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Hold the Light

by April McGowan

To an artist, the light is everything. So what is Amber supposed to do when facing blindness?

Amber spent her life adapting first to being abandoned by her birth mother as a toddler, and then to the death of her adoptive father in her teen years. Now she s moved past all that, loving life as an independent woman: she has a job as an art instructor and the perfect apartment.

But when a routine eye appointment reveals she s losing her sight, life comes to a halt. Pressures come at her from all sides. Her mother, her boss, her boyfriend and her closest friend, Shannon, all have ideas about what s best for her.

Even after her blindness counselor, Ethan, befriends her and opens her eyes to new opportunities and the possibility of a deeper relationship, one haunting question remains: How could the God she loved all her life turn everything upside down again?

Chapter 1

Unremarkable. Amber glanced out the streaming windowpane at the cityscape below her. The rain washed all the color from the sky, trees, and buildings, covering the world in grayscale brush strokes. She traced a raindrop with her finger as she’d done as a child, watching it gather speed, collecting friends as it went, only to splat useless on the sill, pool, and drizzle away.

There was nothing to be done about it. The world would go to dusk, darken, disappear—and she would go with it not in a rage, but with a quiet whimper of acceptance. Amber twirled her ring around her finger, spinning and spinning, panic filling her until she bit down on her lip. Hard. No. Not her. She’d face this as she’d faced everything in her life. She could handle it.

Amber wiped a tear with shaky fingers and pulled her honey-brown hair back into the scrunchie she wore on her wrist before turning to face the doctor, resolute. The exam room seemed to be affected by the same dull gray as the outside world. She guessed the blind really had no use for designer colors or flashy artwork on the walls.

Ironic.

He said something she didn’t understand.

“What do you mean, it’s genetic?” She waited for him to answer, hoping for some light in the ever-growing bleakness.

The doctor sat back against the examining room table. “Someone else in your family might have this disease.”

Her mother would know. Her biological mother, that was. Did Mom know, though?

Tiny pieces of torn paper seemed to reassemble themselves before her eyes and tumble apart all over again. The shredded letter, floating down around her like snow, falling, falling into little useless piles she’d vacuumed up four years ago. She hadn’t wanted to be in contact with her birth mother, not ever. How dare she try and contact her? Amber’s anger at being abandoned, donated, sold like an old car on the Internet, had burned through her for years.

“I’m adopted.” The words always brought about a feeling of finality, like the slamming of a lid on an old wooden box, buried six feet under. Except her birth mother wasn’t six feet under. She’d just walked away from Amber.

“I see. If there’s any way for you to find your biological family, you might want to. It will give us some clues.”

“And then we can stop it?” She held her breath, hoping.

Dr. Birkman gave her a pitying glance, his watery hazel eyes full of sympathy. “No, we can’t stop it.”

Questions raced. “How long do I have? What if we’d caught it earlier?”

Moving toward her, he gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. He didn’t know her, but he comforted her. She felt small in his presence. He had all the answers, held her fate in his medical books. What did she have?

“Diagnosis doesn’t do anything but give us guidelines. I’m afraid macular degeneration can’t be cured by the medical knowledge we have now.”

“Isn’t this something older people get? I’m only twenty-eight.”

“There are several variations of this disease that affect younger people, although yours, admittedly, has taken longer to make an appearance.”

“I guess I should be grateful.” The words, like a mantra, tumbled from her lips but made no connection with her heart. “How long?” she asked again.

“At this rate, not long. Your case seems to be moving rather rapidly. You’ll start to notice more and more changes. Maybe a year.”

Numbness washed through her, starting at her fingertips, racing into her middle, buzzing between her ears.

“Will I lose my sight entirely?”

“It’s rare for everything to go black. Most people with your condition lose portions at a time, making their vision spotty until everything goes hazy. Some keep partial sight. But I don’t want to give you false hope.”

He reached over to a stand of pamphlets on the countertop and handed her several. “Is there anyone I can call for you?”

Dr. Birkman was trying to help, but Amber didn’t want anyone with her right then. She just wanted to go home. Alone.

