Chapter 44

Harper woke to the good smells of something cooking in the kitchen. She put her warm robe on, grabbed the walker, and went out to investigate. There was Blaise adorned in one of her bright pink aprons. It was a site to behold, and she couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

“Well, good morning, Sunshine. How did you sleep?”

“Probably better than you.” She waved toward the couch, which was obviously much shorter than Blaise’s tall frame.

“Nah, it was fine. I can sleep anywhere. So . . . what do you want on your waffles?”

“By the way, the pink looks good on you.”

“Ha, very funny! I’ve never had my colors done, but I can almost guarantee you that pink is not my color. But about those waffles? They are vegan organic, gluten free and cooked to perfection . . . maybe. We’ll see.”

“Wow, I didn’t know you could cook.” She was genuinely impressed.

“Well, the proof will be in the tasting, but I used your recipe here in this notebook; so hopefully, I got it right. For toppings, I have Canadian maple syrup sans formaldehyde,” he announced and smiled. “I have cashew cream, leftover vegan chocolate hot fudge, organic applesauce, and sliced organic strawberries that are still good, but on the cusp, so they need to be used quickly.”

“And is that coffee I smell! I have missed my coffee!”

“Absolutely! I actually have a percolator that I brought from my apartment. It makes the best tasting coffee, so I thought to break your Lent fast, I would provide the best. Your coffee is fair trade, organic, and shade grown—covered all the bases. Oh, and fully caffeinated.” And at that, he bowed.

“If it tastes as good as it smells, I will be thrilled.”

“So, may I serve you, mam? One waffle or two?”

“I will take one, please; and those strawberries and syrup look perfect.”

“I assume you want your regular vanilla almond creamer with your coffee?”

“Yes, thank you.” Blaise served her with a flourish, obviously enjoying his role as chef, server, and maître d. Harper enjoyed her first breakfast back home, and having it with Blaise only added to her joy. She would not have wanted to ruin the moment with a real camera; but mentally, she took a snapshot to hold it in your mind.

“So, after you get dressed, if it’s all right with you, I’d like to drive you out to Clutch’s grave. I have a bag of dried rose petals that I saved when I clipped all the roses back. I hadn’t planned to use them this way, but I thought maybe you might want to place them on the site. What do you think?”

“That sounds great to me—just like breakfast. This was wonderful! Let me get cleaned up and dressed. It might take me a bit, but I’ll go as fast as a gimp can.”

“Should I call Elise to help?”

“No, I think I’ll be okay. I’ll yell if I need help.”

When she came out, Harper opted to take the cane she had been sent home with instead of the walker. Blaise walked by her side out to the truck to be sure she was stable, then helped her up and in. He had not wanted the site to be disturbed, so had gone quite a distance out in the desert to dig the grave. When they turned off the main paved road, they drove quite a piece on a rough, dirt trail. His four-wheel drive came in handy when the hard pack dirt turned more to silt. He drove as far as he could, then helped Harper out of the vehicle. They followed a small path for a bit, but soon the path became more uneven and overgrown. Harper did not admit it, but Blaise knew it would be too much for her, so he swept her up into his arms and carried her the last fifty feet.

He set her down beside the pile of rocks placed over Clutch’s body. Blaise had made a sign out of wood and planted it at the head of the grave. It read: “Clutch, beloved pet and forever friend.” Emotion welled up in Harper’s chest. It wasn’t just that she had loved that dog. It wasn’t just that he had been a faithful companion. Saying goodbye to him now was also saying goodbye to Graham, to a hard-won marriage, to a life and a love lost. The past, with its joys and pains, its questions and disappointments, had clung tightly to her for such a long time. Her sorrows were hard to bear; but at the same time, they were like a comfortable worn garment that she kept wearing because she felt insecure about trying on anything new. And if she cast aside what had become comfortable, well . . . what would come next? Though her future held more promise now than she had thought possible even just a few months ago, she was at the same time scared of the unknown.

Blaise handed her the bag of dried rose petals, and she leaned down to place them on the rocks so some would be trapped in the crevices. She knew the wind would take most of them away, but that was okay. It was her final goodbye. “I loved you, Clutch. You were such a good dog—such a good friend. Goodbye, my good old boy. Goodbye.” Tears ran down her cheeks as she took the remaining handfuls of flower petals and threw them up in the air, letting the wind twirl them around and carry them off. She watched them move across the desert in a dance.

Blaise put his arms around her and drew her into his chest. After a few quiet moments, he spoke softly into her ear: “Do you know when I first loved you?” He didn’t wait for an answer; he went on speaking “I loved you the first time I went into your shop. When I saw you standing there behind that enormous wooden candy counter thing, your white curly hair, softly framing your face, your downturned mouth, and that dark cloud over your head . . .”

“Wait, what?” She pulled away and looked into his face. Blaise was smiling down at her.

“Are you teasing?”

“Yes . . . but not really. I loved your little frown. Still do.”

“So, was it that bad?”

Blaise got more serious. “You looked sad, wounded. I recognized it so well because it was like looking into a mirror. I had been where you were. I didn’t know your story then, but I could see your pain with my eyes, and I felt it in here.” He placed his hand on his heart.

“Well, how could you have loved that? You probably just felt sorry for me.”

“To be honest, I fought it—for a long time. But looking back, I know that’s when I first felt love for you. I was content with singleness. With all I had come through, I knew that the passion of my life had to be for Christ, and I was convinced there would be no room for a woman. God, yes. Christ-followers, yes, but a woman? Romance? No. But the more we became friends, the more my love for you grew.”

“I fought it, too. I didn’t think I could ever walk that road of relationship again. There was too much pain, too much loss; and then, there was really my loss of faith. I don’t think God had let me go, but I had mostly let Him go. I didn’t think I could ever trust Him again, let alone a man.”

“I understand that. I went through that, too. Well, not the man part.” He grinned. “That is why I recognized the wounds so well.” He pulled her in tight again.

Harper rested her head on his chest. “Do you want to know when I first loved you? When we danced and worshiped in the snow. It was like deliverance for me, and I loved you in it.”

“Harper, my first passion and desire is for Christ and to be used in His kingdom here on earth . . . and I know that is yours, too. But do you think as we work together for Him, you would have room in your heart . . . I mean, do you think you could continue to serve Christ while being my wife? Harper, will you marry . . .?

“Yes, yes, I will! I love you, Blaise, with all my heart.”

Their lips met soft at first, then they kissed, long and hard. Bodies close; hearts beating as one. “Harper, I love you, I love you, I love you. Be my wife.”

Blaise swept Harper up to carry her back to the truck. And as they walked through the desert, Harper looked around at all the wildflowers that were springing up in the dry sandy soil. There was color as far as she could see—blue, yellow, white, orange—color and life blowing in the desert breeze. It had been a cold, hard winter, but spring had finally come to Shiloh.

~~The End~~

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Chapter 43

The hospital released Harper on the Saturday afternoon before Easter with strict instructions to get plenty of rest, to not lift anything over five pounds, and to make a follow up appointment with her doctor in one week. She was off all medications for the most part, but was sent home with some pretty strong pain killers if another bad headache should hit. It felt good to sit in her own chairs, use her favorite mug, and sit in front of the lit fireplace, even if it wasn’t crackling and didn’t smell of burning wood. The headaches had subsided for the most part, and she felt stronger; but she still used the walker because of periodic dizzy spells. She couldn’t risk a fall. Being out of the hospital was a huge relief, and a gentle peace filled her body and mind.

