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Twenty-one

NICOLE WAS NAUSEOUS NEARLY EVERY DAY.

Not because of morning sickness. That had passed weeks ago. Now that she was almost halfway through her pregnancy, the sick feeling came from one thing: it was almost Christmas, and her dad still couldn’t feel anything in his legs or feet.

The moment she’d heard the news about his paralysis that terrible afternoon in the hospital waiting room, Nicole prayed. Since then she’d spent hours pleading with God, believing He would work a miracle in her father. She had no idea how it would come about, just that it would. It had to. Every time she prayed about something and had this feeling, things went the way they were supposed to.

But as the days passed, her prayers slowed and finally stopped. In the process she’d come to grips with something that turned her stomach.

Things didn’t always go the way they were supposed to.

If they did, she wouldn’t have gotten pregnant for another three years, her parents would never have argued, never considered divorce. More to the point, Christians wouldn’t lose loved ones to illnesses and accidents. They’d never suffer from depression or pain or money troubles.

They’d certainly never be paralyzed.

No, if things always went the way they were supposed to, they’d never have anything but blue skies until the day—as a very old person— they would lie down at night and wake up in the arms of Jesus.

But that wasn’t how it worked. And the truth of that left her with a sort of sick feeling about her faith, a feeling as new as marriage and loss and disappointment.

Maybe God intended to use her father’s injuries as a way to change the kids at Marion High School. Nicole didn’t like that option, but it was a possibility. She’d heard rumors from Kade—who still kept in touch with a few kids at Marion High. Talk around school was that since her dad’s accident attitudes had improved and kids were kinder than they’d been before. There was even talk of some sort of “Coach Reynolds town meeting,” though neither Nicole nor Kade had mentioned that to their father.

He had enough on his mind, what with learning to get around in a wheelchair and coming to grips with his injury.

If that’s why God had allowed her father’s injury, Nicole should have felt some sort of quiet peace, a sense that the Scripture in Romans was right, that all things really did work to the good for those who loved God.

But she didn’t feel that way at all.

She just felt nauseous.

Her doctor had warned her that constant anxiety wasn’t good for the baby. After that she’d made a promise to Matt and herself to spend more time reading Scripture and praying, trying to ease the stress.

But every time she tried to read a favorite verse or talk to God, she found herself thinking about the accident. Why had God allowed it? Couldn’t her father have left the office five minutes earlier? Seconds later? After all her parents had been through, after their hearts and souls had finally come back together? After Dad had been going to church with them again?

The questions Nicole had for God outweighed the things she wanted to pray about, so her anxiety remained. It wasn’t that she was angry at God, exactly. She just wasn’t sure she could trust Him. The truth about these feelings was something she didn’t share with anyone. Even herself.

Because the Nicole Reynolds she’d been until her dad’s accident would never have doubted God. That old Nicole had been more aware of God’s whispered voice, more reliant on Bible verses and prayer, than anyone in her family.

Only lately had Nicole finally understood the reason for her deep faith. It had nothing to do with believing she was better than the others, or somehow having a greater need than the others for God’s peace and presence. No, that wasn’t the reason at all.

The reason was Haley Ann.

Which was something else she hadn’t shared with anyone.

No one knew she remembered losing her little sister. She might have been not quite two years old, but there were scenes from that sad day that stayed with her still, written with the indelible ink of a little girl’s tears. Haley Ann had been sleeping in her crib, taking a nap, Nicole understood now. Most of the details were fuzzy, but Nicole could still close her eyes and see big men rushing into Haley Ann’s room, working over her, trying to get her to breathe.

Everyone assumed that because Nicole was young, she didn’t grieve back then. But Haley Ann was her sister! Her only sister. Nicole remembered one conversation she’d had with her mother about losing Haley Ann.

“She’s in heaven now, darling.” Her mother had been crying the way she did a lot back then. “But as long as you love God, you’ll always be only a whisper away from her. Understand?”

