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The breakthrough, p.5
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       The Breakthrough, p.5

           Jerry B. Jenkins
 

  “That’s what Jack loves about you.”

  “That’s not all he loves,” she said with a wink. “Aw, look at you, Boone. You’re the only man I know can blush through sunburn.”

  “I’m not blushing.”

  “You are too.”

  “Well, that was too much information.”

  “Sorry. You know he and I are behaving ourselves now.”

  “That’s what I want to hear about.”

  “I’m getting there. Jack was investigating something, questioning one of the old men about something, and passed me coming out of a room with an armful of soiled sheets. We chatted, and I saw that look. ’Course he’s a beautiful man, but I couldn’t imagine him taking an interest in a woman over a mess of smelly laundry. But he did. We started seeing each other, and—”

  “You moved in.”

  “I did. And it wasn’t long before I was in love.”

  “Now, see,” Boone said, “that’s interesting. That’s the first time you’ve mentioned love, and you’ve talked about a lot of men.”

  “I loved everything about Jack. Still do. Besides that he’s true blue as a Boy Scout, takes care of himself, is smart and funny, he’s just so drop-dead honest. No games. No puzzles. You know exactly what he thinks every minute, whether you like it or not. And I happen to like it.”

  “That’s the thing,” Boone said. “Over the years I’ve seen Jack with his former wives and more than a few girlfriends. And I never saw him in love before either.”

  Margaret fell silent and shook her head.

  “He really cares for you,” Boone said. “You know that, right?”

  She nodded. “The difference is, I love him too much to stay with him. I care for his soul.”

  “How’d that happen?”

  “I’d become a different person, but not different enough. It was like I had pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, whatever that old saw means. Cleaned up my act, grew up a little, quit making such horrible decisions—except moving in with him. I fell so hard for Jack, it scared me. I waited till the shine wore off and finally realized it was the real thing.”

  “And that made you run?”

  “Hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

  “But why?”

  “Thought you’d never ask.”

  Florence pushed her chair back from the table in her tiny kitchen and folded her hands over her belly. “Whoo-whee!” she said. “I did me some damage with all o’ that!”

  “So did I,” Alfonso Lamonica said. “And how ’bout you, Max?”

  “I didn’t do anything!”

  Florence and Alfonso laughed. “But you filled yourself right up,” she said, “didn’t you, little man?”

  “Uh-huh, but I still want munch-a-politan.”

  “He wants what?” Alfonso said.

  “He can’t say Neapolitan, that three-flavors ice cream.”

  “One of my favorites,” Alfonso said.

  “His absolute favorite, but I couldn’t force down another bite of anything right now; could you?”

  “No!”

  “Yes!” Max said. “Ice cream!”

  “We need to let this settle, soldier,” Alfonso said. “How ’bout we help Aunt Flo clear the table like good Rangers. Then maybe we can play in the park before we come back for dessert, hm?”

  “Okay.”

  “Okay what?”

  “Okay what you said.”

  “‘Okay, sir!’ And let me teach you to salute.”

  Max didn’t quite master the salute, but he seemed pleased to be helping his uncle clear the table.

  “I need to sit a spell,” Florence said. “Catch my breath. Maybe watch me some Cubs.”

  “You’ve earned that, ma’am. We’re going to wash the dishes for you—”

  “Oh, just leave ’em. I’ll git ’em later.”

  “Not on your life, Aunt Flo. You’ve done your part. It’s time for us to do ours. You just relax.”

  Florence settled onto the couch and used the remote to eject SpongeBob and switch to WGN. With one out in the top of the fourth, she lost the battle to keep her eyes open.

  What an intriguing person. Boone Drake studied the handsome, aging southern belle as she recited her story. Margaret was a little old for his taste, so it wasn’t like he was attracted to her in the conventional sense. But he could sure see why she had drawn so much attention in her prime. It was her personality as much as her earthy sensuality.

