I am in love with the title and the cover. Add the fact that it is Michelle Stimpson and I have already clicked the pre-order button. Check out my interview with this prolific writer.
Interview with the Author
About the Author
Ashley Crandall finally convinced her husband, Allan, to attend the Christian men’s retreat...but he ends up dead there. What happened to him on the campgrounds? Who would want to kill Allan? And why are the detectives pointing fingers at Ashley? In her quest to solve the mystery and clear her name, Ashley will learn something about her husband that she didn’t want to know and something about her Christian faith that shifts her life.
This short work by national bestselling, multi-published author Michelle Stimpson is packed with emotion, suspense, and a her signature way of weaving hope into a story – always a hit with readers who enjoy faith-based reads.
Q: This is a different kind of book for you. What made you venture a little with this title?
A: After writing 40+ books, an author can get kinds stagnant. I have recently started reading clean mysteries, and I found that I actually enjoy them. They keep me up late at night because I truly want to find out whodunit and why. I’m hoping my readers will enjoy a different pace, too. I think they’ll be glad to know it’s possible to change things up and still keep the message of the book strong.
Q: What is the message of the book?
A: The main character, Ashley, is struggling to make sense of things as they relate to her. She has suffered much loss in her life already. But she’s going to have to understand that God doesn’t make His plans around Her. She may be the apple of His eye, but she is not the center of the universe. His promise to be there always will have to sufficient for some of us until we reach the other side.
Q: Wow! That title really caught me. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A: You know what, I wish I could remember. Thankfully, I have not experience much death around me, but I know that the longer I live, the more loved ones will pass away. Death is a part of life. I don’t kill off a lot of characters in my books, but there was just something about this couple that struck my imagination and I knew they needed a book. Quickly!
Q: How quick?
A: About 10 days from outline to finished first draft.
A: Yes, but keep in mind: This is a shorter work of fiction.
Q: Why did you choose to write a shorter piece?
A: I actually got my start with fiction as a short-story writer. I love shorter reads because I can finish them quickly. My schedule is often irregular, so it’s hard for me to get into longer books during hectic weeks. When I sit down for a few hours with a short read, I already know I’m going to have the satisfaction of finishing it. I usually save longer reads for holidays/vacations.
Q: What else is going on with you outside of the writing world?
A: Glad you asked! I am now the grandmother of a wonderful baby girl. Bless God! I am spending a ridiculous amount of time just staring at her and nibbling on her juicy cheeks.
Q: What’s your next release?
A: I’ve got a non-fiction book coming out entitled Change Your Mind, Transform Your Life: 21 Truths to Renew Your Mind in Christ. I am always sooo excited about edifying believers. Non-fiction is not my first genre, but it is definitely one of the most fulfilling to me.
Q: Do you have advice for aspiring authors?
A: I have more than advice—I have help! They can visit www.PublishMyBookAlready.com to take classes and learn more about publishing, marketing, etc.
Q: How Can Readers Connect with You?
A: The best way to keep in touch is through my email list. I send out notice of new books and keep people posted on all kinds of things from events to what’s happening with their favorite characters to upcoming releases. The link is here: http://bit.ly/MichelleStimpsonSignUp
Additionally, they can like or follow me at Facebook: www.Facebook.com/MichelleStimpsonWrites
Or Follow me on Twitter @StimpsonTweets. I blog at www.MichelleStimpson.com.
Thanks so much for the interview!
Michelle Stimpson’s works include the highly acclaimed Boaz Brown, Divas of Damascus Road (National Bestseller), and Falling Into Grace, which has been optioned for a movie. She has published several short stories for high school students through her educational publishing company at WeGottaRead.com.
Michelle serves in women’s ministry at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, TX. She regularly speaks at special events and writing workshops sponsored by churches, schools, book clubs, and educational organizations.
The Stimpsons are proud parents of two young adults, grandparents of one super-sweet granddaughter, and the owners of one Cocker Spaniel, Mimi, who loves to watch televangelists.
“Thank you for doing this, Allan.” I kept my eyes steady on the unfamiliar, winding road sprawling before me. Already, I had braked three times for sharp turns and a pothole.
Allan, ears covered by headphones, bobbed as though he didn’t hear my compliment. His baby smooth skin, dimples, and semi-mohawk haircut made him look much younger than thirty-two. So young, in fact, that a few times, twenty-something chicks at his DJing events had mistaken me as his older sister or his manager, even though I was only thirty. Allan thought that was funny. “It’s good for business,” he’d say, flashing his boyish grin.
