On the Threshold

by Sherrie Ashcraft & Christina Tarabochia

Suzanne—a mother with a long-held secret. Tony—a police officer with something to prove. Beth—a daughter with a storybook future. When all they love is lost, what’s worth living for?

Suzanne Corbin and her daughter, Beth Harris, live a seemingly easy life. Suzanne has distanced herself from her past, replacing pain with fulfillment as a wife and mother, while Beth savors her husband’s love and anticipates the birth of their child. But all that is about to change.

Like a sandcastle buffeted by ocean waves, Suzanne’s façade crumbles when her perfect life is swept away. Tragedy strikes and police officer Tony Barnett intersects with the lives of both women as he tries to discover the truth. Left adrift and drowning in guilt long ignored, Suzanne spirals downward into paralyzing depression. Beth, dealing with her own grief, must face the challenge of forgiveness. Can these two women learn to trust each other again? Will they find the power of God’s grace in their lives?

Chapter 1

Please let there be a heartbeat. This time.

Beth Harris stopped. One more step and the automatic hospital doors would sense her presence, open wide for her to enter. One more step, and she’d be swallowed up. It would be better not to find out. She could continue holding onto hope. But if the news were bad … “Keith, maybe we should reschedule. I’m sure the doctor wouldn’t mind if we waited a few more weeks.”

Her husband pressed his hand into the small of her back, urging her forward. “Beth, you shouldn’t worry. Everything’s fine.”

She sidestepped out of his reach and onto a sunny patch of lawn. “How do you know that? It wasn’t okay last time.”

He settled his shoulders. “Think of how sick you’ve been. That’s a great sign.”

At the mere mention of sickness, Beth’s stomach threatened to rebel.

“God has His hand upon us, sweetie. I feel it in my gut. This baby will be a blessing.”

A couple of scrub-wearing women threaded between Beth and Keith, making their way into the hospital.

His words were meant to comfort, but he wasn’t the one waiting to feel the first flutter, the one physically connected to the little life. He wasn’t the one who feared stillness, feared being unable to carry a child. She didn’t break eye contact with her husband. “And His hand wasn’t on us six months ago?”

“No, that’s not …” Keith blinked. “You know it was, but—”

“But what? What did I do wrong? Why didn’t He give us what we wanted?” That was the real question—the one she’d been too afraid to ask until the threat of a repeat of the experience forced it out of her.

Keith closed the gap she’d put between them. “Don’t be scared, Beth. This isn’t like you.” He tipped her head against his chest and kissed her hair. “Where’s my optimistic wife? Where’s the woman who won’t let anything steal her joy?”

Beth drew back, but wove her fingers through his. “You’re right.” She forced the edges of her mouth into the semblance of a smile. “I’m probably making a fool of myself. The appointment will go fine and then you can make fun of me.”

“That’s better. You were starting to sound like your mother.”

“Keith!” Beth followed her husband through the doors. A trickle of sweat from standing in the summer sunshine made its way between her bony shoulder blades. Despite the circumstances, she’d lost several pounds. “And what’s wrong with my mom?”

“Suzanne’s a glass-is-half-empty kind of person.” Keith looped an arm around her shoulder and steered her toward the lobby desk.

Beth gave the receptionist her name and settled into the waiting room chair next to Keith. She glanced at the women’s bathroom. “And I’m a bladder-is-full kind of person.” If only she could pee …

“Beth Harris?” A pink-shirted escort waited by the check-in desk.

They rose and trailed behind the guide through a maze of hallways. Beth slowed as the lady indicated a room.

Nudging her forward, Keith whispered, “Do not be afraid, for the Lord your God is with you.”

A young technician waited inside the darkened room. “Come on in. I’m Courtney.” She shook their hands and patted an examination table. “Lie back and I’ll get you a pillow.”

Beth stared at the table. The last time …

Keith grasped her hand, helped Beth up, and stood to the side.

The crackling of the paper beneath her, the hum of the machine, the blank screen …

Stay in the moment.

She brought herself back to the room, focused on the atmosphere. The scratch of the paper towels as Courtney tucked them into Beth’s waistband and slid her shirt up. The warmth of the gel applied to her belly. The lingering scent of clean as Courtney stepped over to the sonogram machine. The supportive twinkle in Keith’s eye.

Nothing to be afraid of.

Beth relaxed, her long hair tickling her arms as she laid them flat.

“Are you ready to see your baby?” Courtney flashed a grin at Beth.

The ultrasound technician had no idea what she was asking. Could a woman ever be ready to— “Yes.” Beth swallowed against the catch in her throat. “I’d love to see this baby.”

Please let there be a heartbeat.

A shape formed on the screen: a tiny head perched atop fan-shaped ribs.

She squinted, trying to make out more than the outline.

Keith leaned across the examination table. “That’s the baby?”

Courtney moved the wand over the gel. “Yes, there it is.” She clicked a button on the machine and a black and white image printed out. “And here’s the first picture of your child.”

Keith took the paper. “I think it has your nose, Beth.”

