Among the Fallen Stars First Printing, 2012 © Camine Pappas, All Rights Reserved


This book is dedicated to my husband Ron who is the love of my life, the truest friend, and the glow that has always illuminated my path. Without him I would never have learned that light is a birthright and chains can be broken!


About the Book

*** For orphans and sisters Oacie and Raynell Taylor, abuse and loneliness became a way of life as they went from one frightening foster home to the next. Determined but hopelessly forgotten, they are sustained only by cleverness and a reciprocal bond of loyalty. When they are unwittingly caught in the crossfire of a violent and abusive attack, a sadistic Sherriff pursues them in a vengeful and twisted chase that eventually separates them into two worlds where secrets become their only means of survival. Now, after nearly two decades of estrangement, a husband sets out to reconnect these two women, knowing that healing the past is the only means by which he can save his wife, and the sister-in-law he has never known. With one languishing in prison and the other living a life of pretense among the elite of Atlanta, these sisters soon learn that shining is something we all do, even when our light has been buried for a long, long time.


NOTE TO THE READER: Oacie, Raynell, and Steve share the stage as first person story tellers. Because this is a tale of secrets and isolation, the unique and personal perspective of each character is pivotal to the story itself. Except for the voice of Oacie’s mother, who helps galvanize their collective tragedy by sharing her own story, Among the Fallen Stars is experienced more profoundly by listening to each of the three characters speak in first person, as opposed to hearing a global storyteller chant in omniscience.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or if it was not purchased for your use, only, please return to AmongTheFallenStars.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction which have been used without permission. The publication and/or use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. ©Copyright Camine Pappas


Chapter 1 – Reflection Chapter 2 – Resignation Chapter 3 – Remembering Chapter 4 – Resolve Chapter 5 – Reality Chapter 6 – Radiance Chapter 7 – Revolution Chapter 8 – Renewal Chapter 9 – Reconnection Chapter 10 – Rescue Chapter 11 – Redemption Chapter 12 – Revenge Chapter 13 – Resilience Chapter 14 - Reunion


By Camine Pappas

Chapter One – Reflection

OACIE It’s only one little star, rather insignificant in its brightness, and certainly nothing more than a piece of reflective, carbon shrapnel from a universe too busy to number every bit of celestial dust. But I follow it, nonetheless. Sometimes its appearance brushes against the top of the metal sill, waving brightly for only a moment and lighting up my stone chamber with purposeful iridescence. Other times it hangs low, and glimmers upward before crossing out of sight, as dawn sounds her pinkish alarm. But it always passes in front of my view, and winks as it ambles by, like it has seen me, and knows me, too. As I lay here in the darkness, from a bunk just wide enough to accommodate my shivering body, I feel the dampness more keenly than ever. And I think back about what defines my life. For quite awhile now, I have forged a future with nothing more than regret acting as both bellow and fire, a relentless locus of sorrow bound up inside me, and this little craggy mote from an otherwise unfamiliar sky salutes to me only because she cannot help it. She was destined to glow, and I think that’s why we’re friends.


No one looks to anyone for light in here. And if they did, it wouldn’t come from me. Most don’t know how afraid I am, or that regret has hung around my neck like an expectant noose after nearly two decades of incarceration. That’s because I don’t wear my guilt on a wrinkled sleeve. No sniffles or petty sarcasm escaped my pursed and crackling lips when they asked me how I wanted to plea. It wasn’t until later that I snapped, crying with full, generous sobs as they ratcheted down the handcuffs, and washed me with raspy sponges until all the blood was teased so close to the surface that I appeared to have no skin at all. Tonight the darkness is more distinct, which is why the star seems to stand out. Which in turn makes me remember everything clearly, like one recalls the thrust of a hornet’s sting while napping, making detail easy to extrude. For instance, I know that there was a small and silly beetle ascending impulsively up the side of the D.A.’s desk, just at the moment I was sentenced to a life in prison by a snarling jury of my peers, and a derisive judge who nearly spat at me from her perch of absolute justice. I even remember the musty odors of the rickety old bus that carried me to my first jail cell, and the sorrowful dirt of a thousand shoes covering its unkempt floor, both levitating at once into the air and into my nose. I was alone, eighteen, and confused, and I stared only at the shaven head of the driver as he swerved to miss the potholes that dotted the old dirt road. His head was held high, and he seemed to take a special pride in the job of depositing the vermin of society away from the innocent and the certain. Even though I was the only passenger, I remember feeling sick as I smelled the putrid sweetness of his after shave, noting that the beads of perspiration that dotted the folded nape of his freckled neck looked like diamonds scattered across the edge of a sandy shore; their perfect roundness making him appear almost inanimate. I even thought about leaping to his side, and clasping his shiny head in desperation while I begged him to let me flee into the trees before it was too late. But I could no more move than fly.


