"May I come in?" a commanding voice called. Then Phyllis Worth entered the room without permission. "Am I interrupting anything?"
Stephanie and Libby remained silent.
"You know that story I talked to you about earlier, Stephanie?" Phyllis said. "We could really use that story now. I attempted one last time to feature Dr. Ward in an article on abortion. He refused to be interviewed, just as he did before. We need his reputation behind our legislative efforts to expand abortion rights."
"I'm sorry about my abortion," Gail interjected. "I wish I'd listened to Dr. Ward."
"Dr. Ward tries to talk women out of abortions," Libby protested. "He talked my mother out of an abortion, or I wouldn't be here."
Phyllis continued without even a glance at Gail and Libby. "I don't care how many women Dr. Ward has talked out of abortions. What's relevant here is that he performs them. In doing so, he gives women like you freedom to pursue their careers."
"Phyllis, I'm not writing an article on Dr. Ward, and I don't want my personal life publicized for the sake of your cause."
"Oh," Phyllis said with a sly smile, "but your personal life will someday become part of the public record. Why not use your experience in a constructive way before someone smears your reputation later?"
"Are you suggesting that you are going to leak my personal life to the press?"
"No, but there are others who might. You're a respected writer for the Jackson News. What you do speaks even louder than what you write. You could become our spokesperson for abortion rights."
Stephanie tensed. "I thought you were my friend. Friends don't use friends."
"I AM your friend," Phyllis tossed back. "I'm just trying to help you get a jump on this story."
The phone rang and Stephanie made a grab for it."Hello."
The words she heard stunned her. The shock must have shown on her face.
"What is it?" Libby asked.
Stephanie put the phone down. "Your father is coming. Dr. Ward collapsed outside the hospital. He's bleeding from his mouth and nose. They're trying to revive him in the emergency room."
Libby bowed her head. Stephanie knew the girl was praying for Dr. Ward.
Phyllis picked up her purse. "This changes everything. I've got to go." She hustled out of the room.
Gail lamented, "Who will speak for Johnny when DHS hears about this? Johnny doesn't stand a chance. I've got to get to my aunt and uncle's."
Stephanie and Libby waited by the phone for other news on the doctor. It seemed an eternity before Brother Anderson appeared at the door. He simply said, "I'm sorry."
Tears started streaming down Libby's face. "He was my friend. I loved Dr. Ward."
Brother Anderson put his arm around Libby. "The emergency-room doctors did all they could. Mrs. Ward and the children need our prayers."
Stephanie hugged Libby as well. "It's hard to see you cry. Your heart is so young and tender."
"Dr. Ward bought a present for you." Libby sobbed. "Now he won't be there to give it. And now I'll never find my biological mother. He's the only one who knows for sure who she is."
"I'll help you," Stephanie promised. "You'll find your mother. It's not important that I get a gift. Dr. Ward has already given me the greatest birthday gift of all. He's given me the gift of life and good health and the gift of having a friend like you. When my birthday comes, those are the gifts that I will cherish."
Brother Anderson's eyes were downcast as he spoke. "Mrs. Ward is in shock. Margie and the other children have already begun the planning. It looks like visitation will be Monday and the funeral service at our church on Tuesday."
"My birthday," Stephanie moaned. "They will bury Dr. Ward on my birthday—some birthday present."
"I'm sorry," Brother Anderson replied. "Let us pick you up for the service. We'll have a birthday party later."
"Thanks for the ride, but I don't want a birthday party."
"We'll have to pick you up early, because I'm preaching the funeral."
By the time Stephanie arrived in Brother Anderson's car, many other cars were already in the church parking lot. Behind the church, the cemetery headstones shone brightly in the sunlight, and beyond the cemetery was the field of five thousand glistening, small, white crosses. Next to the church, and within hearing of those gathering for the funeral, were the voices of happy children playing at the daycare center.
"Our family's reserved the second pew on the east side," Mrs. Anderson told Libby as they walked toward the church. "We have plenty of room for Tameka and Stephanie, but the church will be packed, so don't be late for the service."
Brother Anderson stopped to greet other church members as his wife, Stephanie, Tameka, and Libby walked ahead.
Stephanie watched as Libby and Tameka studied the new faces of the early crowd. She knew each were hoping her biological mother might come to remember the doctor who delivered her baby.
Tameka's eyes seemed to settle on a fashionable African-American lady stepping out from the driver's seat of a red sports car. The woman was tall and beautiful. She walked with a dignity and posture that spoke of refinement. The only tacky thing about the lady was her vanity plate, which read SUSIE Q. Susie Q and her passenger friend, an African-American lady about her same age, carried on a lively conversation as they walked toward the church.
"That's my birthmother!" Tameka declared.
"I don't think so," said a voice from behind. It was Phyllis Worth. "Fortunately for Susie Q, she had a choice, and she chose not to have a baby."
"Well, I bet she had at least one," Tameka answered with a harsh glare. "See you in church, Libby." Tameka hurried toward the sanctuary, following Susie Q and her friend at a distance.
Phyllis turned to Stephanie. "Dr. Ward's funeral will be featured on page one of the Metro Section. I want you to do the story and share your personal experience."
"I'm not interested," Stephanie insisted.
