Grace to Save, Chapter One
September 11, 2001
A ringing jolted Travis Harders from a deep sleep. He cursed as the phone knocked to the floor with a clatter. “This better be good,” he snapped when he got the handset in place.
A glance at the clock nearly made him groan.
“You’ll be hearing from the police soon.”
He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes with the heel of one hand and tried to process the statement. The words didn’t really register as the guy, whoever he was, kept talking until Travis interrupted. “What? Who is this?”
“Mark’s dad.” Right. Travis’s best friend. “You remember us? The ones who treated you like family? Let you live with us?”
Travis’s stomach sank. Mark’s family had practically adopted him when he moved from southwest Missouri to the Big Apple. They had filled the gap in his life left by parents who disapproved of Travis’s choice to move to New York. Mark’s parents let him spend holidays and birthdays with them, with Travis making only the obligatory phone calls back home.
But none of that explained why Mark’s dad would be calling the police.
“Who is it?” a sleepy Jennifer asked.
Travis covered the mouthpiece and whispered to his girlfriend, “No one.” His feet hit the cool floor, and he headed for the other room. At least he had a place to escape to. Being an out-of-work-actor-turned-barista didn’t pay much, but he’d lucked into a fabulous apartment. Closing the French door behind him, he tried to focus on the voice yelling from the other end of the line.
But he only caught “my daughter” and “spring break” and “drugged.”
If possible, Travis’s stomach clenched further as that night flooded back to him. Memories of bringing her back to this very apartment when she was in no condition to go home without risking the wrath of her parents. But after what happened between them…it was only right for him to be on the receiving end of her dad’s anger. “I don’t know what she told you sir, but…”
“I know all I need to know,” he bellowed.
Even though he was in the other room, Travis lowered the volume on the handset. “I take full responsibility for…”
“You’re right, you do!” He let loose a string of obscenities. “You’ll spend years in prison!
Drugging a girl! Sleeping with her!”
“What?” His whole world spun. Travis regretted every minute of that night after they got back to the apartment, but he hadn’t drugged her. He didn’t even know where to get those kinds of drugs. They weren’t in love, never had been, but to place the blame solely on him? The next morning, they’d talked about it enough to know she hadn’t blamed him.
What changed? Feeling sucker punched, Travis hung up on the man. What he said didn’t matter. Travis would find out when he was on trial for something he didn’t do. On autopilot, he dressed for his five a.m. shift. Coffees of the World wasn’t the best job, but it had flexible hours and had led to finding this sublet. There was no shortage of interesting characters to populate his imagination. Like the skinny brunette with the shoulder length bob who worked for Morgan Stanley and always ordered a short nonfat mocha, decaf, no foam, no sugar, no whip. She could be the heroine in one of his screenplays even if he never knew her name.
He kissed Jennifer’s hair and told her he’d call after work. Five flights of stairs later, the sounds of the city waking up greeted him as he walked toward the train that would take him to the Trade Center. Standing at the top of the subway steps, he changed his mind. Travis headed for his car parked a couple streets over and called in.
Two hours later, he stopped in McLean for gas about seven thirty, filling up the tank of his Toyota Corolla hatchback. Three hours after that, he could still drive for a while longer before he’d need to stop again. He contemplated leaving the state, but decided not to, instead turning northward before leaving Allegany County.
He’d gone through more emotions than he knew he had, none of them good. Anger. Fear. Frustration. Blame. Worry. Intimidation. In western New York, things were more peaceful than they ever were in downtown Manhattan, but his insides were in utter turmoil at the thought of an arrest and trial.
His favorite heavy metal CD blared from the speakers. During the lull between songs, Travis could hear his cell phone vibrating on the passenger seat where he’d tossed it. After an hour and a half of the stupid thing ringing nearly nonstop, he finally snatched it up.
“What?” Travis growled.
“Are you okay?” Though he only talked to her twice a year, there was no mistaking his mother’s voice.