As we finally came to a stop in front of the gates, I listened to the muffled groans of the gravel driveway shifting and popping under the weight of the groaning tires, and it was then I knew that each dew covered stone beneath us was already numb to the passage of time and punishment, and that the relentless pendulum of maturity had started swinging in reverse. I also knew that whatever was gentle in me, whatever passions resided within – even the ones that moved me to hope, laugh or love – might eventually thin out, grow invisible and eventually disappear. But I didn’t let that happen. And I feel compelled to comfort you like the star has done for me. Listen closely now, as I tell you that just because I am in chains does not mean I’m not free. I am, even if I do not roam about like you. That belief comes from my gut, where all truth resides. It is a place in me that was set in stone at birth, and glows with authenticity. No matter what happens around me – even if I am cloaked in the hopeless and palpable chill of darkness – all of my thoughts can still spring forth from that one, single spot. For me, my determinant nature started when I was very young, my knowledge forming from consequence instead of lecture. In fact some would say I was destined to end up here, locked away without a key, noting that by losing my parents at such a young age, no compass could ever compensate for my rebellious tendencies. “She done been possessed by wild notions, that girl!” came the cry from those with folded brows and worn Bibles. And maybe they were right. Those that could have guided me beyond the basic truths of good and evil died eons ago, taken up into the stars by uninvited angels. I knew they still glowed from somewhere but I couldn’t see their light. Their incandescence, although evident in every choice I made, was not bright enough to teach, only soothe. And now, their benevolent glow only flickers in my memory, illuminating the shifts of my fortune with a small, imperceptible light.


Here’s the truth of it. In the darkness, you make mistakes. And they litter my path like so many dead cicadas after the heat of summer finally quiets their shrieking calls of copulation. I am not one to wallow in the unfathomable. I have a lot of life left in me. I am, in comparison, better off than those who have no point of reference. In contrast to much of the hardness that surrounds me, the first part of my childhood was good; very good. It hummed with a kind of domestic harmony in my Southern home town of Dillon, unfolding like rose petals softly stretching to catch the sunlight; sharing sweetness with an absolute confidence that spring will always come. I spend a lot of my time thinking back to what home used to be like before the chains and before all the mistakes, and the memories flow out me thick and textured. They fall together quickly like straws spilling out on the floor, conduits for new interpretations of disappointment, remade and retold until the darkness fades into myth and for a time, I believe there are no shackles at all. For instance, I have even heard that my house still stands strong and vertical, even though it is now alone on a block that used to vibrate with laughter and the sound of bicycles, ice cream trucks and lawn mowers. It was the kind of place where women sat on front porches smoking and laughing as they waited for their husbands to return from work like a hoard of denim soldiers marching to a casserole scented homing signal, and warm chocolate pie smells drifted through the air and gathered in the alleys like friends. The aromas and golden light called to me and I used to walk along the back of each house and peer into all the kitchens, imagining I was the guest at the table asking for seconds and thirds, hoping the paper napkin tucked into my pocket would return home with extra biscuits for Mama and sugar cookies for me. Things really were glorious for awhile and I felt that the world was there just for me. I used to sit in our backyard swing and make up whole stories about the

