All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below. Helen Bea Kirk www.HBKirkPublishing.com Cover Illustration by CoverMe Designs. https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/ Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
1 Darkness 5 2 Uncle 13 3 Beer 21 4 The Mill 28 5 Discovery 37 6 Sneaking 43 7 Soon 51 8 Not a Wake 57 9 The Beach 66 10 First Day 76 11 A Man 84 12 Sorrow 93
“Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins.” Proverbs 10:12
Ten years after Jack Sheldon began his flooring business thirty-five years ago, his younger brother Mike was in the army fighting for our freedom. The Sheldon men are not known for their mild-mannered style or sensitivity. Those traits, coupled with their physical size made for an imposing hulk of a man, well suited for battle. Without a specific direction in mind, Mike became a career military man; never marrying but never missing an opportunity with a willing woman either. Retiring from the Army at the age of thirty-eight, Mike was at a loss as to what to do with his time, at first. He moped around his apartment in Florida for several months and spent hours on the beach doing nothing. Feeble attempts at writing a book produced nothing but irritation which caused him to work out his frustration in a gym, pushing iron. That had always been Mike’s go-to cure all—a ball-buster weight workout. He was at the gym giving one hundred and ten percent effort to his extreme work-out when a woman strolled over to him. She began asking him questions about his routine and admiring his muscles. Andrea Bell was a talent scout tasked with finding the right person for a fitness equipment commercial. The moment she laid eyes on Mike Sheldon she knew he would be perfect for the role and she convinced him. In a matter of weeks, Mike was on an afternoon television ad for the ‘Proplexus One Thousand.’ It was billed as the only workout machine you’ll ever need to get the job done. The pay was a nice surprise and allowed him to buy the top of the line, loaded Ford truck he had always admired. Fame was fleeting and he was itching to do something … anything. His parents called him several times a month to say hi and ask too many questions. The last couple of years, he hadn’t been avoiding them like he used to. The last conversation he had with them was still niggling at his brain. They mentioned Jack was looking for help at his flooring company and that Mike’s name came up as a possibility. Having spent his entire youth being called “Jack’s little brother,” it was great to be his own man in the Army. No Jack to be compared to. “Jack got married; when are you going to marry?” Dad had asked. There was never a shortage of questions about measuring up. “Jack started a company. Mike, when are you going to settle down in one spot?” With the birth of each of Jack’s children would come the “legacy” questions. “So, Mike, don’t you want kids so you can leave your mark? A man has got to have a kid.” It got old. Mike knew the day would come. The day he would have to choose his path; stay Jack’s little brother or man up to see himself as Jack’s equal and help him out with his business. There were definite perks to the idea of going back to Texas and being near his parents. Nothing could compare to a Texas woman in Mike’s imagination because one of them took a chunk of his heart in high school, then married a football buddy of his. His broken heart had been the added incentive which drove him to enlist. The Army could thank a skinny, flirtatious, seventeen-year-old redhead for Mike’s service. Being in Texas meant he could live at his parent’s house and save thousands of dollars in rent. Knowing his mom and dad wanted him at Jack’s company made moving in with them a sure bet. The call came. Jack’s voice was older, more mature and wiser sounding which caught Mike off guard. What happened to the cocky, demeaning guy who never let you get a word in? This Jack was technically a stranger, and Mike was okay with working for a stranger, especially with what Jack offered him. The deal was, Jack wanted to retire and spend more time with his wife and grandchild. Not wanting to choose between his grown children for the position of CEO, he went to Mike. “My three boys are each very good at what they do in the company and I don’t want to upset the apple cart. Mike, if you’ll come in and learn from each of them, it would be great. Then you and I will meet periodically for discussions, I believe you’ll do fine as CEO of Sheldon’s Flooring.” The job description sounded fine to Mike. His comfort at trying this new direction was due in large part to the fact that he could survive just fine without a Sheldon Flooring paycheck. Worst case scenario; in the event Jack pissed him off, he could quit and be fine.
“Sarah’s vision is extremely poor in both eyes,” Dr. Dabney explained to the O’Brien family. “Sarah has a corneal disease called Keratoconus, often referred to as ‘KC.’ Her cornea is becoming progressively thinner and is assuming an incorrect corneal shape. It’s a bit unusual to see this level of deterioration in a teenager. Glasses will work for a while. For now, we’ll monitor her KC closely. My associate, Dr. Labreck will do the surgery when the time comes.” To help her parents pay for the expensive glasses, she accepted a cash paying job tutoring high school and college students in math; her favorite subject. Every day after school, Sarah walked a mile to teach at ‘Excel in Math,’ a math tutoring business in the Applegate shopping center in Newtown, Arkansas. She loved teaching and only became frustrated with it when she grew exceptionally tired. Her vision blurred worse, then. Occasionally, Sarah required a student to describe how they worked a math problem so she could visualize it in her head. No amount of squinting could clear her visual blanket of fog in those moments. The eye appointments had been gaining in frequency since Sarah graduated high school. She was grateful her sight allowed her to reach her educational goals. To her surprise and disgust, she was infamous. She was the first Valedictorian of her high school to miss the steps to the platform and fall on her face. During graduation practice, no one mentioned steps or how many. As Sarah accepted multiple awards and her diploma that day, she wondered what her parent’s expressions were. It would have been amazing to see their faces. When numerous parents revealed their child’s marked improvement in Math class, Sarah was given an award for excellence in teaching from Excel in Math. The owners increased her pay which encouraged Sarah to continue tutoring—even through her college years. When glasses no longer provided Sarah vision, Dr. Dabney outfitted her with special contacts to combat her corneal distortion. The contacts had been sufficient however lately, they only added to her eye pain. The last several years had been marked with visual ‘blackout’ periods and increasing pain. Sarah imagined the dark god of blindness was teasing her with spells of blackness. It seemed she had become a pawn in a terrible game.
“What’s the next step?” she asked knowing it would take a miracle to restore her sight. Doctor Dabney’s expression was bleak. “Sarah, you have battled a long time with the disease,” he said empathetically. “I have watched you struggle through high school and college. I don’t know how you did it. What you have accomplished is truly impressive. You are more than legally blind. The next step is a corneal transplant. Nurse Ellis will set you up with a beeper for immediate notification when we get a cornea donor. That is the only answer.” The looming question in Sarah’s mind made it to her lips, “Am I waiting for someone to die so I can see?” “Yes, unfortunately. Someday technology will replace the human cornea but not yet.” Never a victim, Sarah popped up from the complicated eye exam contraption and smoothed her dress. “Thank you, Dr. Dabney. I appreciate your straight talk and look forward to the transplant.” They shook hands as was their habit. Nurse Ellis entered the exam room moments later with paperwork and a beeper. “Think of this beeper as your key to a normal life, Sarah,” said Nurse Ellis. “Good luck.” Sarah went home to cry for her donor and wait.
“Boys, I’d like you to meet your Uncle Mike from Florida,” Mr. Sheldon announced to his burly clan. “Mike, I know you met my kids twenty years ago, but I’d like to re-introduce you. This is Bryce, the oldest. He oversees quality and production control.” Bryce offered his estranged uncle a quick grin and a handshake. “This is Neelan, he handles the money and keeps our accounts in good shape.” Neelan hustled over to Mike for an earnest handshake. “Last, but not least is Ryder. Ryder could sell ice to an Inuit. He’s on top of sales and does seminars for employees of retail stores that carry our products.” Mike slapped Ryder on the back in a gesture of friendliness causing the Blue Heeler to growl. “Oh, and that’s our warehouse guard dog, Archer. He lives here,” Jack explained. “He got his name when Ryder was a Boy Scout practicing for an archery badge. He’d miss the target but Archer would take off and retrieve the arrow every time. That dog can see better than a deer in the dark.” “Fellas,” continued Jack, “my brother Mike Sheldon served in our Nation’s military and is retired Army now. He’s going to be shadowing each of you to learn the wood flooring business. I expect you all to be helpful to him. He’s going to say a few words.” With shoulders squared, combing his short mustache with his fingers, Mike cleared his throat. “Thanks, Jack. Thanks for letting me in your lives and your business. I’m ready to get off my butt and get to work.” He chuckled at his attempt at humor and studied the three foreign faces. “Bryce, last time I saw you, you wore braces and wanted a girlfriend. How’d that work out?” The six foot two, thirty-five-year-old runner shrugged his shoulders and responded, “Ditched the braces and married Julie Wakefield. We’re divorced but I have our son, Jorden.” Mike nodded in appreciation of the information Bryce shared then turned to the red-haired, bearded thirty-one-year-old. “Neelan, I saw you play football and tackle a kid who couldn’t get back up. I thought you’d make a pro football player for sure.” Mr. Sheldon jumped in on behalf of Neelan. “Neely cried for two days about that Smith kid. Someone with a heart like Neely’s doesn’t need to be hitting people for a living, so he abandoned football and joined the chess club.” In a show of solidarity, Bryce and Ryder flanked Neelan and fist bumped him. This special brotherly bond was incomprehensible to Mike as he rooted for a memory of Jack’s youngest son, Ryder, the cocky cowboy. Then he recollected a incident; “Ryder, I believe you stole my wallet.” Ryder furrowed his brow feigning ignorance. “Sorry. I hope I gave it back to you because I don’t have it.” “Here it is,” Neelan said offering his own wallet as a joke causing a round of laughter. “Thanks for having me. I’ll see you all in the morning.” With that, Mike shook Jack’s hand and drove home to his parent’s house for dinner. Time began to speed forward for Mike as his three nephews poured information into him. He learned about the retail showroom and design area, referred to as warehouse one. The wood floor finishing plant and its design area was called warehouse two and the third warehouse contained Salvage material. The fact that Sheldon’s Flooring was essentially three businesses made it a more complicated company than other flooring businesses. The Salvage portion of Sheldon’s was particularly interesting to Mike as he became knowledgeable about deconstruction and skimming. Ryder explained, “We train our installers in system and component disassembly as well as installation so they always have work. Our guys are highly skilled and we minimize our employee turnover that way.” Makes sense. I mean, if they install, they should be able to remove,” Mike mused gazing at the reclaimed antique front doors all leaning in piles against the steel wall. “This is like taking a walk-through time! Wow, gas light fixtures!” It was apparent to Ryder that warehouse number three was Uncle Mike’s favorite. He watched him examine huge bins of hardware, doorknobs, hinges and drawer pulls. “Was this section of the business added later?” Mike inquired. “Yes. Why do you ask?” Mike craned his head around incredulous. He was awestruck at the immense disarray occupying thousands of square feet. Piles of re-useable planking separated by type but not by size reminded Mike of hungry open mouths with scattered teeth. “The raw materials and retail warehouses are organized to the hilt. This one is…” “A mess?” Ryder said with a chuckle. “It’s the nature of deconstruction.” Mike shook his head at the retail potential if the warehouse could be made safe for the public. He followed Ryder to Neelan’s office around the corner for a gander at the accounting system. Bryce was sprawled out on an old leather sofa in the office, sipping coffee and watching the news. Neelan leaned back in his tall leather chair when footsteps approached. “Hey, guys,” Neelan greeted Mike and Ryder. “Welcome to my hovel, also known as number three! Join me for coffee? Dad dropped off doughnuts. I need to leave shortly. Holly and I are going to lunch and hiking today.” Mike’s eyes went wide and he checked his watch. It was still early in the morning and Neelan was talking about lunch. “What time do you come in to work, Neelan?” “My girlfriend works third shift for Hattem Foods. I try to keep similar hours so we can do stuff together,” he answered dipping his second doughnut into his coffee cup. “We like to hike; sometimes I bring old blue.” Ryder snickered. “Neelan’s got it bad for Holly. He’s got a collection of historical marker photos on his phone from the ‘hikes.’” He elaborated with air quotes and an eyebrow wiggle. Archer looked up from his comfy spot next to Bryce’s feet on the sofa. He knew he was being talked about. Mike nodded even though he couldn’t relate to doing hikes with a woman, air quotes or not. “Dad said you’ll be coming with me to the sawmill in Agersville, New York, this week,” Bryce confirmed with Mike. “I go every other month to check timber renewal efforts, quality control and processes … and the tavern.” “Tavern?” Mike asked perking up at the thought of a cold brew. “Yeah, Agersville is fairly small, but the Inn is amazing. It has a state-of-the-art beer brewery with a tavern attached. The place is great.” Ryder and Neelan exchanged looks of concern since Bryce had stepped up his drinking since his divorce the year before.