Blaise had been to the market and jam-packed her fridge with healthy vegan choices, and she noticed he must have found other homes for her gifted casseroles, since there was not much left in her freezer but some take-out packets from her favorite café and some vegan ice cream. After getting her settled, he had zipped out to do a couple of errands, but promised to return by supper. He said he had great news from the fellowship to tell her. In the meantime, Elise and June would check in on her periodically. She tried to read a devotional book on the end table, but her mind kept wandering. What a crazy world. She could not have predicted all that had happened these past few months, and she closed her eyes and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s protection and intervention in her life.

When she opened her eyes again, it was dark in the room except for the lamp by the overstuffed chair where Blaise was seated. She was lying down on the couch with a pillow at her head and a warm blanket wrapped around her. Her shoes were gone, replaced by wooly socks. Blaise had been reading his Bible, and the soft light lit his face in a golden glow. He set the book down and leaned forward, smiling. “Hey, sleepy head; I thought maybe you were going to sleep through supper.” He glanced at his wristwatch: “Well, let me re-phrase that: It looks like you slept through supper.”

“I guess I dozed off.” She yawned and tried to sit up.

Blaise got up and helped her to a seated position, wrapping the blanket snugly around her knees. “Are you hungry?”

“What time is it?”

“It’s just after eight. With no beeps and interruptions from hospital routine, you totally sacked out. I got here about five, and Elise told me she had checked on you several times, but you were sleeping so soundly, she opted not to disturb you, except to cover you with a blanket. When I got here, I gave her strict instructions not to let Mum sing some of her greatest hits; and thankfully, she has complied. I laid you back on that pillow, and you never even stirred, other than a few little snores.”

“Huh, I don’t snore!” She pretended to be indignant.

“Okay, not really snores—just very feminine whiffles. You were dead to the world. Oh . . . thankfully, not. Bad choice of words.”

“Well, not dead is good, and whiffles I accept. I must have slept really hard because I . . .” and here she yawned, “because I feel dopey, and I haven’t had any drugs since I left the hospital. Hopefully, I can put all of that stuff behind me.”

“So, are you hungry? I bought some vegan stroganoff from Ingrid’s Diner. It’s cold now, but I could heat it quickly in the microwave.”

“That sounds good to me. This is the first time I’ve felt really hungry, I think.”

Blaise dished out a couple of portions. Harper still wasn’t eating as much in quantity, but she thoroughly enjoyed the gourmet fare. “If I never see another wimpy asparagus spear like what the cafeteria served, it will be too soon. This tastes awesome! I typically don’t like to overuse that word, but delicious just wasn’t enough.” She put her hand over her mouth, trying not to talk with her mouth full. “Thank you for this—and for everything.”

“No problem? Do you have room for ice cream? I got some chocolate fudge to top it with—non-dairy, of course.”

“I think I would have gone even for the dairy at this point. That sounds so good. You are spoiling me.”

“I’m spoiling me, too. This food is decadent, compared to my simple rice and beans fare.”

Harper had overestimated her hunger, and halfway through the ice cream, she had to cover it and put it in the freezer to save for another time. She had also overestimated her energy reserves, so Blaise called in Elise to help Harper get ready for bed. She was actually doing well by herself; but until she was stronger, Blaise felt more comfortable having Elise with her. After Harper was safely tucked in bed, Blaise went in and sat by her side.

“The fellowship—I mean, Roots . . .” He corrected himself and smiled. Roots prayed for you last night. We had a Good Friday service that was really great. I’ve been having a hard time waiting to tell you what happened. I didn’t give a message; we just sang and shared our stories. My dad would have called that ‘testimony time,’ but most of this group would not have identified with that term. When we got to prayer time, several people asked to pray for you. We have been all along, of course; but many felt led to pray for specific things—for you and for Roots. It was a sweet time of prayer and fellowship, but something really awesome happened. I know, there’s that word again; but trust me this was awesome! After prayer, Max stood up and said he would like to share a poem he had written. I asked him for a copy so I could read it to you. It goes like this:

The Silence of Saturday

Do you hear the silence in the tomb—hard and lifeless—vacuous hopes of my heart buried in a borrowed grave with one who would save us?

Do you hear the silence in the streets where palms, faded and brittle, blow to the wadis by dry desert winds—blow along with our visions of an overcoming respite?

And the pain of that black moment has dissolved in my tears and loss, and we mourn for Him, but probably more for ourselves—myself. 

And in the weeping and the regularity of another’s day, a great silence fills and empties me of will and belief.  Behind my eyes, inside my head, the palpable quiet pushes out hope; and in my hands where once we held His bread and wine, I hold despair, pressed down, dark, and bloody.

When he finished, the room was totally silent. Then Max gently shared some of his story, how he was one to resist the Christ, to mock Him, to discount Him from his life. He told the group that his personal sins had crucified the Lord—had driven the nails, had pierced His side, had pressed the sharp crown of thorns into His brow; and yet, because of Jesus’ great love, He died for us. He endured the immense suffering before we even considered repentance. It was a powerful moment, Harper. Then one by one, we heard people cry out to God in what really sounded like grief, asking God for forgiveness. Weeping. Others started thanking God for what He had suffered for them. There was almost a visible glow in the room as the Holy Spirit moved on people in various ways. And after a time, when I asked if there were those who wanted to receive Christ as Savior, people popped up all over the room. It was awesome. We decided that in addition to our regular Friday service, we would meet again tomorrow evening, too, to celebrate Easter Sunday. Hopefully, you will feel strong enough to come. God is doing something in that group, and I wanted to share it.”

Harper was really touched by Blaise’s account of the service and couldn’t help but marvel at all God was doing. “I have often thought of how hopeless Christ’s followers would have felt between Friday and Sunday. I’ve felt that despair; at least, in part—the in-between time, the time of loss, when you feel abandoned and are barely holding on. Then when you get to the other side of the blackness, it is hard to believe things were ever so dark . . . so lifeless.”

“I agree. I have been there, too. I pray only that we hold close His words and remember His deeds because when hard times come, and they will again, we will be quick to forget what God has done for us. Oh, Lord, may we never forget.”

“Something just came to my mind as we were talking. The silence of Saturday births rejoicing when God breathes, and the Son inhales again.”

“Oh, I love that, Harper. Thank you, God.”

“Don’t let me forget, Blaise. I don’t ever want to go back to that empty place.”

“We will remind each other of what He has done. When you are weak, I will be strong; when I am weak, you will be strong. May it be. Now get some sleep. I will be out on the couch tonight if you need anything.” And with that, he cradled her face in his hands and kissed her gently. He left the room quietly, pulling the door to, as Harper closed her eyes and drifted off.

 

 

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Chapter 42

Harper got stronger with each day. Before she would be allowed to go home, however, she had to be able to get herself out of bed and visit the bathroom unassisted, and she needed to be able to take fifty steps down the hall and back with a walker. She was still often dizzy, but motivation was high. What she would do once she got home, she wasn’t entirely sure, but home was still her goal. She was going to need some in-home care for at least a bit. Blaise offered to help as much as possible, and he was going to pay Elise to help, as well. Her insurance also provided some home nursing care, so she was sure with the progress she was making, she would be able to be home by Easter, which was a little more than one week away. When Blaise came that late afternoon to see her, she peppered him with all sorts of questions in preparation for her checking out of the hospital.

“I’m not sure what to do about the bald spots on my head. They took all the bandages off this morning, but I guess I never thought about how long it would take to grow out the incision sites.”

“I think it looks great as is, kind of punk like,” he teased, but she winced. “Sorry, I shouldn’t joke about something so important, but really you will always look good to me whether you cut your hair or not.”

