Chapter OneThe pulsing siren of a French police car shattered my ability to reason. Pure instinct took over. I had to get away.
With a sharp crank of my steering wheel, I reversed into a spin, nearly impaling a bus with my Mini Cooper. Gears ground as I tore away down the narrow streets of Paris.
My tires skidded on the cobblestones. Two motorcycles appeared in my rearview mirror, joining the chase. Ever since I'd woken, half drowned, on a fishing trawler, I'd been fighting to regain my memory. If they caught me now, I'd never find the clues I needed. Never find answers to the questions that tortured me. Why did I have a dozen passports? Why did I know how to fight off armed opponents? When did I learn to drive like this?
I rocketed around a corner. My car lifted onto two wheels as I dodged down an alley and burst out onto a busy street. Ahead, traffic bottled up my escape route. My pursuers were right on my tail.
Without thinking, I cranked the wheel and bounced onto the sidewalk. Tourists and Parisians jumped out of the way. Lampposts blurred past. The edge of a perfumery sign scraped along the side of the car. I nicked a phone booth door. An explosion of glass showered my car.
I'd lost the first police car, but others had joined the chase. Time for a surprise.
There. An opening appeared up ahead. I cut left across traffic and through a small park, aiming for a walkway. A narrow stairway led down toward the Seine.
Adrenaline surged through me and I shot over the edge. My car lurched and bounced, as out of control as my life. The shocks rattled with each step. So did my bones. I reached the bottom with a scrape of the chassis and took off again. Burning oil stung my nose. The Mini couldn't hold together much longer.
More sirens sounded a condemning blare behind me. Up ahead, a vendor pushed his cart into my path. A flower cart.
Vibrant blue bouquets filled my vision. Forget-me-nots. What irony.
I slammed on the brakes.
Dust swirled as the minivan skidded to a sudden stop. "Mommy!" Kelsey screamed from the backseat.
My fingers loosened their death grip on the wheel. "Sorry, honey. There was a squirrel."
The furry beast scampered away, oblivious.
I waited for the adrenaline rush to calm and eased the car forward, steering around construction materials and earth-moving machinery. The whole congregation was excited about the building project, but navigating in and out of the complex was a hazard. Especially when daredevil squirrels launched sneak attacks.
A long line of cars inched into place, waiting their turn to make the dash onto Bailey Avenue. Faith Community Church's school program had mushroomed, and dozens of parents clogged the driveway when morning kindergarten and day care let out each day. Located in an expanding suburb of Minneapolis, the church struggled to keep up with rapid growth.
My toes hovered impatiently over the gas pedal. "So how was school?"
Kelsey drew a deep breath, but I waved my hand in the air. "Wait. Let Micah go first."
Kelsey blew out steam like a tiny blond teakettle. "Micah doesn't have anything to tell. All they do is play." The elder stateswoman of kindergarten sneered in her brother's direction, daring him to contradict.
I adjusted my rearview mirror so I could see directly behind me. My youngest bounced his chubby legs and beamed. Cheetos-orange stains circled his lips, and Kool-Aid streaks flecked his sweat shirt. "Me did songs." He launched into a muddled version of a praise chorus, punctuating each line with a kick to the back of my seat.
When he stopped for breath, Kelsey cut in. "I learned that one when I was a baby."
His face wadded up like a gum wrapper. "Not a baby."
A few cars pulled out, but Dolores Krause's maroon wagon sat unmoving in front of us. I tapped the horn, and she closed the gap between the SUV in front of her. I smiled through the mirror at Micah. "Of course not. You're a big schoolboy now." Micah loved believing that his morning day care was on par with Kelsey's kindergarten.
Kelsey fluffed her curls with one hand. "He's only two and a half."
"And you're five, and Dylan is nine. And Mommy and Daddy are thirty-three. We're all the age God made us to be." There. I'd held off a conflagration and slipped in a teachable moment all at the same time. I nosed our blue Windstar up to the intersection. When a brief gap in traffic appeared, I gunned the engine and barreled out. "So what did you learn today, Kels?"
"Blue and yellow make green."
"I like gween," Micah said, his dark lashes swooping adoringly in his sister's direction.
She ignored the interruption. "Lots of words start with T but you don't always say T-T-T. Sometimes you say Thhh." She sprayed the sound. Micah giggled and chimed in. I tuned them out as they experimented with all the spittle-producing consonants they could create.
The left lane was moving faster and I cut over. I needed to get the Fall Retreat Guide to the printers and then get the kids home for lunch. The car in front of me slowed and then flicked on a left turn signal as an afterthought. Thanks for bothering to warn me, bud.
