Allison Chamberlain thought she was doing everything God required of her—but as her journey continues in the second book of The Reluctant Prophet series, she might have to let go of everything she loves to follow the call.
About the Author
Nancy Rue is the award-winning author of more than 100 books for adults and teens, including The Reluctant Prophet and Healing Waters (with Steve Arterburn), which was the 2009 Women of Faith Novel of the Year. She travels extensively—at times on the back of a Harley—speaking to and teaching groups of ’tween girls and their moms. In her spare time, she mentors aspiring Christian authors. Nancy lives on a lake in Tennessee with her Harley-ridin’ husband, Jim, and their two yellow Labs (without whom writing would be difficult).
Read an Excerpt
Unexpected DismountsA Novel
By Nancy Rue
David C. CookCopyright © 2011 Nancy Rue
All right reserved.
Chapter OneYou'd think I would know what my next move was supposed to be.
Seriously. I found Jesus seven years ago. Two months ago I'd finally discovered what to do with him. But now, as I squinted through eyelids that were supposed to be closed in contemplation and peeked at the five women kneeling around the trunk-turned-coffee-table, I had no idea what Jesus was doing with me. For somebody who's supposed to be a prophet, that would be an important thing to know.
Hank opened her eyes and reached for the soup bowl we were using for the ashes. She always seemed sure of her next move, which made me wonder why she wasn't the one God picked out for the whole prophecy thing. If God had asked me, I'd have said Henrietta D'Angelo was infinitely more qualified than Allison Chamberlain. But then, I hadn't been consulted.
"My Sisters," Hank said.
The other four heads came up. Hank spread her fingers just above the fine black dust, and Mercedes eyed it suspiciously, pursing the voluptuous lips that let no mess go unscolded-at. She had scrubbed the trunk top within an inch of its gone-shabby life before we started the service, and I'd have bet money she had a sponge at the ready in her lap right now so she could wipe off any escaping specks. Mercedes could not be convinced that "Cleanliness be right next to godly-ness" wasn't a verse in the Bible.
"It was the custom among the early Christians," Hank said, "to use this season of Lent to prepare new believers for holy baptism." She swept the group with a warm gaze. "That would be you."
Jasmine's big liquid eyes, of course, spilled over. Mercedes handed her a Kleenex.
"And it's a time for anyone who's turned away from God to change direction and—"
"I ain't no Catholic."
We all looked at Zelda. Her face was pinched, though, granted, some of that was due to the way she had punished her drug-broken hair into a pitiful ponytail. But her eyes slit down even farther as she pointed her chin at Hank like an accusing finger.
"Lent isn't just for Catholics," Hank said, with vintage patience. That particular Jobesque quality was the reason I wasn't answering the questions.
Zelda sniffed. "My granddaddy was a Mefodis' preacher and he never did no Lent."
Sherry leaned into a shaft of noon light shooting across the tiny living room. "Maybe he should have."
"I ain't the only one need to 'change my direction,'" Zelda snapped back at her.
Hank folded her compact hands, my cue to take over. I did know the answer to this one.
"Exactly," I said. "You notice that I'm kneeling right here beside you with my own pile of stuff."
"We don't got to say it out loud, do we?" Zelda chopped her arms into a fold across her chest. "I ain't doin' that."
Mercedes mumbled something—I thought it was "Well, you got to do it sometime ..."—but I shook my head at Zelda. "This can be between you and God. It's about feeling the separation and wanting to close it up."
Jasmine let a small sob escape. Zelda pulled her glasses down her nose and peered at her. "I don't got to cry, do I?"
"What you got to do is hush up so we can concentrate," Mercedes said.
I put my hand on Mercedes's arm and nodded Hank on. A smile played at Hank's lips. She probably hadn't run into this kind of discussion at Ash Wednesday services when she was an army chaplain. There wasn't a lot of saluting and accepting without question around here.
"Ladies," Hank said, "this is an invitation to continue looking at yourself and going to God with the things that are getting between you and him."
Jasmine sniffled. Zelda snorted. I squeezed the lifeblood out of Mercedes's arm.
"We'll all have the opportunity to pray and fast and think about God's Word," Hank went on. "And if we want to deny ourselves something to bring this time into deeper focus, we'll support each other in that."
"I don't got to deny myself nothin'." Zelda's voice was like a tight rubber band. "Y'all have done enough denyin' for me."
Jasmine burst completely into tears. "Miss Angel, can't you stop her?" she said to me. "She ruinin' everything."
Mercedes gave her signature mmm-mmm, followed by, "Somebody got to, and I know you don't want me doin' it."
Yeah, see, this was where it was blatantly obvious to me that I was not cut out to be the prophetic spiritual leader of this little band. I did okay when I actually got the Nudge from God on how to proceed in these kinds of situations. But recently God hadn't been so much with the Nudges or the shoves or, for that matter, the slightest hints.
I surveyed the full gamut of expressions in front of me: Jasmine's puffy-eyed pleading, Zelda's adolescent resentment in a thirty-year-old face, Sherry's pale but powerful I'm-about-to-smack-somebody, and Mercedes's dark, smoldering I'm-about-to-smack-everybody. I'd have taken an out-and-out punch in the face from God right now. Since I wasn't getting that, I had to go with what I already had in the bag.
