EXCLUSIVE – Steady excerpt

Interested in reading Steady? Here’s an exclusive, free excerpt from the novel.

 

Chapter One:

Quinn Smith’s shortened red mane swished as she turned her head towards the door. Her sister mirrored this action, also scanning the crowd of church-goers for a certain someone. With a mutual sigh, they redirected their attention to the bulletin.

“He’s late again,” Erin murmured quietly, flipping her paper over to absent-mindedly scan the back.

“I wonder if he refused to get out of bed this morning,” Quinn whispered. “Bethy told me that the last time she tried to get him up, he just rolled over. He wouldn’t even acknowledge her.”

Erin bit the inside of her cheek. “I wish I knew how to help him.”

Quinn shrugged dejectedly. “I wish that too, but I don’t know how we would. Besides, he was closest to her. That must be why he’s taking it so hard.”

After a moment of silence, the two jumped at a hand on Quinn’s shoulder and whirled around.

“Hey,” Gabby Baxter, Quinn’s best friend, smiled sadly. “How are you two this morning?”

Seeing Quinn’s contemplative face, Erin attempted to perk up. “We’re okay. Quinn’s a little cold, what with her hair cut and all.”

Gabby’s smile spread a bit. “Yeah, I can see that. It looks nice, Quinn.”

“Thanks,” Quinn tried to meet her friend’s eyes, but faltered.

“He’s not here yet, is he?” Gabby murmured.

Erin shook her head. Without another word, Gabby slipped away to rejoin her family. The spot she left was quickly filled by Jimmy Carr, another friend of the Smiths.

“Hi,” Jimmy said, searching their surroundings for his best friend. “Is he late again?”

Erin sent him a worried look. “Yes. I don’t know what to do for him.”

“If you don’t know, then I definitely don’t,” Jimmy sighed, running a hand through his short blonde locks. “He keeps clamming up when I try to talk to him.”

“Same,” Erin’s face reflected a deep sadness within her.

A quiet moment passed, and Jimmy laid a hand on Erin’s shoulder. “I’ll see you guys in Sunday School, okay?”

The sisters lifted their arms in a half-hearted wave. Erin directed her attention to rereading the bulletin, while Quinn watched the families enter the sanctuary. Several friends from her youth group strolled in, chattering and laughing. They felt Quinn’s gaze and became respectfully silent as they passed. The Stephens family, and their friend David, stepped inside slowly. They were still introducing Anthony, their foster child, to the church. The young man seemed awfully uncomfortable, stiffly walking alongside Mrs. Stephens, holding the hand of little Lucy as if it were an obligation or an anchor. After noticing her stare, David sent a small smile to Quinn.

Quinn rested her head against her arm and continued to gaze towards the doorway. Cat Patches entered with her mother, and Quinn immediately turned to face the front of the room. Neither Mrs. Patches nor Cat seemed to notice.

I wish Melanie was coming, Lord, Quinn sighed to herself. I know she’s tired after the move, but I need someone to talk to. And where is Becker, Lord? Why is he late, again? It seems like he’s getting worse instead of better. Why did it affect him so much more than me or Erin?

Like an answered prayer, Becker Miller slipped into the sanctuary. Erin sensed her cousin’s presence and immediately turned to eye him. He continued his stroll past them, avoiding her stare. Erin began to motion for him with a threat in her gaze, and Becker’s path slowly redirected until he plopped down next to her.

“Where have you been?” Erin hissed, her green eyes bright with anger.

Quinn put a hand on her sister’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Becker. But don’t you think you should have gotten out of bed earlier?”

Bethy materialized next to her brother. “Whether he thinks it or not, it’s the truth.”

Becker let out a shaky sigh, swishing his blonde hair out of his face. “I just didn’t want to get up this morning.”

Erin pushed her harsh words to the side. “Becker, it’s been a month.”

Becker’s face contorted in a flash of a moment. “I know. It’s still hard, though. Isn’t it hard for you?”