“Maybe I should just ask Ava to come and chop it all off. I know it sounds vain, but I always felt that if I ever got rid of my long hair, I would be admitting I was getting old. Is that silly?” She looked straight into Blaise’s eyes, and he didn’t exactly know how to respond to the comment.

“Hmm, I think it’s really up to you what you feel comfortable with, and I think I understand the old thing. I always felt that when I cut my hair, it would be like admitting I wasn’t thirty anymore. But maybe I should shear my locks, too, as an act of solidarity.” He looked somewhat amused, but with the words meeting the air, he started to realize that it might not be such a bad idea.

“Don’t you dare!” she cried. “I love your hair, but it might be uncomfortable with you having more than me—but then again, you always have had more than me. Did you know that day you walked in my shop I was jealous because of your hair?”

“Really?”

“Well, only a little bit. But I do love your hair.” She smiled, remembering that first meeting. “I could always get a hairpiece till it grows out. What do you think?”

“I think this is a conversation you should have with Ava. All my taste is in my mouth, and if I tread any further into this discussion, I fear I might ruin my chances with you.” He smiled, leaned over, and gave her a quick peck on the lips.

“Okay, sold. I’ll ask Ava. She’s coming this afternoon to bring me some clothes. I also texted her this morning to pick up some of Clutch’s favorite bacon treats. I want to give him something special the first time he sees me walk through the door. I’ve missed him so much! Poor thing. He must be confused. Ava didn’t text me back, so I hope she doesn’t forget.”

Harper was seated on the side of her bed, and Blaise pulled up one of the chairs to sit right in front of her. He began to look very uncomfortable. “Harper, I’ve needed to talk to you about something. I hope I didn’t wait too long, but I so wanted you to be stronger . . .”

“Stronger, for what?” Harper looked confused. “What’s wrong?”

“Well . . . Harper, two days before you woke up . . . Clutch passed away. I didn’t know how to tell you, and I . . . well, I kept waiting, hoping you would be in the best possible physical and emotional place to hear such sad news. I am so sorry.”

Harper stared straight ahead, eyes frozen open. Tears formed and slowly rolled down her cheeks. “Oh, no . . . oh, no.”

Blaise got up out of his chair and sat beside her on the bed, with his arms wrapped around her. “I’m sorry if I made it worse by not telling you right away, but I didn’t know how.” He put his head next to Harper’s and just held her tight as she sobbed.

Clouds kept passing in front of the sun outside the window so that the room alternated between dark and light, cool and warm. Blaise continued to hold Harper and wiped her tears gently with the sheet. Her sobbing finally subsided, and she sat quiet, head bowed for a long time. “He was old,” she spoke into her chest. “He was tired and old, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; I just thought . . . well, I don’t know what I thought. But I guess I wasn’t ready for him to die. Not now . . . probably not ever.”

“I understand that. I’m so sorry. I wish it hadn’t happened.”

“How did he die?” Harper looked up into his face.

“Are you sure you want to talk about it? I don’t want . . .”

“No, I want to know. What happened?”

“Well . . . he had been sleeping a lot the days before—even more than usual, I guess. He was over at their place, and Mum had been petting him most of the night as he lay by her feet—content. Elise said he was very subdued and hadn’t had much appetite at supper. She’d not forced him to eat, and just let him lay there. He seemed fine and was actually snoring at times, which made my mum laugh; and when he started kicking his feet a little, dreaming, she told Elise he must have been chasing squirrels in his dreams again. Everything was as it had been, pretty much. But when Elise went to rouse him to take him back to your place for the night, he didn’t move. She looked closer and realized he had stopped breathing, so they called me.” Tears formed in Blaise’s eyes at the telling. “He just drifted away, Harper. He just slept and drifted peacefully away.”

The room fell silent for several minutes; then Harper spoke softly. “Do you think dogs go to heaven?”

Blaise took a moment, carefully choosing his words. “I’m not sure there is any scriptural support, per se. But can I tell you what my heart knows?

“Yes.”

“My little niece Arna had a cute dachshund puppy that got hit by a car and died. She was heartbroken and asked me that same question. At the time, I didn’t think they did, but I wasn’t about to tell her that; so, what I said was ‘I don’t know for sure, but I do know that God loves all of his creatures, and He will do what is right.’ I thought I was kind of clever for sidestepping and not giving a direct answer; but later, the more I thought about it, the more I came to believe it. Are they redeemed like we are—children of God? I don’t think so; but Harper, I do believe that God loved his creature Clutch even more than you did. So, He will do what is right. This will not be taught in seminary, but do all dogs go to heaven? Not sure how it all works, but I believe they do.”

“Thank you for that. I loved him and was not ready to say goodbye. So . . . what happened to him . . . to his body?”

“I wrapped him in that old Mexican blanket I have in the emergency supplies in the back of my truck. Ava and I took him out to the desert and buried him, covering the site with rocks so animals wouldn’t disturb him.”

“So, Ava knew?”

“Yes, I told her not to say anything till I’d had a chance to break it you. Are you okay? Are you upset with me for not telling you sooner?”

“No, I’m okay. Can you take me there when I get out?” Harper looked into his eyes.

“Absolutely. It’s a little bit of a hike, but there’s a dirt road that can get us pretty close with the truck. I’ll carry you the rest of the way if I have to, but we will go and say goodbye to him as soon as you’re able.”

“I would like that . . . very much.” Harper settled into Blaise’s embrace as light began to fade in the room.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 41

The afternoon dragged on, but not because she was waiting for Blaise to return. Actually, she had a certain amount of dread in that regard. For as hard as she had fought to keep her feelings in check, they were now all over the place, and she didn’t know what to think. But time dragged because of a severe headache that descended just after her applesauce lunch. The neurologist assured her that what she was experiencing was perfectly normal and part of the healing process, given her injury; but the pain was incapacitating. As yet, the nurses had not been instructed to remove her morphine drip; and though, she had not required much medication the last couple of days, she certainly needed it now. The drugs diminished the pain but made her feel lightheaded and very sleepy. She didn’t get her scheduled bath or her chair time; instead, she drifted in and out of sleep all day, but mostly in.

Sometime in the middle of the night, she woke. She was unsure of the time, but it had to be after midnight. Lights were dimmed, and she heard occasional soft murmurs from the nurses’ station down the hall. The pain was gone, but the fogginess of drugs lingered, even though she had not had a dose since early evening. As her eyes focused, she saw Blaise’s tall form draped over one of the much too small padded, orange armchairs. He was asleep, but she couldn’t imagine that he was comfortable.

His long hair fell over his face, his breathing slow and even. As she watched his chest rise and fall, she wondered at the turn her life had taken since he walked through her shop door. It was not anything she had wanted. And she could not have foreseen the role he would play; but as days and weeks had gone by, she’d come to realize that he was becoming an important part of her life. Indispensable, really.  She just couldn’t allow herself to believe it. No matter how hard she had resisted, she knew now that her affection for this man was real; and after his kiss, she dared to hope that he felt the same. It was scary for her because she had built over the years this impenetrable wall around her heart so as never to be vulnerable again—vulnerable to love, but more importantly, vulnerable to loss. “So, Lord, what in the world am I supposed to do?”

She had not meant to speak it out loud, but Blaise stirred in his chair at the sound of her voice. He opened his eyes and adjusted his frame in the chair. “Okay, was I drooling?”

“Just a little,” she lied. “You looked very uncomfortable. You should go home to your own bed. How long have you been there?”

“Well, how long have you been there?” And he smiled as he pointed to her hospital bed. “How are you feeling now? Rough day, huh?”