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people that walked by. I’d pay attention to how they moved, or what they were carrying and then I’d begin. Sometimes the stories ended happily. Sometimes they didn’t. The truth is you have to have some sadness or the story isn’t worth hearing. It was a town caught in time, really because although technology was beginning to creep into our private lives, the barber shop was still the center of social news and the town square bustled with art shows and bake sales while lovers intertwined on old blankets eaten through by moths breeding among the woolen stitches. Parades were long, bands were loud, and ice cream cones were twirled up high; their colors blending like the vortex of neon paint on an old tie-died shirt. In the summer we forgot about everything burdensome, and the moon always seemed bigger, like it had swallowed a whole truckload of fireflies and needed to expel the glowing powder into one, brilliant sneeze. It covered us all in a kind of magical dust, protecting us from all the sorrowful things we could never have known were so very, very close, pretending there were no dreams to be undone. At night we listened to frogs croaking their anthems of courtship in the teeming pools of brown water, and by autumn, the trees would burn with color, casting the jewels of nature at our feet. Even the few inches of white, magical snow, sprinkled gently on a hill that sloped gradually down to the edge of an aging town, were enough for an old inner tube to carry us away into fantasy. Will all of this joy and simplicity, there wasn’t one thing that prophesied the doom in store for us. We went about as though paradise was free, and perpetual, and deeded to us forever. We never thought about politics, or scandal, and my parents voted their conscience without the benefit of cable or the Internet. If we had been connected, the only thing we could have done is be more afraid. And that’s no way to live. Sown from the seeds of greed and progress, the inevitable soon enveloped us in her cloak of economic lies. We never understood that the looms that fell silent in

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our community were only transported to another continent, or that only the ears that heard their music changed. In actuality their spindles, vibrating with the sound of healthy commerce, were now staining foreign balance sheets with the black ink of progress. It didn’t matter that we were patriots; America was now only a word, and we were barely a mark on an empty page. After the mill closed, there were no relatives or neighbors. No one stayed behind to fight. Only those who have been mashed into a gnarled figure of hunger understand how hopeless it was. Quiet and silent like a grave, what remained behind was just emptiness, and feeding on Dillon’s warm carcass like a parasite the emptiness consumed everything, screaming through the cracks in crumpled buildings, and muttering with the guttural language of poverty. But still, I do cling to the memories of my carefree days, even though in doing so I am dipped in melancholy. And why not, isn’t every home significant? Doesn’t it define our earliest habits and memories? Doesn’t it shape everything we are? Aside from the obvious disrepair, you may not notice the curtains that still hang in the upstairs window, or that the remnants of once hearty rose bushes now crushed under the weight of weeds and drought. You may even overlook the headless Barbie sticking out of one of the cracks in the sidewalk, or the rusted clothesline standing askew in a yard full sorrow. Everything that meant something is now covered up by time, kudzu and decay. I wasn’t the first to fall in love with our house, she boasts a history that reaches back long before we arrived. As each family outgrew or out-loved her, they always left behind a few scraps of paper, or badly placed nail holes in their haste to move on. I like leaving things behind as well, so I carved my name, Oacie Taylor, into the baseboard one night when I couldn’t sleep, becoming part of all that came before, and all that would be. Oacie is a nickname of course. It’s short for Omara Cecile Taylor, which I never liked. The Cecile is okay since it was my Mama’s name. However, I think you will agree that Omara is an awful name. It was my second grade teacher, Miss Grismore, the first to appreciate my story telling prowess and the best audience I

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ever had, who asked me to make up a nick-name for myself even after seeing the note from Papa kindly requesting I be known by my entire, Christian name. She understood what a bad name can do for you, so together we found one that suited me, and I never had to bother with that long name again. Oacie it was. It some ways it suits me. I’m gangly by most standards, and pretty by others as beauty still clings to my face and eyes. My hair, which is completely devoid of any natural curl, is the color of melting chocolate. My arms curve into my body when I walk, arching back and forth like a runway model’s pale limbs; but that’s just because my hips are so narrow. In truth, walking for me is more up and down than back and forth so swinging my arms completes the circle. My eyes, easily my best feature are set deeply, a pleasing distance from one another, and green as grass with dots of brownish gold around the edges. They see a world that hasn’t changed much over the last 18 years, squinting hard through the tenuous delivery of sensory data that I extract from the limited information that surrounds me. I suppose if I had to define a trait that is most responsible for my circumstances, it would be my mouth. It goes off without warning, especially when I hear people talk stupid. You stick around and listen long enough, that’s just about everyone you meet. I wish I had said more though on the night that everything changed from bad to worse and from fear to revenge. It was the night we saw too much, and stayed too long, and didn’t run far enough away from a scene we should never have been a part of; a moment that set my fate in motion and made my sister a stranger to me, forever. She was only 11, I was almost 15, and we were blood stained, and aching with fear. She was running behind me, crying and screaming even when I stopped long enough for her to catch up to me, telling her to grab my torn pocket and hold on until I could get us to safety. I don’t know that her legs were on the ground I was running so fast. But by the time we reached the end of the block