Sarah’s mother wanted her only child to marry and made no bones about it. In her estimation Sarah should already be happily married with children; just like she herself was at Sarah’s age. Mrs. O’Brien was not diagnosed legally blind but it was close. She was so convinced that she would be blind any day that she joined a club for the ‘sight challenged.’ They met at different venues, visited and shared experiences. Since blindness often fosters a hermit lifestyle, usually a visually acute family member had to drag the blind relative to these events. Mr. O’Brien learned that being the only legal driver in a family can be hard on your ears. He was a captive audience when he had picked them up from the meeting and listened to his wife and daughter in an emotionally charged conversation about the “Blind Club.” Sarah was upset because her mother had just arranged a date for her. “Mom, you practically threw me at Hector!” Sarah complained. “Sarah, he’s a nice guy. There is nothing wrong with going to a concert with him. You’ll have a nice time, you’ll see. The fact that he’s the same height as you and dark haired means any children will look like me or your dad.” Mrs. O’Brien’s pleasant smile indicated she would be most happy with clones of herself and Mr. O’Brien. Sarah looked to the heavens for the reason God gave her this maternal parent. “I don’t like his hand. There’s something wrong with his hand. It’s soft … too soft to work and not wide enough to build a relationship on. He barely held my hand which tells me he barely cares to know me. I’m telling you, he’s wrong for me in many ways.” “Got to admit dear,” Mr. O’Brien intervened, “Sarah knows hands. I would trust her assessment of a person through their handshake before my own assessment through an interview. Leave her be, angel.” Mrs. O’Brien appeared to soften. “Okay … after the date with Hector.” Sarah rolled her eyes. “Uhg.”
Bryce sipped his coffee in silence thinking about the checklist of items needing to be addressed in Agersville. He listened to talk radio on his Ipod. Only half the seats were filled on the ten a.m. flight to New York. Across the aisle, looking spry in his custom pants and shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Uncle Mike was engrossed in a spy thriller book. Occasionally, he glanced up in the direction of a flirtatious flight attendant. “Explain to me why Sheldon’s buys its flooring lumber from New York State?” he asked. Bryce smiled and explained, “Dad is selective and likes an array of wood floor products. He made it a point to work directly with a sawmill rather than a middleman in a lumber yard and by visiting like we do, standards are high. Down south, you get, ah … maybe cedar, white pine and some oak. You’ve seen the rough-cut warehouse wood supply we have as well as temperature controlled finished products; we have ten plus species. It’s gorgeous stuff.” Uncle Mike nodded his head in understanding. “Yeah, I like Walnut wood,” he shared then guzzled his bottled water and checked his wide titanium wrist watch for email. Four hours in the air was enough according to Bryce. He traveled by air only on business. Any vacations were strictly by road or rail, just like his mother preferred. With only their carry-on bags in tow, the two men rented a compact car and drove forty minutes through New York suburbs to Agersville where they checked in at the Tavern Inn. Impressed, Mike asked, “Is there a torture chamber downstairs somewhere? This place is surreal!” Chuckling, Bryce nodded. “I thought the same thing my first time here. Let’s get situated in the room then have a brew before the place cranks up.” As mid-evil as the Inn foyer and Tavern were, the room was opposite. “I was wondering if I would have a mattress or a bed of nails!” Mike laughed relieved to see two Sealy Posturepedics. He checked his watch; 3:30. “Geez, it takes all day just to get here.” “Feels like it. Let’s go eat a late lunch or early dinner,” Bryce suggested. A steady stream of people trickled in to the cavernous, dark bar. Bryce ordered two Agersville Ales on tap. “House brew,” he explained to Mike sipping his frosty mug with his eyes closed, like a man in love. The nostalgic song, ‘Diamond Girl’ by Seals and Croft, permeated the air. Mike slid his hand along the ornate hand-carved bar and a wave of melancholy washed over him. Grandpa Sheldon worked with his hands; he loved to carve and whittle things. On occasion Mike sat and watched the artistic man carve. “Hey Mike, here’s another brew for you,” offered Bryce. “This one is the house ‘Pale Ale.’ Good stuff. I’ll be back in a bit. I see Owen.” Raising the twenty-ounce frosted mug to his lips, Mike slurred, “Go talk to Owen, er, whoever. I’m fine, beer’s great!” ‘Fire and Rain’ by James Taylor, resonated through the bar. Mike watched people play pool, others play darts while some sat and people-watched; like him. Then he saw her. “God help me, who is that creature?” he whispered. “In the short black dress? Raylene Ford. That’s who that is,” the bartender answered Mike. “She is a perfect package of trouble. Rumor has it her legs are insured by Lloyds of London and she’s not even a dancer.” “Hmmm,” Mike acknowledged, as his eyes traced her movements across the bar. “She must be eighteen,” he whispered again but the bartender heard. “Thirty,” the bartender corrected. “With a ticking time-clock. Hey dude, she’s like crack. She’ll make you feel good while she kills you, but hey, what do I know? If she’s your cup of tea, go for it! The DJ just showed up so you can ask her to dance.” Although Mike’s ears were open, he listened to nothing except his internal dialogue. Mike, she has amazing legs. You’re retired. You could look at those damn legs twenty-four hours a day. Reality check, Mike, I’m not retired, I’m working for my brother so he can be retired … I should go to bed but my libido says something different. She has a beautiful face … so kissable. Man, I haven’t kissed a woman in … well, a lot of that stuff doesn’t involve kissing. It’s been … three maybe four years. Mom kisses me on the cheek every damn time I see her. Can’t count that,though,that’s stinking desperate … to count your mom. I need to kiss. Someone should kiss me. “Someone should kiss me,” he vocalized. “Go get her, man,” the bartender coaxed. “Hell, you’re probably her type.” It took Mike a few minutes to successfully dismount the bar stool. To work up his nerve, he wobbled outside the bar and around back; dropped down to the grass and did fifty pushups then fifty jumping jacks. He needed fresh air and bravado to face the beautiful … “If you’re trying to sober up, that won’t work,” said Raylene standing twenty feet away with her hand on her hip watching Mike, her pupils dilated to the max. “How would you know?” The stunning blonde kicked off her mid-calf black cowboy boots and performed fifty pushups, then jumped to her feet. “That’s how I know,” she replied with a grin. “I saw you in the bar. You’re new?” Amazed by her physical ability, Mike responded, “No. I’m from Florida, ah …” then dropped it. So, what if he moved. The last place he loved was Florida, so screw it. She didn’t need to know he lived in Texas now. She stepped closer. “You married?” “No. Never. How about you?” “No. Do you want to take a walk with me? I can help you sober up.” “Ah, sure.” He glanced back to the tavern with a twinge of remorse for his nephew. What’s his name? It’s pretty dark out here in the country, I hope you know your way around.” Her hand felt like silk in his. They marched a half mile in the tall grass and then he stopped to look at her. “What a beautiful sight you are,” he declared then pressed his lips on hers. Her hands roamed his wide shoulders and pulled him in deeper. Mike’s libido was on another planet where a beautiful woman threw herself at him and he had unabashedly taken her, outside, against a tree. He followed his drunken, delirious dream and backed Raylene up to a majestic Silver Maple. The air was cool, her skin incredibly hot. He was thankful that she took his pants down because his fingers weren’t working very well at that moment … or maybe it was his blurred eyesight. Regardless, her skirt went up and Mike smiled up at the dark sky. So far New York was amazing. “Hmmm, feels so good …” “Mike? Mike? What the hell are you doing out here?” Bryce shook his big uncle’s shoulders. “Please get up, Mike!” “Huh?” Mike squinted in pain when a flashlight crossed his vision. “Man, you are completely disoriented,” Bryce gritted lifting Mike to his feet and helping dust off dirt and weeds. “Where … Are we in… Where are we?” “You drank some beer,” Bryce reminded him. “We’re in Agersville, New York, on business. Why did you come out here to the woods? How long have you been out here?” "I’m not sure. Seems like there was a woman who helped me … I don’t know,” admitted Mike. He suddenly remembered pieces of his other-planet dream and felt around his body; he was dressed. His underwear and pants were on his person; zipped-up and even his belt was done correctly. Maybe he had just gone for a walk. Bryce shook his head wondering if his Uncle Mike really was as smart as his dad claimed. “Let’s get back to the Inn and get to bed. It’s three a.m. and we have a breakfast meeting with the mill folks.”
“Can I call you Sarie?” Hector shouted. “I prefer Sarah. My dad sometimes calls me Sarie. Only my dad,” she replied loudly as T-One delivered up another song Sarah was completely unfamiliar with. “When did you start listening to this boy band?” she asked. Hector’s silver tooth caught the light as he smiled. “My cousin is the lead guitarist. You’ll like him.” He grabbed her hand in his and Sarah zeroed in on his touch. The fact that his relative was a band member explained the personal assistance they were offered to their seats before the show. Sarah analyzed her date; tuning out the screeching from the awful teenage boy band. His skin temperature was wrong; clammy. She sensed his insides were confused, as if his body was fighting itself. His inability or lack of interest in matching Sarah’s handshake pressure told her he wanted her to think he was gentle. Hmm, he’s telling me something that conflicts with his internal nature. When her analysis was complete, she glanced over at him and noticed his eyes on her. “You know, I get my surgery next week, then I’ll be able to see how beautiful you really are. My dad said he’d take us anywhere when we leave here,” Hector said excitedly. “Where would you like to go?” “Home. If you don’t mind. I feel tired. I’m sure you understand.” His expression dropped and Sarah quickly set the train back on the tracks. “I like this song. Do you know the words?” Escorts located the sight-impaired couple and led them to the parking lot after the concert. Mr. Martinez looked so happy that his son was on a date. It took all of Sarah’s strength to let this ape of a date hold her hand in the backseat of the Malibu. Never again. No sooner had the car stopped in front of Sarah’s house, she was out the door. “Thank you for the ride, Mr. Martinez, and thanks for the concert, Hector.” Sarah waved from the street speedily clanking her cane as she headed to her front door. She didn’t need sight to know that her father was peeking through the living room curtain and reporting to her mother. Mrs. O’Brien marched up to Sarah as though inspecting her daughter’s nostrils and asked, “Well, did you have fun?” “No. It was stressful, mom. There’s something wrong with his ...” “Hand?” Mr. O’Brien checked with a crooked smile. “Yes, I’m going to bed,” Sarah informed them, “and pretend this night never happened.” She hugged her parents and headed to the safety of her bedroom. The elderly couple sat quietly at the early American wooden table and sipped their decaf coffee. “Do you think she likes him?” Mrs. O’Brien questioned her husband. “No, dear. I’m afraid not. Let’s trust our Sarah.” Sarah lay across her bed with her face buried in her pillow, crying. Numbers made sense to her, learning and teaching made sense, but matters of sight and heart didn’t. Hard as she might try to see clearly and be head over heels in love; those things were far from her grasp. She wanted them so much it hurt.
