Kathy Halbert opened the front door to stare face-to-face at a ghost from the past. In a tone that wavered somewhere between shock and horror, she whispered the name of her nightmare.
A warm June breeze blew through the younger woman's bleached hair, ruffling the top layers to reveal darker roots. Her face was careworn, yet beautiful. The twelve years since Kathy had seen her sister—her only sibling—had altered Sunshine into a woman who scarcely resembled the eighteen-year-old who'd deserted her family.
"Hi, sis. Guess you're surprised to see me, huh?" She offered a smile, revealing perfect white teeth—maybe too white.
Kathy stiffened. How dare she call me sis? How dare she show up here after twelve years without our knowing if she was dead or alive?
"What do you want?" Kathy couldn't even bring herself to pretend polite indifference.
Sunshine seemed genuinely perplexed by Kathy's attitude. "What do you mean by that? I've come back ... I've come home."
Kathy shook her head. "If you're here after all these years, there has to be a reason bigger than that. If you want money, forget it. There's none here for you. You've had your inheritance—twice, as I recall."
Sunshine's confusion seemed to grow. "Where's Mom and Dad?" She strained to look beyond the screen door and into the house where they'd both spent their childhood.
Kathy put her hands on her hips and squared her shoulders. "I asked what you wanted. I think my question deserves an answer first."
Sunshine folded her arms defensively. Kathy noted she was dressed stylishly in cream-colored linen slacks and a tan and cream short-sleeved sweeter. Small gold hoops graced each ear and a gold cross hung from a delicate chain that draped Sunshine's neck.
What hypocrisy! Since when does she care about God?
"Kathy, I don't expect you to necessarily be happy that I've come home, but I figured you'd at least be civil."
"This is me being civil. You can't demand your own way and turn your back on your family and not have some kind of repercussion for your actions."
"There have been plenty of repercussions, I assure you," Sunshine whispered.
Kathy felt herself harden even more. Every sad and painful moment from the past twelve years could be pinned to one source, and that source was her younger sister. Kathy didn't want to be uncaring; the entire family had dreamed of the day when Sunshine might once again return to the Kansas family farm. Kathy had practiced long tirades of things she would say, but every established thought fled from her now.
"I didn't expect to find you here," Sunshine finally said, shifting her purse from one shoulder to the other.
"I want to know why you're here." Kathy forced her mind to remain focused. The memories were pouring in from all sides, much like a dam that had sprung multiple leaks. Feelings, thoughts—even smells and sights—trickled in and began to puddle in Kathy's brain.
"Well, it's kind of a long story," Sunshine finally yielded.
"I suppose you could say the bottom line is that I've turned my life around. I want to set things right with the people in my life, so I figured I should start at the beginning."
"You can't set the past right," Kathy said, shaking her head. "You have no idea what you're even asking."
Kathy's memory took hold of her like a raging lion about to feast on its prey. Twelve years faded away and in its place came a vibrant picture of the moment that started the demise of the entire Halbert household.
* * *
"I've changed my name," eighteen-year-old Amy Halbert declared rather pompously. She was dressed in very short cutoffs and a halter top—two pieces of clothing their mother had expressly forbid her daughters to wear.
Kathy looked up from the breakfast table in dumbfounded surprise. "You did what?" she finally asked. Only moments ago the focus had been on Kathy's own wonderful declaration. Kyle Dexter had asked her to marry him, and she had announced it to her parents at breakfast.
Amy had a way of dripping sarcasm without ever speaking a word. That expression was on her face just now, and Kathy detested it. When Amy looked like this, there was no reasoning with her and no getting her to listen to anything you had to say.
"Amy, why don't you sit down and tell us what you're talking about," their father said with a smile. "Your mama has fixed some mighty fine waffles."
"I don't eat waffles," Amy said with an emphasis on the apparently hated food.
Kathy didn't understand the harsh tone or the lie. Amy could have eaten them all under the table when it came to waffles.
Mom turned in surprise. She had just put a fresh waffle on a green glass plate and seemed at odds as to what she should do next.
"What are you talking about, sunshine?" Dad said, calling her by his pet name. "Of course you eat waffles."
