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Chapter Seven
The Fight for Hope

"... [Matt] had withdrawn himself, and was gone... [Beth] sought him, but [she] could not find him..."
~ Song of Solomon 5:6 ~

When Beth closed the nursery for the day, Matt left, almost as though he were running from her. How she wished that he'd stayed, lingered after the store was closed, and talked to her as they had done by the potting table. Matt had actually asked her some questions-- some very personal questions-- and he'd even gone so far as to call her Beth. She found she enjoyed the deep gentle tones of his voice and craved to hear them again. If only he'd stayed to talk. She would have been grateful for just a few minutes of his company, but he'd gone. Gone in that old pickup truck of his, gone to be with his family.

I think he likes me, Beth thought as she turned the key in the nursery gate. Surely, she couldn't have misunderstood that long wistful look that had him blushing so brightly with embarrassment. She'd caught him looking, and he knew it. She'd been looked at with such sweet longing, her heart had trembled like a vibrating piano string, the sound of it echoing even now in her heart. Matt liked her, she was certain of it.

Or at least, somewhat certain. Maybe he was just shy, and looked at all women that way. Maybe she had misunderstood him.

No, Beth thought, as she unlocked her car door, she didn't think Matt treated the others at the nursery the same as her. Ever since Skip had left earlier that day, after Matt had defended her so gallantly, (it was gallant, Beth wouldn't see it any other way), Sylvia had treated Beth with a bitter envy that betrayed Sylvia's desire to have Matt defend her, give her one of those long looks.

Then he must like me, Beth reasoned as she turned the car onto the street. Even if it was just a tiny, miniscule liking, it was something. With all the nothing she had in her life right now, even crumbs were enough to make her unreasonably hopeful. She cautioned herself not to yearn for too much, and tried to reign in her loneliness long enough to look at things objectively. Matt was just a friend, a friend who happened to like her; how much, Beth struggled not to guess, though it was hard not to.

The sky had already faded into evening by the time Beth arrived home. She'd stopped to buy some groceries, run a few last minute errands, and was looking forward to a hot dinner and maybe some television. She would find a channel, leave it there and let the noise fill the room until she went to bed. It was easier to be alone, when you weren't sitting in silence.

Carrying grocery bags, Beth went into the adobe home she and Luke had bought together. They'd had so many plans for the future, the memories taunted her as she moved into the kitchen to start dinner. Luke should've been here, talking to her about his day, laughing and playing with Caleb until dinner was ready.

Enough. Beth shoved aside her grief, flicked on the small television set on the counter, and started putting away the groceries. An odd feeling nagged at her, one not born of grief, but something else almost as unsettling. Something was missing from her usual routine. Something hadn't happened, that usually did. But what?

The phone rang, and without thinking, Beth picked up the receiver, her mind elsewhere. Bailey hadn't come to greet her. She realized it now, and was about to put the receiver down and go look for him, when a voice at the other end started talking.

"Beth, you'd better have a good explanation for what happened, today."

"What?" Beth frowned, trying to concentrate on the caller. "Skip, is that you?"

"Of course it's me! Who else would bother? Maybe you were expecting that worker of yours-- that Matt! Does he call you at home, Beth? Does he come and see you?"

She sighed heavily. "Skip, it's not what you think, it really isn't. Matt is simply a friend."

"Then why are you calling off our relationship, Beth? Answer me that. And while you're at it, explain why you're turning me away, after all we've meant to each other."

"Oh, don't give me that tired lie, Skip! You warned me ahead of time that you weren't going to leave your wife, that we were only going to have a simple, straightforward affair. No one would fall in love, and no one would get hurt. Those were your words, Skip, not mine."

"Beth," his tone was softer now, filled with regret and a compassion she knew he didn't feel. "Things aren't good with me and Sue right now. We're constantly fighting, and I get so lonely. I need you Beth. I need you to understand what I'm going through, and be there for me."

