Sample text for Angel of mercy / Lurlene McDaniel.

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Counter "I can't believe you're giving up your entire summer and fall instead of going to college, Heather. I mean, it's like forever! And just look where you'll be living. How can you stand it? There's no room to move, no privacy either!"

"I'll be home in time for Christmas," Heather Barlow reminded her sixteen-year-old sister, Amber. "And I don't care about the living conditions. As for college, I'll start in January. You'll hardly know I'm gone."

At eighteen, Heather was going off on a Mercy Ship to work in Africa, to try to make a difference in a place where children starved to death or died from terrible illnesses. She had grown up wanting to do something worthwhile with her life, but now that she was actually on board the ship, now that it was almost time to say goodbye to her family, Heather was beginning to feel the clutch of self-doubt. And Amber's reluctance to see her leave wasn't helping.

Amber glanced around the cramped quarters. "It's just so--so primitive."

Ignoring Amber's complaints, Heather opened her duffel bags and began putting her clothes into the narrow drawers of the dresser bolted to the wall. She would be sharing this old-fashioned small stateroom with a Swedish girl named Ingrid, whom she'd not yet met.

Across the narrow room, Amber seated herself on a bed attached by cables to the metal wall of the ship. "Ugh! This mattress is so thin, I can feel the springs."

"It's a hospital ship, sis, not a luxury liner anymore," Heather reminded her.

Years before, Anastasis had served as a cruise ship. But in the mid-1980s, it had been converted into a floating hospital, with three operating rooms, a dental clinic, a laboratory, and an X-ray unit. The aging ship, painted white from bow to stern, was more than five hundred feet long and nine stories high. Its staterooms, once luxurious quarters for wealthy travelers, now housed crew and staff--175 volunteers who paid their own expenses and agreed to serve a tour of duty as the ship sailed from port to port, bringing life-saving medical services to countries ravaged by disease, famine, war, and poverty.

Long-term crew members--missionary and medical personnel and their families who had signed up for extended tours of duty--were housed in the more spacious upper-deck staterooms, while short-term volunteers such as Heather were assigned the smaller rooms. The ship's once-elegant lounge and dining areas served as conference rooms and training centers. Children of the crew and staff attended school on board.

Once the ship dropped anchor in a port, engineers, carpenters, teachers, and evangelists took medical and dental services and supplies into remote areas and inland villages. They built schools, hospitals, and housing, all with donated goods. The Mercy Ship was a floating hospital. And a vision of hope.

"Well, I think it's a dumb idea to even be going on this trip, and I don't know why you want to go in the first place," Amber said, voicing her displeasure once again. "I'll bet there's no decent guys to date, and nowhere to go even if there were."

Heather sighed. It irritated her when Amber sounded so frivolous. Why couldn't she understand how important this trip was? Heather had spent so much time thinking about the trip, a whole year planning it, and ten days in May at a special boot camp preparing for it. She asked, "Are you trying to make me feel guilty? Because I won't. I've wanted to do this for a long time, and you know it."

Amber scuffed her fashionable shoes on the floor. "I'm going to miss you," she said quietly.

"I'll miss you, too." Heather saw tears shimmering in her sister's green eyes. "Hey, what's this? I thought you'd be glad to have the house to yourself And no big sister to be in your way when school starts, either. You always said you couldn't wait until me and my friends were out of high school so that you and your friends could have the halls all to yourself." Heather sat beside Amber on the bunk and put her arm around amber's shoulders.

"What fun is there in being home by myself? Mom and Dad won't have anything to do but go to work. And grouse at me, of course. You're the one they think is perfect in this family, you know."

"They grouse at you now," Heather teased gently. "So what will be different?"

"You won't be there to get them off my case."

"Then don't do anything to get them on your case." Heather gave Amber a squeeze. "Honestly, I really do think you go out of your way to provoke them sometimes."

"If you mean I like to have fun instead of trying to save the world, then guilty as charged." Amber sniffed and slumped lower on the bunk.

