College student Amber Swansen gives birth alone. In desperation, she abandons the newborn, buries her secret, and attempts to get on with her life. No matter how far she runs, she can’t escape the guilt. Years later and still haunted by her past, Amber meets Beth Dilinger. Friendship blossoms between the two women, but Beth’s son is a constant, painful reminder to Amber of the child she abandoned.
When heartache hits, causing Amber to grapple with the answers to life's deeper questions, Beth stands by her side. Yet just when pea ce seems to be within Amber’s grasp, the truth of her past and the parentage of Beth’s son comes to light and threatens to shatter not only their worlds, but the life of the teenager they both love.
June 3, 1994
The bundled towel in Amber’s arms no longer stirred. Even the soft mewling had stopped. So it couldn’t be real, after all.
Amber fixed her gaze on the dumpster across the street and then glanced back at her silent, brick apartment building. Dizzy, she peered at the dumpster once again and took a step forward. The full moon hung above her like a watchful eye, illuminating the metal bin that seemed to waver like water, like the sloshing peppermint Schnapps she’d downed in desperation hours ago.
A sudden gust of wind swept through her hair. She clutched the towel to her chest and stepped off the curb into the street, the blacktop cool and jagged beneath her bare feet. As if powered by something outside of herself, she took a step forward and then another. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. The wind picked up. She broke into a run.
Her bare feet slapped against the asphalt, a deafening sound in the otherwise quiet night. A blast of pain shot through her insides as she reached the back lot of On the House, a small shabby bar beneath a neon sign. She glimpsed a cardboard box next to the dumpster, overflowing with broken down cartons and paper. Hastily, she lowered the bundle into the box and straightened. She peered at her empty hands, then at the unmoving towel, her heartbeat rapid firing in her chest
She waited and watched. Nothing. No movement. No sound. No heartbeat anymore, probably.
The headlights from a passing car flashed over the side of the bar, jolting her with panic. She turned and ran, sprinted back to her apartment, breathless and dizzy.
A fleeting sense of horror washed over her. Who was this girl running in the darkness? Something inside of her pleaded for her to stop. Snap out of it. Wake up. Undo. Yet the urgings receded into the fog of her mind. She staggered down the common hall of her apartment, a trickle of blood snaking down her thigh inside her sweat pants. A shower. That’s what she needed—a long hot shower to wash away the horror of the night, torrents of water to obliterate the thing that couldn’t have happened.
She watched her hand turn the doorknob to her apartment, a hand that seemed disconnected to the rest of her, and stepped over the threshold. The trance shattered.
“Where were you?” Robin was standing in the kitchen with an open jar of peanut butter and a spoon.
Amber gripped the edge of the counter and closed her eyes, willing the figure away. When she opened them, her roommate stood waiting.
“I thought you were at Josh’s for the night,” Amber said.
Robin excavated a glob of peanut butter. “We had a fight. I just got home, and I’m too ticked off to sleep.” She stuck the spoon in her mouth, pulled it out clean, and gave Amber the once over. “What’s wrong with you? You look awful.”
The room took off in a spin. Amber turned and made her way to the bathroom, raking her hand against the wall for balance. Either she was going to be sick or pass out.
Robin trailed her. “What were you doing outside? It’s three o’clock in the morning.”
Her body pricked with sweat, Amber stumbled into the bathroom and knelt before the toilet.
“Oh,” Robin said. “You’re drunk.” She disappeared down the hall.
Depleted, Amber wiped her mouth across the sleeve of her sweatshirt and plunked down on the floor.
Moments later, Robin reappeared. “Whose party?”
Elbows propped on her knees, Amber held her head with her hands. “No party.”
Robin leaned in the doorway and crossed her arms over her chest. Her dark eyebrows knit together in scrutiny. “Something’s wrong.”
“Don’t feel good. Just leave me alone.”
Amber found a ponytail holder on the floor and bound her hair loosely at the base of her neck. Suddenly, Robin gasped. Amber followed her roommate’s gaze to the bathtub and saw the streaks of red.
