Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
The long ago moment danced and breathed and lived inside her.
Mama’s voice singing in the warm Belizean breeze, the way it had every afternoon at this time, calling them in from an afternoon of gathering eggs and tending to the chickens. “Lizzie James, dinner! Bring your brother!”
“Yes, Mama!” And Lizzie was shading her eyes so she could see her mother standing in the distance, just outside their small thatched-roof house. Long brown hair blowing over her shoulders. Eyes the same pale blue as Lizzie’s. Happy eyes.
And in this, her most precious memory, Lizzie was grabbing hold of her little brother’s hand. “Let’s go, Daniel. Rice pudding for dinner. Your favorite.”
In the memory, Lizzie was eight and Daniel was six, the two of them inseparable. Half the day they sat side by side at the village schoolhouse learning their numbers and memorizing Scripture. The other half they worked the fields or played in the grassy school yard.
But in this moment, before their daddy moved away—all they wanted was to be home for dinner. Daniel was running beside her, laughing because their cousins’ Labrador retriever puppy, Milo, was galloping out to greet them, and just ahead their mother was waiting for them. Smiling at them, arms wide, and she was pulling them close.
Of all God’s gifts, she was saying, you two are my favorite.
Lizzie blinked and the images disappeared. Again.
She wasn’t in her mother’s arms and Daniel wasn’t beside her and they weren’t about to eat Mama’s rice pudding. Milo was long gone and this wasn’t her Mennonite village. She hadn’t been there in a year at least. Instead she was nine years old, standing on the smallest beach in all of Belize. And no one called her Lizzie Susan James.
She was Eliza Ann Lawrence.
Mennonite men never leave their families. That’s what Mama said. But Lizzie’s daddy had left them and moved here for his very important job, here to Belize City. Where Mama and Daniel died out in the ocean. And where Lizzie’s life had become one unending nightmare.
“Get into the water, Eliza,” her aunt Betsy yelled across the sandy beach. She sat on a beach towel, dark red lipstick and sunglasses. Aunt Betsy waved her hand, frustrated. She was always frustrated. “Go! Girls at the Palace need their sunshine. Even you.”
Girls at the Palace.
Lizzie turned and faced the ocean. Sixteen girls worked at the Palace, but she wasn’t like any of them. No, she was a little princess. That’s what her daddy had called her ever since Mama and Daniel died. Eliza had her own wing at the Palace because she was the daughter of Anders McMillan. That’s what he called himself now. Not Paul David James like before.
Her daddy was an evil man. That much Lizzie knew, because the other girls always told her. Bad things were happening at the Palace, Lizzie was sure. Things she couldn’t talk about or even think about.
“You’re a princess, Eliza,” Dora told her yesterday. “Men don’t visit you at night.” Dora lived on the third floor of the Palace. She was fourteen and blond like Lizzie.
Dora was right, the men who came and went from the Palace didn’t visit Eliza. Her daddy said they never would. “I’m saving you for someone special, Eliza,” her daddy had told her when she moved in after losing Mama and Daniel.
So Lizzie was safe from the men. At least for now. But even so, every day after her time at the beach she was scared to go home to the Palace. Because what if this was the day the men were allowed into her room? Also, Aunt Betsy was mean and sometimes she yanked Eliza’s long blond hair if she didn’t walk fast enough on the way back.
“Hurry up, Eliza. Your father is expecting you.” Aunt Betsy was her daddy’s sister. They both had the same angry face. Aunt Betsy’s breath smelled like sausage and onions.
For now Eliza had an hour alone in the water. A tear slid down Eliza’s cheek and she took a step toward the sea. “You lead me beside still waters…” The words were a whisper, something left over from the life she used to live.
Eliza still wasn’t sure how everything had gone so bad, so fast.