Or the panic in it.
The tremor set him on edge. “Yeah. Why?”
“Thank you, Jesus,” she whispered, though Travis couldn’t figure out what she was thanking Him for. “Where are you? You got out okay? Were you working? There was no answer at your apartment.”
Why was Mom calling just to ask if he was okay? Why was she frantic? “I’m in western New York State. Out for a drive. Get out of where?” Could Mark’s dad have called already?
“You don’t know?” Frenzy changed to disbelief.
“Know what?” Travis held the phone against his shoulder as he downshifted into a turn.
He could hear the tears over the static-filled line. “Two planes, Trav. They hit the Towers. Both of the buildings are on fire.”
His heart thudded to a stop. “What?” Hadn’t a bomber hit the Empire State Building in WWII? But two planes? On a brilliantly clear day? No weather in sight. “How bad is it?” he croaked.
“They’re saying it’s a terror attack. The Pentagon is on fire. There’s another plane out there somewhere. Big jets, Travis. I saw the second one hit. The explosion. Papers flying everywhere. The people…” Her voice broke. “You really weren’t there?” she confirmed.
“No, Mom. I’m not anywhere near there.” But he needed to find a place to stop. A television. He had to see for himself. Tens of thousands of people would be dead and dying. Did he know any of them?
“There are people jumping, falling, out of the upper stories. I can’t imagine.” He could almost see her pacing around the kitchen alternately running her hands through her hair and wringing them together. “They’re jumping from a hundred stories up. What could be so bad to make that the better option?” Her voice caught. “I don’t know how I can watch this, Trav, but I can’t turn away. All I can do is pray.”
Pray. Right. A face flashed before Travis. The uptight former-football-player-turned-businessman from the 102nd floor of the North Tower with his caramel macchiato and corny joke of the day. Was he one of those jumping?
She gasped then whispered. “Dear God, no. No!” Her scream made him move the phone even as his stomach sank.
He pulled into a café parking lot near Danville. “What?”
“The tower. It’s gone. Just gone. The south one, I think.” Her voice trailed off in prayer.
The shock he’d felt after the phone call from Mark’s dad paled compared to what he felt now. “Mom, I gotta go.” Jen. His friends. His coworkers. He needed to make calls of his own. Find out if they were okay. And Mark. His best friend had been a firefighter for a year. He’d be down there. Inside one of the Towers. Travis hadn’t talked to him since that night, the March before, but part of him, the part that still believed there was a God in heaven, whispered a prayer that Mark was somewhere safe as faces of customers and friends flashed through Travis’s mind.
The blonde. The cute, petite one who ordered a crunchy, cinnamon pastry and half caf, double tall, easy hazelnut, non-fat, no foam with whip extra hot latte on Tuesdays. She flirted shamelessly, though he knew she was recently and happily engaged to some guy in Tower Seven. Her family lived near his in Serenity Landing, Missouri, and she worked at the Marriot World Trade Center in the shadow of the Towers. Could it have survived the collapse? Was Joanna now buried underneath the rubble?
“Be safe, Travis. Do you have somewhere you can go? They’re evacuating Manhattan.”
“I’ll be okay.” He hesitated. “I love you, Mom. You, Dad, Jay. I love all of you. I’ll call when I can, but I have to try to find out about my friends, about my girlfriend. I’ll talk to you soon.”
His mom’s “I love you,” came through the line as he clicked his phone off.
He started his first call as he walked into the café. Call after call failed as he stood with others, watching the screen in horror as the second tower crashed down. His problems. Mark’s dad. Mark’s sister. All of it fled as the enormity of what was happening sunk in.
The whole world had changed.
December 18, 2001
“It’s a girl.”
Abi Connealy collapsed back onto the bed, tears streaming down her cheeks as a newborn squawk filled the delivery room.
