Sunday, March 29, 2015

Connected in Love: Chapter Two

Chapter 2
Curt and Cammie Bentley

The two-hour drive to the shore always proved stressful for Cammie Bentley because she sat in the confined space of the front seat with her husband, Curt. I won’t let him bully me this time.
The Knecht Branch Primary CD filled the car with music. “Mommy, I wanna’ listen to ‘Follow the Prophet,’” eight-year-old Julie called from the back seat.
Cammie forwarded the CD to the song. “This is a fun one, isn't it?” she asked her kids. As Primary First Counselor in the branch, Cammie helped the music director make the CDs so the children could learn the songs for the upcoming sacrament meeting presentation.  Five-year-old Will and three-year-old Ellie got a little rambunctious and sang at the top of their lungs during the chorus.
“Hey, can you keep it down back there?” Curt called to his children. He turned to Cammie. “This song is really annoying,” he said and gave her a stern look. “Find something else.”
“Curt, they have to practice this for the presentation,” Cammie said. “And they’re having so much fun. They’re only singing three verses. It’ll be over in a minute.” She turned around and smiled at the kids, but turned back to see Curt’s profile, his furrowed brow, his tightened lips. This is going to be a long ride. Cammie thought of her own father.  He was the first one to start singing on family tripsand sang the loudest of us all.
Curt's irritation manifested in his driving as he tailgated a white Dodge pickup truck.
“I think you need to slow down a little,” Cammie said, white knuckling the seat with one hand and the arm rest on the front door with the other. Is he punishing me for not turning the music off?
“I told you before I’m a safe driver. I haven’t had an accident in almost fifteen years—and I drive for a living, so settle down,” he said, then tried to pry her hand from the seat. He looked over and laughed at her. “You’re such a baby.”
Not even able to see the truck’s license plate, Cammie begged her husband, “Curt, please, you can drive however you want when you’re by yourself, but please, the kids are in the car.”
“Don’t start!” he yelled and glared at her. “You can’t even last one hour without criticizing me, can you?”
The green signs on the expressway blurred by. Cammie couldn’t take her eyes off the truck in front of them. What if that truck stops abruptly? There’s not enough room between us to react! She glanced at the speedometer. We’re going eighty-miles-an-hour! Her stomach lurched, but she closed her eyes and subdued the sick feeling, as usual, and prayed hard. Only my prayers are going to get us there safely. She prayed mightily. I have faith. We’ll get there safely
Glad the music drowned out her pleas so the children didn’t hear, she stared ahead, terrified, thinking about all the other times she’d driven long distances with her husband. She thought of their honeymoon drive back to BYU-Idaho from the east. She didn’t realize until then she had married an aggressive driver. He had been loving, solicitous. She told her roommates he was her knight in shining armor.
Her mind skittered back and forth from all the past instances of road rage, one after the other, seemingly in an instant. That honeymoon drive, ten years ago, became Cammie’s introduction to Curt’s erratic behavior. Not wanting to believe he was anything but the caring, charismatic man he portrayed while courting, she made excuses for him, and kept everything down deep within her psyche. 

          Ten years ago, after changing a flat tire in Wyoming, and on the road again to Idaho, Curt portrayed another side Cammie had never seen while dating. She'd written off Curt's beastly behavior as being tired from steering the car through the mountain passes, but still, he had only harsh words for her—words and accusations she had never heard him utter to her.
A few minutes passed by after hurtful language was exchanged. Curt took her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. He looked at Cammie and smiled. “I will never talk to you like that again.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. “I don’t know what got into me.”
Cammie smiled, smitten. "He loves me," she had said to herself, giddy. She sighed, relieved, and settled back to try to take a nap, forcing her shoulders to relax. Something inside of her wanted to stay awake. He was speeding, and very close to cars they happened upon—like he was strong-arming them over to the right lane. Though cars were few and far between, he would speed up in the left lane until he met the next car, rode on its rear until it, too, pulled over.
Cammie had gripped the arm rest. “Uh, Curt, would you slow down a little?” she asked her new husband. “This is a dangerous road.”
He just patted her arm, pried her hand from the seat, and said, “Don’t worry about it” and dismissed the conversation.
Cammie sat like a statue, speechless, her eyes bugged open. “Curt. Please?”
Curt softened. “Okay. There. I’m slowing down.” He patted her hand and laughed at her.