Nicole had understood better than Abby could have imagined. If loving God was the way to be closer to Haley Ann’s memory, she would do so with all her heart. And she had. Every month, every year . . . until now.

Now everything had changed, and the reason was obvious. She simply wasn’t sure she could trust God anymore. Not with her deepest prayers and concerns. After all, she had prayed for the safety of everyone in her family. The very morning of the accident in fact. But that night, there she was, in the hospital beside her mother, wondering what had gone wrong.

Wondering where God had been when they’d needed Him most.

The feelings she had about the entire matter only added to her anxiety. Even worse, Matt talked constantly about God’s will this and God’s best that and God’s miraculous hand in saving her dad’s life. He would find her at the most inopportune times—when she was working on a homework assignment or folding laundry or getting ready for school.

Two nights ago they’d had their first real fight over the issue. She’d been on the Internet looking for bargains on eBay.com when he came up behind her and massaged her shoulders. His tone was even gentler than his fingertips.

“Nicole, get off the computer.”

She gave him a quick glance over her shoulder. “Why?”

“Because you’re running.”

“From what?” Her attention was back on the computer screen and the list of items there.

Matt breathed out in a sudden burst. “From everything. From talking to me . . . from your dad’s situation . . . from your pregnancy.” He hesitated. “From God.”

Even now Nicole wasn’t sure why his comments made her so angry. Words began tumbling out of her mouth before she could stop them. “Who are you to tell me what I’m running from?” She spun the chair around and glared at him. “Just because I don’t want to delve into the deeper meaning on every topic doesn’t mean I’m running.”

“Praying with your husband isn’t exactly delving into the deeper meaning, Nicole.”

“Okay, fine. You want me to pray, I’ll pray. But don’t ask me to put my heart into it because I can’t. Right now I need a little time before I go calling on God.”

Matt had looked at her, clearly dumbfounded. “You don’t sound anything like the girl I married.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“I’m serious. You used to talk about God constantly. Now you’d rather pretend He doesn’t exist.”

“That isn’t it.” She huffed. “It’s just that there isn’t a lot left for me to ask Him. Let my dad’s legs be okay? Too late. Let us wait and have babies in a few years. Done deal. I’m not running, Matt. I guess I just don’t see the point in praying.”

Matt motioned to the computer. “And playing on eBay will help you work through that?”

“It’s better than wasting every moment praying when in the end God will do whatever He wants.”

Matt had stared at her for a long time after that. When he spoke, his voice was quieter than before. “As long as one of us still believes in prayer, I want you to know something.”

Nicole was silent, her cheeks burning.

“I’ll be praying for you, Nicole. That God will help you remember who you are.”

Since then his words had played in her head, easing their way across her heart. What was wrong with her anyway? She still believed in prayer, didn’t she? After a lifetime of seeing God’s answers, her life’s situations now couldn’t be enough to actually shake her faith, could they?

She slipped into a black stretch skirt and a white silk blouse. Her belly was protruding now, but not so much that she needed maternity clothes. She was grateful. It was Christmas Eve, and they were invited, along with Jo and Denny, to her parents for dinner. Matt’s parents were already downstairs with Matt, waiting for her.

Nicole grabbed a pair of black hose, and as she slipped them on, her eyes fell on a Scripture plaque near their bed. It was a verse from Hebrews, one that had always been a favorite of Matt’s.

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith . . .”

The pantyhose fell still in Nicole’s hands. Maybe that was her problem. She hadn’t had her eyes fixed on Jesus much. Not since her father’s accident. They’d been fixed on his injury, her pregnancy, and the sorrow and frustrations that went along with both.

But not on Jesus.

Wasn’t there another Bible verse about God being the author . . . of something? Nicole closed her eyes for a moment, and it came to her. The author of life. That was it. God was called the author of life. And if He was the author, it was His decision whether some characters would go through life unscathed or whether they’d fall victim to a car wreck.

