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This is the first chapter of a Christian romance novel. This is my first novel, and I would appreciate any suggestions you have. Feel free to be brutally honest - that's what I need. Thanks!
Chapter 1. The phone call that changed everything.
Kathryn stretched out the kinks in her back and stepped away from the lab bench. Something was wrong. She didn’t know where it was coming from, but she couldn’t shake the feeling of dread. She was alone in the lab now. It had been a long day, even for her. She was working crazy hours these days, trying to finish this project before next week’s deadline. Then she would relax, she told herself, although a voice in the back of her head told her that wasn’t true. There would always be another deadline, another project to complete. Still, that was good, right? This would be the year. The year she’d finally get that promotion she deserved. She scowled at the set-up in her hood. It would keep until tomorrow. Maybe she’d feel better once she got home. She ripped off her gloves, shed her labcoat, and after washing her hands, walked out the lab door for the last time that day.
The July heat hit her full in the face as she headed outside. Even though the sun had started to set, the air was still thick and heavy. As she crossed the parking lot, the shadows grew long and ominous. By the time she reached her car, her hands started to shake and her hair plastered against her neck with sweat. She quickly got into the car, trying to leave the uneasy feeling behind.
The drive home was uneventful, rush hour having passed long ago. As she approached the house, she was surprised to find it dark. She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. 9:30. As a high-school teacher, her husband had early mornings, but she wouldn’t have expected him to be asleep already. She pressed the button on the garage door opener and found his car gone. The sense of dread intensified.
Kathryn entered the house, dropped her keys and bag, and read the note on the kitchen counter:
Katie – I’m having dinner with Mark and Anne.
I tried to call… See you soon.
She breathed a sigh of relief. At least whatever was wrong didn’t involve Robert. She cursed at herself for getting all worked up over a feeling. She was a scientist, for crying out loud. She knew better than to trust her feelings. She looked at the note again.
Katie. Robert still called her Katie. Anne did too, and Mark had naturally fallen into it as well. Robert and his sister Anne had known her since they were in high school. She felt a twinge of guilt. Robert had tried to call, but she obviously had left her cell phone at home again. She’d really need to try to do better about that. At least the note showed he wasn’t mad about last night’s argument. As she popped a frozen pizza into the microwave, she thought about what Anne might have made for dinner. It was no wonder Robert would be at the Campbells’ house. Who wouldn’t prefer Anne’s cooking to what could be found in their freezer? She should be glad Robert had his sister’s family to keep him company. Maybe spending time with his niece and nephew would take some of the pressure off. Then again, probably not. He had a point.
Her mind flashed back to last night’s argument. It was the same one they’d had a hundred times before. Robert was ready for kids and she wasn’t. In all fairness, he’d been waiting a long time. They got married right after college. Then there was grad school, and now she’d been at her job 5 years. He was so faithful to move around the country with her, taking odd jobs between finding teaching positions. At least they were settled now. Robert had been so happy when she found this job near his family. His sister lived about 20 minutes away, and his mother was about an hour away. It made sense to have kids now. If she could just get this promotion, then maybe she’d have time to think about it. After all, she was only 33. Robert had just turned 35. Her older man. She remembered how excited she was in high school that a junior was interested in her, a lowly sophomore. That seemed like worlds ago. She sat down at the table with her pizza and Diet Coke and reminisced about simpler times.
Suddenly the chirp of her cell phone down the hall broke her reverie. She jumped up to find it. It must be Robert again. He was awfully late. Maybe he fell asleep on Ann and Mark’s couch.
“Hi Honey, I’m sorry I left my phone home again,” she began, but the voice on the other end of the line wasn’t Robert, even though it was his number. A deep masculine voice began,
“Ma’am, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I’m calling you because this is the emergency contact number for this phone. This is your husband’s phone, I presume?”
Kathryn sank down to the floor, nodding at the phone, as if the mysterious stranger could see her. She gathered her wits and braced for what he was about to tell her. “Yes, this is my husband Robert’s phone. What happened?” she managed to reply.
The same deep voice answered “My name is Officer Stevens. There has been a car accident. We just located the phone in the wreckage of the car. Your husband was transported to the county hospital about an hour ago. I’m afraid he’s in serious condition. I suggest you get there right away. We’ll arrange for his phone to be brought to the hospital. I’m sorry, Ma’am. Are you in the area? Should we arrange for a ride for you?”
“Th-Thank you, but no. I’ll drive myself,” Kathryn stammered. She hung up the phone, then jumped as it rang to life again in her hand. This time it was Mark’s cell.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re answering your phone. Katie, Robert was in a car accident and they took him to the hospital. He was on the phone with his mom when the accident occurred. Anne is at the hospital right now. We’ve been trying to call you for the last hour. I’m so glad you answered. I was about to send someone over to your work, but I thought I’d try one last time.” It all came out like one big sentence. As he paused to take a breath, Kathryn explained about the call from the officer and that she was on her way.
