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Chapter Ten
Lifeline

"The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and He knoweth them that trust in Him."
~ Nahum 1:7 ~

Dreams tumbled past Terry in a grotesque way of making the nonsensical seem utterly real. Images of adolescence blurred with the present, and he stood as a child on the shore of Three Mile Bay, the wind full in his face and the sun warming his back.

Without warning, the air turned frigid. Darkness slicked over the heavens like an overturned can of black paint. Cold settled into his body, chilling him from the inside out.

"Terry."

Someone spoke behind him. A shockwave of dread exploded within his chest, and his feet froze in place. He jammed fingers in his ears, shouted the words to "Jesus Loves Me" until the force of the voice shoved him to his hands and knees. Pain seared him from behind, and he slammed face down into the sand. The taste of dirt filled his mouth, gritted between his teeth as the pain bore down. It felt as though the universe had fallen from the sky to crush him.

Far worse than the pain, was the pleasure.

"You're no different than me. Oh, you wanted this."

Shame seared him with an unquenchable heat. He heard the crackle of flames, forced open his eyes and saw hell yawning before him in livid color.

"You wanted this, so you're just as bad as me. Give me your hand."

Terry's hand yanked up until it felt the owner of the voice. Touch filled him with curious dread, and the smell of sweat filled his nostrils to the point of choking.

"Jesus loves me, this I know." A child sang in the distance, and he recognized it as himself.

He struggled to breathe, to force air into his lungs and cough out sand.

"For the Bible tells me so."

That voice. The cool hope of it made the heat sizzle and hiss, like water coming into contact with flame.

"Little ones to Him belong, they are weak, but He is strong."

Pain coursed through him, then cruelly intense pleasure. Dirt forced its way down his throat and he screamed to make it stop. He cried out to God, and even in his torment, he knew God had not forgotten him.

"Terry." A voice blurred over the panic, both familiar and welcome. It called, and yet the pain continued to knife through him without mercy. "Terry, wake up."

Some part of him knew it was a dream, and yet, he couldn't wake up. Not on his own.

"Water. Izumi, a glass of water-- hurry."

The urgency of the voice sent fresh panic into Terry. What was wrong? Why was John so frightened? He strained to find John, but continued to be pulled under by the flames, the scalding heat.

Someone shook him and he struck out in self-defense. Then cold splashed across his face.

"Hey, wake up. Come on, Buddy, don't make me fight you." The one who shook him was John, and the realization of it stopped Terry's flailing.

Safety no longer seemed out of reach, and it encouraged him to fight against the pull of sleep. Now he was certain it was a dream. Darkness, then light, blinked before him. He forced his eyes wide open.

His friend was above him. No phantom to trick him into relief, but actual flesh and blood.

"Take a moment to calm down. Terry, calm down."

It took a moment for Terry to realize he was gasping for breath. His chest was tight, his pajamas soaked with sweat, his hands clenched in white-knuckled fists.

But he was alive.

Terry didn't dare close his eyes, feeling the force of the nightmare still fresh on his consciousness.

"Take it easy." John squeezed his shoulder. "You're awake now-- that's what matters."

The overhead light shone into his eyes, a reassuring sign he wasn't still trapped in the nightmare. He palmed the sweat from his eyes, sucked in each precious breath of air like it was a gift from God.

"That was a bad one." Terry let his body relax from the strain of nightmarish sleep. "Thank God they're not all as bad as that."

The bare walls of his room, the scent of his mouthwash-- even the moth that flicked around the light fixture-- all confirmed reality. Terry dropped his gaze to the man in dark blue pajamas on the edge of the bed.

The relief in John's face spoke volumes. "Your night terrors are starting up again, and you know what that means-- you're taking too much on."

Tension edged back into Terry's shoulders. He understood John's meaning, and it sickened him to think that maybe John was right.

"Daddy?" A child called from the hall, and when Terry turned his head, he realized Izumi stood in the doorway to keep the girls out. "Is Uncle Terry hurt?"

"No, I'm all right, munchkin." Terry offered them a smile, and noted the relief in Izumi's face.

He turned to John. "Did I yell?"

"You did."

"Very loud?"

"Enough to wake everyone in the house." John moved to his feet as a little girl wiggled her way past Izumi. "And where do you think you're going?"

"Let her see him, John." Izumi allowed the other two inside. "They need to see he's all right."

Determined to not frighten his family anymore than he already had, Terry sat up and smiled as three eager cherubs climbed onto his bed.

"It's all right," Lizzie said, crawling over to give him as big a hug as two small arms could manage. "We won't let anything happen to you, Uncle Terry."

Wet moistened his eyes as Debbie, then Ruthie, crowded him with hugs and kisses.

"I'm fine, girls. I'm fine." Not trusting his voice any further, he showered them with smiles and returned each hug. Thank God he hadn't woke up crying. Every time he did that, John did his best to shield the children from the worst, but they always knew their uncle was weeping. No matter how hard Terry tried to keep his grief quiet, they almost always knew.

Ruthie snuggled into his right arm, and patted his hand. "Do you feel better?"

"Yes. Much." He kissed the top of her head and tested himself by closing his eyes for a moment. Nothing, not even the slightest threat of hell or flames. He was safe. Oh, he breathed the air and thanked God for His faithfulness. It had only been a bad dream. A visceral experience, but only a bad dream.

"Say good night to your uncle," John said, glancing at the clock as he spoke. "It's late, and you three need to get back to bed."

"Can't we stay with Uncle Terry?"

"Please, Daddy?"

"Yes, please?"

