Excerpt for One Mountain at a Time by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

One Mountain at a Time

White River Series Book 1


Michael Giere

This is a work of fiction. Although based on a true event, the names and personal lives of the characters are fictionalized by the author and are not to be construed as real.

World Castle Publishing, LLC

Pensacola, Florida

Copyright © Michael Giere 2017

Smashwords Edition

Hardback ISBN: 9781629897424

Paperback ISBN: 9781629897431

eBook ISBN: 9781629897448

Second Edition World Castle Publishing, LLC, July 17, 2017

Smashwords Licensing Notes

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.

Cover: Karen Fuller

For Colleen, my wise and beautiful wife, the love of my life, the rock of our family, and the calm when the world comes apart. She told me many years ago that I should write books – she has always believed in me so much more than I have.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38



Sunday Afternoon

“You should write it now.”

There it was again, that voice. The voice.

Richard craned his head over his shoulder. Both children were focused on an old stained map they had discovered, seemingly unaware of the voice. In the other direction, he saw only the warped, misshapen door stationed against the fury of the snow storm. No one was there.

“Should I? Is that what I should do?” Richard said softly, almost to himself.

“It’s what you were thinking. It’s in your heart Richard,” the voice whispered.

“Would it make a difference now, after everything that’s happened—everything I’ve done?”

“Would it?”

Richard drew a breath deeply into himself, trying to find some reasonable and rational way to fix his mind on the fact that he was in a discussion with a voice, or a person, that he couldn’t even see.

In an instant his mind fixed on the exact moment one year ago when he had first heard this voice. The memory came with all the attendant smells and sights just as real as if he were still in Rowlaski’s Bar in downtown Denver. Even more real, he thought. It was a broken down bar for broken down drunks and people on the far edge of their lives, their radius so wide that they were in danger of escaping it completely. Richard thought it was his just punishment.

He could actually, somehow, see himself in a fetal position, his head partly resting in his own drying vomit, with the dank stinking odors of stale beer and liquor and old food hanging like unseen curtains in the dark and empty bar. His back was resting against an ancient juke box on the hard bare concrete floor.

His drinking buddies had left him where he had passed out hours before and the lone bartender and proprietor, Simon Rowlaski, had simply turned out the lights, locked up and gone to his upstairs apartment.

“Richard,” was the first word the voice had spoken to him, rousing him out of his stupor. Now, in his memory, he could actually feel the mess on the side of his face again as he lifted his head off the cold concrete, vaguely aware that he had been blind staggering drunk just hours before. The scene was so vivid in his mind that he winced at the stench from his own clothes and the bar as he watched himself peer into the darkness.

“Oh, my head...yes...yeah...” he could hear himself haltingly stammer. “Yeah, what do you want?” he coarsely asked, followed by a statement made out loud to no one, “Oh, I don’t feel...I think I’m going to throw up...”

“Do you ever feel good after passing out drunk?” The voice was barely audible now.

“Say wha...huh?” Richard suddenly realized that while he could clearly hear the voice, he couldn’t see anyone. “Where are you, what do you need, oh, my head...” In his mind’s eye, he watched as he was struggling to get his legs under himself, using the juke box as a crutch.

“I’m here, don’t worry,” the voice had answered. “I came to ask you a question, Richard.” The voice drifted off and was replaced by the buzz of the neon sink lights and the slight humming noises from the bar coolers somewhere in the darkness. Richard strained to see someone, but there were only shadows and dimly defined tables and chairs scattered around. The juke box had a row of soft lights highlighting the coin slot and the selection buttons that illuminated Richard’s hand as he pulled himself to an upright position.

“Okay, a question, huh, but, who are you, do I know you?” Richard heard himself asking.

“Do you?” responded the voice.

Now fully upright, Richard stared into the dark bar towards the spot where the side entrance should be, but could only see the flickering exit sign. It crossed his mind that he might be in danger. Should I run for the exit?

“Do I know you?” Richard repeated his question to give himself a moment to think. “No, I don’t think so.” He began wiping his face with the side of his hand to clear the mess off of himself. “Should I?” he heard himself questioning the darkness.

The voice asked, “Do you want to?”

“What are you talking about?”

Like a stretched rubber band snapping back into shape, the memory passed and once again the bitterly cold dilapidated shed was all too real. His two children were visible and real. The missing back wall of the shed was real. “Will it make a difference if I write it down?”

“I don’t know, Richard,” the voice said quietly.

“Will she be okay if...” Richard’s volume dropped off as the possibility of the kids overhearing him crossed his mind, “...I mean, if I can’t make it back?”

“Hmm, that’s a very good question, Richard.”

“So I may not make it back?”

“I don’t know Richard.” After a moment of silence, the voice’s tone deepened just a bit. “Richard, you must climb one mountain at a time. What happens here will happen here, but you already know what you must say.”

Richard didn’t respond for a moment. Then, in a soft but urgent manner, he pleaded, “But the children, they make it and she is okay, right?”

Richard could hear nothing now except the howling wind, menacingly whipping the cold and the snow into a weapon, threatening and angry, looking to spend it’s fury on something or someone.

The voice finally interrupted, coming deep and resonating, yet strangling settling. “Richard, no person gets to know the story of another. Not even a son, daughter, or wife. Their stories belong to them alone, as does yours to you.”

Searching his backpack, Richard retrieved and unfolded the two page instructions from the camp rental office - the reverse pages were blank. Squatting on the buckled, uneven, cold wood planks of the shed’s floor he picked up a piece of what had once been a drawer bottom to use as a smooth surface. With shaking strokes he began writing.

The voice was gone.

