn't do that when we were kids. But we didn't have an apple tree in Jamaica, just citrus. We didn't eat many apples."
Billie no longer listened as she read Sandy's note. Now that there was email, no one wrote letters anymore, but Sandy was old fashioned like Billie. Part of why they were such good friends. The note held pictures of her and her kids on the beach playing in the waves. She loved Sandy, and the kids made her heart ache for her own. The tragic car accident that took the lives of her son and husband left her untouched — at least physically. Late one Friday evening on the Crosstown Freeway, they met Joe Franks heading the wrong way. The accident, over in a second, would last a lifetime for Billie. The therapist told her that she would not get over her husband and son's deaths but learn to live with them. For Billie, it would be a life-long learning process.
The note said Sandy and the kids were coming for Spring Break and wanted to see Billie while on the island. Sandy wanted some time with her children before hurricane season hit and she got busy.
"Billie?" Mom's soft voice called from the bedroom where she spent most of her time these days.
"Coming, Mom." Billie put the card on the buffet with the rest of the mail and walked across the hall to her mother's room. She had placed her mother in the room with the most available light. The doctors said depression was part of the problem with Parkinson's patients, and light therapy helped. Billie knew a lot about depression.
"What's the weather like?" Giselle sat in the wheel chair looking out to sea, her legs mostly useless these days. Her pale blue robe and slippers accentuated clear blue eyes and silver hair pulled back in a neat bun at the back of her head. Tiny wisps of curls escaped the pins that held the rest and framed her face. Though aging, Giselle still had a beauty that belied her age. A southern belle, she had lived her life in the Corpus Christi and Sandhill Island area, and her mother had named her Giselle after the ballet.
"Warm and a little windy. It blew over the stones I stacked. But they were small." Billie smiled at the woman who raised her and then took her in again when tragedy struck.
"Are the ones on the porch still standing?" Giselle used to watch Billie as she practiced her daily ritual of mediation, stacking the stones on top of each other. Some larger ones still sat on the porch, and Billie often rolled her mother's chair out to see them and enjoy the sea air. For some reason, the older woman loved the stacked stones too. Billie thought of the simple act as meditation for both of them.
"Yeah, they're too big to blow over unless there is a storm. Speaking of storms, Sandy is coming. She sent a card that she is bringing the kids to the island during Spring Break and I can't wait to see them."
"I'm sure they have grown a foot." Giselle folded the robe on her lap with gnarled fingers.
"Oh, you know it. Full of vim and vigor I'm sure."
"And how will you handle that?" Giselle looked into her daughter's eyes. Parkinson's, a disease caused by a loss of dopamine producing cells in the brain, had not dulled her emotions. She still thought of others first.
"I'll smile and enjoy them." Her mother still worried about her. The feeling was mutual these days. The difference was, Billie worried about Giselle's physical health.
"Good for you." The older woman smiled with lips that drooped on one side as if she'd had a stroke. The doctors said the tests were inconclusive. Giselle said what did it matter under the circumstances. She was normally right.
"I can't wait to see them." Billie walked to her mother's side and placed her hand on her shoulder. "It will be painful in ways, I'll admit that." Tears filled her eyes. Billie often cried when she didn't want or need to. It happened because of the depression. The therapist said she tried too hard to be strong, and now she paid the price. But she had to try for herself and her mother. She had to be strong. She hoped the tears would stop someday.
Since the night she woke up trapped in the car with hardly a scratch, next to two bodies that had once been her husband and son, she suffered from PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — nothing to be trifled with — would take some time to get over. Her family could not come back. She had only her mother and her music to give her a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Survivor guilt was real.CHAPTER 2
The Hurricane Hunters from the 53 Weather Reconnaissance Squadron out of Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi were on standby alert. Sandy had plans for the weekend, and now she had to cancel them. She knew the kids would understand, but they were tired of her always leaving just as the weather became warm. With spring break right around the corner, she wanted to take them home for a visit with their grandmother.
At least she didn't have to fly to the Hawaiian Islands this time. This time she could pack them off to Dad, who worked as many hours as she did, for a short period. She always downplayed the danger by saying "just another trip to the Atlantic" (or Pacific) depending upon where bad weather popped up this time. Her family didn't need to worry.
