“The testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” ~ James 1:3-4
A chill nipped at Daylin Sullivan’s cheeks as the diner’s door swept open, welcoming the frigid night air. She lifted her gaze from the cup of muddy brew nestled between her palms to see a young couple wedge their way through the narrow entrance, the man’s arm wrapped loosely around his girlfriend’s shoulders. They might have been freshmen or possibly sophomores in college. It was hard to tell with their bulky, snow-dusted jackets and tousled hair spilling from beneath wool toboggans. The girl’s eyes shone with a sparkle of innocence and her laughter tinkled merrily as they wound their way to a booth tucked back in the corner.
Young love; happy and carefree love. It was just the kind that made a couple forget every trouble in the world and believe their lives would never be touched with even the slightest shadow of heartache. It was the kind of love Daylin longed for and was convinced she’d never have.
Her dating scorecard—if it could even be called that—told the story. Teen years were pockmarked by a flurry of dates with guys she now realized she’d tried too hard to please. Her twenties brought another round of clumsy two-steps with men from the wrong side of the tracks. She knew she was an open and shut case for psychologists, easily dissected as someone seeking a place to belong, finding none that truly mattered, and with a history that could fill an entire series of books cover-to-cover. The product of a father she’d never known and a mother whose longest stint furloughed from the prison system amounted to eight months—not even long enough to birth a baby— Daylin had spent the better part of her childhood passed from one foster family to the next like the odd-man-out contestant in a game of musical chairs.
As thirty approached she’d sworn off men, instead choosing to cling to the books and sweet confections that had always been there for her—best friends in a sea of heartache. And then she had the misfortune of intersecting paths with Todd Barker. Over the course of several weeks, she’d fallen once again back into the habit of trusting too quickly with her friendship and then her heart.
Four months into the relationship, she’d arrived at his law office with the giddy intention of surprising him with a picnic lunch. Instead of the intimately tender picnic she’d imagined, surprise soufflé had been served up to her on a silver platter when she slipped through the office doorway to find him lip-locked with another woman.
As she drained lukewarm coffee from her mug with a sigh, Daylin tried not to reflect too much on the reasons Todd had so easily discarded her for a newer, slimmer, and more fashion-savvy model. No point beating that puzzle to death. She set the cup back on the table and thought about ordering a second slice of apple pie. What would it hurt—just one more slice of the warm cinnamon-apple confection with a scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream or perhaps a swirl of whipped cream—or both?
She patted her overstuffed belly, acknowledging that she wasn’t even hungry<at least not for food. Yet something gnawed at her, a yearning deep in the pit of her stomach that the food failed to fill, no matter how much she devoured.
“More coffee?” The fifty-something server flounced to the booth as she chomped a wad of gum tucked between her back teeth. Dark hair swept into a messy, stunted tail showcased wisps of gray tangled through the disheveled crown. A plastic, rectangular neon-blue nametag pinned to her uniform just below the right shoulder read simply, “Vera.” The waitress tucked a pencil into the front pocket of her wrinkled apron. “Or maybe I can getcha another slice of pie a la mode? As you know, it’s a specialty here.”
Can she read my mind? Does she know I’d down two pieces of the sweet confection if she served them up right now, wash down the sweet flavor with a swig of coffee, and then request yet another slice?
And I’d regret the indulgence as soon as I passed by a mirror.
“No, thanks.” Daylin shifted uneasily in the seat and nudged aside the book she’d dog-eared midway through chapter nine, where the plot began to stutter and sag. “Just coffee. One more cup ought to do it.” She’d stay another few minutes and then head home. She couldn’t bear the thought of ringing in the New Year alone in the confines of her quiet apartment. At least she was among people here at the diner, even if she wasn’t actually with them. For the record, she wasn’t with Todd, either. Good riddance.
Daylin’s cheeks flamed with the embarrassment of it all. Just when she’d begun to think there was potential for a long-term commitment in that arena, he’d cut her loose from the line with his betrayal. Daylin remembered the awful day like an embarrassing snapshot—the way Todd had lifted his head when he heard the click of the office door, saw it was her, and, without missing a beat, tossed out a single, callous sentence—“Sorry, but hanging out with you just isn’t working for me.”
