A Heart Restored

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by 

Deb Shirley

 

It was the eyes.  With just one quick glimpse, Rachel was captive. 

Oblivious to her stare, the man at the adjacent counter studied a bracelet dangling from the wrist of a twenty-something blonde.  The flirtatious sales clerk leaned across the glass case exposing her upper thigh to everyone behind her and, Rachel was certain, a lot more to those in front of her.  The girl placed her free hand on the man’s neck, drew him close, and whispered in his ear.  Lines of disapproval appeared on his forehead as he jerked from her grope and nodded toward a male salesclerk.  The women stiffened, waltzed across the floor, yanked the bracelet from her arm, and dropped it in the hand of the store manager. 

Rachel couldn’t help smiling as she witnessed the scene.  It was encouraging to know there were still some men that weren’t vulnerable to the enticement of youth and beauty.  Without intending to gape, her eyes remained fixed on the unsuspecting man.  There was a familiarity to the stranger’s movements.  She knew she should turn away, but something about him held her spellbound. 

Suddenly, the azure eyes rested on her.  The man smiled revealing crinkles at the edges of his memorable eyes.  Rachel’s heart pounded as a flush traveled up her neck and settled on her face.  She willed herself to run away, but her body would not move.  Locked in a silent exchange, her face glowed while her eyes darkened in fear.  Without warning, her knees gave way.  She clutched the counter for support as the man headed in her direction.  Terrified by his approach, she froze; her legs would not function. 

As the man rounded the corner of the display case, the sales manager intercepted him.  “Sir, you had a question about this bracelet?” he asked, waving the item in front of the man.

With reluctance, he tore his eyes from the woman.  “Uh … yes,” he stuttered as he removed the hat he wore and wiped his brow with the back of his hand.  “I … uh … I was wondering,” he stole one final glance at the flustered woman before turning his full attention to the salesman.

Rachel closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath.  She was certain that everyone could hear the pounding in her chest reverberating through the tiny shop.  Since the man was occupied with the sales manager, she used the distraction to make her escape.  Rushing through the open doorway, Rachel hoped the crashing of the surf would drown out the deafening sound of her heartbeat thumping wildly in her ears. 

What mystery behind the eyes had awakened her stagnant heart?  Why did her corpse betray her with feelings she had buried a long time ago?  For Rachel, life ended nine months earlier when the voice on the phone informed her that Richard was dead.  Two days later, she buried her heart with her husband.  Now, this strange man threatened to penetrate her deceased soul.  Racing to the safety of a nearby trolley, she leapt aboard and wrapped both hands around a brass pole as she watched the street behind her.  The man was nowhere in sight, but it was too late.  Something about him had seized her spirit plummeting her into uncharted territory.

**********

Michael seized the package from the sales clerk and ran from the store just as the trolley disappeared over a hill.  For several moments, he stood in the middle of the street dazed.  He had missed many opportunities in his life, but for reasons unbeknown to him, this one unnerved him.  The woman’s very essence screamed of pain and suffering. 

What was it about the injured soul that enchanted him?  Why did he have an overwhelming desire to comfort her?  He knew the features of her face; he had seen that look of anguish before ... but where?  Who was this mysterious victim and why was he pursuing her? 

Beep!  Beep! 

Startled by the noise, Michael turned to face an angry local shouting at him through the open window of the cab, “You stupid tourist.  Get out of the road!” 

Michael stared at the man as if he did not understand what he was saying.

Hoooonnnnnkkkkkk! 

This time the blast of the horn lingered in the air.  “Move!” the cabbie screamed as he swerved around the stricken man.

Michael lunged for the sidewalk barely escaping the front fender of the cab as the driver sped away.  He grabbed a nearby streetlight for support and fought to catch his breath.  It was not like him to be so impulsive.  He was not the type to chase a stranger through the streets, but something about this woman drew him to her beyond logic. 

“Who are you?” he muttered loud enough that a man turned to answer.

“Are you talking to me?” the elderly man inquired.

“Uh … no.  I’m sorry,” Michael stammered as he turned and headed up the street in the direction of the trolley’s path.  He didn’t know how, he wasn’t even sure why, but he had to find this woman.  Somehow, someway, he would find her.    

