***Special thanks to David P. Bartlett – Print & Internet Publicist – Harvest House Publishers for sending me a review copy.***
By the time Jon Clarke What’s-his-name drove me to the hospital, my terrible inner trembling had stopped. My hands were still cold, and the towel pressed to my cheek was still sopping up blood, but I was almost in control again. If I could only stop shaking, I’d be fine.
I’d been so sure I’d lost my face. My stomach still curdled at the memory. All I’d done was bend down to pet Hawk, the sable-and-tan German shepherd sleeping contentedly in the mid-August sun. How was I to know he had a nasty cut hiding under that sleek hot fur?
I was horrified when he lashed out, startled by the pain I had inadvertently caused him. He got me in the cheek with a fang, but despite the blood, the wound was mostly superficial. The thought of what would have happened if he’d closed his mouth made me break out in a fine sweat.
How dumb to touch a sleeping dog. Dumb, dumb, dumb. I knew better. Everyone knew better.
As we entered the emergency room, I rearranged my towel to find an area not stained with blood. I went to the desk and signed in with a woman whose jet black hair stuck out in spikes to rival a hedgehog. When she had my life’s history, she patted my paperwork with a proprietary air that made me wonder if she was willing to share the information with the people I’d come to see.
“Have a seat.” She gave me a warm smile. “They’ll be with you shortly.”
Hoping shortly really meant shortly, I took my seat.
“You don’t have to wait,” I told Jon Clarke as he took the bright orange plastic chair beside me in the otherwise empty emergency room. He smiled slightly and stretched his long legs out before him, the picture of long-suffering
and quiet accommodation. His posture said it didn’t matter how long things took. He was prepared to be gallant and wait it out.
“Really,” I said. “I’ll be all right. You can go.”
I was embarrassed to have inflicted myself upon this man I didn’t know, this man whose last name I couldn’t even remember. He’d pulled into the drive at the Zooks’ Amish farm just as I bent over Hawk. While Mary Zook plied me with towels and bemoaned my possible disfigurement when she wasn’t yelling at the innocent Hawk, John Clarke Whoever climbed out of his car, took me by the elbow, put me in his passenger seat, and drove me here.
What would I have done if he hadn’t come along at just the right moment? Gone to the hospital in a buggy? Certainly that wouldn’t have worked if I’d had a life-threatening injury. I guess if that were the case, someone would run to the phone down on the road and dial 911 or run to a neighbor with a car. Hmm. Peace and serenity of the Amish variety had a definite downside.
Jon Clarke smiled at me now, looking comfortable in his very uncomfortable chair. “Of course I’ll wait for you. I’d never run out on a lady in distress. Besides, you need a way home.”
“I could call a cab.”
“Bird-in-Hand is too far from Lancaster for that. It would cost a fortune.” He smiled at me again, politely patient.
“It’s only fifteen minutes max.”
“That’s a lot when the fare indicator goes ca-ching, ca-ching. It’s better if I just wait.”
I gritted my teeth. Just what I needed, a shining knight when I was in no condition to play the lady. I smiled ungraciously and winced.
Of course it hurt. What did he think? “The strange thing is that my tongue can push into the wound from the inside of my mouth. Only a thin piece of skin on my inner cheek keeps the puncture from going all the way through.” I pushed against my cheek with my tongue. It was a creepy sensation to feel the hole, but I couldn’t resist the need to fiddle.
He looked suitably impressed and apparently decided to keep talking to distract me from my pain and injury. I must say he shouldered the burden with stoic determination and great charm.
“Have you lived in the Lancaster area long?” he asked, and I could have sworn he actually cared.
“Three years. I love it here.”
“Were you at the Zooks’ to visit Jake too?”
Too. So he had come to see Jake. I shook my head. “I live there.”
That stopped him. “Really? On the farm?” He raised an eyebrow at me, an improbably dark eyebrow considering the light brown of his hair. “Have you been living there long?”
I glanced at the clock on the wall. “About four hours.”
The eyebrow rose once again. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope. Great beginning, isn’t it? Todd spent the morning and early afternoon helping me move, and he’d just left. I was on my way into the house when I stopped to pet Hawk.” I sighed. “They’ll probably decide I’m too much trouble to have around.”