Hanging out? So that’s what he thought they’d been doing. Good grief, were they still in high school?
Her guy radar was seriously messed up, and Daylin couldn’t figure out how to recalibrate it. Not that it had ever been on the right track. Dating was like trying to craft an award-winning apple pie without fruit. With each passing day, things just seemed to be on the fast track to falling apart.
Well, what was done was done. There was no use crying over things that couldn’t be changed. She might as well buy a passel of cats and a vacant house down a lonely, dead-end street and resign herself to becoming that lady.
Daylin groaned to herself. She was losing it, fast and furious. A few more nights like this and she just might end up as the proverbial cat lady. Maybe she would have that piece of apple pie after all. What would it hurt? It’s not like one more piece would add a whole dress size to her wardrobe. And the warm, sweet flavor would bring welcome comfort<at least for a few passing minutes.
She lifted a hand to signal Vera as music spilling from speakers segued to an oddly familiar version of “Auld Lang Syne.” Great—that was just what she needed…a melancholy song. She wondered who crooned the subtly heart-wrenching lyrics and snapped her fingers as she wrestled for the answer, racking her brain but unable to come up with the artist’s name. The tune was a particularly sad version, and she hoped it didn’t allude to some kind of omen concerning the year ahead.
Get a grip. This year brings a clean slate, a fresh approach. You only get so many chances so pull it together.
Daylin shook her head as she quickly lowered her hand to the tabletop once more, deciding against the pie. She’d already had a piece along with a double cheeseburger, french fries, and three refills of soda. Sugar overload caused her pulse to skip and her head to thrum like a snare drum. No matter how tempting, she was sure to regret adding anything else to the mix.
She sighed and nodded fiercely against the temptation to give in to the darkness that threatened to envelop her.
No more…no more.
Summoning every ounce of willpower she could muster, she pushed her empty dessert plate from the edge of the table and shifted in the seat to gaze out toward the snow-crusted boulevard. She’d approach the New Year head-on rather than let it storm over her like the plow trucks that rumbled the street, battling a storm that threatened to dump another round of the white stuff along the road.
Engines rattled and hummed as one truck came to life, then another, and readied for battle. Oversized treads crunched the snow, leaving a pattern of crisscrossed marks as they wound their way into the night. As the sound faded and the trucks diminished to toy-car size in the distance, Daylin felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She sat back against the cushioned seat and watched Vera flit from table to table filling coffee cups and collecting soiled plates. No more wallowing in the mire of self-pity. Daylin vowed to plaster on a smile and sing a happy tune if it killed her. Lots of people had it rougher than she did.
Buck up, little camper, and hike up your big girl panties. It’s time to pull your act together.
That’s what her foster-care caseworker had once said as Daylin approached the telling age of eighteen. About to be dumped from the system and into society to fend for herself—as if that wasn’t what she’d done for the better part of her life—Daylin had realized with a paralyzing sense of dread just how alone she was.
She glanced at the clock over the serving counter as Vera scurried from table to table, a slight limp to her gait but her kind smile ever-present. Six minutes to midnight—three-hundred and sixty seconds to another brand-spanking New Year. Daylin grabbed her purse and rose from the seat as Vera headed her way, toting a bulbous glass carafe. Steam swirled from the metal-rimmed opening and for the slightest moment, Daylin once again nearly caved into the thought of pairing a fresh mug with the pie that beckoned. She paused, considered slipping back into the booth and trading the smile that curved her lips for a mouthful of the sweet confection.
She squeezed her eyes shut tight and drew a deep breath as the sounds of the diner faded in and out for few moments. The clink of silverware…the strum of a holiday melody…laughter from the couple in the back corner.
Her recent overindulgence in sweets brought a measure of comfort<a downy cocoon to curl in, until Daylin had caught a glimpse of herself in a department store mirror just last week. There was no denying the changes to her body—and to her attitude. Defeated and battle-weary from years of struggling for acceptance, even the simplest tasks took every ounce of strength. It had become so much easier to lose herself in a book and a bowl of ice cream than to face the fact that she felt broken to pieces on the inside and on the surface.
“Honey, are you OK?” Vera’s voice drew Daylin back to the present.
She turned to find the woman staring at her with kind, fudge-brown eyes, her forehead creased with concern.
