For two hours a night, Monday through Saturday, Isadora Presley became the girl she'd lost.
"Welcome to My Foolish Heart, where we believe your perfect love might be right next door. We want to send special greetings out to KDRT in Seattle, brand-new to the Late Night Lovelorn Network. BrokenheartedInBuffalo, you're on the line. Welcome to the program."
Outside the second-story window of her home studio, the night crackled open with a white flash of light and revealed the scrawny arms of her Japanese plum, cowering under a summer gale. Issy checked the clock. Hopefully the storm would hold off for the rest of her show, another thirty minutes.
And the weather had better clear by tomorrow's annual Deep Haven Fisherman's Picnic. She couldn't wait to sit on her front porch, watch the midnight fireworks over the harbor as the Elks launched them from the campground, and pretend that life hadn't forgotten her.
Tomorrow, she'd watch the parade from her corner of the block, wave to her classmates on their annual float as they made their way toward Main Street, then linger on the porch listening to the live music drift up from the park. Maybe she'd even be able to hear the cheers from the annual log-rolling competition. She could nearly taste the tangy sweetness of a fish burger --- fresh walleye and homemade tartar sauce. Kathy would be pouring coffee in the Java Cup outpost. And just a block away, the crispy, fried-oil tang of donuts nearly had the power to lure her to Lucy's place, World's Best Donuts. She'd stand in the line that invariably twined out the door, around the corner, and past the realty office waiting for a glazed raised.
She'd never, not once in her first twenty-five years, missed Fish Pic. Until two years ago.
She'd missed everything since then. She swallowed down the tightening in her chest.
"Thank you for taking my call, Miss Foolish Heart. I just wanted to say that I listen to your show every night and that it's helped me wait for the perfect man."
BrokenheartedInBuffalo had a high, sweet voice, the kind that might belong to a college coed with straight blonde hair, blue eyes. But the radio could mask age, race, even gender. Truly, when Issy listened to her podcasts, sometimes she didn't recognize her own voice, the way it softened with compassion, turning low and husky as she counseled listeners.
She could almost trick herself into believing she knew what she was doing. Trick herself into believing that she lived a different life, one beyond the four walls and garden of her home.
"I'm so glad, Brokenhearted. He's out there. What can I do for you tonight?"
"Well, I think I found him. We met a few weeks ago in a karate class, and we've already had three dates ---"
"Three? Brokenhearted, I know that you're probably smitten, but three dates isn't enough to know a man is perfect for you. A great relationship takes ---"
"Time, trials, and trust. I know."
So Brokenhearted listened regularly. Good, then maybe Issy could slow her down, help her to part the heady rush of the "love fog" --- another of her coined terms.
"Then you also know you don't develop that in three dates, although Miss Foolish Heart does advise calling it quits after three if there is no visible ten potential."
"But it feels like it. He's everything I want."
"How do you know that?"
"I have my top ten list, just like you said. And of course, the big three."
"Big three essentials. Sounds like you know what you're looking for."
"That's just it --- he has most of them, and I'm wondering if it's essential for him to have all of them. Isn't ...let's say, seven out of ten enough?"
"You tell me, Brokenhearted --- would you settle for a seven romance? Or do you want a ten?"
"What if I don't know what a ten feels like?"
What a ten feels like. Yes, Issy would like to know that too.
"Good question, Brokenhearted. I think it must be different for everyone. Stay on the line and let's take some calls and see if anyone has a good answer. Or you can hop over to the forum at www.myfoolishheart.com --- I see that Cupid27 has posted a reply. 'Love feels as if nothing can touch you.' Nice, Cupid27. Any other callers?"
She muted Brokenhearted and clicked on another caller. "TruLuv, you're on the air. What does a ten feel like?"
A gravelly, low voice, the two-pack-a-day kind: "It's knowing you have someone to hold on to."
"Great response, TruLuv. Here's hoping you have someone to hold on to." She muted TruLuv. "Go ahead, WindyCity."
"It's knowing you're loved ...anyway."