“Now that we’ve gotten in touch with you, I’ll work on getting someone here to watch the kids so I can meet you at the hospital. Now go. I’ll tell Anne to expect you.”
Mark hung up without another word. Kathryn stared at the phone in her hand as if waiting for it to ring again. Anne was there already. That was good. Their mom must be a wreck right now. It was Wednesday night. She always called Wednesday nights, for as long as she could remember. Kathryn wasn’t sure why. Eileen was just a creature of habit. Wednesday night was the night to talk to Robert, no matter where he was. Apparently this night he was in the car. Kathryn couldn’t imagine how Eileen would have handled hearing the accident from the other end of the phone line. Could Robert speak? Could he tell her where he was? These questions would have to wait. Eileen would be no doubt on her way, and Kathryn should be too.
Adam entered the elevator at County Hospital, relieved that his neighbor’s fainting spell wasn’t serious. He’d brought the older man here to get checked out, but was heading home now that they decided to keep him overnight for observation. As he pushed the button for the lobby, he thought back over the past few weeks and the circumstances that brought him to Spring Grove. The changes in his life had been so dramatic over the past two years. He wasn’t sure why God had directed him to this little town, but he had faith that he’d find out in time. He hoped he was far enough away from his past life so he could find peace here.
The ding of the elevator doors brought him out of his thoughts. As he exited the elevator and made his down the hall to the front entrance to the hospital, a young woman, clearly upset, ran right into him. “I’m so sorry,” she panted, as Adam tried to disentangle himself from her. There was nothing extraordinary about her, but something made him look back as she hurried past. To his amazement, she did the same. Their eyes met for a fleeting second before she practically flew toward the emergency room. At that moment, a voice in his head came so clearly that he turned around to see who was speaking. “Pray for her.” Pray for her? Never had Adam heard God speaking to him so clearly before, but that’s what it must have been. He knew nothing about this woman except for the fact that she was heading into the hospital upset. If God wanted him to pray for a complete stranger, though, he would, although he never expected to see her again.
Kathryn silently cursed herself for her carelessness, embarrassed for walking into the handsome stranger. He probably thought she was a complete idiot. What did it matter? She had far more important things to think about than what a man she’d never see again thought of her. She hurried to the emergency room where she found Anne in the waiting area, head bowed. She looked up as Kathryn approached and wrapped her in a huge hug, tears flowing down her cheeks. Kathryn tensed, a little embarrassed. Her own family only consisted of her mother, and she was not particularly affectionate. Even after all these years, she was still not quite used to Robert’s family’s affections.
“Oh Katie, I’m so sorry. They’ve got Robert in surgery now. They haven’t told me much, but I know he has several broken bones and they’re not quite sure of the extent of the internal bleeding. I’m hoping someone will come out and talk to us soon.”
Kathryn felt slightly relieved. “Then he could still be ok, right?”
Anne looked very somber as she replied “They aren’t very optimistic. He’s lost a lot of blood. It took them a while to extract him from the car, and every minute counts in a situation like this. But God can do anything. I’m praying as hard as I can.”
Kathryn looked skeptical. She’d much prefer to count on the skill of the doctors than to ask God for help. If God could save him, why would he have allowed him to be in the crash in the first place? No, she’d place her faith in what she could see and touch.
That was the biggest difference between her and Robert. His faith in God was unwavering, unshakable. He attended services every Sunday morning, where she would join him only occasionally, if she could get herself out of bed. Sunday was the one day when she allowed herself a break from work.
Kathryn stared around the waiting area at all the concerned faces as Anne went back to her praying. The medicinal smell permeated her nostrils. All around her was complete chaos, doctors and nurses running every which way, people crying, a fat man in a suit yelling at the admissions desk attendant. No, she did not want to be here. Every part of her wanted to run home and curl up in bed and get away from this, but she needed to find out how Robert was doing. How long would he need to be in the hospital? She’d have to find time to fit in visiting him here in between all she had on her plate right now. She hadn’t planned for this when she made her schedule.
After what seemed like an eternity, an older man in green scrubs approached the two women. “Are you the family of Robert Baxter?” Anne and Kathryn nodded in unison. “Walk with me.” As they rose from the hard orange plastic seats that had been their accommodations for the last hour, he guided them down the hall toward the ICU, keeping up a continual narrative as they went.
“Robert’s condition is very serious. We’ve managed to stop most of the internal bleeding, but he’s had a great deal of brain trauma. There’s no way of knowing whether he’ll make it through the night. Even if he does wake up, I doubt he’ll be able to communicate again. You can go see him, but I just wanted you to be prepared. I’m sorry there isn’t more we can do for him.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Anne managed, ever the polite one, while Kathryn just stared at him. Did he just say Robert might not make it through the night? Theirs wasn’t the most exciting relationship in the world, but the one thing she thought she could always count on was Robert being there for her.
