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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

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BOOK: Disguised Blessing
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“Of course I came. I had to. It’s in the big brother’s handbook under what to do if something terrible happens to your favorite sister’s daughter.”

“I’m your only sister.”

“Which made it a real no-brainer.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “Now I need to find a phone and let Mom know I got here before she adds me to her list of things to worry about.”

Catherine dug her cell phone out of her purse. “You can use my phone.” He reached for it but she didn’t give it to him right away. “First you have to promise to tell her that I look great and that you’re surprised how well I’m holding up.”

He shook his head. “Only for you would I tell such blatant lies.”

7

R
ICK ARRIVED HOME IN TIME TO SEE THE DELIVERY
truck pulling out of his driveway. He waited for it to pass on the narrow road, nodding to the driver and absently wondering which neighbor had ordered the remaining redwood on the flatbed. The telltale sign of summer in the foothills: fresh building material. Seemed everyone had a project going. Even Sandra and Walt, who’d sworn they were taking the year off, were talking about putting up a greenhouse.

Blue came trotting toward him. He barked a laconic greeting, his tail whipping in excited half circles. Rick climbed out of the truck and spent a few minutes scratching the dog’s ears. He spoiled Blue, giving him free run of the house, letting him sleep wherever he wanted—including on the bed on cold nights—sharing his dinner with him, and even giving him an occasional contraband sip of beer. Rick believed it was little enough compared to the companionship Blue gave in return. When Rick was
home, there was no question that Blue was his dog. When he was at the firehouse, Blue belonged to Sandra and Walt. The arrangement was Blue’s, worked out a couple of months after Sandra and Walt rescued him from the pound, and refined over the past two years.

Rick rounded the house looking for Sandra and found her in the combination garage-workshop. In square footage almost the size of the rest of the house, it was the first thing Rick had built. He’d lived there for two years before he completed enough work on the attached, half-burned shell to move in there.

Sandra had the delivery slip in one hand, a pencil in the other. “Oh, hi,” she said, spotting him. “Just making sure it’s all here. How’d it go at the hospital?”

“I think it was a little soon for me to be there. The mother needs more time to adjust to what’s happened before I start loading her up with information about support groups and therapy meetings.”

“Girl or boy?”

“Girl—fifteen.”

She grimaced. “Bad?”

“Bad enough. Nothing facial, but she won’t appreciate that until she’s a lot further into her treatment.” Rick frequently discussed his assignments with Sandra. When it came to figuring out the mind of a teenager, he’d found no better resource or sounding board. She insisted the knack came from her twenty years of teaching high school. Rick was
inclined to believe it came from her ability to see beyond the obvious.

“If she ever does,” he added. “It’s all relative. Telling someone he or she should be grateful they only lost a hand by showing them someone who lost an arm doesn’t make it easier to pick up a piece of paper when it’s dropped on the floor.”

Blue came into the garage and immediately jumped on top of the sheetrock, sat down, and swept an arc with his tail. “Get down from there,” Sandra told him.

He looked at Rick for confirmation. “Yeah, she’s right,” he told the dog. “It’s going to be days before I can get this stuff hung and I don’t want to be cleaning off your paw prints when I do.”

“Walt has a tarp you can borrow.”

“Thanks. I think I’d just as soon have this staring me in the face every time I come out here or I might be tempted to postpone this weekend to a more convenient time. Lately it’s been out of sight, out of mind.”

“If having things stare you in the face worked, you’d have those closet shelves up by now.”

He chuckled. “Point taken.”

“Well, I’m outta here. I promised Walt I’d get some prices on greenhouse heaters today. He’s still trying to pretend he’s just thinking about it, but he made up his mind the minute he realized how early he could harvest tomatoes if he started them in a greenhouse first.”

“Thanks for taking care of the delivery for me.”

“No problem.” She looked at Blue. “You coming?”

He sat as if following orders.

“I didn’t think so, you ungrateful beast.”

Rick walked with her to the opening in the fence that separated their properties. When she was gone, he turned to Blue. “Let’s go see what we can scrounge up for lunch.”

