"The poor kid.” Mercy sat on top of the duct for the air conditioner, her face cupped in her hands.
"If only I could find an easy way for her to have a horse.”
"A horse,” Goodness echoed.
"Karen’s crazy about ’em.”
"Then that’s what we’ll have to do,” Goodness said as if this were the solution to their problems. "All the poor kid needs is a little fun, and before you know it those nightmares will disappear.”
"Just where are we supposed to find a horse?” Shirley asked with limited patience. "And even if we could, Karen’s mother couldn’t afford to feed it.”
"There are ways,” Mercy said with complete confidence.
"Yes, but are these ways of yours going to get us jerked back to heaven by our small feathers?”
Mercy gave her a look of gold-plated innocence. "Why, I’d never suggest anything that would give dear Gabriel a moment’s worry.”
Shirley was just beginning to think she might have misjudged her friend’s intentions when Goodness giggled. "Yes, you would,” she said. "We all would, and good old Gabe knows it, too.”
"Do you mind if we discuss Karen?” Shirley suggested. These two younger prayer ambassadors flustered her. They were far more daring than she was. Frankly, Shirley believed Gabriel had teamed her up with Goodness and Mercy just so she could keep an eye on these two upstarts.
"Oh, yes. Karen.”
"Of course. Karen.”
Now that she had their attention, Shirley felt it was time to mention what she’d discovered, although she wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the information. "Of course, there’s always Thom Nichols.”
"Thom Nichols?” Mercy pressed.
"He owns a riding stable in the valley, and it’s—”
"But that’s perfect.” Goodness vaulted upright in her enthusiasm.
"For Karen, perhaps, but it doesn’t do anything about Maureen’s troubles. I did tell Gabriel that I was certain there was a horse in this somewhere,” Shirley said, feeling downright proud of herself, "but it isn’t as if I can swoop down and tell Maureen about the stables.”
A slow, gradual smile spread over Goodness’s face. "Why can’t you?”
"You’ve got that gleam in your eye again.” Shirley was beginning to get worried. She’d seen that look before, and it usually spelled trouble. "How could you even think such things, Goodness? We’ve just arrived. We don’t dare jeopardize everything so soon.”
"Don’t get all bent out of shape,” Goodness said with a total lack of concern. "I’m not going to do anything I shouldn’t. Now, tell me what you know about Nichols’s Riding Stables.”
Shirley removed the brochure from inside her wide sleeve and spread it open for the others to read. "It says they have afternoon riding lessons with gentle, well-behaved horses and lots of riding trails. It’s ideal for someone like Karen.”
"Allow me,” Goodness said, whooshing the brightly colored brochure out of Shirley’s hand. Before the other prayer ambassador could protest further, Goodness disappeared over the outer edge of the building. Given no option, Shirley followed just in time to find her fellow angel dodging her way between metal grocery carts, headed straight toward Maureen Woods’s car.
Shirley watched in dismay as Goodness lured a cart away from a long line of them near the front of the store. She set it rolling across the large parking lot until it stopped directly behind Maureen’s car.
A little boy who was walking into the store with his mother watched the cart take off on its own and then come to an abrupt halt. He must have been about five, Shirley gauged.
The boy tugged on the strap of his mother’s purse, which was draped over her arm.
"Stevie, how many times have I asked you not to pull on my purse?…Answer me, son. How many times?”
"How would you like it if I yanked on you?”
"But, Mom, I just saw a cart move and stop all on its own,” he told her.
"Then don’t pull on my arm, and I won’t pull on yours,” she said, completely ignoring what the youngster had told her. With that, she reached for his hand and led him inside the store.
Shirley swore she was about to melt into the asphalt. "What are you trying to do?” she asked Goodness between gritted teeth. "See how fast you can get the three of us sent back in disgrace? We promised no monkey business, remember?”
"What’s so unnatural about gravity pulling a cart a certain distance?” Goodness inquired with a look as innocent as freshly fallen snow. "All we—”
"I.” At least she had the good grace to correct herself, Shirley noted.
"All I did,” Goodness continued as if burdened with the incompetence of the other two, "was make the brochure accessible to a certain person we know and love.”
"Look at that!” Maureen said as she trudged toward her parked car, loaded down with two heavy bags of groceries. "Don’t you just hate it when thoughtless people leave their carts out? I’ll need to put it away before I can leave.”
"Here,” her mother said, "let me move it out of your way.”
"You have your own load—I’ll get it,” Maureen insisted. She set the bags inside the cart and opened the car trunk. After placing her mother’s bags inside the car, she retrieved her own. "I’ll take the cart back,” she said, unlocking the passenger door for her mother.
