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The beginning, p.1
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       The Beginning, p.1

           Karen Kingsbury
 
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The Beginning


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  CONTENTS

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Excerpt from The Bridge

  CHAPTER ONE

  Fall 1971

  The pains began at two-thirty in the morning.

  A sharp, twisting sort of pain that woke up Donna Barton and sent panic coursing through her veins.

  “Charlie!” She screamed his name, and immediately he sat up in bed beside her.

  “What?” He was breathless, frantic. Ready to carry her to safety or tackle monsters on her behalf. For a few seconds he looked from one side of the room to the other getting his bearings. Then he seemed to remember. His eyes met hers. “The baby!” Even in the dim moonlight it was easy to see the color leave his face. “Is it time?”

  Donna closed her eyes. The pain moved in waves down her stomach, across her lower spine. She tightened her legs, fighting it. “I’m . . . not sure.”

  “It must be.” He threw off the covers and ran across the room to a small heap on the floor. Yesterday’s clothes. He pulled on the pair of shorts and T-shirt.

  Sweat beaded on her forehead. Hurry, Charlie. Hurry. This was the hottest North Carolina fall in fifty-two years. The heat and humidity made her feel like she was underwater.

  He ran to her, his eyes wide. “Your bag’s ready. Stay here. I’ll get your clothes.”

  Something cool. She needed something cool. “Maybe my—” Her pain doubled. “Charlie!” Fear mixed with desperation. Each word came slowly. “What if . . . what if it’s too . . . strong?”

  “It’s not . . . it’s normal.” His voice was higher than before, strained and breathy. Like he was trying to convince himself. “We have to get you to the hospital.”

  The pain didn’t fade like Donna expected a contraction might do.

  Normal.

  Yes, that was what she was feeling. This pain was good and right and normal. Pains that would bring their baby into the world and make them a family. A beautiful pain that would erase all the pain she’d already lived through. They needed to go. She would wear her nightgown. She slid her feet onto the floor, but her lungs refused to work. “Help . . . me!”

  “Baby, don’t move!” Charlie was at her side, her bag flung over his shoulder. “I’ll carry you.”

  Donna felt her body go limp as he scooped her into his arms. Her breaths came in short, shallow gasps. “I’m . . . scared.”

  “Hold on . . . I’ll get you there.”

  She couldn’t keep her eyes open. Somewhere in the back alleys of her mind she felt herself moving, felt him carrying her. But the pain became a thick, dark, suffocating lava, pulling her in, covering her, consuming her. His voice was only a faint whisper now, and finally she couldn’t fight the pull another minute.

  In the blackness that overcame her, she reminded herself once more of the truth. This was a good pain. Her past swirled before her, the terrible sad reality alive again. Before the chapter when she met Charlie Barton, Donna’s story was dark and depressing, one pathetic page after another. The only child of a couple of drug addicts, Donna never stood a chance. Other boys and girls went home to hugs and help with homework.

  Not Donna.

  She would walk through the front door to her parents crashed on the floor or keeled over on the dirty sofa. Drugs sat in the open, plastic bags of white powder and dark green crushed leaves. Needles and mirrors and razor blades and matches. It was the sixties, but even so, Donna’s parents were ahead of the drug game.

  Donna wanted nothing to do with their world so she found one of her own. The world of books. She earned straight As and didn’t come home from school until she absolutely had to. None of her teachers was surprised when Donna earned valedictorian honors or when she received a full-ride scholarship to North Carolina State. Donna was tempted to believe that the sad parts of her story were behind her.

  She was wrong. Her mom overdosed on heroin three days before her graduation.

  Donna’s English teacher took her in until she headed off for North Carolina, but left alone, her father didn’t handle the loss well. A month later he went out one night with his friends and never came home. Police found his car wrapped around a tree the next morning. And like that, Donna was alone in the world.

  That was real pain. The pain that lived within for years after, one that came back without warning, taking her breath away with its severity.

  This . . . this aching, stabbing, tightening . . . this was life. A variation of the sort of happy reds and vibrant oranges and brilliant blues that had colored her existence since God led her to Charlie Barton. She let herself focus on the beginning, the first day she saw Charlie. Within minutes of meeting him he made her do something as foreign as it was fantastic.

  He made her laugh.

  Charlie was the only son of a local cement contractor, but despite his father’s mandate, he had no intention of pouring cement for a living. Charlie was innovative and sensitive. When he earned his degree in business it created a rift between him and his father that still remained. The broken relationship reminded Charlie of a thousand times growing up when his father would discourage his academics and the craziest thing of all.

  His dad forbade him to read.

  The rule only made Charlie more determined. He’d sneak books into his backpack from the school library and read them under the covers by flashlight late at night. Books opened a new world to Charlie, a world of Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island.

  But books remained a secret for Charlie. Only after he and Donna had been dating for several months did he tell her about his private love for stories, and his greatest dream of all.

  The dream of opening a bookstore.

