Dorothy Thompson had vowed to never set foot in Cherish, South Carolina again. She didn’t want to come back here. She couldn’t face it.
Sure, she’d lived in the tiny town all her life. And she’d felt alone, despite her popularity, her cheerleader friends, her football player boyfriend. Her mother had orchestrated Dorothy’s status, keeping one eye on the stylish girls and the other eye on Dorothy.
“Everything will be perfect once you meet the right man, provided he’s rich,” her mother had explained. “A poor man does no more good than an eyeless needle.”
Nonetheless, everything hadn’t been perfect. Dorothy’s wealthy boyfriend had cheated on her, and she couldn’t compete with the stunning platinum blondes and redheads once she entered high school.
She’d told her mother she didn’t care a cow-eatin’ cabbage about who liked her and who didn’t, although she knew it wasn’t true. Her popularity had mattered very much during her tumultuous teens.
All this went through her mind while she parked her Ford Escort rental in front of Memorial Street Church. She regarded the church’s white-painted exterior, the high-arched windows with their beautiful stained glass depicting scenes from the Bible and the ornately carved heavy wooden doors. Memories whispered of her singing beloved hymns in the church choir and memorizing Bible verses in Sunday school in the church’s basement.
So many memories for one little town.
She leaned her head against the driver’s seat, no space in her mind for anything except sleep. The previous month, she’d endured the acute stage of opiate withdrawal along with the palpitations and tremors that came with it. And now Dr. Gantori, Dorothy’s physician, had said the post-acute withdrawal stage could last two years.
She rubbed a hand over her puffy eyes. She was exhausted, and no wonder. With a sigh, she reached for the bag of chocolate chip cookies she’d purchased at the train station. The bag was surprisingly light. Had she mindlessly eaten the entire contents on the drive?
She rummaged in the bottom of the bag for one last cookie and chewed slowly, vowing to eat healthier tomorrow. The Cherish Hills Inn, the rental she’d booked for the week, boasted a kitchen, so there were no excuses. Besides, she was a good cook.
Dusting her fingers on a napkin in the glove compartment, she grabbed a bottled water and scooped up her leather briefcase stuffed with music.
Her palms were sweaty. She hesitated.
Fear of what might go wrong stopped her from getting out of the car. It had never occurred to her to let Dr. Gantori know she’d be traveling to another corner of the country. What would happen if she ran out of pain medication or experienced a panic attack and her hands froze to the piano keys?
Get back in the game. Keep God as the priority.
She lowered her car window and gazed outside, focusing on deep breaths in and out.
A fold of sleek silver clouds drifted across a robin’s egg blue sky—a typical spring day in South Carolina. She knew the weather by heart. The air was mild, blowing a slight breeze against her cheeks. A hound dog lay basking on the sidewalk in the bright noonday sun.
Relax your muscles. Think positively.
She wiped her palms on her tweed skirt. There were pharmacies everywhere, she assured herself, and Dr. Gantori was merely a phone call away. Still, a knot threatened to take up residence in her stomach. What if the doctor didn’t answer when she called?
Her brows puckered, her thoughts scattered. No, no, no. She bridled her panic. The task of chastising herself was growing thin as frustration poked through her anxiety. Undoubtedly, the doctor used a twenty-four-hour answering service.
She was back in Cherish for her brother, not herself. It was high time she rearranged her priorities. There was more to her story than failing to become a concert performer. Through her difficult year of wrist pain when she’d become angry with God, she’d wanted to run away from her problems, disengaging from friends, social media, and to be truthful, from life.
If only her carpal tunnel hadn’t been so excruciating, if only she’d hadn’t become addicted to pain relievers …
If only … If only …
But she had, and she’d become an addict.
However, she’d come through the storm intact and had learned to keep her trust in God, because He had her name on something else. But she didn’t know what. She only knew it wasn’t a concert career.
“Everyone has doubts after a poor performance,” Dorothy mumbled, lifting a brief prayer. “What matters is how we react to them.”
Holding that thought, she drew her shoulders straight, grabbed her canvas quilted jacket, tasseled purse and briefcase, and stepped from the car.
Her gaze landed on the top step of Memorial Street Church and a rollicking laugh gave her pause.
“Dorothy Thompson, is that really you?” Marge Addyson, the church’s associate pastor and the clergy person elected to officiate the wedding ceremony, greeted Dorothy with a flash of a smile that could pass for heat lightning. “Why, you’re all grown up. I haven’t seen you since your parents went to be with the Lord.”
“It’s been five years since their funerals.” Dorothy gulped air as she replied, that familiar despondency stabbing her heart. Her parent’s car accident should never have happened. Her father had always been careful when he drove, mindfully watching the speed limit, and only twenty miles outside of Cherish on the highway near St. Luke’s hospital … no one could have predicted a fatal accident where the other driver was strung-out on drugs.
“When did you arrive in Cherish?” Mrs. Addyson asked.
“Just now.” Dorothy gazed heavenward, grateful for the change in subject. “I rented a car at the Cherish Central train station.” Her proper black pumps echoed across the pavement as she made her way up the church steps. “Where’s Pastor Steven and his wife, Christina?”
“They’re taking a well-deserved vacation. You’re sure to see them both when they return in two weeks.”