“Yeah, kinda; but it helped, I guess, to be doped up; though, I hate the feeling of being so out of control.”

“It would be nice right about now to have one of those healing formulas that we all seem to want. If I had it, know that you wouldn’t have to go through this—any of this.” He waved his arm around.

“Well, I know you have been faithful to pray because I have oil all over my forehead.”

He smiled sheepishly. “If one anointing doesn’t do the trick, I figure five or six or ten might.” He moved his chair closer to the bedside. “So, about that kiss.” He smiled like a little boy caught in the act.

“Are you asking forgiveness?” She smiled, but she genuinely was a little hesitant, wondering if he regretted his action.

“No, but I probably should, taking advantage of an invalid as I was. But . . . I would like to talk to you about it, but two in the morning is probably not the best time.”

“Normally, I would say that’s true; but there has not been anything normal about my life of late, so since I’m currently wide awake, I’m open to talk. Though I have to admit, I’m a bit nervous.” She smiled to keep it light, but she felt the weight of her own words. “So, let’s talk about that celibate thing.”

“Ah, yes. I did not intend to mislead you, if you thought that was still the commitment of my life. Shall I start at the beginning or jump to the end?”

“The beginning, please.”

Blaise took a breath and closed his eyes, looking as if he was locating a hidden file on his mental hard drive.

“After my wife and child died, as I’ve told you before, I was in a pretty bad way. Committing to life in the monastery was my rescue; I not only found real relationship with Christ there, but I also found purpose, clarity of thinking, and healthy discipline for a very willful young man. I needed the strict parameters of that life to see what is really important and to sow into my life an unwavering devotion to Christ. Celibacy was required by the brotherhood; but for me, it was also part of my faithful devotion. And I really did not chafe at it all. When I started feeling that I was being called to leave and minister somewhere else, I assumed that celibacy would still be part of my spiritual DNA. I felt no need to even think about looking for another life partner. Are you with me so far?”

“Yes, I am. I was a little fuzzy when I first woke up, but I’m tracking now.”

“Okay, well, fast forward to Shiloh. My heartfelt desire was as I told you—to start a fellowship and create vital community. I wanted God to use me and make a difference in lives; and for whatever reason, I felt like it was supposed to be here. When I left the monastery, the abbot told me I would be free of my commitment to celibacy, and he asked me how I felt about that. I remember telling him I had no intention to change in that regard. My devotion was singularly focused. He told me as I left that I should be open to whatever God brought my way—no matter what that might look like. Maybe he knew me better than I knew myself, but as far as I was concerned, singleness was my forever calling. When I told you about my commitment to celibacy, that was at the monastery; and to be honest, it was what I felt was for now, too; so, I wasn’t trying to mislead you in any way. I wasn’t on the prowl or anything. Honestly. But . . .”

A night nurse, having heard voices, came in to check on Harper. She took her vitals, smiled, and then retreated back to the station. “Do you want me to continue, or are you too tired?”

“No, I’m fine. It sounds like you’re getting to the good part.”

“Well, I hope it’s the good part. Who knows, you might think I’m weirder than you knew. I felt very comfortable becoming your close friend because I didn’t have anything to prove. You seemed to be very wounded, and my one desire was to have God perhaps use me in your life to help with that. I did not orchestrate our friendship, and I hope you feel the same way; but I felt like our friendship was organic—natural—and grew without manipulation by you or me. It felt—feels—very comfortable to me. Would you agree with that or am I off base?”

“No, I agree. My Spidey sense would have been up for any manipulation. I felt like I would never again . . . well, I mean. I only wanted friendship . . . and I didn’t even know I wanted that till ours started growing. I started trusting you . . . and I never thought I could do that again.”

“Right, that’s where I was, too. And for me, I trusted you—your honesty and purity—but I wasn’t sure I could ever trust myself. The problem was that the more time we spent together, and the more life we shared, the more attracted I became to you, not just as a spiritual sister . . . but as a woman. Just being honest here. I fought it and rebuked the feelings because I didn’t want to ruin the special friendship we were nurturing. But . . . when you got hurt, and there was a real risk that you weren’t going to survive, I had to admit to myself . . . that . . . okay, I’m going out on a limb here. I had to admit to myself and to God that I couldn’t lose you, that I loved you—not just friend love, but love love.” Blaise got up and sat on the side of Harper’s bed. He grabbed her hands in his and looked straight into her eyes. Harper caught her breath, her heart racing. “I don’t know if you feel the same, but . . .”

Harper leaned forward and kissed the words right out of his mouth. Blaise pulled her into his chest, wrapping his arms around her.

Harper spoke softly, “I’ve felt the same way. I was afraid if I gave in to the feelings that were growing for you, I would lose you—lose your friendship. And I knew that if I was off base in what my heart was telling me, I risked losing the best friend I’ve had in so many years.”

They sat together in embrace for some time. Blaise touched her hair and pulled it off her forehead, being careful not to disturb the still bandaged sections. “Harper, I don’t know where this will lead, and I don’t know if I can be the kind of man that will be God’s best for you; but if you are willing, would you give me a chance to learn to love you. I already love you with all I am.”

“I am willing. I do love you, too. I do. . . . and I am so glad my heart is not hooked up to the monitor right now or nurses would be rushing in.” They both laughed at that.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 40

Harper woke the next morning with the most clarity yet. A nurse came in to get her up for some chair time and remarked, “I’m surprised your man isn’t here yet. He has barely left your side.”

“Oh, he’s not ‘my man.’ Just a friend.”

“Ah, well, he’s a very good one, if you ask me. You get to eat some solids this morning, Ms. Carville, so plain oatmeal is on tap and should be arriving shortly.” As she left, Blaise walked in with a smile and a “Good morning” to both the nurse and to Harper.

“You have a lot more color today. That’s great! And the desk said you get to eat. I was going to try and bring something contraband, but I decided to wait till you have more of an appetite. How are you feeling?”

“Well, I get to sit up, and I never thought sitting in a chair would be such a big deal, but . . . well, it is. The nurse said you’ve been here a lot. What about your job? You know your regular paying job?”

“My employer gave me some time off, which was nice of him. Would’ve been nice with pay, but no biggie.” He smiled and arranged another chair opposite Harper’s. “I’ve gotten a lot of study and sermon prep done, and my prayer life has flourished with my #1 parishioner in need.”

“I appreciate that, but I wouldn’t want to be a burden. What about your mum and aunt? Are they okay?

“Yes, and no. Elise has taken up cat burgling on the side.”

“I know I’m not quite with it yet, but I think you lost me.” Harper seemed genuinely confused.

“I’m sorry, I’m just so happy to see you up and talking, I’m slipping back into my clever but nuanced jokes.” He grinned widely.

“Clever?”

“Okay, you got me. Well, if you’re up for another story, I have one for you. Since your purse was gone—before JR was arrested, that is—and we had no house keys, we were trying to figure out how to get in to feed Clutch for you. The fence is totally down, so there was no obstacle there, of course. And it’s good we didn’t put up another, then Elise would’ve had to hop a fence to break in. As it was, she just walked over to your yard, squeezed her tiny frame through the rather large and non-secure doggie door, found the dogfood, and the spare house key, which had not been returned to its clever hiding place. (I had already checked.) And she and Mum took over the care of your dog. It was actually a real blessing for Mum. They brought him to their place, and she spent hours petting and grooming him, seemingly genuinely happy.”

“My dog or your mum?”