A million thoughts flew through her mind, few of them happy, as a nurse laid the baby on her chest. So small. So scrunched up and red. Dark hair. Abi couldn’t see her eyes as she wrapped her arms around the tiny bundle. “Hi, baby,” she whispered. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“How are you?”
Abi looked up at Brenda Wardman. Her brother’s girlfriend had been a rock the last few months. She didn’t need to clarify, because Abi knew what she meant. “I don’t know.” The voice mail she’d left her parents on the way to the hospital remained unanswered unless Brenda knew something she didn’t.
Her fingers brushed over the cheek of the tiny girl. “She’s perfect, Bren.” Another tear fell, this one landing on her new daughter’s face as Abi closed her eyes.
The nurse took the baby to the warmer and did whatever it was nurses did, but Abi didn’t see any of it. Her eyes remained closed, and she clasped Brenda’s hand as more hot tears streaked into her ears. Just under twenty-four hours of labor meant she didn’t have the energy to wipe them away. She knew she didn’t have the will to do so even if she could have.
“Do you know what you’re going to do?”
Abi wanted to yell at her friend for bringing up the most difficult decision of her life just moments after the birth of her daughter. But since Abi hadn’t made up her mind beforehand, Brenda needed to know to help make the arrangements.
Except Abi didn’t know.
Not for sure. She knew what the smart decision was, though her head and her heart didn’t agree. But she had to put her baby first. “I’ll have them call.”
“It’s going to be fine,” Brenda tried to reassure her, but Abi heard the doubt in her friend’s voice.
Once the social worker arrived, she’d never be fine again.
Somehow, Abi managed to doze for several hours during the afternoon, but after listening to the message from her parents, the one that told her all she needed to know without really saying anything, her eyes refused to close. Instead, she stared at the bracelet encircling her wrist, rotating it around time and time again.
A knock sounded half a second before the door pushed open. “Hi, there, Abi. Someone’s looking for her mama.” The nurse compared the baby’s bracelet to Abi’s before lifting the blanketed bundle out of the clear bassinet. “The card says you’re giving her formula?”
There was no judgment in the woman’s voice, but Abi felt her own condemnation eating away at her. All she could do was nod.
After a few minutes of helping them get situated, the nurse started to leave, but stopped before walking out the door. “The emotions are normal, honey. They get everyone at one point or another.”
Abi nodded but didn’t take her eyes off the little cheeks sucking in and out. She memorized the sounds, the smells, the essence of the tiny bundle in her arms. Or tried to. Even as she did, she knew it would never work. In the morning, a social worker would come and Abi would sign the papers put in front of her.
And she’d never see her daughter again.
But when the social worker sat in the chair by the window, asking the questions, one tripped Abi up.
“Do you know who her father is?”
The night was burned in Abi’s memory banks. Part of it anyway. When she hesitated too long, the worker prompted her again. Abi nodded. “Yes. I know who the father is.”
“Then we’ll need his signature, too.”
“He doesn’t know,” she whispered. “I haven’t talked to him since. I was going to, but then 9/11…” Her voice trailed off.
“Was he in the Towers?” the social worker asked as gently as she could.
Abi shook her head. “I don’t he was. I mean, I know he wasn’t one of the three thousand, but I don’t know if he was there or not.” She’d called his apartment from a pay phone a few weeks later. When he answered, she hung up.
“If you know who he is, we have to have him sign away his parental rights, sweetie.”
Something she hadn’t considered when she made this plan.
The nurse walked in, once again pushing the bassinet. Her face fell when she saw the social worker. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were…”
With a swipe of the overused Kleenex, Abi wiped her face. “I wasn’t sure, but now I can’t anyway.”
The social worker left a couple of fliers and walked out with a sympathetic smile. The nurse awkwardly helped Abi get situated to feed her daughter one more time.
“Do you have a name you like?” The woman sat on the edge of the bed holding Abi’s empty water bottle.
