Mercy regarded Shirley suspiciously, her arms folded, her foot tapping. "You brought that dog to the schoolyard, didn't you?" She pointed at the animal, who lay in the sandbox, head resting on his outstretched paws as he slept.
Shirley sat on the swing at the farthest reaches of the yard and shook her head adamantly. "I most certainly did not. I don't have a clue where that dog came from. Trust me, if I brought a dog into Carter's life, it wouldn't be that mangy mutt."
Mercy didn't believe her. "I, for one, find it mighty convenient that a stray dog should show up in the schoolyard today." And besides, she knew Shirley loved animals - despite the scornful way she'd spoken about this dog.
"I agree with Mercy." Goodness came to stand at her side, her foot tapping in an identical tempo.
"Stop looking at me like that," Shirley muttered. "Carter can't have a dog. That decision's already been made. You both know I can't interfere with the chain of command. Carter's father feels bad enough as it is, but he's said in no uncertain terms that his son can't have a dog. Why would I complicate matters?"
"Why would she?" Goodness turned to Mercy.
"I don't know, but like I said, I find this entire situation a little too convenient."
Shirley stepped free of the swing and brushed the snow from her hands. "Speaking of convenient, I think it's very interesting that Beth and Peter appear to be so well-matched."
Goodness raised both arms. "Don't look at me. I didn't have a thing to do with that. They met online six months ago, remember?"
"Quite right," Mercy confirmed. "And before you mention Harry and Rosalie running into Lucy Menard, I've explained that."
A wistful expression came over Goodness. "I do hope everything works out for Beth and Peter."
"Why shouldn't it?" Shirley asked.
"They're both so stubborn - and so scared. What they need is a good shove in the right direction."
"Goodness!" Shirley's expression was scandalized. "Don't even think like that. Our job is to teach these humans a lesson. They have to make their own decisions, find their own way."
"Find their own way?" Mercy didn't mean to sound sarcastic, but she couldn't help it. The evidence was overwhelming; humans were a pathetic bunch. "May I remind you that humans wandered in the desert for forty years on a trip that should've taken three months, tops?"
"Joshua had them march around Jericho seven times, looking for the main gate to the city," Goodness added, shaking her head.
Shirley frowned. "You both know there were very good reasons for those incidents."
"True, but you have to admit humans don't exactly have an impressive track record."
With a disgruntled look, Shirley was forced to admit the truth.
"Humans need help," Mercy reiterated.
Still Shirley didn't seem convinced. "But Gabriel - "
"Will never find out," Mercy assured her. "We won't be blatant about it - just a nudge or two where it's warranted. If Gabriel's going to place us under earthly time constraints, we need to be inventive."
"Inventive," Goodness echoed. "How do you mean?"
"Well, for one thing, it's obvious that you'll have to step in with Beth and Peter."
"Yes." Mercy didn't understand why she had to clarify everything for her fellow Prayer Ambassadors. "Didn't you tell me they still haven't set a time to meet?"
"And the reason is?"
Goodness shifted uncomfortably. "Well, like I said, they're afraid...."
"Afraid of what?" Mercy asked. "Do you suppose maybe they're afraid of being disillusioned?"
"They could be," Goodness said. "And I agree - they need help. The last time I looked, Beth was depressed. Everything was going so well between her and Peter, and then he closed down for no apparent reason."
"Is there anything you can do about it?"
"I...Yes, of course there is." Her eyes darted from side to side. "Unfortunately, I can't think what it would be at this precise moment, but it'll come to me."
"Shirley." Mercy focused her gaze on the former guardian angel.
"Reporting for duty." She stood military straight, wings neatly folded, feet together. Mercy wondered if Shirley was making fun of her.
"How do you plan to help Carter?" she asked.
Shirley's shoulders sagged with defeat. "I'll make sure the dog's nowhere to be seen when he arrives for school tomorrow."
"You're sure that's the right thing for Carter?" Mercy asked, her own heart aching for the little boy.
Reluctantly Shirley nodded. "His father said he couldn't have a dog, no matter what. I don't have any choice."
All three considered this unfortunate set of circumstances.
"Maybe I could steer Carter's father toward a better-paying job," Shirley suggested.
"That's an idea."
Goodness turned to her. "What's happening with Harry?" she asked.
Ah, yes, Harry and Rosalie. "They visited Lucy Menard earlier this afternoon and got a tour of the assisted-living complex."
"And what happened?" Shirley asked.
"Come with me and let's find out," Mercy invited. Together with her two friends, she descended on the house at 23 Walnut Avenue, where Rosalie and Harry sat across from each other at the dinner table.
"I was surprised at how many of our friends have moved to Liberty Orchard," Rosalie murmured, gazing down at her bowl of canned chicken stew.
She seemed deep in thought, and that encouraged Harry. The visit had gone even better than he could've expected. Rosalie had met three good friends she'd lost contact with in the last few years. Each one had urged them to make the change and become part of the community at Liberty Orchard.