Aunt Heather appeared behind the children, stroking her son’s hair. “It’s been hard on all of us. Everyone has had trouble dealing with this loss. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, Becker.”

Erin compulsively rested her head against her cousin’s shoulder. “We’re going to be okay, aren’t we? We’re going to make it through, right?”

Becker’s head lay against hers, and for the moment, Erin felt the weight of the world upon her. A long, heavy sigh escaped him, and he breathed, “I sure hope so.”

The moment ended as quickly as it began. Becker straightened himself, while still seeming like he could keel over at any moment. Erin moved her head to her sister’s shoulder, and Bethy snuggled against her mother.

As the service started, the pastor’s words began to soak over them, and the family felt a special peace settle around them. After brief announcements and a testimony, the children were sent off to Sunday School. Quinn was reluctant to stand up, but Erin tugged both her and Becker along beside her.

A crowd formed as the youth walked through the hallway to their room. Little Lucy Stephens and the other smaller children bounced off to their classrooms, and the throng shrunk. Anthony, David’s foster brother, tucked his hands under his arms, having lost the girl who held his hand.

“This is Anthony,” David explained to his friends as they walked to the end of the hallway.

Erin raised her eyebrows. “We know, David. This is his third week here.”

David blushed. “Well, you guys weren’t saying anything to him. I thought maybe you forgot.” He awkwardly clapped the boy on the back, and Anthony seemed to draw even farther into himself. He was tall and thin, but still seemed strong in stature. His curly hair was very dark, reflecting his demeanor; his bright blue eyes seemed to dim with each step.

Jimmy tried to smile at him. “You’re in eighth grade, right? I think we have a few classes together.”

Anthony’s head bobbed into a nod in the expanse of time it takes to blink. The group quieted.

“Mel moved this weekend,” Quinn offered to Gabby, who strode beside her.

Gabby’s eyebrows rose. “Again?”

Quinn opened her mouth to explain, but the group of teens had reached the end of the hallway and was entering their classrooms.

“Hey, Anthony, I’ll see you in about an hour, okay?” David called as the high school and middle school students separated. In the chaos, he didn’t hear a reply.

With a sigh, David turned to enter the classroom. His eyes scanned for a seat at the lined tables, and he spotted one beside Quinn. As he moved toward his friends, a manicured hand pushed past him and plopped into the chair.

Cat examined her nails with a critical eye, ignoring him completely. David sat himself in the nearest empty chair, crinkling his eyebrows.

Meanwhile, Quinn eyed the girl beside her. “I think David was going to sit here.”

“Sorry,” Cat shrugged, resuming her nail inspection. “I didn’t even notice him.”

Quinn reopened her mouth, but the Sunday School teacher spoke before she did.

“Okay, everyone,” Mr. Rory called out over the crowd, hushing their conversations. “It’s time to get started. We have a lot to cover this morning. But first, let’s pray, shall we? Can I get a volunteer, please?”

A few whispers started up among the group, but not one teenager raised their hand.

“Nobody? Ah, David, thank you,” Mr. Rory winked at the exasperated sophomore. “Does anyone have any prayer requests?”

Entreaties sprinkled the air, and Mr. Rory scribbled each down on the whiteboard at the front of the room. “Awesome. Let’s bow our heads and close our eyes, everyone. David, go ahead.”

“Dear God,” David began, clearing his throat to increase the range of his voice. “Thank You so much for this beautiful day You’ve given us. Thank You that we have the opportunity to be here, learning more about You and how to be close to You. I pray specifically for Martin’s big Spanish test this week, and I ask that You would be with him while he takes it, and that he would remember everything. I also ask that You would be with Melanie, whose parents are trying to sort out their marriage right now. Lord, I know she doesn’t yet believe in You, but I ask that You would work miraculously in her heart. Comfort her during this time. And God, I also ask that You comfort the Smith family, who lost their Great Aunt Kelly a month ago. I know she’s in Heaven with You, and that she’s singing, Lord. But please comfort those left behind and struggling. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

“Amen,” the room chorused together. Mr. Rory busied himself with cleaning the whiteboard, and small talk resumed.