"I'm sorry, Skip, but that's between you and your wife. I can't be a part of it any longer."

The silence that followed hung heavy, so heavy and quiet that for a moment, Beth thought he had walked away from the phone.

"You'll be sorry, Beth. No one does this to me." All traces of empathy had been replaced by a coldness that made Beth involuntarily shiver.

A dial tone sounded in her ear, and she hung up the phone.

The unsettling stillness of the house tugged her attention back to the previous concern. "Bailey?" she called, whistling to her furry companion as she entered the room where he slept on the sofa. "Bailey, there you are--" she stopped in mid sentence, saw the still form on the cushions. His head didn't lift to look at her, his tail didn't wag with doggie happiness. She was home, but Bailey wasn't moving.

Rushing to the couch, Beth fell to her knees, put her ear to the cold body that was her one and only, dearest companion since Luke had died.

"Dear God, please, no." Beth whispered frantically, going to the kitchen to retrieve her discarded keys. She ran outside, unlocked the car and rushed back for Bailey. His body felt frighteningly stiff in her arms, but she hurried, carefully laid him on the backseat, and ran around to the driver's side.

Her foot on the gas, she sped to the veterinary clinic she always took Bailey to in Las Cruces. Surely, God wouldn't be so cruel as to take her dear friend from her! Not now. Didn't God know what tomorrow was? She'd pretended she'd forgotten, but it had been there all the time, lurking, waiting for her to feel the full impact of it, as that terrible anniversary always did.

She couldn't lose Bailey. The old mutt was all she had left of Luke. If God was as merciful and as kind as her pastor had said He was, then God wouldn't take Bailey. God knew what that dog meant to her.

And surely God knew what she'd do if Bailey were no longer there.

Matt couldn't claim he'd gotten a good night's sleep, because he hadn't. She'd been there, crowding his dreams with those startling green eyes, filling his thoughts even when he slumbered.

At the breakfast table, each time Matt realized he was drifting back to her, he forced himself to think of something else. It didn't matter what, just as long as it wasn't her.

He faithfully saw the children off to school, then deposited Ryan with Mrs. Lott for safekeeping. The next door neighbor remarked that he looked distracted, but Matt simply chalked it up to his lack of sleep.

It took a strong cup of coffee before leaving, to make him feel as though he could finally shake off last night's dreams. Braced with caffeine, he climbed into the pickup truck and started off for work.

Caffeine pulsing through his veins, he impatiently waited at a stoplight for what seemed an eternity. There must have been some grand conspiracy to make him late for work, for one after another, he hit every red light between home and the nursery, and pulled into the nursery's parking lot with only two minutes to spare.

He got out, put on his hat, and realized the lot was empty. Where was Mrs. Carter's sedan? It wasn't here. Frowning, Matt stepped toward the still locked entrance, looked through the glass. Like the parking lot, it was empty. Where was everyone? More importantly, where was Mrs. Carter? It wasn't unusual for the others to be late, but not her. She was always the first to arrive, and the last to leave.

He tried the gate, but wasn't surprised when he found it locked. Glancing at his watch, Matt went back to the truck to wait. The girls would arrive any moment, and if Mrs. Carter didn't hurry, Sylvia and Amy would actually beat her into work. He hoped it wouldn't happen, for he knew Sylvia would use it to rationalize her own tardiness.

Amy's car pulled into the lot, and the young woman got out with a friendly, though somewhat bewildered, smile.

"Am I early?" Amy asked, checking her watch. "Where is Mrs. Carter?"

Matt shrugged. "Has she ever been late, before?"

"I don't think so. I don't remember her ever being late. For as long as I've worked here, Mrs. Carter always arrived first. I wonder if she's sick, or something."

There was little for either to do but wait and speculate. Forty minutes later, Sylvia finally arrived, her bloodshot eyes hidden behind a stylish pair of sunglasses.