I pulled the towel from my cheek and studied the bloody patterns on the white terry cloth. They looked like abstract art. I was an artist myself, but I never painted compositions like these. I liked more realism—which meant my work would probably never hang in important galleries.
Uptight and unimaginative, according to certain professors and fellow students from my college days. “Flex,” they said. “Soar! Paint where your spirit leads.”
I flexed and soared with the best of them, but the finished work still looked like what it was.
I refolded the towel, burying the modern art, reapplied a clean area, and pressed.
“Who’s Todd?” Jon Clarke asked.
I shrugged. Good question. “Todd Reasoner. A friend.”
Would that Todd were as easily explained as the conclusion Jon Clarke had apparently leaped to.
“Don’t do that,” Jon Clarke said.
I blinked. “Do what?”
“Don’t push against your cheek like that.”
I hadn’t even realized I was doing it.
“What if that thin piece of skin ruptures? Scarring. Infection. MRSA. Who knows?”
I frowned. Talk about Worst Case Scenario Man. I wanted to tell him I’d play with the inside of my cheek if I felt like it, but he was probably right about all the dire possibilities. I didn’t want to rupture that thin membrane so delicately protecting the inside of my mouth. And I certainly didn’t want to do anything to encourage the possibility of scarring. I looked in the mirror enough to know my face didn’t need that kind of help.
“Not many people get to stay on an Amish farm.” He paused. “Because of their closed society,” he added as if I wouldn’t understand his point. “You’re very fortunate to get the opportunity.”
“I know. I consider this chance a gift straight from God. One day my principal mentioned that he had Amish friends who were willing to take in a boarder. I got the Zooks’ name and contacted them immediately.”
I didn’t tell him that when I first went to the farm, I wore one of my conservative suits, a gift from my parents when they were still hoping to quell my tendency toward bright colors and what they considered the instability of the art community, not that they actually knew any artists but me.
“If you’re too artsy, Kristina,” they said almost daily, as if being “artsy” was the equivalent of having a single digit IQ, “people won’t take you seriously.”
What they meant was that their people, all high-powered corporate lawyers who earned high six figures or even seven annually, wouldn’t take me seriously. They were a group that had no time for business casual, let alone colorful artsy.
On that first visit to the Zooks, I hadn’t been certain what cultural landmines I’d have to navigate, so I determined to at least defuse the clothing issue, the one I knew about and could somewhat mitigate. I’d straightened my navy lapels and smoothed my cream silk blouse before I got out of the car, another cultural difference that I wasn’t willing to yield on, not if I wanted to get to work.
To my delight, I found Mary and John Zook gracious, respectful, and kind. Mary sat there in her pinned-together dress and dark stockings, her organdy kapp crisp in spite of the humidity. John wore a white shirt and black broadfall trousers. His beard was full with only a hint of gray, and his straw hat hung on a peg by the door. They might demand the simple life of themselves and their family, but it was immediately obvious they would not demand the same of me.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if I had more freedom to be myself here in the midst of this highly structured society than in my own parents’ home?
“Your principal?” Jon Clarke asked from his seat beside me. “You teach?”
I nodded. “Elementary art.”
“When I first pulled into the drive, I thought you must be Jake’s visiting nurse.”
“Not me. I’d be a terrible nurse.”
“But a good teacher.”
“Adequate, anyway. And I get the summers off to study and paint. How do you know the Zooks?”
“I’ve known them forever. My aunt and uncle live down the road from them. But I haven’t seen them in several years. In fact, I haven’t been in Lancaster for a long time.”
So I’d bled all over his first visit in years. Great. “Was it a job that kept you away?”
“Yes and no. Yes, when I was a youth pastor at a church in Michigan. No, when I went to seminary and graduate school. I just finished my doctorate in counseling.”
“Really?” I was impressed.
“No. I confess. I’m lying. I just thought it sounded like a wonderful way to astonish and amaze a pretty girl.”
I blinked at him, and he smiled impudently back. “Really?” he said in a dead-on imitation of me.
Flustered, I looked away from his laughing eyes. “I was just trying to make decent conversation.”
His smile deepened. It was, I couldn’t help noticing, a most wonderful smile, crinkling his eyes almost shut and inviting me to smile along, which I was careful not to do because of my cheek.