Mike washed three Advil caplets down with coffee he brewed in their room while Bryce showered. Straightening his designer red tie, Mike examined himself in the full-length mirror; his mind attempting to construct pieces of a woman he felt pretty sure he kissed last night. There was something magical about her… He recalled touching long sleek hair and gazing into eyes resembling gemstones. “Maybe I was so screwed up, I dreamt it. Damn, I was drunk,” he rambled. “Ready?” Bryce asked raking his fingers through his short, damp dark hair. “Have you figured out what the hell you did last night?” He laughed. “I know you feel like crap, but you look fine.” Mike cut an imposing figure in his perfectly tailored blue suit and sharp white shirt. Bryce had heard the speech from his dad a gazillion times about how dressing well honors the event and the people involved. He glanced down at his plaid shirt, khaki dockers and steel-toed Franklin safety shoes and decided maybe his Dad had a point. No wonder women checked Mike out, he looks like freaking Captain America in a suit. Instinctively, Bryce flexed his pectoral muscles. “Haven’t figured out jack squat. Let’s go eat. Maybe my head will stop hurting,” replied Mike. The trip across the town of Agersville was twenty minutes. Bryce pulled up to The Wooden Spoon; a popular family owned and run breakfast restaurant. The two men waded through a long line of hungry people before reaching the hostess podium. The mingling scents of hickory smoked bacon, Maple syrup and Folger’s coffee tested the patience of every waiting stomach. If there was music playing, it couldn’t be heard over the clanking of plates, calling of orders and happy customer chatter. “McBray party,” announced Bryce. The hostess nodded and led them to a meeting room visible through a wall of French doors. The moment the hostess opened the door, a short, round, red-faced Scottish man in his seventies stood leaning, dependent on his cane. The sleeves were rolled up on his blue buttoned-down shirt. Suspenders adorned with American flag pins held up jeans that had seen some time. “Bryce Sheldon! Good to see ye again. Introduce us to yer sidekick,” ordered Angus McBray. “Everyone, this is my Uncle Mike Sheldon, retired Army,” Bryce boasted. He knew his uncle was a badass even though he couldn’t hold his beer. Standing like a mannequin, Mike stared into the gemstone eyes of … her. Her hair was in a ponytail this morning and she was wearing a plaid shirt and denim jacket but it was her alright. He definitely had something to do with her last night. “Shit,” Mike gritted knowing this situation could not be good. The alarmed look on Raylene’s face told Mike she was as surprised as he. She smiled at Mike as Bryce introduced each of the fourteen people at the table before they sat down to enjoy breakfast. Mike’s chair was four seats down from Raylene’s; he could smell her perfume. “I would have known her if I was blind,” he muttered under his breath. I’m an idiot. With breakfast wrapping up, Angus stood, saying, “Thanks again, everyone, fer coming out. Bryce, Mike, we’ll see ye at the mill in a few minutes.” The crowd dispersed to their respective job duties for the day. McBray Mill was a magnificent logging company nestled in thousands of acres of forest in New York State, ten minutes from the Pennsylvania border. Bryce parked the car in a huge gravel lot teeming with vehicles. In the distance, the distinct screaming of sawblades pierced the air as cranes deposited brackets full of logs on the infeeder. Two German Shepherds barking with excitement loped towards the men when a sharp whistle stopped them in their tracks. Raylene extracted her index fingers from her mouth and waved to Bryce and Mike then disappeared into an office with the guard dogs. “She must work here?” Mike asked Bryce. He recognized his attraction to Raylene and was now positive she was part of his trip into the woods; the specifics were still beyond his recollection. “Raylene? Yes,” Bryce responded, “She’s McBray’s bookkeeper. Best advice? Keep your distance.” His curiosity now peaked; Mike had to know, “How’s she bad news?” “This is between you and me. She’s like a Venus fly trap; she’s a knockout, if you haven’t noticed. Tough as nails, and highly selective. You could waste a lot of time, energy and money on her.” “You know this … how?” “A friend of mine went berserk over her. He’s dead now.” “Damn!” Mike cleared his throat as the door closed behind them. Barrel chested Angus McBray welcomed them for an exhaustive tour of the grounds and saw processes. Several McBray company Foresters enjoyed the opportunity to introduce Mike to their forest renewal strategy. Sandwiches were delivered for lunch and the meetings continued till dinner time. Bryce interpreted Mike’s melancholy mood as a hangover. Satisfied with everything he observed at the mill, he thanked Angus for their commitment to the lumber industry and Sheldon’s Flooring. Bryce and Mike departed for The Inn at the Tavern. Mike received a text from an unknown number, “Hi, it’s Raylene.” He texted back, “Hi, did we meet last night?” “Yes,” she replied. “Oh, sorry, I don’t remember.” “No problem; you were a bit sauced,” she revealed. “Leaving soon?” “Tomorrow. Can I see you again?” “Tonight at 10:00?” she texted, “The Tavern.” Freshly showered, Bryce collapsed on his bed reaching for the TV remote. Mike informed him, “I’m going down to the Tavern to play pool, be back before midnight.” When Bryce peered at him suspiciously, Mike assured him with a grin, “One beer tonight, if that.” His nephew gave him a thumbs’ up and resumed flipping channels. “I’ve got it bad,” Mike admitted to himself as he took in the graceful female form approaching him. “Hi, Raylene.” Her arm slinked around his neck as her lips met his for a soft kiss. Mike was perplexed as to why he felt comfortable enough to kiss her back. Maybe it’s the cascading mane framing her perfect face, maybe it’s her confidence … “Listen, soldier. What would you say if I told you that I think you are under my skin?” Raylene asked straightening her posture, to be as tall as possible. “I’d say, ditto.” “Hmmm. She smiled and her eyes twinkled. “Then come with me.” She took Mike by the hand and led him to her Suburban. They drove to a seclude area and parked amongst the trees. “I had to see you again,” she confessed as her lips softly landed on his. “I’m glad, because I need a refresher,” Mike blurted gently fisting her hair.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Neelan mumbled rubbing his temples. Archer yawned adjusting his sleeping position so he could keep an eye on the tired bookkeeper, better. “Hey, Archer, why don’t you come sit on my lap and make sense of these numbers. There is a two and one-half-percent discrepancy and I don’t know why,” Neelan explained. Archer’s body was still while his soft brown eyes darted about as he listened to Neelan. A glance through the blinds at the rim of the sun peeking over the horizon reminded Neelan that his girlfriend would be getting off work in an hour. He refocused on the columns before him and noted that the irregularities began several months back. A door closing snapped Neelan from his problems. “Hi, Neel,” greeted Ryder; his hand braced against the doorframe. Ryder’s jeans floated low on his hips. Even though he was muscular, his thin waist begged for his pants to be belted. Crocodile cowboy boots crossed at the ankle, with his casual posture and heart-breaking good looks, Ryder was the epitome of a cocky cowboy. Archer battled his way to his arthritic feet to visit his master for the special rub down only Ryder gave him. Neelan mumbled, “Hello,” while typing notes on his PC. “Man, you look stressed, bro. I’ll make us a fresh pot of coffee,” offered Ryder. “Fine.” He realized he must approach this deficit of funds carefully with his brother. What if Ryder was doing the stealing? A pang of nausea hit his stomach, he massaged his temples again deciding to keep silent until he had more conclusive evidence. “Here you go, bud.” Ryder handed Neelan a mug of Columbian Joe. “Cheers! Now spill it!” “I’m exhausted,” Neelan partially lied giving Archer a brief neck pat. There was no way Neelan would say a word without knowing more. “I’m going to meet a friend for breakfast.” Ryder studied his disoriented brother and reluctantly let the subject of Neelan’s stress go unanswered. “You mean Holly? Okay, see you later, Neely.”
Angus shuffled through the office, peering at Raylene from the corner of his eye as she flipped through pages of the McBray company accounting books. “Good morning, Uncle Angus,” she said placing the large book in a file and locking it. “Aye, good mornin’ to ye, Raylene.” “I just took care of the monthlies. If you can live without me for ten days, I’m going to take a road trip in the suburban,” she informed her uncle Angus. The elderly gentleman’s eyebrows rose at the news. “Raylene, ye never take a day off. Ye go ahead, girl. Be careful and call me if ye need anything. I love ye, dear.”
The doctor told Raylene that pregnancy at thirty was something to be careful about. He said ‘no’ to flying in the first trimester, so she was driving to Texas. God had finally put a real man in her path almost three months ago and she took full advantage of him, not expecting to fall in love. So many men had fallen short of her mark, but not Mike Sheldon. He embodied all the qualities she had ever longed for in a man. Ex-military like herself, Raylene understood his need for structure and order were as paramount as is his sense of responsibility, which she was counting on. She felt that even if a strong man like Mike Sheldon was not in love, he would marry to make the situation right. Now that she was finally going to have a family of her own, she wasn’t going to take any chances with the amazing baby in her womb. Hours alone on the road didn’t bother Raylene, she’d been alone a lot in her life. Her Mother, sister to Angus, died when Raylene was six. Her father was unable to stomach being an only parent, so he left without a word. Raylene was found many weeks later when her parent’s apartment rent was overdue. She ignored the knocking at the door. Eyes squeezed shut, she begged the small plastic Christmas angel figurine in her hand to keep her safe. The manager called the police. Kind officers carried little Raylene to the police station and began searching for her relatives. Uncle Angus and his wife were gleeful about taking Raylene in. They loved her as their own, but never formally adopted her and for whatever reason, Raylene never asked why. The ache in her heart to belong was a powerful force propelling her to the father of her child. An invisible needle and thread pulled at her heart attempting to make a tapestry. The mile’s ticked by. Raylene tried to imagine how Mike would take the news of his child, coupled with the fact that he didn’t know she was headed his way. Surely, he would be more amenable to the information in person rather than if she had texted or called him with it? She smiled at the plastic angel on the passenger seat. Everything would be fine. The closest lodging to Sheldon’s Flooring warehouse was the Westmont Hotel and they were holding a room for her. She expected to be there in three days.
The doctor in the emergency room warned Sarah, “Never walk without a cane. The fall could have been a lot worse.” Nodding her head slowly, Sarah agreed that she had been lucky, only suffering with a twisted ankle and skinned palms. So much for taking a stroll in the sunshine. Mr. O’Brien assisted his daughter to the car then they shopped for a second cane. “It’s only temporary, sweetheart. Soon, you’ll have eyes; I feel it in my soul.” “Thank you,” she replied quietly to her father. Although the new-technology cane was an asset, Sarah’s world continued to shrink with each ‘incident.’ She couldn’t go outside by herself. There were so many things a cane could not detect, so she stayed in her room most of every day. Perhaps someday she would slip her arm through her husband’s and seeing perfectly, they would stroll together.