“Both, actually. He spent more time in her place than yours. Against Mum’s wishes, Elise insisted he sleep at your place so he could access the doggie door if he needed to go out in the middle of the night. You will be interested to know Mum never forgot Clutch’s name once and was very happy to do it for that poor neighbor Karen, who was in the hospital.” Blaise shrugged and smiled. “What are you going to do?” Harper smiled, too. She was relieved to know Clutch had been cared for.

“There is more to the story, but I will save that for another time.” Blaise pulled up a chair next to Harper’s, avoiding for the moment her curious gaze. “About the shop . . .”

“Yes, did you happen to find my bank deposit?”

“I did. Funny you should ask. I went back to the shop after the police had done their bit, and I made as thorough a search as I could, even though I wouldn’t really know everything that might be out of place like you would. But there were some reusable grocery bags beside the little fridge in the office. As I was straightening them up, one seemed heavier than the rest; and there inside was your bank pouch with the week’s receipts. I thought about going on a spending spree, but opted to make your deposit instead.”

“That wasn’t really funny enough to make me laugh, but be careful: I’ve had a head injury, you know.” Blaise winked at her and was clearly relieved and enjoying his friend’s turnaround.

Harper’s mood shifted as she started to think again about the attack. “Did he say why he did it? I mean, I’ve never officially met JR. Max asks for coffee and food on his behalf, so I knew about him; but until a few days ago—or whenever that was—I hadn’t even seen his face. I bought a muffin and a coffee for a man begging outside a coffee shop uptown, but I didn’t really speak much to him. And to be honest, since his hair was hanging down in his face, even then, I can’t say I saw it. Not enough to recognize him. But I heard the owner call him JR when I was getting into my car. I didn’t know it was Max’s JR till he confirmed it for me Friday night at fellowship. And I’m sure he wouldn’t have known who I was . . . at least, I can’t imagine he did. I don’t understand why he would be angry with me. Was he? Why . . .”

“He doesn’t know why he did it, Harper. He has some mental issues; and with this violent act, he will be committed in a prison for the criminally insane. Until this event, all his run-ins with the police were petty theft, public urination, and other misdemeanors. This certainly bumped it up a notch. I just feel bad about the whole situation. If I had not left you alone, it wouldn’t have happened.”

“It’s not your fault. If I’d waited to take the trash out, it wouldn’t have happened either; but it’s all over. I’m just glad to be back in the land of the living.”

“And me, too. I couldn’t bear to . . .”

“Oatmeal! Are you excited?” An all too jovial Type A aid waltzed in with breakfast, arranging it on a tray in front of her.

“What, no coffee?” Harper wriggled up her nose. “Wait, is Easter over? I gave coffee up for Lent.”

“Easter is just around the corner. Water and runny oatmeal are all you get, according to your chart. If you’re good, you get applesauce for lunch.”

“Yay,” Blaise and Harper said in chorus. The aid exited, and Harper sampled her meal. It was pretty mushy and tasteless with no soy milk or sweetener—not allowed, she was told—but after no food by mouth for so long, it might have just as well been a gourmet feast.

Harper ate a few bites, and they sat mostly in silence. Then the nurse came in to help her back to bed. Blaise rose to go. “I need to leave for a bit; it’s my turn at the shop.”

“What? I didn’t even think about that! So, have you been keeping it open the whole time?”

“We shortened the afternoon hours, closing at four; but between Tia, Ava, Elise, and I, we’ve kept the shop going. We probably made a lot of mistakes, but we looked so pathetic doing it, I’m sure people had mercy on us. The whole community got wind of the attack, and I don’t know what is typical, but it seems you have had a lot more customers than usual.

“Wow, that’s amazing! Thank you so much. I don’t know what to say.” Harper’s eyes misted over.

“And your freezer at home is full of casseroles.”

“Vegan?” she managed a smile.

“Absolutely not! But I’m thinking food bank or another potluck!” Harper sunk back deep into her pillows, obviously fatigued by all the outlay of energy.

“I’ll be back later this evening to check up on you. Get some rest.” He turned and walked to the door where he stopped as if frozen. He paused a few seconds then spun on his heel and quickly walked back to the bed. He placed his hands softly on Harper’s cheeks and looked into her eyes. “I thought I’d lost you. I thought . . .” He bent down and put a lingering kiss on her forehead.

Harper had no words. They stuck in her throat, her heart pounding.

He turned to go again, took a few steps, but abruptly returned again and kissed her softly on the lips. “I couldn’t bear to lose you.” His cheeks were wet as he walked quickly to the door and left. Harper touched her lips, closed her eyes, and wept.

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Chapter 39

Harper gained more mobility over the next few hours. Her speech was a little garbled, but really not that bad, considering. The doctors were calling her their little miracle because even if she regained consciousness, they weren’t convinced she would be able to move, let alone speak. But with every passing hour, she improved. She was suffering with headaches, and that would have been totally normal even with the concussion to her frontal lobe; but the blow she had taken to her cerebrum had made things touch and go. The injury was dangerously close to the brain stem. Blaise rarely left her side now, and Harper peppered him with somewhat slurred questions—at least as many as she could handle at one time.

“How long have . . . been here?

“You’ve been in hospital for almost three weeks—some of that at first was in ICU. You were attacked behind the store—hit over the head with a rusty, metal pipe. Police found it at the scene. Staff took you into surgery upon arrival to stop the bleeding and clean up the bone fragments . . . Is that too much for you right now?” Blaise had spoken slowly, but he paused to be sensitive to Harper’s needs. She waved him to continue on. “Okay, so then, they induced a coma to facilitate healing. I don’t remember all the particulars of why; I was kind of in a fog myself. But when they tried to bring you out . . . you remained unconscious; and no one could give a good prognosis, given the extensive damage. So . . . we have just been waiting . . . and praying. A lot! The ‘we’ being the fellowship and me. Tell me if I’m giving you too much information. I don’t want to stress you out.” Blaise held her hand gently.

“No, no . . . I want to know what happened.” She tried to alter her position in the bed, and Blaise adjusted her pillows and helped her to get more comfortable. “Start from the first. Please.”

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Hmm . . . went to take the trash out to the dumpster. I left the door propped open with a block of wood . . . so I wouldn’t lock myself out. I’d checked through the peephole . . . you installed to be sure the parking lot was empty.” Harper paused frequently to gather her thoughts. “I went to kick the block away from the . . . door, and then . . . saw a shadow move . . . felt sharp pain in my head . . . and the last thing I remember is lying face down on the ground with sticky wet stuff on my fingers.” The retelling of it made Harper wince, but Blaise was amazed that she had lost no memory of the attack at all.

“That’s how I found you, lying in a pool of your own blood, the door still wide open. I was terrified for you! Really! I called 911 and, well, you kind of know what happened once you got here.”

Harper closed her eyes and took a big breath. “So, was it a robbery, or what?”

“I guess of sorts, but he didn’t take much.”

“He? So . . . the police caught him?”

“Yes. From what I could tell, he tried to get into your cash drawer, but couldn’t. He spilled over some bookshelves; but whether he took any, only you will be able to tell. He did take your guitar. Max found it at the pawn shop, so I have it at my place, safe and sound. The case is scratched up, but that’s all. He also took your purse; but when he got arrested, it appeared he hadn’t even opened it. Your credit cards and cash were still there, and so were your house and store keys.”

“That’s really odd.”

“Not as odd as the next part. He stole your coffee maker.”

“Who in the world would want that old thing? I’ve been thinking of replacing it . . . but . . .” Harper paused, and looked a bit confused. “So, who did it, Blaise?”

“It was JR, Harper. And the coffee maker was the reason he got caught.”

“Max’s friend JR . . . really?”