I was tired of him acting like a boy. A guy. A dude. A bro. I needed him to grow up and be a man. Start thinking about things that mattered, namely his eternity. Since Allan had agreed to attend this non-church-affiliated men’s retreat, I thought my prayers were finally being answered. I had gone all out to take off work early so I could take him to Peaceful Days. Even dusted on some makeup and flat-ironed my wavy mane so he’d have this awesome picture of me in the back of his mind all weekend.
I tapped him on the shoulder and mouthed again, “Thank you for doing this.”
I knew better than to expect a “Sure thing, Ashley,” or “It’s my pleasure to go,” from him. He was either ignoring me or caught up in his music. No matter, I was used to being blocked out of his life by music, working at KRBF FM radio Dallas. His side gigs. His friends. His lifestyle.
Still, my eyes watered for a moment. The rejection stung worse than a bee. At least when a bee stung, it was defending its own territory. Allan and I were supposed to be one in God’s sight. Why he chose to turn on me—his wife of six years—and treat me like the enemy was unreasonable. We were on the same team.
At least we were until Corey died.
Blinking tears away, my vision cleared just in time to spot a pretty good-sized animal dart into the road. I slammed on the brakes. My stomach squirmed. I winced, hoping the thing had escaped being crushed.
A second later, my body relaxed. Whatever it was hadn’t become a bump under my wheels.
“Geez Louise!” Allan yelled. “Can you not see?”
“It came out of nowhere!” I pointed toward the open field on the passenger’s side.
“I saw it a mile away!” he claimed, motioning toward his window. “You’re not paying attention.”
“Neither are you!”
Allan pulled the headphones down so they dangled around his neck. “I’m paying plenty of attention to the road. Can’t say the same about you since you nearly got us killed.”
Cautiously, I continued our path to the campgrounds.
“Do you need me to drive?” he asked with a hint of sympathy in his voice.
This was my husband’s way of apologizing. He wouldn’t just come out and say, “Babe, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.” He’d offer to do something.
“No,” I said. That was my way of not accepting his roundabout apology.
I had grounds for a full-blown argument. How dare he accuse me of trying to kill us? And why am I driving anyway—I’m the woman! Real men know how to step up and take the wheel in more ways than one. Top that off with the fact that my heart was still racing from the animal-in-the-road scare, and I was primed.
But I didn’t want to go there. Not now. Especially not today. Allan had finally agreed to attend a Christian men’s conference for the weekend, and I’d been praying that God would use this weekend to touch my husband’s heart. Having a big blowout of an argument just before dropping him off wouldn’t exactly be productive.
Thanks to a few books I’d been reading and the personal advice of the Holy Spirit, I had come to the point of understanding that, apparently, Allan was in the “may be won without a word” category. I just needed to keep my mouth zipped and let God do His thing. Problem number one: Allan had a knack for provoking me. Problem number two: I wasn’t always obedient. Problem number three: God was taking His sweet time.
My husband pressed a dial on his headphones. “Hello?”
The caller spoke loud enough for me to hear that it was a man. A hollering man.
“Wait up, man! I gotchu! My first payment isn’t even due until next month, bro,” Allan said.
I put two and two together and realized he was talking to Jerry Albright, the man who had helped finance my husband’s acquisition of the radio station where he worked.
“I’mma have yo money like I said, at the time we agreed to,” Allan said forcefully, slipping into a strong southern accent. “Why you tryna collect early?”
The rest of the conversation was much more calm. Allan wasn’t playing with Jerry. But neither was Jerry playing with Allan, apparently.
Great. Now we have loan sharks after us. This whole DJ Pistol Whip persona was getting out of control.
“Aight. I’ll talk to you next week. I’m gonna be at a…some kind of thing my old lady set me up to…Naw…you know I ain’t goin’ out like that! I got a reputation to protect!” Allan laughed.
Thank God they’re laughing and not threatening each other.
Whatever the man had suggested was probably too civil for DJ Pistol Whip to admit to.
“I’ll catch you later.” He took the headphones off, mumbling to himself that Jerry was crazy. His thumbs whittled away at a message to somebody.
“In one-half mile, turn left on Prayer Lane,” the navigation system instructed.