“Better than yours.” She smiled up at him.

The technician angled the instrument, varying the pressure while keeping contact with the same spot. “How far along are you?”

“Ten weeks.”

A long minute passed. Tiny lines of concentration spread across the technician’s forehead, her gaze fixed on the image of the baby. “Did your doctor schedule the ultrasound today?”

An alarm tripped in Beth’s mind. Please, God, please. I can’t handle this again. She reached for Keith’s hand. “No, just a routine appointment. Why? What’s the matter?”

The technician tilted her head and short dark curls bounced around black-rimmed glasses. “I haven’t been doing this very long, so sometimes it takes me awhile to get a good angle.” Restraint dampened the young woman’s easygoing tone.

Keith’s voice sounded gruff. “Something wrong?”

Silence was the only answer.

Beth stared at the monitor, at the pale circle floating in the grayness of her womb. Cool hospital air whispered over her heated skin. The walls of the room closed in. “What’s wrong?” She choked out the words. “What’s the matter with our baby?”

“Mrs. Harris, I’m sorry. Our instructors drilled it into us, class after class. We’re not allowed to talk about what we see. That’s your doctor’s job and we’re only lowly techs. That said, this is your baby. If I see the heartbeat, I’ll tell you. And, if I don’t …” Courtney glanced at Keith, then Beth.

There had to be some mistake. Courtney was inexperienced—by her own admission. She must be misreading the machine. They could all see the baby on the screen.

The picture rotated as Courtney tried angle after angle. Time passed in stark silence. Courtney put the wand down and slipped from the room.

Beth continued to stare at the empty screen. Please let her be wrong.

Courtney returned with an older man, gray hair flirting with his temples.

He moved toward the table. “I’m John. Mind if I have a look?”

Beth nodded. “Please do.” The wand, in John’s capable hands, would wield magic and the screen would show the difference.

John found the same spot and transmitted the image to the monitor.

Keith stroked Beth’s hand, drawing her attention his way. Eyes large, he looked like he wanted her to ask more questions, to have the man explain what was happening.

No way was she missing the first white pulse of heartbeat. She turned back to the screen, willing the baby’s heart to pump, pump, pump. Then sighs of relief would drown out the ominous quiet.

Keith breathed heavily.

She hardly breathed at all.

“Courtney,” John said. “Call their doctor and have him fit these folks in as soon as he can.”

Her eyes drifted shut, hope killed by reality. Why wouldn’t anyone give voice to the obvious?

Someone wiped the gel off and pulled her shirt into place.

Keith lifted her head in his sturdy hands and kissed her cheek. She kept her eyes closed as he helped her sit up and slide off the table.

Was it really gone? Again? Another baby they’d spent the last two years planning for? She would never be able to walk into the freshly painted nursery, pass the unassembled crib, or touch the soft onesies accumulating in the dresser drawer.

“Beth, honey.” Keith drew her into a hug, brushed her hair to the side, and placed another kiss on the nape of her neck. ‘Honey, I—” Beth snapped her eyes open, grabbed the ultrasound printout, and crumpled it. “I don’t want to talk about it. Not yet.” She dropped the picture into the trash on the way out.

Chapter 2

“Well, isn’t this the cutest thing?” The woman’s soft, southern accent melted into Suzanne’s thoughts like a pat of butter on steaming grits.

She turned toward the customer, who held a wooden plaque with a carved beaver attached to it, and pasted on a smile. “Those are made by a local man. He finds driftwood along the river and carves unique figures from each one.” Forget the question of why someone would want a beaver doorknocker with Beaver Falls, Oregon burned into the wood.

“Hmm.”

Not quite an enthusiastic response. Suzanne moved from behind a distressed antique farm table, its surface rich with the sheen of polish and the stories of its past. “Go ahead and try it. We’ve got a special this week—ten percent off.” She’d tell her boss about the special after the sale.

The lady lifted the beaver’s tail and let go. Wood slapped wood. “Still kinda expensive, though.” She set it down and drifted to another display.

“Have you seen our line of homemade candles?” Suzanne pointed toward the wooden crates tipped along the wall. “My favorites are the cinnamon and the orange cream.”

Even a ten-dollar sale would help the store. The rumored closing of the nearby lumber mill made for slow business. Who wanted to spend hard-earned money on knick-knacks, let alone heirloom furniture, when they were unsure of how many more paychecks remained? But a tourist might sink a few dollars into the local economy.

The woman lifted a candle to her nose, sniffed, and set it back into the crate. “Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow and show my husband what y’all have.”

“We’d love to see you again.” Suzanne folded a handmade scarf while she followed the woman to the door. “Thanks for stopping by.”

As the woman left the shop, the back alley door opened and Nancy Benson—best friend first, boss second—entered the shop.

Suzanne smiled. Things should liven up.

“Hey, I brought you a double shot Mocha Caramel Delight and a granola bar. I figured they’d cancel each other out.” Nancy plucked the coffee bean from the whipped cream mounded on top of the drink before passing the cup to Suzanne. “How’s business today?”