He took a lot of teasing about his half-finished home—the never ending project, the new Winchester House, the champagne craftsman home on the beer income. He didn’t care, because he was doing what he wanted to do exactly the way he wanted to do it. He drove a ten-year-old truck and had a ten-thousand-dollar bathroom in his master bedroom. He’d personally gathered every stone for the fireplace in the living room and spent six months making all the raised panel doors throughout the house. He cooked in a portable microwave or on the gas barbecue on the patio, and ate off a door suspended between two sawhorses. When finished, the kitchen would have granite counters, a tile floor, and washed pine cupboards, constructed from wood he’d rescued when he’d happened upon a barn being torn down.

The new cupboards, completed over the past two winters, stood in a corner of the garage, covered with sheets of plastic, protected from accidental bumping and scratching by a specially built frame. All he needed was some hardware, money, and time for the installation and the pieces would come together. The hardware was easy. The money was almost there—a couple more paychecks and he’d be at his budgeted goal for the granite countertops and tile floor. The time he’d think about later.

The house was his hobby, the only one he’d been able to afford once he and Barbara came to the conclusion they’d given a hopeless situation their best effort and decided to go their separate ways.

With an intense dislike of apartments as his guiding factor, he’d taken his share of their accumulated assets and bought a partially burned house on five acres in the foothills.
Rundown
would have been a kind description of both the house and property. He’d rented the largest Dumpster he could find and had it emptied weekly. Even at that, it took three months to clear the lot.

Now, after eight years, all he had left to do were the kitchen, dining room, and some odds and ends like the closet in his bedroom. Last Christmas, at their annual neighborhood get-together, Sandra had wondered aloud if Rick had slowed the work because he was reluctant to see it come to an end. He’d laughed at the idea, but had given it a lot of thought since. What was he going to do with himself once he finished the house?

Standing at the refrigerator waiting for inspiration, he absently broke off a piece of hot dog and gave it to Blue. The dog took it as if it were ice and he had a toothache, carrying it to the middle of the room and looking back at Rick with a disheartened expression.

“All right, so it’s not steak. Bring it back and I’ll see what else I can find.”

Blue dropped it on the exposed plywood floor.

“What part of ‘bring it back’ didn’t you understand?” Rick picked up the offending piece of
processed meat and tossed it into the freestanding sink. “How about a tuna fish sandwich?”

This brought a soft whine and frustrated bark. “Okay, dog biscuit it is.” He took the box from the single kitchen cupboard he’d left standing and tossed Blue one of the bone-shaped biscuits. “Not even going to offer to share, huh?”

Blue ignored him and headed outside with his prize. His toenails clicked on the metal weather stripping on the garage doorsill and then the concrete floor. Rick listened closely, timing the steps. Sure enough, they stopped at the wallboard.

He was on his way to remind Blue that the wallboard was off limits when the phone rang.

“Rick—it’s Lyn. How did the meeting go?”

“Not as well as I would have liked, but I’m going to give it another try tomorrow. Her brother came in from Japan and I took off to let them talk. I got the impression there’s something going on with the fiance that could cause some family problems down the line, but I might have read it wrong.”

“We had another boy come in a couple of hours ago. He’s in pretty bad shape, but right now they’re saying they think he’ll make it.”

“The one from Fairfield?” Rick had heard about the fire on the news coming home and wondered if it was the same boy the nurse had mentioned.

“He’s the only survivor out of a family of seven. Looks like the fire was arson. Something to do with the brother being in a gang.”

Lyn didn’t gossip and rarely had time for casual conversation. She was leading up to something.
“Did you want me to take this kid instead of the Miller girl?”

“Actually, I was hoping you could stop by to visit him when you’re there with Lynda. At least until I can find someone in Fairfield to take his case. According to the police, he doesn’t have any family left in the area and I thought it might help if he had someone to talk to.”

Rick had stopped looking for fairness in life, or believing good people were rewarded and bad punished, a long time ago. It didn’t happen that way. There was nothing this kid could have done, no crime big enough, no sin bad enough to bring something like this on himself. “What’s his name?”