Allan chuckled. “Prayer Lane.” He pushed his headphones back in place.
I could hardly wait for that half a mile to come and go so I could drop him off at that camp and burn rubber on my way out. I figured, if nothing else, at least I’d get a weekend away from him
As we neared the grounds, we were welcomed by the United States flag, the Texas flag, and the Christian flag. Flowers bloomed in pristine arrangements lining the entryway’s white picket fence. Green grass rolled for acres between small buildings with country flair. A large pond sparkled in the midst of the camp. The scenery alone should have been enough to let Allan know that God is real and loves to bring beauty into this world.
Peaceful Days Camp was painted in bright red letters on a wooden sign. Underneath the facility name was the phrase Come all who labor.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Allan yelled. His music’s volume must have been so loud he didn’t realize how his voice carried. “Laboring is what I need to be doing this Friday night instead of hanging out with some chumps at a camp.”
“Really?” I yelled loud enough for him to hear me. “You think judging a twerking contest is labor?”
“It’s a hard job, but somebody’s gotta do it,” he shouted back. “DJing and vibin’ with the hip hop culture is the way I make my money. You knew who you were marrying when you married DJ Pistol Whip, right?”
“I didn’t marry DJ Pistol Whip. I married Allan Crandall.”
“One and the same, baby. One and the same.” He bobbed his head even harder and started throwing punches in the air as though fighting an imaginary foe.
All I could do was poke out my lips. He had a point. Allan had turned into this persona he’d created to earn a living. He was very good at what he did. A part of me was glad that he loved his work. But when that work involved MCing wet T-shirt contests, I had a problem. A serious problem.
I followed the signs to the H. P. Lewis men’s dormitory, which had been mentioned in the series of emails leading up to the retreat. Of course, all of the email messages came to me, since Allan wasn’t about to keep track of anything regarding this event.
I parked and, almost immediately, Allan hopped out. I pushed the button to open the back window so he could retrieve his bags. As he walked around to the back of our vehicle, I got the paperwork from my purse. Suddenly, I felt like a mother must feel when she’s dropping her child off at kindergarten. The joy. The pain. The pride.
A sadness swept over me as I wondered: Will I ever experience that for myself?
Thoughts of little Corey filled my mind, nearly overtaking me with their intensity. He would have been three years old the following week. “Horrible Threes” I’d heard people called them. People wouldn’t say such negative things about babies and children—about them waking up in the middle of the night, the crying, the teething, the getting into everything—if they realized what a blessing it was to have a living, breathing, normal, healthy child.
The tears had come too quickly for me to blink them away. I swiped them from my eyes.
Allan closed the back window.
I got out of the car to see him off. I had planned to give him a big kiss and a hug in Jesus’s name, but I wasn’t feeling my husband or Jesus at the moment.
Allan hoisted his backpack on his shoulder as he walked toward me.
All around us were couples saying goodbye. Hugging, slight pecks, praying with one another.
I looked up at him. Forced a smile. “Have a good weekend.”
The heavy weight of concern crossed his face. “Why are you crying, Ashley? I’m at the retreat, okay? This is what you wanted, right?”
As mean as Allan could be sometimes, he always fell apart at the slightest hint of wetness on my face.
Peering into his eyes, I wondered why on earth God had allowed these crazy twists and turns in my life. My son’s death. My failing marriage. Even my mother’s dementia, which had been a long time coming, seemed an odd ending to such a good life.
If only my husband and I were on the same page, spiritually, I could lean on him. We could pray for each other. He could actually love me like Christ loved the church, and I could be submissive because I respected him, and life would be…well…easier and holier and basically better.
But I knew not to share my thoughts to Allan. No sense in talking to a brick wall.
Allan hugged me. “Get some rest this weekend. I know.…” He sighed. “I know what today is.”
Allan still couldn’t say Corey’s name.
A tinny beat came from the headphones, interrupting our silent moment.
“Are you going to wear those all weekend?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I guess, when we’re not doing anything.”
I thrust the itinerary into his hand. “You’ve got a full weekend. There’s no way you’ll have time for music.”
“There’s always time for music, baby.” He gave a charming smile.
I sighed. Twisted my lips to the side. This was a joke to him. If all he planned to do was go to the classes between vulgar songs, my efforts to get him here had been nothing but a waste of time, effort, money, hope, and prayers.
