Loving: A Novel By Corin Hughs

Chapter 1

Keep going! she urged herself.

Water tumbled from the sky, soaking Karla’s frayed jeans and T-shirt, and burrowing into her pores. The raindrops made her arms glisten and splattered on her head, keeping time to the drum that pounded inside her temples. Her hands trembled as she pressed her palms to her eyes.

The money! Did it fall out?

Karla’s arm shook as she jammed her hand into the back pocket of her jeans. When her fingertips grazed the thin, folded bills, she sighed, relieved. Relief … for the moment … until memories of her past life once again assaulted her.

Had it already been four years? That time had equally stopped and flown by, depending on the day. Still, she vividly remembered running her fingers under the seal of a bleached white envelope as though it were yesterday. Inside the envelope, Karla had found the map to her future. She could still feel the texture of the heavy letterhead, smell its unique aroma, and see the bold university emblem at the top. Heart racing, she had skimmed the paragraphs: Thank you for your application … so many applicants … integrity of the school … rigorous academics … you’ve been accepted and we’d like to offer you a scholarship….

She hated that her mind still remembered. Rain dripped from Karla’s eyelids and tumbled down her cheeks, mixing with a few defiant tears that escaped unbidden. It was best not to dwell on what could have been, even if the present defied her own imagination.

She had never made it to orientation.

Low-hanging scrub oak and pine branches slapped at her before she saw the rise of the stony railroad bed and the slick glimmer of track ahead. Scrambling up the crumbling incline, she left the woods behind.

The woods.

Karla’s stomach convulsed thinking about what she had just done—in these woods—to earn the money in her back pocket. She jerked her head as if to cast away the thought. It didn’t matter how she got the money. It only mattered that she got the money.

It was before noon and Karla had already completed two jobs. Jobs. That’s what she’d come to call them. A job was something a person did for money. Well, she did something … and then she got money. So “job” seemed fitting.

Just ten minutes, Karla. Ten minutes and you‘ll be there.

Negotiating the railroad ties, she quickened her pace to the crossing and then turned left onto flat pavement. The change in grade combined with the slick sheen of rain caught Karla off guard, and she fell on her ankle. White dots instantly flashed across a black curtain behind her eyes. She sucked her cheeks hard against her teeth and doubled over.

Ricky’s house was a dozen blocks away. She just needed to get there and give him the money. Then he’d give her the stuff she needed and everything would be better.

At least for a little while.

“Hey, Karla!”

Karla glimpsed mini-skirted Cindy, whose matted hair and stained tank top had taken the brunt of the summer storm.

“Goin’ to Ricky’s,” Karla huffed as she limped along.

“Okay, girl. See you around.”

Karla’s lips curled and her face twitched involuntarily. She needed to get to Ricky’s—now.

Her knees shook as her ankle throbbed. Soon her entire body would tremble. She needed only one thing. She could see the white rock. She hated that her mouth watered for it.

The rain pelted her from every angle. She tried to smooth her hair and wipe the mascara smudges from under her eyes. Ricky might need an extra favor, on top of the money she had, in exchange for the drugs her body demanded.

After rounding the corner to Ricky’s street, Karla ran as fast as she could with her limp. Weeds choked the front yard of the shabby gray house where a broken-down Chevy lived atop cement blocks. Her jaw chattered, and pain shot from her ankle to her stomach with every footfall. Her arms and hands tingled with recognizable electricity. Finally she stumbled up the three cement steps to Ricky’s house and knocked on his door.

Come on, Ricky! Open the door.

Legs crossed and bouncing side to side, she knocked again.

“Hold on, hold on,” said a gruff voice on the other side of the door.

The dead bolt clicked. The chain clanged. Another lock turned. Ricky finally opened the door, and his espresso-skinned body engulfed the entire doorframe. His naked stomach hung over his drawstring shorts, and she could smell his body odor over her own.

Her angel.

“Hey,” she smiled slyly, twirling a wet strand of hair around her finger. Her mouth was cotton dry, and every muscle in her body twitched. “Can I come in?”

“Woman, you know you always welcome.”

