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A Heartbeat Away

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©2003 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

PROLOGUE

From the Diary of Meghan Marshall Burke

Sometimes you don't know when you will be called upon to endure something you thought would be impossible to endure, and then there is a surprise: you can endure. Not only endure but excel and be happy. The Lord truly is our strength and our salvation. I believe that now as I never did before. I didn't know enough sorrow in the beginning to experience true and lasting joy. All that has changed now.

I must share my story. Writing it has helped me heal, and I believe it will help you as well. The story begins with Kristin, my sister. But I'll let you read it—or at least some of it—through her eyes . . .

Chapter Two

You think it's never going to happen to you. I know because that's how I was—untouchable. Bad things only happen to someone else, usually to someone you don't know very well. Take a really sick child in your neighborhood. Their family has to deal with problems every day, but you just catch a glimpse of the wheelchair at church, or see the parents' reddened eyes as you meet them in the grocery store. The only thing you're required to do is to ask how they're doing, not really looking at them, but staring in the direction of their right ear so you won't make them feel worse.

If anything remotely bad ever did happen to you or your family, it was always something the doctor could fix with fiberglass or a pill. My little sister broke her arm twice and both times chose a fluorescent pink fiberglass cast. Besides my mom's occasional bout of sinusitis, that's about the worst thing that ever happened to my family.

At least until the year I turned thirteen.

I had my whole life before me then. I dreamed of going to college and becoming a heart surgeon. Of marrying and having a half-dozen children. I wanted a nice house with a swimming pool and someone to do the cooking. (Hey, I could afford that if I became a heart surgeon.)

All those dreams ended in a blinding flash. Well, the dreams didn't exactly end, rather they changed. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My name is Kristin Marshall, and it was the September after the summer that a bunch of kidnappings were in the news. I'm sure you remember the one. I used to jerk awake in the middle of the night and see my mom tip-toeing into my room to make sure I was okay. I never told her that sometimes she nearly scared me to death because I thought someone had come to take me away. I knew seeing me there in bed gave her peace of mind, so I kept quiet.

Dad said there really weren't more kidnappings, only a lot more awareness from the media because of the way two girls in two different towns had been stolen right from their bedrooms. Mom said we needed an alarm just in case someone tried to get into our house.

"Oh, Mom, nothing's gonna happen," I once told her. "We're too old. Even Jacky's too old. She'd kick a kidnapper right between the legs. Don't worry so much."

My mother heaved a great sigh, the irritating kind of sigh that said I knew as much as a newborn baby did, or even less. "Oh, Kristin. You think it's so easy, but it's not. Jacky's only eight, and a kidnapper would be much stronger. Take that little girl in the paper last month. She kicked and screamed and it did her no good. He still got her into the car."

I didn't listen. It wasn't my job to worry—they could do that. I knew nothing would happen to us. Parents can be worrywarts, if you know what I mean, and my mom was the queen of worrywarts.

On a Friday after school in mid-September my older sister, Meghan, and I asked our mom to take us to the Rec to swim. Rec means the Orem Recreational Center, but we just call it the Rec, like it was a train accident or something: the Wreck. Mom said she had to take our van to the shop to see why the engine light was on, and if we didn't mind going with her there first, Dad would pick us all up and drop us off at the pool. We were lucky because eight-year-old Jacky and Benjamin, who's ten, had gone home with our cousins after school. Mom never let the little kids go without her to the pool, even if we were with them. That's kind of funny because we all swim real well, with all the lessons we've had—even Jacky. She swims like a dolphin. But like I said, Mom's a worrywart. She says someone has to be.

Meghan was excited because some of our neighborhood friends would be at the pool. Especially a boy named Wade Burke, who was a senior in high school. When he moved in last year he wasn't much to look at, but this year he suddenly shot up and filled out. He was tall, dark, and handsome, according to Meghan.