"Not anymore," Amy declared. "I'm a new woman, and I'm starting a new life."
"What do you mean?" Mom asked.
"I mean I've legally changed my name, and I want my inheritance so that I can blow this stupid farm town. I went to the bank, but they wouldn't let me draw out the trust fund. They said until I was twenty-one, I would have to have your permission to take it out. So I want you to cut me a check for it or go with me to the bank so I can get my money."
Mom nearly dropped the plate as she put it back on the counter. "I don't think I understand."
Kathy recognized fear in her mother's tone. She looked up to study her mother's expression.
"I know I don't," Dad agreed. "What do you mean you changed your name?"
Amy leaned against the back of the chair that had always been hers at the Halbert table. "I saved up my money and went and got my name changed."
"Changed it to what?" Kathy questioned. The whole thing sounded like a big joke.
"Well, in a way Dad kind of helped me decide that," Amy said, dropping some of the sarcasm from her tone. "I changed my name to Sunshine."
"Sunshine?!" Dad looked at his younger daughter in disbelief.
"Don't you love it? It's such a great name—nothing like boring old Amy. In fact, it's like nobody else's name. That's why I did it. I'm an individual kind of person, and I needed an individual kind of name."
"You sound like a hippie," Kathy said, putting down her glass of orange juice. Amy scowled and probably would have stuck her tongue out, but Kathy guessed that was beneath her now that she was a "new woman."
"How did you arrange this?" Dad asked, still not seeming to accept the truth of it.
"I went to a lawyer in Hays and got it changed. I had to take my birth certificate and proof of who I was. Then I talked to a judge, but it wasn't a big deal."
Kathy could tell that her dad was upset. He had a way of narrowing his eyes and clenching his jaw any time someone crossed him or made him mad. "When did you go to Hays? You never told us about it."
"I'm eighteen. I'm an adult. I don't have to tell you everything I do."
"You do if you live under my roof."
"That's my point," Sunshine protested. "I don't want to live under your roof. Kathy may be content to go to college and live at home, but I don't want to. I want to do my own thing and live how I want to live."
Mom came to the table and sat down as if the shock was too great. Kathy reached over and gently patted her hand. The joy of her own engagement was quickly forgotten in the wake of Amy ... Sunshine's announcement.
"I want to leave Slocum. I want to leave Kansas. I hate it here and always have," Amy announced. "I want the trust fund money that Grandma and Grandpa left me."
"You know that isn't to come to you until you're twenty-one or when I deem you're ready for it," Dad said, putting down his fork. Apparently he had decided the matter was serious enough to stop eating and focus on the matter at hand.
"I'm ready for it now," Amy said in her persistent manner. "I plan to leave with or without it, but it's mine, and I think I deserve to have it now. It will make my life a whole lot easier and safer."
"That money was intended to help you with college or to buy a house of your own," Dad replied.
"Or even help with wedding expenses and things like that," Mom threw in.
Amy rolled her eyes. "I don't care about any of that. I'm not going to go to college and I'm not going to buy a house. I don't even have somebody to marry—at least not anymore. I broke up with Todd last week. He's such a waste of my time. He just wants to stay here and farm like his dad."
Kathy couldn't remain silent at this. "Todd's family has been farming in Kansas for five generations. You can't fault him for wanting to carry on a family tradition."
"I don't care what he wants. It doesn't match up with what I want, so I broke up with him." She turned to Dad. "I'm serious. I'll leave even if you don't give me the money, but I'll probably have to work my way to wherever I'm going and sleep on the streets. If that's what you want, then I guess I'll deal with it." Amy had always been the queen of manipulation, knowing exactly which buttons to push to get her own way.
Kathy's gaze was fixed on her sister, but she heard their mother begin to cry and thought the entire matter had gone on long enough. "You're a spoiled brat. How can you just come in here and threaten them like that?" Kathy had been seeking to please her parents all of her twenty years of life, while Amy always seemed to have their approval and did nothing to earn it.
Amy pushed her long brown hair over one shoulder. "I finished high school with a 3.9 GPA. I went to church every time the doors were open. I learned to play piano until I was good enough to outperform all the other pianists in the state. I even worked at Myra's Café to learn financial responsibility, as Dad called it. I've done everything that was demanded of me. I want my freedom. I've served my time."