Smacking her lips together to even out the glossy mulberry lipstick, Raylene fluffed her long blonde mane. The excitement coursing through her over her impending conversation with Mike made sleep impossible. She was no stranger to five a.m. anyway, so she ended her frustration and got dressed. After buying a decaf coffee downstairs in the hotel’s electronic coffee bar, she climbed in Angus’ suburban. Yoga pants were the perfect pregnant pants in her estimation because of the stretch factor. Sheldon’s flooring was quiet; a lone pickup truck sat in the gravel parking lot. Three tremendous warehouses sprawled out before her. She wasn’t sure where to enter. One light burned brightly in the farthest warehouse. Number ‘3’ was lit up and she assumed it must be an office. She climbed five steps and sneaked into the building through a door next to one of three closed loading bays. She was giddy; Mike would be coming to work anytime and she would share the incredible news with him. She lightly stepped through the darkness, across the sawdusty-floored warehouse like a professional thief. Raylene searched for Mike’s office. In her daydream, she waited anxiously, laying across his desk striking a sultry pose. She winced realizing she had left her lucky angel in the car, but surely her dream would come true anyway. Silently prancing wide, she backed up to peer into the little room where a single bulb glowed. A man sat at his desk analyzing numbers on two large computer monitors. The man’s phone rang. He picked up and spoke clearly. Raylene heard, “Hi, sweetheart, no. Not yet. I am stressed. This is theft and I intend to talk to Uncle Mike because it’s been happening on his watch to the tune of fifty thousand plus dollars.” “Mike?” Raylene’s pulse quickened. Had she really been so taken with Mike that she neglected to ask what he was doing in New York? Her head hurt as she recalled Mike telling her that he was ‘along for the ride.’ Dammit, I should have guessed he’s running this place. She thought her plan to skim funds was undetectable. Every shipment processed and invoiced to Sheldon’s in the last three months had a slightly padded price. She was sure she had covered her tracks—on her end. What had flagged this man’s attention she did not know. A sickening feeling overtook her and she tasted vomit in her mouth. Her hands covering her face, she willed away the worst destructive scenario; the one where this incident would cause Mike to reject her and their baby. Heart pounding, everything in her screamed, ‘run.’ As she began to sneak her way back out, Archer growled deeply from inside the lit office prompting Neelan to end his conversation and exit his office. “What is it, Arch?” he asked the faithful Blue Healer. Archer whined, stealthily exiting the room. Neelan strode toward the area where the dog stood frozen and staring, but then Archer quickly snapped his head in the opposite direction. Neelan grunted in the darkness, jamming his foot into a pallet and stumbling. He hopped then ran, groping for a light switch. On the other side of a thousand-pound pile of solid core entry doors, Raylene panicked and attempted to flee, hurdling boxes of reclaimed vents and ducting. Neelan’s fingers located and flipped on the light switch as he glimpsed the frantic woman falling a split second before getting knocked off his feet and losing consciousness. An avalanche of doors hit Neelan like an oncoming train crushing him lifeless. Disoriented, she held her belly possessively and stood up. The place was a disaster; how much of it was her fault, she didn’t know. Her gut said, ‘run’ so she ran for her life. Raylene leaped into the driver’s seat of Angus’ truck and sped to the hotel, panicking about being found guilty of property destruction. Her heart beat in her throat as she feared for the future of her unborn child. Embezzling from Sheldon’s and from Angus was the fastest way to give the baby something … anything, of value, so that’s what she had done. Under no circumstance was her child to have nothing. Now her child may not even have parents at birth. The thought of being in prison and handing over her newborn sickened her more and she choked and sobbed with grief. Neelan lay on the concrete floor, dying. His chest was crushed and blood trickled from his mouth. Archer hobbled over to sniff Neelan whining pitifully before outrightly crying for the still man lying in a pool of blood. The moment Ryder stepped through the front door, Archer’s piercing cries hit him. “Oh, my God. No! Neely!” Ryder cried checking his brother’s neck for a pulse and shouting at the 911 operator on his phone. “Sheldon’s Flooring Warehouse. Man down … Good man down, really good …” his voice cracked. “Please hurry. There’s been an accident.” Ryder’s tears soaked his face as he started a forklift. Using the crane arm, he clamped one door at a time and lifted them from Neelan’s lifeless form. “Oh God, Neely …” “What the hell?” Mike came running in with the Emergency Medical people hot on his tail. “No!” He squatted low on one side of the stack of thick doors and sucked in a deep breath while the two medics positioned themselves on either side to move Neelan’s body. As the elder medic checked Neelan’s pulse and eyes, he asked, “Is he a donor?” Choked up, Ryder responded, “Oh God. I don’t know. Maybe. It’s in his wallet…I never thought that … Oh God, Neely! I don’t know, I don’t know …” Ryder was so distraught he collapsed forward on the forklift crying from the depths of despair over the loss of his best friend. Kneeling over his nephew, Mike texted his brother Jack, “Accident, Neelan didn’t make it.” Mike covered his face with his hand and though he was never one for prayer, he summoned God. I don’t know what Neelan ever did to deserve this, God, but make something good come out of it, please. This hurts so bad … he was such a good kid …Why? He wiped his eyes and texted Jack again, “I’m sorry brother. Protocol; he’s going to Doctor’s hospital.” They carefully loaded Neelan onto a stretcher and hustle him to the ambulance. In the vehicle, with the emergency lights off, the two paramedics quietly accompanied Neelan’s body. “Found it,” one stated examining a donor id card, “Corneas.” “Wow,” the second man exclaimed, “that’s a first for me. I didn’t know a person could give their corneas! I wonder who will benefit?” He stared at Neelan’s face. “Cool.” Within the hour, the entire Sheldon family and Neelan’s girlfriend had gathered at the hospital in disbelief. They cried and hugged one another, grieving the huge loss of their beloved Neelan.
Forty-four hours later.
Sarah sat curled up in her Papazan chair by her bedroom window; heat from the sun warmed her all the way through making her sleepy. School had started, so there were no children playing in the street. “It’s too quiet,” she mused. Her blindness had led to solitary confinement of her own choosing. A low, intermittent hum met her ears. “Finally, crickets!” She chuckled. Hum…hum…hum… She began to sweat at the sound. Crickets don’t go hum…hum…Where did I put that beeper? I’m sure it’s not that. But, what if it is? Oh, help me! “Where. Is. My. Beeper?” she demanded dropping to her knees to feel around under the bed. The beeping noise stopped. “I don’t even know when I last cleaned under my bed. That’s sad. No beeper there. Think!” She stood with a hand on the bedpost for balance and closed her eyes. Complete darkness blocked out all the minutiae for Sarah. Her blind eyes showed her exactly where the beeper was. With a deep breath, cane in hand, she calmly walked across the hall to her parent’s bedroom. There on a shelf next to Sarah’s college graduation photo she groped and touched the blessed beeper, clutching it to her breast. “Dad?” she screamed. “Mom? It’s time! Please?” Delirious from his afternoon nap, Mr. O’Brien jumped up. “Wha? Wha? Sarah?” Heart pounding with worry he ran, wishing for traction on the old wood floor; they bumped into one another in the hallway. She held out the beeper. Barely able to speak through her tears, she uttered, “Eyes.” “Oh, God!” Mr. O’Brien moaned extracting his phone from his pajama pants’ pocket. He dialed the number on the beeper display and he reached an agent. “Yes, Sarah Fink O’Brien,” he stated into the phone. “Okay, yes. We can be there at five-thirty in the morning.” Tears rolled down his cheeks as he listened to the directions from the nurse. Sarah’s face was buried in her hands as she thanked the Lord for the opportunity to see. “Thank you.” Mr. O’Brien ended the call and wrapped his arms around his daughter. “I’m sorry I gave you those eyes, Sarah,” he cries. “I love you, Dad.” Sarah assured him, “for what you gave to me instead; touch. I see with my hands. Please, no matter what happens, never, ever feel you deprived me of anything.”
Prairie Valley Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas smelled like a mixture of coffee and antiseptic at five a.m. A few people sat quietly watching a Jeopardy rerun when Sarah’s name was called. The sixty-year-old black admitting nurse explained the process and took a check from Mr. O’Brien, “Best of luck to you,” the nurse said as Sarah was ushered back to the surgical area. Dr. Labreck introduced himself and shook Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s hands. “Sarah, how long have your contact lenses not worked?” he asked. “Over four months.” “I apologize for the delay in getting your new corneas. It takes longer, but it’s important to age match as much as possible for best results.” Sarah’s hands instantly covered her face as she mourned again; only this time she had more information; her donor was very close to her age. A stabbing pain pierced her abdomen. The doctor whispered something to the nurse then continued, “This morning nurse Leah will clean your eye area and give you locals to numb your eyes. She’s bringing you a sedative right now to make you more comfortable. Once your eyes are completely numb, we’ll use an eyelid holder so you don’t blink, then replace your corneas and apply sutures. The whole procedure will be done under a microscope and take under ninety minutes. You’ll be able to leave later today and go home to relax. We’ll prescribe eye drops and pain meds. Any questions?” Sarah squinted attempting to see the eyes of the man who would be cutting her corneas out today, but no luck. He was a voice in a fog. “Will she see today?” asked Mr. O’Brien. “Yes,” Doctor Labreck replied optimistically, “however, her best vision will occur in two to three months. It’s likely she will need eyeglasses for maximum vision.” Nurse Leah put a glass of water and two small pills in Sarah’s hands. Dr. Labreck excused himself to prepare for the procedure while Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien prayed before their daughter was wheeled to the operating room. Two hours dragged by before Dr. Labreck appeared in the waiting area. “Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, Sarah did very well. She’ll be wearing patches today and I will need to see her back in my office tomorrow, but the new corneas are grafted nicely and I think she’ll be very happy. She’s in recovery.” Mr. O’Brien wiped a tear and flew off his seat to shake the doctor’s hand. “Thank you. No one deserves to see more than my Sarah.” Dr. Labreck nodded kindly but had reservations about declarations such as that. His own father deserved sight but it never happened; it’s what propelled him into medical school and eye surgery. He knew firsthand that you don’t get to determine who deserves a gift like sight. “You’re welcome,” he responded. “You can come back and see her.” “Sarah!” cried Mrs. O’Brien. “It’s done! You can see, dear.” Groggy from the pain killer medication, Sarah managed a half smile. “Only black now,” she muttered. “When can I drive?” Surprised by her request, Mr. O’Brien took her hand in his and replied, “When your eye patches come off and everything is good. We can leave here in a little while.” Sarah’s elated parents, perched in plastic hospital chairs beside her bed, watched their daughter sleep for another thirty minutes. Nurse Leah woke her to begin the discharge process. “What are you most excited to see, Sarah?” “Hmm. That’s a tough question. Probably people. I miss expressions.” “Well, you’ll see some tomorrow I bet.” Nurse Leah smiled at Sarah. “Have a nice afternoon.” The O’Brien family drove home in silence. With the sedatives still in Sarah’s system, it was easier not to speak. Sarah’s fingers moved toward her eyes frequently as she checked to make sure there were really patches covering her new sight and that the darkness was not blindness. At Dr. Labreck’s office the next day, he assessed Sarah’s graft and was quite satisfied with it. He administered an eye test which Sarah easily passed. Her patches were discarded and he handed her protective sunglasses to wear. “Aviators? Really, Dr. Labreck?” Sarah laughed. “I haven’t been responsible for my appearance in so long and now that I can see, you put me in nerd sunglasses from the nineteen seventies?” She felt nearly punch-drunk with delight. She could see. He smiled back at her. “I’ll have nurse Leah check for other styles, if you like.” Cracking up at the sight of herself, she smarted, “That’s okay, I’ll just shop for bell bottoms and platform shoes!” Smirking at Sarah’s giddiness over her new vision, Dr. Labreck poked his head out of the exam room and called, “Leah, we apparently have a ‘fashion faux-pas’ here. Would you help Ms. O’Brien?” Nurse Leah appeared quickly. “Come with me, Sarah, we have an assortment you can choose from.” Then she whispered, “Most of our clients are in their seventies. They like aviators.” She snickered. Sarah greeted her father in the waiting room sporting Lady Bandelier sunglasses and a huge smile. “Now there’s my girl,” Mr. O’Brien declared, his heart melting at the sight of his pretty, happy daughter. After an afternoon nap, Sarah lay on her bed taking in the sight of her bedroom; spelling bee certificates and Mathematics decathlon trophies lined a long shelf. She spotted an eerie selfie of herself and math runner up, Grey Adams in the fifth grade. Grey died in a car wreck his second year at Stanford. There were moments in her elementary school years when she dreamed of having Grey as a boyfriend. He was well-liked by so many people. What felt like a ridiculous injustice caused her to be angry with God for a long time after Grey’s death. It seems like good people are plucked from the earth at double the rate of the terrible people; I’ll work on that equation later. The doorbell forced Sarah from her comfortable mattress toward the front door. Mr. O’Brien opened the door just in time for Sarah to see Hector Martinez; clearly.