“No, thank you. I’m…fine.” As if to prove it, Daylin inhaled deeply. Her belly expanded with the effort and the button of her slacks suddenly popped, shooting the evidence of her overindulgence toward a row of windows facing the boulevard. The plastic pinged against polished glass and then ricocheted across the tile floor. Mortified, Daylin’s hand flew to her fleshy waist as she watched the navy plastic disc skitter beneath a booth seat across the aisle.
“I’ll grab a broom,” Vera offered, without missing a beat. “We’ll get it.”
“Don’t bother.” Daylin shimmied into her wool coat as her cheeks flamed. She snatched her book from the scratched Formica table. “I’d like my check, please.” She turned from the windows and scurried toward the register at a double-time clip.
“Are you sure?” Vera’s eyebrows disappeared beneath a scraggly spill of bangs while her gaze followed the trail of the lost button. “Won’t take but a minute to retrieve that button. You might be needin’ it. That’s nothin’ a needle and a bit of thread can’t fix.”
“No, thank you.” Daylin adjusted her sweater to cover the hem of her slacks. It would take more than a needle and thread to fix her ample girth—and the sense of loneliness that fell over her like a veil. “Just the check.”
“Coffee’s fresh. I just brewed it myself. Extra strong, too, and no calories—if that’s what’s worryin’ you.” Vera tucked a pencil over one ear. “Not that there’s anything wrong with a little meat on the bones. Women today…they all want to look like pillows without the stuffing. It’s blame disconcerting, if you ask me.”
“I…no more to drink, thanks.” Daylin nodded firmly to add clarity to the statement. That was just what she needed, a rush of caffeine thrown in with the sugar she’d consumed at this late hour to keep her tossing and turning straight into the New Year. “Just the check.”
“Suit yourself.” Vera chomped chewing gum with a snappy rhythm as she moved to join Daylin at the check-out counter. She placed the coffee carafe onto its industrial warmer and delved into her apron pocket for the signature-green ticket. A quick flourish of scribble and she tore the slip from the pad and handed it to Daylin. “That’ll be eight forty-two.”
“Thank you.” Daylin paid the bill, adding a generous tip for Vera’s service, and then turned in pursuit of a hasty exit.
“Hang on a minute. You might be needin’ these.”
Daylin turned back to find her car keys in Vera’s outstretched hand. “Oh my, thanks.” She reached for the keys, but paused in her tracks as a gloss of paper tucked into a brochure holder on the counter beside the register caught her eye. “What’s this?”
Vera took one of the flyers and opened it. “Patrick Litton brought them by last week, asked us to display them for him and the boss gave him the go-ahead.”
“Patrick Litton?” The name rang a bell…a very big bell. Could he be one and the same? Daylin turned over the flyer and saw his photograph. Her breath caught as she found her answer. He was older, more polished than she remembered, sporting short-cropped black hair. The shaggy bangs were gone, as was the mischievous grin. But there was no way such alluring gray-blue eyes could be mistaken. Back in high school her nickname for him had been Wolf because of the way his gaze captured and mesmerized. Her pulse slipped into a two-step as Vera continued.
“Yes. He’s a good man, suffered some hardships here lately but keeps paddling the boat, just the same.”
“Hardships?” Immediately, concern flooded Daylin. “What type of hardships?”
“Oh, that’s for him to share when the time is right. I won’t go gossipin’ about a brother’s woes.”
“A brother?” The cryptic remark left Daylin confused.
“My brother in Christ. We attend church together over at Community Christian. His mom and I share a cup of java from time to time.”
“Sure, that’s right.” Vera’s eyebrows knit together. “You know her?”
“I used to. She was kind to me when I was younger and a student at Lake Meade High…drove me home from school a few times.”
“Yes, that’s Frannie. Kind to the core, she is. Always findin’ her way to a good deed or two.”
“Patrick…I knew him. We went to school together.”
“Yes. We lost touch after we graduated. I had no idea he lives here.”
“Funny thing, isn’t it, the way the Man Upstairs works His way around things. It just so happens Patrick’s the head of that organization mentioned in the flyer. I think it’s called…” She snapped her fingers, her brow furrowing with concentration as she searched for the name. “Race for the Dream. No, I mean Dash for the Dream. That’s it. Yes!” She slapped her left hip, the scowl flashing to a toothy smile. “Word around here is, they plan to run the Knoxville Marathon this coming April to raise funds for research.”