I blew a cool breeze from my mouth. “You’re right. It’s totally up to you, Allan. Enjoy yourself.” I turned and opened the driver’s side door, not wanting him to see my fresh batch of tears. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to manipulate him by crying. Guilt-induced expressions of love were always disingenuous and short-lived.
Allan grasped my arm. “Ashley. Wait.” He squared up my shoulders before I had a chance to wipe my cheeks dry.
“I’m here because I want to be here.” He swallowed. “I’m tired of fighting with you. I can’t change what happened. I can’t fix everything like I want to. And I don’t know God like you want me to. But I’m here this weekend because I do care.”
“If you care, then listen? Take off your headphones and listen to what’s in here.” I placed my hand on his heart.
Slowly, my husband removed the black headset. He put it around my neck. Smiled. “You could use some music this weekend, I bet.”
I giggled slightly. “You’re probably right.”
He rested his forehead on mine. “I love you, pretty brown-eyed girl.”
His nickname for me, based on the Mint Condition 90s song, still made me melt. I twisted my lips to one side, then gave way to a smile of my own. “Love you, too. See you Sunday.”
The truth was: I loved Allan and I knew he loved me. But if God didn’t fix him that weekend, I didn’t know what I was going to do. We’d already tried counseling. Well, I tried counseling. Allan went twice and said it was a waste of time. I bought his-and-hers versions of do-it-yourself couples therapy-type books. Allan never got past the first few chapters. I was getting to the end of my strategies for improvement.
Friday night found me in bed crying as I flipped through pictures of our wedding. We were so happy back then. We had the rest of our lives in front of us.
Or so I thought.
Taking off the afternoon and enduring the tension with Allan almost all the way to the camp had taken a lot out of me. I didn’t want to argue with my husband. I didn’t want to be so judgmental. I just didn’t know any other way to make him see how much he needed Jesus.
Rather than cry my eyes swollen, I decided to get up and do some work. I logged into my employer’s system and began to edit and comment on documents the team had uploaded. If nothing else, I could at least find some success at work.
Celeste had warned me that the temperature in Zoccara’s Italian Cuisine was always chilly. She knew me well. I didn’t go anywhere without a pair of socks to keep my feet warm.
“Girl, you need to get your blood checked for anemia.” She used to tease me when she’d come over to the house to care for Corey and found the thermostat set on seventy-nine degrees.
Since she was a nurse, I’d taken her up on the advice. Sure enough, my doctor recommended more iron. I had been a fan of Celeste’s advice from that moment on.
The red and black shawl I’d packed in my purse came in quite handy as I waited for Celeste’s arrival. I took in the intricate Tuscan tile on the walls. Soft lighting and wine bottle displays added an authentic feel to the restaurant.
“This place is beautiful, and so are you, girl!” I complimented Celeste when she arrived wearing a cute, white lace maxi dress with nude heels. She always looked so beautiful, even in scrubs.
“Says the woman who wakes up like this every day.” Celeste returned the compliment as she waved across my face and clothes. “You look amazing!”
We fell into an embrace and her spiral-curled brown hair fell across my cheek. It was nice to smell the familiar jasmine and vanilla-scented shampoo. Some things didn’t need to change.
“I’ve been in Dallas for almost fifteen years now and never even heard of this restaurant.”
“Well, you gotta get out more,” she recommended with a full smile.
Celeste and I hadn’t been out much lately since she’d taken on a few new home health patients. Her work with critically-ill children and their families often meant odd hours and last-minute changes in her schedule. I never gave it a second thought when she had to cancel or reschedule our occasional girls’ nights out because I remembered all too well the nights she had dropped everything to answer a frantic call from me.
Our friendship had begun when the doctors said there was nothing more they could do for Corey in the hospital. Despite the surgeries and medications, they couldn’t get ahead of the fluid building on his brain, called hydrocephalus. So much damage had been done already, they had come to the agreement that it would be best to put Corey on hospice at home.
Celeste had become our main home health nurse, helping to make sure his IV was properly rotated every three days, his feeding tube stayed in place, and nothing out of the ordinary was happening. She was very vocal about the fact that she wished the insurance company would have kept my baby in the hospital. “These doctors and hospitals have become so insensitive these days,” she would murmur under her breath as we worked together to change Corey’s sheets. “The whole system turns people into numbers.”