“Hi! These are for you, Sarah,” Hector announced stepping into the foyer uninvited. “Congratulations on your eyes! I had one cataract surgery a month ago, and the next one is next week.” “Oh, thanks for the flowers, you shouldn’t have.” Sarah blushed with irritation as she examined the colorful bouquet. “I’m sure your second surgery will be great.” “Would you like to take a walk with me?” Hector begged. “My dad went to the grocery store after he dropped me off here, so I have one hour to kill.” Mrs. O’Brien approached grinning and drying her hands on a dish towel. “Go, dearie,” she encouraged. Sarah slid her feet into old worn sneakers and jerked the front door wide open. “Let’s go, Hector.” The beauty of the day was beyond remarkable to Sarah. Even with the sunglasses distorting colors, she admired the blues, the greens, the piercing light of the sun and the quick blur of a swooping bird. Half a mile into their walk in Halfort Park, Hector shouted, “Sarah? Sarah! Are you okay? What’s wrong?” He called her house and told Mr. O’Brien, “I don’t know what’s wrong with her. She doesn’t answer. Please come and get her.” Sarah stood paralyzed staring into the dense thicket of trees ahead of them. Her lips moved like she was reading something, but no sound followed. “Sarah?” yelled her father, tapping her on the shoulder. “Huh? What?” Sarah asked in an obvious haze. “You were talking about a bridge. Don’t you remember what you just said?” asked Hector. Not appreciating Hector’s tone, Mr. O’Brien glared at him for a moment. “Sarah is sorting out her thoughts,” he explained to Hector. “She knows what she just saw. Confused, Sarah asked, You didn’t see that marker?” “What marker?” Hector demanded waving his hand around at the park to make his point. Mr. O’Brien took her by the arm. “Let’s go home, Sarah. Maybe you’re out too soon.” He led her to his car. “I’ll walk back, thanks,” Hector said. “Okay.” Mr. O’Brien waved, nonplussed. “What happened back there, daughter? And don’t you sugar coat anything. Tell me straight,” ordered Mr. O’Brien. His concerned, stern profile being studied by Sarah. “I have a question for you, Dad. Have we ever been to Denton, Texas?” “Might I remind you that you and your mother do not like Texas?” he replied emphatically. “I tried to plan a trip to Galveston but you and your mother vetoed that idea.” “Oh, yes.” “Why the interest in the Lone Star state now?” “I … I read something. It … It wasn’t really there … but it was. Old Clayton Bridge was built in 1883 over Hightop Creek on Canyon Road. It’s the county’s oldest remaining Strap-truss iron bridge.” “Why are you telling me this, Sarah?” “It’s what I read.” When she detected her father’s anxiousness, she backed off. “I imagined it and got carried away. I’m sorry if I frightened anyone. Will you teach me to drive?” Sarah’s driving lessons began right then. Mr. O’Brien was relentless in his efforts to help his daughter attain the freedoms her eyes had thus far denied her. Once in the security of her bedroom, she ran her hands lovingly down the cool sides of her computer monitor. It had been useless for so long. She googled the bridge whose marker she had read earlier and discovered it was real. Arms crossed, she held herself to stop the goosebumps from erupting. She logged out quickly and grabbed a pen. Dr. Labreck was a man of science. He would probably want to know about the ‘infraction of vision’ she experienced. In her journal she documented what she saw so she could share it with her surgeon at her next appointment.
Neelan’s funeral was the farthest thing possible from a wake. There was no joy emanating from the Denton funeral home chapel. A vibrant, loving, smart man had been snatched by the jaws of death and now a hundred people sat heartbroken and angry over their loss. Jack Sheldon was unable to speak without dissolving into a pile of tears. Ryder was too mad to talk which left Bryce to speak on their behalf. “It’s a mystery; the why’s and how’s of death,” Bryce mused to the gathered. “My beloved brother Neelan has been permanently removed from earth. He was the kindest, smartest person I know. To know Neelan was to know trust. If he was your friend, he had your back twenty-four-seven. Our loss is heaven’s gain. The good Lord welcomed a dedicated saint the second Neelan arrived,” Bryce’s voice cracked with emotion. Two men began playing ‘Hallelujah’ on guitar; their haunting harmonies drew more tears from the already worn out mourners. When evening came, and the last of dozens of visitors trailed out of the Sheldon’s home. The tight knit family, assembled in the wood-walled living room, sat stunned. “I thought I would wake up to find that this day was just a bad dream,” admitted Neelan’s girlfriend, Holly. For the moment, her eyes were dry. “We need to find who’s responsible for Neelan’s death,” Ryder stated. “I personally think whoever did it was out to get Neelan.” Uncle Mike sucked in a deep breath, “It could have been an accident plain and simple. You know the warehou …” Ryder eyed Uncle Mike with disdain. Rubbing the ache from his red eyes, Bryce said, “I agree with Ryder. Doors don’t just decide to fall.” Sensing the anger in the room, Mr. Sheldon focused for a moment on the business and asked, “Bryce, would you write an ad for a bookkeeper? Neelan kept everything squared away but we’re going to need someone soon. The books are not in any of our wheelhouses. This could go sour real fast if we don’t get on top of it.” ~~~~~><~~~~~
Seeing was wearing Sarah out; there was so much to look at and the internet never slept. “She’s back at it again today,” Mrs. O’Brien complained shaking her head. “Those good eyes won’t last long at the rate she’s going.” “Ah, you can’t blame her, she’s been cooped up here for a long time and she wants to earn money,” Mr. O’Brien responded. “She had another ‘episode’ yesterday. That makes three. I don’t know what to make of it.” The elderly couple sipped their tea and waited for Sarah to join them for breakfast … when she finally got off the computer. Between catching up with fashion in online magazines and looking for a job, Sarah researched various traumatic occurrences due to eye-related transplants. The only article she found had to do with organ or tissue-recipient guilt which resulted in suicide. It was entirely too depressing. Sarah knew those articles missed the mark as far as her ‘symptoms’ went.
Dr. Labreck was thrown for a loop when Sarah described how she ‘saw’ things. With no scientific explanation he was aware of for her condition, he snickered and replied smartly, “That’s what happens when your corneas are grafted, you see things!” “Well, okay.” There was nothing Sarah could add about the stranger’s gift that would engage a serious tone in her doctor. Mrs. O’Brien had embarrassed Sarah on several occasions with her cupid attempts, but never had Sarah felt completely foolish until now. “Thanks, I’ll deal with it.” Dr. Labreck smiled. Sarah could tell he was relieved she was leaving without further questions. Unnerved with Dr. Labreck and unraveled over the ‘visions,’ Sarah reviewed her journal entries once more; only this time, with the mind of an investigator. There was the scene at the park. Then the following evening at her computer, it was late at night and she felt herself falling asleep. The monitor had timed out and went dark. When she opened her eyes, she froze. There was a framed photo on the left. Her eyes knew it was there … The woman in the photo looked so happy to be hiking in the woods. Then the computer screen lit up stealing her attention. “Books?” she said out loud. It was a ledger; several month’s purchasing and receiving entries … But there was something amiss on certain dates. If Sarah could just study it—just a bit longer—but the image had vanished. It happened again as Sarah was up in the attic helping Mr. O’Brien look for a braille typewriter for Mrs. O’Brien. She was on her knees digging through a large box when she looked up toward her father and instead saw the frightened face of a woman in a black hoodie. From the angle of the vision, based upon the tall, unfinished ceiling, she appeared to be in a warehouse. They locked eyes for a fleeting moment. “Sarah?” Mr. O’Brien called out. “What’s wrong?” Her father’s voice snapped her from the image. “Nothing. Did you find the typewriter?” “Yes. Your mother will be pleased.” Her investigative mind organized the visions she had experienced so far. “This is the where the sign was,” she said softly to herself tapping her fingernails on the desk. “Denton, Texas. But why?” She googled Denton, Texas news, and clicked on the Chronicle newspaper. The small rag offered a page per section with the longest section being the classifieds. Immediately, the want ads jumped out at her. “Hmm, Bookkeeper/clerk wanted.” She wasn’t about to kick a gift horse; she needed the money so she wrote down the phone number. The duties of the position seemed to be a perfect fit for Sarah and the pay was quite high. Her last year at Excel in Math, she earned forty thousand dollars and it was part-time. This Clerical position in the ad paid more than double her previous salary. She felt excited about the prospect and her skin responded with a blanket of goosebumps. Without a thought about what her parents might say, she dialed the number.
“Sheldon Flooring,” Ryder spoke into the phone. “Ah, hi. I’m calling about the position for Bookkeeper. Has it been filled?” “Ah, I don’t think so.” Ryder clenched his fist and lightly punched the air. He disagreed with his father; he felt it was too soon to replace Neelan’s job, but he wasn’t about to sabotage Sheldon Flooring. “Okay, where do I send my resume?” asked Sarah. His heart raced and Ryder knew his voice sounded anxious to the applicant. “If you’re serious, just bring it with you and come in.” “Oh, okay. When?” Ryder glanced at his watch. “It’s eight right now. How about two?” Sarah quickly googled an online map and searched the travel distance to Denton. Two o’clock was pushing it. “Would four work?” “Sure. Ask for Ryder. What’s your name?” “Sarah O’Brien.” “Okay. See you then,” said Ryder. “Thank you. Bye.” It was as though Sarah has been injected with a happy drug. She threw a small suitcase on the bed, tossed a handful of essentials and pajamas into a tote bag. A few dresses and shoes went into a garment bag; Sarah liked to have options. After setting out sweats and sneakers for driving comfort, she hopped in the shower. Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien did not know what to make of the woman before them. Dressed in fuchsia sweats, her hair swirled on top of her head, Sarah’s makeup was flawless and the sunglasses added an air of mystery. “I’m going on a job interview; it’s in Texas, so I’ll be back tomorrow,” Sarah announced with a huge grin. Not one to burst his daughter’s bubble, Mr. O’Brien wrapped his arms around his excited offspring. “Call if you need anything, Sarah. I love you.” Mrs. O’Brien’s mouth hung open. “Why would you go to that tumbleweed place? There are jobs in Arkansas!” she cried wiping tears away. Sarah recognized her mother’s stubbornness. “I’ll be fine. I have to do this! I can’t explain it, but the pieces are coming together. I’ll call you from the Westmont Hotel when I get there.” Mr. O’Brien dropped the keys to Mrs. O’Brien’s rarely driven Ford Escort into Sarah’s hand. “Be safe.” “And when, God forbid, did she get her driver’s license?” demanded Mrs. O’Brien, hands parked on her hips. Mr. O’Brien leaned in to give his red-faced wife a kiss while Sarah scampered out the door yelling, “Sarah's license was a team effort, dear. I love you!”
