This week’s sneak peek is from Crushed, one of the sweetest stories on my list. Remember Isaac Lucas? And Haley Anderson? Sigh. This one is just $3.99 on Amazon or FREE with your Kindle Unlimited subscription. You can find it here.
Check out the first part…
She was watching the race and thinking about food.
Haley Anderson spent most of her life thinking about food, though. Denying herself food, counting the calories in her food… then, just all out gorging on food because her waistline wasn’t shrinking, what was the point, and everything tasted so freaking amazing.
It shouldn’t have been like that for a Jesus girl. Once she trusted Jesus, life should have been easier. Every day when she gave this problem to Jesus, it should have been easier. But she was fifteen, a good three years into really living for Christ, and she still thought more about food, thought about how much she hated it and loved it all at the same time, more than she should.
“Hey, I brought you some nachos.”
She looked up to see her sister-in-law, Courtney, holding out a super-size serving of the ooiest, gooiest, cheesiest, most disgusting, most delicious nachos ever.
This was a new thing. Not the nachos. No, she’d been eating things like that from concession stands for years, all throughout her brothers’ different sporting events in high school.
Courtney was the new thing. Having a sister-in-law. Eddie had brought her home two years ago on a weekend back from college, and Haley had overheard him tell their brother, Joey, that he was going to marry her. Sure enough, he had, and they’d moved back to the Anderson family’s small town after graduation where Eddie took a job as pastor of a really small church out in the country. Courtney took a job as the school nurse at the elementary school, and with her in town and just down the street from their house, it had been like having a big sister ever since.
A big sister who bought nachos.
“Oh, I shouldn’t,” Haley protested, calculating how many calories even one chip would cost her.
“You should,” Courtney chided. “I saw you hardly eat lunch. You need to eat now, Haley.”
No one else had noticed. They were in a rush to get to the track meet a few towns over, eager to see Joey compete one last time, and no one had noticed when Haley ordered water and a salad and managed to eat only two tiny leaves of lettuce.
“What?” Courtney asked, eating one of the chips and groaning appreciatively. “You don’t like nachos?”
Haley loved nachos. Too much probably. Not that Courtney would know what that was like. She was average – in height, in weight, in all the ways that counted. No one had likely ever even applied the phrase “plus size” to her. (And what was with that term anyway? Plus, as if it was a positive thing, which it wasn’t.)
Besides, she was married to Eddie. And while he was her brother and, eww, that made it kind of gross, there was something to be said for the way he looked at his wife, let his eyes trail over her, and smiled her direction knowingly that suggested that her body, underneath her clothes, was perfect.
Haley doubted she’d ever be appreciated like that by any man. Because she loved nachos. And cupcakes. And pizza. And milkshakes. And –
Oh, wow. She was so hungry.
“Yeah, let me have one of those,” she said, taking the container out of Courtney’s hands and starting the process of devouring the whole thing.
“Where are your parents?” Courtney asked, glancing around.
“Went down to talk to Joey,” she mumbled around a mouthful. “They thought he pulled something on the mile. But only because he came in so far behind that other kid.”
“Isaac Lucas?” Courtney asked, stealing a chip from the plate.
“Yeah, that one,” Haley managed, wiping her mouth as she looked over at the track, where all the boys were getting ready for the last race of the night. “But he crushed the district record, so, you know, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Joey lost to him so spectacularly. Everyone else did, too.”
“And he’s holding back,” Courtney grinned. “That’s what I heard. A 4:43 mile isn’t even that fast for him. He’s saving himself for the two miler.”
Haley shook her head. “I won’t miss this,” she muttered.
She wouldn’t. There was nothing worse than being around all of these super thin, crazy, running people on a Friday night. Not like she had better plans, of course, but she’d spent the majority of her life sitting at events like this, hiding behind a book and praying that no one would look at her and see how different she was from all the rest of them.
Even now, her eyes settled on the runners. The girls’ team was out there getting ready to cheer on the boys. Tiny, graceful, beautiful girls who blew kisses to Joey as he dramatically accepted them all with widespread arms as they giggled behind tiny hands with tiny wrists and perfectly tiny fingers.