Robin’s eyes grew as wide as a marionette’s. “Amber, what’s going on? Why is there blood in the bathtub?”
“Just go. Just leave me alone.” She hung her head in her hands.
“What happened here tonight?”
“Nothing. It’s taken care of.”
Robin was silent for so long Amber finally looked up. Her roommate seemed drained of color. “What do you mean it’s taken care of? What’s taken care of?”
“Nothing. Never mind.” Giving in to exhaustion, Amber laid her cheek against the cold, linoleum floor.
Robin gave a little cry then cursed. “Amber, you’re bleeding.”
Amber glanced at the insides of her thighs where red stained her gray sweats. “I’ll be OK. I just need to sleep.”
“You’re not OK. You need help. You need a doctor.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You need help!” Robin looked around frantically. “You’re scaring me. We need to do something. We need to call someone—”
“No. Don’t call anyone. Please. Just let me sleep.”
Robin was silent for a minute. “Were you…?”
“Stop asking questions. Just leave.”
Robin paced down the hall and came back. “This is wrong. This is all so wrong.”
“Robin. Leave. For your own good. I took care of it.”
“It. What’s this ‘it,’ Amber? You were, weren’t you? And you were trying to hide it.” Robin clamped a hand over her mouth. “And now—where is it? What happened to it?”
“It died!” But even as she spoke, she recalled those first weak cries, while she tried to catch her breath in the bathtub, after the impossible happened. She thought she’d have more time. Why didn’t she have more time?
At first the signs were easy to push away but as her stomach grew harder and the strange internal thumping more frequent, she had to wonder. Wonder, panic, bury the thought, and get on with life. She couldn’t think about that now. She had classes. Exams. It couldn’t be happening anyway. And then another sensation would ripple through her abdomen. Another pair of jeans wouldn’t button. She’d never been a beanpole, but even Robin mentioned, just last week, she might want to ease up on the take-out.
She looked at Robin’s red blotchy face. “I took care of it. It’s over.”
Robin raked her hands through her pixie cut, her eyes blinking compulsively, a frantic Morse code. “Don’t tell me any more. I don’t want to know any more. I can’t know. Just leave. Tomorrow. Get your things and yourself and be out of here by tomorrow, because I can’t handle this. I can’t know about any of this.” She backed away, her hands a shield in front of her as if warding off a dog attack. She let out a whimper and disappeared down the hall.
Pulling her knees to her chest, Amber let her eyelids fall, her mind steadily circling one thought, one statement that might save her if she could manage to believe it:
It never happened.
She was out of options. The reality of it made her sick, but there was only one person she could turn to now: her mother. Amber gripped the phone, scanned the script she’d jotted in her sketchbook, and rehearsed the words under her breath one last time. Then she exhaled, punched in the number, and waited.
“Hi, Mom. It’s Amber.”
Her mother sighed into the phone. “Look who’s finally calling. My long lost daughter. Your timing’s not good though. My program’s on.”
In the background, Amber heard agitated TV voices and fought to keep her own tone even. “Yeah, sorry about not calling. I’ve been busy. And I haven’t really been feeling that great—”
“You haven’t been feeling great? You should have seen me last week. Had the nastiest head cold you could ever imagine. I finally went into the doctor and told him he had to give me something. Felt like I was going to die. Course you’d have known this if you ever called.”
Amber closed her eyes to steady herself. She couldn’t afford to blow this. “Sorry.” She glanced at her script. “Hey, there’s been a change of plans. My summer job fell through, so I thought maybe I’d come home for awhile, if that’s OK with you.”
“You want to come home? I thought you wanted to stay close to campus for the summer. I thought you found work.”
Amber picked up her pencil and sketched along the edge of the page. “Plans changed. There wasn’t anything I could—”
Her mother shushed her. “Hang on a second.” The background voices intensified, and a female screamed, “You’re not the father. Victor’s the father!”