"Don't tell me she's late?" The triumph in Sylvia's voice was unmistakable. "After all that talk about punctuality, our Beth is late! Ha! I can't wait until the next time she gripes. This ought to shut her up and put her in her place."

Matt groaned inwardly. He hoped Mrs. Carter would get here soon.

In a half-hearted attempt to reach their employer, Sylvia pulled out her cell phone and called Mrs. Carter's home number. Matt could hear the joy in Sylvia's voice when she announced no one had answered.

Glossy red nails tapping folded arms, a languid pout on her mouth, Sylvia paced and waited for all of two minutes before declaring she was leaving.

"It's nearly an hour after eight," Sylvia said, dismissing Amy's protest. "If Beth wanted to open the nursery, she would have been here by now. She's probably sleeping off last night with some stranger she picked up at a bar."

Matt stiffened, sensing the remark had been made for his benefit. He said nothing, and tried not to seem indignant when Sylvia glanced at him. He hoped he didn't give her the pleasure of knowing her barb had hit its mark. He thought back to his talks with Beth, remembered how she'd turned away Skip and called off their almost relationship. No, Sylvia was wrong. Beth was better than that.

"Do you think she's sick?" Amy asked in concern. "Maybe we should check her house and make sure."

"She didn't pick up, so she's not there," Sylvia said so emphatically, so convincingly, Amy nodded in agreement. "Come on, let's get out of here and have some fun." Sylvia paused, her blood red lips forming a seductive smile as she turned to Matt. "How about you? Coming with us?"

"No thanks," Matt said, straightening as he stood by the entrance with the girls. "I think I'll wait here a little longer."

"She isn't coming," Sylvia said, her voice hardening. "Like I said, she's in some guy's bed, having a good time. We won't see her until tomorrow."

Matt didn't reply.

"Fine. Do whatever you want." Sylvia checked her lipstick in the reflection of the store window. "Wait here all day. I don't care."

Amy didn't look as though she wanted to go with Sylvia, but lacked the courage to protest. Reluctantly, Amy followed her coworker out of the parking lot, leaving Matt alone.

He waited for another hour before deciding it was crazy to stay any longer. Mrs. Carter was obviously not coming, and he wondered why. He got inside his pickup, started the engine and let it run a few moments while he made up his mind.

"It's none of your business, Taylor," he muttered under his breath. Even as he spoke, though, he knew his decision was already made. With a grumble of self-reproach, Matt turned his truck South, away from Las Cruces and toward farm country. He was going to feel really stupid for showing up, unannounced, on Mrs. Carter's front step, just to see if she was okay. And if she was with some guy, like Sylvia had said, he'd feel like a total idiot.

But she wasn't, Matt quickly corrected himself, unwilling to think the worst of Beth. There was probably no one home, and he'd leave with nothing to show for his concern but an emptier fuel tank.

Turning off the highway, Matt drove down the dirt road that led to Mrs. Carter's house. He slowed when he saw her sedan sitting out front. The driver's side door hung wide open, as though its owner had stepped away and would soon be back. Figuring it was already too late to leave without attracting more attention, Matt parked his truck, pulled the keys from the ignition, and waited for her to appear.

When she didn't, he checked his watch. Where was she?

Hating the idea of leaving an open invitation to any car thief who happened by, Matt got out and went to the sedan. He was about to shut the door, when he noticed something furry and motionless laying on the backseat.

It was Mrs. Carter's dog, Bailey.

Poor guy. Matt remembered her saying something about the dog being very old, and he shook his head sadly as he shut the car door. It explained why she hadn't come to work this morning. She had been dealing with an emergency.

Matt waited by the car a little longer, still expecting her to emerge from the house to take Bailey to the vet, or wherever it was rich people took their pets when they died. A minute passed, and Matt became concerned enough to go to her front door and ring the bell.

He waited on the front step, but no one came.