“Do you want me to go on; you look really tired.”

“Yes, please. I just don’t understand. Why . . .”

“About a week after the attack, Max was making his regular runs with sandwiches and sundries to the homeless camps. When he got to the 5th St. bridge, he noticed JR had moved his tent some distance from the others. He didn’t think that much about it at first because without his meds, he is really antisocial. Well, he’s not quite social even with his meds. But when Max went to see him, JR had placed a small lean-to made from cardboard beside his tent; in it, he had a cardboard box with a tea towel over it, and on top was your coffee maker. What he planned to do with it without electricity, no one knows; but Max recognized it because of the little pink heart sticker you had on the front.”

“So, did he confront him?”

“No, he acted normal, and then he went to a phone and gave an anonymous tip to the police. He didn’t want JR to run, and he also didn’t want to jeopardize the trust the others living there put in him. The police picked JR up, and he confessed to everything.”

“But why? Why would he do that?”

Harper was getting agitated, so Blaise cradled her face in his hands and whispered, “I think that’s enough for now.”

“I want to know everything . . . but I just don’t understand.” She started to cry softly.

Just then, the nurse came in to take her vitals and give her meds, so Blaise wiped her tears away, then backed away to give the nurse complete access. “It will be okay. You’ll see. God has had you in His hands, and understanding will come with time. I’m going to leave you for a while for you to get some rest, but I’ll be back later. Okay?”

Harper choked out an okay and drifted away as the medicine did its job.

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Chapter 38

Harper and Graham lay quiet, intertwined in the afterglow of a particularly good lovemaking session. It had not always been like that. As in their whole marriage, they had worked at communication in language and love. It had not come easy, but the fruit of patience, honesty, and some healthy head butting had produced a passion they had not even experienced with youth and vitality. Harper was drifting off to sleep when Graham whispered softly in her ear, “If I died would you remarry?”

Harper was instantly awake. “What did you say?”

“You heard me. I’m just curious if you would.” Graham played with her hair and a white curl flopped down across her eyes.

“Are you kidding me? Well . . . if you’re serious, I would have to say no. Definitely not! When I think of how much time and work has gone into getting us to the place we are today, I just can’t imagine having the will to start over—especially with some eighty-year-old Sir Galahad. She smiled and touched his nose. You realize this is a weird time to discuss it. But how about you?”

“Oh, absolutely! As soon as that coffin hits the ground, baby, I’ll be on the make for the next available hottie!” He thought he was very clever and laughed out loud. Harper punched him in the stomach. Hard. It was a little harder than she had intended, but he proceeded to tickle her till laughing and squirming she begged him to stop.

They lay back again, breathing hard. “No seriously, Harp, I don’t think I would either. I can’t imagine finding anyone else who would put up with all my quirks. We have something good now, don’t we? Special?”

“Yes, we do. We really do.” And she kissed him lightly on the mouth. “But just so we’re clear, I’m planning to kick off first so I don’t have to live alone without you. But probably not till I’m like, ninety-five. Oh, and I don’t ever want to do the taxes by myself, just so you know.”

“But what if I went first? I think I’d want you to be happy, whatever that meant. I think I would want you to let me go.” Harper still lay wrapped in his arms, and she could see them, but for some reason, she couldn’t feel them the same anymore. His face became lighter, almost translucent, and his voice was rippling in waves. “I’d want you to let me go           . . . let me go . . .”

She reached for him as dark blue light filled the room, but her hands only met thin air.

“Where are you? Don’t go, Graham . . . Graham!”

“Let me go . . . let me go . . . let me . . .”

Her flailing desperation faded into stillness; and in that moment, she knew it had all been a dream. But why couldn’t she wake up. Graham was gone. Of course, he was gone and had been gone for such a long time now. The reality of it settled hard upon her as she woke from her muddled state. She was still living alone. All alone. But yet . . . as her fingers had thrashed about, she thought she felt something in the dark. Her eyes wouldn’t open. Was she awake or asleep? She tried and tried; they wouldn’t move. But the fingers on her left hand moved and seemed to be holding on to something . . . someone.

“Harper, are you awake? Let me know if you’re there.” The voice vibrated in her head. “Harper, please let me know you’re there. Can you squeeze my hand a little? Open your eyes.”

She tried hard to lift her eyelids, but they wouldn’t budge. Her thoughts were sharp and clear; but when she tried to speak, her mouth wouldn’t form words. “I’m here; I’m here!” she yelled in her head. “Don’t leave me! What’s happening to me?”

Harper felt a warm, moist touch to her forehead. And another soft voice echoed her own thoughts: “Don’t leave me. Please, don’t leave me . . . Harper, come back.”

All of a sudden, there was a jumble of voices and bright lights on the other side of her eyelids. She felt touched and tugged, and still she could not open her eyes—as hard as she tried. Time was indeterminant as sounds and feelings swirled, as did the vision behind her eyelids. She started to feel queasy but couldn’t let anyone know.

“It looks like she might be coming out of it, but those may have only been involuntary twitches. We can only hope, but It might be days still—if at all. I’ll send up the neurologist in the morning to check her out. Hang in there.”

“Thank you, Doctor; I’ll just stay here so she’s not alone.”

The room grew quiet once more except for a few beeping sounds and some muffled faraway voices. She wasn’t sure how much time passed; but all of sudden, her eyes fluttered, almost with a will of their own. The room, though still spinning slightly, started to take on form and color. When she was able to focus, she saw him, his head lying face down on the side of her bed. Locks of his auburn hair lay over her left hand, and she moved her fingers to touch them. At the motion, Blaise raised his head and looked into her open eyes, tears streaming down his face. “Thank you, my Lord. Harper . . . you’re back.”

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Chapter 37

Harper had no concept of time—or even space; but little by little, she became more aware. Whether she was floating, flying, or still, she couldn’t tell. She felt contained within a blue-black sheath, not crowded, but definitely restricted. She wasn’t sure of much at all except that she felt almost awake—kind of like when you are on the edge of a dream and yet aware that you are waking up. It was odd, and she was having a hard time remembering how she had gotten there—here. Every so often, spinning pinpoints of white light punctuated the darkness, turning and swirling, rising upward. She would follow the motion, but whether she was seeing or just feeling the lights, she couldn’t tell. She felt like her name was in the lights; but again, whether she felt or heard her name called, she had no idea. Existence was real, but a jumble. The thought came to her that this must be what it feels like before birth—darkness; awareness; silky fluid; squeezed, but moving; awake, but asleep.

She felt no pain, and probably couldn’t have even told you in that moment what pain was. Yet, she knew her name; and every time she heard it called into the indigo night, she tried to move towards the source. She vaguely remembered what it was like to move, but she was unsure as to how that worked in this place.

How long she stayed in the soupy world she moved in, she couldn’t tell; but when words circled above her head where the light coalesced, she felt drawn closer and closer.

“Harper . . .”

She formed a thought: “Yes, I’m here.”

“Harper . . .”

She didn’t feel anxious at all. Strangely, she rested in a peace that she had never even imagined possible. The lights swirled and moved, faster and faster, brighter and brighter, changing from white to variegated colors and back to glistening white. She felt as if she was being propelled upward toward the brilliance; till all of sudden, all motion stopped. And she fell softly downward like a leaf toward the bottomless ink. Lights faded away. Darkness engulfed her. Before all consciousness left her once again, a lyrical voice surrounded her, covering her like a warm blanket: “In the world you will have tribulation, Harper; but I have overcome the world. I have overcome the world.” And she settled down into the soft and silent blue-black.