“Ray Tatum. He’s seventeen and should be easy to talk to—when he can talk, that is. He’s a candidate for valedictorian at his high school and, according to one of his teachers I saw interviewed on the news, he’s being considered by both Harvard and Stanford.”

“Jesus, what a waste. Did you hear whether they know who did it?”

“Supposedly they have a couple of eyewitnesses.”

“Who’ll develop amnesia before the case comes to trial,” Rick said.

“I don’t know. The people in the neighborhood are pretty shaken by this. They’re tired of having their lives controlled by a bunch of thugs.”

“Even if some of them are their own children? The changes they need to make are ones that are a lot easier said than done.”

“Granted.”

Rick stared at the hole in the dining room wall that he’d been staring at for the past eight years and decided today was the day he was going to do something about it. Tearing down wallboard would be a good way to vent his frustration, and if he had it out of the way, putting the new stuff up would go a lot faster. “I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know how things go with Lynda’s mother. Right now I hear a hammer calling my name.”

8

L
YNDA WOKE TO THE NOW FAMILIAR BEEPS AND
humming sounds of the equipment around her bed. She opened her eyes to small slits, ready to close them again should she discover someone in the room with her. It seemed the only place she could be alone anymore was in her mind, and she escaped there whenever possible.

She didn’t see anyone. Even ever present Brian wasn’t there.

As much as she loved her mother and uncle and grandmother, she’d reached the point where she wanted to scream at the sight of them. For over a week now they’d all had the same look in their eyes, that “oh, poor, poor Lynda” expression of pity. Only Brian treated her the way he had before. Which she didn’t understand or trust. He should have checked out the first day when he saw that she was going to live and that there was nothing more he could do to help.

She couldn’t figure out why he was there all the
time, especially with the way she looked and the things he saw done to her. For a while she’d thought maybe he felt guilty, but he was the one who’d saved her from being a total matchstick, so he should have felt pretty good about himself.

Sometimes she liked having him there, especially when she needed to vent. He would listen and nod once in a while like he understood. Everyone else she tried to talk to would say things they thought would make her feel better, whether they made sense or not.

How could they think that was possible? Couldn’t they see? Her life was over. At least the one she used to have, the one she wanted back more than she’d ever wanted anything in her life.

She didn’t need people feeling sorry for her. And if she heard one more time how everything was going to be all right, or how good the doctor was, or how lucky she was that it was her back and not her face that had been burned, she was going to tell them that they didn’t have a goddamned clue and to leave her alone.

Words never spoken aloud, they were her secret escape from being the perfect daughter, the perfect niece, the perfect granddaughter.

Damn. She was crying again. On display all night and all day, she couldn’t hide her tears. Someone always saw when she was crying and made a big deal out of getting a tissue and holding her hand and saying something stupid like it was all right to cry.

“Your lunch is here,” a deep male voice announced.

Lynda startled at the sound. She hadn’t heard anyone come in, so he must have been there the whole time. She opened her eyes and found him sitting by the window. He got up and came over to the bed. She realized she’d seen him before, but only briefly and only since she’d come to the hospital.

She shifted to move her good arm—actually her better arm—so that she could wipe her eyes with the corner of the sheet. “Who are you?”

“Rick Sawyer.”

She didn’t want his name, she wanted to know why he was there. “That’s not what I mean.”

“I’m a firefighter with the Firefighters’ Burn Association.”

“From the lake?” The men who’d helped her there were indistinguishable in her mind. All she remembered were uniforms, lots of them.

He shook his head. “We’re local.”

“Why are you here?”

“To help you and your mother—if I can.”

“Are you asking permission or questioning your ability?” The words came out slurred and sloppy, the way comedians sounded imitating drunks. She tried moving her tongue around to ease the dryness but it didn’t help. It never did.

His lips formed a slow smile. “Pretty feisty today, I see. Does that mean you’re feeling better?”

She remembered him now. He’d been in to see her several times but had never stayed very long. “Where’s my mother?”

“She went to the cafeteria with your uncle to get a cup of coffee.”

Lynda brought her foot out from under the sheet and gave the tray table, and her lunch, a shove.

“Not hungry?”

“Not for that stuff.”

“Then ask for something else. They’ll bring you anything you want.”