Karla stepped inside. The room reeked of pungent body odor mixed with butter. Ricky closed and locked the door behind her. Dark sheets, nailed directly to the wall, covered the windows. The flickering TV illuminated stained plaster walls. A damp puddle formed under one window, and a green paisley couch hugged the feminine curves and bones of an eighteen-year-old newbie who lay snoring.

Ricky’s tennis-racket-shaped hands pressed into the small of Karla’s back, propelling her toward the yellow haze that emanated from the kitchen’s bare fluorescent ceiling fixture. Fast-food bags and condiment packets ran riot over the counters and overflowed from the trash can. A bag of popcorn inside the open microwave explained the buttery smell. Karla turned toward the table.

There it was.

The magical “rock” that she lived for. “Can C-Ca-Can …” Her jaw muscles danced at the sight of it. “Can I get some?”

Ricky laughed. “What? You want my popcorn?” he teased as he grabbed the bag from the microwave. “You know I don’t share my popcorn,” he said, shoving a handful into his mouth.

Karla slid between the table and chair, crumpling into the seat. “Please, Ricky?” Her desperate tone, deep and smooth, sounded just above a whisper. She took the money out of her back pocket and held it out to him.

Ricky nodded but didn’t take the money

Karla slid her pipe out of her pants and filled her craving. Her body relaxed within seconds, setting her mind free from her constant companions of worry and fear. No longer a prisoner, she closed her eyes and dropped her head back.

She felt Ricky’s presence behind her, felt his fingers graze her hair and catch in the knots and tangles before coming to rest under her chin. “Use my shower, woman,” he said softly before placing a tender kiss on her lips.

Eyes closed, Karla smiled and nodded. Remaining still, she lingered in her high as long as possible, for it was her only reprieve from life and pain, thoughts and pasts.

/////

Hannah stood next to the supply closet in her preschool classroom. She had just put the scissors and glue sticks away when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Timmy bend down to free Gracie’s car—it had gotten stuck behind another toy. He didn’t say a word, just moved the toy and then continued playing with his trains.

Oh, Gracie …

Hannah hugged herself and looked around the room. Abigail and Emma played tea party; Tyler ran around roaring and holding his fingers like dinosaur claws; Landon, Michael, and Dean competed in a jumping contest; and Olivia and Shanna colored. As always, Timmy played trains and Gracie cared for the baby dolls. Future hospitality servers, a camp director, athletes, artists, a mechanic or engineer, and a mommy—was that what these children would grow up to do? To be?

Hannah soaked in the chaotic sounds, the way the classroom suddenly felt hot from all the warm bodies running about … the way the room captured the light scents of sweat mixed with finger paint and modeling clay. Everything about the room was a balm to Hannah’s aching heart, melting her worries and concerns. Teaching preschool was her dream. A simple, yet extraordinary, dream.

A green carpet spread like grass across the floor, and yellow chairs dotted the room like sunflowers. The alphabet, written in large block letters, bordered the top of the walls like gladiolas, splashing color across the room from ceiling to floor. Paintings and projects, posters with shapes and numbers, calendars and charts filled the space in between.

But something else resonated throughout the room every day, something that, perhaps, Hannah enjoyed most …

Innocence.

The hearts and minds of these four-year-olds were pure, innocent, and accepting. They had all been especially accepting of Gracie. Different and unique as she might be, every child had truly welcomed Gracie.

Gracie playfully nudged a doll’s face with her nose and then let out a soft, breathless laugh. A twinkle—one that only comes from a loving mama as she looks upon her baby—shone from Gracie’s big, island-water-blue eyes. “Have a good rest, baby,” Gracie whispered. With the awe and delicacy of a gemologist building a custom engagement ring, Gracie laid the doll in the miniature, white-wicker bassinet. Then she covered the plastic infant with a small, handmade quilt.

Gracie’s orange popsicle-stained lips formed the words, “Hello, God. How are you? Please help the doll baby rest. Amen.” As soon as she said “Amen,” Gracie’s eyes sprang open and her gaze danced around the room, twirling at the possibilities of what to do next—Play-doh, tea party, crayons, blocks …

Lost in a world of dolls and blankets, prayers and butterfly kisses, Gracie would never know what Timmy had done to help out … again.