“I knew it,” her mother said. “What were you saying?”
“That I’m coming home.”
“How long are you staying?”
“I don’t know. A couple of months. For the summer maybe.”
“Until you go back to school?’
Amber sketched an oval on her paper and added a wide brow and a small chin. “Until I find a place of my own. I’m not going back to school.”
Her mother was silent for a moment. “That’s it? One year under your belt and that’s it? Well aren’t you the little scholar? Quitting already. What about that scholarship? What happened with all of that, Miss Smarty-Pants?”
Amber studied the oval she’d drawn and shaded in wide-set eyes. “College just isn’t for me.” Her voice almost broke under the lie. She swallowed hard. “It’s better that I figure that out now than sometime next year, right? I just don’t belong here.”
“I thought Mr. What’s-His-Name said you had talent? Went through all the trouble to help you fill out that paperwork and get you that scholarship and all. What are you going to tell him?”
The day Amber showed him the letter of award in the high school art room, a lifetime ago, Mr. Morton had beamed with pride. “What’s it matter to him? I’ll tell him it didn’t work out.”
“Let go of me!” The soap opera lady sounded hysterical.
“Can’t say I’m surprised,” her mother said. “I knew this whole college thing would be nothing but a waste of time. You just got too big for your britches.”
Amber squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them, the small face on her sketchbook peered back at her. She added a diminutive mouth. “I’m not planning on staying long. Just until I find a place of my own. So, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Her mom chuckled. “I’ll be sure to roll out the red carpet.”
Amber hung up the phone and stared at the small, gray face. She darkened the pupils, erased a speck to add the illusion of light, shaded the lower lip and accentuated the divot between the nose and mouth.
The front door opened and shut. Robin was back.
Holding the pencil like a dagger, Amber scribbled through the drawing, tearing through the paper and leaving pockmarks on the page behind it. She tossed her sketchbook across the bed and started packing for home.
Home. Back where she started. And this time, she’d find no way out.
Question 1: How do the characters demonstrate friendship, sisterhood, and mentoring? Are these relationships realistic? Why or why not? What are some real life obstacles to meaningful friendships between women?
Question 2: Which character do you most identify with and why? (Amber, Beth, Gretchen, Margaret, Ginny, Lizzie, Miranda, Jackie)
Question 3: Discuss how guilt and denial play out in Amber's life. How does Amber's guilt affect her? Has guilt or denial ever played a role in your life? Can guilt ever be beneficial?
Question 4: For a long time Amber is convinced God could never forgive her. What changes her mind? How does Beth play a role in Amber's transformation? How do Miranda, Ginny, Gretchen, and Jackie play a role in Amber's transformation?
Question 5: How do the various characters deal with disappointment and grief? (Beth and her infertility, Gretchen and her postpartum depression, Ginny's estrangement to Margaret etc.)
Question 6: How does Beth handle "life's curve ball"? In what ways does she step out (or is forced out) of her comfort zone? How does she grow in this area throughout the story? How does she grow and change as a parent? As a wife?
Question 7: Ginny's porch plays a substantial role in the story. What events take place on it? Why is it significant that Margaret think it should be torn down while Amber is determined to fix it?
Question 8: How did Beth's obedience (befriending Amber, hosting the study) lead to heartache? What, if any, blessings resulted from her obedience? Has your obedience to God ever led to blessing and/or heartache?
Question 9: Toward the end of the book the author says of Beth, "And yet here she sat, pretending everything was fine, while a tempest raged in her soul. She glanced at the faces in her living room. Were they all masking a tempest of some kind?" Do you think most people are hiding a "tempest of the soul"? If so, how should that affect our everyday interactions with people? How do the characters decide who should be privy to their tempest? How do you determine when, or when not, to share a difficulty you're experiencing?
Question 10: Which characters demonstrate forgiveness and how is this displayed? Do you think forgiveness is a one-time decision or a drawn out process? How does bitterness play into the story? Do you struggle with extending, or asking for, forgiveness?