Kathryn wasn’t prepared for the sight of her husband in the hospital bed surrounded by tubes and wires. With bruises and bandages covering most of his body, she could barely recognize him. She hung back a little, but Anne rushed right to his side, probably praying over him again. Kathryn was still in a state of shock trying to process what the doctor had told him. Let Anne pray, it couldn’t hurt. She stood at a distance, staring at him with a far off look in her eyes. A few minutes later, Mark and Eileen entered. They embraced Anne and Kathryn and converged on Robert’s bed. A severe looking nurse came hurrying over and informed them that there were only two visitors allowed at a time. Kathryn and Anne walked out, allowing Robert’s mother and brother-in-law some time to visit, with their promises that they wouldn’t be long.
The two women sat in a different waiting room, still on the same orange plastic chairs. Anne reached out for Kathryn’s hand and began praying again.
“Dear Father,” Anne began. Kathryn tensed. How could she expect a father to help in this situation? Her own father left her when she was five years old. She tried the best she could to bring him back, promising her mother she’d never be bad again. She spent her whole childhood looking for him, at every soccer game, every piano recital, but he never showed up. She spent her high school graduation searching the stands for him, but they were filled with everyone else’s parents. She only had slight hopes up by the time she graduated from college, but there was still the disappointment she felt when he was not to be found. She threw herself into her studies both in college and graduate school. Somehow she was determined to make the father who never cared about her proud. She didn’t even know where to send him a wedding invitation. They had a small ceremony, because Kathryn couldn’t bear a church full of people wondering why she had no one to walk her down the aisle. She had Robert, though. He always supported her through everything. He was the athlete, but he was her cheerleader. Who was going to cheer for her now? With all the thoughts jumbling through her head, she barely caught two words of Anne’s prayer. A few minutes later, Mark and Eileen re-emerged, and sent Kathryn back in alone.
Approaching Robert’s bed cautiously, she took in his appearance as best she could. She couldn’t believe that her strong, independent husband lay in such a helpless state. She stared at his face, taking in his expression. His eyes were closed, but he looked worried. That was the best way to describe it. After standing there for several minutes, unsure of what she was supposed to do, she moved closer and took his hand. She thought she imagined it for a moment, but then she was sure. His eyes flickered open, gazed into her eyes, and his expression relaxed. He squeezed her hand ever so gently, but enough that she felt it. Then his hand slipped from hers, his face went blank, and monitors began beeping all over the place. Kathryn was shoved aside as medical professionals swarmed the bed. Just like that, it was all over. Robert was gone.
Feeling numb, Kathryn went out to the waiting room where Robert’s family was waiting. Robert’s family. Not hers. She had no connection to them anymore. That thought was almost as sobering as the fact that she had lost her husband. One look at her face and they knew it was over. Eileen and Anne hung on to each other, silent tears running down their faces. Kathryn should cry, wanted to cry, but it was all too much of a shock for her. Anne tried to bring Kathryn in for another hug, but Kathryn shrugged out of it. She didn’t want to be here anymore.
“Katie, you must stay at our house tonight. You shouldn’t be alone,” Mark offered. But alone was what she was, and she may as well start getting used to it. After several minutes of convincing the three of them that she would be fine getting home, Mark relented, only after she agreed to let him follow her.
Once safely in the house, with the door locked behind her, Kathryn sank to the ground. She heard Mark’s car pull away as he went home to comfort his grieving wife and mother-in-law. Before allowing herself to be overwhelmed with emotions, she needed to sleep.
She lay in bed that night, tossing and turning, but sleep eluded her. When it finally did come, it was plagued with images of car crashes and ambulances and Robert’s disfigured form. When she awoke to sunlight streaming through the windows, she crawled out of bed and looked in the mirror. That was a mistake. Her green eyes were hidden above swollen purple crescents. She looked closely at her tousled hair – were a few strands turning grey? She cursed the mirror and headed downstairs. The house was quiet. Too quiet. She’d never been much for television, but she turned it on now to break the stillness. She’d never minded being home by herself, but the thought that Robert would never be coming home changed that. She busied herself by emptying the dishwasher, thinking back to Robert loading the breakfast dishes the morning before. How could it only have been 24 hours since then? If she’d only known it was the last time she’d ever speak to him, there were so many things she would have said. He deserved better. She knew that, but he never complained. She wondered if he weren’t so religious if he would have left her years ago. Well, he promised till death do us part, and he kept his end of the bargain. The phone rang, breaking her away from her morose train of thought. She braced herself for the onslaught that was to come. Robert was well loved, which meant she’d be wishing for the quiet again soon, by the time all the well-wishers had come and gone.
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