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A Fragile Hope

By Cynthia Ruchti

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This wave of pain will pass. So will the next.
Life’s hard seasons rock us. Hold on.
Some years, spring comes early.
~ Seedlings and Sentiments,
from the “When Sorry Isn’t Enough” Collection

She punched the blender’s Off button hard enough to rock the unit. Not good. All she needed was for that slurpy mixture to go flying across the shop. Maybe Josiah had a point about the blender noise. She couldn’t think with it whirring. How could she expect him to?
But thinking could be dangerous.
“I love this one.”
The voice came from behind her. She had no trouble discerning who it belonged to. She gripped the handle tighter to override the slick of her sweating palms.
“Karin, did you hear me? I said I really like this one.”
She lifted the blender pitcher from its base and held it close to her body. Not a traditional self-defense posture. With his work cap too far back on his head to hide the questioning crease in his forehead, or the tuft of artificially bleached-blond hair that teased the creases, Wade Frambolt waited for her response.
“It’s part of our ‘When Sorry Isn’t Enough’ collection,” she said as casually as she could manage. “Still so new, the ink isn’t dry yet.” She should turn, empty the contents of the blender onto the mold-and-deckle screen prepped for it. She should.
Wade’s mouth drew up on one side. “I don’t know how you two keep coming up with these things. You find a way to express what people are thinking but don’t know how to say.”
Karin’s tension eased one notch on an emotional belt with its holes punched too close together. Not much help. “We’d better be able to do that, or we shouldn’t have gotten into this business.” Her nervous laugh belonged to a fourteen-year-old girl, not a business professional. With a husband.
Wade pulled at his lower lip. She followed the path of his gaze. The shop. Her shop. Seedlings and Sentiments.
“So, now what? What are you working on now?” Wade pointed to the blender she clutched like a security blanket.
“Mulberry paper. Hence the color.” She held the pitcher to catch the light from the antique chandelier Leah had insisted would soften the glare from the ceiling’s overhead lighting. The mulberry slush had already begun to settle out. It would need another pulse or two to remix.
“Do you have a plan?”
No. That was the problem. Every plan sounded like a prison break, admission of defeat, or certain death of what she cherished most. Once cherished most.
“For the mulberry paper. Do you have a plan for the mulberry paper?” Wade stepped closer.
“Karin, are you okay? Your reaction time is way off normal.”
That her best friend’s life mate knew her response time better than her husband underscored part of the need for a plan. “Not sure yet.” No matter the question she’d been asked, that was a safe, all-purpose answer.
And it was the truth. She wasn’t sure of anything.

###

“Refill on your coffee, Wade?”
Karin watched Leah stretch an extra length of packing tape across the address label on the last of the boxes, smooth the crinkles with her thumbnail as she always did—crinkles or not—and head for the coffeemaker without waiting for Wade’s reply. “Miserable night like this one’s promising to be, you might want to try the cardamom mocha.” Leah hesitated. “Not the night for either of us to be gone from home. Hope you’re okay with frozen pizza while I’m at the accountant’s, shuffling through the business’s tax maze. So.” Leah turned to face her husband. “Cardamom mocha?”
Karin caught his look—a cross between curiosity and disgust. “It’s her own blend,” Karin offered. As if that would help.
“Madagascan?” he asked, twisting the lid from his travel mug.
“Scandinavian. Smell.” Sandra held the coffee carafe toward him and fanned the aroma his direction.
“Mmm. Cookies.”
“That’s the cardamom.” She poured. “Said to aid everything from digestion to depression.”
Karin’s stomach churned. Don’t believe it. On either count.
“Your packages ready now?”
What must it be like to see your husband during the workday…and have him care about what you do? To have him involved in delivering what you create rather than dismiss it as “that little hobby of yours”?
Karin turned back to the task of leveling the paper pulp on the screen, distributing chunkier bits with her gloved fingers. Gloves—a concession to the natural dyes and the less-than-natural coloring from shredded junk mail for which the shop had become the town of Paxton’s repository. She lifted the mold and watched pinkish liquid drip through the screen into the catch pan below. If the packages were ready, that meant Wade was leaving.
“Yes. Sorry about making you wait. Again.” Leah smiled, winked, and dumped the last half-inch of coffee into the shop’s splattered stainless steel work sink. “It’s the efficiency in me. I can’t stand the idea of having an order almost ready to send off and needing to wait until tomorrow.”
Sometimes a person can wait too long.
“But,” Leah added, “that’s why Karin’s the artist and I’m the business manager. “Right, Karin?”
“Are we the last stop of the day?” Karin knew the answer, but all the other questions in her mind couldn’t be answered as easily.
“As always,” Wade said. “I like to end the day on a positive note.”
“My coffee has that effect on people.” Leah arched her hand and pressed three fingers to her chest, pinkie extended, eyebrows arched, head titled just so, her grin rolling into a giggle.
“Not denying the power of coffee, but it’s”—he scanned the room.
Karin held her breath.
“It’s the atmosphere. There’s something in the air here. It feels like safety, looks like friendship. And it keeps me coming back.”
“Aw. How sweet.” Leah’s expression could have revived the coffee resting in the crook of the drain pipe.
“He’s reading the whiteboard.” Karin pointed.
“What?”
“Failed brainstorming session.” She set the paper mold on the flat pan and crossed to the whiteboard wall. She rubbed away everything except the word atmosphere. “I’ll know to wait for inspiration next time.”
Wait.
Josiah. We need to talk.
She knew what he’d say. “Can it wait?” And then he’d assume the answer was yes.
No. Not anymore.