Raylene’s trip to Texas was not going as planned. Her attempt to surprise Mike at his office and tell him the special news blew up when she heard Neelan speak of theft he uncovered in the books. She scrambled out of the warehouse without being detected. Later that evening on the ten o’clock news, she heard about the horrible accident she had caused. Neelan Sheldon died in a warehouse accident early that morning. “What have I done?” she cried sickened at the thought that she might have anything to do with that accident. Her phone buzzed with a text from her Uncle Angus, “Did ye hear the news? Jack’s son died. Are ye okay? Where are ye?” he asked. Her options had run out. If she showed herself to the Sheldon family now, here in Texas, she would be a suspect in Neelan’s death. If she went home too soon, Uncle Angus may suspect something. She must stay gone for a while and take the vacation she told him about. “Wow, very sad about the Sheldon’s loss. I’m fine, resting at the beach,” she lied. “I’ll call you in a few days.” Already visualizing herself at the beach, Raylene checked out of the Westmont and drove her Uncle’s truck five hours straight to the beach at Galveston. A new plan was needed and the beach was the perfect place to re-think all the angles of her embezzlement scheme, while she worked on her tan.
There were only a handful of cars in the Westmont Hotel parking lot when Sarah pulled up in the Ford. She checked in at two forty-five p.m. and took a quick shower before changing into an appropriate dress. She must look right for the ‘hand in your resume in person’ job application. She snickered remembering what the guy on the phone had said. He clearly hadn’t hired people before. Perhaps that would play to her favor, she hoped. When she assessed herself in the mirror she was pleased. Her hair was shiny and lay smooth to the middle of her back. Her skin was clear and her eyes bright. Thanks to you,” she spoke to her corneas in her reflection. “You have made all the difference.” The peach and white floral summer dress was the epitome of feminine and perfect in these dying days of the Indian summer Texas was experiencing. A gray suit would have been the ‘power’ choice for the interview, but she didn’t own one and made no time to shop. She felt utterly pretty in her size eight designer dress and convinced herself, “If I don’t get the job because I look like a woman, then I don’t need it.” With that bold statement, she shoved her dark Bandeliers up on her nose and swung her board-straight chestnut hair over her shoulder. Resume in hand, Sarah steered the Ford to Sheldon’s Flooring and arrived five minutes early for her appointment. “The question is, where is the entrance?” she asked herself as she coasted down the long parking lot. When a tall man exited a door, Sarah quickly parked nearby and hopped out of the car. “Can I help you?” asked Bryce surprised to see a model approaching him. “Yes, I’m here for a four o’clock job interview.” “Oh, you are?” Bryce rubbed his chin. “Who did you talk to?” “Um, Ryder?” she replied blankly. “Come on in,” Bryce said with a smirk and opened the door for her. He watched Sarah out of the corner of his eye not believing she was actually wanting to work at Sheldon’s. “Do you know we produce and sell wood flooring?” She nodded and crossed her legs at the ankles where she stood. Bryce shrugged. “Ryder?” he shouted into his walkie-talkie. You are needed in the showroom.” Sarah listened but tried not to. “Yeah? What’s up?” yelled Ryder over the sound of screaming machines. “You have a four o’clock interview?” “Ah, shit. Can you do it, Bryce? Mike’s helping me and the guys run boards through the planer.” Actually, no. I have to pick up Jorden. It shouldn’t take long. I’ll send her over to you.” Sarah moved to shake Bryce’s hand, “Thank you. Which way?” “Oh, I’ll take you there.” He wasn’t in a big enough hurry to miss this meeting. He smiled and led the way out the door and farther down the parking lot. He wouldn’t miss Ryder’s reaction when he laid eyes on the doll of an applicant. In the parking lot, Archer spotted Bryce and Sarah and followed them. “Sweet dog,” Sarah commented. “His name is Archer,” Bryce responded and held the door to the office of the finishing shop wide open allowing Sarah to sweep in. Due to the noise the guys wore ear protection. To get their attention, Bryce flicked the light switch causing Ryder and the men to finish the plank and shut the groove saw down. Ryder’s expression was worth a million dollars to Bryce; he was stunned. The leggy beauty in the form-fitting flowery dress and dark glasses took his breath away. Mike feigned cleaning, but watched the meeting with interest. Sarah rubbed her hands together and assessed the cowboy striding toward her in work jeans and boots. The scruffy growth of beard on his face and sawdust in his hair added to his charm. She smiled at him. “Ryder?” Bryce laughed. “You gonna introduce me?” “Ah, yeah. Sarah?” he checked. Sarah nodded and introduced herself, “Sarah O’Brien. Nice to meet you.” Bryce’s hand was moderately firm and cool to her touch. His long fingers gracefully wrapped around her hand in a caring way, though in partial contact. He has unfinished business in his life. Hmm. “Nice to meet you, Sarah. I’ll leave you to lock up, Ryder.” Bryce turned to leave shaking his head, knowing his brother was smitten. Ryder took off a heavy duty work glove and extended his hand to her. Sarah was not disappointed. It was firm, wide and warm with a heartbeat. His fingertips reach far and held all parts of her hand. This hand is the polar opposite of Hector’s hand. He embraces life head-on. Chill bumps rippled over her arms. “So, Sarah,” Ryder began, “let’s go talk in an office.” She followed Ryder, enjoying the view of her well-built interviewer while fanning herself. Ryder opened the door to the Salvage warehouse and Sarah stepped in. “Oh!” she shouted. Ryder’s hand touched her back. “Are you okay?” Her breathing became labored as she looked all around, and to the ceiling … It was ‘the’ ceiling from her vision. “I’d like to sit, please.” Ryder led her to her future office and turned the lamp on near the window. One look at the picture on the left side of the desk and Sarah’s eyes rolled back and she passed out, hitting the sofa. Her glasses flew off her head. “No!” Ryder yelled. “Damn!” He squatted down close to her, held both of her hands in his and rubbed vigorously. “Sarah, wake up. You passed out!” When her eyes fluttered open, Ryder was looking so deeply into her clear blue eyes and she felt naked. “My glasses!” she quickly closed her eyes until Ryder helped her up and located her sunglasses. “I have super bad light sensitivity. I hoped that wouldn’t be a problem. I’m sorry I fainted. I haven’t eaten all day.” She took the chair facing the framed photo and Ryder sat near her fighting an urge to ask her to dinner. He held back considering he didn’t even know if she was married. “No problem. When can you start?” Ryder inquired. “Would you like to see my resume? she asked incredulous that he seemed so ready to employ her. She held it out to him and he took it then rolled it up like a baton. “Ah, okay. What do you like about bookkeeping?” He wanted to watch her talk, see her lips move and listen to her melodic voice, not read her resume. Sarah gave him a dazzling smile and explained, “I love numbers. They make sense to me and give order to the world. I love the challenge of balancing books …” Ryder listened attentively, then decided. “The job is yours if you want it. Can you start tomorrow?” His pleading look, coupled with those honest eyes and how his hands felt, left Sarah no choice. “Sure. Be here at nine?” “Nine is great. I’ll show you to your car,” he offered. Ryder was quite impressed with the lovely Sarah. The thought of explaining his decision to his father the next day was not so pleasant.
The hotel bed was comfy as Sarah lay thinking about what she would say to her worried parents. Suddenly her phone rang and it was them. “Honesty is always the best policy,” she mumbled. Truth is best. “Yes, I interviewed and yes, they hired me and yes, I’m taking the job,” she answered Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s questions. “Actually, I’m going to negotiate a discount rate and live here at the Westmont if they’ll have me. I don’t know how long I’ll be working here. I’m on a mission to find answers that I know for sure are here.” Sarah’s parents were happy for her happiness and torn to pieces on the inside because their daughter was not close by. They begged her to promise to call every night, then reluctantly, they said goodbye. Alone with her thoughts, Sarah’s investigative mind was back at work. “So today I actually visited the warehouse and the desk in my visions. Hmm.” She took her laptop out of her suitcase, popped it open and slowly typed in the search bar, “Denton, Texas. Death in warehouse,” then waited … “No!” she cried her hand covering her mouth. There was a photo of Neelan Sheldon and a brief story in the Denton Chronical about him and the accident that had claimed his life. Tears spilled down her cheeks at the realization … “I have your eyes, Neelan! Oh, my God.” She slammed her laptop shut and cried herself to sleep. Morning didn’t remove the sadness in her heart for Neelan as she went about dressing for work. Today, she wore her hair in large waves with a barrette on one side. The navy-blue dress exuded seriousness compared with yesterday’s sundress. This navy dress matched her mood. The neckline plunged a bit lower, but since her breasts were not large, she thought it discreet, even though it flared like a dancer’s dress when she spun. The moment she buckled her feet into the matching navy pumps, her confidence level rose.
Clean-shaven and dressed in his nicest jeans and boots, Ryder stood watching out the retail showroom window for his new hire. His reflection in the glass confirmed his crisp white shirt was wrinkleless. Jack Sheldon rounded the back corner into the showroom office just as Ryder opened the front door for Sarah. “Mr. Sheldon, this is Sarah O’Brien,” Ryder introduced her to his father. Jack’s eyes widened at the sight of Ryder in a sportcoat. He shifted his gaze to the young woman in dark sunglasses. “Nice to meet you, Sarah, how long have you two been dating?” he asked. “What? Dad?” Ryder asked embarrassed. “No. I hired her. She’s a bookkeeper.” His face reddened. Jack coughed, “My apologies. Welcome, Sarah, glad you’re here.” “Thank you, I’ll get started right now.” Jack did not miss Ryder’s big happy grin as he ushered her to her new office with Archer trailing along. “Let me know if there is anything you need,” said Ryder. He stood in the office doorway staring at Sarah as she turned the computers on. “I do have a question. Is it okay for me to go through these drawers? They’re full of stuff.” Sorrowfully, Ryder assured her, “It’s your office now. You do whatever you need to.” Turning in the chair to face Ryder, Sarah gathered that he had suffered a huge loss and became melancholy. Through her dark glasses, she met his gray eyes and his pain was evident. “Thank you, and you look very nice today.” “Ah, thanks. Yeah, yesterday was the construction Ryder, today it’s all business.” He paused and tried to see her eyes, but the monitor drew her attention and she looked away. “Someone had to look as smart as you!” He grinned and left the office with Archer at his heels. Sarah sat up tall and smiled; despite his sadness, he found something nice to say. Her evaluation of his handshake was accurate. She quickly closed the office door and commanded herself, “Okay, let’s do this!” Poking through the stuffed drawers, she locate a small password address book. “Voila!” She successfully logged into the Sheldon accounting system. “And, I’m in!” Two quick knocks and her office door opened. “Sarah, you will need the passw…” Ryder stopped talking the moment he saw both monitors up and running the program. He was stunned, but impressed that she had maneuvered her way into Neelan's computer. “Okay, let me know if you have any questions,” he reminded her with a nod. Sarah smiled softly at Ryder and nodded in return then refocused her attention to the mystery from her daydream. The exact pages she had seen in her vision were now before her in real time. The entries were all dated three and four months ago. She soon learned that the Sheldon’s Flooring orders from McBray Saw Mill were never identical. Once Sarah broke down every type of wood at cost per piece, she discovered a two and a half percent increase per piece, imposed on Sheldon’s four months ago. To make matters more confusing, it appeared Sheldon’s paid for orders that had significant shortages in materials and backorder notes were hand scribbled by several different men in receiving. After debating whether she should, Sarah dug through Neelan’s password book and logged into his Sheldon’s email account. Nowhere was there documentation of a price increase. She tapped her pencil against her cheek and stared at the ceiling. Sarah was absolutely positive that four months ago, someone began stealing from Sheldon’s. Knowing all the nuances and facts about accounting, she wondered if the perpetrator was stealing from their own end as well; her studies would imply yes. She had to start somewhere if she was to solve this mess. She called Angus McBray. The kind receptionist forwarded Sarah to Angus’ phone. When he answered, Sarah explained, “I’m the new bookkeeper at Sheldon’s Flooring and if you have a moment, I’d like us to talk.” In his Scottish-English he drawled, “Aye yes. I’ll answer all I can.”