The idea didn’t ease Nicole’s burden. And it certainly didn’t increase her desire to pray. If God was the author, then the book was already written. They could love God, and He could love them. But prayer wasn’t going to change anything. Not if the pages had already been written.

“Nicole, are you ready?” Matt’s voice carried up the stairs. They’d both apologized since the fight the other day, but nothing had been the same between them. Matt thought she’d changed, and she thought he’d become insensitive. It was one more thing to add to the list.

She stuck her head out the door. “In a minute.”

“Hurry.” He shot a look at the clock on the wall. “We’re already late.”

Nicole began working on her pantyhose again. “Merry Christmas to you, too.” She hissed the words quietly, so Matt wouldn’t hear her. As she did, she sat on the edge of the bed and raised one foot. She was pulling the hose up past her ankles when it happened.

Deep within her she felt a fluttering.

As though someone was tickling her from the inside. Nicole’s heartbeat quickened, and she stayed still. Was that what she thought it was? Nearly a minute passed and it happened again. It felt like the paws of a sleepy kitten, tapping at her from somewhere behind her lower abdomen.

When it happened a third time, Nicole knew. It wasn’t a kitten.

It was her baby. The baby she had never quite accepted, never quite been happy about. But now here this little child was, moving and stretching and becoming. The beautiful sunrise of vibrant joy exploded in Nicole’s heart. God was knitting a new life within her! How could she be anything but thrilled with that truth?

She hugged herself, wondering for the first time what the baby would be like. A boy or girl? Tall like Kade or bigger-boned like Matt? With her mother’s intensity or her father’s determination? Tears stung at her eyes, but she refused to cry. Whatever other problems she needed to work through, Nicole was suddenly ready to love this child within her.

And maybe one of these days she’d be ready to talk to God again, too.

The door burst open and Matt stared at her. “It’s been five minutes, Nic. What’re you doing?”

A single laugh bubbled up from Nicole’s throat. “The baby . . .”

Matt entered the room and took a few steps closer, his expression blank. “What about the baby?”

“I felt the baby move, Matt.” Another breathy chuckle slipped from her mouth. “Just a few little flutterings, but I’m sure that’s what it was.”

“Really?” The tension around Matt’s eyes eased. He moved onto the bed beside her and lay his hand on her tummy.

“You won’t be able to feel it.” She covered his hand with hers. “It was soft. I would’ve missed it if I hadn’t been sitting here.”

Matt’s eyes met hers. “You sound happy about it.”

Had her disappointment been that obvious? Nicole’s heart grieved at the thought. “Of course I’m happy.” She leaned over and kissed him.

For a moment he looked at her, his eyes full of questions. But just when she thought he was going to ask her about prayer and God and her attitude, he smiled. “Let’s get to your parents’ house and tell them.”

Nicole’s love for Matt swelled as it hadn’t in months. He wanted so badly to fix her, to make her feel and think and act the way she used to. But here, when he could have used this moment as a way of convincing her that God was working in her life, he’d been willing to wait. “Thanks, Matt. For not pushing it.”

“I love you, Nic. No matter what you feel or think or believe.” He reached for her hand. “When you’re ready to talk, I’m here.”

Abby was struggling.

It was Christmas Eve and the kids would be there in five minutes, but nothing felt right. She took one last look in the mirror and sucked in a steadying breath. John’s good days had outnumbered the bad this past week, and Abby thought she knew why. It had everything to do with seeing Jake Daniels. John’s time in court that day to talk with the boy, laugh with him, offer him hope, had done more for John than any amount of therapy so far.

If only it had helped her. She just couldn’t get past her anger, couldn’t seem to download it so it didn’t stay bottled up inside her, eating at the lining in her stomach.

Friends from church would call, but she’d tell them all the same thing: “We’re doing great . . . thanks for praying . . . John’s feeling better . . . getting used to the wheelchair.”