“What kind of research?”
“CF—Cystic Fibrosis.” Vera did a slow sweep of Daylin, head-to-toe, scrutinizing her abundance of curves. “Are you a runner?”
“I’m…not sure. I used to pound the pavement a bit, but it’s been years…” Daylin snatched one of the brochures from the holder and flipped it over to scan the back print. The cloudburst of warmth that zinged through her deepened, shooting straight from her forehead to the tips of her toes. A thought squeezed through the simmer. She was suddenly clad in running shoes, her feet slapping along the high school track as she sprinted around a final curve and toward the finish line. The breeze kissed her cheeks as her hair fanned out in a veil behind her, ushering in a sense of freedom so pure it made her heart soar. On the air, she heard Frannie’s voice as the woman cheered her on, along with Patrick who usually could be found a stride or two ahead, from the stands. Frannie must have sensed that sprinting was an escape—a way to leave the heartache behind—however briefly.
Daylin clutched the edge of the counter with her free hand to right herself as she found her voice once again. “I used to run cross-country in high school—the five-K and road races—but that was years ago. I haven’t laced a pair of sneakers since then.”
“Why in the world not?” Vera’s gaze was heavy with questions.
“Life got in the way, I suppose.” High school days had given way to a plateful of responsibilities. Daylin’s job as senior editor with Home Spice Magazine meant long days seated at a desk. At home, in the evenings, she managed to squeeze in a bit of freelance editing for whomever needed her services so that one day, God willing, she might manage to afford the new car she needed before her current battle-scarred Honda finally bit the dust. The euphoria gained from her days of running was replaced by something quick, easy, and satisfying—at least in the short term.
Lack of exercise and extra calories brought on a bout of perpetual lethargy and pounds that crept up like unwelcome visitors in the night. All too easily it became a habit to collapse on the couch following a long day at work, prop open a pint of Extreme Moose Tracks along with the latest quick-mart paperback and spend an hour or two engrossed in the goings-on of some far-off magical place.
But she could try running again. Why not? It sure looked like Patrick had kept up the pace, despite his hardships—whatever they might be. She glanced at his photo once more as she drew her lower lip between her teeth and bit down. Judging from the headshot, he hadn’t added so much as an ounce to his frame.
“Well, I’ll admit life has a way of sidetracking the best of us.” Vera’s voice broke into Daylin’s thoughts, drawing her back. “But there’s no better time to find out what’s left in the tank. You’re much too young— and pretty—to let life derail you.”
“Maybe so, but for now I should be heading home.”
“Time enough for that. Looky there.‛ Vera pointed to the clock whose hands rose toward the ceiling in near-perfect unison, like a couple lost in a slow, sweeping dance. ‚It’s spot-on midnight. Happy New Year, honey.”
Honey…there was that word again. It was a term of endearment she’d rarely heard. Daylin’s gaze watered as her eyes filled with tears. “Happy New Year, Vera.”
“I’ll bet you’ve got yourself a list of those fancy whatta-ya-call-ums…” Vera snapped her fingers, struggling to conjure the elusive word. “…resolutions?”
“No…not really.” But she should think about getting herself moving again, get her heart rate elevated and shake off the dust. Maybe it was time. Could the brochure be some sort of sign? "I really need to be going now. Take care.”
“Maybe you’ll drop by again soon, honey? It’s always nice to see a familiar face, and we make the coffee fresh all day.”
“Maybe I will.” Daylin swallowed a nip of sadness as she tucked the brochure and paperback into her purse. Back in the corner, the young couple leaned into one another, lost in a sweet, celebratory kiss as the aroma of cinnamon swirled with coffee.
Daylin bit back a wave of melancholy and turned away, affording the happy young pair all the privacy a public diner might provide. She slung the strap of her purse over one shoulder and tugged on a pair of wool mittens. Outside, snow drifted along the boulevard, burying the length of curb and cracks along the sidewalk. As she shoved open the door to the street, she shivered against the cold. The rumble of an engine in the distance signaled a snow plow had begun its journey.
