Chapter 17

© Copyright 2006 by Kendra Cornell

Paul locked his office behind him, heaviness of thought weighting his actions. While he had been clearing the basement of the remains of the meal, he had heard Larry spreading gossip among the few who still thrived on such things. Concerned, Paul had approached the group in an effort to clear the air. Led by Larry, several of them rose and turned their backs on him, one muttering, “Always knew it would come to something like this.” For several moments, Paul had stood there in shock.

As usual, Paul had gone to the Lord, but tonight, his heart was heavy and there was no peace. It just seemed that things were getting more complicated and ugly as the days passed. There had only been two times in his life when Paul had truly felt separated from the Lord. Paul had identified with the Old Testament King Hezekiah, who had gone through a similar process as the Lord had attempted to teach him. Paul understood that concept in his head, but it was a far cry from his heart embracing the bitterness and anguish he had felt in those dark times of growth.

He headed out towards the exit, when he noticed that the front chapel door was open casting a yellow glow into the darkened foyer. That’s funny, he thought. I know I closed that. I always leave it closed.

Crossing the foyer, he reached out to shut the door when he saw a dark smear on the floor. No, not one, but a series… almost like footsteps. Swallowing his nervousness, Paul looked around for a weapon, just something he could use in case someone had broken into the church. The doors to the church automatically locked, so the only possibility was that someone had broken in…

Emptying a brass urn filled with fake ferns, Paul held the bulbous item by its handle and walked slowly into the chapel. Nothing odd met his gaze immediately, so he followed the dark smears on the floor across the front of the chapel and up the center aisle. What met his gaze caused him to drop the urn with the subtlety of a clanging gong. A beautiful, but injured blonde woman was passed out in a pew, one arm dangling awkwardly and, it seemed, painfully away from her body.

When the urn hit the floor, the woman bolted upright and she tried to stand before crying out in pain and falling back down into the pew. She drew her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth, biting her lower lip and squeezing back tears through eyes shut in agony. Her body shuddered with every breath. She still hadn’t seen Paul.

He cleared his throat quietly, trying to get her attention. Her head swiveled in his direction, and he saw panic register as she looked around wildly. Before he knew what had happened, she seized the heavy texts on the pew beside here, heaving them awkwardly with a clearly aching body. She desperately pulled herself with only her upper body away from him, throwing books as they came into reach.

“Whoa! Wait- Stop Please! I won’t hurt you! I promise!” Paul began to back away from her, deflecting the books with outstretched hands. The woman was obviously in a lot of pain. Her features were etched with it and her hands trembled violently. Mascara ran down her cheeks in dried streaks. There were scratches on her hands and her face. But her clothing didn’t look remotely like a street-persons’. She was dressed in a rumpled and torn pink running suit that still looked somewhat new.

She stilled, her eyes wide and panicked. Not knowing what else to do, he spoke to her softly. “I’m Paul. I’m the pastor here.” He backed up and sat down across the aisle and down several rows. Her chest heaved as she breathed heavily, her eyes never leaving his face. Her hair was tangled with twigs, and leaves, but still shown with a glossiness that glowed in the dim light as it fell around her face. “What’s your name?”

Karen didn’t answer him, still disoriented from being awoken so abruptly. She had no idea who this man was, but he didn’t seem to be chasing her. He didn’t seem to have any idea who she was. And the plain fact of the matter was that she was no longer in any shape to keep running. Nor did she want to. Exhaustion seeped any remaining energy from her bones every moment that she sat there. Little strength remained to make her care if she ended up in police custody, but life still coursed through her body and she would defend herself if his only intention was to hurt her.

“Okay, uh… Ma’am. Are you hurt? I followed a trail in here…”

Karen looked at her feet. They were raw and painful. “My feet,” her voice was thin and scratchy.

Paul rose slowly and stretched a hand out. “May I please take a look? I promise I won’t hurt you. I just want to see if there’s anything I can do.”

Wary, but pained, Karen gave up and nodded, judging that this spectacled man posed little threat after all. Paul approached her slowly, much as he would’ve a frightened animal. He didn’t want to startle her with anything she might consider aggressive. When he saw the state her feet were in, he tried not to gasp.

“Uh, Ma’am? We’ve got to get you to a doctor… now.” Paul understood now why she had not been able to get up and leave. He had a hard time believing she had made it into the church at all. “Were you in some kind of accident?”

“No! No doctors- I can’t see anyone right now,” Karen shook her head in a panic.

Paul immediately backed off. “Okay… Okay,” he said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “But we have to get you cleaned up. Or those feet are going to get infected.”

Karen looked up at him, not knowing how wide her eyes were or how child-like she appeared with her hair around her face. “I can’t walk.” She stated it as fact.

“May I… My house is right across the street. I have bandages, soap, water… At least we could get a better look at what’s the matter there.”

“Promise me you won’t call anyone. NO ONE,” she said with a force he couldn’t believe was coming out of a woman as wounded as she seemed to be at the moment.

“You have my word,” and Paul approached her in a somewhat bumbling manner. Karen wasn’t quite sure what she expected- possibly to be thrown over his shoulder, or forced to walk with a bit of support perhaps. But it definitely wasn’t the inexpert gentleness he used to pick her up in both arms.

Paul noticed her trying not to lean into him and he didn’t want her to exert herself needlessly. “It would help if you could relax just a bit.” The woman put an arm around his shoulder and Paul turned sideways trying to exit the wider doors at the back of the chapel, knowing it wouldn’t be as difficult to carry her out that way. Slowly, he walked up the aisle and out the doors. Then he doubled back through the dark foyer and down the stairs to the exit.