If only she had the courage to tell it like it was: “I’m furious . . . disappointed . . . heartbroken. And not sure I like the idea of spending the rest of my life watching John pine away in a wheelchair.”

She was supposed to be strong, determined, positive. That had always been her role, even when she and John had been facing a divorce. Now, it felt as though every person who called—whether they were a longtime friend or a student of John’s—was looking for her to encourage and uplift them.

Why did everyone in her world depend on her to have a good attitude about John’s injury? John . . . the kids . . . their family and friends . . . it was as though they’d all gotten together and decided, “Hey, if Abby’s okay, everything’s all right. We can breathe a sigh of relief and move on with life.”

Being positive, at peace, was the right thing to do. The expected thing. No one would know how to act if Abby wept every time someone asked her about John. Or if she threw her hands in the air and told the truth about how she was struggling inside.

She studied her reflection once more.

Whatever was brewing in the basement of her heart, she’d have to hide it a while longer. It was Christmas, after all. And the entire family would expect her to be full of good cheer and pleasant conversation. Of course, last year she’d silenced her feelings about the trouble in their marriage, and it had only made things worse . . .

But this was different. She had to keep quiet now or none of them would survive.

She held her breath as she made her way out of the bedroom. Holding her breath was one way to keep from crying. Let it go, Abby . . . don’t think about your own feelings. Think of something else . . . She blinked hard. Kade. That was it: she could think about Kade. At least things were going better with him. He had been meeting with a counselor from church ever since he’d been home on Christmas break. The other night Kade told Abby and John that he hadn’t looked at any pornography, Internet or otherwise, since his discussion with John that day on the lake. Kade’s counselor had asked Kade to study a couple who seemed to best illustrate true intimacy.

Kade had chosen Abby and John.

She reached the bottom of the stairs and could hear a chorus of voices in the next room. She turned the corner into the living room and was immediately greeted by Jo and Denny.

“Now, Abby, don’t you just look like a Christmas angel.” Jo took three giant steps and circled her arms around Abby in a quick hug. “I’m always telling Denny you look like an angel. You know . . . that blonde halo and all. But now I have to say I’ve never been more right about it.” She elbowed Denny. “Isn’t that right, Denny?”

The man had his hands in his pockets and he gave a shy nod. “She’s a pretty one; that’s for sure.”

“Thanks, guys. You look nice, too.” Abby smiled. Compliments were wonderful. Too bad they didn’t make her feel better. “Dinner’s ready in the kitchen. Let’s go find everyone else.”

The meal was cheery and upbeat. Cinnamon candles burned on either end of the table and Abby had cooked a turkey for the occasion. John sat at the head of the table—not because he’d always sat there in the past, but because it was the only spot that would accommodate his wheelchair. Abby tried not to think about it.

“You know, Dad—” Kade finished a bite of mashed potatoes— “one of the guys at school told me his football coach spent the last five years of his career in a wheelchair. A muscle disorder or something.”

Abby flashed a quick look at John, but he was nodding thoughtfully, his eyes on Kade. “I know. It wouldn’t be impossible.”

“So, you should do it.” Kade set his fork down and leaned his elbows on the table.

“If things were different, I might.”

Nicole wiped her mouth. “You mean the kids?”

“Yep. That and the parents.” John shook his head. “My injury hasn’t changed anything at school. Parents wanted my head, remember? I was about to be fired when the accident happened.”

“Aw, Dad.” Kade shook his head. “They never woulda fired you. You’re too good for that.”

“Doesn’t matter.” John took a long drink of water. “If the administration doesn’t support what you’re doing, it’s not worth the effort.”

“So you’re quitting?” Kade’s voice fell.

A sad smile lifted the corners of John’s mouth. “I’ll write the resignation letter sometime next month.”