I guess she was right, but I didn't like the jock type. All they cared about was sports and nothing about science or books. I loved books. It didn't matter what they were about. Though science texts and adventure romances were my favorite, I read all kinds of literature. Meghan loved only the romances. In fact, she read them so fast that she was always books ahead of me on any series we were reading together.

"Do I look all right in this new swimming suit?" Meghan asked from our bathroom. She had bought it on sale at Wal-Mart at the first of the summer, but it had been a little too big then. "It doesn't make me look fat, does it?"

Meghan would have to gain twenty pounds to be anywhere near fat. She's even skinner than I am. Despite her being two years older than me, we're basically the same size except she's an inch taller. "You look fine," I told her, trying not to roll my eyes.

"You'll be nice to Wade, won't you?" she asked me as she spread blemish cream over an almost invisible pimple.

"I don't mind Wade. It's that weird friend he hangs out with. What's his name? Jaybird?"

"Just Jay. And he's nice." Meghan patted her blonde hair that reached almost down to her waist.

"What a dumb name."

"Maybe, but I think he likes you."

"Oh, where can I throw up!" But her words gave me a warm feeling inside. Much as I would never admit it to Meghan, Jay was my make-believe hero in the adventure romance novel I was reading. He was a junior, though, and way old too for me, only an eighth-grader. Then again, there were only three years separating us, and I liked to remind myself that my dad was four years older than my mom.

"Oh, I wish I had more up here," Meghan tugged at the top of her suit. "You're almost as big as me and I'm older."

"Hardly." I rolled my eyes before escaping from the bathroom. If I didn't leave she'd be on about how she wished her eyes were as dark blue as mine and that her hair was lighter. My little sister Jacky and I have hair the color of sunshine, as my dad always said, and blue eyes as deep as the night sky. We liked to joke that we were twins born five years apart. To Meghan's disgust, her hair was darker, like the color of gold. I thought it was beautiful—and a darn sight better than Benjamin's dirty-looking blonde. Meghan didn't agree. As soon as she got a job, I bet she'd get color contacts and dye her hair.

When we arrived at the shop, Mom opened the van door. "Good afternoon, Big Ned," she said to Mr. Lyman, our mechanic. She tucked her short, golden hair behind her ear and smiled like she was really happy to see him.

He reached out his large hand. "Hello, Angie. It's good to see you."

What a name—Big Ned. Sounded like the mafia guy in my adventure romance book. But he didn't look like one. He had a grizzled beard and was as tall and strong-looking as a bear. He reminded me of a mountain man, not a guy in a suit with bodyguards. I asked Mom once why they called him Big Ned and she said he had a son named Ned. I wondered if they called his son Little Ned. I didn't think he'd like that much. I wouldn't.

Just then Dad came in and they began to talk about when the van might be ready. Meghan jumped out of the van and grabbed her swim bag, filled to the brim with her curling iron, hairspray, and who knew what other junk. I didn't budge. Mom and Dad knew Big Ned from the old neighborhood when I was a baby. After discussing the van, they would move on to other things.

My eyes returned to my book. The heroine was posing as a maid to try to free the hero, who in my mind resembled Jay. Even though it was just a book, my heart pounded in fear for them both. I read as fast as I could to see what would happen.

At last Mom called me out of the van. "You want to get to the pool, don't you?"

Shoving my book into my bag, I climbed from the van. As I approached my parents I heard Big Ned saying, "I'll have my nephew get right to it as soon as possible. Give you a call a bit later. Let you know. But it's likely it won't be done till late tomorrow." He reeked of cigarette smoke, and I wondered how Mom and Dad could stand being so close to him. They must really like him. They told me once that he was the most honest mechanic they'd ever met in all of Utah Valley.

"Meghan, come on," Dad called. My sister was in the back of the garage, talking to some guy. I was surprised. At home she's all talk, but around strangers she's very shy. I don't understand it because what one person has to say is just as important as what any one else might say.