I couldn’t argue. As a mortgage analyst, my field was probably one of the worst when it came to taking people’s individual situations into consideration. I understood all too well that businesses needed to make money, and doing so meant minimizing risks, maximizing profit. There were a few times I wanted to go to bat for someone, but my job had been so good to me—giving me all the time off I needed, even working with the IT department to set up a network so I could work from home in Corey’s final weeks of life—I didn’t rock the boat much. Shame on me, I knew, but I was just trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other back then. Buyers could get another house, but I could never get back those days with my son.
Celeste had been with me the night Corey took his last breaths. As much as I’d dreaded that day, Corey’s passing had actually been peaceful. He looked like a little sleeping angel. My heart was torn to pieces, yet there was a quiet sweetness to the moment. Gave the word “passing” a different meaning. It wasn’t a violent transition. Just his soul leaving his little body, as though it was simply the best time for him to return home.
Celeste had hummed a song that night, one with a moderate tempo. One I had never heard before, which wasn’t a surprise since I didn’t group up in church. The song was not too slow, not too fast. “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing there will be.” I found myself rocking to the beat long after the funeral home had taken Corey’s body away. Celeste slept in the guest room. Allan was trying to get a flight back from New York, but he wasn’t able to get out because of the weather. As much as I needed Allan, I was almost glad he wasn’t there, because I’d needed to fall completely apart alone in my bedroom with just me and God. That’s what I did.
And so did Celeste. I’d heard her. She’d heard me. And before long, we teamed up and decided to cry together in the living room. That was when I found out how strong Celeste’s faith really was. I’d never seen anyone praise in the middle of sadness before the night Corey died. It was beautiful, as though the Comforter Himself came and sat down in the middle of it all with us.
I didn’t care what the protocol, I wasn’t going to say goodbye to Celeste just because my son had gone home to be with the Lord. She’d been such a blessing to me. I needed her friendship, and she was more than glad to give it.
She didn’t talk much about her subsequent patients. I didn’t ask questions, either. Instead, when we caught up to one another, we focused on encouraging one another. Like sisters. In fact, Celeste and I had grown so close while caring for Corey, I never bothered to take back her key to my house. My family lived several states over and Allan’s family was two hours away. If there was ever a time one of us got locked out of the house or if we were on vacation and something was happening with our residence while we were away, there was no one else I trusted to enter except Celeste.
“Ladies, your booth is ready,” the hostess said, breaking up our hug.
We looped elbows and followed the young woman, giddy with the unspoken excitement of being reunited with a dear friend.
We scooted onto our seats as the hostess gave us our menus. “Your server, Marissa, will be with you shortly.”
“Thank you,” said Celeste.
As soon as we were alone again, I could see from the extra-wide smile on her face and the cheeks pushed up so high that her eyes were nearly closed that Celeste was about to burst with news.
“Okay…what’s up with you?”
She flashed her left hand, which sported a thin gold band with three diamonds.
“You’re engaged!” I nearly screamed.
“Uh huh.” She nodded.
We both raised our hands and clasped them high above the table, letting out little squeals of delight. We’d drawn a bit of attention to ourselves with this celebration.
“Calm down,” Celeste warned.
We leaned in. “I can’t! I’m so excited for you! Tell me all about him. And exactly when did you have time to fall in love?”
Celeste filled me in on the whirlwind romance she’d been in with a man named Steve for the last three months, a man whom she’d met at her nephew’s college graduation ceremony. Steve’s youngest brother was receiving his degree as well.
“At first, I mean, I noticed him sitting next to me. He is cute, after all. But he was sitting next to a woman, so I didn't take a second glance. But then a man came and sat on the other side of her. And she kissed that other man. The man and Steve shook hands, so I was like—okay, he’s not with her.”
I nodded for her to continue the recount of events from their meeting, to their first trips to church together, to their morning prayer-calls and the roses he’d sent “just because.” The beauty of fresh love.
I remembered it well. Try as I might to stay focused on Celeste’s love story in the making, my mind took me back to the times when my eyes used to twinkle at the thought of my man. Allan and I didn’t have a long courtship. When we met, we were both out of college, on good paths with our careers, and thoroughly enamored with each other. He wasn’t really into church, but he would attend services with me if I asked him. He was easygoing like that. We’d played enough games with people in our early twenties and didn't see a need to prolong our courtship or engagement. Being the decisive, take-charge person I’ve always been, I said “yes” when he asked me and it was a done deal. I wasn’t a “wedding” person and I’m definitely not one to waste money. We had a small private ceremony at my parents’ church—much to his family’s chagrin. They’d wanted to go all out for their baby boy and turn it into a socialite event in their mid-sized East Texas town. But I wasn’t having it and, truthfully, Allan didn’t want it, either—though he didn’t voice his opinion loudly enough, if you ask me.