Cammie pulled herself back from the past, broke her stare and blinked her eyes. Curt had just forced the white truck to the right lane of the expressway, and he now sped up in the left, as if stalking his next prey. Her shoulders didn’t relax. She knew there would be other vehicles to pursue before they hit the shore.
Ellie cried from the back seat, “Will bit my hand!” Big tears fell down her fat cheeks as she howled.
“Did not,” Will yelled.
“Did, too,” Julie said, not looking up from her book.
“Did not!”
Ellie’s cries pierced the banter and all three sounded like a symphony tuning up their instruments in chaotic cacophony.
Curt yelled, “Look, young man, there will be no beach for you if you don’t settle down back there. ”
Cammie grabbed Curt’s arm gently. She whispered, “Please don’t make any threats you don’t intend to keep.”
“And yet another thing you harp at me about. You can’t back me up on anything,” Curt said, ripping his arm from her grip. 
I will never back you up when you’re mean to our children.
“You’re too easy on him. He’s got to learn,” Curt continued.
But not by depriving him of something we’re driving all this way to enjoy
“You’re always babying him.”
Cammie turned her upper body around and reached for Ellie’s hand to examine it for bite marks, but saw none. Curt’s yelling only exacerbated her bawling, and Ellie’s cries intensified Curt’s moodiness. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Julie, nose in her book, but with a worried, wrinkled brow.
“Will, honey, tell Ellie you’re sorry and give her hand a kiss,” Cammie persuaded him, touching his knee.
“Okay, Mommy,” Will too eagerly agreed, and smiled a devilish grin. He grabbed Ellie’s hand and pretended he was going to bite it again. Ellie let out a little scream. Cammie squeezed his knee. He laughed. Instead, he kissed Ellie’s hand. Sing-songy, he said, “I’m sorry, Ellie. I won’t do it again,” rocking his head from shoulder to shoulder.
A chill crept up Cammie’s spine.
“Am I going to the beach now, Mommy?” Will asked, looking proud of himself.
Cammie, feeling queasy again, turned around in her seat and stole a glance at her husband. “Yes, honey,” she whispered.

When they reached Curt’s parents house, Cammie and Curt unloaded the car of suitcases and other necessities. They already had their swim suits on so they could go directly to the beach, about five miles away. The kids were happy to see their doting grandparents, and impatient about going to the beach and boardwalk
Cammie was excited to be there, too. If only I could bypass the ride.
Curt’s parents accompanied them to the beach and they spent the day in the waves, and the evening on the boardwalk, riding the rides, and eating childhood comfort food—pizza, Italian water ice, funnel cake. September was a perfect month to visit the Jersey shore. The beaches weren’t crowded and the water wasn’t too cold, thanks to the current Indian Summer, and discounts at the stores on the boardwalk were hard to beat.
Saturday, on the beach, Cammie watched the kids interact with the other adults. Ellie squealed as Curt lifted her up to jump the waves. Will and his grandpa built sand castles. Julie sat under the umbrella reading her book, wrapped in a towel, next to her grandmother, also reading.
Cammie wrapped a beach towel around her waist and picked up Julie’s small bucket. “I’ll be back,” she called and waved to the group and stole away for a long walk along the water’s edge. She walked blocks and blocks past numerous life guard stands, scantily clad sunbathers, and families with ice chests filled with cold beer and sandwiches.
The foamy water inched up around her toes, then receded, her feet leaving impressions in the wet sand.  She stepped over breathing holes for the sand crabs, globs of stranded, transparent jellyfish, and multitudes of blue, pink and white sea shells, picked over by the sea gulls. She leaned down to sift through them.  I can hardly find any shells in one piece to put in this bucket.
The afternoon sun cast a long shadow of her body over the shoreline. I better start back. Curt will be mad if I’m gone too long. She turned around and, squinting, lifted her sunglasses to the top of her head, enjoying the warmth of the healing sun. The repetition of the waves, the soothing sounds of the surf, and the eerie, shrieking cries of the gulls lulled her body into harmony with the peaceful world of nature. 
I don’t want to go back. She dropped her towel, sunglasses, and bucket in the sand, kicked at the surf, then entered in up to her knees, shivering. The waves crashed a few yards before her, taunting her to approach.
As she grew used to the chilly water temperature, she inched a little farther, turned around and fought the breakers with her back but they shoved her forward toward the sand. She turned again and dove into the rumbling waves and surfaced waist-deep on the other side of the shifting tide. Wrestling with the current, she tiptoed out until the water came up to her chest, her body lifted by the ocean undulating around her, the sun gleaming off of its external, circulating wake.
Lying back, she floated, closing her eyes, breathing the clean, ocean breeze, inflating her lungs with salt air. She exhaled slowly and fully, hoping the exhalation washed away the toxins in her body. The depression that found her after excessive arguments with her husband always left her emotionally exhausted.
She lay, on top of the water, bobbing to its whim, drifting, and wanting to cry and scream at the top of her lungs. Instead, the lifeguard’s whistle, beckoning her back to safety, broke her reverie. She turned and swam  riding the waves to shore. Getting up slowly from the water, she strolled back to her towel and plastic bucket, water dripping from her hair and body. She wrapped her torso in the towel, hoping the strong sun would soon quell the goose bumps.
Walking back, she concentrated on finding some pretty shells for Julie’s collection, as if that deliberate focus would relieve her mind of the gnawing burden it carried perpetually, rushing to remembrance like the waves crashing to shore, over and over and over.