“Oh, yeah? Then why the milkshake when I told them I wanted a salad?”

Rick pulled up a chair and sat next to her, settling back and propping his feet on the bedframe. “You drink the milkshake and I’ll see that you get your salad.”

“I don’t
want
the milkshake.”

“Look—there are only a couple of battles you have any chance of winning around here. The number of calories you have to eat every day isn’t one of them, so you might as well yield that one and pick something else.”

“I can’t eat all the stuff they give me.”

“Why?”

She considered giving him the same answers she’d been giving her mother but knew he wouldn’t believe her. “I’ll get fat.”

“If you weren’t burned, and you ate this way all the time, you’re right. You would get fat. But now your body has different needs. It’s using the extra calories for healing and if you don’t replace them, you’re going to end up in big trouble.”

“How?”

“You know that stuff oozing out of your skin—the yellow fluid that’s on your dressing every time they change it?”

She looked at him, hating that this stranger knew so much about her when she knew nothing about him.

“It’s the same stuff that comes out when you scrape your knee, pure protein. Only with you, it’s coming out all over your back and arms. If you don’t replace it with the food you eat, the organs that need protein to function are going to shut down.” He leaned in closer and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You don’t even want to know what they’ll have to do to you if that happens.”

“I don’t care.” She didn’t believe him. They were treating her like a little kid. All of them. Even her mother. No one listened to anything she said. No matter what it was, they always won. Whatever they told her to do she had to do. They poked and prodded and measured everything that went in and came out. They even told her when to sleep and when to wake up. Just this once she wanted the right to say no.

“Yes, you do,” he said with scary confidence.

Instead of taking it further, she went on the attack. “Who told you that you could be here?”

“I’m a fixture in this place. I come and go as I please.”

“Not if I tell the nurses I don’t want you here.” She was bluffing. It didn’t matter what she wanted; no one paid attention, especially not the nurses. No one cared what she wanted.

Rick moved his chair closer and leaned an elbow on the bed. “I know you feel as if you’ve lost control
over everything that matters to you and that there’s always someone telling you what you can and can’t do, but the food thing is something they’ll push to the limit. If you don’t eat on your own, they’re going to shove that tube back down your nose and pour it into your stomach.”

He sounded so damn sure of himself. “Why should I believe you? You’re just a fireman.” He’d finally succeeded in scaring her. She didn’t want him to see how much.

She went on before he could answer. “I’ll be fine. Everyone says so.” But always a little too cheerfully, especially Tom. When he said it, she had the feeling he needed convincing as much as she did.

“And they’re right. But it’s a combined effort. It’s time you started doing your share.” He reached for the milkshake and handed it to her.

She hesitated. “Is that why you’re here—to get me to eat this stuff?”

“I heard you were giving the nurses a hard time,” he admitted. “And I figured you could use some straight talk about what’s happening around here. This is the way it is, pure and simple. You can keep on being a little shit with everyone who’s trying to help you—which you have to know by now is making what you’re going through twice as hard on everyone—or you can cooperate and get the rules bent your way once in a while.”

“Some choice.”

“That’s the way I see it, too.”

She took the glass and stirred the thick chocolate-flavored liquid with the straw. She preferred straw
berry, but had refused to answer when they’d asked.

Tentatively, she took a sip. Even though giving in was hard, the same way apologizing when you knew you hadn’t done anything wrong was hard, she didn’t want them putting that tube back in her nose. Just the thought of how it made her feel made her want to scream or throw something or hit someone. Most of all she wanted this nightmare to end. She wanted to wake up and have her life back.

Damn, she was crying again. How stupid. And in front of him, no less. He probably thought he was the reason. She didn’t want him thinking he had that much power over her, but she didn’t know how to change his mind without telling him more than she wanted him to know.

Rick handed her another tissue. “Brian tells me you’re a cheerleader.”

“I was.”

“He has the impression you still are.”

“Like this? Not likely.” Not wanting to give him the opportunity to tell her she should take another drink, she did so before he had the chance.

“So you’ve quit but haven’t gotten around to telling anyone yet?”

“What business is it of yours?”

“None.”