Heather did feel sorry for her sister. Their parents were both highly successful plastic surgeons--their father a wizard in facial reconstruction, their mother a respected specialist in body reshaping. True, much of their practice these days was given over to cosmetic facelifts, liposuction, and cellulite reduction, but they still were renowned for their ability to help the horribly deformed or tragically maimed. Their busy schedules left them with little free time at home. With Heather gone, Amber would be pretty much on her own. She has tons of friends and her senior year coming up, Heather reminded herself. Amber would be fine.

Heather scooted off the bunk. "Look, sis, Mom and Dad will be back from their tour any second now, so please help me out. No pity party, okay? I'll start to cry, and that wouldn't be good. I promise I'll write often. And don't forget, you all are going to spend a week touring Europe before you have to fly home. That should be fun."

The ship was docked in London, taking on supplies, and would sail in two weeks for the coast of Kenya. From there, Heather would accompany a special team to Lwereo in central Uganda, where she would work as an aide in the only hospital for the entire district--a hospital staffed by Irish missionary doctors. Heather's team would also build a dormitory for an orphanage run by Americans. In December, she was to fly directly home, arriving the week before Christmas.

"A week in Europe . . . whoopee," Amber said glumly. "My idea of fun isn't tracking through museums and art galleries. Mom's already got a list this long." She held her hand above her head. "Is there even one dance on the list? I think not."

Heather laughed. "Can you see Dad moshing on a dance floor?"

A smile lit Amber's teary eyes.

Encouraged, Heather asked, "Or how about Mom fighting her way to the bathrooms? Both of them could get hurt twisting their way through such crowds. Who'd do surgery on the surgeons?"

Just then the cabin door opened and their parents stepped in. Amber quickly wiped her eyes, and Heather got up to meet them, not wanting them to see amber's distress.

"Great tour," their father said. "You're in good hands. Excellent OR--state-of-the-art--on a par with the ones I use in Miami."

"I'm glad you approve."

Her mother looked apprehensive. "Now I know how my mother felt when she was seeing me off to Guatemala when I was twenty-two." Heather and Amber's parents had met years before in the Peace Corps, and their stories of their adventures had inspired Heather all her life. The seeds of her desire to help the underprivileged had been planted early.

"It won't be easy, you know," her mother added. "You'll see things that will break your heart. It doesn't take much to have your idealism crushed."

"It's too late to turn back now. I'll be fine, Mom," Heather insisted, feeling more unsure than she sounded.

"Of course you will," her father agreed, sending her a confident smile. Still, she could tell by the look in her parents' eyes that they were nervous about sending her halfway around the world. "We're proud of you, honey."

A deep blast of a horn, followed by the command "All ashore" over the PA system, made them all jump. Heather's heart thudded.

"I guess that's us," her mom said. She hugged her daughter, then held her hand while they climbed the network of ladderlike stairs from the lower staterooms to the upper decks.

Topside, the June breeze felt cool. The open deck was crowded by other travelers, all in stages of telling families and loved ones goodbye. "This is it," Heather said, almost losing her nerve and following them down the gangplank to the dock belong.

"You write," her mother said.

"And e-mail on that laptop I gave you," her father said, giving her a smothering bear hug.

She kissed the three of them one last time, then watched as they left. On the dock, they stood with a throng of people, waving and calling goodbye. Tears filled Heather's eyes. All at once, the six months away from home and from all she'd ever known loomed like an eternity.

The ship towered above the dock, making them look small and insignificant amid the hustling dockworkers and their equipment. Heather watched her parents and sister climb into a cab. Hanging out the window, Amber blew her a kiss. A lump the size of a fist clogged Heather's throat, while a breeze from the sea pushed her thick hair away from her face. Tears trickled unchecked down her cheeks.

Lost in sadness, she didn't realize that anyone was standing next to her until a deep male voice with a soft Scottish accent said, "It seems that your eyes have sprung a leak there, lass. Could I offer you my handkerchief to help mop it up?"

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Missionaries Fiction, Kenya Fiction, Uganda Fiction, Africa Fiction, Christian life Fiction