Loved, anyway. Oh, she wanted to believe that was possible. "Love that, WindyCity. Anyone else?"
The forum had come to life, replies piling up. On the phone lines, PrideAndPassion723 appeared. Pride called at least once a month, often with a new dilemma, and kept the forum boards lit up with conversations. Issy should probably give the girl a 1-800 number.
She clicked back to Brokenhearted. "Do any of those replies feel like what you feel?"
"Maybe. I don't know."
"Miss Foolish Heart suggests you hold out for the ten, Brokenhearted. The perfect one is out there, maybe right next door."
She went to a commercial break, an advertisement for a chocolate bouquet delivery, and pulled off her headphones, massaging her ears.
Outside, the rain hummed against the house, a steady battering with the occasional ping upon the sill, although now and again it roared, the wind rousing in anger. Hopefully she'd remembered to close the front windows before she went on the air. Lightning strobed again, and this time silver leaves stripped from the tree, splattered on the window. Oh, her bleeding heart just might be lying flat on the ground, after all the work she'd done to nurture it to life.
The commercial ended.
"I see we have PrideAndPassion on the line, hopefully with an update to her latest romance. Thanks for coming back, Pride. How are you tonight?"
She'd expected tears --- or at the very least a mournful cry of how Pride had stalked her boyfriend into some restaurant, found him sharing a low-lit moment with some bimbo. Pride's escapades had become the backbone of the show, ratings spiking every time she called in.
Issy nearly didn't recognize her, not with the lift in her voice, the squeal at the end.
"Kyle popped the question! I did it, Miss Foolish Heart --- I held out for true love, and last night he showed up on my doorstep with a ring!"
"Oh, that's ...great, Pride." Issy battled the shock from her voice. No, not just shock. Even ...okay, envy.
Once upon a time, she'd dreamed of a finding the perfect man, dreamed of standing on the sidewalk at the Fisherman's Picnic with Lucy, hoping they might be asked to dance under the milky starlight of the August sky. But who had the courage to dance with the football coach's daughter? And as for Lucy, she simply couldn't put her courage together to say yes. Sweet, shy Lucy, she'd used up her courage on one boy.
It only took Lucy's broken heart their senior year to cement the truth: a girl had to have standards. She had to wait for the perfect love.
Issy had come up with the list then, refined it in college. A good, solid top ten list, and most important, the big three must-have attributes in a man besides his Christian faith --- compassionate, responsible, and self-sacrificing --- the super evaluator that told her if she should say yes to a first date.
If any came around. Because she certainly couldn't go out looking for dates, could she?
"Oh, Pride, are you sure?" Silence on the other end. She hadn't exactly meant it to come out with that edge, almost disapproving. "I ...just mean, is he a ten?"
"I'm tired of waiting for a ten, Miss Foolish Heart. I'm twenty-six years old and I want to get married. I don't want to be an old maid."
Twenty-six. Issy remembered twenty-six, a whole year ago. She'd celebrated her birthday with a jelly-filled bismark that Lucy brought over, and they'd sung ABBA at the top of their lungs.
And as a finale, Issy ventured out to her front steps. Waved to Cindy Myers next door, who happened to be out getting her mail.
Yes, a red-letter day, for sure.
"You're so young, Pride. Twenty-six isn't old."
"It feels old when everyone around you is getting married. I'm ready, and he asked, so I said yes."
Issy drew in a breath. "That's wonderful. We're all happy for you, right, forum?"
The forum, however, lit up with a vivid conversation about settling for anything less than a ten. See? Not a foolish heart among them.
"Good, because ...I want you to come to the wedding, Miss Foolish Heart. It's because of you that I found Kyle, and I want you to be there to celebrate with us."
Issy gave a slight chuckle over the air. High and short, it was a ripple of sound that resembled fear. Perfect. "I ...Thank you for the kind offer, Pride, but ---"
"You don't understand. This is going to be a huge wedding. I know we're not supposed to reveal our names on the air, but I am so grateful for your help that you need to know ---my father is Gerard O'Grady."