Back at the elder Bentley’s house Saturday evening, dinner was eaten with gusto. “This is all so delicious, Mom,” Cammie praised her mother-in-law. “You went to so much trouble.” She marveled that Curt’s mom fixed an enormous ham dinner for them before they hit the road again.
Cammie wanted so much to feel a part of Curt’s family. She especially wanted a closeness with Curt’s mother, but there was always a feeling she got, an impasse, like his mother put the brakes on any real relationship. I always feel like a house guest rather than a daughter.
Cammie wished she could win her over, but was never able to accomplish that feat, even though they lived with Curt’s parents the first year after his graduation from college.
“I made chocolate cake with chocolate icing,” Curt’s mother said, coming from the kitchen holding the crystal plate with the delectable dessert to show everyone.
When did she have time to do that?
“Yum!” Will said and rubbed his tummy. “Gramma, you’re the best!”
She sat down,  cut pieces of cake and passed them around. She looked at Cammie and smiled. “I know it’s your favorite,” she said as she handed Cammie a piece.
She made it for me? Maybe she’s coming around. Cammie flashed her a brilliant smile in gratitude.
Curt hijacked the plate before Cammie could reach for it. “Cammie’s trying to lose weight,” Curt said and put the plate in front of Will. “I’ll share a little of my piece with her.” He smiled at his mom and put his arm around the back of Cammie’s chair.
Cammie could feel her face flush with embarrassment. Curt’s mother frowned. 
“Curt, your mother went to all this trouble,” Cammie said as she wrangled the next plate from her husband’s grasp, squinting her eyes at him in irritation. She made this for me. I’m eating it.
He shot her a quick look as if to say it was another way for her to defy him. He took a big chunk of her cake and put it on his own plate. He laughed, acting like he was only teasing her. The whole family laughed. But Cammie knew he meant it. He had to look good in front of his parents—at her expense. He did that in church, too, though Cammie was glad he could at least be civil in public. It was her only reprieve from his mistreatment.
On the way home Saturday night, driving was more of the same as on the trip down—tailgating, speeding, yelling. The accusations blindsided her. She had hoped for a quiet ride home in the dark, with no interaction.
“Did you see my mother’s house? Why can’t you keep our house neat like that?”
“We have three kids. And don’t you think she might have cleaned up just a little knowing she was having company?” Of course she did. We used to live there.
“No, her house is always neat. Our house is like a rat’s nest.” Curt wouldn’t let up. Luckily the kids slept in the back.
“You’re comparing apples to oranges,” Cammie whispered, trying to keep the voice level down. “There are only two people living in a four-bedroom, two-story house. We have five people in a tiny rancher— ”
“Oh, so now you need a bigger house?”
“That’s not what I mean. No. I love our house. I mean, they live in a huge place. They’ve got plenty of room to spread out. Did you see your mother’s craft room? That’s not so neat.  And I had to clean the guest bathroom when we first got there.”
“Hey, she’s not as young as she used to be.”
“I know. And they never use that bathroom. I get it. And I didn’t mind doing it.” Cammie knew he wouldn’t stop, but she slid in her final comment. “You’re the one who brought it up,” she whispered, then tightened her shoulders, prepared for the flak.
“Don’t start!”
That short sentence usually ended her side of their “conversations.” Cammie could feel Curt fuming. She swallowed and fretted, knowing he wouldn’t stop. Her back seized up and she felt her fibromyalgia symptoms coming on with a vengeanceachiness, fatigue, misery.
I hate being in a car with him. She couldn’t escape and hide in the bathroom as usual. Whenever I defend myself, he tells me I’m starting something. It’s a vicious circle. I’m just so tired of it
She slid down in her seat and closed her eyes, rolling her head from one side to the other, trying to get the kinks out of her neck from the tension.
Curt continued his diatribe, but Cammie stopped listening as she went back in time in her mind on an endless loop of his angry outbursts. It happened every time Curt belittled, accused, or criticized her, turning every argument into her fault. She felt like she was sinking, or drowning, and knew it was hopeless to keep defending herself. He ranted on and she hoped he wouldn’t wake the kids.
She turned her face to the passenger window of the car. Her sad reflection peered back at her in the dark, lighted only by the headlights of oncoming traffic. But her mind went beyond the car window. It was coming on again—that overwhelming, discouraging feeling. He would keep on with his tirade, whether she listened or not. Sometimes he would pull over and get right in her face, pinning her head pinned to the window. She could not please her husband, no matter what she did, and she didn’t want to live like this anymore. 
If I’m as bad as Curt says I am, why bother going on? A  lone tear made its way from the corner of her eye. She kept her face turned away so Curt wouldn’t see her tears.
A few years ago she had made an appointment with the former ward bishop. Cammie had cried as she told her story about Curt’s anger. “Will you please have a talk with him? Maybe his job is too stressful,” she had asked the bishop as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Maybe he just needs someone to talk to.”
The bishop said he would talk to Curt. She didn’t know if he ever did. Curt didn’t change one iota. Cammie had sunk into a deep depression then. It was right before she got pregnant with Will, sealing her fate.
Cammie looked at the clock on the dashboard. She knew there was at least another half-hour of criticism to go and noticed he changed the topic to her weight, admonishing her for eating the cake. The doctor told me not to lose any more weight. Curt won’t listen to reason.