“No. I’m fine. I need to go.”

“I’ll have my staff call and set up your next appointment.” He was aiding in her fast escape.

She nodded in agreement. But what was the point of coming back? He couldn’t stop this. Amber pulled on her coat and grabbed her purse, shoving the pamphlets deep within, crumpling them. She headed out of the exam room, past other patients sitting placidly in the waiting area, down the narrow corridor toward the elevator. Her hand glanced over the braille directive bumps on the hall edgeway, and she drew back as if she’d touched something repulsive. She shivered and tried not to notice similar bumps over the floor number, on the nameplates, and then, once the elevator doors opened, on the button panel.

As the elevator met and reached each floor, a ding rang out, joined by a female voice naming every one. Fifteen, ding, fourteen, ding, thirteen, ding, and on and on. People boarded the elevator at the seventh floor, jostling her aside, animated and happy. A shiver coursed through her, and she pulled her sable-brown trench coat closed. Finally, the car reached the ground floor and she pushed past the others, nearly running through the foyer and out the glass front doors. Amber gasped as the chilled fall breeze met the stale air in her lungs.

Rain poured down, and she fumbled with the slick buttons on her coat, raising the collar against the onslaught. Cars sped by as she passed food carts and stepped over jagged, cracked planks of sidewalk. The grass and weeds reached up as if to trip her and pull her down, kicking and screaming, into the crevasse. She swallowed hard and tucked a strand of escaping hair behind her ear. The bus pulled up, and she jogged to catch it but then stopped. The last thing she wanted to do was pile onto the city bus full of rain-soaked, steamy bodies. Instead, she went to the light and waited to cross.

For a moment, she closed her eyes, listening to the patter of rain, the grind and slide of shoes against slick pavement, the call of the vendors, a petitioner desperate for signatures, a homeless man demanding change. Far in the distance the train passed, and farther still a jet plane buzzed the sky. A child laughed.

Dizziness swept over her. Just before she lost her balance and fell onto the street and into the path of a car who ran the red light, she felt a hand grab her arm.

“Careful there,” a deep male voice admonished her.

Amber wrenched from the man’s hand, startled at being touched almost as much as by the worry she saw in his eyes. He must have only been in his late thirties, but he leaned heavily on a stylish hand-carved cane. His blue eyes matched his raincoat and were framed by jet black hair sprinkled with gray at the temples.

“Sorry. Just trying to help.” His glance cast away, and he put up his umbrella. She wanted to thank him for his kindness, not chide him for grabbing her, but the words wouldn’t come. Not today.

The light changed, and the telltale bird chirping sound signaled her to cross. Before she could take a step out into the street, a careless driver sped around the corner, not stopping for her or for the light. Amber’s heart raced up into her throat, choking off a curse that built. What if she were already blind? She’d be dead. How were those auditory signals helpful to anyone?

Her hand flew to her chest as if to quiet her rapidly thumping heart and catch her breath.

“Not your day?” The man gave her a sympathetic look.

“No. Not my day.” Her voice shook and she bit her lip to calm her nerves. “Thanks. For back there.” They walked along together now—her avoiding cracks, him limping.

“Glad I could help.” They approached another bus stop, and he gave her a warm but uncertain smile. “Have a good day.”

She wanted to tell him it was much too late for that. For some reason, she wanted to tell him everything. A stranger’s distance from the situation would be lovely about then. My name is Amber, and I’m going blind. But she didn’t.

“Thanks.” She plodded on past, up the inclining street. Twenty city blocks to go.

The rain continued to pour down, chilling her neck, mixing with the hairspray in her hair and running into her eyes, blurring her vision with mascara and glue. She rubbed at them, desperate to clear her sight.

Maybe skipping the bus was a bad plan. Five blocks later, she took shelter under an awning and waited for the next ride to take her home to her apartment. Within a few minutes, another bus stopped by and she climbed aboard, taking her spot in a lemon-yellow molded plastic chair. The door closed and the bus took off into the busy downtown Portland traffic.