Cat shot a sideways glance at one of her dearest friends. “Your aunt died?”

“Yeah,” Quinn swallowed. “Didn’t you know?”

Cat’s forehead wrinkled. “No, I guess I’ve been pretty busy.”

“Oh,” Quinn replied, playing with a shortened strand of hair. She waited for Cat to say something else; to say she was sorry like everyone else had; to explain what had happened this school year; to suggest they have a Girls’ Night In to catch up; to mention her haircut and tell her how great it looked using one of her crazy invented words.

Cat turned to the table behind her and started to discuss nail polish with a few of the girls.

Lord, I can’t believe how much changed in a year.

~

Becker pushed his door open with a shoulder, kicking his shoes off near his desk. He wrenched his polo shirt off and threw it at a chair. Hopping across the room towards his bed on one foot, he ripped each sock from his feet, balling them up and tossing them. Then he dropped into his bed, pulling the comforter up over his head.

A light knock came from the open doorway. Becker ignored the sound, turning himself towards the wall.

“Becker?” Bethy’s small voice came muffled through the blanket. “Becker, we need to talk.”

With no response, Bethy marched herself into the room. She grabbed his desk chair and dragged it next to his bed. With a plop, she was eyelevel with her brother, who was still ignoring her presence.

“Look, I know you aren’t asleep. You haven’t even been in your room for a minute,” Bethy laughed lightly.

The lump beneath the covers moved slightly.

“I just want you to talk to me. We’d been doing so well with that, until…well, you know when,” Bethy paused. “I miss that, okay? I don’t like this feeling, the way things were a year ago. When I didn’t even know if you loved me.”

Becker’s form rolled towards her, and a few muffled words escaped.

“What?”

He pulled the blanket down off of his face and peeped at her through his mop of straw hair. “I said I was sorry you felt like that.”

Bethy shrugged. “Becker, we’ve been over that. I know you’re sorry for that. What I said is that I’m feeling like that again.”

“Look, Beth, I love you,” Becker’s big baby blue eyes bore into his sister’s. “But I just lost someone I was really close to. Just because I’m grieving doesn’t mean that I don’t love you.”

“I was close to Aunt Kelly, too,” Bethy countered. “I’m fine. I’m a little bit sad, but I’m okay. Why is it that you aren’t okay, Becker?”

The covers went back over Becker’s head. “I don’t really want to talk about it right now,” he called clearly.

“Okay. Fine,” Bethy sighed. “I’m here when you want to talk, okay?”

The bump beneath the blanket shifted back towards the wall. Bethy returned Becker’s desk chair to its rightful place. When she looked up, she saw the photos he had taped above his desk. There was a picture of their family on vacation at the beach a few years back: she was scowling, her arms folded over a book. Becker was grinning as he stood in the sand, and the same smile carried over throughout the rest of the pictures. Jimmy, Becker, and Erin stood in a line in front of the elementary school: their last year there. David giving him a piggyback ride, with the girls in the background, staring in horror. Erin and Becker posing with a ketchup bottle and a can of Campbell’s soup. A youth group picture from the first year Mr. Rory taught. A very young Bethy, sitting in Becker’s lap, while Uncle Jake read them a story.

The smile haunted her now, clearly displayed in hundreds of memories. Yet, that self-same grin; she hadn’t seen it in over a month.

And who knew when it would make its return.

~

David passed the spare room while he walked down the hallway to his bedroom. He paused, and retreated to the doorway to look inside. A set of bright yellow walls greeted him, with the small red racecar bedframe of his childhood. At the foot of the bed was a big blue chest, filled with stuffed animals. A wardrobe sat in the corner, and in the other, a lamp with a moon-shaped pulley stood.

They were supposed to get a preschooler, a boy about Lucy’s age. His mother had spent weeks finding the right touches for the tiny spare room, the perfect space that he could call his own. Lucy was ecstatic for a new playmate, and David knew he could handle a little boy. Just before the foster child was to arrive, the placement agency called. There was a desperate need of a home for a thirteen-year-old. Of course, their family took him in.

