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Ariana: A Gift Most Precious

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©1997 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.

Chapter One

The fluorescent lights hurt my eyes, already burning from the tears I had shed the night before and again today. Around me, people moved with purpose; only I sat slumped motionless against the wall, waiting to hear if she would be all right. I hadn't been to the hospital except for the times I'd had a baby . . . and when Nette died. The memory made me suddenly afraid that Paulette, too, had come here to die. Please tell me she's all right! The thought was a silent prayer.

It was what Jean-Marc would term a perfect ending to a really rotten day. Of course he wasn't here to say it, and even if he were, I'd be too angry to listen. It's all his fault, I wanted to mutter, but I knew I had no one to blame except myself.

The carpet in the waiting room was brown instead of the unsightly orange that had lined the floor in the hospital where I had lost my daughter; the observation offered meager comfort. A nurse at the nearby desk glanced up at me from the paperwork in front of her. She smiled kindly, but I felt it was more from habit than from any feeling of compassion. Her smile didn't reach her tired eyes, and I knew she would much rather be home with her family than working the night shift.

Even at this hour, the lights on the hospital phone winked furiously. I wondered who could be calling so late and what emergencies had driven them from their beds. The wild blinking echoed the raging emotions in my heart and contrasted sharply with the quiet intensity around me. Crossing my arms over my chest, I rubbed the flesh under my long-sleeved shirt for warmth, ignoring the chestnut-colored jacket thrown carelessly across my lap. I wondered if Paulette were dying—or perhaps the baby she carried inside. Even as the thought came, I prayed more fervently for it not to be so. Paulette had been through too much already. Besides—it was impossible to stop the selfish thought—I needed her, especially since Jean-Marc had walked out on me last night, suitcase in hand. I still didn't understand how I had let that happen.

Though my current troubles had begun months ago, they had come to a climax the morning before. I had been in the kitchen frying eggs, wishing I had earplugs to block out the clamor the twins and André made as they banged their spoons against their dishes in raucous discord. André's rice cereal sloshed out of his bowl, making the high chair tray look like a war zone. I think he put more cereal on his body than in it.

"Good morning, Ari," Jean-Marc had said from the kitchen doorway. My husband's trim figure was smartly dressed in a dark-gray suit, a wool and polyester blend. On his face was the familiar grin I adored. He crossed the room and gave me a kiss.

Peering into the shiny metal surface of the toaster oven, I ran a quick hand through my dark-brown hair that was cut short to fall in wisps about my neck. I noted with satisfaction that I hadn't really changed all that much since Jean-Marc and I had met while he was serving his mission here in Paris. My laugh lines were deeper and I was more experienced, but that was all.

I turned to see Jean-Marc trying to get the baby cereal out of André's ears. Our son cried and tried to push the cloth away.

I walked over. "There, there, André. Poor child." I took the baby out of the high chair and away from Jean-Marc. "There's no hope, honey. He needs a bath."

He threw the cloth at me, but I ducked and it landed on the stove. We both laughed and hugged each other tightly. André objected loudly to the squeeze.

"See you tonight," Jean-Marc said, releasing me.

"But I've got breakfast nearly ready," I protested. I usually didn't bother with more than a few croissants and hot chocolate, but I had wanted to make this day different. Jean-Marc adored eggs in the morning—a habit gained from one of his American missionary companions.

He sniffed the air appreciatively. "It smells good, but I really have to go. Your father and I are visiting the new branch today and we want to get an early start. He's probably waiting outside. We'll grab something at the corner bakery on the way."

I sighed. Sometimes I hated the fact that my father, Géralde Merson, was president and partial owner of the bank, and that Jean-Marc was rising ever higher in the bank hierarchy. "But you'll be home early, won't you? Remember our date?" There was an adult dance at the church building, and we were going. We hadn't been out alone together for months, and I had finally taken a stand and made plans to attend. My mother would baby-sit our four-year-old twins and one-year-old André.

"Yeah, I remember." He bent to kiss the children. "You guys are getting so big," he cooed. Briefcase in hand, he was nearly at the door before our son stopped him.

"Wait!" little Marc yelled accusingly. "Prayer. You forgot!"

Jean-Marc returned and stood against the wall, bowing his head as Marc prayed. He kissed us again and jogged down the hall. "Goodbye!" He tossed the word over his shoulder like a bag of laundry. I felt a little upset at his hasty departure, but was determined to enjoy myself that night, and I wouldn't be able to do so if I held a grudge.

The time for our date came and went with no word from my husband. While I was hurt, I wasn't really surprised. I tried to call the bank, though I knew it was almost a hopeless endeavor. Jean-Marc spent most of his workdays out of the office with clients or on the phone, staying long after closing. At least the receptionist was still there.

"This is Ariana," I said when she answered. "I need to speak with Jean-Marc."

"He's not here. Shall I transfer you to the other branch?"

"Yes, thank you." But he wasn't at the second branch either, and they didn't know where he was. I left a message and hung up. Next, I called my mother to tell her I didn't need her to watch the children after all.

My anger simmered inside me more hotly than the soup I made the children for dinner. "Bedtime," I said when they were finished eating.

"I'll get the Book of Mormon!" Josette shouted.

"No, me!" Marc was out of his chair in a flash.

I read them the story of how the brother of Jared made sixteen small, transparent stones to put in the eight boats, and how they shone when the Lord touched them with his finger.