  Her memories mixed together in the darkness. Just last week Charlie had called his father, looking to make amends. Instead the man had lit into him, berating him and reminding him that he would never amount to anything. That he was a failure. You’re a Barton, and Bartons aren’t businesspeople. You’ll fail, and then you’ll come crawling back to me and the cement.

  A knife couldn’t have left deeper scars.

  Donna’s pain grew stronger, twisting her insides and burning through her body. She needed to get to the hospital. Giving birth shouldn’t feel like this, right? Maybe she was dying. She wasn’t sure. Her thoughts were less clear now, less organized. They swirled and faded and grew more distant until only two things remained.

  Her pain and the darkness.

  CHAPTER TWO

  The bad feeling plagued Edna Carlton from the moment she got out of bed.

  She opened her eyes, stretched her legs to the empty side of the mattress, and like a sudden storm, it hit her. A sense of doom, or despair. Darker than despair. Outside her bedroom window a pair of bluebirds swapped familiar songs, and the smell of sweet jasmine wafted on a cool breeze through the screen. The day looked perfect, beautiful. Everything in all of life was fine.

  So why did she suddenly feel like the world was ending?

  Edna climbed out of bed and walked to the kitchen. Coffee. That’s what she needed . . . fresh coffee. She added water to the kettle and turned on the flame beneath it. The jar of instant Maxwell House sat nearby. A couple of spoonfuls of the dark granules in the bottom of her grandmother’
s china teacup and she was ready to go.

  She stared out the back window of her small apartment. The only thing louder than the silence was her fear, closing in on her, reminding her that she was alone. Tom didn’t have a break until Christmas—if then. For a long moment she closed her eyes and tried to remember the last time she’d gotten a letter from him. A week at least, longer than usual.

  Maybe that explained the ominous feeling. Letters were the only reminder that he was still alive, still fighting battles in Vietnam, still doing what he felt called to do as an American citizen. Tom . . . the love of her life.

  The Bible talked about two becoming one, and their friends used to tease how that was never truer than for Edna and Tom. They were right. Sometimes Edna couldn’t figure out where Tom ended and she began. They were that close, that inseparable.

  Before he went to war, anyway.

  The kettle rattled and a low whistle began. She flipped off the flame and poured water into the cup. Beneath her feet the linoleum was cold, typical for late fall in Franklin, Tennessee. But this morning it spread a chill up her body and into her bones. Her teeth chattered as she brought the hot cup to her face and breathed in.

  What was this oppressive feeling? Why today? She held onto the cup with both hands, letting the heat work its way through her. The calendar on the wall seemed to taunt her, reminding her how long six months really was. Six frightening, painful, lonely months. She studied October’s little boxes, stared at the place where the square white pages hung near the refrigerator. If only she could look ahead and know the future. Peek in on the time when Tom would be home and they could truly begin their life together.

  They’d only been married three weeks when he shipped out.

  She sipped her coffee and let herself go back to the beginning. The way she often did when she missed him. Through grade school, Tom had been the one person Edna couldn’t tolerate. Every recess he would run by and tug on her blond ponytail or tease her for being too slow or too smart or any of a dozen reasons. She did everything she could to fly under his radar.

  The summer before middle school, Edna begged her mother to enroll her in a different district so she wouldn’t have to spend the next three years taking classes with Tom Carlton. Her mother only rolled her eyes and told her what she always told her.

  “That boy has a crush on you, Edna. I keep telling you.”

  Edna wanted to wear a disguise the first day of classes, but instead she connected with a group of her girlfriends and hoped for safety in numbers. The plan worked the first week, but the next Monday Tom came up behind her and flicked her hair.

  “Hey . . . haven’t seen you.”

  Edna turned and felt her cheeks grow hot. “I . . . I’ve been busy.”

  “Oh.” He grinned at her. “Well . . . in case I don’t see you around, you should probably know.”

  Confusion added to her nervousness. “Know what?”

  He started to run off, but as he did he winked at her. “You’re the prettiest girl in sixth grade.”

  She literally stopped in place, suddenly not sure which class she was heading to, which way was up. It had never occurred to her after all these years that her mother might be right. After that, she still did her best to avoid Tom Carlton. But by the end of the year she was no longer afraid of him, and in seventh grade they had become friends.

  Tom liked to say it took him most of his life to get up the courage to ask her out, but when their freshman year in high school came and the football team had its annual bonfire, he sat beside her. After two hours of small talk he did what he’d wanted to do as far back as he could remember.

  He asked her out.

  They were inseparable after that, the sort of couple people smiled at when they walked past. Their senior year they were voted homecoming king and queen, and after the dance Tom asked her to marry him. Their future looked brighter than the lights on Broadway in downtown Nashville. Only one thing threatened to dim them.

  The draft.

  Tom turned nineteen the summer after high school, and a month later he was drafted to join the army offensive in Vietnam. While many of their friends enrolled in college, became conscientious objectors, or feigned injuries and illnesses to avoid serving the United States, Tom wouldn’t hear of it.