It was almost ten o’clock when they arrived back in Tarrytown. Curt carried the sleeping children into the house one by one and put them in their beds. Cammie had them in their pajamas for the ride home hoping this would be the scenario. He insisted on carrying in all the gear by himself, making it seem as if he always does all the work.
She made herself scarce in the basement play room, pretending there was something that needed to be accomplished down there. She hoped she would not have to talk to or hear from Curt.
She wandered into Curt’s office, just off of the playroom. His laptop sat in the middle of the neat, uncluttered desktop, and a printer was positioned on one of the file cabinets. A sterile environment, just as he likes. No external stimulation from family photographs hanging on the wall, or book shelves. He barely reads anyway. He’s too hyper for that.
Cammie heard him upstairs traipsing back and forth from the car to the house. His loud stomping, enough to wake the dead, thankfully, didn’t wake the children. Please let him be so tired that he goes right to bed.
He was. He did. No more words exchanged.
Cammie stayed up late, slumping down on one of the small bean bag chairs in the kids’ play room, tears following a familiar path down her cheeks until long after midnight.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Connected in Love" First Chapter (teaser)

This is my First Place First Chapter Contest Award Winning
Chapter One 

     Mary Donohue wanted to slam down her new smartphone on the kitchen counter, but stopped herself at the last instant and yelled instead. “I can’t believe this!” She shook an oven-mitted fist. “What is President Alderfer thinking? I can’t do that calling.”

     The tinny sound of the oven buzzer annoyed her further. She smacked it off, opened the oven door and lifted a cookie sheet off the rack. With her other hand, she pressed a phone number her teenage daughter Becky had inserted into her “favorites.” She inhaled deeply the aroma of melted chocolate chips, but it didn’t calm her down.

    “I don’t care if she is the new Relief Society president. She’s supposed to be my best friend. I’m going to give her a piece of my—”


     Mary charged in. “How could you do this to me?” she demanded of Salty Webber on the other end of the line. She clunked the second cookie tray on the stove grates. “You, of all people, know how I am. There’s no way I can do that calling. It’s the hardest one in the whole Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

     Seeming unfazed by Mary’s whining, Salty held her ground. “You’re the most compassionate person I know. And I’m just happy President Alderfer even let me have a compassionate service leader considering how small the branch is.”