"The governor of California?" Former actor–turned–billionaire–turned–politician?
"Yes." A giggle followed her voice. "We're already planning the wedding --- it'll be at our estate in Napa Valley. I want you there, in the front row, with my parents. You've just helped me so much."
"Oh, uh, Pride ---"
"Lauren. I'm Lauren O'Grady."
"Okay, Lauren. I'm so sorry, but I can't come."
Why not? Because every time Issy ventured a block from her house, the world closed in and cut off her breathing? Because she couldn't erase from her brain the smell of her mother's burning flesh, her screams, the feel of hot blood on her hands? Because every time she even thought about getting into a car, she saw dots, broke out in a sweat?
Most of all, because she was still years away from breaking free of the panic attacks that held her hostage.
"Our station's policy is ---"
"I'm sure my father could get your station to agree. Please, please don't say no. Just think about it. I'll send you an invitation."
And then she clicked off.
Seconds of dead air passed before Issy found the right voice. "Remember to visit the forum at www.myfoolishheart.com. This is Miss Foolish Heart saying, your perfect love might be right next door." She disconnected just as Karen Carpenter's "Close to You" signaled the close of her show.
Yeah, sure. Once upon a time, she'd actually believed her tagline.
Once upon a time, she'd actually believed in Happily Ever After.
The next show came on --- The Bean, a late-night sports show out of Chicago that scooped up the scores from the games around the nation. She had no control over what shows surrounded hers and was just glad that she had the right to control some of the ad content.
Stopping by the bathroom, she closed the window, grabbed a towel, and threw it on the subway tile floor, stepping on it with her bare foot. She paused by her parents' bedroom ---it hadn't seen fresh air for two years, but she still opened the door, let her eyes graze the four-poster double bed, the Queen Anne bureau and dresser, the window that overlooked the garden.
For once, she left the door cracked, then descended the stairs. Front door locked, yes; the parlor windows shut.
Light sparked again across the night, brachials of white that spliced the blackness. It flickered long enough to illuminate the tiny library across the street and the recycle bin on its side, rolling as the wind kicked it down the sidewalk. A half block away, and down the hill toward town, the hanging stoplight suspended above the highway swayed. The storm had turned the intersection into a four-way stop, the red light blinking, bloody upon the glassy pavement.
She pulled a knit afghan off the sofa and wrapped it around herself, letting the fraying edges drag down the wooden floor to the kitchen. Here, she switched on the light. It bathed the kitchen --- the spray of white hydrangeas in a milk glass vase on the round white-and-black table, the black marble countertops, the black-and-white checked floor. Part retro, part contemporary --- her mother's eclectic taste.
Thunder shook the house again, lifting the fine hairs on the back of her neck. How she hated storms.
She snaked a hand out from the blanket, turned on the burner under the teakettle. She'd left the last donut from her daily Lucy delivery upstairs in her office. Her gaze flicked to the index card pasted to the cupboard. "If God is for us, who can ever be against us?" Indeed. But what if God wasn't exactly for you? Still, she wasn't going to ignore help where she might get it.
Another gust of wind, and something tumbled across her back porch --- oh no, not her geraniums. Then, banging on her back door. The glass shuddered.
Why her mother had elected to change out the perfectly good solid oak doors for one solid pane of glass never made sense to her.
The kettle whistled. She turned the flame off, reached for a mug ---
A howl, and no, that wasn't the wind. It sounded ...wounded. Even afraid.
She swallowed her heart back into her chest. She knew that kind of howl. Especially on a night like this.
Tucking her hand into her blanket, Issy moved to the door, then locked it. She turned off the kitchen light and peered out into the darkness.
No glowing eyes peering back at her, no snaggletoothed monster groping at her window. She flipped on the outside light. It bathed the cedar porch, the cushions of her faded teak furniture blowing in the wind, held only by their flimsy ties. Her potted geraniums lay toppled, black earth muddy and smeared across the porch, and at the bottom of the steps, the storm had flattened her bleeding heart bush.