"Hello?" he called, moving off the stone walk to peer through a large pane window. "Mrs. Carter? Are you all right?" When there was no answer, Matt tried the door handle, and found it unlocked. Concern overriding the last of his caution, he ventured inside. "Mrs. Carter? Are you here?" He kicked himself for asking such a dumb question. Of course she was here. Her car was out front.

"Mrs. Carter?" Matt announced himself as he moved into the living room. It was empty, and he found himself momentarily lost in the sprawling house.

Coming to a partially open door, Matt knocked, and waited for a response. "Mrs. Carter? Are you in there?" When no one answered, he cautiously looked inside and discovered it was the master bedroom. He was about to leave, when through a partially open door to the master bath, an uncapped prescription bottle lying on the floor caught his attention. His heart in his throat, Matt quickly moved to the bathroom, shoved open the door, and saw her.

She was dressed in yesterday's shirt and blue jeans, crouched on the floor with her knees drawn against her chest. Her arms lay limply at her side, the palms up, the fingers still. Her eyes were closed, and for a terrifying moment, Matt thought she was dead.

He crossed over to her, dropped to his knees, checked her neck for a pulse. The touch caused her eyes to flicker open in surprise.

"Thank God," Matt sighed heavily, allowing himself to breathe once more. He rocked back on his heels, feeling stupid for the crazy thought that had so briefly run through his mind. Then he looked back at her, saw the anguished grief in her pale face, and the concern returned. He snatched up the prescription bottle and counted the scattered pills. "How many did you take, Beth?"

When she didn't answer, he shook her by the arm.

"How many?" he repeated.

"None. I didn't take any." The words tumbled out in a weak whisper, and she leaned her head against the wall as though she lacked the strength to fully sit up on her own.

Matt saw the full glass of water beside her, and told himself he hadn't been too late. He gathered every pill, dropped them into the toilet, and flushed.

She looked up at him with the sad green eyes that had haunted Matt's dreams the night before. "Bailey's dead. He was Luke's dog, and now he's gone." She spoke without hope, the tone heavy and dull, as though she were being smothered alive by grief. "I tried to take Bailey to the vet last night, but it was too late. They were closed and he was dead."

"Last night?" Matt went to her, squatted to look into her face. "Have you been sitting there all night, staring at those pills?"

"I couldn't do it," she said helplessly. "I wanted to-- oh! how I wanted to-- but I couldn't. I've thought about it so many times..." She closed her eyes, and a drop rolled down her tearstained cheek.

Matt swallowed hard. He hadn't counted on this. He hadn't thought Beth was suicidal. How could he, when he hardly knew her?

Stunned, Matt sank onto the cold bathroom tiles and stared at her. This woman needed help, but what could he do?

"Today is their anniversary," she said, her eyes still closed. "Luke's plane went down four years ago, today. I lost everything. Even my baby."

"You still have your life," Matt said, trying to find something for her to hang on to. "They're in Heaven, but you're still here. You have to keep going, Beth."

"Why?" She opened her eyes, and stared at him blankly. "Why should I?"

Uneasy fear settled in Matt's stomach. "Are you sure you didn't take any of those pills?"

She frowned. "I told you I didn't. Why don't you believe me?"

"How close were you to doing it, Beth? I need to know."

"I changed my mind last night." She sounded frustrated, on the verge of fresh tears. "I know what this looks like, but it's not that bad. I just hadn't put the bottle away, that's all."

"Promise me you're all right," Matt said, grasping her hard by the arm. "Promise me, or I swear to God, I'll get on the phone and call 9-1-1."

"I promise." She looked at him pleadingly, a look of hurt crossing her face.

Realizing he was probably leaving a bruise on her arm, he quickly let go.

"I didn't take any, Matt. I promise you, I didn't."

The air around Matt felt thick, and he moved to the other side of the bathroom to think clearly. Responsibility hung heavy on his shoulders, and it almost overwhelmed him.