How many times had that same scene played out in Hannah’s class? A dozen? At least. Each student knew that the pink-and-white Barbie car had to stay near Gracie at all times. No one else played with the car.

Not because Gracie didn’t want to share it, but because she couldn’t share it.

Inside the car sat a fanny pack that contained a battery-powered pump and ice pack. A long, skinny, clear tube slithered out from the fanny pack and lodged itself straight into a vein in Gracie’s shoulder. The contraption delivered continual medicine that, ultimately, administered medication into Gracie’s heart.

Without it, she would die.

Gracie had pulmonary hypertension, or PH. The blood vessels in her lungs would constrict and make it difficult for blood to exit her lungs. To compensate, the right side of Gracie’s heart pumped extra hard, adding tremendous stress to the critical fist-sized muscle in her chest.

Hannah sighed, wondering why … why Gracie, why this disease?

Gracie’s disease would never go away; it would affect Gracie her entire life.

It could even take her life.

The average life expectancy for a PH patient was two and a half years. At four years old, Gracie was already living on borrowed time. Borrowed time … at four! Goose bumps tickled Hannah’s arms, and a chill drizzled down her spine, touching every nerve along its way. She swallowed the lump in her throat and glanced at the clock. It had rained all morning, and Hannah wondered if it would ever stop.

/////

Karla had no idea how long she’d sat at Ricky’s wobbly kitchen table. Slow deliberation propelled her out of the kitchen, but even still, she felt like she floated through the house. If she could live every moment of her life this way, she would. This feeling, this mental state, is what kept her working. Soft snores from the girl on the couch mixed with the rain pounding the roof. A daytime talk show hummed from the tube TV in the corner, capturing Ricky’s attention.

Karla reached the bathroom and walked her fingers up the wall for the light switch. “Who builds a bathroom like this?” she mumbled. She had to step into the tub to close the door.

With the door closed, she couldn’t escape her reflection in the cracked and splotched mirror. The sight stole away her high. Dirt splattered her cheeks and neck. Lost somewhere in a creamy pool of bloodshot threads were eyes of chocolate. Thin, yellowed skin stretched taut over her cheekbones and chin. Was it only four years ago when she had been a popular cheerleader … and valedictorian?

She looked away.

Kicking off her shoes, she peeled away her wet jeans and shirt. Despite her efforts not to, she was compelled to look at her swelling belly.

Clothed, she could forget what lay beneath. But not now … Naked, the truth revealed itself. She tried to suck in her stomach, but the bump remained.

Last year, another street girl had gotten pregnant. Karla heard she had gone back home, back to someone who’d helped her. That wasn’t an option for Karla.

Once in the last four years, Karla had glimpsed the little blue house where she had grown up. It was no longer blue, and rosebushes bloomed in abundance where Karla’s seashell garden had once existed. Karla had spent hours sitting in that bed of seashells, examining each one, imagining how the lines and ridges of every shell had formed in the Atlantic Ocean. She had hand-selected each shell on countless beach trips from her early childhood years. Anytime she went to the beach, she walked the shore, scouring the sand for shells of all shapes and sizes. Of course, the jackpot shell had been the very first unscathed, unbroken conch shell. She had ended up finding seven in her shelling years. Seven conch shells proudly bordered her shell garden where thousands of seashells filled the small plot of land just below her bedroom window.

Those shells had been Karla’s most treasured possessions.

Where had they gone?

Each shell had held a piece of Karla. And now they were gone. Every single one. Someone had probably dumped them into the trash without a second glance. Karla’s chest hurt at the thought. Were her hand-selected seashells now nothing but crushed remains of what had once been beautiful … magical?

So many things that had once been …

Karla noticed that an addition had been added to the back of the house, new shingles covered the roof, and an expensive front door with an ornate oval of glass replaced the old wooden one.

But one truth remained. No cosmetic changes could erase what welled up in Karla’s heart at the sight of the house: sadness and terror … sadness borne by the realization that her leaving home abruptly at eighteen had not moved her mother to reach out or look for her—ever.

The terror was what she tried to escape every time she took a hit from her pipe.

