The Women of Valley View: Callie
Callie Stillman dabbed raindrops from her face with a linen napkin as Benton dodged a server with a loaded tray and took his place across from her. She smiled into her husband’s blue eyes and reached across to wipe water from his beard. “We’ll both have pneumonia if we don’t dry off soon.”
Benton took the napkin and finished the job. He sent a wink across the table. “I’ve been told the food is very good. A few sniffles should be worth it.”
Callie’s gaze roamed the room. “The décor is lovely. It’s…” Recognition slammed into her chest, forcing the air from her lungs. The man crossing the room behind her husband nodded and continued to his table. Was that the bailiff? Do you swear to tell the truth… She gulped for breath and fought the familiar darkness that crowded the edges of her vision.
Callie ran a finger around her collar, tugging the neck of the blouse away from skin suddenly dewed with a fine film of sweat. Too hot. She took a sip of water, dismayed at the tremor in her hand as she lifted the glass to her lips. I won’t give in to this. Not here, not tonight. Callie closed her eyes and practiced the breathing techniques she’d learned over the last six months. In through her nose, hold for a few seconds, and out through her mouth. Concentrate only on the current step in the process, the next breath. The tightness in her chest began to fade. Thank you, Jesus. She raised her water again and held the cold glass to her flushed cheek.
Callie met Benton’s eyes across the table. The concern etched on her husband’s face threatened to break her heart. Benton had been so supportive during the last few months, so protective while she tried to heal. She would beat this. For him, she would move on.
Callie smiled. “I’m fine. It’s just a little warm in here all of a sudden.”
Benton cocked his head to the side. “You sure? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.
A ghost? She closed her eyes, the images unbidden but ever present. Sawyer’s pale, lifeless face. Callie’s hand reaching out to stroke baby-fine hair, bruises the mortician’s makeup couldn’t hide. That tiny coffin lowered into the ground. Callie could have lived with a ghost, but her haunted memories and the never-ending what ifs that traveled with them would drive her crazy.
Two more breaths, another swallow of cold water. Callie straightened in her seat and smiled at her husband. “This was a nice surprise. Thanks for thinking of it.”
Benton took her hand. “Anything for the woman I love. Have you decided what you’d like for dinner?”
“I—” A vicious bolt of lightning lit the dark Oklahoma sky outside the windows of the restaurant. Thunder rattled the building. The lights flickered and went off, plunging the room into sudden darkness. Across the room a frightened child began to wail.
Callie jumped to her feet. Her chair tipped sideways onto the carpeted floor. Oh Jesus, please make the crying stop. A harsh voice cut across the child’s frantic cries. “Andy, sit down and stop that noise. It’s just thunder.”
The lights came back up and Callie’s awareness narrowed to the cries of the child. Is that how Sawyer sounded? Frightened howls as his eighteen months of life surrendered to the beating his father dealt him. Oh Jesus, I’m so sorry. So sorry I let Janette deceive me. So sorry I didn’t ask you before I testified. I know you’ve forgiven me. Please help me forgive myself. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Callie bolted from the restaurant.
“Callie!” Benton called.
She was letting him down. Still she ran for the door.
When Benton found her several minutes later, she stood by the car. Rain cascaded over her, mixing with her tears. Benton pulled her into his arms, wet and all. He held her close, his bearded chin rested on her head. “Shh, baby, it’s OK. I’m sorry. This was a bad idea.”
Callie clung to him like the lifeline between sanity and madness he was. “Benton, no. It was a great idea. I know you were trying to distract me. Trying to make me forget Sawyer’s birthday. I thought I could.” She allowed Benton to help her into the car, only to bend double in the seat as the panicked adrenalin gave way to nausea. “How could I have been so stupid?”
Benton started the car and turned the heater up to high. “Callie, you weren’t stupid. You thought you were doing the right thing.”
Callie shook her head. “I just wanted to help. I knew Janette wasn’t abusing her children. She didn’t deserve to lose them. Testifying to that…being at the hearing to support her…celebrating when it was over. I just wanted to help,” she repeated.