"I know that in my heart," Meghan told me once. "It's like I have a whole bunch of good ideas, but when I go to say them aloud, they don't come out quite right. They come out in my diary just fine. In fact, I think maybe I should be a romance writer."

"I'd read all your books," I had answered. "In between heart surgeries, that is. Just don't make them too sappy."

Now Meghan came running over to us, looking flushed and rather pleased with herself.

"What took you so long?" I asked Meghan as we got into Dad's car.

"Mr. Lyman's nephew." Her voice lowered and her blue eyes became dreamy. "He's really cute. He has kind of messed up brown hair and his face is very tan. He said he's from Florida. And he's got these big brown eyes that seem to look right into you. Anyway, I saw him here last time, but I've never talked to him. Today he approached me! He said he thought I looked seventeen, can you believe that?"

I couldn't. My sister was fifteen and looked maybe fourteen. "How old is he?"

She shrugged a shoulder, bare except for the strap of her swimsuit. "Don't know. It's not like I'm serious about him—you know I like Wade. But he's nice to talk to. I tried to get you to come over. We were waving at you."

"It's okay. I was reading that book you gave me."

In the front seat Mom was pointing the way to the pool, though Dad already knew where to go. "You'll have to pick up the girls, Gary," she said. "On your way home from work, I mean."

Dad nodded. "I need to make up this little bit I've taken off to drive you home, but I can be there by seven-thirty. Okay girls?"

"Seven-thirty?" groaned Meghan. "Dad, it's almost five now."

"Two and a half hours is plenty of time to be in the pool," he said in his do-not-argue-with-me-young-lady voice.

"Your dad's right. It gets dark by seven. And besides, we're going to a party tonight and we'll already be a bit late. We'll need you two to baby-sit." Mom dug in her purse and came up with a few dollars. "Here, you can each buy something from the vending machine. But remember not to keep your father waiting."

"We won't," we mumbled.

Outside the Rec Mom said as she always did, "Now remember, stay together and don't go anywhere with strangers."

"Yeah, yeah. Of course not." We scrambled out of the car. "Bye," I shouted. Without a backwards glance, we ran down the sidewalk to the entrance.

We left our towels and clothes in a locker and hurried to the indoor pool. The warm air was thick with chlorine, and the sound in the huge room was odd, giving everything an echo. The water shimmered under the lights, moving randomly until it slapped against the sides of the tiled pool. There was a shout from the far side where some kids were playing with a ball.

"There they are," Meghan said, turning to me. "You go first, okay? I don't want to seem too anxious."

I started over while Meghan followed uncertainly. I began to wish she weren't so shy. At home, she was normal, but she suddenly changed when she walked out our door. Sometimes it was hard seeing my big sister act like a little kid. Then again, I was probably so outgoing because she's the way she is; someone had to speak up, and since Meghan never did, I learned to.

"Hey," I greeted our friends as I sat on the edge of the pool. The water felt cool to my bare feet, not nearly as warm as I'd hoped.

Wade looked up at us and smiled very brightly. His sister Tamara did, too. She was a year older than me and a year younger than Meghan. We both really liked her.

Jay threw the ball at me. "So, you made it." He looked kind of funny with his blonde hair plastered down with water, but I didn't mention it like I would have normally; they never mention that kind of thing in my novels, and for the moment at least, he was my hero.

"Why not?" I shrugged. I threw the ball back, hard enough to hurt if he didn't catch it. He did.

Wade swam to the side of the pool and was talking to Meghan, his dark eyes never leaving her face. I wondered if he could see how awkward she felt. He was so close to her that the ends of her long hair brushed his face as she slid forward into the water.

Some other kids arrived and we played tag for a long time. I was the fastest and only Jay could catch me. Then we had a water fight. Jay and Wade dunked me after I splashed them good. It was a lot of fun.

After a while the boys climbed out of the pool. "We have to get going," Wade said. "We're going to a movie later. You guys want to come?"