Chapter 1

The Previous Friday

The divorce was final. That was that. Ricky sat on the wide wooden steps of his grandmother’s house chewing on that fact like a piece of hard taffy, the kind that makes your jaws ache and sorry you’d started.

He’d been thinking on the divorce for a long time now, since the day some judge, a man he had never seen before, announced to the world that the marriage between his mom and his dad was over. Just like that.

The judge hadn’t said a word about the comfortable life that he and his sister Emily had always known being over too. But it was over just the same.

He was keeping watch over the narrow ribbon of road in front of the house that vanished beyond the nearby trees, waiting for his dad to pick up the two of them for the first time in over a year. Everything about this unwelcomed new life was uncertain. After the many months that slipped by, Ricky wasn’t even sure that the love that had once bonded them so tightly together still stuck. He was absentmindedly picking at the blistered old paint on the even older front steps, peeling up and curling off the wood at the edges. “Is that how it’ll be with all of us now?”

If Emily was anxious about it, she kept her peace as she sat cross-legged on a white wooden porch chair at the top of the stairs, reading a paperback book. She would look towards the trees every now and then and return to her reading without any comment.

And if Ricky couldn’t stop chewing on the divorce, Emily had seemed to swallow it whole. She never mentioned it. Sometimes Ricky would take off on a talking streak and get himself all worked up and angry over what mom and dad had done to them. Emily would just look at her book, or her tablet, or simply stare at Ricky without comment.

He could never figure her out anyway.

After the divorce, Ricky and Emily stayed in Grand Junction with their mother and moved into their grandmother’s house, while their dad went half way across Colorado to work. “I’ll be back for a camping trip before your birthday on the first free weekend I have. I Promise.” Those were his last words to Ricky—given with such assurance and settled with such disappointment.

Ricky’s twelfth birthday had come and gone. Now, after waiting for so long he sat and waited a bit longer, to see if this promise was meant to be a promise kept.

What’ya think, Em? Do you think he’ll come? Ricky wanted to ask. But he knew Emily would simply shrug her shoulders and keep her thoughts to herself.

“Do you remember the last time we saw Dad?” he asked instead.

Emily looked up curiously at her brother and shrugged.

He reclined back on the porch steps reconciled to waiting and looking up at the autumn sky with the brilliant sun loitering about with a few wispy clouds. “Isn’t it just magic Em, you know, the leaves and all? You can close your eyes and imagine autumn anytime just by remembering the smells and colors.”

Emily keep reading and Ricky gazed on as the passing summer was saluted in a bold swirl of the red, orange, and yellow colors that dressed the world for the new season.

“You know, it’s still good camping weather. We’ll be in camp tomorrow morning and tomorrow night we can build just the biggest fire ever!”

Emily put her book down and looked at her brother. “Do you think we can cook marshmallows? That’s what I remember most from the last camping trip. Dad cooked me marshmallows.”

Ricky turned and looked at his sister. “Yeah, he did. Promise, we’ll cook marshmallows, Em.”

Emily observed the only car that came from behind the trees on the narrow road all morning. “He’s coming,” she announced flatly.

Ricky launched from the stairs not noticing that Emily had buried her face in her book again. “Wow! What do you know? Cool. We’re going to get an early start. Come on, Em, come on!”

Richard Murray was a nice looking man in his forties with a large inviting smile that raised his cheeks up on his face like ramps, leading to his blue eyes. He was tall and nicely built with broad shoulders and kept his brown hair cut short making some think he was a former Marine, instead of the former sales manager he actually was.

Sometimes he was loud and rough, but he’s dad, thought Ricky. And he was a very affectionate man. Mom had said he was too affectionate sometimes, which really didn’t mean anything to him. In all the time they had lived together as a family, Ricky couldn’t think of many days that his dad had not told him “I love you,” or had not messed up his hair, or had not picked Emily up and spun her around while kissing her. He loved his kids, even though, as he had told them many times during the separation and divorce, “I made mistakes and we can’t live together any longer as a family.” Ricky didn’t get it and Emily didn’t talk about it.

No sooner had Richard’s foot cleared the door of the car than Ricky attacked him, wrapping himself around his father like a tire around a wheel. Emily closed her book and stood, holding her position on the porch and not moving off to meet her father.

Richard had only half lifted Ricky and pretended he couldn’t lift him higher, which was almost true. “You’re too big!” he exclaimed proudly, but hugged and kissed his son and ruffed up his hair. When he and Ricky started up the stairs Emily just watched with no apparent emotion.

At the top of the stairs Richard removed his arm from around Ricky’s shoulder and smiled at Emily without a word. She slightly cocked her head and pushed her glasses up on her nose and just waited. Richard stepped up to his daughter and covered her with his long arms so that Ricky, behind them, could only see his father slightly bent over and Emily’s feet dangling a foot off the porch.

Sara Barton, the children’s grandmother and Richard’s former mother-in-law, hearing all the commotion had come to the front of the house and stood behind the screen door watching the scene but not intruding. She had finally abandoned her hair to its true gray color, while her skin still carried the summer’s tan.

“My word,” she declared, “look here, will you. I wondered what all the yelling was about!” Richard looked up and Sara opened the screen door and joined them on the porch. With both children squeezed in the middle, Sara and Richard embraced and exchanged a kiss on the cheek, while Sara touched, then lifted his chin with her hand. “You look well, Richard. You look well.”

A runaway tear just managed to escape down her right cheek.

“Richard,” she stated as much for the children as for herself, “you always have a place in this house. You remember that.”

“Yes ma’am,” Richard replied and let it be.

“Well, it’s been a pretty exciting day around this place, waiting on you like you’re the King of Siam or something,” Sara winked. “And what a beautiful weekend you brought with you!”