Shortly after Anthony’s arrival, it became abundantly clear that the spare room wouldn’t suit him. Not only was the bed too small, it wasn’t enough space for a teenager. Mr. and Mrs. Stephens quickly made room for him in David’s bedroom, despite Anthony’s willingness to stay in the spare room.

The space which was once expansive was now adequate for two teenage boys. The dark blue walls, sprinkled with sports decorations, now looked upon two small beds, on either side of the room. An extra dresser was shoved into an empty corner. Anthony’s only request was a bookshelf. After digging in the garage, they found a small set of shelves, which he placed at the end of his bed.

David remembered watching him unpack. He had some nice dress shirts and pants, but they were clearly too small for him. He folded them meticulously and placed them in the bottom drawer. The clothes that fit were bland, and Mrs. Stephens had fussed that they would go shopping that week. Anthony only nodded and continued unpacking his bag. He pulled out book after book, arranging them in a special order on his new shelf. A worn copy of Ruby Holler was laid on his pillow. Then the small talk began.

Mrs. Stephens did everything in her power to make him feel more comfortable. She prattled about the house, his new family, when she would take him shopping, and what was for dinner. Then she grilled him about himself, and all he would say was “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am”.

David closed the door on the spare room, moving himself back on the path to his room. He briskly knocked at the door, not wanting to startle Anthony with his abrupt entry.

With no answer, David pushed the door open. Anthony was sitting, cross-legged on his bed, his back against the wall. He was clearly engrossed in a book. David walked to his own bed and sat down on the edge.

“Hey,” David interrupted carefully. “How was church today?”

Anthony offered a shrug with no eye contact and resumed reading.

“That’s good, I guess,” David scratched his nose. “Were the kids nice to you in Sunday School?”

Another shrug ensued.

“Who did you sit with?”

The roaming, reading eyes paused for a moment. “No one.”

“Oh, do you not know their names?” David pressed with a smile.

Anthony didn’t respond.

“Well, next week, you should try and sit with Erin and Becker and Jimmy,” David finally interjected into the silence. “They’re really nice.”

After his last statement sat for a least a minute, David slid off the edge of his bed and left Anthony to read in peace.

~

Erin rolled over, retrieving her diary from under her bed. She hadn’t written for the longest time, but she was in the mood to read what her past self was like.

Starting with the first page, Erin threw back her head and laughed. She hadn’t been quite sure how a diary worked when she first started, and she sounded so incredibly awkward. There were huge gaps of time from when she’d forgotten to write.

“Dear Diary,” she read aloud after flipping through several pages. “Today, Becker and I got into a huge fight. A pillow fight, that is! He says he won, but I totally beat him. I hit him on the head at least four times, and he only got me once. We had to stop once he misfired and hit Bethy in the face.”

Erin began to snicker, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. “I remember that day, Bethy was so mad at us! Oh, here’s another one. Dear Diary; I built a fort in the basement with Quinn and Becker today. Aunt Kelly said…”

She bit the inside of her cheek. “Aunt Kelly said it was the best she’d ever seen.”

Lord, why did You take Aunt Kelly from us? I don’t understand. She was one of the kindest people, the most helpful. She believed in me when the rest of my family didn’t. And now she’s gone…

Erin cleared her throat, shaking her head to shoo the memories away. “Dear Diary; Quinn told me all about some boy from school today. She went on and on about how cute he is. Bleh! She got pretty mad when I told her that was gross. But it is, so what was I supposed to say?”

A burst of laughter escaped Erin’s mouth. “Lord, I remember that conversation. I remember when I didn’t even notice boys like that.”

She quickly flipped through the pages, looking for another good memory. “Oh, here’s one about the play last year! Dear Diary; today, I met the rudest boy I have ever seen in my life. His name is Ned Moffat, and he’s just plain mean! He made fun of me and my Sallie Gardener costume. Worst of all, I have to dance with him during one of the scenes. He’s kind of a jerk. He better watch it, or I’m gonna have Becker beat him up.”