     “But you know I’m. . . I’m attention-challenged—and bossy—”

     “And compassionate. . .”

    “I’m judgmental—”

     “And compassionate—and stubborn,” Salty added quickly. 

    Mary blew a raspberry at the phone.

 “You’re already the first one on the scene when we have new move-ins or investigators—you and your brownies or cookies or homemade bread. You’re probably baking something right now, if I know you—did I just hear you slam the oven door?”


    “You’re smart, and caring, and you know the scriptures backwards and forwards. That will surely comfort people who need to hear the gospel during their trials.”

     “Plus, you’re working on that amazing social work degree and know exactly what to do in sticky situations. You’ve got experience, friend.”


   “No buts."

   “Let me get a word in!” Mary demanded. “First of all, baking is hobby. And visiting people on Sundays is a family thing we do. Second of all, I’m a book worm. I like to read. But I can’t quote scriptures. Third of all—”

   “I’m sorry. Would you rather have been called as Relief Society President instead of me?” Salty asked. “Hmmm?”

    Mary could picture Salty standing with her arms folded, tapping her tiny foot against the floor.

    “And besides, it wasn’t President Alderfer who called you to this and you know it.”

    “Oh, please,” Mary said, removing the mitt and slapping it on the counter as if challenging Salty to a duel.


    “Oh, you know I’m joking.” Mary sulked, then whined, “This is one of the hardest callings, especially in this branch.” She recalled all those who got up on Testimony Sunday—job loss, cancer treatments, mental illness, divorce and all other kinds of ailments and handicaps. “And our branch boundaries are at least forty-five minutes from one end to the other. Plus the driving from one county to the next, from one township to the next borough, to a far village—to the middle of scenic nowhere. . .”

   “Again, I say, would you have rather—”

    “No. No. I’m sorry,” Mary said, deflating from her rant. She walked to the kitchen table and plopped down on a chair. “I should be consoling you, and here I am throwing a pity party for myself. See? I’m selfish, too, and not very sympathetic, apparently.”

      Mary got up from the table and looked out the bay window. Her cock-a-poo ran around the big maple tree and through a row of forsythia bushes, his little nose sniffing the ground.

    “You know you can say whatever you want to me. I’m your best friend,” Salty said. “Go ahead. Get it all out. I’m next.”


    “You didn’t even notice I don’t have a secretary. I chose to have a compassionate service leader instead.”

     Mary barely listened as she watched Fluffy chase a squirrel, but forced herself to focus. “You’re right. I’m glad I didn't get your calling. I guess I ought to be thankful for small blessings. Well, not that small. . .” her voice trailed off.

      Her friend was called only last week as Relief Society president. Mary thought she’d dodged the proverbial bullet when Salty didn’t pick her as one of her counselors. Now the bullet ricocheted right into her lap.

    “You didn't even notice my triumph,” Salty said. “Pat Wallace didn't have a Compassionate Service leader when she was Relief Society president.”

    “That’s because she is the most compassionate person in the branch. She didn’t need one. Her kids are all grown and she’s retired. Why don’t you pick her? Oh, that’s right, it wasn’t you,” Mary taunted and looked cross-eyed at the phone.

    “Mary,” Salty scolded, giggling a little.

      “And now you can add ‘irreverent’ to my long list of immature attitudes.” Huffing out a sigh, she changed the subject. “Forgive me again. What I really meant to ask was . . . how’s it going, new president?”

    Mary stepped to the counter and grabbed a cookie. She put it up to her nose, closed her eyes and took a long whiff before taking a bite.

      “I think it’s going very well. I know the Lord gave me two good counselors, that’s for sure. Kyoung-mi Cole is one of the most spiritual women in the branch. And she’s so humble. And Nancy Kessler—with all her experience in administration at the nursing home, I really don’t need a secretary.”

     Mary took another bite of the cookie and added, “And Nancy will be good because there aren’t many women over fifty in our branch. And now that Pat isn’t president, she’ll be snagged by the stake, so we need that motherly feel for the younger sisters.” She paused, chewed, then teased, “Oh, wait. . . that’s right, you’re the new president, so we won’t have to worry about that.”