Somewhat amused by the request, John looked to Terry for permission.

"I don't mind. Maybe they'll keep the bad dreams away."

John shrugged. "It's your call. Just don't let them keep you awake. Hear that, girls? I expect you to go to sleep."

"We will." Debbie pulled back the covers on the single bed, and Terry scooted off the mattress to use the bathroom and change out of his damp pajamas.

"No, he's all right," Izumi told someone in the hall.

"Izzy? Who is that?" Terry put the bathroom on hold and came around to the doorway. "Madison?"

His house guest stood on the far side of the hall, hugging herself tightly. She was trembling.

"Did I wake you?" An unnecessary question, for he could see the fright on her face. "I had a bad dream, but everything's all right now. It's okay to go back to bed."

She looked into the living room, then up at the ceiling as rain pounded the roof. Her eyes skidded back to him, and she hugged herself tighter.

Terry sighed inwardly. He knew just how she felt.

"Give me a minute to use the bathroom, and I'll come see what I can do. Maybe the TV could keep you company--" Terry stopped, remembering what happened the last time she watched television. "Just give me a moment."

John sighed, shook his head and returned to the master bedroom with Izumi.

It made Terry wonder. Was he pushing himself too hard? He probably was, for the night terrors were back with a vengeance. John hadn't needed to wrestle him awake since... uh-oh.

Victor.

Wincing, Terry moved to the bathroom adjoining his bedroom. He wasn't ready to admit Madison had been the cause of his nightmare. Yes, being around her bruises this close reminded him of things he tried to forget, but so what? He could handle it. He wasn't fresh from his abuse like she was. He had experience in these matters, and would deal with the pain in a professional manner.

He locked the bathroom door, cranked the shower up to block out sound, and burst into tears.

God, help me. Don't let me shatter again.

* * * *

She couldn't go into the living room by herself, not when the rain made her want to curl up and disappear. And then that scream. It sent shivers down her goose bumps just thinking about it.

That had been Terry?

It must have been some bad dream.

Propping herself against the wall, she heard the triplets in Terry's bedroom. She wanted to peek inside and see the girls, probably looking cute and cozy snuggled up on the bed. A giggle came from the room, and Madison couldn't help herself. She had to see.

She peeked around the door, and sure enough, the three girls were tucked beneath Terry's blanket, on their sides to fit in the narrow bed and exchanging whispers as though in some secret club-- a girl's club, comprised of fraternal sisters.

Then the bathroom door opened, and Terry stepped out in a fresh pair of pajamas. The sight sent a chill of dread through Madison. A grown man with little girls in his bed. A sharp memory streaked past her, and she forced herself to ease away from the doorway without being noticed.

She hugged the wall, jumped when Terry came out and found her. Thunder boomed across the roof, pushing at her already strained courage until she slid onto the carpet to take refuge.

"Hey, what's wrong?" He crouched, reached out his hand but she shrunk back. A heavy sigh blew past his lips. "Neither one of us are having a very good night, are we? What a mess." To her dismay, Terry sat down on the carpet, leaned against the opposite wall and propped his arms on raised knees.

"Uncle Terry?"

"I'll be there in a few minutes," he called. "Until then, go to sleep like your daddy wanted." When the direct order was met with giggles, Terry smiled. It was such an easy smile, no malice or mischief hiding in his expression. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply like one who had just run a great race and was exhausted.

Overhead, rain continued to beat the rooftop without mercy. For an odd reason, it didn't matter as much anymore, for Terry was there. Even the living room looked safer than it did before her sleep had been jolted awake by Terry's scream.

Out of the corner of her eye, she looked at him, not trusting what she saw. For the umpteenth time she asked herself, "Who is he?" Red had rimmed his eyes, and his nose looked pink from crying. The more she observed, the more certain she was of her guess.

"They're not real, you know."

His eyes popped open. "Excuse me?"

"The dreams-- they're not real. Even though they feel like it, they're only figments of our imaginations."

"Who told you that?"

"I saw it on TV. Some guy who wrote a book, said so. It's true, isn't it? Bad dreams aren't anything to be afraid of."

"That depends on the dream." Terry gave a resigned sigh that filled his face with sadness. "It's times like these when I cling to my battle cry the hardest."

Though she had no idea what he meant, she let him keep talking.

"I won't go into any details or stories about my life, because I don't think you want to hear them. Suffice it to say, I had a rougher than average childhood. Sometimes, when I'm under an unusual amount of pressure, or I let myself rundown physically, my defenses lower and I put myself at risk for a mental breakdown. It's why I work out as much as I do."

"Are you under an unusual amount of pressure right now?"

A tired smile flitted across his mouth. "We'll see."

It seemed like an odd answer, but since he didn't explain further, she contained her curiosity in silence.

"When I feel like this, I need to shout my battle cry the loudest. I know from experience, the most heartfelt ones come while on your knees."

Now he really wasn't making any sense. "A battle cry?"

"It's something to rally the troops with when it looks like the bad guys are winning. For me, it's Psalm sixty-one, verse two: 'From the end of the earth will I cry unto Thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.' Each time my heart is overwhelmed by what's happening, I remember that verse and take courage. It's like a soldier on the front lines of a battlefield. He takes a hit, but keeps on fighting until he either gets killed or wins. Until God takes me, I keep fighting."

"Did you take a hit tonight?" she asked.

He gave a wan smile. "You could call it that. Unfortunately, my heart overwhelms a little too easily these days."

"Terry?"

"Hmmm?"

"What was that verse you said?"