  “I got the impression Jack was getting ready to pop the question,” she said. “And I was feeling pretty good about that. Did I want to be married for the fourth time, and to a man with the same record? No. But I’m a romantic. I believe there’s someone for everyone and that sometimes it takes a lifetime to find your soul mate. I know it’s starry-eyed thinking, but that’s where I was.

  “Strangest thing, though. One night Jack was workin’ late—with you, I think—and I stayed in, turned off the TV, and just sat thinking about our future. I liked what I had to look forward to and decided I’d say yes. Give it one more shot, this time going for broke. Don’t ask me what that one means either.

  “Anyway, for the first time in decades—in fact, since just after my daughter died—I found myself wanting to pray.”

  “Really.”

  “You believe that?”

  “Sure. One of those life moments.”

  “But I’d been so far from God for so long, I had no business—”

  “Yeah, but—”

  “I know; I know. He was still there. I was the one who had moved. But still, when I found myself asking God if I was doing the right thing, I honestly expected him to say, ‘What’re you askin’ me for? You haven’t cared up to now.’ Don’t imagine God talks that way, but that’s what I was expecting.”

  “And what did he say?”

  “Well, ’course he didn’t say anything. He never has—to me, anyway. I guess he talks to some people, if you can believe ’em. He just sorta impresses stuff on me, you know?”

  “I do.”

  “He pretty much just opened my eyes. He wasn’t telling me I didn’t deserve to be happy or be in love. But it was like truth just washed all over me. I sat there knowing that I had been rationalizing, justifying living for me, doing what I wanted to do, the heck with what I knew God would want. It was my true love for Jack that opened my eyes. All of a sudden I just knew that if I married Jack, we wouldn’t be equally yoked and I wouldn’t have done a thing about the way I was living.”

  “So that’s when you gave Jack all those conditions?”

  “Was that how it came off?”

  “Well, to him, sure. And that’s how it was, wasn’t it?”

  Margaret leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table, supporting her chin with her fists. “First I went back to church, started listening to Christian radio, brought home some Christian books, and—”

  “Quit sleeping with Jack.”

  “He told you that too?”

  “He wasn’t happy.”

  “I know I made things difficult for him, but I tried to explain. I wasn’t too happy with him either, that he had told me all about you being a Christian but never mentioned my faith to you. I mean, I was what they call backslidden, living in sin, all that, but I knew better. I was a believer. I worried I was too far gone and that God wouldn’t forgive me and take me back. My parents were both gone by then, so it was already too late to reconcile with them. I had to figure this out on my own.”

  “Jack has some church background.”

  “True,” she said, “but not a good one. I guess when he was a teenager he went with friends for a year or so, but it was one of those churches that was all about working to try to be good. He liked booze and girls, so he never felt worthy. ’Course, you and I know nobody can earn salvation anyway. But the whole rules thing turned him off.”

  “And so did your leaving him and telling him that if he wanted to see you it had to be at church.”

  “It worked.”

/>   “I know, but he still says he’s not comfortable and that it doesn’t feel right to go only so he can see you.”

  “I told him it’s not a date and that he has to go without me sometimes too.”

  Boone sighed. “Guess he doesn’t think it’s fair.”

  “And maybe it isn’t. But I know it’s right. I can’t be marrying him, and certainly I can’t be living with him, the way things stand.”

  “But you still love each other.”

  “We sure do. And that makes it tough.”

  8

  Chaos

  Florence’s eyes were shut, the Cubs’ announcers droned on, and her body felt leaden. She was vaguely aware that Haeley’s brother and Max had finished up in the kitchen and were tiptoeing and whispering as they came into the living room.

  “You know what my name means?” Alfonso said quietly.

  “Nope. I don’t even know what Max means. Are names s’posed to mean something?”

  “Most people don’t think about it, but your mom’s and my parents did. Alfonso means ‘noble and ready.’”

  “Like a Ranger.”

  “Exactly.”

  “What does my mom’s name mean?”

  Alfonso laughed. “You won’t believe it,” he whispered. “You ready?”

  Max nodded.

  “It means ‘hay meadow.’”