Richard didn’t reply but simply bent down and kissed Sara on her cheek again. Ricky thought he saw another fugitive tear on the loose and he also couldn’t help but notice that Emily had backed up a foot from them and was studying the wooden boards of the porch.

Sara looked out beyond the front of the house and noticed the new model car Richard was driving, “New car?”

“Oh, heaven’s no, can’t even afford my old truck, much less a new car. It’s a rental. I didn’t want to chance a breakdown up here or on the way to Glenwood Springs and back.”

Sara nodded, “Yep, that’d be a good thing!” She held the screen door open and then stood like a toll booth attendant shooing them all inside.

It had been a long time since Richard had been in this house. His memories were like a squeaky staircase, where every noisy footfall announced the next. Passing the foyer into the large living room, Richard felt comfortable at once. It had the warmth of old, well-worn furniture, throw rugs, and soft lamps. There were photos spread around the room chronicling the life of Sara, Mary and the children. Richard couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t even one photo that included him. Yeah, saw that one coming.

Richard sat on the couch that he had sat on for the twelve years during which he and Mary had come over to Sara’s house for Thanksgiving or Christmas, birthdays or anniversaries, or dinners and lunches. With Ricky sitting on one side of him and Emily on the other he recalled the progression of his life with Mary in this room in a happier time. When he and his wife had been there in love, or when they were there proudly pregnant, or delivered of a first child, then of another. He could hear Mary’s lifting laugh and soft touches to his knee to still a comment or encourage one.

Ricky couldn’t stop talking and every breath seemed to bring a new thought that found its way to a question. Every time Richard looked straight at Emily she would shyly look at her feet, but when he turned and engaged Ricky or Sara, he could see out of the corner of his eye that she was staring at him. Richard shifted in his seat abruptly and was facing Emily, “So tell me about middle-school. How exciting is this?”

“Dad! Fifth grade isn’t middle school!” Finally, he had snared a small smile out of his daughter.

“Okay, so how exciting is fifth grade?”

“Dad,” Emily seemed genuinely disgusted. “It’s boring. And I don’t get to read enough.”

“Oh. Okay, I can see that would not be good.” Richard reached around her and pulled her to himself and gave her a loving squeeze. Emily couldn’t help but smile.

Sara was sitting in a side chair next to the couch and finally offered, “I know you all are in a hurry to head out to Aunt Gloria’s and pick up the camping gear, but I want to fix some hot chocolate for the kids and coffee for us before you leave.”

Sara didn’t wait for an answer, but stood up and headed into the kitchen while barking out orders, “Kids, head upstairs and finish getting your bags ready. I’ll call you when the hot chocolate is done.”

Ricky didn’t want to leave the room, much less go upstairs, but figured this was one of those conversations he had become used to during the breakup of his family. Whatever those conversations were they never seemed to solve anything he noticed.

Chapter 2

He found Sara in the kitchen, the first place he ever saw her, framed in the large kitchen window back-lit by the autumn sun.

“What’s the smile for, Mr. Murray?”

“Just thinking that I asked you if I could date Mary at this very table,” pointed Richard, “and you’ve not really changed a bit. Still asking a lot of questions.”

“Yep, that’s my job Richard. You know...” Sara paused as she turned her attention to the tea kettle on the stove, giving Richard the impression that this was a discussion she didn’t want to have but was determined to have anyway. “If your sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous hadn’t called Mary and told her about you being sober a year now, I don’t think she would have approved this weekend.”

Sara didn’t follow up for a long moment and then with a slight crack in her voice she said softly, “I’m proud of you. I know it must be very hard. Honestly, I didn’t know what to think when you started in rehab. I wanted to think you could get better...” Sara’s voice cracked harder but she was forcing herself on, “It was hard for all of us Richard, especially the kids.”

He sat down at the table and didn’t respond until she had finished pouring the hot water and coco mix together for the children. She fussed around with a tray and Richard stood when it seemed to be ready and told Sara he’d take it to the kids. But he really wanted to give her a moment. He knew it was hard and he could feel the pain and he needed a moment himself to pull his own thoughts together. He returned to the kitchen to find two steaming cups of coffee set out at the table.

They both sat, Sara with her head lowered and Richard tried to begin a story that still bit. Finally, he just spitted out, “I want you to know Mary was right about everything. It was me, not her at all,” Richard paused and checked the emotion he felt building in his chest. “That’s the truth and I wanted you to hear it from me straight out. I understand nothing can ever be the same again. I know that. But I want you to know that I’m not lying anymore.”

He looked up to see Sara holding her head with the palm of one hand and dabbing at her eyes with the other. He continued, “When I was fired and Mary discovered the other women and the rest, the porn, and she’d already given me an ultimatum on the drinking, well, I just thought everyone was out to get me. I know it sounds ridiculous.”

Richard drew in a huge breath to catch himself from breaking down, “When Mary confronted me the first time, I was a coward. I just lied, and lied and lied. I tried to make it sound like she had the problem, not me. But I want you to know, Sara, I know these are just empty words now, but I loved her from the first time I ever saw her. I still love her, and I’d give my life to change what I’ve done to her, the kids, to you, and to God.”

As Sara wiped her eyes quietly, Richard wanted to stop there but felt bound to keep going. “It started so slowly at first. The drinking. Then there was a girl downtown in the coffee shop, just across from the office. I’m not even sure how it happened, honestly, but it did.” Richard didn’t look at Sara, but felt himself slip even lower in the chair, and his eyes grew moist and puffy.