“It was my grandmother’s name. She died this past summer.” The grandmother who would have adored meeting her great-granddaughter, who would have taken Abi and the baby in when she needed somewhere to turn. Had given Abi hope she’d do just that before succumbing to a sudden, massive stroke.
Abi didn’t have anyone else like that in her life. Brenda would if she could, but there was no way. Abi had no other family. No one else in her life who would support her no matter what.
Darkness descended, but Abi refused to send little Cassie back to the nursery. She didn’t know what she planned to do about adoption, but she wouldn’t give up another minute with her baby.
Yet another round of tears leaked down her face as Abi cuddled the tiny bundle against her chest. With all but one light turned out, the desperate whisper ripped from her throat. “God? Are you there?” She’d never prayed before, but this seemed like the time to start if there ever was one. “I don’t know what to do.”
Baby Cassandra yawned and blinked her eyes open, staring up at her mother. The light caught them just right and struck Abi with the bright blue.
Then it hit her.
The one place she could take her daughter where she’d be safe. And loved.
December 23, 2001
Two days before Christmas, Abi sat in a coffee shop on Long Island and waited. Calling him had taken every ounce of courage she had. Leaving the voicemail took more.
Sitting there, Abi didn’t know if she could go through with it. The stroller with her little girl sat to her right. On the other side of it, Brenda sat with her back to the door. Diners nearby sipped on gourmet coffee, but Abi focused on the stationary in front of her. She arrived early so she could write the note, but the paper remained nearly blank.
When she’d arrived at her parents’ Long Island home after leaving the hospital, a note reiterated her father’s threat. Since then, Abi had planned what to say, but realized she’d never make it through even the shortest speech. She’d planned the words to write, but now the time had come to put pen to paper, and she only managed his name. A glance at her watch told her she didn’t have much time. If she didn’t write it now, she’d have to make the speech. No way could she do that.
She picked up the Mont Blanc knock-off she’d received for graduation from her grandmother and scribbled a few lines. Her heart squeezed as she reread the note. She couldn’t be a student and a mom. But this? Abi had her suitcase packed. She wouldn’t return to her parents’ home but would crash at Brenda’s for a few days while her friend went out of town. Brenda knew most of what happened, but not everything. Abi’s fingers furrowed through her hair, and she turned to stare out the window. There he stood. His six-foot frame seemed shorter with his shoulders slumped and hands shoved deep in the pockets of his coat. He looked at his watch and trudged across the street.
The bell over the door jangled. Abi crossed through the unfinished sentence, scribbled a last sentiment and her name, and shoved the note in her purse as he sat down across from her.
“Hi.” At the sound of his voice, the knots in her gut tightened.
Abi looked up, knowing he’d see the remnants of her tears. She twisted the napkin in her hands and tried not the think about the weight she’d gained. And if he’d notice.
“Thanks for coming. I wanted to try to explain, but…” Abi shrugged. “After 9/11, after Mark…” The thoughts of her brother nearly overwhelmed her already overwrought emotions. “Daddy isn’t going to pursue anything. I tried to tell him you weren’t guilty, but he didn’t believe me at first. He found your name in my journal on 9/11-before it was ‘9/11.’ I’d left it lying out by accident.” This time the shrug was a mere halfhearted lift of one shoulder.
“Mark?” he interrupted. “I read the list of firefighters a bunch of times to make sure he wasn’t there.”
“He wasn’t on the lists. He was killed at a fire on 9/11. Not at the Trade Center. Another fire where they didn’t have enough manpower because of everything else. They think he died right around the time the first tower fell.”
Were those tears in his eyes? He and Mark hadn’t spoken in months. “I’m so sorry.”
Cassandra let out a cry. The disguised Brenda made a shushing sound, but Abi didn’t look. She couldn’t. It was too much. She had to get out. “Can you excuse me for a minute?”
She didn’t wait for a reply but motioned toward the back, leaving before he had a chance to stop her. Brenda went out the front door. Abi dug the paper out and waved the barista over. “Can you give this to that guy?”