He repeated it, and she knew she would never be able to remember it long enough to write it into her notebook. She stood up without disturbing his closed eyes, moved into the living room and located her treasure beneath the covers. She pulled one of the ball point pens from the grocery bag, returned to the hallway and reclaimed her place on the carpet.

"Terry?"

This time, he didn't answer.

She bit her lip, uncapped the pen and wrote on the first page of her notebook:

MADISON CRAWFORD, early Friday morning, somewhere in September-- i wish i wasn't so different. being free isn't what i thought it would be, and i have to remind myself that i'm where i'm supposed to be. God put me here for a reason, and He kept me alive all this time. i have to believe it's for a purpose. does God make peeple who don't have any reason to be alive? i hope not, because i would be first on God's list as someone who was just taking up space for someone else who is more important. i have to believe i'm not worthless.


Terry's arm dropped from his knee and Madison stopped writing. She waited, hoping he would open his eyes so she could get the battle cry.

His breathing came with a soft snore, and she went back to writing.

i think i have a friend. i hope i do. he doesn't get angry at me, at least not very easily, and he's always trying to help peeple, even me. he seams nice, and i try to forget he's a man because its not his fault God made him one. i wish God didn't have to make men. i think the world would be better off without them, but i'm not God and i suppose He knows best. by the way, his name is Tery.


The sound of someone yawning made Madison's pen stop. She looked up, saw him blinking awake and looking surprised that he had fallen asleep.

"I'm hitting the sack," he said, moving to his feet until he towered above her. "Are you going to be all right by yourself?"

She nodded.

"Good night then."

"Terry?"

"Yeah?" he paused with one foot in the bedroom.

"What was that verse you said-- the one that's your battle cry?"

"Oh, you mean Psalm sixty-one, verse two? What about it?"

"Could you please say the words again? I want to write them down."

"It's no big deal," he said with another yawn. "Just go look it up in your Bible." When she didn't respond, he winced. "That's right. I forgot. You don't have one." A noise from the bedroom made him step inside to check the munchkins, then a moment later he came back out and quietly shut the door. "Are you ready?"

She nodded.

"From the end of the earth will I cry unto Thee--"

"Not so fast, please." Her pen dug into the paper, furiously working to form the cumbersome words. She paused, and he continued, this time at a slower pace until the entire verse was safely in her notebook.

"Try and get some sleep," Terry said in full yawn, "and I'll do my best not to wake anyone up again."

She nodded, and watched him move into the bedroom and leave the door open. After putting the cap on her pen, she crawled to the doorway and peered inside. Terry had managed to lay down on the narrow sliver of bed left him, and all without waking the now sleeping children. The girls slept in a row of yellow nightgowns, looking very much like a package of fluffy yellow Peeps, soft and marshmallowy and ridiculously cute. One girl had an arm snugged around another, while the third slept with her head pillowed against her sister's shoulder.

They looked perfectly safe, though Madison still struggled with her dreaded certainty that something bad would happen because they shared the bed with a man. The dread came as second-nature to her, and it was no small task to ignore the fear that screamed even louder than Terry had in his nightmare.

Her stomach clenched into a tight fist, and she crawled away from the bedroom as fast as her hands and knees could carry her. At the end of the hall, she scrambled up and ran to the couch, only pausing to throw back the blankets before diving in. Her heart pounded in her ears, and whispers of past terror made her tremble in the semi-darkness of the night-light glowing against the wall.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to remember the words of Terry's battle cry. When they wouldn't come, she derived comfort by clutching the notebook where they had been written down.

* * * *

A small knee jabbed into his ribcage, followed by another. He moaned. Four more knees followed in rapid succession, and when Terry pushed open his eyes he wasn't surprised to find the bed empty. The smell of a hot breakfast had probably been the reason for the mini stampede, and Terry crawled from bed feeling trampled upon but marginally rested.

Still bleary-eyed from a night of children tossing and kicking him in his sleep, Terry shuffled into the hall, letting the smell of breakfast lead him to where the good stuff was at. Coffee. He needed some java to kick start his brain. Some of the cogs were sticking, making him think the nightmare and subsequent wrestling match with John had all been one continuous dream. Then he saw Madison on the sofa, and remembered it had really happened.

Caffeine, preferably of the French Roast variety. Hold the cream.

"Morning," he said, nodding to Madison as he passed through to the kitchen. "Izzy, where's my-- oh, thanks." He accepted his smiley mug from Izumi, dragged himself to the kitchen table and collapsed into his usual chair. The herd of baby animals that had stampeded him minutes before, beamed at him with milk mustaches and innocent faces. "Every time you munchkins sleep in my bed, I get run over in the morning. Quite a coincidence, isn't it?"

Giggles came from their side of the table, and Terry drowned his smile in the mug.

"Thank God the rain stopped." John's house-shoes slapped against the kitchen laminate as he came to the table with his laptop. "Looks like I'm off the hook for building that ark."

Debbie grinned.

On the stove, pancake batter sizzled along with strips of turkey bacon and another skillet with scrambled eggs.

John raised his brows. "What's the occasion? Our breakfast isn't usually such a production."

"Should I take that as a complaint?" Izumi asked, picking up the slotted spatula and going to the eggs. "If you don't want any of these pancakes, I can always give them to someone else."

"Oh no, don't give them away." John flashed her a teasing grin. "I only wondered why all the trouble for breakfast, when we usually have toast and cereal."

Izumi nodded toward the living room, and John blinked. The man was absolutely clueless.

"It's for Madison," Terry said with a degree of certainty that made him grateful for such good friends. "I appreciate it."