Phyllis was not deterred. "I've located thirty women who had abortions by Dr. Ward. They all spoke highly of their stay in the doctor's clinic and agreed to give a group interview after the service. I bet many more like them will be in the funeral crowd. I believe his average was no more than 50/50 in persuading women against abortion. Some three hundred children have been adopted from his clinic over the last twenty years. I'm sure he's performed at least as many abortions."
Phyllis looked around gleefully at the gathering crowd. "The Pro-Choice Foundation is funding my documentary on Dr. Ward for National Public Radio. This is a big story, Stephanie. We need your help. No one can make this story as personal as you can."
"Phyllis, I'm not going to publicize Dr. Ward's death for political reasons!"
Phyllis pointed toward the church. "See the sheriff's car over there? As I speak, there are two deputies sitting with Johnny's DHS workers in the back of the church. They have a court order to take Johnny at the end of the service. You know ...to make a public statement about their standards for child care."
"Those DHS workers are of a liberal mind," Phyllis said nonchalantly. "They would rather place a child with a gay couple than with a fundamentalist Christian family. They prefer broad-minded children to the anti-abortionist, homophobic, little brats of narrow-minded Christians. But still they are my friends. I'm sure that I could persuade them to harass some other family and leave Johnny alone."
"Then tell them to leave," Stephanie insisted. "Do it now before the service starts!"
"Don't get so excited," Phyllis complained. "What I need is encouragement. I would really be encouraged if you decided to share your abortion story on camera."
"Phyllis!" Stephanie exclaimed, "That's extortion!"
"That's not extortion. Why should I help you, if you won't help me?"
Phyllis's eyebrow lifted. "Well, here comes Brother Anderson and Gail Morris. Maybe she can change your mind. That would be best, but somebody is going to tell your story, with or without your help."
"Phyllis, you'd better have more than hearsay if you write about me," Stephanie warned.
"So what will you do? Sue me?" Phyllis shrugged. "That would be wonderful. A lawsuit will give me the chance to subpoena Dr. Ward's medical files. Then I can count each abortion until I find yours."
"Dr. Ward didn't abort me!" Libby declared in anger.
"My, aren't we feisty? Births and abortions, honey, that's what pro-choice is about!" Phyllis pulled a microphone and tape recorder from her coat pocket. "I'm looking forward to all the good things your father's going to say about Dr. Ward in his eulogy. His kind words will help me when I make the doctor our poster boy for abortion services."
Phyllis turned and hurried toward the church, holding the microphone in the air to catch the sounds of the arriving crowd.
"I'm sorry," Stephanie confessed. "I thought she was my friend."
"I heard a little of what she said. But don't worry," Brother Anderson said. "My eulogy is already written. Phyllis won't change it a bit."
"Brother Anderson," Gail said. "I have a very important request."
"What is that?"
"Would you give a benediction at the close of the service? Have the congregation stand while you pray, and please pray a long time. Pray about everything, and—" tears glistened in Gail's eyes—"don't forget to pray for Johnny!"
Brother Anderson paused. Stephanie knew he understood what Gail was asking without her even saying. She and Gail had discussed it. There seemed like no other options. And the fewer people involved in it, the better. "I'll have the congregation stand," Brother Anderson at last responded. "I'll close in a long prayer, and I will certainly pray for Johnny…and you."
He gave Gail a pat on the arm, then walked toward the church building.
Gail turned to Stephanie and Libby. "My van is packed," she whispered. "I have two deacons making sure no one parks in my escape route. When Brother Anderson gives the benediction, I will slip out the back door, pick up Johnny at the side door, and drive him to Canada."
"But where will you stay?" Stephanie asked, worried about her friend. "What will you do to support yourself and Johnny?"
"There's a church in Canada that will help us make a new start."
"How will you get away without being caught?"
"I'm taking the back roads to Vicksburg, and I'll cross the river on the Old Highway 80 Bridge. Johnny and I will be in Louisiana within thirty minutes. Then we will drive day and night for Canada."
A tear slipped down Gail's cheek. "Please put flowers on my parents' graves, and when you do, tell them I love them."
"They'll have new flowers every week, and I'll place flowers on your aunt's and uncle's graves too."
"I'm going to miss you, Stephanie. I love you!" Gail threw her arms around Stephanie's neck.
"I love you too. You will always be my little sister."
Stephanie lifted Gail's head. "I don't want DHS to see you upset. Johnny's home will need love and laughter, not tears."
Gail drew herself up straight. "No more tears," she promised, as she swiped at her cheek.
"What can I do?" Libby asked.
"When the DHS workers come forward to take Johnny, stand in their way. Give me some time to get a good head start."
"We'll get in their way big time," Libby confirmed. "Tameka will help. So will the other ALIVE sisters."
Gail gave a last grateful smile and hurried toward the church.
Taken from "A Scent of Jasmine" by David Dockery (OakTara, www.oaktara.com). The entire novel is available from amazon.com, christianbook.com or barnesandnoble.com. Used by permission of the author and publisher. David Dockery is a Mississippi geologist and member of Pocahontas Baptist Church near Jackson. To read the first chapter of Baptist Press' serialization of "A Scent of Jasmine" by David Dockery, go to http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=34444. For subsequent chapters, go to BP's "Search Stories" tab and search by date.
Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net