“I explained it away. No, that’s not right,” he corrected, “I made excuses for selfish and destructive behavior, that’s what I did.” He could feel his eyes overflowing. “I made up reasons why it was Mary’s fault. She wasn’t paying enough attention to me. There was so much pressure at work. I was special. The rules didn’t apply to me.” Richard wiped his wet cheeks with the napkin Sara had laid out without looking at her. “Before I knew it, I was a cheat and a drunk. I was living out a nightmare that I created.”

He caught his breath, but didn’t look up at Sara and couldn’t have done so if he had wanted. “It was like taking a sled down a hill on slick snow; once you push off, and jump on the sled, you’re half way down the hill before you know it, and you just go faster and faster. Too many beers turned into too many shots of hard liquor, and finally, well, I was in the darkest place you can imagine. It was so dark that all I could do was talk to myself. Worry about myself. It was all about me in the loneliest and most godforsaken way. Like building a prison inside your own head, climbing into it and slamming the door shut behind you. Everything you do, or think about, is how to manipulate everything—or everyone. It was a shadow of life, really. It really wasn’t even me anymore.”

She let out an audible breath, and turned her face away. Richard gave the moment some breathing room. Finally, he simply said, “That’s the whole truth, Sara.”

A minute or two passed and Richard went on. “When I got to Denver last year and got settled in the job I told myself I had an opportunity to start over. I was going to straighten myself out. That’s what I told myself. I was going to show everyone that I didn’t need them, or anyone else for that matter.

“Of course, I was just lying to myself more. It wasn’t a week or two before I doubled down on the drinking. There were other things as well. I was stealing from the job, that’s why they fired me. I lost the car. Everything else…I sold it for booze.”

Richard had to pause once more and then picked up again, his voice barely above a whisper, “There are whole weeks I don’t remember. I wasn’t just drunk. I was fallen down, passed out drunk. Sometimes I don’t even know where I slept. But about a year ago, someone found me, in a bar of all places. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but I guess you could say it was a miracle. It’s still hard to believe that someone stopped to pick me up. They gave me their hand and led me to Al Morales. He’s my sponsor at AA, the guy who called Mary. Honestly, I can’t even tell you how we exactly met.”

“From there,” Richard went on, “Al Morales got me kinda cleaned up and found a rehab center downtown that would take me. Somehow he found the money for it. You know, when I met him, I didn’t have one dollar left. Not a quarter in my pocket. I spent everything on drinking.” He shook his head.

When he finally looked up to see Sara, she was looking at him with bright red eyes. “And?”

“He took me in for a while. Al did it all really, not me.” Richard had to catch his breath again. “He spent hours and hours with me. It wasn’t therapy I don’t guess, like at the rehab center, but it was…” Richard was fidgeting in his chair with discomfort, but kept advancing, “it was a crash course in life—it was emergency lessons in God.” Richard didn’t look up.

“He walked me through the steps of my life and showed me that every step led up to me. Me, that’s it. He showed me that I woke up talking to me, about me. I built a whole life out of a relationship with me. Even with Mary and the kids, as much as I loved them, in my heart I loved me more. It’s all I knew. But, in time, I wasn’t enough even for me.”

Richard tried to smile at his feeble joke but could only manage a pained look. “He showed me that a lot of things in life are actually binary, you know, either-or. There isn’t anything between on and off. You either live for something bigger than you, or you have to find something that fills the void left when all you have is you.”

Richard didn’t move a muscle, but he could hear Sara’s chair creaking as she shifted positions. He knew he had to finish.

“Al Morales asked me flat out one day whether I was ready to invite Jesus Christ into the mess I had made of my life. Did I want to live out God’s plan for me, or continue with my plan? Of course, since mine hadn’t worked that well…it wasn’t a hard choice at all.”

Richard looked down at the floor and waited for a long moment and could feel Sara staring hard at him. He braced himself for the launch of ridicule for being weak and needing a crutch like religion, for substituting Jesus Christ for a bottle and for believing in fairytales. He’d heard her opinions often and loud on all matters concerning God. Mary once suggested her mother’s outspoken loathing of religion and its practitioners was rooted in how her dad had walked out on them at such an early age. Regardless, Mary grew up sharing the inclination but not the anger. Richard simply didn’t know or care enough about matters of faith to be hostile. They simply never discussed faith, much less God in all their years of marriage.

During the uncomfortable quiet Richard heard Sara’s breathing turn heavier. Finally, she offered the last thing he expected. “It’s hard to see your family come apart, Richard. Mary, you, the kids—you all were everything to me. I never saw it coming. It was all so good one minute and so bad the next. How could I even process that?” Richard keep watch on the floor.

“I’ve really struggled with it. Mary would barely talk about it with me. The children moped around. And for me, it brought back everything I’ve tried so hard to forget in my own life.” Richard looked up quizzically at his former mother-in-law. Self-deprecation was never one of Sara’s obvious qualities.

He wanted to say something comforting or understanding, but no words could break free from the sorrow that weighed them down.

Sara turned her head and said softly, “I don’t know why life has to be so hard.”

Chapter 3

Ricky was upstairs in Emily’s room for no reason other than that’s where she went and he didn’t want to wait alone in his room. She sat on a large bean bag with her back against the wall, her ever present book in her lap and poking frequently at her blond wavy hair trying to escape from underneath her Rockies ball cap. She paid no attention to Ricky, who stretched out on her bed with his hands clasped behind his head.

Now they waited.

“So, how’s this, huh?” Ricky announced without turning his head. “We don’t see dad, in like forever, and when he does finally come, he’s downstairs with Grandma.”

Ricky didn’t expect an answer from Emily on the subject so he was surprised when he heard her saying, “Well, it’s okay. I think she really missed him, and she probably won’t get the chance to talk to him anytime soon.”