**********

The moment the trolley slowed, Rachel jumped from the rolling vehicle and dashed to the sanctuary of her stateroom.  Weary from her morning activities and the encounter with the man, the exhausted woman fell across the bed and drifted off to sleep. 

Within moments, she and Richard were hand-in-hand hiking the path of a dense rain forest.  A heavy mist soaked their face and hair.  They wound their way to the top of a hill and ventured onto a large rock overhanging the waters of the Caribbean .  With his arms enclosing her, she rested against his chest while they enjoyed the last rays of the sun setting on the horizon below them.  The moment the sky burst into color, her husband gently turned her to face him.  Staring into the golden eyes of her protector, Rachel felt safe; this man loved her and she had nothing to fear in his safe embrace.  Richard swept the flaxen bangs from her forehead and gently wiped the wetness from her cheeks.  As he leaned toward her, Rachel closed her eyes while her companion stroked the outline of her face before kissing her tenderly on the forehead.  After several breathless moments, she opened her eyes and struggled to focus in the dim light.  Suddenly, her view was immersed in an ocean of crystal blue.  The eyes piercing her soul were not those of her lover.  She fought to free herself from the one who invaded her dreams, but the blue-eyed intruder held her tight. 

With a jolt, Rachel shot up from the bed and rushed to the lavatory to splash cold water on her face.  She stared at herself in the mirror and chastised the reflection, “What is happening to you Rachel?  You don’t even know this man.” 

She reached for a hand towel and dried her face before pulling her damp, matted hair from the ponytail holder.  For several minutes, she studied the likeness of a woman she once knew.  The bags that hung under the bloodshot eyes accentuated sunken cheeks.  A face that had been rotund and filled with laughter a year earlier was now pale and void of life.  The hair, usually cut in a flattering style, hung in a tangled mass over sagging shoulders.  Had it been Halloween, she would have needed nothing more than a long, black dress to appear as a witch.  Rachel barely recognized the image staring back at her.

After flushing her eyes with Visine, she moved to the balcony and drew in a deep breath of salty air.  Her stomach growled.  Since it was after eight o’clock , she had missed her early dinner seating, so she returned to the room, sat on the edge of the bed, and reached for an apple perched on the nightstand.  The sudden movement offended her body.  She wished she could blame the ache in her neck and shoulders on the snorkeling adventure she took earlier that day, but she knew that more than likely the stranger was the one responsible for the tightness in her muscles.  She massaged her shoulders for several moments before returning to the red fruit.  As she munched on the snack, Rachel flipped through the pages of a ship brochure and contemplated her reason for being on the cruise. 

The vacation had been a birthday present from her parents.  They intended it as therapy for her shattered soul, but Rachel had spent most of the trip alone in her room or at the movie theater hidden in the darkness.  For the past six months, she had tried to convince them that her heart was beyond repair.  Once in a heated exchange with her mother, she had screamed at her, “Why can’t you understand?  I can’t get over losing Richard.  I won’t get over it!”  Later, she apologized for her outburst and her mom readily forgave her, but that’s when they began to pressure her to take the cruise and she reluctantly agreed.  It was her way of making amends for her bad behavior.

Rachel turned the page of the booklet to a layout of the ship and studied the Sun Deck.  All week, she had avoided the pool, but with the other passenger’s eating dinner, she decided a visit to the hot tub could help relax her aching muscles.  She changed into her swimsuit, threw on a cover-up, and grabbed a towel before heading to the elevator.  When the doors opened on the twelfth floor, she scanned the deck for people.  There was no one around.  Rushing to the tub, Rachel sank into the warm, bubbling water, closed her eyes, and inhaled a deep, cleansing breath.  Slowly, she released the air.  One, two, three, four, five, she counted while slowly exhaling the air in her lungs.  After the third round of the stress-release exercise, she felt relaxed.  She was certain the intruder would not find her in this secluded place. 

*********

Michael ate dinner silently as the others at his table rambled on and on about their escapades.  While they had spent the day cruising around the island on a party boat, he had trudged through the streets of Philipsburg searching for the mystery woman.