Mom sobbed into her hands. "Oh, Amy."
"My name is Sunshine," Amy insisted.
"Where is it you plan to go?" Dad asked.
Kathy could hardly believe he would give Amy's plan credence. She pushed back her chair and jumped to her feet before her sister could say a word. "Why do you have to ruin everything? This should be my day. I just got engaged to Kyle last night. I was happy until you had to come in here and wreck everything."
"Well, that's your problem. If you aren't still happy to be engaged, then I'd suggest you break it off."
Kathy wanted to throw something at her sister, but with their mother still crying, she knew better.
"Kathy, sit back down and finish your breakfast. Amy, sit down and talk to me reasonably if you expect me to give this any consideration whatsoever." Dad was brooking no nonsense, so Kathy quickly complied. Dad's patience had been exhausted. "Amy, sit down."
"My name is Sunshine!"
* * *
Remembering the way Amy had screeched at them that morning brought Kathy out of her reflection of the past. She stared at her sister, realizing she was talking. "What? What are you saying?" Kathy asked, feeling even more confused.
"I asked you where Mom and Dad are. I want to see them. I want to talk to them—ask them to forgive me."
Kathy tried to control her anger. That day so long ago had ended in a horrible scene. Sunshine had pushed her position until their father finally agreed to give her the money in the hopes that she would go have her fling and come back home to settle down. No one expected that it would be twelve years in the coming.
"You can't do this," Kathy said, forcing her voice to be steady. "You have no right to put us through this gain."
Sunshine was back to looking stunned. "I don't know what you think I'm here to do, but I assure you, I only want to make peace. Now, are you going to let me in?"
"No," Kathy said matter-of-factly. "I'm not. You don't know anything about us. You didn't care enough about any of us to call or write a note to let us know you were alive and safe. Do you know the agony you put Mom and Dad through? Do you have any idea how they worried? Can you even begin to understand what it cost them—cost me?"
"I think I do now. I didn't then. I didn't think anyone would really miss me or care," Sunshine said, sounding rather sad.
Her tone caused Kathy to lose all control. "You have no idea! Your selfish little antic took away everything I'd ever hoped for—everything I dreamed might be for my life. You took away the peace in this house. You took away the joy. Mom never laughed again—not to her dying day."
The color drained from Sunshine's face. "Mom's dead? No!" She clutched her purse to her chest.
Kathy folded her arms. "What do you care?"
Tears slid down her sister's face. Kathy tried not to be moved by the sight. Sunshine had hurt them all more than anyone could guess. It was apparent that her sister was deeply hurt by the news, but what about the hurt she had caused?
Sunshine bit her lower lip as her face grew red. It was clear she was trying not to cry, but it was a losing battle. "I didn't know. I didn't know."
Kathy drew a deep breath and realized she couldn't continue in such anger. She felt split right down the middle: A part of her hated her sister, while the other half was so happy to see her alive and safe. Sunshine looked absolutely miserable. Gone was any pretense of strength and sophistication. Her sister was obviously hurting—sorry for the truth of the moment. With a sigh, Kathy shook her head. "You would have known if you'd come home."
"What happened?" Sunshine's ragged breath caught in her throat. "When?"
Kathy turned to find their father standing not ten feet behind. He clung to the banister of the stairs, weakened from the cancer that was ravaging his body.
"Is it really you?" he asked.
"It's really me!" Sunshine wiped at her tears and pushed past Kathy. "Dad, I've come back." She started to cry again. "Oh, Daddy, I've come to ask your forgiveness."
She fell into his arms and hugged him closely. Dad dropped his hold on the banister and held his daughter close. Tears welled in his eyes as he gazed upward murmuring two words over and over. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
Kathy felt immediately convicted by the intense love that showed on his face. He didn't care that a dozen years had separated them. He didn't care that his child, long given up for dead, had given no consideration to her parents and their feelings. He probably didn't even remember that she had stolen money from him.
The lost had been found. The dead had come back to life.
Prodigal Sunshine was home.
Where My Heart Belongs by Tracie Peterson
Copyright © 2007; ISBN 9780764203619
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.