Emily sunk deep into the bean bag, staring straight at him, her book still open in her lap. “Yeah, I guess,” he thought about this for a moment. Then he allowed, “Do you think mom would let him come home, if he’s better now?”

She took the question and buried it on the spot. She returned to her book and simply shrugged, which was the reaction Ricky had expected to begin with.

Ricky dropped his voice to a whisper. “So I waited on the stairs for a little after I picked up the hot chocolate. Dad was telling Grandma about stuff –stuff he did.”

“You shouldn’t be snooping. Mom says it’s wrong.”

“I just wanted to hear dad. I don’t know why he can’t come home now.”

Emily looked up. “He did some bad things.”

“Yeah, he was telling Grandma that it’s all his fault.”

“That’s what Mom said.” Emily pushed a rebellious curl of hair back under her cap.

“But, he said he got better.” Ricky stood up. He was tall for his age with a pin-straight body and mop of brown hair. He looked out the bedroom window, anxious to get going. “So if he’s better, why can’t he come back here? I mean I know they’re divorced and everything, but they could get together again, right?”

“Mom says he can’t.”

“She didn’t even wait with us to see him. Maybe if she saw he wasn’t sick anymore, that might change her mind.”

Emily didn’t respond. She adjusted her ten year frame in the bean bag and stuck her nose back into one of her favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder stories. She loved the sense of belonging and the purpose of family in them, and she delighted in Jack the dog. It was strange, she just realized in that moment that she enjoyed the stories more and more as the year had worn on.

Ricky returned to the bed and stretched out again. “He looks different to me.” Ricky thought so, but he couldn’t resist the challenge of baiting an answer from his sister. “What about you, Em, you think he looks different?”

For the second time he was dumfounded that Emily actually did answer a question about their dad. “Yeah, he does look better. He looks nice.”

Ricky locked his arms behind his head. As the minutes slipped away, his thoughts turned to fishing. Emily pretended to be reading, but was thinking about her dad.

Chapter 4

Neither one of them spoke as they sipped their coffee. Richard hesitated to act surprised or even comment. The proud and independent woman who had commanded everything that came close to the orbit of her life, was now asking the hardest questions about that life.

Finally, she said, “I guess you think you’re the only one who has messed up so bad, broken so much? You’re not, ya’ know?”

“Sure, I know that. But, somehow that argument can’t carry its own weight if you’re a recovering addict. I’ve learned that one of the hardest things to do is to forgive yourself.”

“Hmm…is that more important than if Mary, or the kids, or even me forgive you? You were just telling me how your life became all about you, right?”

Richard felt like he was on the edge of a high rise building about to be pushed off the ledge. Where is all of this going? “No, not really, because the two don’t always have anything to do with each other. I would love to have Mary and you forgive me, but I understand that may not ever happen. It isn’t something I can control anyway.”

“I suppose not.” Sara softly nodded. “I’ve just been thinking about my own life a lot since all this happened. Mary has changed too. She’s not the same Mary anymore, that’s for sure.”

“I can’t even imagine her pain.”

“Well, yeah, I guess. But the truth is that I think Mary is doing better than both of us put together.”

Richard’s look of surprise made Sara smile. He clung to his imaginary ledge and kept silent. “It started a while ago. She thinks I don’t know, but our Mary has been going to church.” Sara scrunched up her lips and nodded her head in agreement with herself. “Yep, going to church.”

The news seemed to bounce off Richard before it finally found a place to penetrate. “Oh my,” was the only thing that came out.

Sara’s kept nodding. Then, with a hint of mystery she reached out and put her hand over Richard’s hand and said in a very earnest quiet voice, almost has if it were a secret from the walls, “She’s been going to a small church for some time now and she didn’t tell me a thing about it. Guess she knew how that God talk would go over with me, huh?” Sara was still smiling as she released his hand and gazed out the window into the brilliant autumn afternoon that looked like its blue backdrop had been painted into place.

She shook her head and smiled in obvious amusement at the irony of the new family dynamics that was emerging out of the total ruble of two lives. “So I have her and now you. I don’t pretend to understand it, be honest with you. But I don’t have to approve of it to see that it is changing her, and now you.”

Ricky and Emily’s patience had finally run out and they piled into the kitchen. While Richard took their bags to the car, Sara hugged and kissed the children with the appropriate list of cautions, and she gave Ricky a stern reminder that Emily, for all her spunk, was only ten-years-old and he was the older brother.

“Yes’em. I’ll watch out for her. I Promise, no matter what.”

Emily tilted her head first at her grandmother, then at Ricky, and rolled her eyes. After directing the children to the car, Sara and Richard stood in the hallway. After his confession to Sara, he felt curiously like an archeologist poking around in the artifacts of different epoch. The house itself was the same as it had been, but the lives being lived in it where now unfamiliar and indistinct. It occurred to him that the path he was on was taking him far away from his past.

“You know, Richard. I hope we can talk some more. I don’t know if Mary can ever talk about it at all, but I know I have to—be honest with you. At my age, it just doesn’t seem right that I would have all this as the last chapter. I want to finish my life loving the people who are my only family. I hope that makes sense to you.”

Richard took both of Sara’s hands in his. “Of course it makes sense. That’s why I’m here, to somehow reconnect with the people I love. It won’t ever be how it was—not even one percent of what it was. But my promise is to make it as good as it can be as far as it depends on me.”

One of the children found the horn on Richards’s car. “Sounds like you have some anxious customers there.”

Richard left the house with a sure sense that he was walking with a purpose beyond himself. He didn’t know exactly where that would lead him, or how he would get there, but it struck him in that moment that the future might not even be about him.