“Well, all I can say is whoever’s at the top o’ the heap at that school needs their head examined.” Jo had finished her first plateful and was helping herself to more of everything. “Lettin’ you get away’d be like hooking the biggest steelhead that side of the Mississippi and cuttin’ it free before a single picture was snapped.” She looked around the table. “Know what I mean?”

Sean paused, his fork midbite. “What’s a steelhead?”

Even Abby laughed, though Jo launched into an explanation of the kinds of lakes where steelhead might be found and what sort of bait was best for catching them.

When they were finished eating, they exchanged gifts around the tree in the living room. One gift each on Christmas Eve. That was the family rule. And no sorting beneath the tree, either. First gift with your name on it was the one you opened.

Keeping with tradition, John was last. He chose a small package that happened to be from Jo and Denny. Wads of wrapping paper dotted the floor, and each of them sat beside a newly opened gift while they watched John open his.

At first, Abby couldn’t make out what it was. Then as John opened the wrapper, she could see it clearly. It was a pair of gloves. The fingerless kind worn by serious bicyclists.

Or men in wheelchairs.

John slipped them on his hands and fastened the Velcro straps around his wrists. “These are great, guys. Thanks.”

But even as he was thanking Matt’s parents, Abby saw tears gathering in Nicole’s eyes. Jo seemed to sense that somehow her gift was causing sadness around the previously happy circle. “See—” she waved her hands in the air—“Denny and I always think of John as active. Going here and there and making the rest of us look pretty lazy, if you know what I mean.” She laughed once, but it rang hollow across the room.

Denny tried to rescue her. “What Jo’s trying to say is that we figured John would be getting around more in the weeks to come. Maybe taking the chair around the track at school . . . something like that.”

“Right, and the gloves . . . well, it’s obvious what they’re for. Otherwise John’s hands would get plum tore up. All callused and blistered and banged up.” She looked at Abby. “And we can’t have that. Not on a man as nice-looking as John Reynolds, right, Abby?”

It was happening again. Everyone was looking to her to save the moment, to speak something encouraging and upbeat that would give the rest of them permission to cheer up. But this time she wasn’t sure what to say. It wasn’t Jo’s fault. She and Denny had meant well with the gloves. One day very soon they’d probably come in handy.

But right now—with Christmas knocking on the door—Abby didn’t want a reminder of John’s handicap. She wanted packages of sweaters and scarves and cologne. Favorite books and CDs and candy.

Not gloves that would make it more comfortable to get around in a wheelchair.

When she couldn’t think of anything to say, Nicole spoke up. “Jo, they’re perfect.” She sniffed and wiped at a tear. “I think we’re all a little sad that Daddy needs them. But still . . . they were very thoughtful.”

“Definitely.” John held up his hands, admiring them.

“Well, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.” Jo’s chin dropped a bit. “Just wanted to keep his hands nice.”

Sean stood and moved next to John. “They’re cool, Dad. Can I wear them when I ride my bike?”

The group laughed and the tension dissipated as quickly as it had built. Abby exhaled softly. She was grateful. Her bank account of ways to look at John’s situation in a positive light was running frightfully low.

And come spring, when John should be out on the football field running laps with his players, she was pretty sure she wouldn’t have anything positive left to say at all.

Even if everyone she knew was counting on her.

John was the only one awake. He was staring out the front window thinking of Christmases past, when he heard a sound.

“Dad?” It was Sean. The boy’s quiet footsteps approached from behind.

John turned and found his son’s eyes in the dark. “I thought you were sleeping.” He held an arm out, and Sean came to him.

“I can’t.”

Only then did John realize his younger son was crying. “Hey, buddy, what’s wrong? You’re not supposed to cry on Christmas Eve.”

“I . . . I feel like everything’s a mess.”

John’s heart broke for the boy. How little time they’d spent together since the accident . . . yet certainly the changes in their lives were affecting him, too. Obviously more than John had realized. “You mean because of my legs?”