    “Watch it,” Salty warned.

    “Your big five-o is on the horizon,” Mary joked, sing-songy. She licked the chocolate off her fingers.

     “It’s not on the horizon. It’s way up the hill,” Salty said. “I’m still climbing the hill,” she mimicked gasping, as if over-exerted. “It’s not until next year. And besides, you’re almost there, too.”

    “I am not. I’ve got a good five years before I reach that milestone. You are way older than me, girlfriend—and it’s almost next year.”

     “Stop mocking me.”

     “Just because I have a gray streak in my hair like Cruella De Vil—”

     “Oh, psh. You can’t even see it—”

     “And you’ve got that towheaded blonde hair that doesn’t show gray—”

     “Why, thank you. Are you done now?”

      Mary could picture Salty tapping her foot again so she walked back to sit at the table and put her feet up on another chair.

     “I can’t believe President Alderfer called you so soon,” Salty said. “I just spoke to him last night. I thought he’d wait until Mutual night tomorrow.”

    “Yeah. He called me all right—from the airport. I didn’t know bankers traveled. He won’t be home until late Saturday night and he wanted me to stand up this Sunday, but—”

     “Great! I’m so happy. Of course, I can’t really talk to you about anything yet, until you’re sustained. . .”

     “Salty. . .”


     Mary blew out a sigh, but caved. She could only say, “You’re going to be the best Relief Society president the Knecht branch ever had. And I mean that.”

   “Well, considering the branch has only had one other Relief Society president, thanks. . . I think,” Salty said.

    “That didn’t come out right,” Mary back-pedaled. “See? I put my foot in my mouth all the time. I meant to be sincere. I really think you’ll be the best.” Mary ambled over to the kitchen and turned off the oven. “See, I can’t even remember to turn the oven off. I’m hopeless.”

    “Ah-ha! You are baking something!”

    Mary sighed. “It’s just . . . I think this is a terrible mistake. My A. D. D. will hinder me. I’ll get lost when I drive from town to town.”

    “You have a smartphone now that can give you directions. And it’s not like this isn’t in your comfort zone. You’ve been doing it all along. You’ve just never had a formal calling to do it. Think Scarecrow.”


    “Yeah. He always had a brain. The Tin Man always had a heart. They just didn't know it. You know what I mean.”

     “So, you don’t sound the least bit nervous—”

    “I’m out of my mind and shaking like a leaf inside,” Salty said with a shivery voice. “But Jim gave me a blessing and after that, I just knuckled down.”

      Mary admired her friend. Thank goodness Jim’s a supportive husband, and Chloe’s a wonderful daughter. Mary looked outside her window again and chuckled as she saw several squirrels gang up on Fluffy by the pin oak trees. He barked and whirled around as they jumped from tree to tree, acorns falling all around the dog.

   “Mary? Mary, did you hear me?” Salty asked.

     Mary shook her thoughts back to the conversation. “Wha-? What?” she asked.

    Salty laughed and started singing, “Hummingbird, don’t fly away, fly away. . .”

    “Very funny,” Mary said, though she had to agree. Her mind flitted from one subject to the next like a hummingbird pausing for nectar, then flashed to the next flower. Salty always kept up with Mary’s random contemplation, guiding her thoughts like a string tethering a kite, gently tugging her and keeping her on course. I feel like I want to fly away right now.

     “Hyper-verbal” was the phrase in one of Mary’s psychology text books that explained Salty’s non-stop dialogues. We teach each other patience, I guess. She reels me in when I lose my train of thought, and I wait for her to stop talking . . .

     “I was saying, I really wanted you as a counselor. I prayed and prayed about it. I kept coming up with compassionate service. I know—I mean, I really know—this is what you’re supposed to do. In fact, I’m considering you my third counselor.”

      Lovely. . . Mary pinched her eyes closed and wrinkled her nose.

     “After speaking with Pat, you know, changing of the guard, she told me there are a lot of sad cases in our little Knecht branch.”

    Yeah, I know. . . Mary rubbed her temple.

     “But . . . connected in love, right?” Salty reminded Mary of the tagline branch members used to instruct new move-ins about how to pronounce the Knecht branch, named for the Knecht Covered Bridge down the serpentine country road from the chapel.