"If you want to thank me, make sure she eats. She's an unhealthy thin, and I don't think she's been eating regularly, even at your place. Make sure she eats."

"I know, I'm trying to."

Sighing, Izumi turned to stir the eggs. "She's not taking care of herself. That means it's up to someone else to help her learn how."

"I agree. If you have any ideas, I'm open to suggestions." Terry sipped his java, winced at the hot temperature and set aside the mug.

"The first thing I'd suggest"-- Izumi slid pancakes onto John's plate, then went back to pour more batter-- "is to get her a smaller place. Your apartment is too big. She needs something small that won't wear her out every time it needs cleaning."

"That's a thought." Terry bit into a bite of pancake slathered with maple syrup and butter. And sighed in pure contentment. No one made pancakes like Izzy. "I have a vacant apartment that fits the description. Single bedroom, bathroom, a cramped kitchen that would make Snow White think she was still keeping house for the seven dwarfs. The place is a cracker box, but the linoleum's new and the rent is low."

"Then loan it to Madison." Izumi scraped more pancake onto Lizzie's plate. "Give her the key and tell her she's responsible for keeping it clean."

Terry considered the proposal, then nodded. "That sounds reasonable."

"Next thing, she should get a job."

"Now that will be a little harder to do." He reached for the mug, saw the empty chair between Ruthie and Debbie and frowned. "Maddie?" he called to the next room.

"What?"

"It's breakfast time."

"I'm not hungry."

"I didn't ask if you were hungry. I said it's breakfast." When nothing but silence came from the living room, Terry remained seated. "Madison, get in here and eat."

"No, I won't."

The outright refusal caught Terry by surprise. She usually did as she was told.

"Terry, she has to eat."

"I know, Izzy, but tell that to her. On second thought, I'll do it myself." Terry pushed back from the table while three little girls tracked him with interested faces. "Just watch, I'll have her in here before you munchkins can ask for seconds."

The giggles behind his back only served to deepen Terry's determination. Izzy was right. Madison needed to learn to take care of herself, and the first place to start would be eating on time.

He rounded into the living room, came to a stop when he noticed a large trembling lump on the couch, covered over with blankets.

"Madison?" He moved to the couch, tugged at a blanket but found she held it fast. "Do you mind if I ask an obvious question?" He waited a beat. "Why are you under those covers?"

Silence.

"It's time for breakfast. I want to see you out of that bed and at that table in the next five minutes, or I'll..." he hesitated, wondering what he would do if she stayed put. He rubbed his neck, then noticed an odd smell coming from the couch. "Hey, are you all right under there?"

When she didn't answer, Terry yanked the covers back. Even before he saw it, his nose had already told him what had happened. A large wet spot soaked her jeans, and the odor that accompanied it told Terry it wasn't just urine.

Her face paled. She stared at the carpet, not daring to meet his eyes.

"What happened?" he asked, then bit his tongue at the stupid way it sounded. "Why didn't you use the bathroom? I told you where it was, didn't I? The half bath adjoining the office?"

A slight shrug lifted a shoulder. She said nothing.

"When did your accident happen? Was it just now? Did we frighten you with our talk?"

"No," she mumbled. "I woke up this way."

"You did?" Terry kicked himself for strolling through the living room and not noticing her distress. "Does this happen very often?"

She shook her head,"no."

"Terry, is she all right?" Izumi came into the living room, stopped when she saw Madison.

Terry blew out a sigh. "I'm going to need your help cleaning her up."

"Didn't she know where the bathroom was?"

"Yes, but she did this in her sleep."

"Well then." Izumi went to Madison, coaxed her onto her feet the way a mother would a child. "Accidents will happen. Let's get you into the shower and make this mess go away."

As Izumi led Madison to the hall, Terry tossed back the bottommost blanket and saw the wet mark on the leather couch. The flip-flop of house-shoes sounded behind him.

Both men stared at the spot.

John punched Terry on the shoulder. "It'll come off. If this thing can survive toddlers, it'll survive this."

A deep sigh moved through Terry as John went off in search of the cleaner. He had very good friends.

As Terry pulled off the blankets, shouting erupted from down the hall. Terry dropped everything, came running and nearly collided with John as John dashed from the kitchen. They moved into the hall, only to see Izumi tugging on Madison's arm to get her into the master bedroom. Madison shouted, her hands grasping the doorjamb for dear life. The door nearly caught her fingers when it accidentally bumped closed.

Seeing the near miss, Izumi let go, panted for breath as Madison tried to fight her way past Terry and John.

"Hey, hey." Terry tried not to hurt Madison. He twisted her around gently, pushed her against the wall while John went to Izumi.

"I'm all right," Izumi insisted. "I tried to coax her into the bedroom, but she became wild-eyed and nearly decked me when she grabbed the doorjamb. I shouldn't have tried to pull her inside."

"Maddie, hold still." Terry squeezed her shoulders until the writhing stopped. "No one is going to hurt you. Izzy was taking you into the bathroom so you could shower."

"I already told her that," Izumi said, giving a wide berth around Madison as Izumi went with John into the living room.

The struggling started again, and Terry was forced to restrain her against the wall with his chest.

"Maddie," he breathed into her ear, "you've got to calm down. Now relax. You'll only hurt yourself by fighting. I'm going to back away, and you're going to stop fighting. Okay?" He tested her by letting up. When she remained plastered to the wall, he took a few steps back. "Did I hurt you?"

She didn't answer.

"Maddie, did I hurt you?"

"No."

