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Orphaned by a tragic act of violence, young Aria is shuffled among relatives before finding herself struggling to survive in a horrifying abusive home, comforted only by music and the memory of her mother singing.  When a terrifying act robs her of the ability to sing, Aria embarks on a quest for a new life.  Along the way, she’ll encounter a joyful homeless man, a cowboy who works for free and others who will teach her what faith, family and song are really all about.   The 578 page paperback is sold in bookstores nationwide and online at Amazon for $24.99;  you can purchase it here, however, for a discounted rate $15.99 and enjoy free shipping.  

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Holding her breath, Aria turned the ignition in the car her grandparents gave her. As promised, their mechanic fixed most of the car’s problems but, as also promised, the car was ancient. It was a pale blue 1960s Chevrolet with a passenger’s side door that only opened when it wanted to. Sometimes the car cranked, and sometimes it didn’t. The mechanic couldn’t explain why it operated sporadically. He could install a new engine, but that was going to cost a three thousand dollars. Three thousand dollars no one had.

 

 

 

 

Thankfully, though, it cranked today, and Aria pulled out of the driveway. She didn’t really know where she was going. She hadn’t been here long enough to learn the roads or where they led. Often, her driving expeditions got her lost on some dead-end, one-lane dirt road. But, right now, that was okay. She just needed out of the house. Soon, she was driving along the two-lane road toward town and spontaneously decided to turn on the radio. She heard a familiar song, one she’d loved before, and her entire body stilled as it blared out from the static-filled radio station.

 

Aria slowly pulled her hand away from the radio knob and listened to the second verse. Then she swallowed past the lump in her throat and gripped the wheel with both hands. Her mouth opened. “My chains are–” But then she cleared her throat, unable to complete the sentence. Her chains weren’t gone. And, besides, she didn’t want to sing. She had a cough that appeared quite suddenly. Irritated and more deeply troubled than she wanted to admit, she reached out and turned the radio off. She didn’t need to hear music right now, anyway. If she weren’t careful, she’d get herself really lost.

 

The silence, though, only amplified the sound of her racing heart. She could feel its thud-thud-thud as she listened to the sound of the cars whizzing past her. She blinked, focusing again on the road. Abruptly, she turned onto a small narrow side road. She didn’t know where it led, but that was okay. She just wanted to go somewhere quiet, somewhere she’d never been. As she drove, she kept seeing the face of the homeless man: Joey. He’d given her the bracelet. It bothered her that Joey was happy. It bothered her that he had a bright and genuine smile. It bothered her that he could smile at all. Maybe being homeless wasn’t as bad as she’d always thought it was. But she scratched that idea the moment she felt her stomach muscles clench with hunger. Being hungry and unable to get a meal would be terrible, no matter how you looked at it.

 

The road was narrow now, blanketed by thick trees on either side. The pavement gave way to gravel, too, and it was really windy, almost as though she were traveling up the side of a mountain. On up ahead was the guardrail, and a tall mountain stretched endlessly skyward on the other side.

 

Slightly concerned about not seeing any place she could safely turn around, Aria drove on. When she glanced toward the right, she saw a bright sun that was slowly sinking and a few sketchy clouds. In her mind’s eye, she saw her father’s toys.

 

Transformers.

 

Making something into something else.

 

She thought of Joey, the homeless bracelet maker, but before she could dwell on him she noticed an entry sign into a small park. Without thinking twice, she turned the car into the entrance. Dense trees greeted her on both sides now. She passed a pasture and finally saw a brown sign with the word “PICNIC” to the left. Aria followed the sign and soon came upon a small playground and about a dozen or so weather-worn picnic tables. She also saw a trail leading into the forest.

 

She parked and, as she got out, her eyes scanned her surroundings. Everything looked deserted. She didn’t see any other cars; she heard no sound of life about her. She supposed most everyone in the town was probably at church. She headed for the trail—a day alone in the sanctuary of a quiet park sounded just like what she needed.

 

Slowly, Aria opened her eyes and stared at the ground. She’d been in this same spot all day. The sky now looked gray, but a few stars had popped out of hiding. She supposed it was about dinnertime. She must have fallen asleep, she realized, as she slowly sat up. Along the trail she’d begun hiking, she’d discovered a patch of land, perfectly manicured, with nothing but a picnic table in its midst. She’d sat on the ground for a rest, but the shade of the trees and the wind whistling through them lulled her into lying down on the grass. The next thing she knew, her eyes drifted shut.

 

Now, it was dinnertime. She needed to get back. Sally and Frank would be worried and would never even dream of looking for her here, in this isolated park. She really enjoyed the peace, though, and knew she’d have to return. Minutes later, she slid into the car and was wondering if she’d be able to find her way out of the park when she turned the key. The car choked, spurted, and died.

