The last thing on Jenny Hill’s mind was stopping at the chapel. She wasn’t sure what made her turn into the parking lot and wrestle Tanner’s wheelchair out of the trunk of the ancient car.
“Is this where Grandma and Grandpa live?” Tanner asked, his six year old face confused. “This looks like a church. I thought they lived in a house.”
“They do. I just thought we’d stop here first.” She put on her best ‘I’m cheerful, can’t you tell?’ smile. “I always meant to stop by when I lived here.”
Tanner looked doubtful, after all she only took him to church at Christmas and Easter, although it was just days until Easter.
“There’s a staircase here that’s called ‘the miraculous staircase.’”
Tanner wrapped his arms around her neck and let her pull him from the car to deposit him in the wheelchair.
“Why is it miraculous?”
“I don’t really know.”
Jenny knew that stopping at the chapel was a stalling tactic. She hadn’t seen her parents in seven years, not since she eloped with Dell Green the week after high school graduation. They didn’t even know they had a grandchild.
Grateful there were no steps, she wheeled Tanner into the chapel, surprised to see people kneeling, heads bowed in prayer.
Now what? She wasn’t Catholic. Unsure what to do, Jenny slid into one of the little pews, staying close enough to her son to reach for his hands, now folded in prayer. His dark head was bent, eyes closed.
Keeping one hand on the arm of his wheelchair she followed Tanner’s example, bowed her head and closed her eyes.
Please let my son walk again. The words sprang from her heart. Please help me to shelter and feed him. Please let my parents love him. I didn’t mean to hurt them. I was selfish and stupid and I’m so sorry, God.
A sense of peace warmed her. A little bit of the weight she carried on her shoulders fell away. She looked at Tanner to find his brown eyes on her, a slight smile curving his mouth.
“What did you pray for?” she whispered.
“For a daddy. One who loves us.”
His words, spoken in innocence, tore at her heart. Why hadn’t she listened to her grandmother who’d told her that the best gift a woman could give her children was a father who’d love them and guide them.
“Don’t be sad,” Tanner whispered.
She gave him her best fake smile. “How could I be sad when I have the best little boy in the world?”
Ben Flowers lowered the camera as he watched the blond-haired woman push the little boy’s wheelchair toward the door.
Jenny Hill. She’d been out of his league in high school. Jenny was a cheerleader and one of the popular girls. Ben was the class nerd, always drawing buildings and taking pictures. He was the one bullies bumped into in the hallways, the one people laughed at and called The Rail because he was so skinny.
He shook his head. He’d had such a crush on her in High School. Hadn’t she run off with that troublemaker Dell Green?
Jenny brought Tanner’s wheelchair to a halt beside the car, using her foot to engage the brake, keeping the chair in place while she fished around in her purse for the keys.
When her fingers failed to locate the key ring she looked in the window and groaned out loud.
“What’s wrong?” Tanner asked.
She closed her eyes, opening them a second later. Nothing had changed, her keys still dangled from the ignition.
The masculine voice startled her. She whipped her head around, staring at the tall ,slender man behind her.
“I locked my keys in the car.”
“Why don’t you call Grandma and Grandpa?” Tanner asked.
She looked at Tanner’s sweet face. He was pinning such hope on grandparents he hadn’t even met.
“No cell phone,” she reminded him.
The man pulled his from a clip on his belt and handed it to her. “Use mine.”
She stared at the phone, not sure she even knew how to use it. It was a smart phone, much fancier than the cheap little flip phone she’d used.
“We went to high school together,” he said in a tone meant to put her at ease.
She raised an eyebrow.
“You are Jenny Hill, aren’t you?”
She stared at the man, trying to find something familiar in the lanky build, the dark hair and brown eyes. Nothing.
“Ben Flowers,” he said, shifting the phone to his left hand and holding out his right. “We both had Algebra II with Mr. Black.”
She tried to place him, but she’d been pretty self-centered in high school, more so than most teenage girls.
“I sat across from you. I wore glasses, then.”
She remembered the too thin boy with the silver rimmed glasses.
“You were always getting in trouble for drawing in class,” she said slowly.
“That’s right.” He held out the phone again.
She took it, aware of her son’s watchful eyes. It took her a second but she figured out how to use his phone and dialed her parents’ number.