She was a proud part of the crew of the Lockheed WC-130J Hercules which flew directly into the hurricanes, sending back detailed information about the anomaly and gathering data on how the storm would track. The squadrons had been flying missions like this since 1946, and everything would be okay — she hoped. But as a scientist she couldn't show fear, especially in front of the kids. That would be all it took for her ex to have her back in court again as soon as she landed on dry land.
The first time she'd flown into the eye of the monster, she felt terrified and exhilarated at the same time. She loved her job and she hoped to instill in her kids the feelings of a job well done — a job you could really love — especially in her daughter. Carol, squeamish and clingy, unlike her "tom-boy" mother at her age, was a product of divorce. Major Sandra Miller's mother stayed at home as well as her dad on many days. His job in the auto maintenance shop he owned in town allowed him to devote his time to his family first. Many times, with nice weather, he would just close the doors and let the customers wait while he announced they were going on a picnic. Sandy and her sister were always happy to go play in the surf and watch Dad fish. As a child, Sandy lived the life of a beach bum. When she joined the Air Force, she soon encountered culture shock. The rest of the world did not have a beach in their back yard.
But weather had always been Sandy's first love. As a child, she would lay on the roof she accessed by climbing out her bedroom window and stare up at the puffy white clouds as they rolled overhead. Sometimes they weren't white and fluffy, though. Sometimes they were black and angry, and then she loved them even more. They were like friendly ghosts one day and deadly monsters the next. Maybe that was why she loved them so much — they were like her.
Her name had not been lost on her crew members who now called her "Hurricane Sandy" after the deadly nor'easter that hit New York and the eastern seashore. Her data was always accurate and right on point like the hurricane they named her after. In her element in a hurricane, she didn't know how she would live without the excitement someday when forced into retirement. But that worry was for another day. Today, she would gather information about the beautiful monster forming in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Mom, I can't find my blue shorts!" Sandy's daughter, Carol, could never find anything. It might be in her hand, but she was blind to the world sometimes.
Sandy walked into the girl's room which looked like the hurricane had already been through. Her suitcase lay on the unmade bed and shoes were strewn around the room. The closet door stood open, as well as every drawer of the dresser.
"I can't imagine why." Sandy walked to the bed and began looking through what the small weekend bag contained. "You mean these blue shorts? The ones I folded when I did laundry, and you put in your suitcase?"
Carol looked sheepish. "I guess I didn't see them."
"I guess not. Got your toothbrush? PJs? Got a jacket in case it gets cool?"
"Dad has toothbrushes, and I think I left my jacket there last time."
"Probably. Hustle, we leave in five minutes." Sandy smoothed her daughter's hair back from her face. She could be her twin, they looked so much alike, with honey-colored skin and blonde hair that hung straight as a string, unless tied back out of the way. Jake, on the other hand, favored his dad. Same red hair, and his freckled skin did not like the sun the way Carol's did. Sandy constantly chased him with sunscreen.
The children were less than a year apart in age but miles apart in personalities and looks. A lot like their parents. John Miller, a contractor to the Air Force, worked in the finance department. The courtship between him and Sandy, like the marriage, was a whirlwind — and then the first child appeared. By the time the second came along, Sandy knew the relationship was on rocky ground. He traveled a lot for work, as did she, but with two babies at home, and a nanny doing most of the child care, John decided one day his wife needed to resign her commission and be a stay-at-home mom. He and the children needed her there. Well, the children did anyway. In the middle of the argument about Sandy's career choices, he took a long temporary duty out of state. She talked to him often on the phone, but one night when she called him after being up with a sick child, someone else answered the phone in a sleepy voice. Evidently, he didn't need her as much as he said he did.
"Okay, in the car in five minutes!" Sandy called down the hall toward her son's room. She knew he not only packed but probably inventoried the contents of his suitcase. His head emerged from the door of his room with ear buds plugged in and pulling the suitcase. He headed for the front door, hassling his sister along the way about not being ready to go.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stones of Sandhill Island"
Copyright © 2018 Peggy Chambers.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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