Suzanne shook her head. “The usual. A couple lookers, no buyers.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.” Nancy grimaced, her expression highlighting reddened eyes. “I’ve got to hole up in my office and go over some paperwork.” She closed the door partway, then stuck her head back out. “But feel free to disturb me if you can’t handle the flood of customers.”

As if that would ever happen.

The door clicked shut.

Why the bloodshot eyes? And shutting the door? Treating Suzanne like she was just some employee?

She snatched an antibacterial wipe from the cleaning supplies and ran it along the counter next to the office, ears straining.

Nancy’s voice came through the closed door, hesitancy coloring the indecipherable syllables.

After a glacially slow day, Suzanne flipped the sign to CLOSED and locked the front door.

“Suzanne? Can you come in here, please?” Nancy sounded tense.

Stomach rolling, Suzanne headed to the back of the store. Something didn’t feel right. “What’s going on?”

Nancy clicked her manicured nails on the dark cherry desk. “It’s over. I’m closing the store. Shutting it down.”

“Wait a minute.” Suzanne bounced her palms at Nancy in a sign to slow down. “Why don’t we try one of those advertising ideas I emailed you last month? Then—”

“Nobody wants what we’re selling. Ads in the gazette can’t fix that.”

“Actually, isn’t that exactly what advertising does? Convinces people to buy things they don’t need?” Her voice rose. How could Nancy be so blasé?

“It’s too late, Suzanne. You can’t talk me out of this one. I already signed on the dotted line.”

There were few things in life Suzanne couldn’t talk into going her way. This appeared to be one of them. She collapsed into the nearby chair as the fight left her body. “So you’re really closing A Backwards Glance?”

Nancy’s tone softened. “You know I’m not making any money. I’ve worked a deal with a woman in Salem for the inventory, and I got out of the lease on this space. A sporting goods store is coming in.”

“So I’m out of a job and you’re out of a dream?”

“I’m sorry, Suz. It’s not the way I wanted things to go.”

Suzanne ran a hand over her hair, smoothing wayward strands. Made sense. Instead of scented candles and furniture polish, the place would smell like fish bait and vinyl. The same men placing a freeze on their wives’ spending would still need hunting equipment. Punching bags. Running shoes. Anything to keep them busy after they received pink slips.

“I can pay you for next week if you come in and help me get everything boxed up and ready to go.”

“Nance, is there any other way? You love this store.”

“I could keep going until we lose our house and declare bankruptcy.” Nancy shook her head. “But somehow I don’t think that’s the best option.”

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

Nancy sighed. “There was nothing you could do. Why make you worry?”

“What does Jim think?”

“He’s disappointed for me, of course. He knows how much I wanted to make this succeed. But I think he’s secretly glad I’ll be around more.” Nancy offered a tired smile. “Why don’t you go home? I’ll finish up and get the deposit ready.”

“You sure? There’s so much money, I’m not certain you’re safe carrying it to the bank without an armed guard.”

Nancy flapped her hand. “Take your purse and your sarcasm and go. Leave me to my misery.”

Suzanne stood and gave her friend a hug.

****

She fastened her seat belt and pulled into the little town’s version of rush hour. A headache throbbing behind her temples, Suzanne fumbled in her purse for a bottle of aspirin. She popped the plastic top with her thumb and shook two tablets into her other palm, steering by holding the wheel between her knees. Jake would kill her if he knew, but it took only a moment. Both hands were back on the wheel before the last pill made its dry journey down her throat.

A thump against her front fender jolted her attention back to the road. Slamming on the brakes, she brought the car to a halt.

“Pay attention!” The angry voice of one of Beaver Falls police officers carried through her raised window.

What had she hit? Ten feet in front of her, two cars were smashed together. Looked like the police had taken traffic cones from nearby construction and blocked off the right lane.

The policeman motioned for her to back up and pulled a crumpled cone from underneath the frame of her car.

She fumbled for the correct button and lowered the automatic window. “I’m so sorry, Officer.” Pain in her head pulsed a crazy rhythm. “I didn’t see it.”

“Keep your eyes on the road. I don’t need to deal with another accident.”

“Yes, I’m so sorry.” She waited until he crossed in front of her before pressing the gas pedal.

Unwanted tears threatened and she willed them away. What an awful day—pinning hopes on every customer, losing her job, watching Nancy forfeit her dream, and an almost literal run-in with the police.

No way could she cook tonight. The pork chops thawing in the refrigerator would have to wait for tomorrow. She’d stop at the store for deli meat and hoagie buns. Better yet, a big bucket of fried chicken and a container of potato salad. Jake could take the leftovers for lunch.

Her cell phone rang. Not now. She didn’t feel like talking to anyone except her husband … and maybe not even him. She checked the caller ID.

Beth. Okay, make that anyone except Jake or Beth.

She pulled to the side of the road. “Hi, honey.” Suzanne forced a pleasant tone. “Mom?” Beth sniffed, voice breaking. “I need you.”

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