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we only stopped long enough to see the police car roll into the driveway and the officers emerge with loaded guns. We knew that we had left horror behind us, and that much of it was our fault. It is all mixed up now in the fog of regret and I haven’t breached the truth of it with her since that brutal day. It’s never going to be better if we don’t talk about it. It’s so secret that all memories have now become a wall between us. A wall so high she has forgotten our closeness, and our pact to always fight for each other. She may have even forgotten that night, and rightly so. It was a catalyst of revenge, a moving target of misunderstanding and survival, and a true testament to a moment gone wrong. And when the time came, I made sure she got as far away as possible. I was no good to her. She deserved more. This way I would never have to worry about her seeing something in my eyes that brought all the details back to torture her once again. We should never have gotten away, really. It was only luck that opened a portal to a temporary freedom. Actually, you’d be surprised how far we got that night, slipping away as we did after such violence. Maybe the caseworker assigned to retrieve us had an appointment to get her brows waxed and finding two kids who haven’t bathed in two weeks doesn’t sit well when you’d rather smell lavender and cedar. It could be after years of chasing our kind it becomes obvious that all we really want is a head start, and if we can escape without stealing a meal, frightening an old woman or setting off any alarms, they all figure its good riddance. Raynell has always been a bit fragile, and it was up to me to protect her. She has long, blond hair and a cowlick that would stop a train. It looks like a crop circle and bounces into place with violence if disturbed. I remember Papa complaining that there was no way to get her hair in a ponytail without using a crowbar and some serious hair gel. He said her upward-pointing curls were God’s way of reminding the world she was born special, and when he first told her that, she looked straight up to see if there was anyone looking down that might nod in approval. I was afraid to look up in case it was true.

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She’s the beauty, Ray is, and her name is a handful like mine: Raynell Jeneva Taylor Messner to be exact. Her skin is pale and clear, her lips wide, taking up half her face. But it fits her and after you realize you can’t stop staring because of that generous, curving mouth, you see a loveliness that is most certainly doomed for sorrow. Her eyes are green like mine, and she can close those gorgeous eyes and sleep like I was never able to. Her ability to make things disappear is what I am most jealous of. Even over the full figure she has developed and the brown mole on her cheek that makes everyone look twice. She can move between lucidity and madness at the drop of a hat, sometimes mesmerizing those around her with keen observations like she was reading from a ‘Junior Genius’ handbook. Then at other times appearing blank and bereft. If she has continued this bi-polar roller coaster, she must be driving everyone around her crazy. I could always see it coming and therefore prepare for the two people she had divided herself into, but then sisters live in their own world designed specifically for assumptions. No one ever explains to you that mind reading is only a trick. The fact is I haven’t seen her in more than a decade and it’s been even longer since we talked as friends. Most of her correspondence has consisted of short, impersonal letters, written in an impeccable, cursive hand with paragraph after paragraph of updates about new blenders, lavish neighborhood parties, the percentage of gold in her latest jewelry acquisition, and the silk pillows in her sun room. There’s always a photo included in the linen folds of the stationary, but it’s usually oriented from a distance and excludes any kind of detail that would make it possible to see who she has become. There are a few clues that she has slipped permanently into a kind of debutanteinduced oblivion, proving further that she chooses not to remember our past. For instance, she is always writing to me as though I was the editor of Vogue, not her incarcerated sister, hoping I will be impressed with her materialistic savvy. She will ask if I’ve seen the new furniture line in Exquisite Home magazine, or if I swoon over any the celebrities that she follows in earnest. I suppose elegance