“Kristina Matthews?” called the woman at the desk. Her nameplate said she was Harriet. She scanned the empty room as though there might be several Kristinas lurking about, and I resisted the urge to look over my shoulder to see who might have sneaked in while I wasn’t looking.
When I stood, Harriet smiled brightly. “There you are. Right through here, please.”
As I entered the treatment area, I passed a teenage boy staggering out on crutches and a lady in a bathing suit with her arm in a bright pink cast. The walking wounded. I wondered what my battle scars would be.
Ten minutes later I looked away as a nurse stabbed me efficiently with a needle.
“This tetanus shot may cause your arm to swell or stiffen,” she said, her voice filled with sorrow over my possible plight. I couldn’t decide whether she was sorry I might swell or sorry I mightn’t. “If it swells or stiffens, don’t worry. Take aspirin or Tylenol and call your personal physician if the pain persists.” She turned away with a great sigh and began cleaning up the treatment area.
I slid off the examination table and looked at my wobbly reflection in the glass doors of the supply cabinet. The flesh-colored butterfly bandage stuck in the middle of my left cheek distorted my face slightly, but I didn’t mind. There had been no need for stitches.
“Any scarring will be minimal,” the doctor said absentmindedly as he wrote something on the forms Harriet had passed to him. He was a good match for the nurse. I doubted he even noticed her melancholia. “Just keep the wound dry and check with your regular doctor next week to have it redressed.” He ripped off the top copy of the paperwork and handed it to me. “It tells you here. And you’re certain the dog had his shots?”
I nodded, took the paper, and hurried to the waiting room. At least Jon Clarke hadn’t had to wait long once I was seen.
But the waiting room was empty. My angel of mercy had flown the coop. I was standing there wondering what to do next when Harriet at the desk called to me.
“Don’t worry, honey. He’ll be right back. He said he had to run a quick errand.”
I nodded with disproportionate relief.
“Men,” she said sympathetically. “You never know what they’re going to do, do you? Sometimes they take off, and you never see them again.” The edge that had crept into her voice made me think she was speaking from experience. She gave herself a little shake. “But yours looked nice enough to me. I think you can trust him, don’t you?”
Her guess was as good as mine. We’d both known him for about the same length of time.
She got up from her desk. “Listen. I’ve got to go to the ladies’ room. I’m talking emergency here, believe me. Stay by the desk and watch things for me, will you?”
Yikes. “What if someone comes in?”
“Tell them I’ll be back in a minute. But don’t worry,” she called over her shoulder as she disappeared through a door. “Nothing big ever happens on Saturday afternoon.”
Taking no comfort from those words, I looked at the quiet waiting room.
No one, Lord, okay? Not till she gets back, okay?
The prayer was barely formed when the waiting room door slid open and an older man in khaki work clothes entered. His face, damp with perspiration, matched the color of the white envelopes sticking out of his shirt pocket, and he was rubbing his left arm. He stopped beside me at the desk.
“I think I’m having a heart attack,” he said as he might say he was going to sneeze.
I felt my own heart stop beating and my mouth go dry.
He staggered, and I reached out instinctively, taking his arm and lowering him into Harriet’s chair.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Don’t apologize!” Now my heart was beating so loudly I could scarcely
hear myself talk. “Don’t worry. Someone will be here to help you in a moment.”
Suddenly he stopped kneading his arm and pressed his hand against his chest. His face contorted and I froze. He was going to die right here while Harriet was in the ladies’ room!
After a minute he relaxed, and I began to breathe again. I ran to the door of the treatment area. “Help, somebody! Help!”
The sad-faced nurse leaned out of a cubicle. “Is anyone bleeding?” She was so intent on what was going on behind that curtain that she didn’t even look at me.
“Then we’ll be there as soon as we can.” And she disappeared.
I could see several pairs of feet below the curtain and hear several voices,
including that of my doctor, who was barking orders with impressive authority. Through a door down the hall I could see an ambulance with its back doors still open.
“But he needs you now,” I called desperately. “He really does! It’s his—”
“We’ll be there in a minute,” she yelled as a great cascade of blood flowed onto the floor.
Pushing down panic and not knowing what else to do, I went back to the man.
“They’ll be here in a minute,” I told him with all the confidence I could muster.