How many times had she called them over the years, only to hang up before they could answer?
They had warned her away from Dell, but she’d been young, headstrong and in love, or so she told herself. Looking back, she realized she’d been more intrigued by Dell’s bad boy image than anything else.
The phone rang three times then, for the first time in almost seven years she heard her father’s voice.
“You’ve reached the Hill residence. Call us back on Monday and have a great weekend.”
She hit end call and handed the phone back to Ben.
“It’s the Friday before Easter,” she said numbly.
Ben nodded. “Good Friday.”
“We always went out of town that weekend.”
“Call their cell phone,” Tanner suggested.
“They don’t have one, at least they didn’t the last time…” Aware of Ben’s scrutiny she let her words trail off.
Ben’s eyes moved over her old car. She could almost see him adding up the pieces: little cargo section with room for the wheel chair, one side of the back seat crammed with boxes, same for the front passenger seat. Out of state tags, no cell phone. Yep, he’d figured it out. She was out of money and she and her child had nowhere to go. She was throwing herself on the mercy of the parents she’d hurt years ago.
Ben made a call on his cell. “Hey, Danny. You anywhere near the chapel? Great. You have your slim jim with you? No, not me.” He looked at Jenny, understanding in his dark eyes. “No, you’d be doing it for a lady in distress. Thanks.”
He put the phone back in the clip. “He’s working, but he’ll stop by on his way home, about an hour from now.” He put a hand on Tanner’s shoulder.
“What’s your name?”
“You hungry, Tanner?”
He nodded. Jenny felt a twist of guilt. Lunch had been cheese crackers. She had forty-three cents left to her name and just enough gas to make it to her parents’ house--only they weren’t there. She and Tanner had slept in the car the last two nights, cleaning up in gas station restrooms.
“I know a little restaurant not too far from here. They serve the best fried catfish in the world.”
She saw the hunger on her son’s face and nearly cried. She couldn’t feed her child, she couldn’t pay the locksmith to get the keys out of the car. She couldn’t even beg her parents for help until Monday.
“Well?” Ben asked, his eyes on her. “How about it? My treat.”
She heaved a sigh of relief. Ben Flowers was hardly more than a stranger, still he was offering to feed her son. At this moment, that made him her hero.
Ben lifted Tanner into his SUV. The boy was surprisingly light, despite the leg braces worn over his jeans. He lowered the boy into the seat and stepped back to allow Jenny to fuss over the seat belt.
What had happened? He wasn’t surprised Dell Green was nowhere in sight. No one, except perhaps Jenny, would have figured on him sticking around to take care of her and their child.
They drove the few short blocks to The Flower Box. He unloaded the wheelchair and put Tanner in it, holding the door open so Jenny could push Tanner inside.
“The Flower Box?” Tanner said. “That doesn’t sound like a restaurant.”
“You can read?”
Tanner nodded. “Mommy taught me.”
Ben moved a chair away from one of the tables, sliding Tanner’s wheelchair into place before pulling out a chair for Jenny.
“After the accident,” she said, “Tanner wasn’t able to go outside and play. We didn’t have a computer or fancy toys, so I taught him to read. He’s very smart.”
She smiled at her son.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and tipped his head back to look into his aunt Aggie’s blue eyes.
“Cat fish for you,” she said. “And who is this fine looking young man?”
Tanner laughed. “I’m Tanner.”
“And what would you like to eat?”
Tanner bit his lip and glanced at Ben.
“Whatever you want,” Ben assured him.
“Not Catholic, huh?” Aunt Aggie said.
At the puzzled looks Jenny and Tanner gave, he explained. “Fridays in Lent--no meat if you’re Catholic.”
“Don’t worry,” Aunt Aggie laughed. She gave Tanner a playful wink. “We got fried chicken, meatloaf, hamburgers and pork chops for all the non-Catholics.”
“You must come here a lot,” Jenny said when his aunt left.
“My aunt and uncle own the place. I worked here when I was in high school.”
They talked about mundane things over dinner. He noticed she steered clear of any mention of Dell Green or her plans for the weekend. He thought of the boxes in the car.
Ben excused himself, stepped into his uncle’s office and made a phone call. When he stepped back into the restaurant he spotted his friend Danny and motioned him over to the table.
Danny held out a set of keys and smiled at Jenny. “You must be the lady in distress. Don’t worry. I locked your car back up.”
