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Authors: Pamela Browning

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BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
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"Okay, it's a promise. Do you cross your heart and hope to die?" Lisa asked.

Megan, whose grandmother had died recently, looked unsure. "Well, I cross my heart. I don't like the other part," she said uncomfortably.

"I cross my heart, too," Lisa said.

The two friends beamed at each other, never noticing that a cloud momentarily obscured the sun.

* * *

June, 2000

"Don't you love the way the train on my dress swishes when I walk around corners?" Megan asked Lisa as they stepped out of the West Palm Beach dressmaker's shop into the humid half-light of an impending thunderstorm. Megan took a few mincing steps and twitched an imaginary train.

"You drove Mrs. Pogue crazy by parading back and forth from the fitting room to the sewing room. She was afraid your heel was going to pierce a hole in the fabric," Lisa said.

"I have to learn to manage my train. The wedding's only two weeks away," said Megan. They headed toward the parking lot, hurrying at the sight of threatening thunderclouds scudding out of the west.

Lisa thought about asking Megan if she wanted to wait out the storm at the doughnut shop across the street, but Megan seemed to be in a hurry.

"You look gorgeous in pink, Lisa. Remember the day under the banyan tree when we swore we'd be in each other's weddings? Did you think we really meant it?"

Lisa smiled and hitched her steps in order to catch up. "Of course I did. And you've always been my best friend, even though I've moved away to Stuart and back to West Palm Beach and gone away to college and—well, I can't imagine having any other best friend. Ever."

Megan impulsively stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and hugged her friend. "Me, either. Are we still going shopping tomorrow?"

"Sure. We both have things to buy, and we might as well go together."

"Shall I pick you up in the morning?"

"I'll come over. I want to see your handsome groom before the wedding and impress upon him how lucky he is to have found you."

"He knows. Hey, we'd better run before it starts to rain. I don't know how to put the car top up. 'Bye!" Megan took off at a fast clip, her skirt plastered to her legs by the rising wind.

Lisa considered offering to help with the convertible top, but Megan was already in the car, so she only waved back. The last she saw of Megan was when Megan rounded the corner in her fiancé's vintage MG, her red hair streaming behind her.

That night, long after the rain had stopped, Lisa was awakened from a deep sleep by the ring of her cell phone. She squinted at its lighted display. Almost eleven o'clock. Why would Megan's fiancé be calling at this hour?

"Yes?" she said. She heard a silence, then something that sounded like a sob.

"Barry?"

"It's Megan, Lisa. She's gone. I'm at the hospital. I got here right after the accident. It—it happened in my car on the way home from the dressmaker's. She never made it. She died in my arms." He sounded terrible.

Megan? Dead? "No," Lisa said. "It isn't true."

Barry fought to control himself. "I'm afraid it is. Some high-school kid got drunk at an all-day graduation party and ran a red light in the drizzle. He hit Megan broadside, and the car rolled over twice with the top down. He wasn't even hurt."

Megan... the rain... Barry's convertible. If only she had helped Megan put the top up, it might have provided some protection, or if she had asked Megan to wait at the doughnut shop until the storm passed, the accident might never have happened! For a moment Lisa heard the blood rushing in her ears and then she felt violently ill. The unavoidable mental picture of Megan lying broken and bleeding on a slick pavement was fundamentally horrifying.

"Lisa? Lisa, are you there?"

Tears began to stream down Lisa's face. She felt so guilty. "I don't believe it," she sobbed. "I can't."

Lisa didn't know what Barry said in reply, and the rest of that night would forever remain a blur. Eventually she did believe when at last she stood beside Megan's flower-draped casket listening to the priest intone words that seemed meaningless in the face of senseless tragedy.

Barry, his face a mask of anguish, wept audibly throughout the service, and Adele, Megan's mother, collapsed afterward. Only Lisa exhibited no emotion at all. A heavy cold weight settled against her heart, and her grief solidified into anger.

After the funeral, one bitter thought surfaced:
Somewhere that kid who killed Megan is going on with his life, and Megan's is over. I hope he goes to jail until he's very, very old. I wish he had died instead of her.

But James M. Watkins, the boy who was responsible for the fatal accident, was sentenced by a lenient judge. For killing Megan, he was required to spend one year of nights and weekends in the Palm Beach County Jail and to provide one hundred hours of community-service work.

The last thing Lisa heard of him, he was attending the University of Florida where, by arrangement of the authorities, he could conveniently serve his time in the Alachua County Jail instead.

Lisa was glad that she had chosen to attend Florida State three years before; the two universities were a hundred and fifty miles apart. She knew with chilling certainty that if she ever laid eyes on James M. Watkins, she'd kill him. Which wouldn't bring her friend back to life but would certainly make her feel as though justice had finally been served.

Chapter 1

January, 2012

Lisa Sherrill steered around a huge pothole in the main street of Yahola, a small migrant workers' community at the edge of the Florida Everglades, and eased her car to a stop in the Faith Mission School parking lot. Children swirled around her as she stepped out into the bright sunshine, beautiful children with eager faces. Brown faces, black faces, white faces.

"Lisa, welcome," called Sister Maria Francisco as she rounded the corner of the chapel, her abbreviated dove gray habit a solemn contrast to the riotous beauty of the bougainvillea climbing the white brick chapel wall.

"Sister Maria," Lisa said, hurrying forward with a smile. The nun clasped both of Lisa's hands in hers. They were on the same eye level, and neither of them was much taller than the children who gathered around and clamored for attention.