All of the boys watched them.
Well, all except for that Lucas kid.
No, he was standing on the track, looking down at his feet, his lips moving, even as he cracked his knuckles and blew out a breath.
Before Haley could wonder at what he was muttering out there, a girl from one of the other teams ran right up to him, reached out to touch him, and smiled as she said something. All of her gorgeous friends laughed as she did it, then laughed even harder as he turned away from her and went right back to muttering whatever he’d been muttering as the girl looked absolutely crushed at his rejection.
Because that girl was just as perfect and beautiful as all the others. Even now, there were more and more of them, skinny girls, filling the bleachers and getting ready to watch the race, their laughter and their pleasure from being so perfect annoying and grating and so, so defeating.
Haley would definitely not miss this.
“You will, though,” Courtney sighed, kicking her feet out onto the bleacher in front of her. “High school, having fun, not worrying about a job, pressures of life, making really hard choices…”
“Being an adult isn’t all bad,” Haley said, glancing over at her. “You look happy enough.”
“I am happy,” Courtney smiled, looking out at the track.
“Were you even happier in high school?” Haley asked, taking another bite.
Courtney took a breath. “Once I accepted who I was in Christ and saw that it was enough, yes,” she said. She looked over at Haley. “Know what I’m saying?”
But Haley hardly heard her, all of her attention back on the nachos she ate and the book she’d pulled out from her backpack, so as to not have to watch the throngs of perfect girls anymore.
Joey lost his last race.
Well, he came in second. That was saying something, especially since Isaac Lucas finished a good thirty seconds before any of the other boys. Second to that kid was winning, which was what Joey said after every track meet. (You know, after he got past the fury of having lost again and again.)
There would be a celebration, then, of course. The last track meet of Joey’s high school career called for dinner out, which meant pizza, his favorite.
Haley’s, too, honestly. She was regretting the nachos already.
Courtney had gone to go get Eddie out of the press box, where he, as the Baptist pastor of their small town church, was just expected to call all the sporting events at the high school. Haley’s parents had gone down to the field to take some pictures of Joey and his friends, and the stands were clearing out fast as other parents did the same.
Haley picked her book back up and settled in for the long wait.
She was halfway through the next chapter, reading about a girl who was just about to meet the boy of her dreams, when –
She very nearly jumped out of her seat at the sound of his voice. Why? Well, because no one ever talked to her at these things, apart from family.
That, and the voice was connected to that Lucas kid, who was now looking right at her, surprised himself, it seemed.
At this close proximity, she could tell a lot of things about him that she couldn’t easily see from the stands.
He was thin, naturally. But not rail thin like some of the boys who ran. Well-built, well-defined, well… well. It was all good, basically. As spectacular as all of that was, though, it wasn’t the most striking thing about him. Neither was his brown hair, sweaty and disheveled, yet still looking stylish, like it was intentionally messy like that. Neither was his smile, which was tentative as she continued watching him.
The best thing about him was his eyes. He had honest eyes. Blue eyes that honestly focused on her face, that seemed to really see her.
The intensity with which he watched her made her self-consciously move to check her hair, her hand brushing across her cheek as she went to pull it up, and –
Oh, sweet mother of all that was good. She had a huge smear of nacho cheese on her face! Nothing like the fat girl hanging out in the bleachers, nacho cheese all over her face, and –
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” he said. “I just… nearly empty stadium, and you’re by yourself… I should’ve figured I’d freak you out.”
She forced her hand down, demanding herself to have a little confidence.
“Oh, no, you’re fine.”
Fine. Yes. He was that.
She turned red at the double meaning she’d hadn’t intended.
“Are you Joey Anderson’s sister?” he asked her, not picking up on it, thank You, Jesus, and –
Wait. He knew who she was?
Of course, he’d know who she was. Because they all probably sat around and talked about the huge girl on the sidelines who could always be seen stuffing her face, and –
“I mean,” he said, “I figured that’s who you were. Your shirt and all.”