Fifteen blocks would have taken her forty minutes to walk—though on a bus starting and stopping for passengers, it took even longer. It gave her time to dry out and take stock. She took out her cellphone and scanned her e-mail. Most were from work or prospective private clients.

Amber’s hands shook from cold and the fear building inside. In less than a year, life as she knew it would end. She looked up at the other passengers, caught up in their own worlds. The man in coveralls, the woman in business attire, the student, the skater kid, the group of three girls texting each other and laughing—they had no clue what tomorrow would hold. But she did.

Swallowing her emotions, she put her phone—soon to be useless—back into her pocket and concentrated on the passing landscape of cars and masses of people heading home. Her stop arrived, and she walked past everyone and out onto the street. Two blocks up, she arrived at her apartment building.

Amber stood outside, staring up at the aging red brick exterior of the five-floor complex, the cornice moldings, the framed glass windows and flower boxes on porches. She’d gotten this place because it was within walking distance of the grocery store, the art supply store, and other shopping—not to mention the school where she primarily taught.

Teaching. What a joke. A colossal joke. On her.

She used her passkey to open the outer door and entered, stopping by the bank of copper mailboxes. She used another smaller key to unlock hers and pulled out a bulky wad of advertising and bills. And a postcard from Kyle. She smiled—he’d only been in Hawaii on business and would be home tomorrow, but he’d still sent her a card. Then the memory of the day pressed in, and her smile faded.

She took the junk and tossed it into the recycling bin nearby, then headed up the dark-blue and red paisley carpeted stairs. On the second landing she began counting the steps. Then she tucked the mail into her purse with the pamphlets and went back down to the bottom, panting.

Closing her eyes, she gripped the rail and began to count again. One, two, three. After she hit the seventh stair, her jarred feet leveled out on a landing, and she cracked her eyes open for a peek. Snapping them closed again, she made the corner, still grasping the rail, and counted again. This time the landing didn’t take her by surprise. She peeked again and counted. Up, up, until she’d reached the third floor.

Her breath came in gasps, and blood pounded in her ears. She reached out, waving her hands in front of her, searching for the other side of the hall. She brushed her hand up the wall, passing one doorjamb, then the next, then the next, until she reached what she imagined and hoped was her door.

Searching fingers caressed the beveled surface until she found the number and letter that were her own. 3G. Tears escaped down her cheeks as she rummaged past all the paraphernalia she’d shoved in her purse, past the crinkled and sharp corners of the pamphlets, and found her keys. She clenched her eyes closed, not cheating, flipped to a key and tried it.

Wrong one. Another. Another. Each one clinked against the next. “Please,” she gritted out. The sixth one found purchase, and she heard the deadbolt slide back. She pulled it out and felt it, memorized the pointy edges, the rounded spots and shook her keys back together. Then she did it again. Second try. Then again. First.

Only then did she let herself inside, drop her belongings on the table, shrug off her sopping coat. Only then did she lock the door from the inside, lean against it, slide down it to the floor, and cry.

Chapter 2

Amber brushed her hair and got ready for work. Her phone rang again, sounding her mom’s ringtone, but she ignored it. She’d stopped taking calls for three days now. She got up, ate, went to work, came home. Shannon acted hurt when she didn’t answer her texts, but how was Amber supposed to break this news to the sister of her heart? Let alone tell Kyle.

A knock sounded on her door as she gathered her materials for class, and she jumped. Someone must have buzzed in a salesperson because no one who knew her, save Shannon, would ever come over unannounced.

Amber looked out the peephole. Kyle. He must have snuck in behind another person entering the building. She’d have to talk to the landlord about that. People should be more careful these days. What was the point of living in a secured building if some stranger off the street could just follow you inside? Besides, what was he doing here? She wasn’t ready for this. She needed time to think. The world hadn’t stopped with her diagnosis, although a part of her wished it had.

For a moment, she thought she’d pretend not to be home. But then her phone rang and gave her away. Her heart raced with guilt at being caught. This is what she’d come to. Hiding.

“Amber, you in there?” He knocked again. “I’m worried. Do I need to get the super?”

Her shoulders dropped in defeat, and she shuffled to the door, opening it but leaving the chain on.