Beth must have recognized the fear on his face, for she tried to give him a reassuring smile. "I'd long changed my mind before you came, Matt. I promise."

He nodded numbly. "That's good."

She said nothing as he went to the sink and splashed water on his face. He saw her watch him in the reflection of the nearby mirror, and turned to look at her.

"Don't hang on to me, Beth."

The warning made her frown.

"You need help, and I'm not that person. I'm barely staying afloat, myself. Hang on to me, and I'll take us both down."

Tears slid down her cheeks, but she didn't move. She looked as though she could stay on the floor, forever.

"Beth, you don't want anything to do with me."

"Let me be the one to decide that, Matt."

"You called me trailer trash, remember?" he leveled a hard look at Beth. "I'm worse than that, but you just don't know it yet." He grabbed a thick towel from off the rack and rubbed it over his face.

"I was wrong," she said quietly.

"No, you weren't." He threw aside the towel. "You don't know me at all."

She closed her mouth, leaned her head back and stared at him.

"Don't expect too much from me, Beth."

Her eyes shut, and he guessed she expected him to leave.

Matt wished he could.

Crossing the distance between them, Matt took her by the hands, and pulled her to her feet. She looked surprised, but didn't ask what he was doing as he led her through the house.

"Do you have your keys?" he asked.

She nodded absently, reminding him of a fragile porcelain doll that might break if it were handled roughly. He locked her front door, then went to her car to take care of the deceased pet in the backseat.

"Do you have a shovel?" he asked.

She nodded. "Around back-- in the shed."

Matt followed Beth around the house, to a large building with clear walls. Inside, he could see several tables lined with plants. A small wooden shed sat beside the see-through building, and Beth went inside and brought out a shovel.

"Where do you want him?" Matt asked, looking about for a good place to dig Bailey's grave. "How about over there, by the tree?"

A hand covered Beth's mouth, and he heard a stifled sob.

Determined not to let her grief swallow him as well, Matt went to the tree and started digging. He hoped after Bailey was put to rest and buried, Beth would stop crying. His insides twisted painfully at the sound of her sobs, and it made him want to retreat. Even worse, it made him want to find a relief of his own, and Matt knew what that meant. He would go searching for a drug dealer. If only he could use meth. Just one more time. Maybe he'd give some to Beth, and they could--

"Shut up," he breathed viciously. "Just shut up."

The crying abruptly stopped. He turned, saw Beth looking startled and even a little afraid.

"What?" he asked.

"You just told me to shut up," she said with wide green eyes.

"I was talking to myself, Beth." Shaking his head, Matt sighed in disgust and continued digging. "I don't treat women like that, okay? If I want you to be quiet, I'll ask, not tell." He slanted her a quick glance just in time to see the trembling lips part in a fleeting smile.

The hole dug, Matt went to the car to get Bailey. He lowered the beloved pet into the hole, then covered him over with dirt. By the time Matt had finished, Beth was weeping again. Feeling as though he'd somehow failed, Matt put away the shovel, took Beth by the arm, and led her to his truck. He opened the passenger side and waited for her to get in.

She looked puzzled, but didn't ask where he was taking her or why. He hardly knew the answer to that himself, only that he didn't feel easy about leaving her alone right now.

On the drive back to Las Cruces, neither one said a single word. Beth sat beside him, her hands in her lap, her face so pale the freckles seemed exaggerated on her nose and cheeks. Matt didn't realize where he was going, until he found himself parked in front of his house, staring at the dandelions that had overtaken the front yard.

He shoved open the driver's side door, got out of the truck, and waved a reluctant hello to the old woman watering her meager bed of flowers next door.

"I thought you worked Wednesdays," Mrs. Lott called, turning off the hose and coming over to meet him.

Matt tried not to seem impatient. He just didn't feel like talking. "The nursery is taking an undeclared holiday," he attempted a careless smile. "Where's Ryan?"

"Inside, watching television, of course." Mrs. Lott cast a curious glance at the passenger still in the truck. "I can keep him a few hours more, if you have company..."