"Thank God for that." Terry breathed in relief, knowing he would've had a hard time looking himself in the mirror if he had. He glanced down the hall, saw Izumi was fine and breathed another thankful prayer.

Madison remained against the wall, her face turned away from everyone.

"All the showers in this house are through a bedroom," Terry said matter-of-factly. "I know you don't like it, but unless you want me to drive you back to the apartment as you are, there's no way to get around it."

"Drive me back."

"Maddie," Terry stepped closer and lowered his voice, "if any of my neighbors see you like this, someone's going to call the police. I can lend you a pair of pants, but I really think you need to overcome your fear of bedrooms long enough to get into the bathroom."

"Please don't make me, Terry. Please don't make me."

"I won't make you do anything, but I think this is for the best." Terry turned so his back was to John and Izumi. "Think of this as your first step toward becoming self-sufficient. Today, you run through a bedroom, and tomorrow-- who knows? You might find it wasn't so bad and start sleeping on a bed."

"No, please, no."

"What if you close your eyes? Just shut your eyes and I'll lead you safely through to the bathroom."

Her head shook in a decided "no."

"Is there any way I can get you to trust me on this?" Terry stepped around her, moved into her view. "I give you my solemn promise-- before God-- you'll reach the bathroom safely."

"Terry, I can't."

"Well, how do you know, unless you try?"

She worried her lip, looked at him out of the corner of her eye like a mouse trying to work up courage to trust a cat.

He held out his hand, but both her fists remained clenched against the wall.

"I know what-- I'll give you my cell phone. If anything bad happens, you can punish me by destroying the phone."

A smile crept to her mouth.

"You trusted me once before, didn't you?"

She nodded, "yes."

"I'm asking you to trust me again." Terry kept his hand outstretched, praying she would take it. After that scuffle, he wouldn't blame her if she was too shaken up to take the risk.

The fist moved to her side. She opened it, stared at his hand like it was something out of a horror movie, then took hold of his elbow instead.

"Close enough," he smiled. "Now close your eyes."

She squeezed her eyes shut, and he started her into the bedroom. It seemed wise to not go anywhere near the large king sized bed, so Terry gave it as wide a berth as he could. He opened the bathroom door, placed her inside, then closed the door with, "It's all right to look now."

Having watched their progress, Izumi came into the bedroom with John. Izumi looked impressed. "I didn't think you'd be able to do it, Terry. That took trust on her part."

"Yeah, well," Terry shrugged, "it wasn't much, so I won't let it go to my head."

John smiled, and Izumi moved to the bathroom door. "If you want to be useful," she said to Terry, "Madison could use another change of clothes."

"I'll get them."

With a hesitant look, Izumi lowered her voice. "After all that struggling in the hall, make sure nothing fell out of her pants." Then Izumi went into the bathroom, and promptly shut the door.

The sound of muffled voices, and Izumi's gentle coaxing, was enough to ease Terry away from the bathroom. Maddie would be all right-- he had to trust God for that. A small hand took his, and he smiled down at Ruthie in her favorite bright yellow kiddie nightgown.

"We didn't frighten you, did we?" he asked.

Ruthie smiled, and Terry lifted her up for a hug. Inside the bathroom, he heard Izumi promising not to look, and Terry decided it was time to get those clothes from his apartment in Chaumont.

Moments after he had finished cleaning the hall, but before he had time to change out of last night's pajamas, the front doorbell sounded.

"I'll get it,"John called.

A familiar voice greeted John, and Terry stepped into the living room to the sound of Dick laughing at seeing John-- and Terry-- in pajamas.

"It's nearly ten o'clock," Dick laughed, as his wife, Sara, joined them inside. "If I'd known you guys got such a late start on the day, I would've come later."

"Oh no," John smiled, "we don't often sleep in so late, and are usually dressed by now. Aren't we, Terry?"

"Oh yeah," Terry grinned as a little girl in a nightgown scampered past him on her way to the kitchen, "this is nowhere near a normal morning."

"If we're intruding," Dick peeled off his sunglasses, "we can come back another time to do the planting. I know we agreed on the weekend, but it turned out we're supposed to visit Sara's mom Saturday, so I was hoping we could do it today-- but only if it's not too inconvenient for you."

John squinted in thought. "Pardon?"

"We're here to plant tulips," Dick smiled in his usual way of putting people at ease. "Sara went out and bought a large bunch of them at the nursery, and the guy promised her they'd come up yellow and white. I suppose we won't know for sure though, until next Spring."

A muffled cry came from down the hall, and Terry winced. Not now. Please, God, not in front of the Doyles.

"Who was that?" Dick asked.

"Who? Oh, you mean that noise just now? It's probably nothing." Terry flicked a glance to John, and saw his friend already heading down the hall. Terry would never forgive himself if Madison hurt Izzy. Izzy was a small little thing compared to Madison's tall frame.

A nervous smile fixed on Sara's mouth. "Are you sure no one's hurt?"

"No, I'm sure-- at least, I'm almost sure. Maybe ninety-nine-percent sure." Terry tried hard to smile. "Izzy is helping Madison take a shower, and for obvious reasons, I'm not allowed inside." He glimpsed the soiled couch behind the Doyle's and prayed for mercy. At least a chance to cover up the wet spot so Madison wouldn't have to endure more embarrassment.

Looking somewhat disturbed, John came back down the hall. "I tried to talk to Izumi through the door, but she couldn't hear me. I think everything's fine."

"Would you like me to go check?" Sara took off her coat, revealing a crisp pair of blue jeans and a wool sweater that looked inappropriately elegant for digging about in a garden. "Maybe Izumi could use the help of another woman."

