Beautiful Forevers

Chapter 1

 

Zoriah turned down the main street of Blueberry Beach, Michigan. Her niece, Macy, sat in the back, along with Macy’s brother, Mark.

Zoriah still hadn’t quite adjusted to looking into her rearview mirror and seeing that she wasn’t alone in her car.

While she’d certainly spent time with her niece and nephew over the years, and especially in the last six months as her sister battled various health problems and rapidly advancing multiple sclerosis, they’d spent more time together in the last four weeks than they had in her entire life.

They’d all been through a funeral and a burial, and this was the kids’ second move. The first one from their house to Zoriah’s, and now the second one from Kankakee in southern Ohio to Blueberry Beach.

Her grandma’s shop was along Main Street. It almost felt like coming home as she drove down the mostly deserted street, except Gram had passed away two years ago, and while things felt familiar, nothing would ever be the same.

It was only April. Tourist season in Blueberry Beach wouldn’t get underway for real for another two months.

There was plenty of time for her to open her grandmother’s old clothing and apparel shop and figure out the ins and outs of owning her own business.

A girl on rollerblades flew by in the middle of the street while another girl rolled toward her backwards.

Maybe some people would be irritated at having to slow down to keep from hitting them, but the sight made Zoriah smile.

Blueberry Beach was that kind of town—the kind of town kids could roller-skate down the street in—nine months out of the year at least.

As Zoriah remembered it, life was slow and happy and the community close knit and helpful.

After her grandmother’s death, Zoriah had inherited the building, and until the death of her sister, Zoriah hadn’t been sure what she was going to do with the shop.

She was committed now.

Her house had been sold, and she left her job as an LPN at a local doctor’s office in Kankakee.

“We’re here,” she said, glancing in the rearview before pulling into the parking place directly in front of her grandmother’s shop.

The windows were bare, dusty, and dirty, and the place didn’t look nearly as warm and welcoming as it did in her memories.

She supposed nothing ever was exactly the way a person remembered it. Now, it was up to her to make it warm and welcoming.

Some of the same old shops lined both sides of the streets, while she saw a couple of new signs out as well.

She didn’t recognize the ice-cream and candy store, although it was in the same place as the candy store had been before.

She didn’t recall it having ice cream, and the sign was different.

But the diner was still there, and the surf shop, and there were still bikes sitting out in a rack along the sidewalk with a big for rent sign on them.

She shut the car off and pushed her door open. The day was breezy and warm, a little warmer than typical for Michigan in April, but she wasn’t complaining about the warmth.

Michiganders never did.

She was back where she’d spent every summer of her growing-up years and loved it.

A lot of loss. A lot of heartbreak in the last three years, and not just for her.

She watched as Macy got out of the car, her earbuds still plugged in her ears, her eyes scanning the town.

Her niece and nephew had been hit even more hard than she over their family’s losses.

God might shut the door, but He always opens a window.

She wasn’t sure that was Bible, but it seemed to be a truth that a lot of people lived by. Hopefully, it would be true in her life as well, even if God did seem to be taking His good old time about getting that window open.

Maybe it was stuck.

“Those people were skating on the street!” Mark said, pointing as the same blonde teen Zoriah had slowed down for flew by them. Her face was wreathed in a smile, and she waved, which startled Zoriah—she’d forgotten that everyone waved to everyone in small towns—and the girl wasn’t looking anymore when she pulled herself together and got her hand up to wave back.

Kankakee, the small city she lived in in Ohio, hadn’t been huge, but they weren’t friendly like Blueberry Beach.

“Did you know her?” Macy asked, turning big brown eyes to Zoriah.

“No. That’s just the way people are in small towns. They wave at everyone.”

“Everyone?” Macy asked with disbelief in her voice.

“And they skate in the street, too,” Mark said, more than a little eagerness in his voice.

As far as Zoriah knew, he didn’t have any skates, but the longing on his face said that he wished he did.

She hadn’t gone through all of their stuff. They’d been old enough to pack most of it themselves. What they hadn’t taken from their house in Kankakee, she’d placed in storage.

“Can I get a pair of skates?” Mark asked, confirming her suspicions.

Her bank account wasn’t quite at zero, but she only had two more checks coming from her job before they dried up, and she had no income until the store was open and running.

The inventory had been ordered, and she’d had to pay for it before they would fill it, so she didn’t have to worry about that at least.

There were plenty of other things to worry about instead.

She bit her lip, hating to tell her nephew no.

Becoming a guardian to Macy had been easy, and she had a great rapport with her. Macy had been president of Girls for Jesus at her old high school. She also taught the Peewee class of Girls for Jesus at the local elementary school. She was on the student council, captain of her hockey team, and an award-winning member of their debate team.