Laying out by the Gulf of Mexico three days in a row, Raylene’s skin glowed a beautiful golden brown. Today, she ventured to the beach right after breakfast. Carefully slathering on the sunscreen, she was positive that New York is not where she would live forever; the Texas sun suited her much better. It had been almost two months since she last spoke to Mike and it occurred to her that the next Sheldon’s ‘inspection-get-drunk’ visit to the Mill was in two weeks. The last time Mike was in town, Raylene was seven weeks pregnant and their sex was amazing. She felt sure Mike was looking forward to another sexual rendezvous as much as she was. She bit her lip, frustrated at the glitch in her plan that caused her to run from Denton. She had no idea anyone got hurt the day she was sneaking in to see Mike, let alone get killed. Though she’d never met Neelan, she had talked to him on the phone a couple of times. Stuffing her huge striped towel and water bottle in her beach bag, Raylene pulled on a white bathing suit cover up and ponytailed her sun-kissed blonde hair. The answer was clear to her as she marched through hot sand to the hotel. It felt like a plank she was walking to her death. “For you,” she said to the baby in her belly. “I’ll do it for you. We’ll go see your daddy and explain everything.”
Feet propped up on the showroom desk, Ryder glanced at the extension light lit up on the console. Sarah had been on the phone with someone for the last hour. A door whipped open. “Ryder, you seem jumpy today, what’s up?” asked Mike. “I don’t know. Nothing actually.” “Hmm, I’d bet it’s that cute little thing in sunglasses.” Ryder smirked, “Am I that obvious?” “Yes. To us. I don’t know about her.” “Mike, hell, for all I know she could be married.” “You mean you haven’t googled her? Ryder, you hired her. Didn’t she submit a resume? Is she a psycho killer?” He laughed. I’m going to check on the Merit Install in Dallas. See you later, lover boy.” Mike had put it off; he didn’t want to appear desperate. Thoughts of her niggled at his brain and had him running to his truck. He had put it off long enough. He figured a girl like Raylene wouldn’t want a pansy-ass, needy jerk, so he hadn’t contacted her since their last amazing escapade. He couldn’t stand it any longer. He hopped into the truck and texted Raylene, “Will I see you in two weeks?” Raylene stepped out of the shower when her phone alerted her to a text. She grinned and texted back, “You bet, cowboy.” No matter what else happened, she wanted her coveted time with the manliest man she had ever known. For a fleeting second, she wished the baby would be a boy. A very manly boy like his daddy. ~~~~~><~~~~~
Shortly after their conversation began, Angus McBray had to put the phone down and break into his own filing cabinet. Sarah listened while he hammered and cursed before extracting the accounting books. He kindly explained that when Raylene became old enough, she preferred bookkeeping to any of the other McBray positions, so he let her have it five years ago. Although he noticed she’d become more protective over the books recently, he appreciated it at first and then became suspicious even though there was no evidence of any wrongdoing. Sarah gently walked him through the last four months shipping shortages and the undocumented price increases. He was flabbergasted at Raylene’s diligence in her embezzling effort. She stole fifty-seven thousand dollars from Sheldon’s, and had misappropriated another forty-thousand from the Mill. After a moment of processing, Angus knew he would correct the mess and have a good ‘come to Jesus’ meeting with Raylene. His love for her far outweighed this speck of an infraction in his mind. “Mr. McBray, thank you for working this out with me,” Sarah said gratefully. “Lassie, I’m in debt to ye for yer hard work and yer keen eye. Thank ye. Sheldon’s will be getting a check from me special delivery to cover the loss to Jack.” “Thank you, sir, Sheldon’s Flooring appreciates it,” Sarah replied wiping tears from her eyes. She was surprised to learn that Ms. Raylene Ford took a vacation without telling her family where she was going. Sarah logged off the program and googled McBray Sawmill. Once on the primitive website, she clicked ‘about us’ and studied the photos of various mill workers posing for the camera. There before her was Raylene. It was the same face Sarah saw in her vision in the warehouse. “So, you were here, Raylene,” she mumbled to the photo. You stole, left work in New York, came here, Neelan died and … where did you go? Vacation. Hmm. I vow to figure this out, Neelan. For you, who gave me sight. Thirty minutes past four, Sarah’s stomach growled bringing her out of her distracted state. She opened her door and discovered Archer had been laying outside her office. The Salvage warehouse was empty, but she could hear truck engines and deep voices coming from the next warehouse as she left for the day.
Sunglasses was not in her office when he appeared at her door at five till five. He could kick himself for not discussing the length of a workday. No one leaves Sheldon’s before five unless it’s Ryder. He had planned to casually ask her to dinner tonight. Instead, he would go for a run and spend the evening with a TV dinner, by himself. Ryder checked his smartwatch to confirm that the five-mile run he just completed was a record-breaking time for him. There was nothing like thoughts of a hot woman to make a man run faster and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Tired of flipping channels, Ryder considered Mike’s words and quickly sat down at his computer, to google. He searched Sarah O’Brien. One after another, links popped up for Sarah’s high school awards and the accolades from Excel in Math business where she apparently taught. Oh my god, I know nothing about this woman. Ryder felt his ears burning with stupidity. The university where she graduated had nothing but amazing things to say about little miss numbers. Ryder lost all sense of time as he dug deeper and deeper. His dinner half-eaten, he rubbed his temples; curious as to why the name Sarah O’Brien would be under a link to the Arkansas Blind Club, he clicked it. “What the hell …?” His heart began to hammer and he tasted bile. “She was blind …” he whispered in shock. “How is it you can see now? Huh?” he shouted at a photo of fifteen people. Sarah stood off to one side holding a cane. Another linked article exposed her recent successful corneal transplant surgery. “You’re here because you knew we would need a bookkeeper, because you got Neelan’s eyes!” he gritted through a clenched jaw and sobbed. “You’re effing welcome for his eyes and his damn job! Unbelievable. Tomorrow is your last day of mocking Neelan, Sunglasses. He dropped down on the living room floor area rug and ground out one hundred pushups. What Ryder had to do was crystal clear: Sarah needed to go before anyone else put the pieces together and discovered just how stupid he was. She had made him a fool. He shed his workout clothes and jumped in the shower, the ice cold-water pelting at him did little to lessen his anger.
After changing into cropped pants, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes, Sarah perused the menu in the Westmont Hotel dining room before deciding on a glass of red wine and a steak dinner to appease her tummy and celebrate the success of her first day at work. The waiter served Sarah the wine and meal before turning to seat another guest. When Sarah glanced up to the lovely tall woman in a body-hugging knee length striped summer dress and cowboy boots, she couldn’t swallow. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, two tables away sat Raylene Ford … and she was pregnant. Sarah’s eyes focused on the woman with laser beam clarity. “Come on, Sarah,” she spoke under her breath, “this is just another problem. Y (from New York) plus X (from Texas perhaps) equals the reason why she’s here: Baby. Hmm, that might explain why she was in the warehouse.” She would have preferred chill bumps to the anxious nervousness taking over. She shook her head to extricate the possibility that Ryder was the daddy. Stuffing down a final bite, Sarah gulped water then squared her shoulders and marched over to Raylene, wine in hand. “Hi,” Sarah said, “I heard your accent, I’m not from here either. Where are you from?” Raylene glanced up surprised at the woman’s boldness. “New York,” she replied with a grin. “What about you?” “Arkansas. It’s not too far but some people can tell I’m not Texan. I’m visiting. “I’ll buy you a glass of wine if you’ll let me not sit alone?” “Oh, no thanks, I’m pregnant,” she admitted, “but have a seat.” Sarah smiled brilliantly, “What a blessing! Congratulations. Do you know if it’s a girl or boy?” “No,” Raylene pondered, “but I hope it’s a boy as smart and good looking as Mike, ah, er, his daddy.” Sarah felt a huge sigh of relief escape her lips with this knowledge. “I know what you mean. It’s great to be in love. Sarah pictured the giver of her sight and replied, “It happened to me recently.” Raylene’s delight with her pregnancy and her baby’s daddy was obvious. “Yes, I knew the moment I laid eyes on him, he was my other half.” “I’m celebrating too.” Sarah held up her glass. “A toast,” she said. Raylene held her water glass up too. “To solving problems!” “To solving problems,” Raylene repeated uncomfortably then sipped her water. “What did you solve?” “You won’t believe this, but today was my first day on the job at this flooring company down the road and what do I find? Theft on the books!” Sarah boasted, feigning inebriation. Raylene's neck became blotched with redness; she crossed her arms defiantly and Sarah continued, “So I called the owner of the mill. I think it’s in Pennsylvania or something and told him all about it.” “Oh my god! What did he say?” “He apologized for the errors and wrote a check to cover our company’s loss! That’s a first for me, so I’m celebrating!” declared Sarah. “He also said he uncovered loss on his end which he understood too. Talk about nice!” Raylene's eyes darted about in confusion. “I’m emotional, you know, pregnancy …” she said wiping her eyes. Sarah set her empty wine glass down and stood. “I’m going to bed now. Thanks for celebrating with me, New York!” “Bye, Arkansas!” Raylene whispered in return.
She had been confident she would get the job at Sheldon’s Flooring, but starting immediately surprised her, leaving her no time to shop for new ‘work’ clothes. As quickly as her eyes had shown her the errors in the company’s bookkeeping—now it had dissipated. Gleeful over yesterday’s positive outcome to the vision of embezzlement, Sarah strutted around the hotel room singing the words to ‘Happy,’ by Pharrell. This was the last of three dresses she brought for her “interview” days and by far her prettiest. The sleeveless black mini dress had a wide white leather belt which cinched in her already narrow waist. Two layers of black tool appeared to defy gravity the way the dress fabric jutted away from her toned legs. Strappy white sandals with three-inch heels were the perfect shoes. That morning Sarah was too tired to fuss with her thick locks. She fluffed the front of her dark hair, combed it back into a high ponytail, then completed the look with loopy earrings and bright red lipstick. She pushed the dark sunglasses she still needed to protect her new corneas, up on the bridge of her nose and departed for Sheldon’s Flooring.