At the very least, she should cover her mother's prized Pilgrim roses.
Issy dumped the afghan in a chair, rolled up her pant legs, grabbed a Windbreaker hanging in the closet near the door, and pulled the hood over her head.
Unbolting the door, she eased out into the rain. The air had a cool, slick breath, and it raised gooseflesh on her arms. The deluge had stirred to life the Scotch of her white pine, a grizzled sentry in the far corner, its shaggy arms gesturing danger.
But who would hurt her here, in her backyard? Not only that, but her father had built the Titanic of all fences, with sturdy pine boards that hemmed her in, kept the world out, with the exception of Lucy, who used it as a shortcut on her way to town.
It wasn't like Issy actually locked the gate. Okay, sometimes. Okay, always. But Lucy had a key to the gate as well as the house, so it didn't really matter.
Splashing down the stairs, she dashed across the wet flagstones, past her dripping variegated hosta, the verbena, the hydrangea bush, too many of the buds stripped. The rugosa, too, lay in waste.
She wouldn't look. Not until tomorrow. Sometimes it worked better that way, to focus on what she could save. On what she still had.
Reaching the shed, she dialed the combination and opened it. She grabbed the plastic neatly folded on the rack by the door, scooped up two bricks, and dashed back to the porch. Rain couldn't quite smatter the roses here, under the overhang. Still, just in case ...she weighted one end of the plastic with the bricks on the porch, then unfolded it over the flowers. Grabbing stones from the edging of her bed, she secured the tarp, then ran back to the shed for another pair of weights.
The howl tore through the rain again, reverberating through her.
She froze, her heart in her mouth.
Something moved. Over by the end of the porch.
The sky chose then to crack open and pour out its rage in a growl that lifted her feet from the earth.
And not only hers.
Whatever it was --- she got only a glimpse --- it came straight at her, like she might be prey. She screamed, dropped the bricks, and sprinted for the porch. Her foot slipped on the slick wood and she fell, hard. Her chin cracked against the wood, and then the animal pounced.
"No! Get away!" But it didn't maul her, didn't even stop. Just scrambled toward the door.
The pane of glass waterfalled onto the floor as the beast careened into her kitchen. Issy froze as the animal --- huge and hairy --- skidded across the linoleum.
It came to a stop, then lay there, whining.
A dog. A huge dog, with a face only a mother could love, eyes filled with terror, wet and muddy from its jowls down.
"Nice doggy ...nice . . ."
Lightning must have illuminated her, and the animal simply panicked. It turned and shot off through her house. Toenails scratching her polished wood floors.
In the front parlor, a crash --- not the spider plant!
The dog emerged back out into the hall and shot up the stairs.
"No! C'mere, boy!" Issy's bare feet stopped her at the threshold. The glass glistened like ice on the floor. Perfect. "Don't break anything!"
She darted off the porch, around the path of the garden, opened the gate, and ran through the slippery grass to the front of the house.
Thumper the rabbit still hid the key, and now she retrieved it and inserted it into the door.
The squeal of rubber against wet pavement came from her memory --- or perhaps she only hoped it did. Then a crash, the splintering of metal, the shattering of glass.
She turned. No.
Under the bloody glow of the blinking stoplight, a sedan had T-boned a minivan. Already, gas burned the air.
Her hand went to her face, to the raised memory on her forehead, and she shook her head as if to clear away the images.
She should call 911. But she could only back into her house.
She shut the door and palmed her hands against it, the cool wood comforting. Just ...breathe. Just . . .
Her breath tumbled over her, and she felt the whimper before it bubbled out.
God, please ...What was her verse? "If God is for us" ...No ...no, the one Rachelle had given her. "God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power ---"
She heard shouts and closed her eyes, pressed her hand to her chest, heat pouring through her.
Issy slid to the floor.
You're safe. Don't panic. Just breathe.
Excerpted from My Foolish Heart © Copyright 2012 by Susan May Warren. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.