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the Storytellers' CollectionTales of Faraway Places
By Melody Carlson
Multnomah Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Multnomah Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Lesson in the Shells
* * *
Jerry B. Jenkins
I was on my way back to the United States after a trip to Irian Jaya to observe relief efforts after a 1976 earthquake. The jumbo jet landed on a runway that dominated a tiny South Sea island-one of those inexplicable stops neither for picking up nor dropping off passengers, or even taking on fuel. Airline personnel herded us under a wind- and sunfaded wood canopy where we sat on benches with our cameras and our fatigue. On three sides of us lay hundreds of yards of shell-strewn sand and the beauty of the endless sea. Behind us wound a few narrow streets squalor. Almost immediately, we were besieged by the island's bronzed children. They had long, jet black hair, dark eyes, and gleaming teeth. With their hands full of shells, they hard sold everyone.
"Dollar!" they would say, and when people looked shocked they laughed.
"Nickel!" they would then say, giggling.
Some people bought shells they could have picked up themselves only a few feet away.
"Don't do it," an older man said wearily. "These kids are supporting their parents' drug habits." I had been so used to declining the beggars of Irian Jaya that it was easy to turn away these little paupers. One boy started at a dollar and went to fifty cents, then a quarter, a dime, a nickel, and even a penny before he gave up. I didn't need or want any shells, and though I enjoyed him and smiled at him, I shook my head. He moved on to success with someone else.
At the edge of the tiny sales force stood a little girl with a face so radiant I can still see it two decades later. She couldn't have been more than five years old. When the rest moved on, she continued to stare at me, then she approached, her tiny hand crammed with three shells, each about the size of a golf ball. She smiled and held out her merchandise. I smiled and shook my head. That's when she said the word in her own tongue that I could not understand. I assumed she was saying "cheap," or "dollar," or "deal." I shook my head again and she reached closer.
She pleaded with me now, repeating the word over and over. How these kids had been trained to pull at heartstrings! Yet I would not be moved. I shook my head again and saw her tears form. Very well done, I thought. Almost worth a sale. But no, I was too sophisticated for that. She moved away, shoulders slumped and tears streaming. She squatted nearby and cried, not looking at me.
She had me; she had won. I pulled two dollars from my pocket and went to her. What was this? She wept even more, and now it was she who was shaking her head. And she repeated the word. Confused, I interrupted a missionary's kid involved in another conversation to ask her what the word meant.
"It means 'free,'" she said, turning back to her conversation. I was stunned. The little girl looked at me warily. I pulled my hands from my pockets and showed her my empty palms. Then I repeated the word as a question, and she beamed as she handed me the shells.
Chapter TwoSo Shine
* * * Terri Blackstock
It's been said that suicide is painless, but I say that whoever believes that has never tried it.
It's the most painful thing I've ever experienced, even more painful than when Butch, my husband, died two years ago. I thought I'd never get over that, and it, of course, is what led me to the suicide thing. But I'm getting ahead of myself now.
I'm not the melodramatic type. I didn't choose to do it on a Panama Canal cruise because of any theatrical element. I didn't much care that people back home would wag their tongues about my returning to the scene of Butch's death, right there in Guatemala, to end my own life. I guess curiosity just overwhelmed my need to make a clean exit. I wanted to see where he died, just get a glimpse of what he'd gone through when the tornado, spawned from a hurricane, had destroyed the building he was in. I wanted to picture it in my mind, not to end the pain I'd carried since his death, but just to bring closure to his life and mine. I had chosen to die in Puerto Quetzal, simply because that's where I'd be when I reached that closure.
But I never intended to go with a group of Christians. All I told the travel agent is that I wanted to travel cheap. Next thing I know, she's telling me I can get a group rate if I hook up with this single's group from Something-or-Other Church that just happens to be going on this Panama cruise. The rate was actually lower than the cost of flying to Guatemala on my own, so I jumped at it, emptying every penny of my meager savings account to purchase the ticket. I figured it wouldn't be so bad traveling with that group since I had no intentions of joining in their festivities anyway. But imagine my surprise when I unlocked my cabin door and found a roommate inside.