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has always been a part of her because when we were small, she used to ramble on about the ladies we watched in the beauty salon, legs dangling into foot baths and arms extended like ballerinas in the spotlight. She’d say that someday she would paint her nails all different colors and keep them long and nicely groomed. We’d both have “things,” she used to say, and I would roll my eyes of course because preening seemed like such a huge waste of time. What I never considered is these rituals were actually her way of coping with a life encased in hesitation. Ray is my dear little sister and I love her. When she came along, I was only four, prepared and anxious to be a big sister like nobody’s business. I used to stroke her yellow hair for hours as she lay asleep in her crib. I would watch her as she sucked on her purple pacifier, listening to the air sift through her nose and echo into her chest, and after a momentary hesitation, flutter out through a smile. Mama said I was going to go blind looking at her so closely, but I couldn’t help it. She smelled good, like milk, and spit and earth. It was glorious, this having a sister. It was like finally finding your lost sock. You always knew there were supposed to be two. As we grew up it was clear that we would always understand each other. No matter what the distance, there would be a special bond that would connect the emptiness caused by life. And the sadness started early. By the time I was 13 we had already been in 5 foster homes. Long gone were the teachers with hearts, and pencils with your name on them. Most days were spent sneaking food from the pantry because feeding us was optional, and wiping down our own sheets to remove the bugs before we went to sleep was a daily ritual. When we were out, Raynell and I spent most of our time climbing trees and staring into windows, always peering in to find someone who looked like our mother. We always said she had to be wearing an apron with polka dots, and sporting a hair ribbon or two. She would also have to be wearing pearls, be covered in flour, constantly pulling her hand up to her brow as she fought an

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unruly cowlick. Once we thought we’d actually found her and it made us stop the game for fear it was true. This is impossible of course, since she died when Ray was 4 and I was 8, but I swear, it had to be her. I didn’t really tell you about my mom because it’s not part of what made our lives so bad, she was wonderful and we loved her. In fact everyone loved her. I just don’t like to talk about it because losing her is certainly what made the bad start. Truth is; she was needed in heaven. That’s clearly the case. We were left behind to take care of Papa for awhile, and the house, the house, because it was the only place she touched us and we touched her. And those curtains I told you about that are still hanging in the window? Mama and I picked them out together, putting them up not long before Ray was born. It was the perfect room of a soon to be big sister and we did it up right. I knew it as soon as I saw the pattern on the curtains that they were meant for me because they had stars on them, and moons and cows leaping like dancers on a stage. The cow’s mouths were upturned, and they wore lipstick and big earrings and bracelets around their hooves. Even the moons had faces, and everyone seemed to be dancing to a trumpet and drum-march, while fireworks erupted in the sky. Of course we made sure the bedspread matched the curtains, and the striped wallpaper was light green with red stars running up and down from floor to ceiling. The whole ensemble in fact made my bedroom enchanting. I counted those stars on the wallpaper to help me sleep and to take away the sense of panic I always had, especially when the cancer started to close in and mother was too tired to sing. She’s still there, you know, inside a small opening in the wall behind my chest of drawers. It is there I keep a picture of her tucked into a small yellow tin, a prize from a Cracker Jack box and just the right size for storing treasures. Along with the photo there is a letter from her written three days before she died, and the bracelet she wore in the hospital when I was born. The picture is still there to

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this day because when we moved out of that house, I had to leave it behind. Otherwise, the cows on the curtains might stop singing and then the house would always be sad and I couldn’t handle that. I kissed her picture hard when I walked out the last time and hoped she would know where to find me wherever I went. She was among the stars that stayed up high, and lit up heaven. I have remained down below, grasping the cold firmament, and staying out of reach of everything comforting but her memory. I had her face in my head, and that was enough. She belonged in my room forever. Cecile Victoria Ermengarde Taylor’s spirit was too important to ever move away from her own castle. It was different with Ray; she took everything from her room when we moved. She grabbed her magic glitter pens, her set of Cinderella underwear, her Tinkerbelle wings, and even the cracked silver comb we had found behind a supermarket during one of our many stealth missions for candy. She took all of her hair ribbons, and two of her secret keys that came with the magic book Papa bought her on her last birthday. The day we left, she had done her own hair and placed a big, red clip right over her swirling, curling part because she knew it was a better way to wave to God, and our parents, as we both left the house and the memories behind. When I think about it I realize we both used to be someone else, glowing with the light of protection and promise. The numbers in my life were about seasons, and the heartbeats that marked the depth of the love I had for family. Now the numbers in my life are across my left breast, or neatly tucked into square boxes on a worn clip board. And if the bars of my cell were the vertical columns of a timeless abacus, they would show the largest number of all to be the days since I have seen Ray. Could it be too much to hope that she will come back; returning to hear our whole story, and maybe make peace with it? If no one has helped her remember, who better than a sister to soothe the wounds of mortality? But I must believe

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she will come or the darkness will surely close in on me. And if she does, I will tell her everything. I will tell it all.