“How did you know where to find us?” Jenny asked.
“Ben sent me a text.”
She spoke hesitantly. “What do I own you?”
“Nothing. I work two streets over. Wasn’t any trouble.”
“Danny has two daughters,” Ben explained. “They keep locking their keys in the car so he keeps the slim jim in the glove box.”
Her relief was palpable.
After a moment of conversation Danny left for dinner with his wife and daughters.
“Are we going to sleep in the car, again?” Tanner asked.
“No,” Ben said, before Jenny could speak. “My folks have a little garage apartment. They’re expecting you and your mom.”
Ben’s dark eyes met hers. She knew she should protest but she kept seeing the discomfort on her son’s face after a night spent sleeping in the car.
“My mother says you’ll be doing her a favor,” Ben said softly. “She hadn’t had a chance to air it out and do a little spring cleaning. She was hoping you wouldn’t mind doing that for her.”
She nodded, a lump of gratitude swelling in her throat. She’d scrub the woman’s house with a toothbrush if it meant shelter for her son tonight.
Now, if she could just figure out to feed Tanner until her parents came home Sunday night.
Ben was tall, slender and dark. His mother was short, plump and fair. Jenny wondered if he might have been adopted, at least until his father walked in the door.
Her eyes moved from father to son.
Erin Flowers laughed out loud. “Yes, we know exactly what Ben’s going to look like in forty years.” She gave Jenny’s hand a little pat. “If it’s not too much of an imposition would you and Tanner join me for breakfast? Tom,” she motioned to her husband, “is leaving early in the morning to go fishing with his brother so I’ll end up eating breakfast alone unless Ben stops by. I thought I’d make pancakes and bacon.”
Tanner bounced a little in his wheelchair. “I love pancakes and bacon. Can we, Mom? Please?”
She thought of her prayer in the chapel. Shelter and food for her son.
“Sure.” She smiled at Erin. “But only if you’ll let me help with the clean up.”
Erin had the coffee on, pancake batter ready and bacon cooking on a sheet in the oven.
“Pour yourself a cup of coffee,” she said as she turned on the burners beneath two skillets. “Tanner, there’s milk or juice in the fridge.”
Jenny poured him a glass of orange juice. “What can I do?” she asked Erin.
“I have everything under control. When you raise five boys you learn to manage.”
“Five?” She racked her brain, trying to remember Ben having any brothers.
Erin nodded as she poured batter in a skillet. “Ben’s the youngest. Will was almost nine and I thought he was going to be the last, but then Ben showed up.”
“I wish I had a brother,” Tanner said. “I don’t even have a dad.”
“Tanner! You have a father, he’s just…gone.” She didn’t want Erin to think that she didn’t even know who her son’s father was. Bad enough she hadn’t married him. Dell had walked out on her as soon as she told him she was pregnant. She’d been too ashamed to call her parents and instead had spent the next few years living a hand to mouth existence with her son.
“I never met him,” Tanner said with a slight air of rebellion.
Erin put a hand on Tanner’s shoulder, leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’ll have to pray about it.”
“I prayed for a dad when we were at the chapel.”
“The Loretto Chapel,” Jenny explained. “We stopped there yesterday. That’s where we ran into Ben.”
Erin smiled as she flipped a pancake in the air. “Ben loves that chapel. I think he’s taken a thousand pictures of it over the years.”
She had a sudden memory of Ben with a camera in his hands, snapping pictures when they were in high school.
“He was the photographer for the yearbook!” Jenny exclaimed. “I had forgotten all about that. Is that what he does now, photography?”
“Architect. Still loves taking pictures though, mostly of buildings. Me, I’d rather take pictures of people, but to each his own.”
“Does Ben have kids?” Tanner asked.
Unbidden a question popped into Jenny’s mind. Did he have a wife?
“He’s never been married. Although I have faith God will bring him to the right person.”
“My parents told me that,” Jenny said. “My mother kept telling me to be patient, that God had someone special in mind for each of us.”
Erin gave a little nod. “My grandmother used to tell me that God has a perfect plan for each and every one of us but being human, and having free will, we manage to screw it up.”
Erin scooped three pancakes onto a plate and added a few slices of bacon.
“Move that chair and Tanner can scoot right up to the table.”