His answer caught her by surprise. “I had my mom do it for me.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t. You don’t see anything. You come in here and act like you know me and know what I’m going through but you don’t.” Finally, she
had a target for her anger, someone she didn’t care about, someone she wouldn’t have to apologize to later. “You’re just like everyone else who comes in here—telling me what to do and what to think, how I should feel and when I should feel it. You don’t have any idea what it’s like to be me.”

“You’re right. I don’t know you. But I do understand what you’re going through.”

“Yeah. Sure you do.”

Instead of answering her with words, Rick rolled up his sleeve and showed her his arm. “Does this give me a little credibility?”

Both fascinated and horrified, she stared at the patchwork of glossy skin and ribbed scars that ran from the inside of his wrist to his elbow. Was this the way her back would look?

Somewhere in her mind she’d always been aware that she was pretty. People told her so all the time. But until this happened she’d never really thought about it. It was just something she knew, like her lungs knew to pull in air after pushing it out. Now everything was different. She wasn’t pretty anymore. She never would be again.

She saw that Rick was waiting for her to say something. “How did it happen?”

“A firefighter fell through a roof and I reached in to pull him out.”

“Did you? Pull him out, I mean.”

“Eventually.”

“Did he make it?”

“No.”

The question had been automatic. The answer
shook her. Sometimes her back hurt so bad she told herself dying would be better. She knew now she was wrong. She didn’t want people talking about her in past tense. She wanted to see her friends again.

And her mother…how would she feel? Her father wouldn’t even notice she was gone. But her Uncle Gene and Grandma Phyllis would miss her. Tom wouldn’t care. That should have bothered her, but it didn’t.

“I wondered why you were wearing long sleeves in the middle of summer,” she said.

Rick smiled and rolled back his other sleeve until it matched the first. There were burn scars there, too. “I’m wearing this shirt because it was the only clean one in the closet. Laundry isn’t high on my list of priorities.”

“What about your wife?”

“Don’t have one. And when I did, I didn’t take care of my clothes any better than I do now.”

No wonder he wasn’t married anymore. “Do people stare at you when they see your arms?”

“Sometimes—the way I stare at kids with spiked orange hair. It’s human nature, Lynda. Curiosity is part of our makeup.”

“I don’t want people to look at me.”

“Yes, you do. You just want it to be for the right reasons. And it will be again.”

“Tom said if I dressed right, no one would see the scars. He’s going to buy me a whole new wardrobe when I get out of here. He said I could have his credit card and that he didn’t want me to pay attention to the price of anything.”

“That’s very generous of him,” Rick said carefully.

“It’s no big deal really. He has lots of money.”

“I haven’t met your father yet. Does he live in Sacramento?”

“Carmichael. But he travels a lot for his business, so he’s gone more than he’s home.” She didn’t want him thinking her father didn’t care. Lynda finished the milkshake and put the empty glass on the tray.

Rick surveyed the remaining food. “If you eat half the hamburger, I’ll talk them into leaving you alone until dinner.”

She made a face. “What if I eat the cookies instead?”

“All of them?”

She hesitated. “I better taste one first.”

“They’re not bad. I ate one while I was waiting for you to wake up.”

“Isn’t that against the rules? How are they going to know how much I eat?”

“I’m going to tell them.”

“Snitch.” She took a bite. As chocolate chip cookies went, it wasn’t bad. “Can I really have anything I want? I don’t have to eat this stuff as long as I eat something?”

“Within reason.”

“What about crab cakes—from California Cafe?”

“That could probably be arranged.”

She started to sit up and was savagely reminded why she was there. With a startled cry, she lowered herself back to the mattress.

“Do you want me to get the nurse?”

The pain stole her ability to speak. She nodded.

He motioned through the window. “She’s coming,” he said.

“My mom—would you find her for me? Please?”

As soon as the nurse came in the room, Rick left to find Catherine. With each contact he became more confident that he could work with Lynda and her mother. He had reservations about Tom, but they ran along lines that had nothing to do with Lynda’s care. Tom could be a problem down the line. But then Rick would be surprised if Tom was around too much longer, so he wasn’t going to spend a lot of time worrying about it.

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