“Huh? Oh! Yeah. That’s great, Celeste. I’m so happy for you.” I suddenly tried to find my manners.
I didn’t know what she’d asked me, but there was no way I could say no to Celeste, regardless. “I sure will!”
“Thank you!” she gushed. “I’ll be sure not to put you in some crazy dress you’d never want to wear again.”
I swallowed hard as I realized I’d just agreed to be in Celeste’s wedding. This was a good surprise.
Marissa set a plate of jumbo crab cakes on our table. Celeste said the prayer and then we dove in.
“Enough about me. What’s up with you? How’s Allan? What’s this men’s retreat all about?” she asked.
I took a deep breath and a bite of food. I didn’t want to tell her that things between Allan and I hadn’t been going so well lately, especially not in light of her good news. I didn’t want to discourage her about marriage in any way.
“We’re good. For the most part. Allan just signed a deal to buy the radio station.”
Celeste’s eyebrows leapt. “Oh wow! That’s major! He’s gonna be, like, one of the most powerful men in the city. All the young people listen to that station.”
“Yeah, it’s a pretty big deal. He and Michael Rivers, A-K-A DJ Drop-the-Bomb, went in together. They’ve got some pretty big ideas about the direction they’d like to see things go.” I took another bite of food.
“You don’t seem very happy about it.”
I swallowed. “You know, I want the best for Allan. I really do. And I don’t want to seem judgmental…”
“But,” Celeste said.
“But,” I continued, “have you ever listened to KRBF?”
She shook her head. “No, but I know what they play. And you’re right. You are being judgmental. Owning a radio station is just a job. Not everyone has the luxury of nursing or helping people buy homes responsibly.” She’d pointed to herself and then to me. “Allan is in a supply-and-demand job. Artists supply music that people demand. It’s that simple. Besides,” she smiled and snapped her finger, “you just got saved, like, five minutes ago. You cannot be this judgmental this fast. You gotta grow up in the church and start wearing long skirts before you can do that.”
“It’s just so…” I tried to explain through laughing at her joke, “when he would listen to the station while we’re riding somewhere, the music was so offensive. Filthy. I mean, I get that he was trying to listen to the station for business purposes. He wanted to make sure the commercials aired at the right time, and completely. He wanted to hear what new DJs were doing so he could give them some pointers. I totally understand. But it’s hard to sit there and not be critical when I hear the lyrics about people’s body parts or what they’re gonna do in bed and how they gotta kill anybody who stands in between them and gettin’ that easy money. It’s just…I insisted Allan start putting on headphones because I couldn’t take it.”
“Girl, it was too much.”
“You were the one always complaining about how he never took those things off. But you made him put them on when you two rode together?”
“I didn’t have a choice!” I said, pressing my fingertips against my chest.
Celeste rolled her eyes. “Your ears are not going to fall off at the sound of a cuss word.”
“But it’s more than the words. It’s, well…you just said so many young people listen to those songs every day. How can I be elated about the fact that my husband is on the cutting edge of promoting this detrimental gangsta mentality to the next generation?”
“Look.” Celeste arrested me with a solid glare. “You are not Allan. Allan is not you. It’s a free country. People are free to make money in whatever field they choose, so long as it’s legal. You have to let Allan know that you support him, that you admire his drive to succeed, and that you’re proud of his efforts to be a good provider for you.”
I leaned to the side and rubbed the back of my neck. “What he’s doing goes against my beliefs.”
“But it doesn't go against his beliefs. And right now, Allan’s beliefs and your beliefs aren’t the same. You can’t hold him to a standard that he hasn’t agreed to abide by. And I really don’t know if he’d agree with you, even if he were a Christian. Men have a knack for separating feelings from their work.”
I peered at her. “How’d you get to know so much about men, Miss-I’m-thirty-and-just-now-in-a-serious-relationship?”
“Ha, ha, ha,” she jeered. “Don’t try to change the topic. Anyway, if Allan’s attending a Christian men’s retreat, I’d say some things are about to change. This time last year, Allan wouldn’t go near a preacher.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not going to put all my eggs in the weekend-retreat basket.”