"Thank you, that's very kind"-- Terry almost lurched forward when Sara turned to deposit her coat on the couch-- "I'll take that for you. They're in the master bath, just down the hall and through the bedroom. That's right, the last door at the end."

Calmly sucking a lollipop, Debbie went to go sit on the blankets, neatly avoiding the wet spot.

Another girl, this time Lizzie, went to go join her sister, and she also sucked a bright colored lollipop. As Terry wondered where the girls were getting all this candy, he saw Dick passing an orange one to Ruthie. Wonderful. All John and Izzy needed were well-meaning cavities from a friend.

Using the momentary distraction, Terry edged around to the couch, quickly tossed a blanket over what he now hoped wouldn't prove to be a stain.

"Terry," John said in a polite but subtly urgent tone, "don't you think you should be moving along? They'll be needing those things we discussed earlier."

Dick blinked, looked from one man to the other, his mouth in one long continuous smile. "That sounds like code for something, so I won't ask what."

"It's just something from his apartment," John said, casting a quick eye to the blankets and breathing a noticeable sigh of relief. "Madison slept on the couch last night, and needs a change of clothes."

"Oh." Dick looked to the couch where three little girls sat with their candy, every single one of them avoiding what they knew was hidden beneath the blankets. "I don't remember Victor ever having that privilege."

"That's because Victor wasn't Madison." John showed Dick into the kitchen for some hot coffee. "We trust her more than we did the others."

The vote of confidence in Madison's favor, made Terry smile, even though the reference to "the others" caused him some painful regret. Unlike John, Terry had trusted the others, though Victor stood out more than the rest. At one time during their "friendship," Victor had made Terry think "this is the one-- surely, I can make a difference with him." It hurt to think how much that trust had been betrayed. In a cruel act of revenge for Terry's unwillingness to buy Victor a new car, Victor had trashed Terry's apartment with a baseball bat, then poured fetid garbage over the carpets for the express purpose of letting the stench leach into the floors. The cost of renovation didn't hurt Terry as much as knowing that someone he had once called friend, had done that.

Shoving aside past failure, Terry jogged to his room to quickly change.

The morning had its bumps, to be sure, but there also had been some positive moments. Madison's unexpected trust had been a bright spot... unlike the one she had left on the couch. As he went out to the garage, Terry wondered if Izzy might somehow manage to keep the soiled clothes from Sara's notice. For Madison's benefit, as well as his own. All he needed was for Dick to give him another patient sigh, and privately think he had fallen for yet another sob story.

* * * *

The water felt good, although Madison had trouble enjoying the clean feeling. Izzy stood just outside the frosted glass wall of the shower, her red robe showing through in a vague haze. The woman called Sara, stood with her, the blue and the red chatting with each other while Madison cleaned herself.

At least Izzy hadn't seen anything. Madison tried to console herself with the fact, though she had nearly been discovered when Izzy almost turned before Madison was safely behind the shower door. Madison had screamed, and Izzy said she'd nearly had a heart attack at being so startled. No harm had been done, but the scream had attracted attention, and now there were two of them.

The water still ran hot, leaving Madison's arms and hands a bright red glow. She lathered the body soap and prayed Terry would come soon with her clothes. Until he did, she would be stuck in the shower, for there was not enough coaxing in the world that would make her come out naked. The doctor who examined her had expressed concern upon seeing the scars, and Madison was certain Izzy would too. Whatever Izzy saw, she would surely tell Terry, and then questions would follow.

She had to avoid the questions. It was her problem, and Madison refused to let it become theirs. She'd managed to keep her secret this long, and nothing short of outright discovery would make her speak when silence could avoid the entire issue.

Oh, where was Terry? The hot water couldn't last forever, and then she'd have to endure a cold drenching or risk shutting it off. If Izzy couldn't hear the water running, she might think the shower was over and open the door.

Something Izzy said made Sara laugh, and Madison wished she had paid more attention to their conversation. Had Sara seen the pants? Why hadn't she awakened in time to use the bathroom? She didn't recall any bad dreams, nothing to create such a messy accident. Yet it had happened. She guessed her dread of leaving the couch in the middle of the night, in a strange house, had made her hold it in until she could hold it no longer. She felt so stupid for not waking up in time, though even then, she knew she would have tried to hold it until morning, rather than venture into the office in the dark.

Cool air nipped her bare skin, and she stepped back into the spray only to find the water had turned lukewarm.

Oh, Terry, please come.

"Madison?" Izzy had stopped talking to Sara, and now stood beside the door. "Are you finished yet?"

"No. No, I'm not."

"I don't know how much longer the water will stay hot. You'll soon empty the water heater, so you'd better hurry."

"Okay." Madison clamped her jaw shut, intent on not letting her shivers register out loud. The water had turned cold, though she couldn't bring herself to shut it off. She shrank into the far corner, trying not to touch the hard tile walls that only made her shivering worse.

"My niece, Jennifer, stays in the shower so much, her parents joke she's trying to grow gills." That didn't sound like Izzy, Madison concluded, so it had to be the blue blur speaking. Izzy responded, but Madison didn't pay any attention. It was obvious people were beginning to wonder about her staying in the shower so long, but she couldn't help it.

Oh, Terry. Please don't forget me. I'll clean the couch, I promise I will, but please don't forget me.

A knock sounded on the bathroom door. It opened, and Madison heard Terry's voice-- familiar and friendly and extremely welcome. The door closed, and Izzy came back to the blurry glass.