His name was Tony. Her mom’s boyfriend who eventually became Karla’s stepdad. The man who tormented Karla and did things no man should ever do. Especially not to a child …

The slap of cold water from Ricky’s mildew-covered showerhead brought Karla back to reality. The reality that she needed rid of this thing—this inconvenient bump—as soon as possible.

Grabbing the bar of soap, she violently scrubbed, rubbing away the dirt, sweat, and memories that stained her. A quick rinse and she dried with a threadbare towel that lay in a heap with others in the corner of the tiny bathroom. Ignoring the pile of wet clothes she had discarded earlier, she rummaged through a trash bag under the sink that held clean thrift-store finds that Ricky kept just for her, his “special” girl.

Over the years, Ricky had asked Karla—more than once—to get off the streets and come live with him. Karla refused every time. She didn’t want to be someone’s slave; she was her own woman and never planned to rely on anyone else. “But I love you, baby,” he had told her. Karla had slapped him. “Don’t ever tell me that again, Ricky.”

She didn’t want to be “loved.”

Her mom had told Karla she loved her.

Tony had told her.

Vomit lodged in her throat. No, she didn’t want to be loved. Ricky was stupid for thinking he could ever change that.

Ready for another hit, she left the bathroom for the confines of the kitchen.

“What you gonna do about it?” Ricky sat where Karla had been at the table. Karla stared at him. “That.” He pointed to her stomach and raised his eyebrows.

Cállate, Ricky,” she snapped at him in her first language. She grabbed her pipe from the table.

The gentle pelting of rain on the roof signaled the storm’s end, and the sound doused the hardness in Ricky’s gaze.

“You need to go down to the pregnancy center. See the lady down there.” Ricky heaved his bulk from the chair and towered over Karla.

“It’s my life,” she said, chin up and still defiant.

“That’s what you think.” He gave her a half smile.

Something about the way he smiled and his direct gaze sent chills down her spine. Fight or flight. Every nerve in her body screamed for the former, but she knew she needed to get away before she said or did something stupid, something she’d regret. She turned and blindly ran from the kitchen. Fumbling with the locks and chain, she tore open the door and raged down the steps, away from Ricky.

/////

Hannah clapped her hands twice. “Story time, everyone!” Ten seconds later, everyone sat on the story-time carpet for the last story of the day. The story was accompanied by the contagious laughter of the kids who made silly animal noises harmonious with the words Hannah read.

Living in the moment. Yes, Hannah’s preschool students lived in the moment. Daily, they reminded Hannah to enjoy the present, not long for the future or groan about the past. The concept was a refreshing gulp of chilled water. Hannah was thankful the children had poured it into her cup. Now she just had to drink from it.

Some days, that was hard … and today was one of those days.

After the story, Hannah individually dismissed each student to his or her parent. Doing so, she commented on the student’s behavior and understanding of concepts from the day. It was one way she maintained constant, up-to-date communication with the parents.

“Can I help sort the crayons?” Gracie asked.

“Absolutely! Thanks for helping.” Hannah turned to Gracie’s mom, always the first parent to arrive at the end of the day, and smiled. “Hey, Rachael!” Hannah nodded toward Gracie. “She’s doing really well with her sight words.”

Rachael kissed Gracie’s head. “Good job, sweet girl.”

“We’ve been practicing, right, Mommy?” Gracie’s eyes cut to Rachael as she offered a mischievous side grin that carbon-copied Rachael’s.

Hannah felt the tentacles of envy wrap around her heart. How she wished that she had a boy or girl to look into her eyes and call her “Mommy”…

“Does your class start tomorrow?” Rachael asked.

Hannah tucked her hair behind her ears as if to tuck away her thoughts, then she nodded. “Yes. Five hours a day, every Saturday, for the next six weeks.”

“Excited? Nervous?” Rachael raised her eyebrows. She bent down to pick up scraps of paper.

Hannah sat on the edge of her desk and sighed. “Both, I guess. Sometimes I get frustrated that it has to be so hard.”

Rachael walked to Hannah, dropping a handful of paper into the trash can on her way. She looked directly into Hannah’s eyes and squeezed her hands, but said nothing. No words were needed.