She was cute, in a church mouse sort of way, with big eyes that looked startled and a smile that ate up half of her face. "Hi!" she practically squealed when I came in. "I'm your roommate." She stuck out her hand. "Mitsy Carpenter. They told me you were new in the group and that you were from Chastain, and I grew up just down the road in Montclair, so I thought it would be fun. I'm a nurse at St. Francis Hospital. Oh, that's such a cute blouse. Where in the world did you get it?"
My life flashed before my eyes as I gaped at her. "Uh ... Sears, I think. I'm not supposed to have a roommate."
Her expression crashed. "No? Well, they told me this was my room. You are Sharon Jones, aren't you?"
Her smile snapped back across her face. "Well, then there's no mistake. We're roomies! Don't worry. I promise I won't get in your way. My hair is short so I don't have to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror, and I'm flexible on when to take showers and things, and I don't snore."
I just stood there, wondering how this could have happened. I imagined her wanting to stay up all night talking and trying on my clothes. I'd had visions of spending the time alone, writing a few letters to people who would feel betrayed at what I was about to do, thinking about my husband and how the pain would soon end. I wondered how I could get rid of her. I looked around. "No offense, but this place is just not big enough for two people."
"Sure it is. See? Two beds."
"But we can't breathe in here. Really, there must be an alternative."
"Actually, there's not," she said with a look of apology. "Every cabin on the ship is booked. Your only choice is to switch roommates, if you want. But I'd understand if you wanted to do that. Really, I'd be fine with that."
The catch in her voice suggested that the very thought of my switching could warp her for life. I dropped my bag on the bed and sank down next to it. I should have known. It never occurred to me to ask if I had a private room. I just assumed I did. But I had asked for a cheap trip, and the travel agent had given me one.
As Mitsy busied herself putting her things in the tiny closet and her drawer, I tried to run back over my options. I could get off the ship and find another way to get to Guatemala. Or I could forget my need for closure, and just end things back at home. The final option, of course, was to bite the bullet and stay. After all, how bad could it be? We'd be at Puerto Quetzal in just a couple of days, and then it would be over.
I glanced up and saw Mitsy looking at me with her eyebrows arched like a child persuading her mother to play Barbies. "Stay, Sharon, and I'll do my best to stay out of the room as much as possible. Mostly, I'll be with my other friends on deck. We'd love to have you join us. We have this great speaker who came with us, and he's going to be leading us in Bible study every night."
"Bible study?" I asked with disdain. "You came on a cruise to do a Bible study? Couldn't you have stayed at home and done that?"
"Well, most of us don't drink or gamble, and believe it or not, I love to study my Bible, especially with a teacher like this one." She pulled a dress out of her bag and slipped it on a hanger. "I've always wanted to take a class from him. It's like a dream come true for me. Why don't you come with me?"
I sat there, almost amused. "No, thanks. I don't think so."
Her disappointment was like a neon sign on her face. I hoped I wasn't that transparent. "You probably have other friends on board, huh?" she asked.
"Actually, I don't know a soul," I said, almost defiantly. I got up and unzipped my bag and irritably started unpacking it. She came near, as if to help.
"Are they bringing your suitcase up?"
"Nope," I said. "This is it."
Mitsy gaped at the duffel bag. "Boy, I wish I could travel that light. You don't look like you've got more than one or two days' worth of clothes."
"Actually, I don't. I'm only going as far as our first port."
"Really?" she asked. "They let you do that?"
"What can they do? I paid full fare. I can get off any place I want."
"Then you'll only be here for two days?"
"That's right." She watched as I pulled out two pairs of shorts, a couple of T-shirts, some rolled-up socks, and a framed picture of Butch.
"Oh, is that your boyfriend?" she asked.
I shot her a look that said her curiosity wasn't appreciated. What was her problem, anyway? I thought of grabbing the Bible off of the television set and thrusting it at her. Go take a class or something. Knock yourself out. "No, he's my husband," I said.
"Well ... why didn't he come with you?"
"Because he's dead." I knew the words sounded callous, and I didn't say it like that to shock her. But I just didn't have the patience for niceties. Not now.
"Oh!" she said, as if she'd just committed the biggest faux pas in history. The Manners Police would be banging the door down any minute now. "I'm so sorry!"