First, her daddy left and Mama cried for a long time. People in Lower Barton Creek would talk in quiet words and give sad looks at Mama and Daniel and Lizzie. Then her father’s sister Aunt Betsy came to visit. It was the first time any of them had met the woman. In front of other grown-ups, Aunt Betsy laughed a lot and used her hands when she talked. And that day, she had a dolly for Eliza. “Come to Belize City to see your father,” Aunt Betsy had said before she left. “He’s a very important businessman. He wants his family with him.”
Mama said the reason they’d never met Aunt Betsy was because the woman had lived in the States, and that she had just moved to Belize. A few weeks later, the three of them did what Aunt Betsy asked. Mama, Daniel and Eliza went to Belize City and visited Daddy. He ran the Palace, a hotel he told them. There were no girls at the Palace back then, but her daddy sold more than hotel rooms. “You’re dealing drugs, Paul David,” her mother had said one night when she thought Eliza wasn’t listening. “We can’t be part of this.”
Eliza wasn’t sure about all of the details. But her daddy got angry at Mama. And something must’ve happened. An accident maybe. Because one morning Eliza woke up in the room at the Palace where she was staying with Mama and Daniel. But she was alone.
“Mama?” she had cried out. Her heart pounded loud and she felt sick. “Daniel? Where are you?”
And then Aunt Betsy had come into the room. The woman stood there, her hands on her hips. Her eyes looked different than before. Meaner. “It’s a tragedy, Eliza.”
Who was Eliza? She had blinked a few times. “I’m Lizzie.”
“You’re Eliza now. Your father wants you to be Eliza. That’s your given name.” Her aunt didn’t say anything for a long time. Then the woman sat on the edge of the bed and shrugged. “There’s no easy way to say this, Eliza. Your mama and brother are gone.”
Her daddy had come into the bedroom then. “They’re in the ocean, Eliza. They didn’t make it. You’re going to live with me, now. Here at the beach.”
Lizzie didn’t understand, not then or now. Her mama and brother were in the ocean? What did that mean?
At first, Lizzie would stand at the water’s edge and call them. “Mama? Daniel!” But they never called back and they never came out of the ocean. So Lizzie lived at the Palace with her daddy and her aunt.
And eventually Lizzie became Eliza.
The other girls moved into the Palace a few at a time. Some of them were older teenagers and some were young. They wore fancy dresses and every night the men came to their rooms. That’s what the girls told Eliza at lunch and dinner.
But Daddy didn’t like Eliza talking to the other girls. “You’re different, Eliza,” he would tell her. “I’m saving you for something special.”
A tear slid down Eliza’s cheek. “You restore my soul…” Her whisper faded. For a long time she believed God had died in the sea with her mother and brother. But here at the ocean she believed she could see Him. Far off in the horizon.
There at the water’s edge.
“Eliza! Go!” Her aunt was on her feet, her full face redder than usual. “You’re wasting time.”
Fear sent chills down Eliza’s arms and legs. She ran down the wet sand and splashed her way through the surf. This was where she belonged. Here in the soft blue waves she was free. All afternoon, as long as Eliza played in the water and swam beneath the sunshine, she wished she might stay all day.
Aunt Betsy and the two guards stationed up the path from the beach wouldn’t bother her.
But when Eliza couldn’t take another hour of sunshine and surf, when she was so tired all she wanted was to curl up and fall asleep on the sand, that’s when her aunt would turn her over to the guards. And they would take her back to the Palace.
Eliza dove into the clear gray water just beyond the surf. I would swim to the other side of the sea if I could. She dropped below the surface and pulled at the water. The waves were rough today. The gray sky getting darker. One stroke, two. Three. She lifted her head above the waves and cried out, the way she did every day at this time. “Daniel!” She scanned the watery horizon for her brother. Her best friend. “Daniel, where are you?”
She was too far out for Aunt Betsy to hear her. “Mama! Come back!” Her tears mixed with the salt water on her soft cheeks. “Daniel?”
A few more strokes and Eliza stopped swimming. She was farther out than usual, bobbing about in the salty water. Before her life changed, she and her family would come to the beach four times a year. At the start of each season. A holiday, her parents had called it.