I huffed and cranked the wheel to the right as soon as I saw an opening. We blazed toward the next intersection. The light switched to yellow and I braked hard. I could have made it through, but ever since my car accident a couple years ago, I'd been nervous at busy cross streets. Impatience and caution squabbled inside me when I drove-like the other conflicts I lived with constantly.
I was a full-time mom. And I loved it. Except when it drove me crazy. My children were magnificent, bewildering creations gifted to me from the Almighty. Except when they were tormenting me like gleeful gargoyles wielding red-hot pokers.
"We're not having that for supper again, are we?"
"Mommy, she broke my Lego house."
"He stole the red piece. Tell him to give me back the red piece."
"Mom, I'm supposed to bring cookies today. Can you drive for the field trip?"
"Mommy, Micah put the gerbil in the toilet. Do something!"
I glanced into the backseat. At least when we were buzzing from place to place, they were buckled in and I could keep track of them. We turned into the strip mall, and I squeezed into a parking place near the print shop.
I shoved the car door open and reached across the seat for my cane. The kids had plastered it with stickers. Strawberry Shortcake, Snoopy, and rainbows overlapped their way up from the rubber-tipped foot to the coated-aluminum handle. Kelsey unlatched her buckle and helped Micah from his car seat.
My friend Lori often reminded me that having a mom with a disability would help my children learn independence and compassion. A comforting thought. I had added the notion to my mental jelly jar of encouraging words for the days when the pain and nuisance of my damaged leg overrode my ability to keep smiling. But I still hated moving like a senior citizen when I was in my early thirties. Some days I reminded God that He could have stopped the semi that had skidded through the intersection, totaling our car as well as my left knee and hip. Months of physical therapy had helped, but the last year there'd been no further improvement. The pain fluctuated-some days were better than others-but the total healing I'd prayed for hadn't come.
Today was better than most. Dry, late-September air stirred leaves into rowdy square dances in the corner of the parking lot. No storms moving in. No change in air pressure. The ache in my hip and knee was tolerable. "Micah, hold your sister's hand." I hefted my bag to my shoulder and hobbled up the sidewalk with the children skipping beside me.
Kelsey and Micah aimed for the candy dish on the service counter. A white-haired man in a mint green polo shirt popped up his head from behind a copy machine.
I rummaged in my bag for my program folder. "I need two hundred copies of this booklet, spiral-bound with a laminated cover. I'll pick them up on Friday."
He scribbled on an order sheet and nodded. Kelsey and Micah glanced around the shop, tempted by the buttons on the self-serve copiers. But they stayed close. Our rule was they always had to be able to touch the cane by the time I counted to three-one of my creative solutions, now that I couldn't chase them through grocery stores and malls at a full sprint.
The elderly clerk smiled at Kelsey. "Where do you get your pretty blond curls? Must be your daddy."
I handed him the church credit card and sighed at his implication. Kels didn't get her looks from me. My coarse brown layers refused to hold a curl.
"Nah." Kelsey pirouetted. "Daddy's hair is chocolate chip." She had a new set of sixty-four crayons and was precise about variations in shade. "I got my hair from Aunt JuJu."
"My sister is a blonde," I explained, signing the receipt. Blond, stylish, flawless. Judy had encouraged me to adopt a more professional look now that I was working. My blue sweater set over straight-leg khakis might not be a power suit, but it was a big step up from the mommy-sweats I used to wear. Of course, Judy would have added the perfect scarf and a sleek leather attache case.
The only adornment around my throat was the macaroni and hot-pink yarn necklace that Micah had made in day care that morning. My tote had once served as Micah's diaper bag. Quilted fabric with teddy bears did a poor job of imitating a briefcase.
I never could get the hang of accessorizing. Those extra details were not for moms of three young children. I was lucky to run a comb through my hair and brush my teeth before hurrying out the door each morning.
My cell phone chittered from deep inside my bag. I reached for it, nodded good-bye to the clerk, and steered my kids toward the door. We paused on the sidewalk. "Hello, this is Becky."
"Oh, I'm glad I caught you." Teresa Vogt's ramped-up voice buzzed through the phone. "I've got a bunch of ladies from the decorating committee here, and they can't find the things-" Garbled voices in the background interrupted her. "Okay, I'll tell her. They need the silk-leaf runners and can't find the candles."
"They're in the closet by the kitchen."
"Um. Yeah. They said they already checked there. Look, can you swing by for a few minutes to sort this out?" Her good-natured energy sounded a bit frayed around the edges. Teresa was terrific in her role as Adult Ministries Director. She was a visionary. But I knew she had little patience for details like votives or floral arrangements.
Her recommendation had led to my job at Faith, and I remained grateful to her, even when she roped me into more work than I could manage. "Okay. I'll be right there."
Kelsey's shoulders slumped. "But, Mom, I'm hungry."