"I'm glad you're here," Sister Maria said, her plump cheeks dimpling. "You're exactly what we need. What the
children
need. Or maybe what the children's
stomachs
need." She laughed, a deep throaty chuckle.

A slim dark boy tugged at Sister Maria's arm and whispered to her in Spanish.

Sister Maria spoke to him rapidly, and although Lisa understood some Spanish, she could make out no more than a few words of this particular exchange.

"What did he say?" she asked Sister Maria after the boy scampered away.

"That was Pedro. He said his stomach needs ice cream instead of a pretty lady who smiles," replied the nun.

"Perhaps we can arrange for the ice cream someday," Lisa said, and this remark was greeted by shouts of approval from the four or five boys and girls who trailed after them.

"We'll have no ice cream today, so run along and leave us in peace," Sister Maria informed the children as she shooed them away, and Lisa heard several disappointed groans.

"As I mentioned last time we met," Sister Maria went on as they resumed their walk, "we can't teach these children effectively if they're hungry. Your qualifications as a dietitian are excellent, and we're happy to have you aboard." She led Lisa through a cool breezeway where Lisa's footsteps echoed off the concrete-block walls.

"This is probably the most interesting job I've had," Lisa answered, slowing her step outside the lunchroom as she took in the colorful mural on the wall. It fairly burst with exuberance, a masterful mélange of colors and shapes.

"That's to remind the children of their culture," Sister Maria said. "We have a good number of Haitian students at the school, but even more of them come from Guatemala or the Yucatan Peninsula with their parents, who work the fields here in the winter. The stepped pyramid in the middle of this mural is similar to what they have seen at home, and the little boy with the burro in the foreground could be a friend they left behind."

"Who painted it?" Lisa asked as they continued walking.

"Most of the credit goes to our good friend Jay, who teaches art here on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Jay is a godsend—a lawyer who volunteers his time to our children. What we'd do without him I don't know. Here's my office—come in, come in."

In the cool haven of the small cluttered cubicle, Sister Maria plucked a folder from the stack on her desk and handed it to Lisa.

"Here's a map of Yahola. In the envelope inside the folder is your key to our mission's community center, a small house that we've remodeled into a kitchen and dining hall where the children and their families will eat."

"Do the people here know about your program yet?"

"The children carried the bulletins home from school last week. Some of them have to read them to their parents, can you imagine? After five years at this mission, I still find it hard to believe that so many parents are illiterate in every language. Ah, well, we're making a difference. So will you. Sister Ursula, Sister Clementine, please come in. Lisa, here are your cooks."

Lisa looked up from the map as two nuns swept into the room. Sister Ursula was short, dark, and dour with what appeared to be a permanent furrow between her eyebrows. Sister Clementine was tall, spare and had a smile that split her wedge-shaped face from ear to ear,

"I wonder if I'll have to do any public-relations work. You know, beat the drum to sell the advantages of good nutrition," Lisa said, turning to Sister Maria.

"Our balanced meals will be popular beginning from the very first day," said Sister Clementine with great conviction.

"If
anyone comes to eat them," Sister Ursula said.

Sister Maria walked around her desk and sat down. "The men and women work in the fields all day doing stoop labor," she said. "They're usually too tired to put much more than a cold pot of rice on the table when they come in."

Lisa and the two nuns sat down across from her. "That's why this is such a worthwhile project," Sister Clementine said, leaning forward in her enthusiasm. "I'm happy to think that starting tomorrow, the children and their families will be assured of a hot dinner three nights a week."

"Three nights. It's hardly enough," Sister Ursula said curtly.

"I agree," Lisa said. Her troubled eyes met Sister Maria's.

Sister Maria's lips fixed themselves into a grim line. "Nevertheless, for now it will have to do."

"Oh, but Sister," Sister Clementine said, her voice gentle. "We should be grateful that we can afford three nights out of the week. I'm sure we can spark the parents' interest in learning nutrition so they can cook better meals for their children at home."

Sister Ursula turned to Lisa, and when she spoke it was brusquely but not unkindly. "Some of the parents are unable to do their best for their children. A single mother like Pedro's, perhaps, abandoned by the father of her eight children, and who works all day bent double as she picks beans—how can she manage? A family where one parent is an alcoholic and spends the food money on his habit—how can they cope? These are the ones to whom we minister."

Lisa closed the folder decisively. "Tomorrow we'll begin," she said. She stood and held out her hand to Sister Maria.

Sister Maria's grip was warm. She clasped Lisa's hand a moment longer than necessary.

"I see love and kindness in your eyes, and the children warmed to you immediately. I'm glad you're part of our team, Lisa."

After Lisa said goodbye to the nuns, she hurried to her car and headed back toward the highway. As always, the fragrance of the Everglades was sharp in her nostrils; it was intriguingly composed of the rich odor of fertile black muck in the nearby fields overlaid with the fresh pungent green scent of growing things.

She swerved to avoid a bathtub-sized pothole in the road. The fields looked lush and prosperous, but weren't the roads here ever re-paved? And didn't anyone ever complain about the rotting garbage in the streets in front of the houses?

Probably not. Yahola wasn't a place designed to command much attention. It existed solely because it was ideally located at the edge of a huge agricultural district where the mild climate made it possible to grow tomatoes and cucumbers, peppers and beans all winter. An influx of migrants every year provided the stoop labor necessary to work the fields, most of them leaving during the spring or summer to travel to the next job. Yahola was a place that most people wanted to forget about, to pretend didn't exist.

BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
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