###

Leah closed the door behind package-laden Wade. “I chose well. That is one of the good guys.”
“Uh huh.”
“He looks a little like a younger Tom Hanks, don’t you think?”
“I guess so.” Karin slipped the newborn mulberry paper onto the waiting sheet of kitchen parchment paper on the worktable. She sprinkled another few cornflower seeds onto the surface of the mulberry fibers and pressed them lightly into the still damp, but already beautiful pulp. Another layer of parchment. Then the sponge. The rhythm of pressing out more water—more of the unwanted—covering every inch of the sandwiched paper, helped slow her pulse.

###

Not fit for man nor beast. Karin could hear her father’s well-rehearsed assessment of nights like this one. Dark too soon. Rain threatening to become something solid if the temp dropped another degree or two. Wind intent on driving the precipitation through buttonholes or jackets merely resistant, not rain-proof.
One more trip back into the store before she could turn out the rest of the lights. For the last time for a while. Maybe forever. Janelle insisted Josiah would fight for her. Karin had given him every chance. She texted Janelle, then started her note to Leah.
“Leah, you don’t deserve the mess I’m leaving you.”
She stopped writing. Her hands shook from more than the cold. Old rain dripped from her wet hair onto the sheet torn from her ever-present idea notebook. “Forgive me. Please.”
A fist-sized rock the shop used as a doorstop in summer became a paperweight on Leah’s pristine desk. A boulder-sized lump clogged Karin’s airway as she turned toward the rear exit of the building, slapping at light switches along the way.
She stepped onto the back stoop, tried the door to make sure it was locked, keyed in the security code, and faced the night. The phone in her coat pocket played a familiar two-toned alert.
Only an insane person would stop her current mission to look. So she did.
It was Josiah, technically-speaking. But he wasn’t answering her last text, the one that could stop her. Instead, his automation system had sent a pre-programmed text to his reader fans with his “Marriage Moments” wisdom of the day.
Mister Irony.
“The path to your happiness,” she read on the screen, “lies in paying attention to your spouse’s heartbeat.”
Rain-on-its-way-to-sleet slid down the back of her neck as she lifted the Dumpster lid to toss in her phone with its cutting message.
Her coat sleeve caught on something. She tugged against whatever it was lurking near the top but hidden in shadows. Numbing cold stiffened her fingers as she dug with her right hand to free her sleeve. Pain. There shouldn’t be pain. No. I have to go. Have to leave. Let me leave!
A broad dagger of glass flew from the Dumpster and shattered at her feet as she extricated her arm. Sleeve ripped. Skin slashed. Blood. So much blood.
Sleet. Cold. Stop the blood. Stop it. Not in my escape plan. Can’t hold pressure and unlock the door. Can’t get in.
But help will come, won’t it? He’ll be here soon. In books, heroes always show up on time.
Sound behind her. Steel door slams hard. “Karin?”
I knew you’d come.

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