Could he see the fat rolls and love handles through her shirt? She looked down, mortified, only to be reminded that she was wearing that shirt. The Joey Anderson Fan Club shirt. The whole family wore them to these track meets. It was really lame, but she was a team player.
“Yeah,” she said, looking back up. “I’m Joey’s sister.”
“Hey, Joey’s sister,” he smiled. Wow. That smile. “I tried to catch your brother before he left the track earlier, but he was too quick.”
“Not as quick as you,” she mumbled. “You kicked his butt on both races today.”
He was wordless for a moment, seemingly surprised that she’d connected him to this race. Didn’t he know that everyone here knew who he was?
“Well, he did well, even still,” he said. “I just wanted to tell him good luck in college, you know. I know this was his last race, and he and I have been running together for seven years now.”
They had. Competitors for all their years in middle school and high school both. Isaac had always been faster and had always dominated every meet the two small towns found themselves in.
“Small town against small town,” Haley nodded. “Always out there together.”
“And it’s not really a race against each other,” Isaac said. “Running, that is. You race yourself, try to beat your best time, not the people around you.”
Haley could appreciate this sentiment, even though she doubted the reality of it, given how furious Joey was every time Isaac beat him.
“Anyway,” Isaac said, still watching her. “I’ve gotta run.”
“You just ran,” she said.
“No,” he said, smiling softly. Haley felt her heart do a strange little flutter that was a whole lot more pleasurable than the frantic beating it had done when he’d scared her just a few minutes earlier. “I mean, I’ve got to head home. Have to be up early for a long run.”
No rest for the weary with this guy. But that’s probably because he was going on to run at college, surely. Lots of scholarships, likely. An exciting future and all.
“How far are you running?” she asked.
“Eighteen miles,” he said.
“I’m not even sure I’ve ever driven that far, much less run it,” she murmured, thinking about this. “Granted, I’ve only been in driver’s ed for a week, and the majority of that drive was spent white-knuckling the wheel and praying that the coach would make someone else drive before we got to the city because I was pretty sure I was going to start screaming from the terror and –”
She shut her mouth.
Why was she telling him all of this?
She didn’t know, but she couldn’t help but notice that he kept watching her, that shy smile on his face.
“Freshman, then?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she nodded.
Was he blind?
“Not unless something’s chasing me,” she answered. “Probably not even then. I’d just give up and let whatever it is catch me.”
He grinned wider at this. “So, what do you do, then? Band, drama, art?”
Nope, nope, nope.
“I study,” she said. “Read a lot.”
“I’ve noticed,” he said, nodding to the book she still held in her hands. “What are you reading?”
A novel. A Christian romance novel.
Lame. Lame, lame, lame.
But she wasn’t one to lie.
“It’s a romance novel,” she said. “Christian romance.”
He raised his eyebrows at this. “That’s a thing?”
She could feel herself blushing again. “Yeah, it is. I go through about one every couple of days. Boy meets girl, they love Jesus, they fall in love, love Jesus even more. Real cheesy stuff, but I love it.”
Cheesy. She remembered the nacho cheese and put her hand to her cheek, casting a furtive look his way.
She likely looked insane, but whatever. She had to be her, after all.
He was smiling, though, a noticeable warmth to his features. “You’re a believer, then?”
“Yeah,” she said softly, thinking about what it had meant to give her life to Christ a few years ago. To accept who she was, in need of grace. To declare that in Christ, she was everything she needed to be. To believe that He’d given Himself for her, as though she was worth His pain and suffering.
It was still hard to fathom at times. Because she was who she was, and she spent most of her time wondering if that was enough.
“Wonderful,” he said. “Me, too.”
Of course he was. Because that made him even more perfect.
It made her aware of all the ways that she wasn’t, just sitting here like this with him.
He looked like he was ready to ask her more questions, but she wasn’t sure she could take much more of this. Her heart was just about to pound right out of her chest, like all those cheesy stories she’d read…
“I don’t mean to keep you,” she said. “Eighteen miles and all.”