She raced back toward the store and left the cart in the appropriate slot. A colorful piece of paper flew out and slapped her across the chest. Impatiently Maureen tossed it aside and half trotted back to her vehicle.
A gust of wind came up, carrying dirt and bits of grit with it. Maureen raced toward her car and climbed inside, thankful to escape the unexpected blast.
Just then the wind flattened the brochure against her windshield. She couldn’t see a blasted thing, let alone attempt to drive.
"Maureen, do you see that?”
"Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll get it in just a moment.”
"No, I mean do you see what the brochure is for?”
"No, Mother, I haven’t read it.”
"It’s about a riding stable.”
"How nice.” Maureen didn’t mean to be short-tempered, but she had other errands to run, and she wanted to get home before the frozen foods began to thaw.
She opened her car door, climbed out, snatched the brochure from her windshield, and tossed it onto the backseat.
"Nichols’s Riding Stables,” her mother said. "It just might be something that would interest Karen.”
"I’m sure it would,” Maureen said, twisting around to make sure no cars were coming before she backed out of the space. "I’ll read it later, Mom.”
She had five other errands to run, and it took another hour and a half before she was able to drop her mother off. Karen was playing with a girl in the neighborhood, so Maureen left her at her parents’ place. Actually she didn’t mind an afternoon alone.
The phone rang as she was carrying the last bag of groceries in from the car.
"Hello,” she said, stretching the long cord to the refrigerator and setting two half gallons of milk inside.
"Hello. This is Thom Nichols. Is this Maureen Woods?”
Nichols. Nichols. The name sounded vaguely familiar. "Yes, it is.”
"You left a message on my answering machine. I understand you’re interested in riding lessons for your daughter?”
Paul Morris wasn’t looking forward to his visit with Madge Bartelli and her husband. He feared the couple were looking for him to supply something he simply didn’t have.
Paul felt as if he’d lost all four in his first go-around with cancer when Barbara had been so ill. There was nothing left over to offer Madge. Nothing with which to comfort her husband.
He paused outside the front door, and his hand tightened around the soft leather-bound book he’d brought with him. It seemed an eternity passed before he found the strength to raise his hand and ring the doorbell.
Bernard opened the door, and the older man’s sad, tired eyes brightened when he saw Paul.
"God bless you, Reverend, for stopping by.” He held open the screen door for him. "Just knowing you were coming lifted Madge’s spirits. She’s sitting up in the living room, waiting for you. It’s the first time she’s been out of bed in almost a week.”
Paul’s sense of guilt increased tenfold. He shouldn’t have stayed away so long. He moved into the living room and was surprised by how frail Madge looked. He shouldn’t have been. He knew what cancer did and hated the disease with everything in him.
Madge leaned back on the recliner, swaddled in blankets. Her once bright eyes were dulled with medication and pain. How thin she’d become, he noted, and her skin was unnaturally pale and sickly. The house smelled of disease and struggle.
It had been two weeks or more since his last visit. Paul was angry with himself for his selfishness. These people were part of the flock he’d been assigned to minister.
"Pastor Paul,” Madge whispered. Her weathered face brightened with a smile when she saw him. "How good of you to stop by.”
"I apologize for not coming sooner. Time just seems to slip through my fingers.”
"You’re so busy.”
"I’m never too busy for you.”
Madge managed another weak smile.
"I’ll get some tea,” Bernard said. "Madge enjoys a cup of tea now and again.” Her husband said this as though he held on desperately to this one small part of their lives that they continued to share.
"Sit down, please,” Madge invited.
Paul claimed the chair next to her. He knew she was in pain, knew she struggled not to let others realize how very bad it was. He knew all this because of his own wife.
How he missed Barbara in that moment. It had been hell on earth to watch the ravages of cancer strip away first her health, then her looks. The end was the cruelest aspect of the disease. It had stolen Barbara’s dignity.
"It’s such a beautiful day,” Madge said, gazing longingly out the window. "Bernard brought me a poinsettia. I’d forgotten how pretty and red they can be. I do so love flowers.”
Bernard returned just then, awkwardly carrying a tray with mugs and a teapot.
"You should have used the china cups,” Madge said.
"I prefer a mug,” Paul said quickly, not wanting them to worry about serving him on their finest dishes.
"I’m not much good at this,” Bernard apologized as he set the tray on the coffee table. "Madge was always the one who could do such a pretty tray with those fancy linen napkins and the like. I tried, sweetheart.”
"You did just fine.”
Paul intercepted a look the long-married couple shared. One that was laced with a love so strong, it had bridged nearly fifty years.