"No, I can take him." Matt knew his neighbor was dying to ask, and decided to just tell her, instead of making her guess. "I brought my boss home."

"Oh?" Mrs. Lott looked more than a little surprised.

"She had a rough night," Matt explained in a hushed voice. "Her dog died. The one her deceased husband used to own."

The old woman's surprise changed to concern, and Matt sensed the concern was more for him, than for his boss.

"It's the anniversary of her husband's accident," Matt said, hoping it explained just enough to avoid having to say more.

He groaned as Mrs. Lott studied him thoughtfully. Things were getting complicated, and he wished he could walk away and go somewhere to think. His boss sat in the truck behind him, looking like she'd just survived a plane wreck of her own, while Mrs. Lott, his well-intentioned but nosey neighbor, prodded him with rheumy eyes that held way too much understanding.

"I see," Mrs. Lott said finally.

No, you don't, Matt thought. You couldn't possibly.

"If you and Mrs. Carter would come inside for a cup of tea," Mrs. Lott said, "we could wait for Ryan's show to end."

The request was gentle but firm, and Matt decided not to fight it. He went to open Beth's door and help her out. Once again he didn't explain where they were going, and once again, Beth didn't ask. She simply followed.

"Matty!" Ryan shouted as they entered the living room. Even in his joy, however, the boy remained where he was apparently glued to the television.

"When that's over, buddy, I'm taking you home."

"Okay, Matty."

Mrs. Lott invited them to sit on the couch, then disappeared into the tiny kitchen to put some water on the stove. Every chance she got, she looked at Beth, as if unsure what to make of what she saw.

Dropping his hat on one knee, Matt turned his head and watched whatever show it was Ryan was watching. A grown man danced about on the screen, dressed like a chicken, flapping his arms wildly, while singing Old Mac Donald had a Farm. On the fourth chorus of E-I-E-I-O, Mrs. Lott returned with a small plate of homemade lemon cookies and placed them on the end table.

Ryan eagerly took two, then went back to his program.

"It's so nice to have him here," Mrs. Lott said, looking at Ryan fondly before returning her attention to Beth. "I don't have any grandchildren, so it's a comfort."

Matt didn't know if Beth was listening, and didn't want to look away from the television to check. He rotated the hat on his knee, wishing the man in the chicken suit would stop flapping his arms and end the show.

"No, I don't have any family in Las Cruces."

Matt realized Beth had been listening, after all, and was speaking to Mrs. Lott. He stopped following the chicken, though his eyes remained on the television.

"I have a younger sister in Santa Fe, and an older brother in Phoenix. They're both doctors, so it's hard to keep in touch as much as I'd like. They're always busy."

The kettle on the stove began to whistle, sending Mrs. Lott to the kitchen. Matt kept watching the man, now parading as a monkey, while Beth sat quietly beside him on the couch. He didn't turn to look at her, and she didn't move or say a word to him.

Mrs. Lott returned with a tray, and Matt politely accepted a cup of herbal tea. The truth was, he hated tea. Thought it tasted like dishwater. Beth seemed to like it, though. She smiled at Mrs. Lott, and for that, Matt felt grateful.

"He's very handsome, so I expect he catches a lot of attention from women," a voice was saying. "I only hope it's the right kind of women."

Matt had been so carefully avoiding the tea, somewhere along the way he had lost track of the conversation. Panicked, he realized Mrs. Lott was talking, and that she was talking about him. What had she said? What had he missed?

"I understand," Beth said, taking a sip of tea. The women exchanged knowing glances, and Matt scowled. What was understood? What had been said?

He reached for his cup, took a gulp, and immediately gagged on the dishwater. Mercifully, Ryan's show ended and the boy climbed onto Matt's lap, knocking the hat off his knee.