Chapter 5

Within ten minutes the three Murrays were loaded in the rental car and following the Colorado River, shining like a silver thread in the stunning autumn afternoon, towards I-70, where they would head east for the 80 mile drive to Glenwood Springs. There was a hungry anticipation of reward at the end of the drive; Aunt Gloria’s fried chicken, mashed potatoes and apple pie.

They drove mostly in silence leaving Grand Junction. Richard was overwhelmed by the discussion with Sara, the news about Mary and having his own children with him for the first time in well over a year. There wasn’t room for talking.

When they were out of the town’s traffic, Richard relaxed and noticed that Emily was reading a Little House book in the back seat. Her books are another world for her. I hope there is some room left for me. Ricky’s iPod was in his lap but he hadn’t put in the ear buds yet.

“Well,” Richard gently probed, “how’s your mom, son?”

Ricky looked alarmed by the question. “Oh, sure, she’s good, Dad.”

“Does she like her job?” Richard tried to make the question sound as innocent as possible.

“Umm…I’m not really sure, Dad. She never really talks about it. Maybe with Grandma, but…” Ricky’s answer drifted off unfinished.

Richard smiled, “That’s good, must be okay if she isn’t complaining. So, I guess I heard there was no football this year, right? What about track?”

“I dunno, Dad. Just with everything that’s been going on, it just didn’t seem too important last summer. And I missed camp anyway.”

Ricky looked at his dad and didn’t want to go where his answer led, so he added, “I still want to play, so I’m going to be working hard this summer. There’s a football camp in July—Mom said she could pay for it this year. So maybe I can get back on the team next year. And the new track coach is cool. We already talked about try-outs in the spring.”

He could feel the tension in his son’s answers. “That’s great, son,” he offered. Even as he did he recognized the guilt that lingered around his words. I’ve caused so much pain in the lives that mattered most to me.

Richard glanced in the rear view mirror and noticed that Emily had laid her head between the seat and the door, her eyes were closed and her book open in her lap. With Colorado’s Western Slope as an imposing backdrop, dad and son chit-chatted about the small things of school and the Denver Bronco’s football season, but gave a wide berth to the bits and pieces that might be too much for their still-tender hearts.

When he was young, Richard had spent a lot of time camping and hiking in and around the White River National Forest. The last time he was here, Al Morales brought him to a camp for several weeks nearly a year ago. It was the day after he’d been released from rehab, and in truth, he was in such emotional pain he scarcely remembered it at all. He was anxious to get out into the mountains and sweeping spaces of Western Colorado after his long recovery and his decision to turn his life over to God.

Now, everywhere he looked from this new point of view, he saw the natural order of the world in a different light - through a different lens. It was one of the first things he noticed when he made his decision for God. On the day before, he saw beautiful mountains and trees as simply that. Yet the day after, it was as if he could see the Master himself painting the rich canvas that would come to life with each stroke. He saw the creation in its whole, not its smaller parts.

He was excited to take the kids back camping and hiking, as he and Mary had done numerous times, even though, in truth, Mary would have preferred a hotel. The last time they went camping Ricky was only nine years old and Emily was seven, so he thought this weekend would be a great refresher, and the perfect place to get to know and connect with both of them again, as their dad and as someone they could begin to trust again. Or at least he hoped so.

Somewhere between the small towns of Una and Parachute, not even half way to Glenwood Springs, Richard noticed the car was pulling hard to the right. He found a wide emergency pull-off up against the interstate’s guardrail, pulled over, and got out to see if there was anything wrong that was obvious, like a flat tire.

He discovered that was exactly the problem. The front right tire was almost flat, must have just picked up a nail or something, what are the odds of that? He had a dismayed frown creasing his face. After inspecting the tire closely, Richard climbed back into the car and announced aloud, “I go to the trouble to rent a new car because I don’t think the ol’ truck could make it and I end up getting the first flat I’ve had in years. What’re those odds?”

He recalled that the last highway information sign indicated there was a gas station ahead, so he decided to head for that exit, and hopefully find someone to change the tire, and give the children a bathroom break.

The exit was actually less than a mile. He pulled off the interstate and found the gas station at the end of the exit road, with an attached coffee and sandwich shop. Just across the street was a church building with a faded red sign next to the road that read, Grand Valley Bible Church.

Emily was now awake and just looking out the window, while Ricky was being an attentive co-pilot. When Richard turned into the gas station he saw that the garage bay doors were closed. “Looks like we may have to change our own tire. Think you could help me, son?” Ricky gave his dad two thumbs up and a smile.

He pulled up alongside the gas pumps and sent the children in to use the bathroom and buy some drinks. While he was topping off the gas tank, he opened the trunk to find the spare tire, which to his surprise was a full size tire, not the tiny donut-spare that made cars look like they only had three wheels. Good, I don’t have to fool with it again when we get to Glenwood Springs, thought Richard. Looking around the gas station lot, there was no room to change a tire and not be in the way, so when Ricky and Emily returned, he pulled out and crossed the access road to the empty church parking lot.

“Doesn’t look like anyone’s at the church,” Richard offered to no one in particular. “I don’t think anyone would mind if we changed the tire here.”

“Oh, they’re really nice people here, they wouldn’t mind,” Emily said from the back seat. “Mom and us come here a lot.”

Richard looked at his daughter, “Oh, really? Is this where she goes to church?”

Ricky turned in the seat and he and Emily exchanged knowing glances. “Yeah.”

“Mom has brought us here on Sunday mornings, too” Ricky allowed, “but, we couldn’t tell Grandma, that’s what Mom said.”