“Stop trying to be Allan’s savior. Just be his wife. Okay?”
I knew Celeste was right. Theoretically. Probably even biblically. But I had to take her words with a grain of salt. Or maybe I just chose to take them with a grain of resentment. Anger. She’d never been married. She didn't know what it was like to be married to an unbeliever, and I prayed she never would.
Thankfully, the server brought out our food before Celeste could get into a really deep throw-down lecture. The delectable dishes gave us more than enough reason to switch the subject. We talked about other things: our jobs, her extended family, and of course her wedding plans. She pulled up pictures of dresses and table decorations. She asked for my opinion on floral arrangements and party favors.
We ended our time together on a high note, with a prayer for my current marriage and her upcoming nuptials. She kissed my cheek as we parted in the parking lot.
“Love you, Ashley. Don’t spend so much time worrying about people. You gotta enjoy life, you know?”
“I know,” I agreed. “And you deserve to enjoy yours, too. I’m so happy for you and Steve.”
“And I’m happy for you and Allan. Don’t give up on him, sis. You two have been through a lot. You’re both still healing, recovering from Corey, really.”
It seemed weird, but there was so much comfort in hearing someone say Corey’s name. The way people avoided speaking of him directly sometimes made me feel as though they weren’t acknowledging that my baby had lived. Hearing Celeste say “Corey” reminded me that someone else knew him, loved him, and hadn’t forgotten about him, either.
I nodded. “Okay. I’ll give him another chance. Since you asked.”
“Don't do it for me. Do it because Jesus would do it for you.”
Laughing, I said, “You like to roll up on people and do those Jesus drive-bys, don’t you?”
She winced. “Jesus drive-by? Girl, you’ve been listening to too much gangsta rap. Startin’ to sound like Allan!”
“Girl, bye.” I waved at her and walked to my car, still laughing.
Though Celeste had couched her wisdom in humor, the message rode home with me: Treat Allan the way Jesus treats you. When I thought of His patience, His love, and how He had drawn me to Him in loving kindness, there was no way I could hold a grudge against my husband for not being drawn close to Him at the exact same time as me.
Instead of overdosing on movies, I decided to end the night earlier than planned and in prayer. Meditating on the name of Jesus pulled me down to my knees, brought me to conviction and repentance, and filled my heart with a renewed sense of peace about me and Allan. Maybe God is going to use this weekend in a mighty way.
I plugged my phone into the charger and set my alarm for seven-thirty, so I could get to early service and then go pick up Allan by eleven, the official end-time of the retreat. Then, I slipped between my sheets and fell asleep.
Until my doorbell rang at six fifty-seven a.m. I wasn’t exactly sleep, but not in the mood to get out of bed yet.
I scrambled to my feet and threw on my robe. The only people who disturbed me at that time of morning were my new neighbors, whose puppy kept getting into my backyard somehow. I’d told them the last time that if Scruffy escaped, they had my permission to enter my gate to get him. But that hadn’t happened in a while since the dog had grown too big to slip through the gate’s iron bars. I thought to myself as I tied the terrycloth belt around my waist: Maybe I should get a dog to keep Scruffy from coming onto my territory.
To be safe, I asked, “Who is it?”
A shiver ran through my body. Was this the beginning of an attempted home invasion, where the criminals pretended to be an officer in order to gain access to my home? I’d seen plenty of those chain emails on social media—maybe this was the real thing. My only safe haven was my bedroom, which I’d had built with no outside access.
I glanced out the slender window to my right. For a moment, I was relieved to see the police cruiser at the curb with the familiar city logo and a set of real lights atop the hood of the white Crown Victoria.
But then another reality hit me: If the police are at my home, something bad is happening.
I quickly opened the door, bracing myself for bad news and reminding myself that whatever it was, I could take it. I’d already lost a child, which I’d heard was the worst thing a person could ever endure. Allan and I had made it through that. We’d make it through this, too.
“Mrs. Crandall?” The tall, box-faced man asked. His much shorter companion tipped his hat.
“Yes. I’m Ashley Crandall.”
“Ma’am, I’m Officer Logan. This is Detective Jackson. Dallas County Sheriff’s Office. I’m sorry to tell you this, but there was an incident at the retreat. Your husband is dead.”