“Hi.”

Kyle’s brown eyes squinted questioningly at her through the crack. “Aren’t you going to let me in?”

“Sure. Hang on.” She shut the door and took a deep breath, smoothed her top and forced a smile as she swung it open.

Kyle breezed by her, gift bag in hand, looking around her one room apartment, suspicion in his eyes. “What’s the deal?” He ran his fingers through his blond hair, something she used to find endearing but now rankled her.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been home since yesterday, and you’re not answering calls.”

She bristled at his accusatory tone. “I’ve had a lot going on.”

He scanned her dinette table, the kitchen counters, her easel in the corner, and then the mantel over her gas-insert fireplace before his eyes brightened. Walking past the couch, he reached up for the postcard on the mantel and showed it to her.

“You got it.” He grinned. “Thought you’d like that.” He put it back, covering a photo of her parents, and held out the bag. “I brought you a present from Hawaii.”

Was it only two weeks ago that Kyle’s remembering to give her a gift would have meant the world to her?

Amber reached for the bag and opened it. Inside was a bag of Kona and a coffee tumbler painted with an array of Hawaiian flowers. She did love coffee. The aroma filled the room as she pulled it from the sack.

“Thanks.” He was being thoughtful. It wasn’t his fault her life fell apart while he was gone—in paradise.

Kyle pulled her toward him, keeping his hands on her hips. “I know you have to get to work, but let’s have dinner tonight.” He kissed her lightly, but it all felt like a routine to her. The passion, the excitement, had faded. Numb.

He deserved to know. She’d tell him tonight.

“Sounds like a good idea. I have some news.” Her voice trailed off, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Me too. Big news. Can’t wait.” He backed away, heading to the door. “I’ll pick you up at seven.”

“I’ll meet you.”

His hand paused on the doorknob. “But I always pick you up.”

“I need to run some errands first, okay?” Amber forced her voice to be light, her eyes to be bright and expectant.

“Sure. Emilio’s. Seven.” He blew her a kiss and left the apartment. The walls closed in, the air heavy with overly sweet aftershave and coffee.

Her phone rang again. Mom. She might as well get this over with altogether today. “Hi, Mom.”

“Amber? Are you okay? I’ve called five times. It’s not like you to ignore me.”

“I know. Sorry. Listen, are you doing anything for lunch?” She wasn’t sure how she’d do this, but it needed to be done.

“Something’s wrong, isn’t it? I can always tell when something’s wrong. Fess up.”

“Can’t I take you to lunch once in a while without something being wrong?”

“Yes. But you never do.”

Touché.  

After she hung up, Amber headed to the school.

Three hours and two classes later, she readied her desk to leave for lunch with her mother. Her last class was at three and then she could…what? Her fingers itched to dial the number she’d been ignoring for the past few days. Once she called the counseling service, there’d be no turning back.

“Miss Kirk?” Amber looked up at her youngest student—Katie, a fourth grader. Frankly, she was more gifted and intuitive than most of her students.

“Yes, Katie?” Amber tucked her phone back in her pocket, grateful for the interruption.

“I wanted to turn in my assignment early because we’re going on vacation.” Katie held out a watercolor painting of a still life they’d been working on. Instead of the typical apple and oranges in the bowl, though, Katie had drawn cartoon figures hiding behind the realistic fruits, peeking out with comical expressions. If Amber hadn’t known Katie could do a straight painting, she would have gotten after her for not following the assignment. But this was Katie.

As a kid, Amber had been equally imaginative and didn’t always do things according to direction. She’d had one particularly discouraging teacher take a red pen to her perspective drawing and mark all over it showing where the lines ought to have been. She’d almost quit drawing that day. She knew how to draw the perspective, she’d done it before—but her imagination had taken hold of her, and she’d turned her picture into an interior primitive. She hadn’t known it at the time, but that was fairly sophisticated for a middle schooler.

Once Amber started teaching art, she’d decided she would never quash anyone’s creativity. Guide it, yes, but not try to kill it for the sake of ego.