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Chapter 36

Blaise cut the question time short to allow people to pack up their food items and get on the road. It was still only sprinkling outside, but the wind was getting stronger, obviously blowing in a bigger storm—the death throes of winter.

Max made his way over to the tables where Harper was standing. “I know it’s a bit late, but JR’s outside the door and wondering if he could have a plate of food to take with him?”

“Absolutely! Here, why don’t you load a plate up with what he might like before everyone grabs their stuff, and I’ll fix him a cup of coffee to go. We actually have some lids this time. Yay! Better move quickly before everything goes.” She smiled and headed to the coffee station. She poured a big cup and then tracked down some of the plastic utensils some people had brought. She didn’t have a plastic bag to put the plate in to protect it from the rain, so she grabbed one of her reusable grocery bags. “Here you go, Max. This should give his plate enough protection to get him back to his place. And please tell him again he is welcome to come in the next time. Really.”

“I’ll tell him that. But . . . well, you know how he is.” Max ducked out the back door.

“I’m going to drive Max to the shelter for the night. And that couple over there, Lucy and Lou—I know it sounds like a band name—were going to call an Uber, but their apartment is really close to the shelter, so I offered them a lift, as well. It should only take me about twenty minutes or less, and then I’ll be back to help with the cleanup.” Blaise dug his truck keys out of his jeans pocket.

“No problem. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Promise me you won’t do it all before I get back.”

“I make no promises; but trust me, I’m not that efficient when it comes to cleaning, so there should be plenty to do. Just don’t dilly dally . . . Dilly dally? Do people even say that anymore?” He laughed and gave a little wave as he headed for the door. “Oh, wait! Max’s friend JR was outside a minute ago. Would you have room for him?”

“I asked Max about that because I thought given the storm, we could squeeze everybody in, if not in the cab, at least in the back; but apparently, JR would prefer to walk. Okay, I’ll see you in about twenty. I’m the last one out, so I’ll make sure the door is pushed to. See you in a bit.”

Harper waved and sent him off with a little smile. Silence descended in the room, and she took a deep breath. “This was good, really good,” she said out loud. She felt that she had certainly rounded a corner. The gloom of the last few years was lifting, and she felt a renewed purpose with the fellowship. She still battled occasional romantic feelings for Blaise, but that was coming under control. She made a decision to ask him about the celibacy comment, just to clear the air; but regardless, she was happy for his friendship and wanted nothing more in this moment than to grow in her faith and be useful in Christ’s kingdom. It felt good to have vision again for a future. She seldom raised her hands in worship because, besides making her at times feel self-conscious, it most often made her want to cry; but in this moment, alone and quiet except for the rumblings of the storm, she raised her hands to the Lord: “Thank you for all You have done. Thank You for the new freedom I’m feeling in my soul—and in my mind. I’m Yours, my Lord.” She wiped tears from her eyes and then set to work.

Humming to herself, Harper went through to the shop front and checked to make sure the door was locked. Everything was dark there except for a small light she kept burning on her candy counter desk thingy. She told herself it was for security, but it wouldn’t have deterred any robber, she felt sure. She smiled to herself at how silly that seemed. She had not spent the money to get a security system, though she had contemplated posting a fake sign for one in her window. But she typically had little cash in the drawer. Most people used credit cards now. And she figured if someone was industrious enough to break into a bookstore and steal books, well, then more power to them. She had not seen theft as a big risk.

She walked back into the meeting room and started picking up trash. Most of it had been taken care of, but there were a few pieces lying around under chairs and beside the trashcans. She pulled the two full trash bags out and tied them off, leaving them by the back door for when Blaise would return. She wasn’t about to break down the extra tables by herself, but they all needed a good wash, so she did that. She put her personal food items along with her guitar case and purse over by her mini fridge. That would remind her not to forget the bank pouch with her shop money that she had hid there in a reusable grocery bag.

Harper had done all that she could do by herself, so she sat down in the silence and waited to hear Blaise’s truck drive up. It had already been thirty minutes, so Harper decided before the storm got any worse, she would throw the trash bags in the dumpster situated only a few feet from the back door. She looked through the peep hole that Blaise had installed in the door for safety. There was her little Honda in its space; and besides that, the parking lot looked deserted except for a few leaves and plastic bags blowing past, driven by the wind. Rather than make two trips holding an umbrella, she decided to tough it out and take both bags at once. She would make it really quick! Harper opened the door and placed the wooden block against it so the door would not blow shut and lock her out. She lifted the bags up into the dumpster and immediately regretted not having put on her coat. The rain was still only light, but the air was cold, the wind biting. She hurried back to the shaft of light of the open door.

As she put her foot against the block to kick it out of the way, a shadow fell across the door. She started to turn but felt a searing pain in the back of her head. She wasn’t aware that she was falling till her forehead crushed the asphalt. Her fingers which had instinctively reached for her neck felt something warm and sticky; but somehow, her hand did not feel attached to her body.

Blackness washed over Harper, and thoughts dissolved into unintelligible murmurs as she drifted away.

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Chapter 35

People started arriving with their food about 6:30, and Harper worked hard at getting proper places for every item, displaying them in as pleasing a manner as she could. Several came in crock pots and needed to have electrical outlets, so that took a bit of maneuvering; but eventually, every dish had its proper place. The potluck was a last-minute thing, so given that people didn’t sign up for particular categories, it was kind of amazing the variety of dishes that ended up on offer. There were soups and chilis, casseroles—all meat, egg rolls, a dish with some kind of tator tot topping with lots of cheese added, some cut raw vegies and dip, and lots of desserts, including a black bean vegan brownie that Harper hoped to try. Blaise said grace, and then people started moving through the line. By the time she found time to grab a bowl, Harper realized her chili and cornbread were gone. So much for guaranteeing a vegan choice. Oh, well. There was still quite a bit of salad left in a big metal bowl, so she went for that. She hated boring salad, but this one was anything but. Whoever made this was on the same page as she was. There were several kinds of greens and cabbages cut in bite-size pieces—none of those huge chunks that required cutting with a knife. She saw pieces of artichoke, olives, carrot, zucchini, sprouts, raspberries, sweet corn, and peas. It looked like a gourmet feast, and she was surprised there was so much left in the bowl. She grabbed one of her no-oil dressings from her mini fridge and found a place to sit and eat.

She had just started when Max brought his plate over and sat down beside her. “Hi, Harper. Thanks for all your work; everything looks great!”

“Oh, no problem. Amazing that we didn’t have too many duplicates, and I’m sure there will be enough leftovers to feed the masses.” She finished chewing while covering her mouth with her hand.

“I see you’re enjoying my salad. I hate boring salads.”

“Are you kidding? You made this? It’s perfect. I love this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of salad. It’s amazing. Thank you for bringing it. I’m vegan, and there aren’t always many choices for me at events like this. By the way, I was hoping to hear more of your story. Is this a good time?”

“Sure, I’d love to tell you. I’ll try not to talk too much with my mouth full, though.” He smiled at that and took a big bite.

“So, Blaise said you used to be an engineer. Do you ever think you will return to that line of work? . . . Okay, your turn.” Harper smiled and took a bite to let Max have time to respond.

“I’ve thought about it, but technology changes so much so quickly I’d probably need to take classes or get recertifications, if you know what I mean. Plus, I’m not sure my heart is in it anymore.”

Max went on to cover the story of his past—some of which Harper knew from Blaise. But Max filled in all the holes. He had come through a lot of heartache with the loss of his livelihood, and more importantly, his family. The sweetness and humility of one forgiven much shone through, and Harper couldn’t help but be impressed at the sacrifices he was now making to help those on the streets who were struggling with addiction, as he once did, and others with mental illness, who needed help and were not getting it from the system. He had become not only a minister to them, but also an advocate, navigating the courts and welfare system for many.