"Did you notice how most people said they were sorry they hadn't moved into assisted living sooner?" Harry waited for his wife to protest. She hadn't wanted him to know, but he could see that she'd been impressed with the facility.
"What I liked was all the social activities," Rosalie murmured.
Harry agreed. He'd been impressed himself, glad, too, because he felt that after he died Rosalie would have the social contact she needed. A wave of sadness washed over him at the thought of leaving his wife behind. He tried not to dwell on the subject of death, but knowing it was imminent, he couldn't stop thinking about it.
Trying not to appear too enthusiastic about the assisted-living complex, Harry nodded.
"My goodness," Rosalie said happily, "those folks have something going on every day of the week."
Harry nodded again, taking a bite of his stew.
"Did you read the dinner menu?" Rosalie asked him. She'd found it posted outside the dining room and gone over it three or four times. She'd had all kinds of questions for Lucy, too. The midday meal was the main one of the day, with a lighter one served at about five. "Why, they had a choice of two soups and a salad, plus fish, chicken or meat loaf. And Lucy said it's different every day!"
"I took a look at it myself," Harry said gently. One thing was certain; the residents at Liberty Orchard weren't eating any of their meals out of a can - unless they chose to. He didn't need to point out the obvious, however.
His wife set down her spoon. "Harry," she began shyly, "I'm not sure if you've noticed, but I'm starting to forget things now and then." The admission came with some hesitation. "I've begun to wonder if one of the reasons is that my mind isn't as active as it used to be."
"Lucy said the same thing happened to her," Harry pointed out, reminding his wife of the conversation earlier in the day. "Do you recall how she said that as soon as she spent time with other people again, she wasn't nearly as forgetful?"
Rosalie thought about this for a moment. "She did, didn't she?"
Harry was cautious about saying too much too soon. Rosalie's eyes had been opened when she'd seen the facility, and it didn't hurt that a number of their friends had already made the move.
"Lucy also said the unit closest to hers is available." He said this casually and waited for a response. While his wife had been chatting with her friends, Harry had met with the administrator to see if they could secure that particular unit. Naturally, he wouldn't make a decision like this without discussing it with Rosalie first, but he was beginning to feel confident that she saw the wisdom of such a move.
Rosalie looked at him the same way she had all those years ago, when they'd considered purchasing this very house. She loved this place and Harry loved her. He would've moved heaven and earth to buy the house she wanted.
"Do you honestly think we should give up our home, Harry?"
He hated that it had come to this. "Like I said, this old place is getting to be too much for me."
Slowly Rosalie lowered her gaze and conceded. "And me."
This was the first time she'd been willing to admit that age had taken a toll on her, too. As far as Harry was concerned, it was a giant leap forward.
"We should ask the girls," she said tentatively.
"Good idea." Their youngest daughter was coming to spend Christmas with them, and Lorraine and family would arrive the day after. Both his daughters agreed with Harry. Like him, they recognized the necessity of this change, even if they hadn't quite grasped its urgency.
Harry knew that if Rosalie discussed the situation with either Lorraine or Donna, their daughters would reassure her in ways he couldn't. He felt it was only a matter of time. God willing, everything would fall into place....
"I don't want to discuss it again until after Christmas, though," Rosalie insisted. "I won't even talk about moving until the holidays are over."
"But, Rosalie, there's only the one unit," he blurted out. "Unless we give the administrator a security check, someone else might take it."
"Then so be it," she said, missing the point that he'd talked to the administrator without her knowledge.
"Mrs. Goldsmith told me there's another party interested." A sense of dread almost overwhelmed him. If they didn't act quickly, the unit would go to some other couple.
"Of course she told you that," Rosalie said with unshakable confidence. "That's what she's supposed to say. It's a tactic, Harry. You, of all people, should know the things people will say when they're after a sale."
Frustration beat hard against his chest. "But, Rosalie...."
"Harry, sweetheart, don't be so concerned. If we lose this unit, another will come up later."
Without telling her what Dr. Snellgrove had said, Harry had no choice but to agree. "Personally, I'd like this all settled before the holidays."
"Do you mind if we wait?" Rosalie asked. "It won't make any difference, will it?"
"I suppose you're right," he said reluctantly. "It doesn't really matter." Only it did, but Harry couldn't find it in his heart to tell her why.
Harry left the table and as much as he hated his walker, he reached for it. The damn thing was a nuisance, but at this stage it was a necessary one.
"The girls could help us move while they're here." He made the suggestion as he settled back into his recliner.
"Not over Christmas, Harry. Please, sweetheart, I don't want to ask that of them."
He nodded. He wouldn't mention it again. Not tonight.
"It doesn't look good," Shirley had the audacity to say.
"Rosalie wants to wait until after Christmas."
Mercy didn't know what to do. "That won't work."
"Why not?" Both her friends turned to face her.
Mercy sighed, more burdened now than ever. "Because Harry will be in Heaven by then."