It wasn't difficult for Matt to excuse themselves, for Mrs. Lott seemed satisfied that she'd accomplished something. What that something was, Matt didn't know, but he did notice the kind smile Beth gave their hostess as they left.

"I think she's worried about you," Beth said, as she followed him into the house next door.

Matt glanced over his shoulder, noting the visit had brought color back to Beth's face. He made sure Ryan had some toys to keep him busy on the living room floor, then went into the kitchen to make lunch. It felt strange to be home in the middle of a workday, stranger still to see his boss at the kitchen table, watching him spread peanut butter and jelly onto bread.

"What made you come this morning?" Beth asked, her eyes following him to the refrigerator.

He shrugged. "I dunno."

"Whatever it was, I'm glad you did." Beth smiled at him, and he felt his face grow warm. "You couldn't have known this, but I asked God to help me, and not ten minutes later, you showed up in my bathroom."

Matt chose not to see the irony, and mutely continued assembling sandwiches. God could send help in many forms, many ways, but he didn't see himself as one of those ways.

"I appreciate your not mentioning last night," Beth said, her voice lowering as though she didn't want Ryan to overhear. "I prefer to keep what happened private."

Matt turned, looked at her. "The only reason you're sitting in my kitchen, is because you scared the living daylights out of me."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"Sorry... that's good. Sorry is always good." Matt went back to the peanut butter. "I suppose the next time you want attention, you'll try it again." He dropped the spreading knife, and took a deep breath. "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. You couldn't have known I'd show up." He looked back at her, saw his regret mirrored in her face.

"I truly didn't, Matt."

"Yeah, I know." He picked up the knife, dipped it into the plastic jar. Neither one spoke as he placed a plate before her. He called Ryan, and five seconds later, the boy was seated at the table, ready to say grace.

Matt prayed out loud, only half aware of the words he spoke. When he momentarily raised his head, he saw Beth was watching him.

Knowing what had been going through her mind, only last night, burdened Matt with an unspeakable sadness. If a woman like Beth-- who had so much going for her-- thought about giving up, then Matt figured someone like him should've stopped fighting a long time ago. Might as well lay down and don't bother getting up, for there's nothing to hope for. You always suspected it in the past, and now you know it for a certainty. Great. He was beginning to think like her. Matt swallowed down a bite of sandwich, and realized his own vulnerability. He had to guard himself carefully around Beth.

After lunch was over, Ryan went to the living room to play while Matt made coffee.

"I'm not much for tea," Matt said, sliding a full mug over to Beth.

She gave a half-smile. "I noticed." She lifted the mug to her lips, blew, then took a careful sip. "Hot," she said, and returned it to the table.

"I'm not a counsellor or anything," Matt looked at her directly, hoping his words were making an impression. "I've never lost a spouse or a child, so I can't know what you're going through. But I do know a little something about giving up hope."

She looked at him, took another careful sip, and kept listening.

"In the past, I've treated life as though God had lost all mercy, and there wasn't any point in trying. I've reached bottom so many times..." he stopped, struggling to choose his words carefully. "It's no good thinking that no one cares, that there's no mercy in life. With that kind of thinking, I'd have offed myself long before now."

"Why didn't you?" Beth asked.

Matt prayed she wasn't mocking him, for it was difficult enough for him to sit there. It made him feel wide open and vulnerable.

He shrugged lightly, then berated himself for the casual gesture when they were talking about such a serious matter. "To give up hope, is to give up on God." Matt stared at his mug, watched the remaining froth gather around the edges. "God isn't done with me, and I'm not done with Him." He looked up at Beth, smiled weakly. "Does that make any sense?"

She remained quiet.

Sighing, Matt leaned back in his chair. "I guess it just boils down to believing what God says in His word. He promised He won't forsake us, and as long as I still have that hope, I'm not giving up. On life, or anything else."

Beth turned the mug in her hand. "Hope can be so fragile," she said quietly.

"That doesn't mean you shouldn't fight for it, Beth."