  “Hay meadow?”

  “Yup. Guess they just liked the name.”

  That almost brought Florence to life. “I’ve always loved her name,” she slurred, eyes still shut.

  “Me too,” Alfonso said. “Sorry to wake you, ma’am. How’re the Cubs doing?”

  “Haven’t been watchin’. Got a little shut-eye.”

  “Want to get some more? I can take Max to the park, and we’ll be back within the hour.”

  “Oh, no, no. I’ll go. Just give me a minute.”

  “Would you rather watch the Cubs, Max?” Alfonso said.

  “Baseball? No! Boring!”

  “Only because you don’t understand it,” Florence said, sitting up. “You’ll like it someday.” She found herself wishing she’d taken Alfonso up on his offer to take Max for a while. She could use a little more time on the couch. If he offered again, she decided, she’d say yes.

  “I hope you don’t feel I wasted your time, Boone,” Margaret said, reaching for her handbag, still looking silly in her floppy hat.

  “Not at all. A lot of that was new to me.”

  “Basically, I just want you to pray for Jack. And for me. I feel like I’ve learned a lot and come a long way the last several months. But I’ve got a long way to go. And you know Jack does.”

  Boone started at the sound of the back door and looked up to see Haeley slowly step into the light. “You guys about done?” she said, her voice faint and shaky.

  He looked at his watch. “Did you get some rest?”

  “Not really. I think I’d better get home.”

  “Sure,” Boone said, rising quickly. But as he did, the table rose a few inches on his side and Margaret’s purse slid off, hit the bench, and then the concrete. Her stuff scattered, and Boone hurried to help her gather it.

  Margaret scooped most of the contents back into the bag, then held it open and told Boone to just drop in his handfuls. Haeley approached and found a lipstick tube at the edge of the patio. As she bent to pick it up, she stayed down for a second. When she rose slowly and brought it to Margaret, Boone was alarmed at how pale and weak Haeley looked in the sun.

  “You’d better sit down, hon,” he said, but the words were barely out of his mouth when she stopped about six feet away and dropped the tube. Her head fell back as if she were studying the sky. Then her eyes rolled up.

  Boone moved to get to her just as Margaret did, stepping directly into his path. As he tried to shove the older woman out of the way, Haeley began to sway.

  To Boone’s horror, he could tell she was unconscious as she spun. Her knees appeared to lock and she toppled, as if in slow motion. As he reached in vain to try to block her fall, the back of Haeley’s head hit the concrete with a crack so resounding that Boone feared it had killed her.

  Margaret screamed for Jack and Boone bellowed, “Call 911!” as he knelt over Haeley. Her body lay rigid, pupils fixed and dilated. Boone pressed his head against her chest and heard her heart thudding. But when he gently felt the back of her head he found her skull had shattered like an eggshell. A black pool expanded around her in the merciless sun.

  “Happy to take him for a little while, ma’am,” Alfonso said. “We can have our ice cream when we get back.”

  “Actually, that sounds good,” Florence said. “Would you like that, Max?”

  “Like what? Ice cream?”

  “Going to the park with your uncle.”

  “No!”

  “No?”

  “I want you to come, Aunt Flo.”

  “I’ll be fixin’ your Neapolitan.”

  “No! You come!”

  “Let’s let Aunt Flo rest, eh, little buddy?”

  “No!”

  “Be a good soldier.”

  “He’s a little shy of you yet,” Florence said. “It’s all right. I’ll get myself together here.”

  Boone fought with everything in him to stay on task. How was one supposed to stanch bleeding from the skull? “Margaret, get me some towels!”

  Margaret stood whimpering as the back door flew open and everyone burst out. “What happened?” Fletcher Galloway said, rushing to the other end of the yard, where he found an old canvas umbrella lying near a stack of chopped wood.

  “She fell!” Margaret said as she hurried inside. “Dorothy, we need towels!”