Erin burst into crazed laughter at the end of her sentence. “Oh, my goodness—Becker, beating someone up.”

She continued to cackle uncontrollably, trying to draw air in. A concerned Quinn threw the door open and took in the sight of Erin, snorting over a small journal.

“Erin, are you okay?” Quinn began to chuckle at the spectacle that was her sister.

Erin patted the space beside her on the bed, and Quinn climbed up next to her, brushing her bob of red hair out of her face.

“I’m reading old diary entries,” Erin’s breathing finally returned to normal. “Here, listen to this one. Dear Diary; so, Ned Moffat isn’t as much of a jerk as I thought he was.”

“Ned Moffat?” Quinn interrupted, her eyebrows raised. “Isn’t that the kid from the play in seventh grade?”

Erin huffed. “Yes, he is: let me finish.”

“Sorry, go ahead,” Quinn smirked, her arms crossed.

“Except for a slight case of let’s-smash-Erin’s-toes, he’s actually pretty cool,” Erin’s voice broke with a smidge of laughter. “At the very least, he’s a gentleman. He holds doors open, is polite, and doesn’t stuff food into his face. It’s kind of sickening.”

Quinn snorted. “Erin, you are the funniest bird. He sounds like he was a pretty nice kid.”

“Yeah, he was,” Erin smiled slightly.

Quinn’s eyebrows shot straight up. “No.”

“What?”

“Oh, Erin, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What?” Erin shrieked. “What did I do?”

Quinn’s face split into a huge grin. “You liked him, didn’t you?”

For a moment, Erin’s mannerisms took on their characteristic rage. She looked like she was about to declare her immaturity, blast her Veggie Tales music, and deny the idea of growing up. However, just as quickly as it had come, it went, and her face softened. “Okay, maybe a little bit.”

“Erin Monica Smith, you actually liked someone?” Quinn nudged her sister with her elbow. “You’ve blown my mind.”

Erin’s eyebrows knit together. “Yeah. Mine too.”

~

Melanie carried the last box into her new room and closed the door with her hip. With a sigh, she blew her chocolate bangs out of her eyes and stared at the newest mishmash she was to call home. Her candy curtains were neatly folded and ready to be hung along the windows. Her cat bedspread was in a heap on the mattress. Her clothes were stuffed into a tiny closet. Nearly everything else she owned was packed into the four giant boxes strewn on her floor, except for Manny, her dog, who was nestled in a corner.

Exhaustion poured in with the very thought of unpacking, so Melanie plucked a single can from one box, strode to her pink bean bag, and plopped herself onto it. She fingered the decorations on her old container of Pirouettes before gingerly placing it on her windowsill. Melanie glanced at Manny, who was sound asleep in his bed, before closing her own eyes.

Her rest was abruptly interrupted by the appearance of her mother, who threw the door open.

“Dad’s making dinner,” she loudly called across the room with a bright smile. “Come out in about ten minutes, okay, honey?”

Melanie’s eyes shot open, and she returned the smile with a degree of exhaustion. “Sure, Mom.”

Mrs. Walker nearly skipped away, and Mel slipped back into a peaceful rest. Her eyelids had nearly pulled her under into a dreamland when she heard a shout.

For a moment, the fear of an injured parent had her heading for the kitchen, until her ears captured the returned yell. Melanie’s eyes closed automatically, and she paused in her trek to the door. The back-and-forth rose a degree in volume, and Manny ears were perking up at the sound. Mel hurried to close the door.

It only muffled the sound. She scurried to her bed and buried her head under the blanket. No improvement. She pushed her clothes to the side and crouched inside her closet. It was even louder. Noticing Manny had fallen back asleep, Melanie finally shuffled back to her beanbag, pressing an ear against it. The noise was almost eradicated.

I am going to be spending a lot of time in this corner.

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