 

“Oh, man, come on,” Aria coaxed and tried again, this time pumping the gas a little. It choked again, but finally turned over, started. She reached out, flipped her lights on, and then went back to thinking about the park she was leaving. What a peaceful and relaxing day she’d just had. She couldn’t help but wish she could just sleep there in the hideaway park. Back at Allan and Audrey’s, she probably would have stayed in such a place all night and let them worry. But she still didn’t want to unduly upset Sally and Frank.

 

Suddenly, the car pulled and spurted. Aria gripped the wheel with both hands and frowned. When she leaned forward to peer outside the windshield, she could see a small line of smoke from under the hood.

 

“Uh oh,” she moaned.

 

She was back on the main road. Unfortunately, the “main road” was the two-lane road no one ever used, especially at night. Aria slowed but kept pushing the car along. All at once, it jerked forward and came to a screeching halt. Aria leaned back against her seat and exhaled. Now what? She knew she was too far from the house to try to walk. But, behind her, about two blocks before the entrance to the park, she was fairly sure there was a gas station. She could walk there and call Sally and Frank to come get her. It wasn’t the greatest option, but it was the only one she could see.

 

She was glad the weather was pleasant. It was warm but not hot and though the street was dark because it was blanketed by thick trees on either side, it was partially illuminated by the stars and the moon. In the city, or the suburbs, there were not stars, not like there were here. Here, it looked like every inch of the dark sky was covered with one. Back at Audrey’s, it seemed like the stars were only sparsely arranged. The astronomy class she’d taken last year taught her that was because of the pollution and the city lights. Either way, Aria was glad that, out here, as she walked alone on the side of this lonely, dark road, she at least had thousands of stars to help guide her.

 

She dug her hands into her pockets and lowered her head. The only noise she could hear were the sound of the shoes scraping the pavement as they lifted, then landed, lifted, then landed, and the chirps of the crickets. Every so often, she could hear movement in the trees, as though some animal had darted away. But she was never able to actually catch sight of one.

 

Relief ran through her when she got to the top of the hill and, looking down, saw the gas station. She knew it was closed: it was, after all, Sunday. But she also knew that there was a pay phone on the other side, from which she could call home. She didn’t, at first, notice the figure sitting on the porch steps, looking down. All she could see was the station itself and the pay phone. Her feet picked up speed as she neared the gas station. The figure on the steps grew more pronounced and some part of her mind registered that it was Joey. Still, she ran ahead, all the way back to the other side of the store where the pay phone was. She didn’t know this town yet, but she knew that being alone in the dark wasn’t the safest plan. She reached the pay phone and picked it up. That’s when it hit her—she didn’t have any money with her. She’d left the house this morning with none—the way she saved was by controlling how much she could spend. She only took out of the house what she knew she could afford to spend. At the moment, that equaled zero. She did not have the thirty-five cents required to make the call.

 

She was really stranded now. Her only hope, and it was a slim one, was to return to the car and hope it cranked after having sat for an hour or so. Suddenly overwhelmed with despair and hopelessness again, Aria sat down on the concrete in front of the phone. Why couldn’t she have a good day, from start to finish? Why did something always have to go wrong?

 

She covered her face with her hands and leaned forward. She just wanted to cry. After having such a peaceful and relaxing time at the park, it was devastating to realize that the dark still brought hopelessness, sadness and helplessness.

 

“Miss?”

 

Aria’s head jerked up.

 

Joey stood several feet away from her, his head tipped to see her face. He wore the same clothes—filthy gray shirt and pants with the filthy ball cap. His hands were deeply darkened by the sun. He looked old and weary—except for his eyes and the smile he’d once shown Aria.

 

“I don’t have anything to give you,” Aria said pointedly, irritated that he’d ask her for money when she didn’t even have the thirty-five cents she needed to get home. “Nothin,” she emphasized, burying her hands over her face.

 

“I–I don’t want anything.” His voice sounded like sandpaper, and his eyes were sincere.

 

Aria lifted her head again and scowled. “How can you say that? You don’t even have a house. You don’t even have a real bed.”

 

He smiled brightly, the effect awesome in the way it totally transformed his face. “Nope, I don’t,” he agreed simply.

 

 Aria looked down at the ground, and then closed her eyes slowly. “I just want to go home.”

 

“And why can’t you do that?”

 

“Because my car broke, and I can’t call my grandparents. I left my money at home. Stupid.”

 

A long moment of silence. “But you do have feet, don’t you?”

 

Aria exhaled. “Yes, I have feet, but I can’t walk that far. I’ve only been out this way, like, once, and I’m not even sure I could find the right way home in the dark.”

 

“Hm.”

 

Joey looked down at his hand, used one fingernail to clean a smudge of dirt out from beneath the nail of another finger. “My name’s Joey, by the way.”

 

“I know. My grandmother told me.”

 

“And who might she be?”

