Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Author's Note: This is a Christian story written for Christians and others alike. It is a complete novel, requiring only minor editing. I make no apologies for the content as it is one that was inspired by God. I wrote this story during a very dark time in my family's life, and it is something that I hold dear to me. My prayer is that, as you read this story, you will be touched by God and encouraged, strengthened, or otherwise blessed. Thank you for reading, and let me know if you like it. ~lg
Signs on the hospital doors announced that they were temporarily out of service and must be opened manually. I didn't care. I would have climbed through them even if they'd been broken shards of glass. My sister had called. That blinded me to the broken doors, the twelve-hour drive from San Diego, and the road-weariness that slowed my steps.
Inside the hospital, an elderly woman with gorgeous white curls and a pink-and-white apron smiled from the circular information desk. "Can I help you, dear?"
"Uhhh . . . " I blinked, trying to remember how to form words. Finally, they came to me. "Intensive Care?"
The lady's smile turned sympathetic. "Right down that hall is a nurse's station. They can take you there."
I still can't remember if I thanked her. I power-walked across large marble tiles and through patches of sunlight. The majestic Sacramento Mountains, seen out floor-to-ceiling windows, might as well have been anthills. Once at the nurse's station, I identified myself and asked to be taken to my sister. For a moment, I thought they would ask me to show three forms of ID, but I eventually stood outside the ICU room.
A curtain shielded the bed, but I could still see Sonja's face. Angry, betrayed brown eyes, so like our mother's eyes, had watched as I'd packed my bags. Her shoulder-length, honey-gold hair had flared as she'd marched from my motel room. Even her massive wedding set had winked indignantly at me. That was the last time I'd seen her.
What would I see now? The vague call sent me screaming across the country. A nurse had identified herself as Naomi and proceeded to freeze my well-ordered world. My sister had been in a severe car accident. And she had asked for me. That was all I needed to test the limits of my Toyota Highlander. The whole way to this runt of a city in southern New Mexico, I alternated between praying for Sonja and praying that I didn't pass a cop.
"Excuse me?" A soft voice broke into my thoughts, and I turned to look into the eyes of a buxom Hispanic woman. "Are you Sofia Krylov?"
I looked back at the door. "How is she? Really?"
Naomi's shoulders lifted in an expressive shrug. "Time will tell. Her Neon was broadsided by a speeding Silverado. Since she wasn't belted in, they're saying it's a miracle she even survived."
I cringed. Scenes like the one she described were bloody and sickening. I knew. I'd seen plenty of them. "What is her prognosis?"
"She'll have months of therapy for the reconstructed leg." Naomi paused when I winced. "A rib punctured her lung, which is why she's on a ventilator right now. If she improves, we'll move her to Critical Care later this week."
I stood still for a moment. For all of her apparent helpfulness, this nurse withheld something. "What aren't you telling me?"
"The doctors are concerned about her immune system."
"Her immune system?" My voice rose a few notches, mirroring my confusion.
"Your sister was recovering from pneumonia." Naomi shrugged again. "Infection is a risk."
"Thanks." I ignored her as she walked back to her station. She seemed so complacent about it, but infection was a big thing. A huge thing! At this point, it could mean my sister's life.
Breathing a prayer for strength, I stepped through the door and around the curtain. Sonja looked awful. Her face appeared as if the windshield had shattered all over her. Which it probably had. Surgery and bandaging inflated her right leg to twice its normal size. The respirator hissed, and medical equipment beeped in time with her heartbeat. I focused on Sonja's face, trying to see through the blur of tears. What a way to be reunited.
As if sensing my presence, she opened her eyes a fraction of an inch. She couldn't speak due to the respirator tube, but I still read the expression in her eyes. You came.
I smiled, not about to let my tears get the best of me. "I came. And you're going to come out of this."
Sonja smiled around the tube and fought to stay awake. I finally found a chair and pulled it close. "I'll be here."
As my sister drifted into a drug-induced sleep, I sat and held her hand. What was I going to do? Sonja obviously needed me, and I refused to go back to San Diego until she fully recovered. But that would take months. I sighed as the crazy drive from southern California hit me in the gut. There was still so much to think about, but my exhaustion wouldn't let me plan anything. I barely managed to write a note about finding a newspaper before I fell asleep.
This was not how I'd planned to spend the last Wednesday in January.
By the following afternoon, I'd obtained a local paper. Since Sonja slept off surgery, I found a motel and crashed for several hours. Crashed hard, too. After getting some sleep, I sat in her hospital room, trying to wait patiently for my sister to wake up. Sometime during the night, she'd been pulled off the respirator and now slept peacefully. The rattle of my newspaper probably interrupted her peace.
The difference between San Diego and Alamogordo gave me a sense of culture shock. I read about car accidents and crime scenes while at home. It always interested me to see how accurate the reporter had been since I'd seen many of those scenes. Not so, here in southern New Mexico. Here, the biggest story would have left the newsroom back home in tears . . . of laughter. Apparently, a housewife left a chicken boiling while she visited her mother. The bird caught fire and filled the mobile home with smoke. The housewife remained oblivious until her husband found her. Personally, my sympathies went to the family cat who got trapped in a closet and suffered smoke inhalation.