And he stopped midway to whatever it was he’d been meaning to say and nodded. “Yeah, I should probably go.” Then, with a self-conscious smile, “Just got carried away. Don’t get the opportunity to talk to many girls like you.”
Sure he did. Weren’t they all flocking to him, just like they’d been earlier out there on the track?
Odd, though. He’d not talked for long with those girls.
“Isaac,” he said a moment later, holding out his hand.
“Haley,” she answered, giving it a tentative shake.
“Nice to meet you, Haley,” he said, smiling again. Then, with a breath, “Tell your brother good luck, will you?”
And she raised her hand to tell him goodbye, watching him as he ran back down the track and on with the rest of his life.
Four Years Later
With every footfall, Isaac thought about how life doesn’t always work out like you thought it would.
Ten miles on the agenda. A tightness he could feel in his left hamstring. A reminder of the injury, which had moved the possibility of going pro from a maybe to a definitely not.
He’d been fast in high school. But fast in high school is not nearly as fast in college, where everyone else came from high schools where they, too, had broken records. He’d worked hard in college, though, setting himself up to go farther than his talent should have warranted. And he might have seen it had he not injured himself. There would have been rehabilitation and assurances of a future had he been a great deal better than the best. But as it stood, he was just above the rest by his hard work, but not so far set apart that it was worth anyone’s time to spend the effort.
He was just a small fish in a big pond, apparently.
The injury had cost him a lot. His confidence, most definitely. His speed, absolutely.
And a career, over before it even got started.
He’d been fortunate that the scholarship for running had led to a degree. He’d been even more fortunate that studying history with a minor in education had led to a job, right here back in his hometown.
He was fortunate that even though he’d never run like he had, he could still run, could still go out every morning, and try to outrun the disappointment he still felt.
God had not promised him fame. God had not promised him the dreams he’d had of Olympics and world records. God had not promised Isaac any of this, even though Isaac’s heart had been to gain it all for God’s glory and a larger platform from which to share the Gospel with others.
But God had promised to never leave him or forsake him. And God had promised him a future meant for his ultimate good and the glory of Christ.
It was this that Isaac clung to with every mile he ran that morning.
It was this that carried him back to the little house he was renting on the edge of town. His intent was to buy it eventually, after he’d saved up a down payment from the summer job he was working on his brother Aaron’s crew, doing construction on the overpass extension. In the fall, he would be taking on his first teaching job, at the same middle school he’d gone to, with coaching responsibilities as well.
Just fitting back into his old life. But God had a future for him.
It was this that carried him through the quick shower he took, the breakfast he ate on his way out the door, and the drive he made out to the church he’d been attending all of his life, apart from those four years at university.
It was this that sustained him and carried him to the front door, where he took a breath before walking in, ready to see what his place here would be now.
The person there to greet him on the other side of the door was his mother, of course. His father stood only a few steps from her, deep in conversation with their grandson, Max, all about the summer soccer league he was in, the vacation plans they had, and all that they talked about every week, just like this.
Familiar. All of it.
“Hey, Isaac,” his mother said, catching his eye immediately and raising up on her toes to kiss him. “Didn’t forget the way here, huh?”
“Hard to,” he said, returning her embrace, “especially since I’m living a mile away.”
“You didn’t run here, did you?” she asked, worry in her eyes.
She worried now. About the injury, about what it had done to his heart, about what running still did to his heart…
He refrained from telling her about his ten miles.
“No,” he said. “I’d be soaking wet if I had. The humidity out there is already brutal.”
“Only going to get worse,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “But you know that. You grew up here and all.” At this, she smiled.
“Speaking of,” his dad said, raising himself up to his full height, just as Max scurried off to wherever it was that the children went for their morning programs these days, “I’ve heard lots of talk about all the different ways people want you to get involved back here.”
Back here. At the church. What was it about a small church that made everyone jump on the new guy, twenty tasks already in mind for him to do?
Except the church wasn’t as small as it had been. Didn’t mean people didn’t have a job for him.
“What are my options?” he asked, thinking through the thankless possibilities likely awaiting him.
Building and grounds. Evangelism committee. Hospital visitation. Or, heaven help him, coaching the softball team.