“Hmm, guess I can see that.”

Once they were parked in the church lot, all three Murrays climbed out of the car with Emily teasing that she was going to watch “the boys” and make sure they did the job right. Ricky, of course, had manhood issues with that suggestion, even though the thought of changing a tire had never crossed his mind before, much less actually doing so. Before the trunk was open they both were claiming victory in the sibling skirmish.

Richard popped the trunk, “Okay son, let’s get this over with and get back on the road. We have a date with some fried chicken, remember?”

He showed his son how the tire was mounted in the trunk under the carpet and attached to a piece of hard pasteboard, secured by a long threaded stem and a large hand tightened wing nut. “So, let’s see those massive biceps of yours in action.”

Emily chuckled at that.

Ricky started twisting the wing nut.

“Always undo a nut counter-clockwise and tighten it clockwise, got it?”

“Yep, got it Dad. Counter-clockwise.”

Meanwhile Richard was unlatching the tire jack and the tire iron from their storage nook.

Once Ricky had unscrewed the wing nut, his dad asked him if he could lift the tire out of the trunk. To his amazement, Ricky struggled with the awkward angle but managed to get the tire balanced on the lip of the trunk and then let it slip down the back of the car where it bounced several times as he fought to keep it from falling over flat on the ground. Even Emily was impressed.

Good job, son. Good job.”

Richard turned his attention to the flat tire and positioned the tire iron’s flat edge on the wheel cover and asked Emily if she’d like to see if she could pop it off. She tried with all her might, but it was too snug for her. Richard leaned over her and put his hands on hers to help. It was an unexpected and precious moment where he hovered over her, so close and so personal after a year’s absence. His head was only inches away from her head and as the wheel cover snapped off, he whispered to his daughter, “I missed you so much Emily.”

The moment disappeared as quickly as it came. Richard “busted” all five lug nuts, and then showed Ricky how the jack fit on a specific lifting point on the car’s undercarriage. Emily, her conquest of the wheel cover fresh on her mind was watching the two men carefully.

Richard let his son turn the jack crank until it was too hard to turn any further. “Okay, son, I broke the nuts on the wheel loose, so now you should be able to turn them the rest of the way and take them off. Which way do you turn?”

“Counter-clockwise, right?”

“You got it, good job. See how the tire is still touching the pavement,” Richard was pointing to the tire. “I’m going to keep cranking the jack until it is clear off the ground, so you want to make sure no arms or legs are under the car, just in case the jack doesn’t hold. Okay?”

Ricky was busy turning wheel nuts.

As Richard cranked the jack he didn’t notice that Emily moved away from the car until he thought he heard voices. He glanced up to find a distinctive looking couple chatting with Emily. All he could make out was something about “Mom.” He stood up and called out, “Hi there.”

“Well, you must be ‘Dad’?” It was a bright and assuring reply.

Richard somewhat cautiously left the jack and motioned Ricky to join him. He came around the fender to meet the two strangers and Emily, who was smiling ear to ear and hugging a tall woman wearing a cowboy hat.

“Daddy, this is Mr. P and Mrs. P, and they live here,” an ecstatic Emily informed him with a slight hop off the ground.

While Richard was still approaching, “Mr. P” was announcing, “Well hello there, my name is Daniel Patterson and this is my wife, Miriam. You must be Richard?”

Daniel was a large and solid man, with a mane of silver hair falling below his white cowboy hat down almost to his collar. He had a weathered texture to his face and large, inquisitive blue eyes, set off even more by the blue shirt and blue jeans he was wearing. His large hand was extending towards Richard. As they shook, he couldn’t help but realize that Daniel Patterson’s hand belonged to someone who worked with it.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Patterson,” and turning to “Mrs. P,” Richard saw an attractive woman whose silver hair, like her husbands, fell down from under a white cowboy hat, which was set off by a gold band around the crown. It was difficult not to stare at her eyes which sparkling like amber gems. She was nearly as tall as Richard and wore a deep blue western shirt with pearl-like piping and blue jeans. Richard extended his hand, “Mrs. Patterson, pleased to meet you.” As he took her hand he could feel this hand worked as well. It was a strong grip and there was a rougher texture on the palm.

Ricky burst into a smile as wide as Emily’s, so Richard was at least relieved, if a little puzzled. “Mr. P, Mrs. P, hi!” His enthusiasm earned Ricky a hug from each Patterson. Daniel kept a hand on Ricky’s shoulder as he inquired about Mary and reminded Ricky that they were looking forward to seeing them soon.

“Well, Mr. Patterson, I gather you’ve met my children,” Richard smiled with a little discomfort about what exactly to say.

Daniel stepped up to make Richard feel at ease Richard thought. “You know what, Richard? These are two great kids. Emily and Ricky have been out with Mary before and we couldn’t ask for two better buddies, right guys?” Both Emily and Ricky smiled. “If it’s okay with your dad, why don’t you guys go in with Mrs. P, and sample some of the chocolate chip cookies she just baked, and I’ll help your dad?” Daniel looked to Richard, who shrugged an approval.

Ricky hung back a moment, “Dad, the tire is almost off, are you sure you don’t mind?”

As he said it, Richard recognized eagerness from Ricky that was too rich to be excused—these were two important people to both of my children. Wow.

“Ricky, you did a great job already! Go ahead and catch a cookie—bring me one and I’ll have us ready in ten minutes.” Actually Richard was slightly overwhelmed by the way his two children seemed to respond to this couple and how quickly two perfect strangers walked into the middle of his weekend. He turned to find Daniel already walking to the car, and he quickly moved to catch up.