"All right, here's the deal," I said. "Every one of us is in a different place, so every one of us is going to approach this differently."
"Or not at all," Zelda said.
"Or not at all."
Sherry raised an almost-transparent white hand. "But if somebody doesn't even try, does she still get to stay? I mean, I could have this all messed up in my head, but isn't Sacrament House about wanting to get healed from all your junk?"
Zelda's face nearly came to a point. "You sayin' I ain't already workin' my steps?"
"Okay, look," I said. "We're here to go from wherever we are ... to where God wants to take us. There are ways to open up to God doing God's thing in us, and that's what this is about. So, what do you say we just listen to Hank and take it from there?"
Mercedes devoured Zelda with her eyes. "In other words—"
"I don't think we need any other words on that at the moment," I said. "Hank, let's go for it."
Zelda sat back on her heels. Hank waited until Mercedes stopped breathing like a freight train and then held her square hands out, palms up, over the bowl. All the straight-up Boston smoothed from her face as she tilted her dark head back and spoke.
"Father, you have made us from the dust of the earth. Please let these ashes be a sign of our human failing and our desire to be reconciled to you. Help us to remember that it is by you that we are forever forgiven."
Finally, Sacrament House was wrapped in the cotton silence I loved. With Zelda hardening like a corpse beside me, I knew it wouldn't last long, but I settled into the moment. I hadn't done that much settling in the past few weeks. Maybe that was why it felt like God had given my assignment to somebody else, somewhere else, and I was left alone to deal with four recovering drug-addict-former-prostitutes in a thousand-square-foot house.
Just a little poke, God. It doesn't have to be Allison, go buy a Harley. Although, if you will recall, I did that, along with everything else you've pushed me to do ...
"You're free to just stay in this quiet space," Hank said.
I sneaked a glance at her to make sure she hadn't telepathically heard my thoughts, as, personally, I believed she did half the time. But her gaze was once more sweeping over the Sacrament Sisters.
"If you'd like to have a cross in ashes on your forehead, just nod as I touch your hand."
Jasmine was already bobbing her head and soundlessly weeping. God love her. She cried every time Mercedes smashed a cockroach in the kitchen. This was sending her right over the top. She had about thirty years of held-back tears to shed, and she'd cried only fifteen years' worth since she came off the street.
Hank dipped her thumb into the ashes and placed it against Jasmine's bronze forehead. "Remember that you are dust," she said, "and to dust you shall return."
Beside me, Zelda went so stiff I was convinced rigor mortis had set in. Hank turned to Sherry, who nodded and seemed to turn another shade of pallid as Hank pressed a cross just beneath her thin hairline. The starkness of it made her look even younger than her twenty-three years.
Mercedes didn't have to nod. She closed her eyes and lifted her face to Hank like she was waiting for a kiss. The cross nearly disappeared against her earthy skin, but I had a feeling it burned on the inside. Among the four of them, no one worked harder to own her stuff. I was convinced all Mercedes's oven scrubbing and toilet disinfecting was a reflection of the scouring going on in her soul. I felt like a slacker next to her on a daily basis.
Hank looked at me, thumb blackened and poised, and I offered her my head. I wasn't sure which was more velvety—Hank's touch or the puff of ashes themselves. "Remember that you are dust," she said.
There was no doubt about that. It struck me that maybe God had decided I was more dust than anything else, that I needed more work before I was going to be of further use.
And then it struck me that Zelda's glasses were flying across the trunk. That was how violently she was shaking her head.
"You ain't puttin' that stuff on me." She gritted what was left of her meth-rotted teeth. "I ain't no piece of dirt. I am clean and sober."
I put my hand up before Mercedes and Sherry could jump into the fray or Jasmine could go straight into hyperventilation.
"Let's go out on the porch," I said to Zelda.
Mercedes got in a "Yes, do that thing." Everyone else just breathed audible sighs as I steered the scrawny Zelda out the front door, grabbing both our jackets from their hooks on the way. It's a myth that Florida is warm year-round, at least north Florida. February in St. Augustine can get your attention, which was what I was banking on.
I drew my arms through my leather sleeves and tossed Zelda the donated denim jacket Sherry had decorated for her with fabric markers, but she flung it to the porch deck and wrapped herself into a bare-armed fold. I picked it up pointedly and wrapped it around her bony shoulders. She squinted at the floorboards.
"Do you want me to go in and get your glasses?" I said.
She gave me a lip curl, once again revealing her lack of dental work. We'd gotten her to the optometrist. The dentist was on the agenda for tomorrow. If she made it that far.
I sat on the first of the three steps and smacked the place beside me. Zelda dropped to the step below, flanked by one of Jasmine's struggling camellia bushes on each side. Even she didn't hesitate when I went into what Mercedes called my Miss-Angel-ain't-playin' mode. She had her back to me, but I let that pass.
"So what's the problem?" I said.
"I need me some space," she said. "It's too crammed-in here. I feel like I'm livin' in a can of Vienna sausages."