     “Yes, friend, connected in love. I’m glad we finally remembered the code words.”

     When the two hung up, Mary thought she pressed the red button on her new phone to end the conversation, but must have missed it somehow, or pressed another button, and the phone automatically started dialing Salty again.

    “Oh, shoot!” Mary cried, and kept pressing the button. Green and red. Green and red. Finally, in a panic, she remembered to press the button at the top to shut the phone off entirely.

     “Ahh!” She dropped the phone on the table and threw up her hands. “Oh, she’ll know what happened,” Mary said and rolled her eyes, thinking Salty was probably laughing out loud. “I’ll never get the hang of that thing. Sorry, but give me my land line any day,” she said as she looked at the phone on the wall above the counter.

    She thought of what her daughter Becky said last week, “Mom, it’s the twenty-first century. Come for a visit sometime.”

    The sound of exuberant scratching at the family room sliding door summoned Mary to let the dog in. But, distracted, she took a detour to turn on her ancient five-disc CD player. “I barely know how to work this thing and Becky the Techy wants me to play music on my smartphone? She’s crazy,” Mary said to herself.

   "There is beauty all around. . ." resonated as she opened the door. “Good boy,” she told the little dog, bending down to rough up his curly hair. “You sure are fluffy, Fluffy,” she told him.

    The dog romped past her and over into the kitchen to his water dish. Mary followed him into the room and picked up the spatula to slide the cookies onto wax paper. Setting the cookie sheets in the sink, she decided to let the cleanup go for a minute. She grabbed her water bottle and sat back down at the kitchen table to contemplate her predicament.

    Feeling overwhelmed, she folded her hands under her chin and let out, “Oh, Heavenly Father,” then collapsed her upper body on the table, laying her head on her arms. “I know how hard that calling is. It would be all-consuming.”

    She sat up and sniffed, but determined not to cry. One sister from a previous ward who got that calling left the church shortly after. Everyone was shocked, but convinced it was because she was Compassionate Service leader and couldn't find anyone to help her do anything. Could that happen to me? 

   She checked her testimony in a split second as if her life flashed before her eyes—her baptism when the water was warm even though the hot water heater was broken, the priesthood blessing that healed her son Josh when he was a baby, her experiences in the temple. No. No way.

    Maybe Salty’s right. I’m in a comfort zone. I’m content being behind the scenes teaching early-morning seminary with Dave. Mary and her husband, Dave, live right down the road from the high school. The kids walk to school after seminary. They’ll never release us from that.

     “Father, I know this calling is exactly what I want to do with my life. I do want to help people. Why am I so scared?” She shook her head. “Maybe it’s because of Regina,” Mary reflected about her high school best friend. “I tried to help her and she never spoke to me again.”

     Looking for validation, she raised her eyes heavenward. “But I did help my sister during her divorce, right?” Bittersweet. Mary remembered her sister’s divorce that led to her subsequent conversion to the gospel.

    Alcoholism. Abuse. It was the first time Mary had actual experience with someone with a pornography addiction. That situation, more than fifteen years ago, was the reason why Mary settled on social work as a final career path in her never-ending stab for a Bachelor’s degree. After five years, she barely scored an Associate degree in psychology, taking one class per semester, whenever she could find time. Even after ten years, she still had thirty-odd credits to go for a Bachelor’s. That calling would make it impossible for me! 

    Mary ended her disjointed prayer as her thoughts raced back and forth. “Oh, what am I worried about? I like helping people,” she said to nobody in particular, but Fluffy wagged his tail, thumping it on the floor. “But what if it’s more than just helping? What if I get entangled in their lives? I just want to enjoy everyone. I don’t want to . . . know things.”

    She leaned down to stroke the dog as he lay at her feet beside the chair. She glanced outside again. A random red maple leaf fell through the air right in front of the window. “Even though it’s still pretty warm out, autumn’s coming on, Fluffy. And you know what that means,” she said. “Fall is new beginnings,” she whispered to herself. Back-to-school, raking leaves, hayrides. . .October next week.

    She turned her gaze from the window and looked up again. But not this new beginning. I can’t do it. She shuddered. A sigh burst through her lips, pushed from her diaphragm like a bellows. She upended her water bottle in long, nervous swallows as if the clear liquid would cleanse away her guilt.

     I should have told her. I’m such a coward.