Arms folded across his chest, Ryder was grinding his teeth waiting for the leech; the one who took his brother’s eyes and then his job. He suspected her goal was to completely blot Neelan out like he never existed in the first place. Sarah tugged on the main door to Warehouse number 3 and stepped into the cavernous dark room. Her glasses coupled with the lights-off caused her to stop directly. Ryder waited as the high-heeled diva hesitantly entered. “Don’t tell me you can’t see?” he smarted off to her, attempting, but failing, to keep his eyes on her face and ignore her delicate, curvaceous silhouette. “What? Excuse me?” Sarah asked confused by the strange angry voice. “Don’t take another step,” he ordered from his chair ten feet away. “I know all about you, Miss Mathematics. Don’t worry, I won’t tell and humiliate both of us. You took Neelan’s eyes and then you did your homework and took his nice paying job.” “Oh, Ryder.” Sarah’s voice quavered and she froze. Her hand frantically searched her neck for her voice; fear had crushed it. She would have enjoyed educating him about blindness and her desperate desire to see and how … Neelan wished her here or she wouldn’t have come. She had analyzed the events a thousand times already. The dream, visions, or apparition she experienced must have been Neelan’s foremost concerns prior to his death. He had cried out to her in his agony and she, with new eyes had seen and heard. Neelan had blessed her and her only recourse was to help and bring him peace. Tears pooled and threaten to fall but she remained silent. Ryder pounded the final nail into the coffin. “You can turn right around and go home. You’re done here.” She heard a chair scrape violently against the concrete then tumble over. Ryder’s cowboy boots smacked the floor as he marched away. One cough combined with a hard sob escaped her as she turned to leave the darkness. All she could see now were her parent’s faces. Within the hour, Sarah checked out of the Westmont and headed home to the only people she knew truly cared about her and the broken heart in her chest. Ryder got in his truck to make sales calls. It was exactly what he needed; a chance to get out of the office where he might not think about … her. Checking his reflection in the rear-view mirror he praised himself, “Good thing I caught on to Sunglasses’ game; I ... we don’t need her here.” He was positive the constriction in his chest was sorrow for Neelan. Glancing at his day-planner, he called several customers and set up meeting times before turning up Garth Brooks on his dash radio and heading for Dallas.
The clouds were low and rained misted. It was a good day to concentrate on work. Clad in old jeans, a Budweiser beer t-shirt and steel toed boots, Mike grabbed a cup of coffee in the showroom kitchen before heading back to the finishing plant. Ryder sat quietly in Neelan’s office with the door closed, lights off and the blinds open slightly. He was waiting for thunder and lightning, the finishing touch on his mood. But the heavens seemed to be stalling. He hadn’t missed the fact that Sarah apparently disturbed nothing in Neelan’s desk or office. Maybe she was planning to wait a week before replacing his existence with her own. I can’t believe she one-upped me like she did. Archer wined from his spot near Ryder’s feet. “Maybe we’ll go for a swim today if it doesn’t rain, Archie,” Ryder informed him. Archer’s ears perked up and he stared toward the window. Ryder opened the blinds a bit following Archer’s concern. He caught sight of a tall woman walking toward the Salvage warehouse entrance. A new employee? His thoughts went immediately to the bookkeeper position; he panicked imagining that someone might know about his lapse in judgement—that he had hired the recipient of Neelan’s eyes. He walked lightly, carefully, and followed her voice. “Is Mike Sheldon here?” Ryder heard her ask a forklift operator. The Hispanic middle-aged driver stopped the lift and pulled out his two-way radio to let Mike Sheldon know he had a visitor. Seconds passed then Mike whipped open the door and stared at her. Heart pounding, Ryder felt sure his Uncle Mike knew about Sunglasses Sarah and was interviewing her replacement, until Mike’s response; he was shocked upon seeing the woman. Motionless, he asked in a whisper, “Raylene?” Raylene smiled and reached for him and they embraced. Her hands on his shoulders, she traced the length of his arms before taking his hands. “Can we step outside and talk.” The moment they exited the warehouse, Ryder strode over to Alejandro and suggested he take a break. When he departed, Ryder ran over to press his ear against the metal door and listen. At Ryder’s command, Archer stayed back and laid down on the cool concrete floor while his master spied. “I missed you,” Raylene said and moved in, closing the distance between them. She planted a lingering kiss on Mike’s mouth. “Mmm, I missed you. I was really looking forward to seeing you in two weeks,” he confessed. “I’m glad you’re here.” “I came to tell you something important, Mike. I’m pregnant with our child.” “Holy cow!” Ryder mouthed. Mike’s knees buckled but he quickly righted himself. “Are, are you sure? Really positive?” She nodded and he squeezed her in to a tight embrace. “This is great!” Ryder’s mouth hung open in surprise as he quietly jogged to the showroom where his father was busy talking with customers. He held the door open for Archer then got himself a breakfast pastry and a cup of coffee. He sipped his coffee and contemplated his Uncle Mike’s happy news and considered his own paranoid thoughts. Disgusting Sunglasses Sarah had tricked him into hiring her. Even though he enjoyed firing her, the whole thing felt like a burr under his saddle. He was going to focus on ridding himself of the irritation … somehow. Shortly before lunch, a Fed Ex delivery arrived which Jack signed for then tucked the envelope in his shirt pocket. Noticing Jack’s furrowed brow, Ryder asked, “Were you expecting that?” He pointed toward the envelope. Jack sipped from his water bottle. “No, I don’t know why McBray Industries would send us anything. I’m leery … but …” He pulled the letter out and opened it. “Well, I’ll be damned,” Jack muttered then glanced up to Ryder, mouth agape. “What is it?” “Son, I didn’t think you were thinking clearly when you hired that pretty little thing in the sunglasses. But look at this,” he handed Ryder the letter and he read it aloud, “I am terribly sorry fer any trouble we may have caused ye financially because of our errors. We value yer business and are grateful to yer accountant, Sarah, fer her hard work. She was kind to call this matter to my attention, discreetly. Please accept this check to cover the losses Ms. O’Brien found. We intend to improve in every way. Thanks greatly, Angus McBray.” Ryder dropped the letter on the desk, a feeling of dread sweeping over him. “Pretty wonderful news,’ Jack said with a grin. “She’s worth whatever we’re paying her.” Glaring at the check on the counter, Ryder felt the temperature in the room increasing by the second. He wiped his forehead and stood staring out the front window where the exuberant new father kissed his girlfriend passionately. “Shit. Dad, I need to go,” Ryder said mechanically. “It’s important.” “Sure, son.” Jack’s concern evident in his voice. Ryder sprinted to his truck, double-checking that he had Sarah’s resume with him. He quickly memorized her home address. He knew the only way this mess could be rectified would be in person, with some groveling. Rehiring her and bringing her back with him was the only solution. First she would explain everything. This time he would listen and not jump to conclusions. His heart hammered at the thought of his rudeness toward Sarah. Did she know Neelan before? How did she discover that costly error on the books so fast? Did it have something to do with Neelan? He shivered at his questions, which he would ask softly—perhaps while holding her hand.
By the time Sarah arrived at her parent’s house, she was a mess from crying; her black dress wrinkled and damp from tears. “Mrs. O’Brien! We have a situation!” Mr. O’Brien called to his wife when he saw Sarah exit her car with her shoes and suitcase in her hands. “She’s quite upset.” He opened the door for his daughter and she fell in to his arms. Mrs. O’Brien quickly joined the hug. “I take it, the job didn’t work out?” Mr. O’Brien asked pursing his lips. Sarah burst out laughing hysterically between sobs. “It was wonderful and miserable at the same time,” she shared. I want to change my clothes and take a nap. I’m exhausted from crying. Thank you for being you.” She kissed her dear parents then eagerly sought the comfort of her bed.
“Thirty-twelve Odyssey Trail,” the GPS announced and Ryder’s nerves were shot. Hours of mulling over his behavior had left him stressed out and remorseful. He spritzed mouth freshener on his tongue and reached for the flowers and the gifts. He’d made hundreds of sales calls in his life; never one as critical as this. An impending feeling of doom hung over him. What if she rejects me? He knocked on the door and Mr. O’Brien greeted Ryder with a knowing smirk. “Are you the wonderful or the miserable part of the new job?” he asked boldly. Ryder sucked in a deep breath. “I intend to be the wonderful part if I can come in.” Mr. O’Brien waved him into the living room where Mrs. O’Brien was listening to Jeopardy and crocheting, apparently by touch because she wasn’t looking at her handiwork at all. She looked up when they entered. “Who is this, dear?” “My name is Ryder Sheldon and I’m here to beg for an opportunity to apologize to Sarah.” Mr. O’Brien’s antenna shot up. “What are you guilty of, son?” “She has my brother’s eyes.” Ryder’s face reddened with the admission. "... I mean corneas." Heat crawled up Mr. O’Brien’s neck at the mention of her eye transplant. “So, you got angry, maybe?” “Yes,” Ryder acknowledged. “Son, after the transplant, it was the damndest thing; we thought her mind was going. She was having visions. She journaled her recovery and when she left us in a hurry to go to Texas, we read her journal.” “We did,” agreed Mrs. O’Brien. “Sarah began hallucinating the day her patches came off. We were so worried about her. She wrote about seeing embezzling in the accounting books somewhere. She couldn’t figure out where.” Mr. O’Brien added, “Then a warehouse ceiling…” His hands went up questioningly. Ryder shook his head in understanding as he remembered Sarah fainting upon seeing the warehouse. “I’m a fool,” he declared. Having heard the voices, Sarah snuck through the kitchen to eavesdrop on the conversation in the living room. Hair down and messy from her pillow, wearing sweats and an Arkansas Razorback t-shirt, she appeared in the doorway, thunderstruck. Ryder held a bouquet of lilies and several boxes of gifts. His face was burning red and sweaty. Mr. O’Brien spotted his daughter. “Sarah, do you know this man?” She rounded the corner attempting to calm her wayward hair. “Yes,” she replied. Ryder held out the bouquet of flowers. “For you, Sarah. I’m very sorry.” “And what about his hand, sweetheart?” probed Mr. O’Brien. Sarah set the flowers on the coffee table and pushed her sunglasses up on the bridge of her nose. She shook Ryder’s hand and stared at his face. His hand was warm and rough, but tender and complete. She reported to her father, “This man thinks about all the possibilities and is caring and attentive. He doesn’t like to hurt people, but loves deeply. His heart is in his actions and he is sincere.” Ryder smiled and his eyes twinkled. Her heart jumped. Mrs. O’Brien wiped tears of happiness away as her daughter lovingly forgave her visitor. “This woman,” Ryder began, refusing to let go of her hand, “Her hand is kind, warm, friendly, smart and insightful. I believe my brother Neelan somehow chose you, Sarah, because of your heart and mind.” He stared through her dark sunglasses. “This hand feels so right in mine. Will you please come back to work for Sheldon’s? I’ll throw in an apartment? Anything you want.” “Yes, I will, Ryder. Thank you.” Feeling buoyant, Ryder added, “Oh, and you’re riding back with me.” Sarah grinned at the pleasurable thought of getting to know Ryder on a long drive. It occurred to Mrs. O’Brien, as she assessed Ryder, that any offspring from the union of Sarah and Ryder would look like movie stars or athletes. Although they would be much taller than Mr. or Mrs. O’Brien, it pleased her immensely and she relished the idea. “You two can leave in the morning,” Mrs. O’Brien ordered, “the roast is about done.” Pleased that Mrs. O’Brien and Sarah were not squabbling over an inappropriate date, Mr. O’Brien said, “Let me take your jacket, son.” Sarah was stunned by her parent’s sudden collusion regarding Ryder not leaving. They hadn’t even asked him! “Ryder,” she checked, “ would you like to stay for dinner?” He grinned from ear to ear and handed her the two gift boxes wrapped in paper adorned with sunglasses. “Yes … and if I’m not imposing too much, I’ll spend the night too.” Mrs. O’Brien stood and took Ryder by the arm. “Well, then it’s settled.”