Now there was an image I hadn't heard before. The message, though—that I'd heard over and over from this woman.
"Sorry, Zelda," I said. "I'm only hearing new business today."
She gave me a sharp profile.
"You have a clean bed to sleep in every night. Three meals a day. Someone always available to talk you through—"
"See, that is it, right there."
I got a full frontal, which I stared at blankly. "That's what?" I said.
"People always in my face, wantin' me to talk." She jabbed a thumb toward the front door. "Just like that in there, tryin' to make me go on about how bad I am. I ain't no piece a dirt, just like you ain't no angel, Miss Angel."
She waggled her head. I didn't bother to remind her that I hadn't given myself that name. We'd been over the fact that she was free to call me Allison. Or Wicked Witch of the West, for that matter.
"So the lack of space isn't really the problem," I said. "It's the fact that now that you aren't using, you think you're done and you don't want to work on what got you addicted to drugs in the first place."
The scowl I received was something you wouldn't want to confront in a dark alley.
I shrugged. "This isn't my first rodeo, Zelda. It's the truth, and you know it."
She squirmed inside the jacket caped around her—as much as a piece of wire can squirm—and glowered in the direction of the one forlorn palm tree stuck in the ten bedraggled feet between the house and San Luis Street.
"You used to talk nicer to me," she said.
"Back when you'd have cracked like an egg if we looked at you wrong."
"Maybe I'm still fra-gile," she said, emphasis on the gile.
"No, maybe you just like everybody taking care of you all the time, which is not the point of being here. We'll give you all the help you need to start walking, but we aren't going to carry you anymore." I nodded at her feet. "Where'd you get those Nikes?"
"You know you give 'em to me yesterday."
"I didn't. One of my HOG friends did, after he drove all over St. John's County collecting stuff for you ladies."
"I said thank you."
"Fabulous. Now it's time for you to get off your butt and use those shoes."
Her whole face writhed into something out of an Edvard Munch painting. "That's what I'm sayin'. You too ... blunt."
"Just because Miss Angel say it like it is don't mean there ain't no love in it."
We both twisted to look up at Mercedes, who was closing the front door behind her. The fact that the Sacrament House sign on the door didn't swing reassured me that Mercedes had gotten past wanting to slap Zelda up the side of the head. The ashes must be doing their job.
"She tellin' you she loves you right now," Mercedes said to Zelda. "She just don't care if everybody don't like how she say it."
"I sure don't," Zelda said.
Her face closed off, and she got to her feet.
"Going somewhere?" I said.
"To my room. The one I got to share with somebody."
"Good choice," I said.
I waited for the door to slam, and for Mercedes to put the sign back on its nail, before I pulled my legs against my chest and sighed.
Some of the women I "got" right away. Geneveve had been like that. Jasmine and Mercedes and Sherry had taken longer, but I'd figured them out eventually, once I learned that they were more than their current issues, and that whatever operated beneath their addiction constituted their real journey. But even after two months, I didn't have a clue where Zelda was going, except maybe out the door.
Mercedes was already sitting next to me, big warm hand rubbing my leather-clad knee. "You think she gonna stay?"
"I don't know. Maybe not. Which is a horrible thought. I don't want to see her going back to West King." I ran my thumb across her knuckles. "You're officially the house Big Sister now. Tell me what you think. What does she need?"
Mercedes grunted. "She need somebody in her face twenty-four-seven. I can do a lot, but I also got my own stuff to work on. Not to sound all selfish or nothin'."
"If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of anybody else." I didn't add that Mercedes had been clean and in Sacrament House for only four months herself. Saying it out loud would strip my whole vision naked: that we could somehow save every woman working West King Street.
I wasn't sure we were any closer to that than we were Christmas night when Zelda had found her way to my door to join the others. Yeah, we had nonprofit status now. We had a board of people who actually gave a rip. We had my Harley-riding friends gathering clothes and food and a vast assortment of toiletries, which they delivered to the doorstep almost weekly.
But a woman I'd had so much hope for was practically out the backdoor, where it was only a three-block crawl through the gap in the fence back to the pit we were trying to keep her out of. That alone made it feel like we were going backward.
"I hate to break this up," Hank said from the door. The thing was starting to resemble a turnstile. "But you and I have a meeting, Al."
She handed me my helmet and slipped her own on.
I gave Mercedes's hand a final squeeze and stood up.
"So, whatchoo want me to do 'bout Zelda, Miss Angel?" Mercedes turned a creamy palm to me. "And don't worry, I promise I won't tie her to the bed or nothin'."
That was at least progress.
"Just love her and call her on her stuff and pray for her," I said. "That's all you can do."
When the door closed behind Mercedes, Hank pushed her visor to the top of her helmet. "You're sagging," she said.
"Is it that obvious?"
"Only to me. So what's the deal?"
"What isn't? We need more space. We need more money. We need more volunteers. We may be about to lose Zelda, and I don't feel like there's anything I can do about it."
"Which is why we're having this meeting. India says she thinks this donor she has lined up may give us enough to buy that place."
She nodded toward the house across the street.
Excerpted from Unexpected Dismounts by Nancy Rue Copyright © 2011 by Nancy Rue. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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