Clay interrupted his thoughts, “Did you find a gift for your mom?”

There was no response. 

“Earth to Michael!”  He pounded the table to get his attention. 

Michael glared at him.  “What?”

“Man, you must have had some day.  What did you do – find yourself one of those French chicks at Orient Beach ?” he laughed at the ridiculous picture of his religious friend on the clothing-optional shore.

“I think you know me better than that!” Michael snapped.

“Sorry!  I was just asking if you found a gift for your mom’s birthday.”

“Oh!  Yes, I did.  I bought her an emerald bracelet.  Mom has wanted one for years and, well, my Dad sure can’t afford it.”

Clay patted him on the shoulder, “You’re a good son, my friend.”

Michael smiled.  He recognized his friend’s condescending tone, but it didn’t bother him.  His parents had made many sacrifices to put him through medical school and, now that he was making decent money, he felt it an honor to be able to give them nice things.

“Listen,” Clay continued, “we’re meeting some girls from the party cruise at the Sky Club after dinner.  Why don’t you join us?”  He knew Michael would not go, but he didn’t want his pal to feel excluded.

“I think I’ll pass.  I’m pretty tired,” Michael lied.  What he really wanted was to be alone so he could develop his plan for locating the girl from the shop. 

“Okay man, if you’re sure.”  Clay waved his hand in front of the blank stare, “If you change your mind …”

Snapping from his trance, Michael responded as he rose to leave the table, “If I change my mind, I’ll see you later.  Okay?”  Without saying more, he turned and walked away.

Clay watched him depart.  They had been friends since high school and he knew Michael well enough to know when something was bothering him.  He recognized that look; it was a woman; he was certain of it.  “Here we go again,” he muttered under his breath.

Back in his stateroom, Michael changed into jogging pants and took the elevator to the thirteenth floor.  He had no desire to join his friend at the bar but hoped a run around Sky Deck would help clear his mind.  After completing four laps, he paused to catch his breath. 

Michael knew Clay suspected something.  They had been roommates in college and remained friends for the past ten years.  Most people were amazed that the two of them were so close.  They were complete opposites.  Clay was a party guy; Michael didn’t even drink.  Clay was a user who never took a relationship with a woman serious.  He dated the same girl for three years in college, but refused to marry her.  When she eventually gave up and announced her engagement to someone else, he laughed it off and moved on to the next unsuspecting victim. 

Michael, on the other hand, only dated women he thought he could marry one day.  As a Christian deeply committed to his faith, he remained a virgin even though he had previously been in three serious relationships.

Michael stared out at the darkness as he thought about the past.  He had dated Val six months before realizing that her career was her life.  When he told her he wanted to marry and have a family, she made a hasty exit.  Lana wanted a large family, but after a year, Michael discovered that she also wanted to live with her future husband to make sure they were compatible before marriage.  For him, living together was not an option, so he broke it off.  Then there was Julie.  She was the one.  She even looked like God’s answer to prayer – long auburn hair, dark blue eyes and, to top it off, she was an aerobics instructor with a sensational body.  They met at a Christian singles retreat.  Julie was involved in the ministry at her church and never missed the annual event.  Unfortunately, the previous summer Michael’s father had bypass surgery a week before the retreat and he stayed home while Julie attended without him.  They had been engaged for four months.  He thought she was committed to their relationship, but Julie returned from the weekend, broke their engagement, and married a missionary doctor six weeks later.  It had been almost a year and he still had not recovered from the devastating breakup.  Michael had never loved a woman as much as he loved Julie; he wasn’t sure he ever could. 

Then today, out of nowhere, this woman appeared.  He propped his arms on the railing and watched the moonbeams shimmering on top of the black ocean surface.  What is it about this girl?  I know that face.  But how? 

Michael convinced himself that the woman was on one of the other cruise ships.  There had been three ships anchored at St. Maarten that day.  In the distance, he observed the lights of the two other ships trailing behind them.  He imagined the woman standing on one of the decks, her tousled hair blowing in the breeze, and her wounded ebony eyes gazing into the night.  He didn't even know her name, but he felt he had known her for a lifetime.  As he leaned forward to stretch his legs before returning to his stateroom, Michael noticed the hot tub on the deck below.  That is exactly what I need.  Instead of waiting for the elevator, he sprinted for the stairs and jogged down the five flights to his floor eager to change clothes and return for a long, relaxing soak. 