 

“Sally Morgan.”

 

He frowned and shook his head.

 

“She doesn’t really know you. She’s just heard of you. You know, the bracelets and stuff.”

 

“Right.”

 

“I’m Aria.”

 

He smiled again and nodded. A long moment of silence passed again before Aria sighed heavily and then stood. “No sense sitting here. I guess I better start walking.” She held up a hand. “See you.”

 

She’d taken four steps when she heard him stand.

 

“Aria?”

 

She turned around to see him reaching into the pockets of his gray pants. She frowned and then walked two steps toward him, trying to decide what he was doing.

 

“What are you–”

 

“Let’s just see what I’ve got here.” He pulled out his hand, with several coins in it. Aria listened as he picked one of the coins up and began counting. “I’ve got, let’s see, a quarter. That’s twenty-five. And I’ve got one, two, two nickels. Hey,” he added brightly, looking up at her with that awesomely bright smile of his. “That’s enough for the phone, ain’t it?”

 

Silence.

 

Aria looked to the side, then back at Joey. “I–”

 

“Here you go. Go ahead, make that call.” He seemed so happy that he had thirty-five cents. Thirty-five cents to give away.  Even though he knew that she had money at home. Even though that thirty-five cents would buy him a piece of gum or something to drink the next hot day.

 

“But–but–” Aria took a step closer to him, looked at his outstretched hand, and wondered what to do. In it, the three coins glittered. The man’s hand shook slightly from damaged nerves, no doubt, or maybe age. Aria realized she did not want to take his money. She knew it was all he had.

 

“Go on, now. Your grandparents are probably worried.”

 

“But, how will you–”

 

“Oh, I’ll be alright. It’s thirty-five cents. I reckon I’ve been without thirty-five cents before, and I’ve been okay.”

 

Silence.

 

“I don’t want… I mean… ”

 

“Come on, Aria, take the change. I want you to.” And she could tell, from the way his eyes were so bright, he really did want her to. He really wanted to give her the money.

 

Before she could convince herself not to do it, Aria reached out and snatched the three coins out of his hand. She didn’t understand this guy and his apparent lack of concern for money. She just wanted to get home. Bending her head, she hurried to the phone and dialed home, all while trying to stomp out the guilt that was eating her. When she hung up the phone from talking to her very worried grandmother, she turned to find Joey. He’d walked away and was sitting again on the store’s porch step.

 

Aria headed that way. “She’s coming.”

 

Joey’s head lifted. “That’s good.”

 

“Thank you for the money. If you’ll come by Smitty’s tomorrow, I’ll–”

 

But he smiled brightly and shook his head.

 

“I guess I’m supposed to meet her at the car.”

 

Joey nodded and looked down at his hands.

 

“You’ll be okay?”

 

“I’ll be fine, Miss.”

 

Aria nodded. Her heart heavy and confused, she turned to walk away. She’d taken several steps before turning back to look at him again. “Joey?”

 

He lifted his head.

 

“Why’d you give me the coins?”

 

He smiled. “Go home and read Matthew, chapter twelve.”

 

 

 

***** ***** *****

 

 

Aria put the Bible down, then frowned and picked it up again. This would make the third time she’d read the New King James version of Matthew, chapter twelve.

 

 

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings

were put and watched the crowd putting their money

into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in

large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two

very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth

this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the

others. They all gave out of their wealth but she out of her

poverty, put in everything.”

 

            The first time she’d read it, Aria immediately thought it was Joey’s way of telling her that he’d just wanted to be like Jesus, he was following His teachings, and that was all. He might not have had much to offer her but it was all he had, literally, and was, therefore, worthy. The second time she read it, she wondered briefly about the disciples and what they would have thought. After all, the more money a church had, the more good it could do for its people. Half a penny wouldn’t accomplish anything. The third time she read it, Aria thought of the widow. How terribly scary it must have been to put in her last coins. Yet, she did it because she loved God and the church—she did it out of faithfulness and hope. Jesus must have cared more about one person than he did about the church. If that was true, then what He was really telling the disciples was to acknowledge and appreciate the sacrifice made by those who gave everything they had, even if it was half a penny. It showed true commitment and love.

 

Love?

 

Joey didn’t even know her. He gave her the coins because he wanted to help, because thirty-five cents wouldn’t have been able to buy him much anyway, because he’d felt sorry for her, maybe—but not because he loved her. He didn’t know her. So why was he telling her to read a passage that demonstrated God’s love for a poor widow. Maybe it was just his way of telling her not to feel sorry for him because he was loved by God, if no one else.

 

Aria suddenly felt even more guilty and worried about accepting the thirty-five cents. She didn’t want anyone, let alone a homeless stranger, giving her all he had. Not when she didn’t have anything to offer back.

 

Go find him, her heart whispered, and she inhaled, standing.

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