Because he was a coach now, of course. And in a small town, that meant he’d coach it all, not just track and cross country, the only two things he felt qualified to handle.
“Better to come in and tell them what you’re doing than to wait for them to assign you something,” his dad smiled. “And you know what I’m thinking?”
Softball coach, no doubt.
“What’s that?” he asked, humoring him.
Isaac narrowed his eyes. “Why?”
“It’s growing,” his dad said. “Faster than any other ministry we’ve got going. And there’s already a fleet of teachers in place to handle some of it, but they’re all my age.” He lowered his voice. “And older.”
Well, then, they’d certainly be wiser than Isaac. Probably would even have answers as to what God was doing right now in his life. Probably had wisdom for many, many things –
“Which means that they can’t help our intern with the physicality of the job,” his dad concluded.
“Intern?” Isaac asked. “The church is well off enough to hire an intern?”
“Yeah,” his dad grinned. “I was on the committee who brought her. And just between you and me, I think this could work out to a full time gig for her. If she’ll take it at the end of the summer.”
“Well, good for her,” Isaac said, wondering what this had to do with him.
“And good for you,” his dad answered. “Because you can fill a real need. She’s got the teachers and leaders that she needs, but she’s all by herself when it comes to all the recreation activities she needs to do. Like, right now, she has the kids in the new fellowship hall, running off some steam before they go to their Sunday school classes. And she’s all by herself.”
He couldn’t do much, but he could run some laps with some kids.
“Okay,” he said, just as his father smiled even wider.
“Great, I’ll take you that way, then,” he said.
As they walked through the building, Isaac marveled at how much things had changed, even as they’d stayed exactly the same. Greeting others who knew him from childhood as he walked along and seeing countless others that he didn’t know yet, he and his dad moved from the old, familiar building to a new, modern one.
“This is it,” his dad said. “New fellowship hall.”
“It’s great,” Isaac said, his attention torn.
Torn between what his dad was saying, the pandemonium taking place as at least fifty kids ran around, and the young woman standing on the edge of the crowd, watching the kids with a whistle in her mouth and her hand held up in some sort of signal that all the kids seemed to understand.
He recognized her.
There was something very familiar about her, but he couldn’t quite place where he’d seen her.
Until she pulled out the game book, even as she was directing the kids to keep on running, and looked down to read.
He could see her then, years ago, sitting in the stands at any number of track meets, reading a book. Everyone around her had always been on their feet screaming, but she’d sat there reading like that while she ate a snack, almost as if she wasn’t even there with the rest of them.
He’d always lost a few seconds looking over at her, checking to see that she was there. That had made him run even harder, pushing his limits and attempting his best to get her to finally look up from her book and look to the track.
She was so much a part of what he did in those years of running before college that he didn’t feel like it was a real meet unless she was there.
Too bad she hadn’t been there during college. Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten injured with her sitting there in the stands, ignoring him.
He could see the shirt she always wore in the back of his mind. Joey Anderson Fan Club. And his mind went to the night that he’d talked to her after everyone was gone, when she’d said what she was thinking, not caring what he thought, a glob of nacho cheese on her face and so much confidence, even as she proudly proclaimed to him that she’d only run if something was chasing her. And not even then.
All the girls around him, then and since, were always censoring themselves, trying to get his approval, and he’d very nearly forgotten them all.
But he remembered her.
“She’s your intern?” he asked his dad.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling, even as Haley gave a different signal with her hand, and all the kids burst into laughter, changing direction as they ran, now with their hands on their heads. “Nineteen, just finished up her freshman year of college, and already, she has this group all under control.”
She didn’t really need his help, then.
But Isaac didn’t mention this. Because he really wanted to help her now.
His dad didn’t mention it either, smiling over at him.
“She’ll be wrapping up here in a few minutes, then back to her office before Sunday school,” he said. “Want to go peek your head in on the men’s class then go upstairs to meet her?”
And Isaac nodded, telling himself again that God knew just exactly what He was doing.
“Sounds like a great plan.”
Want to read more? Get your copy of Crushed here!