“I can’t imagine how hard it must be living on the streets—or maybe I’m just spoiled. How do you get money to buy all the sundries and food that you give to your friends? And let me know if I am being too nosy.”

“No, not at all. But I may hit you up for a donation later.” He smiled at that. “A friend got me a part time job tutoring math and science at the junior college. It doesn’t pay much, but I have few needs. I make enough to get a membership at the YMCA. That’s where I have a locker, and I can work out and shower there when they’re open. The rest of the money feeds me and my friends on the street. I also get donations from food banks and local businesses that know me and what I’m trying to do. So, it works out okay. But a dream has been forming in my heart and mind for some time, and I think that it will be the next step in my mission.”

“And what is that, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“With the storm coming in tonight, Blaise has promised to drive me to the homeless shelter for the night. Which is cool . . . but there are far more people in need of beds than the beds in that one small shelter.” Almost on cue, a peel of thunder sounded, and Harper could hear the wind picking up outside. Max continued, “I almost feel guilty taking a bed tonight. My dream is to raise funding for at least one more, maybe two shelters—a place to shower and sleep, eat, be trained for work, and a place to help those who need meds to not only get them, but have loving folks to hold them accountable to stay on them. A big dream, I know. But I feel like God is pushing me in that direction.”

Harper was chewing the last bite of her salad. She was amazed at the passion of this man. “I can’t pretend to understand a mission like that, but I would be open to learning. And feel free to hit me up for a donation anytime. Oh, by the way, I think I saw your JR friend in front of the coffee shop across town.” Harper described the man, and Max assured her that it sounded like him.

“That’s kind of far afield for JR, but he has a cousin who owns a coffee shop in that area, I think, so maybe he decided to go there to try and get some extra cash. He hasn’t been doing well lately.”

“The owner seemed to know him by name, but ran him off, so he may not have gotten what he went for.”

“I’ll try and talk to him about it. He isn’t very open about . . . anything, really, but I’ll see. I’ll try and check to see that he has enough money for his meds this week. Thanks for the heads up.”

Blaise walked to the front and encouraged people to set aside their food temporarily for a couple of worship songs. Harper took that as her signal and excused herself from Max. She grabbed her guitar and walked to the front. It felt good to lead the group in song; and everyone joined in, singing enthusiastically, even on her new song. After worship and a prayer, Blaise invited people to ask their questions. He told them they could still keep munching as long as they asked their question between bites. At that, everyone laughed.

“And no choking,” someone yelled out.

“Yes, please. Okay, so who’s first?” Blaise scanned the room.

A young woman named Rosie in the middle of the room raised her hand tentatively. “I’m not sure how to explain this: If someone prays for you because you’re sick with, say, the flu, and you feel warm all over—like Holy Spirit warm—and you know God has touched you, and your flu symptoms go away, but . . .” She hesitated for a moment, then started again. “Well, I mean, if you get healed of that one thing, but a bigger thing, like MS, is not healed . . . well, how does that work? I would think if a prayer works and a person is touched by God, everything wrong would disappear if anything is going to disappear.”

Blaise very kindly asked, “I have had something like that happen. Have you?”

And at that, Rosie quietly said, “Yes, with my mom. I mean, I was so excited that God healed her of her flu symptoms; I’m really new to any of this prayer stuff. But I don’t understand why everything doesn’t go—the bad stuff, I mean. Does that make sense?”

“I don’t understand either. As I’ve mentioned before, if there was a formula, I would use it to empty out all the hospitals. You were faithful to pray for your mom, and that’s awesome that God used you. Though it’s hard, you must leave the results with him. And I would continue, as the Lord leads you, to pray for all the things that affect your mom, including the multiple sclerosis. But our responsibility is not to guarantee the outcome we would like to see. We leave that in God’s hands.” Blaise shifted his position on his stool and spoke softly. “And that’s not to let God off the hook, so to speak; but we just don’t know everything that He knows—everything that’s going on in a person’s life or in the spiritual universe that is battling unseen around us. We can talk about our faith, the other person’s faith, the spiritual battle, God’s timing, God’s will—lots of different components. That’s why we keep ever pressing in toward God, desiring to be led at any moment, listening for His voice and becoming more discerning. As hard as it is, we have a part to play, but we don’t get to be prescriptive about the outcome. That probably doesn’t help your disappointment, though, does it, Rosie?”

“Yes, actually, it does. I guess when you want someone you love so badly to be free of their pain, you feel like there’s got be a perfect key to unlock the solution. But it doesn’t seem to be a key we need as much as it is a puzzle piece of a very complex puzzle. And we get to fit only one piece at a time. It does help to see how some of the pieces kind of fit. Thank you.”

“That’s a great analogy. I may steal that one from you.” Blaise smiled and motioned to another person who had raised his hand.

“I have a question.” An older gentleman near the front had raised his hand. “You referenced that verse in Thessalonians a few weeks ago about praying without ceasing. I’ve tried to pray a lot since I became a believer many years ago, but I have no idea how to be in continual prayer. Is that just hyperbole, or is it really what we must do? Even if we mumble prayers all day long, it seems that would still be falling short. And besides, people would think we were crazy.”

“You guys have great questions! Really. When I lived at the monastery, we had eight designated prayer times throughout the day—every day—as initiated by Saint Benedict of old: vigils, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline. Those calls to prayer were an attempt to help us brothers pray without ceasing, and they were beneficial in keeping us on track in our devotion to God. We had other prayers, too, like before meals or before certain tasks; and it was assumed that even our sleep would be a prayer to God. Now this is not a trick question: But was that enough to qualify as praying without ceasing?”

Everyone pretty much in unison said No.

Blaise smiled and nodded. “And I agree. It would never be enough because if you miss one second somewhere, you have failed. And the abbot and other leaders knew that, of course, too. Don’t get me wrong; the disciplines were good for me, and they helped to heal my heart and orient my life around seeking God. But constant babbling in prayer is not what is required. What is required, and what we aim for, is to have our life so focused on pursuit of God that prayer is an active discipline but also a positioning of the heart. So, if I am trimming roses,” and with that he winked at Harper, “or if I am changing a tire or leading a Bible study, the passion of my life is God-oriented, ready at any time to do as He asks—listening, speaking, and groaning, if need be. These kinds of beliefs are the roots of the tree of our faith. We don’t bear fruit and become more holy by grunting and groaning and straining to produce a spiritual peach on our spiritual branch. The peach grows as a natural result of being in Christ, rooted and grounded. If we don’t get the foundation of roots right, then the tree will not be healthy enough to maintain communion and bear proper fruit. And that fruit . . . what it looks like, smells like, and tastes like? That is up to God. Our job is to stay rooted in Him.”

“That’s it!” Ava jumped to her feet. She surprised herself at how loudly she had interjected, but she obviously was excited.

“What is ‘it’, Ava?” Blaise was surprised but still pleased by her obvious enthusiastic outburst.

“Roots! That’s the name of our fellowship. Roots! We’re learning—and relearning and unlearning—truths that are foundational to our growth and health as a Christian body . . . and I think . . .” Inspiration had hit like a thunderbolt, but now Ava was feeling a bit exposed and embarrassed.

Harper came to her rescue. “I agree. I think that’s a great name.”

Max joined in, “Me, too!”

“Well, everyone, what do you think? Let’s take it to a vote.” There was no need to count hands. Everyone voiced their agreement, and so it was decided.

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