Sean hung his head, his lips pursed. Even in the shadowy moonlight John could see anger in the young boy’s eyes. “It isn’t fair, Dad!”

John waited. Sean had always needed more time than their other children to share his feelings. Whatever torment the boy had gone through since the accident, John was grateful he was finally sharing his heart. “I’m listening.”

“I know I shouldn’t be thinking about myself.” He shrugged and wiped at his eyes. “You’re the one hurt. But still . . .”

“Still what?”

Sean lifted his eyes and met John’s straight on. “What about my dreams, Dad? Have you thought about that?”

John wasn’t sure what his son meant. “Your dreams?”

“Yeah.” The boy crossed his arms, and it looked like he was barely containing the struggle within. “You coached Kade until he was a senior, but what about me? I’ll be at Marion High in two years, remember? How can I play football for someone else?”

Realization washed over John’s soul. Of course . . . why hadn’t he thought about this before? In his busyness with rehabilitation and coming to grips with his altered life, John hadn’t thought once about how his injury might affect Sean. They’d always talked about how John would coach Sean, too, the same way he’d coached Kade. But John hadn’t known until now how much the boy had counted on the arrangement. Sean was only in sixth grade. To John, his younger son’s football days seemed light-years away.

But to an eleven-year-old boy . . . they were right around the corner.

“Sean—” John tightened his hand around Sean’s waist and hugged him closer—“I’m so sorry, buddy.”

Looking more like a child than he had in years, Sean hung his head and wept. They were tears John understood, tears of sorrow and frustration and guilt at what he obviously thought were selfish feelings. This time when he looked up, his eyes pleaded with John. “Didn’t you hear Kade tonight? You can coach in a wheelchair, Dad. There’s no rule against it or anything.”

John gave the boy a sad smile. The situation was so much more complicated than that. But right now his son didn’t need to hear a list of specifics and details. He needed a reason to believe things were going to be okay, that life would somehow, someway be good again even if he had to let go of this boyhood dream of his. Give me something to say, God . . . something that’ll restore the peace in his heart . . .

Then it hit him. He cleared his throat. “I’ll always be your coach, Sean. Whether I’m out there on the field or not.”

Something changed in his son’s expression. The anger and sadness wasn’t gone exactly, but his gaze held the beginning of hope. “Really?”

“Of course. We’ll work out together . . . learn plays together.” John felt his enthusiasm building. It was true. He might hang up his Marion High whistle, but he’d never stop coaching his boys. Especially Sean, who had so many years of football ahead. “I’ll teach you everything I taught Kade.”

Sean stood a little straighter. The worry lines across his forehead relaxed some. “Even in a wheelchair?”

“Even in a wheelchair.”

For a moment neither of them said anything, then Sean put his hand on John’s shoulder and sucked in a quick breath. “Can I tell you something, Dad?”

John reached up and tousled the boy’s sandy blond hair. “Anything.”

“I’m so glad you didn’t die.”

Tears stung at John’s eyes. Again he was struck by how little he and Sean had talked lately. They needed this . . . this and many more times like it. He grinned. “Me, too, buddy.”

Sean leaned down and hugged him, and they held each other for a long while. Finally Sean stood up and yawned. “Well . . . I guess I’ll go back to bed.”

“Yeah . . . don’t wanna catch Santa Claus sneaking around the living room.”

The boy’s giggle was like an infusion in John’s soul. Thank You, God . . . thank You for this time with my son.

“G’night, Dad. I love you.”

“Love you, too. See you in the morning.”

Sean left, and for a long while John sat there, pondering their conversation. Sean would be a joy to coach, as quick and easy to teach as Kade had been. And John would most certainly make good on his promise, working with the boy whenever they had a chance. Not just because Sean had always wanted to learn from him, but because he finally understood.

Even though he was about to resign from coaching the Eagles, as long as he had Sean, he would still be a coach.

And that, all by itself, was the greatest Christmas present anyone could have given him.



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