“I love this.” Amber held out the painting and tacked it up on the wall. “It’s really imaginative.” She glanced at Katie and saw her consternation. “Not what you wanted?”

“I’m not sure on the shading.” Katie pointed to the banana with a small boy hiding behind it, sticking out his tongue.

“It’s not the shading, it’s the highlights. You have to really pay attention to the light. It will make or break a piece.” Amber turned to her desk and made a fast sketch of an apple and used the eraser to dramatize the highlights.

“But that’s much brighter than it really is.”

Amber grinned. “It is. Sometimes we have to highlight things more dramatically to make them seem as real as they are to us in person.” She took the eraser and lightened it even more.

“That’s too much, though.” Katie sounded disappointed in her. Amber squinted at the drawing. She was right. Instead of trying to fix her error, she pushed the sketch away from her.

“You get the idea.”

Katie bobbed her head. “I’ll do it better next time.”

Amber brushed back Katie’s hair as it fell from her pony tail. “How about when you get back, you can work on this some more and make it just right?”

“Really? Thanks, Miss Kirk.” Katie gave her a huge hug. “We’ll be at my grandma’s all next week. I’ll take lots of pictures.”

“Pictures?”

“She lives in the desert, remember? There’s all kinds of things with shade and shadow there.” She grinned and skipped from the classroom. Amber had no doubt that someday Katie would make a tremendous artist.

As long as life didn’t interfere.

***

The restaurant bustled with activity. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all. Too many witnesses. Before she could make her escape, her mother blazed in, sporting a bright pink jacket, turquoise pants, and big gold earrings.

Then again

Jennifer Kirk was a woman to be reckoned with. At least, that’s what she told every one of her real-estate clients. The only proof she needed was owning her own business, Rose Gate Realtors. Never mind that it was a small company—her mother could sell a house a day when the market was bright even if the weather never was. Again, that’s what she told all her prospective sellers.

Her mom leaned down and gave her a kiss on the cheek, leaving the sticky imprint of bright pink lips. Amber felt the urge to wipe it off, but resisted while her mother could see.

“Oh, I love this place. The salads are to die for.” Jennifer grabbed her menu and put it down again, certain of her choice. Amber kept her eyes trained on her own menu, trying not to meet her mother’s discerning eyes. The small café bustled with more and more of the lunch rush. The aroma of onions and garlic streamed from the kitchen, whetting her appetite.

“We’ve been coming here for ten years,” Jennifer urged as she clacked her perfectly manicured fingernails against her glass of water expectantly. “I’d appreciate it if you’d hurry and order. I’ve got a two o’clock.”

Amber motioned toward the waitress and ordered the house salad and clam chowder. Her mother ordered a cobb salad, hold the egg, the ham, the cheese, the bacon, the croutons, and the dressing. Amber bit back a sarcastic remark, dying to know why she didn’t just order a chopped turkey salad. But that was Mom. If she could make it complicated, she would. The waitress gave Jennifer a quizzical look but wrote down the order and gave Amber a sympathetic smile.

Once again, she felt secure in her choice of meeting place.

“Okay, spill. Something wrong with your apartment?” Her mother straightened the silverware, glanced at the door, and looked at the couple cuddling at the next table before her gaze fell back on Amber. “I can get you into a house for the same monthly rate, you know.”

“No. My apartment’s great.” And it was. She loved her Victorian apartment in the heart of downtown. The plumbing and heating had been upgraded three years ago. She got to paint it whatever she wanted as long as she agreed to pay a fee if the manager didn’t like it when she moved out. Sure, it was small, but she had everything she needed. Now even more than before.

“Then your job. What’s happened, sweetie? Are they laying you off? I knew this would happen. Art teachers are a dime a dozen.”

“That’s not true, Mom. Just stop. My job is fine.” Though that wasn’t true either. Soon, she’d be out of a job.

The waitress brought their food, and they both began to eat—at least, Amber pretended to eat. Her mother took a few bites and put down her fork.

“Amber, the only time you can’t eat is when something’s gone wrong. Now, I won’t take another bite until you tell me what it is.” Worry laced her mother’s eyes. Jennifer had been her mom for most of her life, and although Amber had been rushed, and cajoled, and sometimes forced to do things she didn’t want to do, she’d always been loved. Unconditionally loved.