Sonja stirred. "Hey." She whispered, but I didn't mind. At least she was talking.
"Hey." I laid aside the paper after marking an ad for a house. But what should I say? It's not like I'd spent a lot of time around my sister in the last six years. So much had changed. She'd gone through bankruptcy and divorce, and I had grown up quite a bit.
Sonja swallowed carefully. "Sofi, we need to talk."
I froze. I hadn't heard my childhood name in years. "Sonja, we can talk later."
"No, now." In spite of her whisper, she sounded urgent. "You need to know what I want. Just in case."
Panic rose inside. No way on this green earth was I going to lose my sister. My voice shook with conviction. "You're coming out of this."
"Sofia, please." She sighed with a kind of impatience.
I reached for my purse and pulled out a tablet. "You're still going to make it."
Over the next half-hour, I tried not to cry as Sonja outlined her wishes. Things like resuscitation and funeral services came from her mouth like she'd planned for a long time. That concerned me. Had my sister become so depressed that she'd thought about committing suicide? As morbid as it sounds, I think about these things. When that horrible thirty minutes ended, I stuffed the notebook back into my purse, determined not to use it for years to come.
Sonja finally drifted to sleep, and I crept from the room as hunger struck. Breakfast had been a trip to McDonald's on my way to the hospital. The cafeteria served a decent dinner of chicken tenders and fries, and I munched as I considered the ad in the paper. Three bedrooms, three bathrooms, great view of the mountains, affordable price. Sounded like my kind of deal.
While I ruminated on the ad, I called a well-reputed realtor and asked about homes in the area. He assured me that plenty of homes were available in my price range. Since I didn't really know my schedule, I arranged to see several the next day. Finally, as an afterthought, I called the number in the paper.
The man that answered sounded as if I'd woken him. He seemed to come alive–slightly–when I stated my intentions. Throughout our entire conversation–during which he gave me detailed directions to some dirt road in the middle of nowhere–his voice never lost the early-morning growl. Feeling rather guilty for waking him, I set up an appointment for the following day. After I ended the call, I dumped my plate and headed back to Sonja's room. She may not have wanted to be optimistic, but I refused to focus on the negative. She was coming home.
I had forgotten about New Mexico distances. In San Diego, I could drive the same distance to work and not think about it because traffic kept me so occupied. Now, I kept expecting to see the driveway for this house. But I only saw was scruffy mesquite bushes sticking out of dry, cracked earth.
Finally, I found what looked like the right road. A group of evergreen trees, artificially transplanted and lined up in a neat row, hid the house from view. Slowly, like an artist unveiling a masterpiece, the house appeared.
For a moment, I forgot how to drive. The house looked to be a barn with an attached silo that had been renovated. More likely built that way. Judging by the arch of the roof, this house was at least two stories tall and possibly had an attic. I almost turned around and went back to the hospital. I couldn't possibly afford a house like this. But I had made an agreement with the owner to meet him here.
A black Ford F150 sat in the small driveway, and a man leaned against the door. His arms and legs were crossed, and he appeared rather comfortable. On second thought, he looked like he'd been waiting for a long time. I glanced at the dashboard clock and groaned. I was nearly twenty minutes late. He glanced up at me, his eyes squinted in the bright New Mexico sun, and I didn't see any anger in his features.
I studied him as I parked. He had thick dark hair that would have fallen to his chin except for the curls that flipped outward at the end. He kept shaking his head to clear his face from the strands of hair that the wind teased. His broad face relaxed when he saw me, and he pushed away from the truck door as I turned off my Toyota. Just like I'd done when I'd seen his house, I stared. He dressed in the trendy style of the area: a V-necked navy blue jersey with white stitching at the seams and cuffs, relaxed-fit blue jeans–slightly faded–and black hiking boots. A five o'clock shadow covered his lower jaw. No. It actually looked like he hadn't shaved in a day or two. With a guy that hot waiting for me, why did I run late? Oh, yeah. My sister. Good reason.
I started talking as soon as my own booted feet hit the ground. "I'm so sorry I'm late!"
He shrugged, shoving his hands into his pockets as he ambled over to me. "I was worried that you'd gotten lost." His voice enveloped me for a moment. A rich baritone rumbled from his chest but had a gravelly edge that hinted at wilder days. I wanted to ask him to read a book–any book–just to hear him talk.
"No, I wasn't lost." I reached back into my SUV for my leather coat to guard against the New Mexico chill. "My sister was in a severe accident several days ago. They moved her from Intensive Care to Critical Care."
"I'm glad she's improving." He glanced at the house. "So, you're looking for a place to live while she recovers?"
"Yes." As if that wasn't obvious. Instead of commenting, I stuck out my hand. "Sofia Krylov."