Macy was the perfect student, the perfect daughter, the perfect niece.

She made Zoriah feel incompetent at times, but thankfully, she didn’t seem to need Zoriah’s help much and had seemed to bounce back from her mother’s death with no problems.

Mark was a completely different story. She didn’t feel as secure with Mark, maybe because she’d never been around teen boys much, and she’d really like to say yes to his request, but she couldn’t afford to shell out that kind of money right now.

“Once I get the shop open and running, I’ll think about it. But until then, I don’t want to buy anything that’s not essential.”

Mark wrinkled his nose and pushed his lower lip out. It wasn’t hard to see that he thought she was being mean on purpose, and while she didn’t think that Mark would actually do anything illegal, she hoped he wouldn’t get involved with the wrong crowd, possibly as a retaliation for everything that had gone wrong in his life so far.

She knew kids who had completely turned away from their upbringing after some big traumatic event in their life.

Mark had had more than just one big traumatic event.

It was always so disappointing to see that happen to children who had grown up in the pediatric practice where she’d worked—kids she’d given immunizations to, children she’d seen for the flu and sinus infections, earaches and stitches, then, before she knew it, they were taller than her, and their parents were in with their little brothers and sisters and crying because their child had made terrible choices and now had a juvie record.

She and the other office personnel talked about them during lunch breaks, with sadness and hurting hearts, as they wondered how good kids from solid families who had been given so much could throw everything away.

As much as she was able, she wouldn’t let that happen to Mark.

Still, she wasn’t going to be able to swing for a pair of rollerblades. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be the deciding factor in his life of crime.

She hit the lever and popped the trunk of her small car, saying to her niece and nephew, “Grab your stuff out of the back. We’re gonna go on in and see what the place looks like.”

Maybe she should have come and checked the place out before she sold her home and moved her niece and nephew across two states.

As far as she knew, the furniture that her grandmother had left was all still in the building. She’d come out two years ago when she inherited it, closed everything up after cleaning, and hadn’t been back. She’d been taking care of her sister at the time, since it was after her parents had died in the hit-and-run.

Her stomach cramped, and she stood with her door open, her hand on it, feeling like she was making a terrible mistake.

It all seemed so simple and easy and the best thing for everyone when she’d been thinking about it back in Ohio.

Now that she was actually here, she was scared out of her wits.

What did she know about running an apparel store?

Other than working behind the counter and stocking shelves with her grandma when she was younger. She’d never actually had to pay any of the bills or order anything or do any of the other things that were involved in running a business.

She’d had some help from her accountant and was pretty sure she was good with all the tax stuff, which she never could have figured out on her own.

It was all so complicated.

Who knew the government had such detailed and exacting regulations?

When people talked about simplifying the tax code, she’d had no idea it was that complicated.

Shaking her head, trying to push the worrying thoughts aside—surely the IRS wouldn’t jail her if she didn’t know what she was doing?—she went to shut her door, but her hand was sweating from her attack of nerves, and it slipped off. She stumbled backwards.

She hadn’t even seen the man coming on the rollerblades until he crashed into her hard enough to send her sprawling. She skidded into a painful heap on the warm blacktop. A man came down behind her, managing to fly over her and land shoulder first beyond her, the velocity of his movement making him roll twice before he came to a stop with a groan.

Zoriah wasn’t quite sure whether the apology was her responsibility or his, and that thought kind of swirled around in the mucky mess that her brain had become.

Pain from her elbow, pain from her ankle, and a burning sensation crept down her arm.

She realized that both her niece and nephew were fine as they bent over her and that the man was at least alive as he grunted. The girls that had been skating with him came to a stop beside him.

“Dad? Are you okay?” a soft voice said. Not one she recognized. Not her niece or nephew.

Of course, they didn’t typically call her “Dad,” and in a more coherent time, she would have noticed that right away, instead of having to think about it.

She closed her eyes, trying to lift her lips into a little smile to let them know she was fine.

The man spoke to the girl who asked the question, but she didn’t hear because Macy was speaking at the same time. “Aunt Zoriah? Did you pass out?”

Her head wobbled back and forth, and pain shot across her forehead.

Had she hit her head when she fell?

She didn’t think so. That at least didn’t seem to hurt, not the back of her head anyway. It was the front that felt a headache coming on.

“No. I just need a few moments,” she said weakly, hating the fact that her voice wobbled. She didn’t want to be weak, not right now. Mark and Macy needed her to be strong, and she had every intention in the world of being that for them.

Except, right now, she felt anything but.

At least she wasn’t worried about whether or not she was making the right decision to move.

She was more concerned about whether or not she’d broken any bones.

She should have been paying better attention. It was her fault they’d fallen.

Wasn’t it?