"Me too." Micah sent a woeful gaze my direction.
Kelsey shoved him. "Stop copying me."
"Kids, get in the car." My whipcrack command headed off their whines.
As I leaned awkwardly to adjust Micah's buckle, compunction caught up to me. I'd been snapping at the kids far too often. We seemed to rush everywhere these days. Hurry through breakfast, fight traffic to drop kids at school and day care, scramble through the pile of work on my desk in the church office, race home with Kelsey and Micah for a few hours before returning to pick up Dylan from fourth grade. I was supposed to be on staff part-time, but directing our church's women's ministry didn't fit into three-and-a-half hours a day and a few nights each week. As the program had grown, my stress level seemed to simmer on a constant low boil. I didn't want to take it out on my children.
"Tell you what. After we take care of the problem at church, we'll stop at Burger King, okay?"
Both faces beamed at me. I was hero mom again. So what if it was just cupboard love?
I pulled out of the parking lot and headed back to church. A quick stop to help the committee find what they needed-then we'd grab some burgers to bring home. I'd turn off my phone and spend some quality time with the kids-reading I'll Love You Forever and playing Candy Land-and make a nutritious supper to compensate for the junk-food lunch.
When I headed through the church doors, I was swept into a chaotic chase scene. Questions and needs darted around me. The church secretary chirped a reminder that she needed my article for the October newsletter and warned me that my voice mails were piling up. I steered the decorating committee in the right direction but then found a young mom sniffling in my office, crumpled tissues around her. "Oh, Becky, I'm so glad you're in this afternoon. I really need to talk to someone."
Kelsey and Micah studied me with knowing eyes, watching their hoped-for cheeseburgers disappear. One of the women on the retreat committee offered to take them downstairs and scrounge the church kitchen for a sandwich.
I gave my children approving smiles when they trotted away without complaining. They were so adaptable. When they disappeared down the hall, my thoughts steered rapidly into an alley of remorse. I tried to zig past the guilt kiosk but couldn't avoid it completely. I had crashed into my children's hopes, sending their trust tumbling. Again.
There wasn't time to stop and fix it. Problems pursued me-right on my tail. I kept trying to find an open road so I could aim us toward home, but by the time I'd counseled the weepy young mom, handed in my article for the newsletter, and returned the most urgent phone calls, it was almost three o'clock-time to pick up Dylan from his fourth-grade classroom in the education wing.
I loaded all three kids in the car. Pressure behind my eyes throbbed in rhythm with my pulse. As we pulled out into traffic, I dreamed of turning left instead of right, of driving away from town and out into the country. Off into the sunset. Away from the insistent responsibilities.
Some folks might crumble under the pressure. Not me. I was Becky Miller. I could build a women's ministry program, raise my children, keep an orderly house, get delicious suppers on the table, and be a caring wife to Kevin.
My cell phone rang. When I flipped it open, Kevin's hearty greeting buzzed in my ear, as if my thoughts had conjured him. "Hey, hon, I found it."
"I didn't know you lost it."
An impatient sigh answered me. "The house."
Now it was my turn to sigh. "Not another one. It's been a rough day."
"I'm telling you, this is the one. Come on. It'll only take a few minutes to look at it after supper."
Where did he get his energy? For months, he'd been dragging me around to explore "dream homes." We were outgrowing our tiny rambler, but I was weary of the hunt and skeptical we'd ever find anything we could afford.
"Can we make a deal? Wait-Dylan, stop poking your sister. Okay, I'm back. If this one doesn't work out, can we take a break from house hunting?"
"Oops, the signal's breaking up. See you soon. Bye."
My car lurched through a pothole, and I eased off the gas pedal. The light ahead turned red. I coasted to a stop and rubbed my temples. Worry blossomed along with the building headache. Kevin and I had often been at cross-purposes in recent months.
We'd taken the suggestion of various marriage books and started having a regular Saturday "date night." We couldn't afford a baby-sitter, so we usually rented a movie and snuggled on the couch after the kids went to bed. At least it gave us a few hours to escape each week. No matter how bad my life felt, the characters in the movies had worse problems, and I drew encouragement from how every woe could be resolved by the last scene.
Unfortunately, we had trouble agreeing on which movies to rent. Kevin loved any epic or spy film. I voted for chick flicks or old classics. Even our movie selections became a power struggle.
All marriages go through rough patches. We're just busy right now.
The light turned green, and I gunned the engine and hurried toward home, fighting to ignore the anxiety grinding like an overheated engine.
"So, Mom," Dylan said from the backseat. "What's for supper?"
I took a deep breath. "Leftovers. And we'll need to eat fast. Dad wants us to see another house tonight." I wove through the streets, wondering why I felt something chasing me the whole way home.