"And then Jesus showed himself to the brother of Jared," I explained, "because he had so much faith."

"I wish I could make stuff light up," Marc said.

"Where are those rocks now?" asked Josette. I didn't know and told her so.

"I bet Daddy knows," Marc said.

I rolled my eyes. "We'll ask him tomorrow. It's Saturday."

"Saturday! Maybe we can play tiger!" the twins shouted. Saturday morning was the one time Jean-Marc usually spent with the children—or had, up until a few months ago. The children would come into our room and wrestle on our bed until finally hunger took control, and Daddy got up to make breakfast. Then I would enjoy a leisurely bath alone, without any peering eyes. I wondered that the twins still remembered.

"And aren't we going to the Saint-Martin tomorrow?" Marc asked.

"Daddy promised," Josette added quickly.

The Canal Saint-Martin in Paris was the world's only underground urban canal. We had promised to take the children there months ago after they had seen a special about it on television. We had already changed the date twice because of Jean-Marc's work.

"Then we'll go," I assured them.

It took another half-hour to put the children to bed. It wasn't an easy task alone, but one I had grown used to in the past year. And all the while my resentment built inside me until I wondered if I might explode.

Jean-Marc came home around ten. "Are you still in your pajamas?" he joked when he found me in bed reading a book. With his green-brown eyes twinkling, he looked vital and alive.

I glared at him.

"What is it?" he asked. Suddenly realization dawned, and he smacked his forehead with his open palm. "The church activity! I forgot. I'm really sorry, Ari."

"It's okay," I murmured untruthfully, as I had so many other times.

"Well, I practically closed the deal I've been working on," he said, looking relieved. "Tomorrow I'll wrap it up."

"Tomorrow?" I felt my eyes narrow. "But it's Saturday, and we're taking the children to the Saint-Martin canal. We've been planning this for months. They're so excited about it; we can't let them down again."

Once more he smacked his forehead. "I forgot about that. I can't do it, Ari. We'll go next time. They'll understand."

I pictured the disappointment on the twins' faces when they learned their father had once again canceled on them, on us. The anger I'd held in check for months boiled to the surface as I got out of bed and began to pace around the room. "They'll understand that your work is much more important than they are," I said acidly. "Or me."

"I'm working for us," he retorted. "As soon as we're set, I'll slow down. I'm only doing it for—"

"We don't need your money! We need you! The children, especially." Now that I had begun, I couldn't stop the hot torrent of words. "I'm sick of waiting in line for time with you. Home is not just where you come to sleep! I see the man at the corner bread store more than I see you!"

"That's not fair," he said. "Stop stalking around like an angry bull, and let's talk about this reasonably." He tried to draw me close, but I was sick of listening to "reason" tinged with his bias. Besides, his touch always affected my judgment. I pulled away.

He released me and ran a hand through his hair. His face had grown stiff, and I felt a wall forming between us. "We've been through this before, Ari. It's only for a short time."

"Is it? I'm not so sure. Not even my father, who owns the bank, works as much as you do. He at least came home at night before Antoine and I were in bed. Tell me, how often do you see your children? Saturday mornings and Sundays? Yes, that's about it. And half the time on Sunday you're at church meetings. You're not around or available at the important intersections of life. You sleep here, but that's all." I put my hands on his shoulders and stared into his eyes. "Jean-Marc, we need you now, not ten years from now. In ten years, if the children haven't learned to trust you and go to you with their problems, they won't ever do it. It'll be too late!"

He took my hands from his shoulders and held them. "It was for this new branch, Ari. That's all."

"And what was your excuse last year?" I took my hand from his, threw open the closet, and pulled his suitcase down from the top shelf, driven by my anger. "Maybe if you don't want to be with us, you should leave," I said, thrusting it into his arms. "Maybe our children would see you more if you didn't live here."

I was trying to make a point, trying to show him how serious the situation had become. He wasn't just a man who worked overtime during deadlines, but a man so obsessed with his job that he neglected his children, his family. Me. I was through simmering about it; the time had come for a change.

I met his eyes and saw hurt there, but it seemed deeply buried beneath his own anger. "Fine," he said through gritted teeth. "I'll leave."

His words pierced me. My insides seemed to tear apart as I watched him hastily throw a few things into his worn case. I loved him. What was I doing? What were we doing? Weren't we married for eternity? I wanted to throw myself in his arms and tell him I didn't mean what I had said and beg him to stay.

But I did mean what I'd said. We had been sealed in God's temple for eternity, but I didn't want to live my life alone, waiting for eternity to come.

He clicked the suitcase shut and left the room, pausing momentarily at the door, but not looking back at me. His jaw worked and he seemed about to speak, then he shook his head once and stalked down the hall, leaving whatever it was unsaid.

I couldn't believe he was actually leaving. He wouldn't do that. He couldn't! I waited in our room for him to come back. He didn't. Tears came, searing and painful. What have I done? But even as the question came, I resolved to see it through. I had to protect my children.

By losing their father? The accusing words seemed to come from the oppressive silence.

I was almost relieved when a cry came from the twins' bedroom. Unlike little André, they still had difficulty sleeping through the night. I wiped my tears on the long sleeve of my nightgown and went down the hall, wondering how I would tell them tomorrow that not only was their daddy not taking them to the canal, but that he wouldn't be coming home at all. Perhaps I would take them by myself. The sad thing was that they might not notice the difference.

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