**********

     With her muscles soothed by the rushing jets, Rachel opened her eyes and focused on the night sky.  Immediately, she spotted Pleiades.  As a young child, her father often packed the telescope in the van and drove the family to a field on the outskirts of Memphis to study the stars.  With the bright city lights in the distance behind them, he would point out the constellations and describe God’s method of hanging each star in a particular place in the sky and giving every single one a name.  He used this tool to teach his seven daughters about how much God loved them.  “Girls,” he’d whisper, almost in reverence, “if the God of the universe cares so much about the stars in the sky, just imagine how much more He cares about you.”  He always took special care in pointing out The Seven Sisters to the girls.  Over time, this cluster of stars became a symbol of the love the girls shared for each other. 

Unfortunately, since Richard’s death, Rachel felt more like the Lost Pleiad, Celaeno, than the mass of stars she was observing.  She missed spending time with her siblings and their families, but it was agonizing to be around them.  Their lives were whole; their homes were bulging with love.  She was a half-person in an empty house – no husband; no children; not even a dog.  Just her and walls that echoed with memories of what had been. 

Footsteps approaching the hot tub brought her back to the present.  She silently prayed whoever it was would pass by without stopping.  He didn’t. 

“How’s the bubbles tonight?” the man asked in a thick Southern drawl.

She ignored him.

“Hey,” he staggered toward her, “I’m not bothering you, am I?”

“Look,” Rachel responded meeting his glazed eyes with a glare, “nothing personal, but I really want to be alone.  Okay?” 

It was obvious that the beer the man held in his hand was not his first.  He dropped into a poolside chair at the edge of the tub.  “Oh, come on honey.  Me and my friend over there,” he motioned to a second man striding toward them, “we’re headed for the casino, and we need a good luck charm.  Come on out.  Go with us?”

“I’m sorry about this,” the sober man said as he approached.  “John Boy here has had a little too much to drink.”  The stranger extended his hand in her direction.  “My name is Clay.” 

“I’m Rachel,” she said, reluctantly shaking his hand.  “I was just telling your friend that I really would like to be alone tonight.”

“Are you sure?”  Clay prodded.  “There’s a lot of action in the casino.  It’ll take your mind off your troubles.” 

“I’m sure!” Rachel responded in a curt tone.  Not wishing to be rude, she softened her voice, “Besides, I have to get up early for church in the morning.”

Clay ran his hand through his thick bleached waves, “Church on Friday?”    

Rachel sighed.  “Tomorrow is Good Friday.  The cruise director has arranged a special service for the passengers at one of the Moravian churches on the island.”

“Oh!” Clay chuckled nervously, “I guess I could do with a little church myself.”  An uncomfortable pause hung in the air between them as his eyes shifted to a couple of sparsely clad women jogging by on the deck above them.  After several silent moments, he cleared his throat, “Well … uh … Rachel, you have a good night.” 

A loud snort erupted from the other man who had fallen asleep in the lounge chair. 

“Wake up, John Boy,” Clay barked, kicking the other man’s shoes.  “Get up!  The dice are calling my name.”  

He pulled the reluctant drunk from the chair, draped the man’s arm across his own shoulder, and supported him as they made their way toward the elevator.

Rachel watched cautiously until the doors closed behind the pair.  The first man had left her with an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.  She was grateful that Clay showed up when he did, because she wasn’t sure what the drunk would have done next. 

Clay seemed like a nice enough guy.  Rachel was certain with his rugged Robert Redford appearance that his belt was notched with many broken hearts.  Lucky for her, he was not at all her type.  Unlike the one from the morning who was exactly what she looked for in a man.  He was tall and muscular.  The white t-shirt he had been wearing emphasized his deep tan.  His coal black hair was barely visible under a New York Yankees’ baseball cap and he bore a thick five o’clock shadow.  Why can’t I get this guy out of my head?  Rachel, you have got to get a grip, she reprimanded herself. 