"Terry just brought your clothes. I'm going to leave them beside the sink. Do you need anything more before I leave?"

"No thank you."

The bathroom door opened, then shut, and the room sounded amazingly empty.

Venturing to the frosted glass door, Madison slid it open an inch and peered out. They were gone. Thank the Lord, they were gone. In her joy of escaping the shower, Madison didn't forget to silently thank Terry.

He hadn't forgotten her.

She dressed in a pair of oversized jeans and a gray T-shirt with a generic butterfly on the front. The clean socks felt comforting after the icy tiles of the shower, and she curled her toes in quiet delight. Then she remembered her soiled clothes. What had Izzy done with them? They weren't anywhere to be seen, and Madison guessed Izzy had taken them with her.

Which had to mean the blue blur knew why she was in the shower.

All Madison knew of being normal had come from what she'd seen on the television. This wasn't normal. Not even close. Making a mess on the couch, hiding from anyone seeing her scars-- it all added up to something ugly, something Madison had feared for a very long time but never admitted to herself outright. If others didn't behave the way she did, then she had to be crazy. A lunatic who couldn't wake up to use the bathroom, a hugely stupid idiot who couldn't come out of the shower when she was freezing.

Hot stung her eyes. She smeared it away and put on the running shoes Terry had given her when they bought all the clothes.

He hadn't forgotten her. That was a bigger comfort than even having clean clothing and privacy from those women. The warm knowledge of it made her feel cared for, part of something else besides herself. She had a friend.

Feeling more settled, she plugged in the hairdryer and switched it on. The hot blast felt wonderful, and she turned it on her arms every so often for warmth. She ran Izzy's hairbrush through straight locks, until they swept against her shoulders in thick golden falls. A touch of hairspray and she was done. At least she looked normal, or as normal as she was ever going to get outside of a personality transplant and skin grafts.

Sucking in a deep breath to face the world, she went to the door.

And stopped in her tracks.

How was she going to leave, if she had to pass through the bedroom? She couldn't, which meant she had escaped the shower only to be trapped in the bathroom.

In a quick handful of seconds, her heart plummeted lower than her toes. She might shout and hope Terry could hear, but then she really would look like an idiot in front of his guests. Who's that shouting, you ask? Only the pitiful woman I found in the wild. Can't do anything right, and dumb as dirt.

Indignation filled her chest, and she slumped against the bathroom door in defeat. Nothing was working out like she'd imagined. How was she ever going to make it? Her old dreams of being ordinary and normal seemed laughable now, only she couldn't laugh. Hugging her knees to her chest, she made herself small and hid from the worthlessness staring her in the face.

Someone knocked on the door.

"Uh, Maddie? I don't suppose you got out of there on your own? You are still in there, aren't you?"

"Yes, I'm here." She scrambled to her feet at the sound of Terry's voice, and stood there waiting.

"May I open the door?" he asked.

"Yes, please."

"Okay, but maybe you should close your eyes first."

"They're closed." She squeezed them shut, felt Terry's arm and let him guide her through the room of terrors and into the hall.

"You can look," he whispered.

In the living room, John talked with the man called Dick. John had changed out of his pajamas, and after a few more exchanges, John called to Izzy that he and the Doyles were going out to plant tulips. Izzy's reply came from the kitchen, and three little girls dressed in pants and sweaters ran to the door with coats in hand, ready to help with the digging.

Madison tugged Terry's arm. "Where are my clothes?"

"Izzy put them in the wash. Don't worry, Sara and Dick don't know. As soon as they leave, I'll clean the couch."

"I'm sorry, Terry."

"Forget it. Unless you tell me you did it on purpose, I refuse to accept any apologies."

"I didn't do it on purpose."

"I know. I'll take you to the kitchen so you'll eat your breakfast. And don't try to wiggle out of it like you did last time," he added with a hint of good humor.

It was pointless to argue, for she knew her own hunger. She tagged behind Terry as he moved into the kitchen just as the blue blur ended a conversation with Izzy.

"Well, hi there." The blue blur gave Madison a bright smile, laughed as Izzy introduced her as Sara Doyle. "I have to be running along, but I hope to get to know you better. Any friend of Terry's is a friend of mine. See you later, Izumi, and thanks so much for the coffee. Are you sure I can't help with lunch?"

"Thanks, but I've got it covered." Still wearing her robe, Izumi stood up from the table. "Send one of the girls a few minutes before everyone comes in. That'll give me time to get everything on the table."

"I'll do that." Sara moved around Madison, flashed another pearl white smile and went to where the girls were being zipped up in their coats. Sara looked to be in her early sixties, had dark brown hair that probably came from a bottle, and dressed in tidy clothes that gave her a slightly formal but casual appearance. Since she was a total stranger to Madison, none of this really mattered.

What did matter, came on the plate Izzy placed on the table. It turned out Izzy had kept breakfast warm, so Madison sat down, prayed, then started eating large helpings of pancakes, eggs, and crispy slices of bacon.

After the group went out to plant flowers, Terry pulled cleaner from a kitchen cupboard and moved into the living room to clean the couch. Izzy tidied the kitchen, then went to go change for the day. Though most of breakfast found its way into Madison, the sheer number of pancakes couldn't all fit in her stomach. Looking satisfied, Terry declared it a good attempt, and went to go get their coats because he wanted to drive her into Chaumont to show her something.

By now, Madison felt so compliant she didn't even bother to ask questions. The stain on the couch had been removed, her stomach was full, and no one had yelled at her. Amazingly, she had survived the morning.