"Todd Ashcroft." He shook my hand with a firm handshake of his own. As he did so, I noticed his eyes. Brown with little flecks of gold. And he looked like he hadn't slept at all the night before.
He turned suddenly, motioning toward the house with a grace I envied. "It's fully furnished, but you'd have to pay your own utilities save water. There's a well at the back of the property."
What was I supposed to do with a well? It's not like I would make multiple trips out there just to get water. Besides, it probably had one of those fancy pumps that would give me nightmares to fix. Instead of backing out of this deal, like I should have, I nodded gamely. "Let's take a look."
Todd pulled a key from his pocket and led the way to the door. I spent the short walk wondering if I was crazy and checking out the owner. My conscience smote me, and I whispered a quick prayer of repentance for my . . . um . . . improper thoughts. Think landlord, Sofi, I reminded myself. Right. No landlord ever looked that good. Todd unlocked the door and stood back to let me enter, oblivious to my thoughts. As I passed him, I noticed the strain on his features. This house obviously held some pretty dark secrets.
The interior smelled of dust and age. I found myself in a wide corridor of hardwood floors and dim ceilings. Through an archway on the left, a huge living room sprawled in front of picture windows covered by thick, light-blocking drapes. I vaguely noticed that my host had not followed me. Transfixed, I moved deeper into the room, seeing the shrouded shapes of furniture appear in the gloom, and silently wished for the mini-Maglite in my car. At least I'd be able to see what I'd be missing. The study across the hall boasted similar drapes over identical windows. Further down the hall, a staircase to the right led upstairs while a kitchen with a round dining nook opened on the left. A small bathroom had been sandwiched between the staircase and a utility room–complete with washer and dryer.
Upstairs, I walked through two very large bedrooms with plush carpet and even better beds. A large guest bathroom sat between them. At the end of the hall, an octagonal room with windows looked north and east. I stared for several moments, captured by the distant form of Sierra Blanca. The mountain stood toward the end of the nearby Sacramento Mountains, seemingly separate from them and a part of them all at the same time.
The master bathroom convinced me to rent the house. The attached bedroom had a king-sized bed that sat directly across from a draped, east-facing picture window. That actually drew me as a morning person. But, this bathroom! An actual ball-and-claw foot bathtub had been positioned next to a wide, glassed-in shower. I wondered wryly how the previous owners had managed to get the tub up the stairs, but I really didn't care. Between my savings account and some creative math, I would find a way to afford this house.
With this decided, I clamored down the stairs to find Todd still waiting rather stiffly beside the front door. "So, what are you asking?"
"Seven-fifty per month." His tone was tight, as if he hated being here.
My mouth fell open. "Seven-hundred-and-fifty!" When he nodded, I blinked. "That's it? You could get twice that per month! Easy!"
"Don't need it." He glanced away as if embarrassed. "Besides, I'm already asking more than a lot of people in this area can afford."
"True." Something in his voice bugged me. He was hiding something. That alone made me slightly mistrust him as a person, but I really liked the house. "So, what are you asking for a security deposit?"
"Seven-fifty plus the first month's rent."
It was reasonable since he'd have to get the well's pump up and running. I did some quick calculations in my head. Not that I couldn't have written a fifteen-hundred-dollar check right there. But I wanted to have some money available for other needs. Plus, I needed to contact a realtor in San Diego about renting my house there. Finally, I sighed. "I don't have the full amount. I can give you a thousand today and have the other five hundred in a week."
Todd smiled suddenly, revealing rather charming dimples and leaving me feeling sucker-punched. "Deal. Let me get the contract from my truck."
While I waited, I wondered about my new landlord. Why did he hate this house? Perhaps he grew up here. I really didn't care until I had a horrifying thought. Sonja wouldn't be able to climb the stairs. I nearly cried but quickly figured out a way around that. When Todd came back inside, I waited in the kitchen.
After I signed the contract, I met his eyes. "My sister is going to be in physical therapy for some time and unable to climb the stairs. Do you know anyone who can help me move a bed downstairs?"
"Sure." He glanced at me as he added his signature to the contract, and I vaguely noted that he was left-handed. "I can bring someone next week."
"Thanks." I shook his hand and walked him to the door. "Oh, one more thing. Is there an Apostolic church in the area?"
Todd stiffened so fast that the paper in his hand rattled, and I had the instinctive urge to duck. His jaw clenched for a fraction of a second. I almost rescinded the question, but he nodded first. "Yeah, there is."
Before I could thank him for his hasty directions, he was out the door and in his truck. I watched the F150 disappear down the dirt road with understanding in my heart. His reaction mimicked my reaction six-and-a-half years ago when anyone invited me to church. I recognized anger and confusion when I saw it. As I slowly turned to uncover furniture and open draperies, I began to pray. I prayed for wisdom. I prayed for sensitivity. Most of all, I prayed for an opportunity to discover why Todd reacted as he had.