She set the plate in front of him. “Now don’t you dare think about leaving my table hungry,” she said with a smile.
“I won’t!” Tanner dug into the pancakes with gusto.
Erin sat down across from Jenny, looking over her shoulder.
“I just sat down, Ben. Get yourself a plate.”
After breakfast Ben asked Jenny to join him on a walk around the neighborhood. His mother assured her she and Tanner would be just fine. They were going to watch a movie together.
As they headed down the driveway Ben reached for her hand, half expecting her to pull away. She glanced at him, then looked straight ahead, her hand remaining tucked in his.
“I grew up in a neighborhood like this,” she said.
“Where have you lived the last few years?”
“Oklahoma City.” They walked in silence for a few minutes. He was searching for a safe topic when she spoke, her voice so soft he had to concentrate to hear her.
“My parents didn’t want me to date Dell. I was young and defiant and thought I knew more than they did. Dell was good looking and fun to be with and…dangerous, if that makes sense.”
“The bad boy.”
“He kept saying we would get married, so why wait. I wanted to believe him. I got pregnant.”
“Did he marry you?” Ben asked gently.
“He told me ‘Get rid of it.’ I couldn’t do that. He left and it’s been just the two of us ever since. I’ve waitressed and cashiered, worked at fast food restaurants and cleaned hotel rooms. I’ve raised my son in tiny, dark, filthy apartments because I was too proud to call my parents and beg forgiveness.”
“What makes you think you’d have to beg?”
She turned to look at him. “They told me not to get involved with Dell. I’m their only child and look how I’ve hurt them.”
He squeezed her hand. “Remember the parable of the prodigal son?”
She shrugged. “I can’t even get a hold of them.”
“Tell me about Tanner’s wheelchair.”
She stopped on the sidewalk, her blue eyes meeting his. “It was his last day of Kindergarten. I picked Tanner up.” She closed her eyes as if seeing everything in her mind.
“It was a beautiful day. The sky was this perfect, incredible shade of blue.”
She opened her eyes. “Terrible things shouldn’t happen on beautiful days. They should happen when there’s rain and thunder. You should feel them coming--have a chance to brace yourself.”
“But you didn’t see it coming.”
She shook her head. “We were past the school zone but I hadn’t started to accelerate yet. There were little kids on the sidewalk and I preferred to wait till I was a little further down the road. I didn’t look. I always tell Tanner to look, but I didn’t look.”
Tears glazed her eyes, spilling over.
“Did you blow the stop sign?”
She shook her head. Her mouth opened, then closed again as if there were no words to tell him what had happened to her son.
Ben cupped her face in his hands, using his thumbs to brush the tears away. He kissed her forehead. “It’s all right, sweetheart. You can tell me.”
“I had him in the backseat,” she whispered. “That’s where five year olds were supposed to be. He likes to sit on the passenger side so he can see my face when I’m driving. He was buckled in.”
“You didn’t run the stop sign,” he said. “Someone else did?”
She nodded, her face barely moving within the embrace of his palms. “It was another mother. She’d picked up her daughter from the middle school. They were arguing. She said she didn’t even see the stop sign.”
“Were you hurt?”
“No. At first I thought Tanner was all right because I didn’t see any blood.”
She met his gaze, her lower lip trembling. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to open the car door so I climbed over the seat. He was crying, but he didn’t have a scratch on him. I thought he was just scared. Then the other driver backed her car up and I could open the back door. That’s when I saw his side. His shoulder was dislocated, his arm and hip were broken. He had broken ribs and a punctured lung. His spine had been twisted. At first the doctors thought he’d be able to walk again once the swelling went down. He was able to move his legs, even able to stand with leg braces and a stander.”
“But not walk?”
“No. They put him in a walker and his legs just collapsed.”
Her eyes moved over his face. “I lost my job when my sick leave and vacation ran out. They told me I had to come back to work, but I couldn’t leave Tanner there in the hospital alone. I only had two hundred dollars in savings. We couldn’t pay the rent on the apartment so we moved in with a friend. That worked for a while, but then she was getting married. I didn’t know what else to do. I had found another job, but I had to take off a lot for Tanner’s appointments. I couldn’t do it alone anymore.”
He pulled her into his arms, tucking the top of her head beneath his chin. “You’ve never been alone. God’s been at your side the whole time.”