Not wishing to see anyone else, Rachel slipped from the tub, quickly dried off, threw on her cover-up, and pressed the down button for the elevator.  She glanced at the numbers above the doors.  According to the light, the elevator was stopped on the eighth floor.  While waiting, she glimpsed the reflection of the full moon dancing on the ocean surface.  The peaceful setting drew her to the side railing.  She closed her eyes and breathed in the salty ocean air as the gentle breeze cooled her sun burnt face.  Gazing into the darkness, she felt a calmness that had escaped her all week.  She could almost sense God wrapping His arms around her and soothing her aching heart.  The elevator doors opened behind her, but Rachel lingered in place to enjoy the rare tranquility.   

**********

     Michael exited the elevator and immediately scanned the hot tub.  He was relieved to see it empty and thankful that Clay had other plans tonight.  Without his prying questions, he could spend his time formulating a plan.  Swiftly, he immersed himself into the warm water, closed his eyes, and recalled the face of the woman. 

Her pale, freckled skin was bright pink, probably from over-exposure to the sun.  Her braided, damp ponytail hung to her waist and long bangs swept carelessly across her forehead with several twigs hanging in her eyes.  The hollow cheeks emphasized her solemn face; sadness enveloped her.     

Why did she run off when I smiled at her?  He had felt her watching him; something drew her to him.  Michael silently asked God to place her in his path, but with the cruise ending in two days, he wasn’t sure that God would answer his prayer.  Lord, I know I’m asking a lot, but this woman needs me.  I know that my reaction to her is not logical, but there is just something about her.  I don’t know what happened to cause so much pain, but You do.  Please … please just give me one more chance.

*********

     Quietly, Michael slipped into the back door.  He had intended to get up early, but after returning from the hot tub around midnight , he had been unable to sleep.  Every time he closed his eyes, visions of the woman appeared.  He was consumed with thoughts of finding her and could not turn his mind off long enough to fall asleep.  When he did drift off around three o’clock , the phone rang.  Some girl asked to speak to Clay and he informed her, rather impolitely, that she could probably find his friend in the casino.  The remainder of the night was spent fighting with the covers as he tossed about in the tiny bed.  When the alarm woke him at seven, he slapped the snooze button and drifted back to sleep.  The third time the alarm sounded, he untangled his legs from the bedspread and forced himself to a sitting position.  He needed a long, hot shower, but since he had overslept, he had to limit his time to a record five minutes in order to make the service.  He arrived at the church with wet hair and a two-day growth of black stubble concealing the handsome features of his face.  He felt every bit as rough as he looked.

As he entered the building, the congregation was finishing the final stanza of Amazing Grace.  Michael slid into an empty spot on the back row and joined in singing, “We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”  

The pastor stood and asked everyone to sit.  As he settled into the pew, Michael quickly prayed again for God to intervene in helping him find the woman.  His ship would be returning to San Juan the following day for debarkation.  He had hoped to see other ships in the Antigua harbor, but his had been the only one.  Michael was growing desperate for God to answer his prayer. 

As the pastor spoke, his mind wandered.  To try to break the obsessive hold the woman had on him, Michael surveyed the humble surroundings of the small church.  Antigua had been devastated by Hurricane Jose in 1999.  Many homes were destroyed and lives lost, yet this church, perched on a high point , appeared unaffected.  Apparently, the wooden shutters protecting every window and door had been successful in defending the interior from the high winds.  The stone building seemed to have survived the storm with little or no damage – unlike the woman. 

Lord, what storm in her life caused so much pain?  A burning desire consumed Michael.  He had to know what happened to her; he had to find her.  How?  He had exhausted every plan without formulating one that was anywhere near practical.  He thought about bribing the cruise directors on all the ships that had been docked at St. Maarten, but with privacy matters being what they are, he knew that plan would never work.  He considered hiring a private investigator, but he couldn’t begin to tell him where to start looking.  He contemplated returning to St. Maarten and doing a thorough search, but that seemed like a dead end.  Nothing he came up with seemed even close to being rational, so once again, he resorted to prayer.  Lord, please help me find her. 