I looked up at her and saw that her eyes were full of tears. Was this woman for real? Tears for a man she didn't even know? Bizarre. I kept unpacking, unfolding and refolding the few things from my bag.
"How ... how long ago?"
"Six months," I said. To my surprise the words came easily, without that constricting of my throat or the stinging in my eyes.
She sank down onto my bed, as if we were slumber party pals. "You poor thing."
I didn't want to be thought of as a poor thing. "I'm fine," I said.
"So ... are you taking the cruise to get your mind off of things?"
She was nosy, as well as pushy-and I wanted her to go away. I pulled my stationery out of my bag, two changes of underwear, and the big ninety-day supply of my sleeping pills. "You might say that. We had been saving to take a cruise. So I decided to come ahead anyway."
"Good for you," she said. She wiped her tears. "Was he sick?"
"Nope." I opened the drawer and dropped my things in one at a time, with slow, deliberate movements, placing them carefully, as though their position was of grave importance. "He worked for the Associated Press. He was in Guatemala covering the hurricane, and a tornado leveled the building he was in."
"That's awful," she whispered again, as if the drama were unfolding right before her eyes. She looked at his picture as I set it up next to my bed. If I'd known I was going to have a roommate, I probably wouldn't have brought it. But I'd wanted to talk to him along the way. I'd wanted to believe he was on this journey with me, understanding and even encouraging.
I must have gotten that dark-tunnel look on my face because, before I knew it, she stood up and hugged me. My first thought was that she had a lot of nerve, hugging a person she'd never met before, acting like we were best buddies. I resented it and stiffened. But she didn't seem offended.
"My pastor ... he deals with grief all the time. People burying loved ones. If you want to talk to him, he's on the ship, too. I know he could help you get through this."
"I don't need help," I clipped. I zipped up my bag and stuck it under the bed. From the look on her face, you would have thought she was the one who'd lost a husband.
I picked up the bottle of pills, and tried to drop them into my purse. I must have been shaking, because my hand slipped and the bottle fell to the floor and rolled under my bed. I bent to reach for it, but in a second she was on her knees, reaching under the bed to catch it. "I got it," she said, then held it up to me.
I took it, hoping she had not seen the contents. But her face changed again. "Ambien," she said. "We give this to patients who have trouble sleeping."
I didn't say anything. I was beginning to feel violated.
"That's a big supply," she said. Her voice had hushed to a whisper, and I didn't look at her as I dropped the bottle into my purse. She knew, I thought. She was putting the pieces together, and she was figuring out my plan.
Suddenly, I had to get away from her. "Are you gonna be here a while?" I asked.
Her eyebrows arched hopefully. "Yeah, I guess so."
"Then I'll see you later." I grabbed my purse and started to the door, knowing I had probably hurt her feelings. But she seemed like the type who could get over it.
I bought some stationery in the gift shop because I didn't want to risk going back into the cabin and running into her. Then I found a quiet place on deck and started writing my letters as the boat moved down the coast of Mexico. I wrote to my mother and told her I loved her and that none of this was her fault. She often blamed herself for every negative thing that had occurred in my life. I told her that I simply saw a light at the end of all this darkness, and I was heading toward it. As I sealed the envelope, I hoped that would be a nice thought for her.
I needed to write my sister and Butch's mom and my father, whom I hadn't seen in years. But the letter to my mother had taken a lot out of me. I was glad I had two days to do the rest. I decided to walk around the ship, see what it was like, imagine what Butch and I would have been doing if life had gone differently. This cruise was obviously hosting passengers besides the church group, for the casino was alive with gamblers, drinks in hand, hovering around tables and hunched over slot machines. I glanced into the theater, and saw that a game of bingo was being called.
I passed little bars and cafés of all themes and a man playing guitar at the center of some tables, where couples sat nursing their margaritas. I imagined Butch pulling me to the small dance floor, spinning and dipping me as I laughed out loud. It had been a long time since I'd laughed. I turned and walked away until I could no longer hear the music.
Excerpted from the Storytellers' Collection by Melody Carlson Copyright © 2000 by Multnomah Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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