Lucy shielded her face when the antique platter crashed to the floor. Though whether she was shielding it from shards of pottery or bracing herself for another sting from Paul's hand, she didn't really know.
Most likely both.
But all her husband did was pull open the screen door. "You are such a disappointment, Lucy," he bit out, each word seething with venom. "Such a disappointment. In every possible way."
Her lip bled as she fought to remain still under his glaring eyes. Prepared herself for another diatribe. Then Paul simply shook his head in disgust and stormed out the kitchen door. It slammed behind him as he bolted down the stairs and strode along the worn path to their barn. When his footsteps faded, Lucy leaned against the gleaming counters of her kitchen and willed herself to stop shaking.
Trembling and crying won't help, she sternly urged herself. When Paul came back, he would expect every trace of the bright blue dish cleaned up and the rest of the kitchen to be spotless. With a scant glance at the clock over the screen door, she saw it was a quarter after six.
She had fifteen minutes. Maybe eighteen.
After wiping the blood from her mouth with a dishcloth, she carefully picked up the pieces of pottery. Tried not to remember her grandmother's expression when she'd presented the serving piece to her and Paul. Her lip quivered. Oh, but her grandmother had been so proud to give her something that had been in their family for four generations.
And Lucy had been proud to receive it. After all, she was the eldest of six children and was marrying well. Paul Troyer was a pillar of their community and had promised that he would be able to help out her brothers and sisters financially.
And now the dish was shattered. Irreparable. Much like her marriage.
She glanced at the clock again. 6:22. Oh, but time is wasting! Quickly, Lucy picked up her pace. Putting both knees on the ground, she scanned the floor and snatched up every shard that she could find, only wincing slightly when one of the pieces tore at her thumb.
After hurriedly bandaging her finger so blood wouldn't stain anything, Lucy wiped the floor with a damp cloth. Then she attacked the dishes --- the source of Paul's latest discontent. Dinner had been late. She'd been helping her mother with her littlest sister. Lizzie had the flu and was feverish, so Lucy had offered to watch her while her mother went to school to attend Jeremy and Karl's spelling bee program.
But then her mother had run late. Making Lucy return late. And the chicken had gone into the oven at 5:30 instead of 5:15. Paul had been very angry.
She darted a look out the window. Surmising that he was still in the barn, Lucy breathed a sigh of relief. All she had to do was wash the dishes, scrub two pans, and put them all neatly away before he returned. If she did that, everything might still be all right.
She stole another glance at the clock. 6:26. With the experience of almost two years of marriage, Lucy hurriedly wrapped up the remains of the dinner, then washed and dried each piece of pottery. Sweat ran down the middle of her back as she raced to put each dish away, then ran a cloth over the counters.
Finally, she straightened out the red-and-white tin canisters to the right of the oven. Made sure they were in perfect alignment, not a one out of place.
Only then did she allow herself to breathe a sigh of relief. The kitchen was clean. She darted yet another glance at the clock. 6:34. She had made it.
As she always did, Lucy braced herself to hear Paul's footsteps. Prepared to meet him with a smile...as if he hadn't thrown the dinner platter to the floor. As if he hadn't raised his hand to her.
But still the clock ticked...and he didn't arrive. Warily, Lucy peeked out the window. Glanced at the clock. 6:50. A new set of worries settled in her stomach. To spend so long in the barn wasn't like him. Paul was nothing if not prompt; and she had learned the hard way about the folly of not adhering to his schedule.
Not knowing what else to do, she pulled out a chair. And waited. Another hour passed.
When the sun started to set, Lucy stood and paced. Common sense told her to walk to the barn to check on her husband. But self-preservation warned her. Paul didn't like her to disturb him. He didn't like her to spy on him. And surely he would not be happy if she went to the barn without him telling her she could. Almost without thought, she rubbed the knot that now was a permanent fixture on her arm. She'd learned that lesson the hard way. Thirty minutes later, Lucy felt sick to her stomach. It was now almost 8:30, the time Paul liked to read the Bible and discuss his plans for the next day. Surely something was wrong.
Worrying her bottom lip, she slowly opened the screen door and stepped outside. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw Star, their shepherd mix, whining outside the barn door.
The dog barked, then whined some more. Pulled on the rope that hitched him to a post by the barn's entrance. Lucy started forward. For Star to be still tied up, that was strange indeed. Usually Paul let him loose once he went into the barn to inspect the horses. "Star? Are you okay?" she asked as she freed the dog.
The dog answered by barking again and pawing at the barn's entrance.
Lucy gathered her courage. Prepared herself to meet Paul's barrage of abuse for disturbing him. Or for him to yank at her shoulder for spying.
But the daylight was waning. Lucy didn't know what Paul wanted her to do, but when Star pawed the door again, she opened it and stepped in. Her heart beat wildly. With a cautious, dry swallow, she whispered, "Paul?" Only the nervous neigh of their horses replied. She walked in farther, then stopped in shock.
Paul lay at the base of the ladder that led to the barn's loft. She rushed to his side and knelt, Star at her heels.
"Paul!" she cried out. "Paul! Paul?"
That's when she noticed his neck was at an odd angle and his eyes were open. Lifeless.
Gingerly, she pressed two fingers to his neck, searching for a pulse. But there wasn't one. Her husband was dead.
Excerpted from The Caregiver © Copyright 2012 by Shelley Shepard Gray. Reprinted with permission by Avon Inspire. All rights reserved.