*********

     As the other worshippers bowed their heads for the closing prayer, Rachel quietly slipped through the side door of the chapel.  A large banana tree stood at the edge of a cemetery overlooking the island.  It was a perfect place to hide from the crowd and write in her journal.  She settled on a soft spot of earth just as the service ended and the other worshippers headed down the hill for the festivities on the beach. 

After finishing her lunch, she turned to a blank page of her journal and began to write.  Friday – March 21.  This vacation finally ends tomorrow.  I can’t wait to go home.  I’m safe…  A large drop of water blurred the words on the page.  Rachel glanced at the threatening sky before returning to her diary.  I’m safe from the stranger, she continued.  Another drop fell on her words, followed by another, and then another.  With no further warning, the heavens opened.  She quickly stuffed her belongings into her shoulder bag and raced for the church as the rain pelted her face.  Rachel ran the length of the muddy path holding the leather case over her head.  As she neared the stone staircase leading to the side door, her shoes hit a slick patch of grass and both feet flew out from under her.  Midair, she caught sight of a man rounding the back corner of the church.  He was running toward her when her head struck the ground and everything went black.

*********

     The man carried the lifeless form into the building.  Cradling her neck gently with one hand, he rubbed the back of her head with his other searching for blood.  He breathed a sigh of relief that she wasn’t bleeding even though he did discover a large lump.  He lifted the long braid from her shoulder and placed it under her as he lowered her head onto the muddy mass of hair.  Using the hem of his soaked t-shirt, he wiped the grime from her damp, freckled face.  He untangled the leather strap from her arm and placed the black bag on the floor beside her.  When he did, he noticed a silver inscription on the front – Rachel Jones Anderson. 

Rachel Jones!  That’s it!  You’re Rachel Jones!

Memories flooded his mind.  He tenderly spoke to the unconscious woman, “Rachel.  Rachel, wake up.”  He patted her face as he beckoned, “Come on, sweetie.  Open your eyes.”

Rachel could hear a familiar voice calling her name.  She had fallen off the swing in Maria’s backyard.

“Rachel!” 

The frightened voice grew impatient.

“Wake up.” 

She tried to open her eyes.  She needed to let him know that she was okay.  He thought he was responsible.  After all, he had been pushing her.  He knew it was too high, but the little girl wanted to touch the sky.  Her mind raced.  She needed to open her eyes and tell him it wasn’t his fault.  She wanted to wake up and wrap her arms around his neck and never let go.  Rachel wondered if Maria’s older brother knew how she felt about him.  She was only twelve, but she loved Michael Bradley with all her heart. 

“Rachel!  Come on, honey.  You’re scaring me now.”  As a doctor, he knew the dangers of a concussion if the patient was knocked out for too long.  He patted her on the cheek.  He patted her again, harder.  “Wake up!” 

A slap stung her face.  Her eyes popped opened.

“Michael?”

“Welcome back!”  Huge dimples appeared on his cheeks as he pulled the woman into a tight embrace and held her for several breathless moments.  “You’re okay now.  I’ve got you,” he whispered. 

She coughed as she struggled to catch her breath. 

He gently returned her to the floor and stared into her eyes.  “You are okay, aren’t you?” 

The blue eyes of the boy were filled with concern.

“It’s not your fault,” she explained.  “I shouldn’t have made you push me so high.  I should have held on to the rope tighter.”

“Rachi,” he chuckled, using the pet name he gave her as a child, “sweetie, you didn’t fall off the swing this time.”  Michael stroked the lines of her face as he clarified, “You just fell.”

Rachel beamed.  She had fallen.  She had fallen for the man belonging to the azure eyes, but they weren’t the eyes of a stranger.  They belonged to her friend – her hero – her first love.     

“Michael?”

“Yes?”

“Did my mother send you?”

Michael smiled, “No, honey.  God did.”

“Oh!” 

Rachel batted her eyelids as Michael brushed the drenched bangs from her eyes.  When he lowered his face to hers, she closed her eyes and savored every second of the lingering, tender kiss he planted on her forehead. 

 

Contact Information

Please feel free to contact me via email or mail

Deb Shirley

12467 McMath Trail

McCalla, AL  35111

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