Amber put down her soup spoon. “I had an eye doctor appointment on Tuesday.”

Jennifer gave her a smile. “That’s good. The next thing you need to do is get a physical. You never know when your insurance may be canceled these days.”

Panic and fear welled up inside her. She had yet to say it aloud. To anyone. Even herself. She swallowed hard. “Maybe sooner than we’d like.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I knew your job was in jeopardy.”

“Sort of. But not the way you think. Let me get this all out, okay?”

Jennifer took a sip of water and sat straight in her chair, looking intently into Amber’s eyes. Amber took a deep breath. Now or never.

“Mom, I’m going blind.”

Her mother’s face went ashen, and she took another sip of water, tipping the glass and spilling some on the table. She dabbed at it with her napkin, not making eye contact with Amber. “Are they sure?”

“Yes. Very.”

Jennifer looked up at her. “How long?”

“How long? Not ‘How can this happen?’ or ‘What disease is it?’”

Jennifer’s eyes welled, as Amber expected. But that was it. Something was off in the studied way her mother took the news. And the guilt in her eyes.

“You’re not surprised?” Amber leaned closer. “Wait, why aren’t you surprised?” Anger and confusion quickly pushed aside the fear, tamped it down, and lit it on fire.

A tear slipped from her mother’s eye. “I never wanted this for you. I thought once you were past your teens then the likelihood diminished, and even more so into your twenties.” Her voice broke. “Chances were slim.” 

“Chances?”

“All the evidence suggested…” She stopped and wiped at her eyes with a tissue she’d produced from her sleeve. “It’d be so rare.” The waitress came by with more water and looked worriedly between them before her mother waved her off.

Amber shook her head in denial. This wasn’t happening. Her mother couldn’t have known about this. There was no way. If she’d known, she would have told her. The atmosphere went cold and dead quiet around her as a ringing filled her ears. The restaurant crowd slowed as all their movements became exaggerated and happy, eating as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Nothing was happening to them.

Her glance focused back on her mother’s mouth and the words she was forming. Then, as if someone turned the volume back up, she heard Jennifer’s confession.

“When your eyes were fine through middle school, your dad and I decided to stop worrying. We couldn’t gain anything by it. We never knew exactly when your birth mother lost her sight.” She took a shuddering breath. “When Dad died, I just decided not to revisit the past. I couldn’t emotionally do anything else.”

She couldn’t?

“Wait. My birth mother was blind?” Amber started rapidly twisting the ring on her finger.

“Yes.” Jennifer sent her plate to be boxed and asked the waitress to do the same for Amber’s. Amber would have protested, but she knew there wasn’t a point. She was done.

“And you knew this but never said anything?”

“You need to remember how angry you were at her for giving you up. Years of counseling. We decided to just keep all the information to ourselves. There wasn’t any reason to bring up new heartache.”

“So you lied.” Why did her mother have to bring all that up as if Amber’s anger was her own fault? If people would quit leaving her, she could stop being angry about it.

Her mother leaned across the table. “Watch your tongue. We never lied. We just didn’t tell you. Any time we tried to explain about your mom, you were livid and near violent in fits of anger. Or have you forgotten?”

No. She hadn’t forgotten. The rage renewed itself when Dad died of a heart attack. She’d ripped the arms off her favorite stuffed animal. She’d endured three years of grief counseling after his death. They’d never gotten to the heart of her anger, but it cooled enough to satisfy everyone that she’d recover.

“What about my birth father?”

“He’d died previously. We really don’t know anything about him. But his death did force her into giving you up for adoption. She just couldn’t raise you.”

Amber had always wanted children and a family. If her birth mother had to give her up, what chance did she have?

“I have a letter from her at our bank.”

“I ripped that up, remember?” Amber palmed the wetness from her cheeks.

“No. Not that one. From when we adopted you. I saved it in our safe deposit box. For some day.”

Amber shivered and pulled her sweater closer. This was some day.

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