A wave rolled over Hannah’s eyes, and she looked away and sniffled. “I don’t know why I’ve been so emotional about this lately.”

“Hannah …” Rachael looked at Hannah as she gently said, “Knowing you need to pursue foster parenting or adoption to become a parent …”—she paused—“… and then actually going through all the obstacles are separate issues.”

Hannah removed all defenses and let her eyes fill with tears. She didn’t have to hide from Rachael and Gracie, and she couldn’t wear the mask any longer—at least not today.

Hannah looked at her miracle student; Hannah had a special bond with Gracie and Rachael. It wasn’t just Gracie’s kind demeanor or polite and respectful ways. It wasn’t simply because Gracie learned quickly and tried her best to complete any task. Sure, those things made being Gracie’s teacher all the sweeter, but it wasn’t the root of their bond. What bonded Hannah to Gracie was pulmonary hypertension. Not just because Gracie had it.

But because Hannah had it too.

Diagnosed when she was five, Hannah knew exactly how Gracie felt, emotionally and physically. Hannah’s chest bore a scar from a tube that had administered her medicine twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for over a decade. Fainting and blackouts had been regular occurrences, but if she paid attention, she could feel them coming and sit down to avoid injury from falling.

Following her body’s cues had allowed her to play sports. Her mom had been a volleyball star and her dad a football prodigy. Athleticism came naturally to Hannah. After her parents met with the basketball coach, Hannah was finally able to play on the team in high school.

She was the county’s highest scorer her senior year.

Hannah was not the typical PH patient. Not in the slightest. While most PH patients got winded walking to the bathroom or out to their mailbox, Hannah won MVP of her high school basketball team. Many PH patients accessorized with oxygen tubes and utilized a wheelchair. Hannah was thankful she had yet to need either, at least not on a steady, daily basis.

At sixteen, Hannah’s doctor had prescribed a different medicine—trial pills that her PH cardiologist thought would work comparably to the intravenous medication. It was risky. Hannah, though, was a risk taker. The pills had been doing their job for almost twelve years now. They gave Hannah freedom from the catheter and fanny pack.

For Gracie, however, the catheter was still necessary. For now. Thankfully her Barbie car made the disease seem almost cool. The way her classmates admired the car on the first day of school gave Gracie confidence that she might not have had otherwise.

“Done!” Gracie turned to face Hannah and Rachael. A smile spanned her entire face. “Can I fold the baby doll clothes now?” She was already walking toward the clothes basket, carrying her Barbie car as she went.

Hannah watched for a moment. “She loves playing mom.”

Gracie laid each shirt across the floor, methodically folded each sleeve, and then creased the center. Only a new mom cherished laundry—the washing, drying, and folding of tiny baby onesies and sleepers—like the gift it was. Hannah looked away from Gracie and off into space.

Will motherhood be anything more than a childhood dream for Gracie? For me?

Hannah sighed and looked at Rachael. “Sorry, Rach.” Hannah forced a half smile. “I’m being a Negative Nancy today.”

Rachael shook her head slightly. “No,” she said softly. “It’s hard. It’s life.” Rachael leaned over and hugged Hannah. Hannah melted under Rachael’s understanding arms.

Only fifteen of every one million people have PH … and Gracie just happened to be in Hannah’s class.

“Only God could have brought us together,” Rachael had told Hannah the first time they met, a little over a year ago. Gracie had been in Hannah’s preschool class last year, too. Although Gracie was academically, developmentally, and socially ready to begin kindergarten now, she wouldn’t be five till February. In Florida, a child had to be five by September first of the academic calendar. That meant Gracie would remain in preschool for this one fine year. Hannah would savor every second of the next eight months.

Rachael loosened her embrace. “You go to that foster-parenting class tomorrow,” she said firmly, “and then take this one step at a time.” She paused and stepped back. “Don’t worry about tomorrow—”

“I know, I know: tomorrow has enough worries of its own.” Hannah felt the slightest peace wash over her as she said the words. Maybe if she said it a hundred more times, she’d not only believe the words but actually live them out.

Rachael winked. “We’re off to Cupcake Creation,” she spoke loud enough for Gracie to hear.