  Jack Keller was on his cell phone, barking the address and ordering an ambulance. With his free hand he helped Fletcher wrestle the umbrella open and situate it so Haeley was shaded. “Jack,” Fletcher said, “switch places with Drake. She doesn’t look good. Lord, help the girl.”

  Boone was awash in a tidal wave of emotion, frantic to keep terror from overwhelming him. Could he again be losing the love of his life? Had God not taught him enough by allowing one catastrophe?

  As Margaret reappeared with towels, Jack pulled Boone away from Haeley. “Let me,” he said. “Closest trauma center is Mount Sinai at Ogden and California. Call the ER there and tell ’em what to expect.”

  Boone felt helpless, anger now invading. He was trained in every emergency situation, yet all he wanted was to drive his fist through something.

  “Do it, Boones!” Jack said. He hit a button on his own cell and said, “Chicago Police. Connect me with the ER at Mount Sinai in Douglas Park.” He handed Boone the phone and carefully placed the towels under Haeley’s head.

  Boone felt as if time were racing, every second taking his beloved closer to the point of no return. He wanted nothing more than to hear a screaming siren. As Margaret and Dorothy held hands and prayed over Haeley and Fletcher stood grim sentinel with the umbrella, the ER answered.

  Boone was somehow able to recite what had happened and answer questions, finally hearing the ambulance in the distance. He switched to his own phone and called Dr. Murari Sarangan, catching him at home. After Boone filled him in and pleaded with him to meet them at Mount Sinai, Dr. Sarangan said, “My whole family will be praying, sir. And I am on my way. The EMTs are professionals and will know this, but remind them to be very careful how they secure and move your wife. That is the absolute most crucially important thing right now.”

  “Can she survive this?”

  “It sounds very serious, sir. Are her eyes still open?”

  “Yes.”

  “Still fixed and dilated?”

  “Yes.”

  “Still getting a pulse?”

  “Jack! Pulse?”

  Keller held his thumb and forefinger on either side of Haeley’s neck at the carotid artery. “Faint,” he mouthed.

  “Weak,” Boone reported.

  “Any tremors, extremities quivering?”


  “I see nothing.”

  “The body is protecting her; she may already be in a coma.”

  “A coma?”

  “That’s not all bad, Boone. But how the EMTs deal with the injury while monitoring her vital signs will make all the difference. They must be very careful with the neck. I’m getting in my car. When they arrive, would you give them my number?”

  Florence was perspiring by the time she and Max and Alfonso reached the lobby. Alfonso was texting on his phone. “Keeping Mom and Dad up to date. They want to know how Haeley reacts when she sees me. I might even record it.”

  Willie had a tiny TV going with the Cubs game on, but he was dozing. He roused when they reached his desk. “Where we goin’?” he said.

  “To play!” Max said.

  “Good for you! Hot out there.”

  “Only a little while,” Alfonso said.

  “Ain’t gonna be too hot for you, soldier. Nothing like over there, I bet.”

  “You’re right. But I know better than to keep anyone else in the sun for long.”

  As soon as they reached the sidewalk, Florence felt her baggy top cling to her back. “Oh, my,” she said. “I’m not gonna be able to stand much of this.”

  “Can we swing?” Max said.

  “Long as there’s a place for me to sit in the shade,” she said.

  “First I want to show you my car,” Alfonso said. “It’s just down here.”

  He walked briskly ahead, and Max ran to keep up. “Don’t be gettin’ too far ahead now,” Florence said.

  “Sorry!” Alfonso said, slowing and reaching for Max’s hand. “Let’s wait for Aunt Flo. We can run a little later.”

  When they reached the old blue Buick at the curb, Florence was struck that Alfonso had left the front windows open. “This’s no neighborhood to be doin’ that in,” she said.

  “It’s insured,” he said, chuckling. “Anyway, nobody wants to steal an ancient beast like this. It’s older’n I am. Dad could never let it go. Haeley and I pretend drove it in the garage when we were little.”

  “It’s nice,” Florence said. “I ’member those. Mr. Quigley always wanted one.”

  “I like it too,” Max said. “Can I have a ride?”

 
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