“Can you stand? Just for a moment? I have to get this door opened,” he said gently and quietly. The doors of the church just couldn’t be navigated holding her. Paul set her down as temperately as he could manage and felt rather than heard an intake of breath that signaled pain on her part. She limped out the door only a few steps and staggered against him.

“I’m sorry… I just can’t seem to, not anymore,” she breathed, her voice sounding almost on the verge of tears.

He deftly locked the door in the shadowy darkness and picked her up again, cradling her against himself. She was in a lot of pain and doing everything she could not to show it. Paul walked the short distance to his house easily and set her in the front porch swing while he unlocked the door. Quickly, he leaned in and turned on the porch light and a light in the living room as well. He returned to her and picked her up unhurriedly.

Karen was surprised by the house they entered. It was warm and homey- not at all what she would have expected a man to have. Overstuffed furniture looked inviting on the honey-colored wood floors. There were rag rugs scattered about, and soft paintings hung on the walls. It felt… nice… quiet… safe. Paul walked her across the floor of the living room and set her down on the sofa.

“I’m going to get a basin and some soap and a washcloth. Can I get you something to eat or drink while I set that up?”

Karen looked around, “No, thanks, but could you please close the blinds?”

“Yes, of course-” and Paul crossed the room to do as she had asked. Bit paranoid, he thought. But what do I know? She’s obviously been through a lot.

He went to his kitchen and filled a shallow plastic basin with warm water. He got out a clean, old washcloth, hoping that age would have softened it a bit. Gathering a first aid kit and some soap, he entered again into his living room. She hadn’t moved, but was staring interestedly at the room. She met his gaze when he came back in.

“This is going to hurt, isn’t it…” she said more as statement than question.

“More than likely,” Paul said, “But I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t hurt any more than it has to.” Gently, he supported one foot with his hand and guided it to the basin. Her feet were covered with dirt and blood and he had to get some of that off before he could assess the damage.

As Karen’s foot met the water, pain rushed in great spasms up and down her leg. Her hands dug violently into the cushions of the couch and she fought against the urge to scream. Tears again leaked out the corners of her eyes- she couldn’t help it. She bit down on her bottom lip, until she thought she was going to pass out. Just as suddenly, relief met the pain in a cooling sensation.

Seeing her discomfort, Paul had pulled her foot out of the water and began blowing on it gently trying to ease the pain. Her eyes opened slowly.

“You can go ahead and cry. But you’re going to bite through your lip if you keep that up, and then I won’t have any choice but to take you to a hospital. We can go as slowly as you need, but we have to get your feet cleaned up.” His voice was gentle but filled with quiet authority.

Karen nodded, trying to find new resolve and feeling grateful and confused at his thoughtfulness. The pain wasn’t as bad when he lowered her foot back into the water. He swished the cloth over her foot, dislodging bigger bits of debris and loosening the detritus of the last few days. The scrapes and scratches were cleaned out and then he dried the foot on a soft towel and examined it. “You have a few slivers that are probably going to be somewhat painful if we don’t get them out. Can you take any more right now?”

Again, Karen nodded her head. Paul got up and headed up the stairs, returning with a small needle and a pair of tweezers.

“I have to warn you, I’m not very good at this. I haven’t had a whole lot of practice.”

“It’s okay. Go ahead and do what you need to do.”

Paul removed three large slivers and examined a number of smaller ones that were going to have to work their own way out. He applied salve to her entire foot realizing that he would have affected the same thing if he tried to do each cut individually. Wrapping the foot in some loose, white gauze, he set it down and asked her, “Are you ready to do the other one?”

He picked up the basin that was now filled with filthy water and grimaced. “Hold that thought. I’d better get some fresh water.”

Karen leaned her head back. The dirty foot hurt less than the newly cleaned one and part of her wanted him to leave it alone. But she could take it- she had no choice. He was right… If she didn’t get these cleaned up, they would get infected.

Paul returned moments later, watching the woman with the long blonde hair resting on his couch. Something unnerved him, but he wasn’t sure what it was. Did he know her? Ignoring the inner warning, he set about the task of cleaning her other foot through much the same process. She seemed to be able to bear it better than before. Or perhaps she was beyond feeling.

After he finished and cleaned up, he sat across from her.

“Can you tell me your name now?”

After a momentary pause, she said quietly, “Karen,” and attempted a smile.

“Nice to meet you Karen. It’s late, and you look like you’re about ready to fall apart at the seams.”

The assessment wasn’t far off base.

He continued just as quietly, “I have a spare room upstairs where I’m sure you’ll be comfortable tonight, if you’d like.”

Though his words were similar to Jeff Yendale’s, either Karen was beyond caring or she trusted this man at some subconscious level that she couldn’t understand right now.

“I’d appreciate that very much. And… Thank you for your kindness tonight,” she said softly, swallowing back another round of tears that threatened to crack her facade. Confusion overwhelmed her- that though she had faced much worse, it was this man’s kindness that made her cry. But she wouldn’t let him see the tears.

“It was my pleasure, Karen. Let’s get you settled.”

Once again, Paul gently picked her up, but this time she didn’t fight it. He carried her up the stairs and set her down on the quilt his mother had made. Before he had even gathered another quilt with which to cover her, Karen had fallen deeply asleep with her head on the pillow.

“Good night. I guess we’ll figure this out in the morning,” said Paul softly as he shut the door.

HEY! and don't forget to e-mail Kendra Cornell if you have a comment! She would really like to hear from you.

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