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Everything you think or know about me is wrong. Just because I can carry on a conversation with the magnetic grace exuded by debutants and heads of state, my classiness has only emerged from years as a consummate pretender. If we were having a casual chat, your immediate impressions of me would be described with words like, ‘confident, well bred, and forward thinking.’ But the truth is I’m shocked every morning by the woman who stares back at me in the mirror. And she’s pretty disappointed in me, too. It’s not your fault for giving me more credit than I deserve; I do my best to fool everyone with brilliant acts of diversion. I pull my hands through my air just as the breeze lifts it into coy, little ringlets, just to take your mind off the fact that what I say isn’t all that insightful. I feign eyelash trauma to avoid questions that I simply cannot answer. And worst of all, I tell my husband he’s being unreasonable when his logic is sharp, honest and real. As ineffable proof of my deep fear of rejection I find that celebrating my materialism is the best bait of all. You cannot imagine how hard I’ve worked to create an arsenal of couture. I own a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes even before the dye cures on the leather. Tiffany necklaces find their way into my jewelry armoire almost as often as I buy milk. And if they had a French Designer category on Jeopardy, I would clean up. All of them are costumes, really, carefully chosen and coordinated to act as a convincing façade; a repertoire of loneliness made of cotton and silk. If one were to look closely, they would discover I’m nothing more than white trash with a charge card. It is the perfect way to keep the incessant questions of reflection out of my mind and my life. Harsh, you say? Not everyone is so forgiving. Some attribute my retail therapy to gross overcompensation, telling me it is the result of the supreme indulgences brought on by unearned wealth. But I’m not some loony wandering around in a

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bathrobe wearing stilettos and carrying a cigarette holder. I’m a little nervous and bossy perhaps and no one here knows the story of my past, so naturally I appear to function with ease. However, lately, everyone has started to look horrified when I buy something, staring at me like I do cocaine, or share military secrets, offering me advice before I’ve even ordered my tea. “You’ve got to get a hold of yourself, Raynell!” They remind me, as though I woke up one day on the wrong side of the bed and decided to wig out. Change, you say? Change is not something you do, it’s something you wake up and find that you’ve done. I cannot figure out what happens in the middle. It’s all been erased away. So I’ve read the books. I understand how to break a habit. Just repeat something 30 or 40 times and it becomes rote. But since I don’t want anyone else to discover I’m broken, self talk in front of a small lipstick mirror just isn’t cutting it. Hey’ I’d love it if I could begin living a life where panic isn’t second nature. It would be wonderful to wake up and not be frozen with fear. But being confused seems easier than having clarity, so on and on I go. ‘Well, so if it’s not your present circumstances that have screwed you up, something really horrible must have happened when you were young?’ you muse. And of course you would be right. I should talk about it someday but I don’t want to. Just when I get close to explaining it, even to myself, it begins to hurt too much to continue. I’ve decided that the past is so much easier to carry if it’s compressed into folded notes and forgettable stories, tucked away into a box labeled, “awful” and buried deep inside a drawer with no handles. You know how that goes, keeping secrets from others, that is. I must wear a red sign on my head or something, because my hidden trunk of secrets is routinely vandalized, and bits of me creep out into the open to cause widespread panic. Once the right button is pushed, all the pain and fear come rising up, and I’m caught in the crosshairs of logic.

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Take last night for example when, after circling into attack mode, my foes worked me into a frenzy of tears and shouting; which of course turned into an argument, which eventually sent me into the outer limits of self control. And now in the predawn hours I lay piled under the custom covered pillows of my upholstered prison cell called the sofa, ruining everything with my sweat and slobber, embarrassed and ashamed. I know I have to stop doing this. I keep telling myself that all the time. But there’s really no room inside my head for advice anymore. I’m almost to the point where nothing else will fit. Yes, my argument was with my husband again. Always crafting another imaginative strategy to extract my secrets, his irritating correctness just pushes me deeper into denial. When I sidestep a question he glares at me with amazement. Maybe he sees that the answers come to me swiftly, and adorned with all the emanations of intelligence. Perhaps the thin veil of my madness hasn’t really worked all these years. Sure, I could answer him and dazzle him, relentlessly smashing his pointed arguments against the wall. I win the Pulitzer every day in my head, so it’s no surprise he cannot believe I have chosen instead to talk like an idiot – and maybe I am. I haven’t tried to talk back for so long the words might not ever come. But it’s a strategy. And, since neither of us is willing to halt the barrage of cruel accusations, our battles always move directly over the precipice of marital disaster. It began slowly as most fires do. The kindling, a snide comment whispered quietly behind the 300 thread count folds of Steve’s dinner napkin; that small look of disgust quickly crossing his face when the salmon turned out to be overdone. Even though the plates were clearly shiny and new, and all three courses were perfectly color coordinated, he still leered at me. As it escalated, the tension surrounding my latest shopping extravaganza came up, and before long it was a full blown conflagration. You need to know my side of the story, though. I was just regaling my day, cataloging in detail the perfect gloves I bought for our neighbor Pat and why I