Her husband navigated the rain-washed streets while Callie huddled in the seat, head down, arms wrapped around her middle. The images in her mind took on a life of their own. Janette, sitting in her office, tearful over charges of alleged child abuse, frantic because her babies had been taken from her. Callie’s unhesitating agreement to appear in court as a character witness. The custody hearing, her nervous testimony, the endless waiting for the judge to make a decision, the joy of seeing those two babies reunited with their mother. And Sawyer dead a short time later because of my interference. Jesus, giveme strength. Give me the wisdom I need to never put myself in that situation again.
Lightning flashed in the sky like the old strobe light in the skating rink back home. The thunder that followed rattled the windows in the two-room apartment. Eleven-year-old Iris Evans huddled in bed, drew a blanket over her head, and snuggled next to her four-month-old niece, asleep by her side.
The bedside lamp flickered and went out, turning the room into a dark cave until the storm produced the next explosion of light and sound. Iris cringed and grabbed her cell phone from the table next to the bed. She thumbed the switch, but the dim glow from the screen did little to illuminate the darkness. Eleven thirty. Sam would be home soon. Please, be home soon.
Iris slid out of bed and felt her way to the door. There were matches in the kitchen. She fumbled in the drawer, using the reflection from the cell phone to guide her search. Matches in hand, she turned to the table and the candle that sat in its center.
Mom’s candle, one of the few physical reminders of her that she and her sister had left. Sam would probably be angry, but Iris couldn’t stand the dark. The stubby wick flickered to life. Shadows danced on the walls, almost in time to the strobe of the lightening. It should have been spooky. Instead, she found it oddly reassuring. The lavender scent coming from the candle brought her mother’s memory closer.
Iris carried the candle to the bedroom, juggling the cell phone, doing her best to shield the tiny flame with her hand as she walked. She placed the candle carefully on the bedside table and climbed back in next to the sleeping baby.
The infant stirred and whimpered at the disturbance. Iris patted her tummy, watching the baby drift back to sleep, her small mouth moving in unconscious sucking motions. “It’s OK, Bobbie,” she whispered. “Your mommy will be home in a little while. Don’t be afraid. She’ll be fine…she’ll be fine.” The baby grew silent. She probably didn’t need the words of comfort, but Iris needed to hear the assurance spoken out loud. She couldn’t help it. She hated thunderstorms.
It had been storming, just like this, the day the cops came to the house. The afternoon everything changed. Iris closed her eyes against the visions of men in blue uniforms, rain dripping from the brims of their plastic covered hats, their shadowed faces, and their crushing message. She searched her heart in vain for something to block out the painful memory of words she’d never forget. There’s been an accident.
The thunder crashed again and jerked Iris back to the present. With her eyes closed tight she said the first prayer of her young life. God, if you’re really up there like Miss Callie says, could You please help us?
Unsure about how prayer worked, she lay there waiting for some sort of response. Miss Callie talked a lot about faith in their Sunday school class. Faith sounded a lot like hope. Iris hoped God sent an answer to her prayer soon.
Surrounded by the comforting scent of her mother’s candle, Iris’s eyelids drifted closed.
Steve Evans slid his keycard into the slot. Bone weary, he was not looking forward to another night in a strange city. He’d boarded a plane in Chicago at 7 AM to begin three weeks of book signings. Illinois this morning, San Diego tonight, Dallas on Monday. No need to consider the hectic schedule beyond that.
The solitude and luxury of a pricy hotel room brought him no comfort. He never rested well on these trips—the strange mattresses always too hard or too soft. Even if the bed exceeded his expectations, and he slept well, he wouldn’t spend enough time in the room to enjoy it. At least tomorrow is Sunday. Maybe he could find a nice church to visit and take a breather before getting on a Texas-bound plane Monday morning and kicking this tour into high gear.
A helpless sigh escaped into the empty room. He’d given his testimony to a packed shelter tonight, his heart broken by the sea of haggard faces. There but for the grace of God…
Steve scrubbed at his face in disappointment, brushing collar length black hair from his forehead. When he toured, he made it a point to visit homeless shelters and missions. He took every opportunity God gave him to share his story with men that might be helped by seeing what God had done in his life.