What type of hardships had Patrick Litton faced? And how had he ended up in Knoxville when they’d attended high school together in Crossville? The thought niggled at Daylin as snowflakes stung her cheeks. Was he alone tonight and wishing he had someone with whom to share the holiday?
It was a crazy thought. So was the idea of running the marathon—especially in this weather. But there was the option of a half-marathon, as well. She could manage that if she tried hard enough. Couldn’t she?
Vera had mentioned fundraising for Cystic Fibrosis research. Daylin had heard of the disease, but knew little about it except that it was serious.
Life-altering. She brushed snow from the car’s side-view mirror and caught her reflection beneath a streetlamp.
“You’re much too young—and pretty—to let life derail you.” Vera’s voice seemed to echo from snowcapped Smoky Mountains that flanked a crisp, moonlit horizon. Daylin swung toward the rounded peaks, searching for her newfound friend.
You can do it, Daylin.
Daylin turned back toward the diner. Through the glass she saw Vera weaving her way through the tables, pausing here and there to refill coffee mugs and share a smile.
A chill coursed through Daylin as she made quick work of unearthing the car from its film of snow before slipping into the driver’s seat to crank the engine.
Gears howled and shrieked as the engine struggled to catch. Daylin’s belly clenched with dread.
“Come on, baby, please.” She patted the ice-cold dash. “You have to start.”
Another crank of the ignition and, like a stubborn child who finally acquiesced, the engine turned over.
“Thank God.” Daylin lowered her head, sighing as frigid air swooshed into the cab. She felt like a traitor. She hadn’t spoken to God—really communed with Him—since her high school days, wasn’t even sure she believed in Him anymore. She removed her mittens to blow on numb fingertips. Shivering as the heater labored toward warm, she took the brochure from her purse and switched on the overhead light.
Dash for the Dream, read the title in bold, black letters. The small print inside mentioned an informational meeting at Dusty’s Diner in two days. An email address to confirm interest was included.
Daylin gnawed her lower lip as the car’s heater made quick work of the fogged windshield, unveiling a boulevard that shimmered crisply beneath new-fallen snow. The scenery, devoid of footprints and gloppy-gray slush, appeared so fresh and clean that it nearly stole her breath. For a moment, she felt as if she’d been captured within a snow globe to watch the world dance by while she stood on the sidelines.
A pain shot through her heart, causing her to cry out. She’d spoken to God once already tonight. Why not again? What would it hurt?
She caught her lower lip between her teeth and then ran her tongue over skin the cold had begun to chap. Her throat tightened, making it difficult to form words. “Please, God, help me find a purpose again. I’m tired of feeling so alone, so lost. I want to do this race. I want to serve others, serve You.”
The prayer of her heart, raw with painful emotion, came as a complete shock. Daylin cringed as the words reverberated inside the snow-crusted cab. If it was possible for lightning to strike in the dead of winter, surely she’d fry right there in the driver’s seat. Through all her heartache, she’d become convinced there was no God.
And, even if God did exist, why shouldn’t He turn His back on her pleas? Sobbing now, Daylin fished her cellphone from the pocket of her purse with trembling fingers. Without time to second-guess her actions, she typed a quick, shaky message to the inbox noted in the brochure and hit Send.
There…done. There was no backing out now. Daylin swiped her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket and tossed the phone back into her purse. She tightened the scarf at her neck like a noose and gritted her teeth against the desire to cave to the darkness.
No more…no more. Help me, God!
Tears dripped onto the steering wheel and splattered into Daylin’s lap as the sobs racked her body. Could God still care for her? Could he still hear her pleas?
Heat fogged the windows as a peace cocooned her. Without a doubt, she knew what she must do. She’d attend the Dash for the Dream meeting, listen to the information Patrick Litton-who-had-suffered-some-hardships presented, and decide where to go from there. She could manage that much, couldn’t she? Sorrow parted and a tiny trill of excitement buzzed through Daylin, chasing away a chill of loneliness.
She switched on the wipers, brushing away the last remnants of slush, and shifted into drive. The engine grunted as tires slogged over coated pavement. It would be good to see Patrick again. It had been so long and this chance encounter was a pleasant surprise. Would he remember her?
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