“Had one before,” he whispered to me. “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right. I’m not ready to die yet. I’ve got stuff to do.”
I tried to smile to encourage him, but between my punctured cheek and my fear, I think it was more of a grimace. The man seemed to appreciate my effort anyway.
Dear God, I screamed in silent prayer, where’s Harriet? Send her out here fast, Lord! Please!
The man rested his head against the wall. “What’s your name? Are you Harriet?”
“I’m Kristie Matthews. Should you be talking?”
“I drove myself here. You don’t think talking’s any worse than that, do you?”
“You drove yourself here? With a heart attack?”
He smiled faintly. “I had to get here somehow. And I didn’t think you were Harriet. You don’t look like a Harriet.”
I didn’t look like this Harriet. Plain old straight brown hair cut to bend at my chin instead of too-black spikes and the electrified look. Five seven and slim instead of short and a fan of Dunkin’ Donuts, if Harriet’s figure and the box in the trash receptacle were any indication. A hole in my cheek instead of an abundance of blusher.
Suddenly he raised his head and looked at me with an intensity that made me blink. “Will you do me a favor, Kristie Matthews?”
I leaned close to hear his weak voice. “Of course.”
“Keep this for me.” He fumbled in his shirt pocket, reaching behind the envelopes. “But tell no one—no one—that you have it.” He slipped a key into my cold hand and folded my fingers over it.
I heard a gasp from behind me. Harriet was finally back.
“Heart attack,” I said, but Harriet was three steps ahead of me.
Her voice boomed over the PA. “Dr. Michaels, Dr, Michaels, stat. Dr. Michaels, code!” Harriet disappeared back into the treatment area yelling, “Marie! Charles! Where are you? Get yourselves out here fast!”
An arthritic finger tapped my closed fist. “Remember, tell no one,” the old man managed to whisper. “Promise?”
“I promise.” What else could I say?
He stared at my face as if searching my soul. He must have been satisfied with what he saw because his hand relaxed on mine and his eyes closed. “Don’t forget. I’m counting on you.” He gave a deep sigh, and I froze. Was that his last breath? “I’m counting on you.”
The room came alive with people. Medical personnel converged on the sick man, and I stepped back with relief.
“Don’t you ever go to the bathroom again,” I hissed at Harriet, who probably never would if she valued her job.
When the doors to the treatment area slid shut and I could no longer see the man, I collapsed in one of the orange chairs, struggling with tears.
This is ridiculous. Why am I crying? I don’t even know the man.
I gave myself a shake and stared at the small piece of metal in my hand. Why had he given his precious key to me, a total stranger? Why hadn’t he let the hospital personnel keep it for him? Or asked them to hold it for a family member?
What could it possibly open that no one—no one—must know of it?
And what in the world should I do with it?
It was a relief when Jon Clarke finally returned.
“I’m sorry,” he said with that winning smile. “I got held up in traffic. I hope you didn’t think I’d deserted you.”
“Of course not,” I said as I slipped the key into my pocket. I hastened to correct my lie. “At least, not after Harriet told me you’d be back.”
He cocked that dark, heavy brow at me again, saying as clearly as if I’d spoken aloud that he knew all too well what I’d thought.
I flushed and began talking to cover my embarrassment. “This old man came in and had a heart attack. He scared me to death! I was the only one in the room—Harriet had gone to the ladies’ room. I had to be with him until help came. He gave me—”
I stopped abruptly. “No one,” he’d said, he’d insisted. “Promise.” And I had.
Did I owe him my silence? I didn’t even know him.
But I didn’t know this sandy-haired, dark-browed man standing beside me, either. I only met him an hour or so ago. I couldn’t bleed all over him anymore.
“He gave me quite a scare,” I said, decision made. I gave a short laugh. “I’m not used to anything more serious than the common cold or one of my students throwing up.”
But what would I do if he died?
Character development was excellent. Kristie, Jake, Jon Clarke, and Mr. Geohagan all had issues in their lives but dealt with them differently. Conversations were realistic and enlightening. Although Kristie’s reactions to the unusual number of attacks, robberies, and strange encounters directed at her were questionable, the story was nevertheless enjoyable. Filled with plenty of action, mystery, romance, and spiritual insight, A Stranger’s Wish is perfect for the reader looking to escape into a book.