Not a single person had responded to his testimony this evening. When Chaplain Harris issued an invitation at the end of the service, the men had staggered away one by one. Most of them returned to street corners, stomachs full from the dinner Steve had helped serve, their souls just as empty as when they walked through the doors. Why couldn’t they see?
He wanted to reach just one person, save someone from making the same mistakes he’d made. Steve bowed his head and worked to put those thoughts aside. The dead ends and wrong turns of his previous life would overwhelm him if he allowed it.
He dug through his suitcase, looking for the toothbrush he’d tossed in this morning. His 5 AM shower seemed more like two days ago, but he couldn’t work up enough energy to care. Teeth brushed, faced washed, Steve stripped down to his boxers and undershirt, turned back the blankets, and froze in place when the ring of his cell phone broke the silence.
A glance at the display, sent his heart into overdrive.
The Adams Group.
He didn’t bother with pleasantries. “Have you found them?”
“Not yet, Mr. Evans. We’ve only been looking for a week—”
“Look.” Steve sat on the side of the bed. His knees suddenly refused to hold his weight. “My ex-wife died eighteen months ago.” The hand that held the phone shook with frustration. Why couldn’t these people understand? “I’m paying you good money, and I expect more than excuses.”
“I understand your impatience. We’re checking every place they’ve ever lived. It’s just a matter of time before we find them.”
Steve gripped the phone so tightly his hand ached. “What part of we have no time don’t you understand? I don’t need you to look in places where they’ve already been. Lee Anne was living in Austin when she died. It’s where she was the last time I spoke to her. My daughters didn’t disappear into thin air.”
“Mr. Evans, you trusted our agency enough to hire us. Now you need to trust us to do our job. Looking for them in what they would consider familiar territory is the sensible place to start. We’ll work outward from there.”
Steve urged his heart and his temper toward calm. It was not this man’s fault that he’d just now learned of Lee Anne’s death. Not his fault that he couldn’t locate his daughters. His voice was a defeated whisper when he continued. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to take my frustrations out on you. I’ve been a little crazy ever since I lost touch with Lee Anne. When I found her obituary two weeks ago…” His voice trailed off. “Eighteen months. She’s already been gone eighteen months, and my daughters… Do what you can. Call me with a report again tomorrow. I’ll be in Texas on Monday, but I can detour if I need to.” He disconnected the call and picked up his wallet from the bedside table. It fell open to well-worn photos of his children. The faces in the pictures smiled up at him when he held them under the light of the lamp. His fingers stroked the images of the daughters he hadn’t seen for ten years. Emotion clogged his throat, forcing tears past his eyelids. Every time he looked into the frozen features of his daughters, he asked himself the same question. How? How did I let myself be so deceived?
Steve slipped to his knees beside the bed. The regret of wasted years tore at his heart. “Jesus, please take care of my babies until I find them.”
The glowing numbers of the dashboard clock read one fifteen. Samantha parked and dashed through a pouring rain to the front door of their apartment. Iris was probably frantic. Sam eased inside and flipped the light switch. Nothing. The thought of Iris and the baby alone in the dark during a storm made her heart sink. Her little sister was so terrified of storms since their mother’s accident.
Sam nudged the door closed and stopped to listen. All quiet. She was relieved not to find Iris huddled in a petrified ball on their sofa. Hopefully her little sister had managed to sleep through the worst of it. After a moment to get her bearings, she shuffled through the dark to the kitchen and slid a large pan of lasagna into the fridge. The lights flickered back to life as the door closed.
“Thank goodness,” Sam whispered. They couldn’t afford to lose the power for too long. There were things in the ancient refrigerator that they didn’t have the money to replace. Cash was tight, and even with the extra hours she planned to work next week, they couldn’t afford to deal with any emergencies right now.