She shook her head. “I haven’t even been to church since high school.”
“Then tomorrow’s the perfect day to start.”
Somehow, telling Ben about the accident had cleared her mind of the guilt. She’d helped Erin clean the house, grateful because Ben’s mother had insisted she and Tanner eat lunch with her and Ben.
That evening, when she sat down to dinner with Ben and his family, she watched the way Ben interacted with her son. Despite knowing each other for only two days they had developed an easy camaraderie, heads bent close, laughing.
In the morning she and Tanner joined the family for an early breakfast. Everyone joined hands and bowed their heads while Ben’s father said a prayer. She started to let go of Tanner and Ben’s hands only to find Ben maintaining his hold on hers.
“It’s our Easter tradition,” he said, “to each give thanks for something that has happened in our lives since Christmas.”
She listened to Tom and Erin give thanks. Then it was Ben’s turn. He squeezed her hand and she wondered why.
“Lord,” he said. “I thank you for answering with a ’Yes,’ a prayer I had long thought you answered ‘No.’”
Jenny looked at their faces, uncertain what to do.
“Go on,” Erin urged.
She felt Tanner’s warm little hand in hers. Love and gratitude swelled her heart.
“Thank you for the life of my son. I came so close to losing him. And thank you for bringing Ben to us when we had no one.”
“And thank you for answering my prayer,” Tanner said simply.
She’d have to ask him later what that prayer was, since the only one she knew of was his prayer for a daddy.
The last notes of the final hymn faded. Everyone knelt for a moment of private prayer. Jenny tried not to think about what would happen if her parents turned away from her and Tanner.
She opened her eyes and stood. Ben stepped from the pew, reaching back for Tanner to lift him into his wheelchair.
Tanner grabbed the pew with one hand and Ben’s hand with the other. He pulled himself to a standing position and took one small sideways step and then another.
Jenny put a hand over her mouth, holding back a gasp. Ben met her eyes, shaking his head the tiniest bit, warning her not to react just yet.
Four more little steps took Tanner to the end of the pew. He let go of the pew in front of him, taking a larger step to reach Ben. Holding both of Ben’s hands now, he turned to her, his face radiant. “Did you see?”
Unable to speak, tears clogging her throat and spilling down her cheeks, Jenny nodded.
Ben scooped her son into his arms, hugging him close burying his face against Tanner’s neck.
She stepped into the aisle, hugging her son and Ben.
“Is that what you prayed for?” she asked Tanner. “Is that what you were giving thanks for this morning?”
He shook his head, one arm looped around Ben’s neck. “No. I prayed for a daddy. Remember? This was just extra.”
She looked at Ben, her cheeks warm.
He leaned down, resting his forehead against hers. “And my prayer of thanks? I fell in love with you back in high school and I asked God, if you were the one for me, to bring us together.”
“I…” She hugged him again. “I love you, Ben Flowers.”
He looked at something over her shoulder and winked. “Good, because I intend to ask your father for your hand in marriage.”
“I’ll have to learn a little more about you,” a familiar voice said. “But you’re off to a good start.”
Jenny barely registered her father’s presence before feminine arms enfolded her. When she stepped back at last she saw her son, now held in her father’s arms.
“How did you know where we were?”
“You called your parents from my cell phone,” Ben explained. “I just checked my call log for their number and left a message on their machine.”
“Whenever we’re away from home,” her mother explained, “we check our messages every day, in case you’ve called.”
Her father nodded. When he spoke there were tears in his voice. “When we got Ben’s message we tossed everything in a bag, checked out of the hotel and headed back to Santa Fe. We drove all night.”
“I know you want to spend some time alone with Jenny and Tanner,” Erin said, “but why don’t you come to our house at four for Easter dinner? I have a feeling we’re going to be sharing a grandson.”
Jenny’s mother hugged her again. “We never stopped waiting for you to come home. We never stopped praying.”
Tanner grinned at his grandmother. “Erin said Easter’s the season for miracles.”
Jenny looked up at her son, held lovingly in his grandfather’s arms. She reached for Ben’s hand.
“She’s right. And she raised a pretty amazing son.”
She walked out of the church surrounded by love.
HAPPY EASTER EVERYONE!
Please come back and join us in May when our next series will honor our soldiers during Memorial Day.