“Let me give you a hand, Richard,” Daniel said helpfully as he moved to the jack handle, while Richard took the tire iron to finish taking the tire off. After a few moments of silence, Daniel softly informed him, “We’re glad to meet you Richard. Miriam and me, well, we’ve been a small part of helping Mary over the months. She’s a very, very special person.” He paused as he turned the crank the last full revolution to lift the tire of the asphalt. “And we think you are too, Richard.”

Richard almost dropped the tire iron, looking up disbelievingly at Daniel Patterson. His first thought was, whoa, this guy barges right into the middle of everything, doesn’t he? Instead, he checked his reply with the obvious, “If you knew Mary and you knew what I did to her, you wouldn’t think I was too special at all.” Even as he said it, Richard felt small and petty at how defensive he must sound.

“Well,” Daniel’s words slowed to a crawl, “here’s what I do know. I know Al Morales. And when he tells me that you accepted the forgiveness offered to you by our Savior and that you are in awe of the overpowering love of God. Well, that’s pretty much enough for me.” Daniel looked at the idle tire iron in Richard’s hand and raised his eyebrow, encouraging him back to his task.

“You know, Richard, Miriam and I have been working with broken people for longer than you can imagine. It’s our calling. Same calling Al has. Mary was as broken hearted as a person could be when she first came to see us.” Daniel paused for a moment as he and Richard made eye contact. It was like a busy highway where emotions were traveling at high speed and slamming on the brakes to make an off-ramp.

“I can’t even imagine the pain she had.”

“Yeah, I know. Hardest thing to see sometimes—the pain we cause others.” Daniel’s words were barely above a whisper, landing on Richard without a breath of disapproval. “Miriam, me? We really didn’t do anything ourselves, we just showed her Someone who lost even more than a marriage. Our heavenly Father lost his only Son.

“Same as you, really. Al Morales actually didn’t do anything special, he just showed you Someone who loved you unconditionally. Someone who knows a thing or two about personal pain.” Daniel went back to work.

Richard didn’t respond, but finished taking the tire off, and rolled the spare into place as Daniel came around the car and helped him line up the tire rim and spin on the lug nuts by hand. While Richard was tightening the nuts, Daniel went back to the jack.

“So, you’ve got a good job now? Do you like it? It’s good to be working, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, the job is good. Not like I used to have, but good, ‘ya know? I am doing a lot of grunt work. Be honest with you, I’m just lucky to have a job at all. Besides, I’m not sure I’m ready for a lot of free time. I’ve got some personal work I need to get through. So how’d you know about my job anyway?”

“Al, he gives me updates.”

Richard looked at Daniel Patterson and smiled. “You and Al Morales pretty good friends, huh?”

“Yeah, we do a lot of double teaming—you noticed that did you?” Daniel and Richard both started laughing.

Richard was beaming. “Thing is, I never knew men could be friends like this, like Al Morales, now you. I just met you and here we are talking like we’ve know each other twenty years.”

Daniel’s smile rose with the lines on his face pushing up until they reached his piercing blue eyes. “Yeah, it’s amazing isn’t it? It’s because we share the single most important thing, so we can share anything. That’s how it’s meant to work, Richard.”

The two men were finishing up on their jobs. Richard didn’t look up, “Is she good? I’m mean, is she happy?” The question squeezed out like reluctant toothpaste from the end of the tube.

“Well Richard, you’ve asked a good question. Is she okay?” Daniel kept working. “Yeah, she’s okay. She’s better than okay. She is happy and she is thriving. But, like you, she isn’t the same person she was a year ago. Here, I want to show you something.”

Daniel stood and moved around the car next to Richard. “Look at my hand, see this scar?” He held his left hand out for Richard to examine. “I cut myself badly, but over time it healed, and the skin is as strong there now as it is anywhere else on my hand. But that scar will be there until the day I die. It’s there to remind me that I shouldn’t fool around with really sharp knives.” He laughed at himself.

“You see, sharp knives have a good purpose, but you have to use them for the right job.

Our emotions are the same. If we misuse them, they can cause tremendous damage. Then they have to heal, but we can always see the scars. Reminds us to use each emotion for the right purpose—or we become slaves to them. It’s not complicated really, but the modern world has got it all backwards, so it’s easy to get confused and wonder around in circles, isn’t it?”

Richard was speechless. That was it, wasn’t it? He thought. He wanted to say something affirmative or something appreciative, or even something intelligent in reply, but nothing came out.

“So, yes, Mary is okay, Richard. Like you, she has a big scar. But she has a bigger God.”

Richard shook his head appreciatively. “That’s good. Thank you. Thank you for all you’ve done for her, and the kids.”

Daniel returned to the jack and pulled it from underneath the car just in time to see Miriam and the children walking towards them from the across the parking lot.

Richard caught Daniel’s eye as he thought about the question Sara had asked him earlier. “So why does life have to be so hard? Why did I have to ruin my family to learn all this?”

Daniel shrugged his shoulders. “Lots of folks can never come to terms with why there is evil in the world or why bad things happen to good people, because they won’t accept a simple truth; sin and brokenness entered the world in the Garden of Eden and we never escape it in this life. We all carry the DNA of Adam. It’s in our genetic makeup. It’s so simple a lot of really smart and sophisticated folks just can’t accept it for what it is.”

Daniel was quiet for a long moment to let that thought stand, and then continued, “It’s only Him that is perfect, Richard. His DNA wasn’t from Adam. We can’t even understand that, can we? It’s only Jesus. The rest of us, we stumble around and fall, some harder, some less so, but we all stumble. Now the only sin left is the sin of disbelief, not believing in Him. You hang on to that truth, tight. And the rest takes care of itself.”

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