Meghan looked at me, obviously embarrassed to remind them that we were too young to date. Even if going with them wasn't exactly a date, just a bunch of kids going to the movies, Mom and Dad would never see it that way. The prophet of our church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says no dating until sixteen; and then in our family we were allowed only to group date until we turned eighteen. I knew Wade and Tamara's parents were a little more lenient, but they should know better than to ask us.

"Can't," I said. "Our parents are making us baby-sit." I'm never one to beat around the bush, as my dad would say, but I said this for Meghan. In a few months she would be sixteen and could go with them as much as she wanted.

"Yeah, our dad'll be here soon anyway," Meghan said. "But thanks."

We got out of the pool and dressed. While Meghan dried and curled her bangs, I rubbed my hair with my towel until it hung in loose waves to my shoulders—all one length.

"Got an elastic?" I asked Meghan. She did and I put my hair in a ponytail so it wouldn't make my neck cold.

When we got outside it was pretty dark, though not quite seven-thirty. I shivered since my suit was still wet under my T-shirt and jeans. I began to wish I'd changed out of it like Meghan. A brown-haired man with a hat pulled low over his head came from behind us, followed by an older couple. They got into separate cars and drove away. Then we were alone.

"Look, it's Wade!" Meghan pointed to a rather battered dark car that pulled up beside us. Jay was driving.

I leaned my arms on the window opening of the back door where Tamara was sitting, while Meghan stood by the front passenger side facing Wade.

I bent to whisper in Tamara's ear. "I think they're hitting it off."

Tamara nodded and gave me a wide smile. I could tell she approved.

"Want a ride home?" Wade asked Meghan.

She looked indecisive so I popped my head out of the car, nearly pulling out my ponytail on the hook above the window. "Our dad's on his way," I assured Wade as I rubbed my sore head.

He smiled. "Oh, that's right. You told us already."

"I have my cell here," Jay said from the driver's seat. "We could call to make sure."

I shook my head. "Thanks, but it won't do any good. Our parents are always on time."

"Okay, then. See you around."

We stepped back from the car and watched Jay take off. Meghan sighed heavily. I ignored her and started down the sidewalk to pace, hoping it would warm me up a little. The dark sky was cloudless and the stars seemed so close, though I could only begin to understand how far away they really were. I remembered my science teacher at school saying that if you were lucky enough to live to seventy-seven and a half years old, you could look up at the star Regulus in the heart of the constellation Leo and you would be seeing the light that star emitted on the day you were born. Pretty interesting stuff.

Sometimes when I stared up at the sky, I thought I might become an astronomer instead of a heart surgeon. I wondered what it would be like to visit a star.

I laughed aloud at myself. "You've been watching way too much Star Trek."

I walked almost to the end of the sidewalk. Glancing behind me, I saw Meghan sitting on the steps that led to the upper entrance of the Rec. She was staring in the direction Jay's car had gone, as though hoping he and Wade would return.

I decided to walk the remaining few steps and go back. The large lawns of the Rec gave me a feeling of eerie calmness in the dark, but I liked the solitude of it. Sometimes with all the noise at home, it's hard to think.

My thoughts scattered at the sound of an engine. Twirling my dark blue CTR ring on my middle finger, I looked up to see a car coming toward me, headlights blazing like twin suns. I blinked, trying to see past the light. Probably it was Dad, and he'd already picked up Meghan on the stairs. I couldn't see where she had been because of the light in my eyes, but I was sure he would have spotted her first. Stepping to the curb, I reached for the door and opened it.

It wasn't my father's car.

As I registered that fact, a hand whipped out and pulled me inside. It all happened so fast I didn't have time to scream. Or to kick or yell. The driver peeled off in a squeal of tires.

As he turned the car around a corner, I collected myself enough to began to fight back. I clawed at the hand grabbing me, but it held like iron. His other hand left the wheel for a moment and slammed into my head. Stars burst into bright flame all around me and then I was falling backward into a dark hole.

Read the backliner and author's comments.

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