She wouldn’t be staying in Cherish for two weeks, Dorothy thought, although there was no need to share that information with the kind associate pastor.
When Dorothy reached the church’s entryway, Mrs. Addyson embraced her in a warm hug. “I’m happy as the bluebonnets blooming in spring that you could come back for Nicholas’ wedding. I hope it wasn’t difficult taking time away from your prominent concert engagements.”
Prominent concert engagements? A distant memory. Paying the rent on her expensive apartment in New York City? Not so distant.
“No worries.” Dorothy fingered the corners of her worn leather briefcase. “I’d never refuse my big brother anything, nor miss seeing him and Alice get married.”
Nicholas and his fiancée, Alice, had insisted that Dorothy play piano for their wedding. They’d requested contemporary music, although Dorothy had also brought along her favorite classical pieces. What wedding guest wouldn’t be stirred to stand when they heard J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” for the bride’s processional march?
Mrs. Addyson stepped back. “And you’re still tall and as pretty as a peppermint parfait. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Thank you.” Dorothy ran a hand down her brown braid. “You haven’t changed either.”
Kindness beamed from the elderly woman’s crystal blue eyes. “I’m ten years older and infinitely wiser.” Her salt and pepper hair had grown a little grayer, had been cut a little shorter.
Dorothy shaded her eyes and peered toward the street. “Did the music store close? When I drove by I noticed the building was vacant and a ‘For Sale’ sign was on the door.”
“Yes, Musically Yours went out of business about a year ago.”
Dorothy well remembered racing into Musically Yours on Saturday afternoons, fingering the darkening edges of well-loved classical pieces that emitted a scent of paper and leather-bound volumes of first edition music.
All the memories brought a sense of familiarity. In Cherish, people knew your name. She’d missed those things because she found city folks indifferent and uncompromising.
The comfortable warmth of the South Carolina sun hit her face, and her heart felt full for the first time in a long time. She gazed at Memorial Street Church’s magnificent steeple with the cross on top, and sadness flickered, disrupting the fullness in her heart. She’d hoped to become so much more than a panic-stricken performer who’d relied on opiates for pain. Despite her brief fame, she’d come back to Cherish with her solitude bigger than ever.
It serves you right, her conscience chattered. You were a fake in high school, forever seeking approval from your classmates to ensure your popularity. Music became your life, your escape, although you’re not great at making music anymore, either.
“Don’t bring your issues to church; bring them directly to God,” one of her favorite pastors had once said.
She pushed the steely composure of a seasoned performer into place as Mrs. Addyson hooked an arm around Dorothy’s shoulders and led her inside. “I always told your late mother you had an ear for music, honey.” She gestured upward to the shiny ebony grand piano in the choir loft. “Is Ryan meeting you here so you two can rehearse?”
Dorothy hesitated. “Ryan who?”
“Ryan Edwards. He and your brother were good friends in high school. He’ll be singing the Ave Maria at the wedding ceremony during the offering of the gifts. You’re his accompanist.”
Dorothy’s mouth trembled with surprise.
She tipped her head back and briefly closed her eyes, visualizing Ryan’s skinny build, his quiet demeanor, his booming operatic voice which had prompted his high school classmates to snicker. Often he’d accompanied her to Musically Yours, tendering kind support, encouraging her appreciation of Bach and Beethoven and Mozart. And when he would visit her house, Ryan would bring his precious LP’s he’d kept hidden in his room and play Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo recordings for her.
Their friendship had grown, and by the time she’d reached her early teens, she’d had a mad crush on him. He’d never known because she’d kept a cool demeanor around him. He was the high school nerd, and her popularity was at stake. In hindsight, she was glad she’d never let on how she felt about him because by her high school sophomore year, he was gone.
“He’s become a well-known opera star in Europe and has flown all the way from Italy at your brother’s request. Imagine, two famous musicians in our Lord’s house.” Mrs. Addyson gave Dorothy’s shoulder a slight bump and added a mischievous grin. “When he was younger, that boy got into just enough mischief to make him interesting. Bless his heart considering his family was so poor, his Sunday supper was little more than fried water. We’re mighty proud of all he’s accomplished. He’s a few years older than you, so you may not remember him.”
“He was my best friend,” Dorothy murmured. She set her music briefcase on a back pew and rubbed her forehead. “Nicholas mentioned nothing about Ryan singing.”
“These days, your brother is busy between getting ready to graduate from the police academy and the wedding plans. It must’ve slipped his mind.” Mrs. Addyson peered up and read the clock in the choir loft. “Ryan was supposed to be here at one o’clock and he’s obviously running late, unless he’s canceled altogether and sent a replacement singer. I won’t detain you any longer.”
“Thanks. I’ll get started then.”
“Don’t forget dinner at The Garden Terrace tonight for the pre-wedding celebration.” Mrs. Addyson winked and patted Dorothy’s arm. “Your brother said he’s treating everyone.”
“I wouldn’t miss that first for the world.”
Now if she could only get herself to sit down at the piano and play something.
She willed her heart to stop pounding, willed her pulse to stop racing.
Grimacing, she managed a smile. “See you tonight, Mrs. Addyson.”
You have nothing to prove to anyone but God, and he’s not judging. The thought came quick through Dorothy’s mind.
Taking a long swallow, she made her way up the stairs to the choir loft.