Daily schoolwork and her job at Pasta World kept Sam more than busy. But her little family couldn’t survive without her weekly paycheck. Samantha cringed when she thought about the brutal week headed her way. The restaurant planned to be open extended hours during spring break. She had asked for, and received, some additional time on the clock. Working back-to-back six-hour shifts with only an hour off in the middle to eat and rest her tired feet, would be tough. But the restaurant paid a decent wage, and her tips were always good. The extra money would give them a much-needed financial break.
More than anything Sam hoped she could afford to do something special for Iris next Saturday. At eleven, Iris should be anticipating a carefree spring break. Instead she shouldered the responsibilities of an adult. Sam was grateful that she could count on her little sister to share the load of the life they were forced to live, but she wanted Iris to have the chance to act like a little girl once in a while.
Yeah, and what about you? A small voice of longing asked from deep inside. This is your senior year. You’re seventeen. You should be having a good time, not working yourself to death. Sam pushed those thoughts ruthlessly aside. She did what she had to do. Period.
Sam already had one surprise waiting for Iris when she got up in the morning. The cook had sent home a whole pan of lasagna, one of Iris’s favorite foods.
Expecting to find Iris asleep, but needing to check on Bobbie, Sam opened the bedroom door for a quick peek. Light from the living area cast a soft reflection into the other room. Her sister and the baby appeared to be sleeping. Sam took a deep breath of relief and caught the scent of lavender. “Oh, Iris,” she whispered. She tiptoed into the room and picked up the candle from the table, held it under her nose, and inhaled. The heavy floral scent brought the warmth of their mother into the dark room.
The blankets rustled and Sam looked down to see her sister’s eyes wide open. Sam sat on the edge of the bed. “Iris, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you,” she whispered, mindful of the sleeping baby.
Iris scooted up in bed. “That’s OK. The storm was so bad.” Her small shoulders lifted in a shrug. “I wasn’t really sleeping much anyway.”
“Oh, honey, everything’s fine. Lie back down and get some rest. I’ll be right here.”
“Can we talk for a few minutes instead?”
“Sure,” Sam answered. “Know what? I brought home a pan of lasagna. You want a midnight snack?”
There was no need for a second invitation. Iris scooted out of bed and sprinted straight for the fridge. She pulled out the pan, peeled back the foil covering, and leaned down to take a deep breath. “Oh yum, it’s still warm. Smell that cheese and garlic.”
“Yeah, the cook overestimated how much we needed for this evening.”
Iris grabbed plates while Sam poured tall glasses of iced tea. They settled at the old Formica-topped table, their unexpected treat between them.
Iris nodded at the half-melted candle resting back in its original spot on the table. “Sorry.”
Sam waved the apology away. “Did it help?”
”That’s all that matters. I think we’ll burn it more often. Mom would like knowing that something of hers brought you comfort. What’s up, kiddo?” Sam hoped to offer some quick assurances and get to sleep.
Iris chewed in silence for a few seconds. “Can I ask you a question?”
”Do we believe in God?”
“Do we what?”
”Do we believe in God?”
Sam propped her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand. Where did Iris come up with this stuff? “Is this something we need to talk about right now?”
Iris ducked her head and shrugged. “I just wanted to know.”
Sam stared off into space for a few seconds. Having something to believe in would be nice, but experience had taught her to trust only herself. “I don’t know,” she finally answered. “With everything that’s happened in the last year and a half, I can’t tell you what I believe. Why is this important tonight?”
Iris toyed with the food on her plate. “I just get so scared sometimes.”
“Of the storm?”
Iris took a deep breath “Not just that, of everything. Helen and Richard, the money Louis stole. I know you’re doing the best you can, but we’re just kids.”
Sam laid her hand on top of her little sister’s. “Helen and Richard are long gone, sweetheart. Richard is a letch and Helen refused to believe us. They never wanted to be foster parents. If they haven’t found us after a year and a half, they aren’t looking.” Sam bowed her head. “I’m sorry about the money.”
“You know I don’t blame you for that. Maybe Dad—”
“He’s as dead as Mom.”
”We don’t know that,” Iris insisted.