  “If I’m asked to serve, I’ll serve.” His smile was tinged with sadness. “We’ll get married before I go.” He pulled her close and kissed her. “I’ll get my years of serving out of the way. Then we’ll start real life.”

  Six more months and he’d be finished with his tour, done with fighting. Six months. Another sip of coffee. Just a bad dream, that’s all. Her husband was fighting half a world away. Of course she’d have bad dreams now and then. She tried to keep her fingers from shaking. But if it was only a bad dream, why wasn’t the awful feeling gone? Instead, the feeling suffocated her, its tenacious claws set deep.

  Half a cup of coffee in slow, nervous sips, and finally she made a plan. She would clean the apartment. Not the usual washing down the kitchen and folding laundry, but deep cleaning. The baseboards along the hallway and the dust on the top rims of the photo frames. A cleaning that would take her all day, and by the time sunset came she would’ve worked the bad feeling out of her system.

  Edna grabbed a spray bottle and a rag and headed for the bathroom. She was on her hands and knees washing the floor at the base of the toilet when she heard the doorbell.

  The smell of Pine-Sol, the feel of the wet rag in her hands, the pinch of tiled floor against her knees, all of it froze into a single instant, a moment she absolutely knew she would remember forever. Don’t get up, Edna . . . Don’t do it. Don’t answer the door. She closed her eyes but the doorbell rang again, and she couldn’t stop herself. Couldn’t keep from scrambling to her feet and hurrying blindly to the front of the apartment.

  She didn’t check the peephole, didn’t stop to see who was on the other side. She already knew. This was the reason for the feeling, the doom that had smothered her since she opened her eyes that morning. Not Tom, God . . . please . . . not Tom. He only has six more months . . .

  Her rebel hand defied her heart and suddenly the door was open, and there they were. Two sad-eyed, fresh-faced soldiers in sharply pressed uniforms. One of them had a telegram.

  “No!” she shouted. Spots danced in front of her eyes and they quickly began to connect. She couldn’t breathe or move or remember where she was. “Not Tom!”

  They were the last words she remembered saying. She began to fall, but she didn’t care. The floor could take her life and that would be a relief compared to living in a world without her Tom. One final thought screamed at her before she passed out. The date. October 5, 1971. A date that would stand forever as a dividing line in time.

  Life before the doorbell rang, and life after.

  CHAPTER THREE

  The baby was a girl.

  That’s what they told Donna when she woke up. Charlie was at her side, tears streaming down his cheeks. He pressed his face close to hers. “You’re alive . . . I can’t believe you’re alive.”

  She felt weak and thin. Too thin. “What . . . what happened?”

  Charlie eased back, his eyes wide. For the first time since she’d known him, the confident sparkle in his eyes was gone. In its place was a fear that made him look like a different man altogether. “You almost died.”

  “The baby, Charlie. What happened to our baby?”

  His silence told her more than his words ever could. He swallowed and let his eyes find a spot on the floor. For a long time he only shook his head, as if the details were too awful to speak. But eventually the story came. In tragic bits and terrible pieces, it came.

  The contractions were too strong; Donna had been right. Something had gone wrong on the inside, and she had started bleeding—so much that her body had gone into shock and the bleeding became profuse. Every organ, every cell, bleeding out. D-I-C, Charlie called it. He couldn’t remember what it stood for. Or why it happened.
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  “It took . . . everyone in the emergency room, Donna. No one thought you were going to—”

  He couldn’t say the words. Donna’s heartbeat slammed around in her chest. “The baby, Charlie . . . tell me.”

  Again he shook his head. “She . . . she didn’t make it.” He looked through her, to the places in her soul where only he was allowed. “They couldn’t save her.”

  Donna squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t acknowledge her daughter’s death without first acknowledging the most beautiful part of the story. They’d had a daughter. He was saying something about her blood loss, but Donna couldn’t make out the words. Her question cut him off midsentence. “Charlie . . . What did she look like?”

  Charlie stopped talking.

  Her eyes flew open. “Please, Charlie. Tell me what she looked like.”

  A series of sobs shook him and he hung his head, his hands over his face. After a minute he found his voice. “She was perfect . . . I only saw her for a minute. She . . . she looked just like you, Donna.”

  Her baby girl looked like her! Where was she, then? Where was her baby now? How dare someone take her away without letting Donna hold her first? She wanted to ask, wanted to know what cruel doctor had taken her daughter’s body without her permission. But the questions pummeled her heart and left her exhausted. Too defeated to speak.

  Charlie stroked her damp hair and brought his face close to hers again. “We’ll get through this . . . we will.”

  Before Donna could consider the possibility, the doctor walked into the room. His expression didn’t look much better than Charlie’s. “Mrs. Barton . . . I’m so sorry.”

  With all her remaining energy she opened the palm of her hand and stretched out her fingers. Charlie covered her hand with his own, wrapping her fingers with his, skin to skin. The doctor was saying something about their baby’s body being disposed of at the morgue.

 
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