“We are?” Gracie squealed. She folded the last baby doll shirt, set it on top of the other clothes, and pushed back the neatly stacked laundry basket to where it belonged.

“Bye, Mrs. Mattox. I’ll use pink sprinkles on my cupcake just for you!” Gracie called over her shoulder as she walked out the door pulling on her mom’s hand.

Hannah smiled. “The pink ones taste the best!”

“Remember, greater things are yet to come, Hannah.” Rachael winked and disappeared behind the door.

Hannah looked out the window next to her desk. Despite the earlier rain, the sky was now a blanket of blue. Sunshine streamed through the crystal apple that sat on her desk and painted a rainbow over all her papers. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple … every color in the rainbow, as vibrant as ever. God’s promise. A reminder that God was still there, still cared about Hannah.

Thanks for the reminder, Father. I want to trust You. I do. But I’m having a hard time.

The clock read three thirty. Time to organize the sea of papers on her desk. Thirty minutes passed before her room was tidy and the activity tables arranged for Monday. A bowl of seeds and a stack of Styrofoam cups sat on one table. Another table had an unopened bag of potting soil, a stack of newspapers, and a pitcher she’d ask her “Special Helper of the Day” to fill with water. Experiments were thrilling for preschoolers; Monday would be fun. Satisfied, Hannah slung her bag over her shoulder, turned off the lights, and closed the door behind her.

Florida’s fall air still felt steamy from the morning heat mixed with afternoon rain. Hannah could feel the humidity soak her skin almost instantly. It felt good, really good. Hannah always thought that peacefulness rode the coattails of fresh air. She draped her bag over the bike handle and swung her leg over the side. Riding home, she noticed a heart etched into the cement. Within it were the letters: PH loves CP. She smiled. She didn’t know the people, but the picture reminded her of Luke, her first and only love. The man she would have dreamt about if she’d had the chance to imagine what her dream man would be like. But she never did. She never had to create a fictional “dream guy”—she had dated Luke since high school. Their love had occurred slow and natural, innocent and unprompted. They had never broken up, though Hannah once tried. The memory of that conversation flooded Hannah as if it were yesterday.

“Hannah, I love you.” Hannah could hear Luke’s voice in her head. She remembered how Luke had paused, waiting for the words to take root in her heart. “I love you more than the idea of being a father. God brought us together and He has specific plans for us. Maybe those plans include becoming parents. And, Hannah …”—he had looked past her eyes and into the place in her heart reserved only for him—“… maybe they don’t.” Luke had tenderly massaged the tops of her hands with his large thumbs.

“But you want to have children, right?” Hannah had asked. “You deserve children.” Hot saliva had choked Hannah as she angrily swiped away tears. “You’d be a great dad. The best.” Hannah shook her head, desperate for Luke to understand their future together. “And I can’t give you that. I can’t make you a father.” Soft sobs had escaped even as she tried to silence them. Hannah’s mom and doctor had explained the risks to Hannah when she was sixteen: because she had PH, pregnancy would jeopardize her life and the life of the child.

Hannah could never become pregnant.

Speaking with firm certainty, Luke had said, “I want to be your husband.” He shrugged. “God may have other plans for us to become parents.”

“Maybe,” Hannah had mumbled softly as she hung her head.

Luke had placed his hand under her chin and lifted her head so she couldn’t look anywhere but into his eyes. “Regardless, Hannah, I want the chance to show you love for the rest of our lives.” He licked his lips. “I love you. I will always love you.” He brought his face close to hers and kissed her lips. “No matter what,” he had whispered.

That conversation had quelled her worries. After ten years of dating and a short engagement, Hannah Glendale had become Mrs. Luke Mattox. That was two years ago. They hadn’t been married long, but she longed for a baby more and more with every passing day.

Motherhood was a dream that had churned in Hannah’s heart and mind for as long as she could remember. While tomorrow’s class might bring her one step closer to her dream of becoming a mom, the hours till tomorrow seemed to be stacked like a wall in front of her.

Exhausted, Hannah sighed. Sometimes life just didn’t seem fair.

 

Loving by Corin Hughs

© 2013, Corin Hughs

All Rights Reserved.