The woman nodded. Abi fled to the other side of the street and collapsed in Brenda’s arms.
Travis read the note three times before it began to sink in.
She had to have written it earlier. There hadn’t been time since she excused herself.
I hate doing this to you, especially like this. I tried to handle it on my own. I thought I could, but this semester was so hard. Even more than just everything on 9/11 and Mark. I can’t do it. I can’t be a college student and a mom.
It took several minutes for that to really register.
He read on, his disbelief growing with each word.
The baby in the stroller is yours. From that night. I hate that I haven’t told you sooner, but I didn’t know how. I couldn’t tell my parents what happened, not all of it. They would blame you, and it wasn’t your fault. I know this is the coward’s way out, but I can’t tell you to your face. Everything you need for a couple of days is in the diaper bag and the duffel on the bottom of the stroller. So is her birth certificate.
Her name is Cassandra. She’s only a few days old. Please take good care of her for me. I won’t be home for a while so you can’t reach me. My parents left for vacation out of the country, so they wouldn’t be here when she was born.
I wish things had worked out the way we planned. The way we talked about all those times. I wish
Whatever she wished, she didn’t finish the thought before scribbling through it. About like their relationship had been. A wish that was never finished. He went back to the letter.
Tell Cassandra I love her.
He read it two more times, starting to come to grips with what it meant.
And then the baby began to fuss.
Taking a deep, steadying breath to fortify himself, he turned to the blanket tented over the handle of the car seat. Lifting up one corner, he saw pink. Fuzzy bunnies on the toes of a sleeper. A tiny foot kicking those bunnies in the air. He looked further and saw the bluest eyes he’d ever seen staring back at him, almost as though she knew who he was.
The one responsible for her from here on out.
And in that moment, he fell helplessly in love.
December 25, 2001
Christmas night, the little gray Toyota turned off I-44, south towards Serenity Landing, as the wailing in the backseat reached a new level.
“I’m sorry, Cassandra. We’re almost there. I’ll get you something to eat in a ten minutes, I promise.” Jennifer kicked him out the moment he tried to explain his arrival at the apartment with a baby. Instead, he’d boxed up all his worldly belongings along with the things Abi had left for the baby and packed it in his car. They headed for the only place he knew he could get the help he needed until he had a better handle on things.
Over twelve hundred miles. Stopping every two or three hours to feed his daughter or change her diaper. Sometimes more often than that. Always taking much longer than it should. Failing to take into account how many things would be closed on Christmas Day, he ran out of the bottled water when he needed to make one more meal for his daughter. He pressed the pedal a little closer to the floor in an effort to reach Serenity Landing a little faster.
The newborn squalling had quieted a bit when Travis finally pulled to a stop in front of the house where he’d grown up. In the front window, a Christmas tree stood, multi-colored lights twinkling. In the window next to it, he could see Mom and Dad sitting at the dining room table, though he knew they wouldn’t be able to see him. His brother walked in with a platter, piled high with a turkey way too big for the three of them. They’d be eating leftovers for a month.
Another squeak came from the back. “Okay, baby. We’re here.”
Somehow, Travis managed to get the diaper bag and the baby seat out of the car and headed toward the door, snow crunching under his boots with each step. The smell of oak burning in the fireplace both comforted him and heightened his anxiety. What if they turned him away? Then what?
Should he knock?
He hadn’t been home in two and a half years. Did he just walk in?
Even with his hands full, Travis managed to press the doorbell. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, finishing as the door opened.
Mom stood there, her jaw hanging down for a second before her hands covered her mouth. “Travis!”
He tried to smile but failed miserably. “Hi, Mom.” In the space of a heartbeat, he saw what he needed to in her eyes. Forgiveness. Acceptance. Love. Grace. With a prayer tossed heavenward, he tried again to smile, this time successfully. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”