”He’s been gone for ten years. If the drugs haven’t killed him by now…” She allowed the thought to trail off with a shrug. “That’s not a complication we’ll ever need to worry about.” Sam squeezed her sister’s hand.
“I know these late nights are hard on you, and I know you aren’t looking forward to next week. Taking care of Bobbie is a huge responsibility. I realize this isn’t how you want to spend your spring break. But the money we’ll save on day care next week is going to help us a lot this month. Do you understand?”
Iris nodded, but she still had a small frown between her brows.
What else was on her sister’s mind? “Was Bobbie restless again tonight?”
Iris shook her head no. “She’s a good baby.” She stopped and looked into Sam’s eyes. “Do you really promise things will be better in just a few months?”
Sam nodded her head. “I promise. Not perfect, but better.”
Iris concentrated on her plate for a few minutes. “You still didn’t answer my question.”
Sam’s energy and patience ran out. “Which question?”
“God. Do we—”
”Why are you hounding me about this?”
”Well, everyone at April’s church—”
”Is that what this is all about?” Sam interrupted.
Tears sprang into Iris’s eyes. She bowed her head over her plate. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to make you mad. You always tell me I can talk to you about anything.”
The sight of Iris’s tears doused Sam’s anger. “Of course you can. I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m not angry with you, sis. I’m just tired.” Sam closed her eyes and allowed her head to fall back. “Look, you asked me if you could go to church on Sunday mornings with your friend. I said ‘yes’ because, as long as you’re careful about what you tell them, I want you to have friends. I didn’t agree because I share their beliefs. I have more than I can handle dealing with our realities.”
Iris pushed her empty plate aside without a word.
“Don’t sulk. Who loves you most in the whole wide world?”
“You do.” Iris’s response was a mumbled whisper.
“That’s the most important thing I need to know this evening. Now, let’s go to bed.”
They rinsed their plates and stacked them in the sink until morning. The baby started to cry the second they turned out the lights.
Callie lay awake in the dark and stared at the ceiling. The storm outside had blown over. The storm in her heart had received a new face. Father, why are you doing this to me? Didn’t you see the condition I was in just a few hours ago? I’m fifty-four years old; I can’t do this again. Sawyer’s death nearly drove me over the edge. Her eyes closed and her chin quivered with the effort to stop the tears that would wake her husband. And Benton? Even if I was willing to get involved in another child’s problems, he’d never allow it. She shifted under the covers, doing her best to strike a compromise with God, afraid of the consequences of losing this argument with her Heavenly Father. I’ll pray for her. I’ll teach her about Your word. I’ll be her friend. You can’t ask me for more than that.
No promise, no plea, succeeded in erasing Iris’s face from her heart. Iris Evans, eleven years old, long brown hair pulled back from bright blue inquisitive eyes. Eyes shadowed with dark circles, reluctant to make contact with hers.
Callie considered the sixth graders who’d passed through her Sunday school class over the years. Young people poised on top of the rickety fence separating child from teen. Sociable, noisy, exuberant… occasionally shy. Could she really say that Iris’s reticence was abnormal? She nodded in the darkness, answering her own question. Now that God had forced her to take a deeper look, she had to admit there was something in Iris’s eyes that demanded attention. Callie didn’t have a clue what lay under the child’s cool demeanor. —But like a treasure map where X marks the spot, Iris’s hooded eyes marked a troubled heart doing its best to blend into the background—and failing. She needed help.
But not mine, God.
A snore interrupted her thoughts. She nudged her husband and instead of rolling to the opposite side of the bed, he turned toward her and pulled her close.
“Go to sleep,” he whispered.
“You too.” She forced herself to be still until her husband’s soft snores returned. Even asleep, he continued to hold her.
Callie felt trapped instead of comforted. Physically trapped by the arms of her husband. She didn’t dare try to get up. He’d want to know why, and she didn’t dare tell him. Emotionally trapped by a tragedy she was sure she could have prevented. Spiritually trapped by her Heavenly Father who refused to take no for an answer. She closed her eyes and waited for morning.