She looked up at him, and he saw a glimmer of resistance in her eyes. "I didn't say I wasn't going to fight."

"You didn't say you were, either." Matt finished off the last of his coffee. "Life isn't easy. I know you've lost more than I could possibly imagine, but you can't stop living just because you've decided you had enough. We all have to fight. You're not the only one who has to keep going even though they're hurting." Matt bit his tongue, wishing he had kept his mouth shut. Beth looked at him, anger and pity mingled into something he didn't care to name. He only knew she was feeling sorry for him-- for the trailer trash who admitted he was hurting. That's what he had said, wasn't it? Matt scrambled to recall the exact words, but they were jumbled in his own thoughts.

"Are you still hurting, Matt?"

"Don't make fun of me, Beth."

"I wasn't. I only wondered."

"You can stop wondering." He shoved aside the empty mug, stared at the worn kitchen linoleum. "I'm doing good enough. I'm not giving up on God, and as long as I keep remembering Him, everything will be all right." He hated himself for answering so honestly, and fought to keep from saying any more. "It helps to pray."

"You sound as if you know a lot about despair," Beth said thoughtfully.

"I'm trying to do you a favor, lady." He stared at her, wrestling to keep his embarrassment under control. There was no earthly way she was going to turn this into a conversation about him.

"I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, Matt. I didn't intend to."

"You didn't," he shrugged. Matt thought about it, and realized she had. "Sorry I snapped at you."

"I'm afraid I'm overstaying my welcome," Beth said, getting up from the chair. "If you could take me home, I'll make it worth your while. I'm afraid my wallet is at home."

"Keep your money." Matt swiped both mugs from off the table and dropped them into the sink. "Did I ask you for anything?"

"No, I suppose you didn't." Beth looked as though she regretted the offer. She stood there awkwardly, lost and uncomfortable as he washed and put away the coffee mugs. "Thank you for trying to help me, Matt. I really appreciate it."

He shrugged as he moved past Beth to go into the living room. "You helped me, so it's only fair I returned the favor."

She grabbed his arm, stopped him from leaving. "Did you come today, only because you felt you owed me?" She pensively waited for an answer.

"Maybe," he said.

She tightened her grip, and he swallowed hard.

"I don't know, Beth. I just don't know."

The hurt in her green eyes was apparent, but Matt couldn't do anything about it. He went into the living room, found Ryan had fallen asleep on the floor with a throw pillow from the sofa. What would he do if he didn't have any brothers or sister to look after? Matt didn't know. He only knew they gave him something to think about, besides his own problems. They needed a lot of love, and their love in return, along with God's care, kept him sane. Scooping up Ryan, Matt carried him into the boys' bedroom. When he returned, Beth was staring out the front window. She looked beautiful, with the light filtering through the faded curtains, her red hair curling in a wispy fringe around her face.

"I'll take you home now," Matt said, pulling car keys from his pants pocket. "I need to ask Mrs. Lott to keep an eye on Ryan. I'll just be a moment."

"Before you go," Beth said quickly, "thank you for letting me spend this day with you and Ryan."

His hand was on the door, and he knew he should leave, but his feet hesitated. "Would you promise me something, Beth?" He chanced another look at her. "Promise me you won't do anything drastic?"

She nodded in understanding. "I promise. And Matt--" she stopped short, gave him a smile. "Nothing. I'll wait for you."

"I'll only be a moment," he said, going outside with the keys in his right hand. A few steps from the house, he turned and looked at the window. He could see her there, watching him through the curtains. She waved to him in a friendly gesture, and he caught himself waving back.

God, cause her to fight, Matt thought as he went next door to find his neighbor. Cause her to hope.

"And the LORD... will be with thee, He will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed."
~ Deuteronomy 31:8 ~

"Uphold me [Matt] according unto Thy word, that I may live: and let me not be ashamed of my hope."
~ Psalm 119:116 ~

end of chapter
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