But this was no holiday now.
Clouds grew darker in the distance. A storm was on its way, which meant her time at the beach was about to be cut short. She swam out a little farther. Not yet. She didn’t want to go back. Again she looked out across the ocean. If God had her mother and brother, then maybe He would give them back to her. Out here on the waves.
If only she could yell loud enough.
“Daniel?” Eliza caught a mouthful of seawater and she started to cough. “Mama, where are you?”
Suddenly beneath the water something grabbed her legs. Not a fish or a shark, because it didn’t have teeth. It was strong and warm and it had a terrible hold on her.
“Stop!” she yelled but her voice got lost on the wind. What is it? What’s happening? She put her face underwater and opened her eyes. And that’s when she saw the terrible truth.
A monster didn’t have hold of her legs.
The current did.
Watch out for the undertow, Eliza. That’s what Aunt Betsy always told her. Don’t swim out too far or the water will take you away forever.
“No!” Eliza screamed. “Let me go!” She could kick her way out of this current. She was a strong swimmer. She moved her feet in frantic bursts, and made big grabs at the water.
But the ocean wouldn’t let her go.
The fight was too much for her so she stopped. Stopped kicking and pulling at the sea and she turned on her back. Suddenly the scared feeling inside her melted away. “You guide me in paths of righteousness”—her words were quieter now—“for Your name’s sake.”
Storm clouds moved overhead. Dark gray layers and flashes of lightning. If Aunt Betsy was calling, Eliza couldn’t hear her. The only sounds were the wind and waves and thunder. A voice called to her from the horizon. Her mama’s voice.
Whenever you’re scared, Lizzie, recite Psalm Twenty-Three. God is with you. He is always with you.
“Even though I walk through—” A wave washed over her face and knocked her deep into the water. Again Eliza fought the pull of the current, and finally she pushed her face free. Breathe, she told herself. Breathe while you still can.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”—each word was a gasp, an attempt at staying alive—“I will fear no evil. For You are with me; You comfort me—”
“Mama!” Eliza clawed and kicked, but it took all her effort just to keep her head above the ocean. “Mama, help me!”
Then she remembered something. If she could see God at the back side of the ocean, if that’s where her mother and brother lived, then that’s where she wanted to be, too. This wasn’t a bad thing happening to her. God was calling her home. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Yes, that was it. If she gave herself to the current, she could be finished with Aunt Betsy and the Palace and her terrible father. Maybe the thing pulling at her, taking her under was God. Anointing her head. Making her cup overflow.
She cried out louder this time. “Surely… goodness and love… will follow me…”
The sea was rougher, but the current no longer grabbed at her. Finally, she looked back at the shore. Aunt Betsy and the Palace guards were waving their hands at her. Eliza had to finish the Psalm because the best part was at the end.
Other people ran toward Aunt Betsy. Tourists, probably. Stay away from the tourists, Aunt Betsy always said. You’re not for sale. A bigger wave knocked her under and Eliza used all her strength to get back to the surface. Mama, I’m coming for you. God, help me find them.
She gasped and spit the seawater from her mouth. Her legs and arms were too heavy to move, and her words came out like a whisper now. “Mama! Daniel?” She was too tired to yell.
Eliza raised her face to the stormy sky. “Surely… goodness and love… will follow me…” Never had she kicked so hard in all her life. But she had to finish. Had to get to the end. “… all the days of my life.” Another wave. Eliza made one last try to breathe. “And… I will dwell… in the house of the Lord. Forever.”
She smiled and a beautiful peace came over her. And there was Mama again in the distance, waving at her, calling her close. Lizzie James, dinner! Bring your brother!
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The house of the Lord.
It would be a small house with a thatched roof. The place where Lizzie’s mother and brother still lived. The only people who had ever loved her. And now they would be all together. There at the edge of the ocean where they would live in the house of the Lord.
Forever and ever and ever.