Zipped up in a warm coat, she felt her spirits lift once more. Hope came easier when she was with Terry. She followed him outside, waited for him to talk with Dick and John, then watched Terry back the jeep from the garage. From behind the wheel, Terry leaned forward, opened the door, and she climbed in.

"I'll close the garage later. Right now, I have something to show you." Terry pulled onto the main road, and she soon recognized the way back to Chaumont. "Izzy had an idea this morning, and I think it's inspired. You remember I own the apartment complex, right?"

She nodded.

"Izzy thinks I should give you a small place-- nothing big that would wear you out to keep clean, but someplace all your own. A place for a new start."

"Terry, I can't pay rent until I get a job."

"I'm not expecting rent, and when you do find work, I promise it'll be within your budget."

Not knowing what to say, she kept silent. It seemed too good to be true, and yet so much about Terry fit into that category. He seemed larger than life in an ordinary way that only served to underscore his kindness.

The jeep pulled up to the complex, parked in its usual spot without a trace of formality. It was almost as if the vehicle knew right where to go out of habit. Terry got out, rounded the hood to open her door. She expected him to show her the new apartment, but instead, he pointed to his.

"I have a two story unit, but the one right next to it was built wider, so I divided the floors into single bedroom apartments. The one on top is currently rented out, but the bottom one's all yours. Wait here a moment. I have to get the key from Lauren."

It took a moment for Madison to remember Lauren. Oh yes, the nosy woman who insisted on inviting her to dinner sometime soon, the woman Terry had said was the building superintendent. A hefty title for someone Madison so desperately wanted to avoid.

To her dismay but not to her surprise, Lauren returned with Terry.

"I confess, this is unexpected," Lauren said, as Terry unlocked the vacant apartment. "I thought Madison would go on living at your place. It's so convenient for you two."

"I've told you before, she isn't that kind of a friend." Terry tossed Madison an apologetic look. "Come inside, and see your new home."

Those words felt foreign to her ears, and she struggled to make herself believe Terry had actually said them to her and not someone else.

The place was dark until Terry opened a window and let in some of the outside sunshine. "There's no furniture, but we can take care of that easily enough."

The living room felt like an empty box with four walls, but no bugs crawled on the clean carpet and no water stains scarred the ceiling. She moved through the doorway off the living room, and found herself in a narrow kitchen that was one person deep. Cupboards lined above and below the counter, while the opposite wall stood blank. Good thing, for anything thicker than a poster would get in the way of movement. Framed at the end of the walkway, she saw a window with a view of slender ornamental trees.

"The refrigerator is fairly new," Terry pointed out from behind her, "as are the oven and microwave. There's a food pantry on your right, but no dishwasher."

"I don't mind, Terry."

He smiled, and looked encouraged. "The bedroom is back through the living room. Do you want to see it?"

"No, thank you."

"It's empty, Maddie. You don't have to put a bed in there, but you could get a soft couch and shove it against the wall. It doesn't have to look like a bedroom, if you don't want it to."

Intrigued, Lauren moved closer to listen.

"There's a double window on the East facing wall of the bedroom, a closet, and a single bathroom with a combination bath and shower to save space. The navy blue pile carpet is the same throughout the unit, except for the sandstone tile in the kitchen and bathroom. If you decide to stay here, you'll be responsible for its upkeep, just like any other tenant. I don't allow pets, and make no exceptions so the same rule goes for everyone."

Numb, Maddie nodded without thinking too hard about what he said. Terry sounded as though he'd given the spiel about pets before, and she let him run through his routine without interruption.

When he came to a pause, she realized he was waiting for a response.

"So what do you think? I can give you a reasonable rate for as long as you stay, and until you find work, it's rent-free."

As good an offer as it was, Madison didn't readily accept. Living in his mostly unused apartment was one thing, depriving him of potential income, another. "Won't you lose money by not renting it out to someone else?"

"He will," Lauren interrupted without apology, "but then Terry would give you the shirt off his back, if he thought you needed it." The wording must have suggested something to Lauren, for the woman kept observing Terry and then Madison as though trying to picture something in her mind.

A sick wave of nausea rolled through Madison at what the woman must be thinking. It was hard to ignore the curious looks from Lauren, but Madison took her lead from Terry and paid her little attention.

The apartment was perfect. She couldn't ask for a better fit, and when he pressed her again for an answer, she agreed to the arrangement. If she had money, she would have given it to him in a heartbeat, but she had nothing and was hardly in a position to turn down such a generous offer.

After Lauren had given Terry an update concerning the plumber he had hired to fix some leaky pipes, Terry took Madison back to Three Mile Bay. He said he didn't want to leave her by herself just yet, and she accepted the comment without protest. She didn't feel prepared to be alone again, but knew the time would come for her to live by herself in that perfect apartment next to Terry's.

Even though she knew he hardly lived there, it comforted her to know his place sat right next to hers.

Her place. Her very own place. Her apartment had elbow room, and room for little else, but Madison liked it that way. No one could live there but her, and no one could be expected to live there but a single person. That that person would be her, shot tiny thrills of excitement into her anticipation for the future. She kept silently repeating, "Thank You, Jesus."

Once again, God was making her to hope. So much depended on the character of who God was, His constancy and faithfulness to those who had no strength of their own, that she felt compelled to simply have faith. The only other alternative was to curl up and die.

And there was Terry, always Terry. His steadfast friendship continued to stun her. How long his willingness to help would last, she had no way of knowing.

She only knew God had thrown her a lifeline, and his name was Terry Davis.


"Blessed be God, which hath not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me."
~ Psalm 66:20 ~

end of chapter