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just couldn’t bear to leave any of them behind to be snatched up by another Prada-toting socialite, when he exploded. He started to make sarcastic remarks about the kitchen pantry, and the boxes in the den, and the packages all over the garage. I couldn’t stand to hear him whine anymore, so I just yelled back. I think I probably banged my fists on the table, and I’m pretty sure there’s wine all over the wallpaper, too. Damn. If I could have left it alone and stayed quiet like I always do, walking back to the kitchen to rinse the food and the frustration down the disposal, then everything would still be fine. If you had been there, you would understand. How could I stay composed when everyone was hounding me? They were mean, loud and snarling. I know it sounds weird to define my family as malevolent but they are! Clever, calculating and premeditated in their delivery, only their horns are missing. I will define their sorcery by telling you first about my daughter, Nell, who, by the way is the cruelest. Being eleven and smart just makes her better at it. She bullies me with taunts about how I forget everything, or babble on unnecessarily. She even hates that she’s named after me, as though I did it to punish her. “Raynell is my name and I want to pass it on!” I screamed in the delivery room thinking it would bond her to me in kind. They say a lot of women scream in the delivery room so no one argued with me. But, I wish I’d known that she would arrive from a different place altogether, and our first meeting, only moments after her birth, would be more like a stand-off than an introduction. I had dreamed of her with blond hair, and a swirling cowlick like mine, her allegiance unwavering and strong, so I wouldn’t have to convince her to respect me. The first part was true, she resembles me in almost every way, but she avoids me like a pit of snakes, and I never realized that it would take a leap of faith on my part to feed and protect her. The first time she threw up on me I thought I would be sick. But she just stared at me like I didn’t know what I was doing. She still looks at me that same way.

- 23 -

Garner, my handsome, nine year old son, channels a cruelty that is more subtle and silent than his sister’s, even though on occasion he takes my side. Maybe I am being too harsh on him because at least he will say I look pretty even when my eyes are swollen and red. Bless him for that. It’s why I buy more presents for him than anyone else, but I certainly would prefer a ‘thank-you’ now and then. His tenth birthday is next month and he’s already starting to exhibit the gangly appearance young boys are saddled with as testosterone begins its early transformative powers. But his dark hair is beautiful and long, and his hands are smooth and sure. I’m not ready for him to grow up, so his being awkward endears me to him. He’s smart, too, with a wide smile, and a slightly pigeontoed walk which I think he got from Papa, but Steve said it’s because I didn’t let him walk enough when he was a toddler. When I was pregnant with him, I used to rub my belly and talk about the mysteries of consciousness, give him long lists of books he had to read, and musing about what kind of girl he would marry. He would kick in approval and cut off my breath, and I took that as an omen that his birth would come hard, and I was right. Even when his diaper was full of that awful yellow stuff that scares the hell out of you the first time you see it, I pretended to understand all the rituals that heralded the arrival of another baby in my home. Come to think of it, I’m not sure they even need a mother. If a bus wiped out both Steve and I tomorrow, they would survive and thrive, looked after by their own sense of entitlement and fiscal opportunity. Sure we’re the parents, but they’re being raised by a G4 connection and ninety nine cent ring tones. Who are we to intervene? *** There’s that sound again. The paper boy has just whacked our front door with a black and white missile he calls the paper. It brings me back to hear the creaking of the house as the hot sun awakens her from a very long night. It must be 5 a.m.

- 24 -

because right on cue, Steve’s alarm clock starts vibrating on the nightstand in our bedroom, poised directly above where I lay disheveled and spent. He will rise dutifully, shower and make the bed, choose a shirt and slacks from his impeccable wardrobe, and dash out the back door to suture up another injured animal, all the while happy to be curing something, and grateful he can leave me and my misery behind. I will of course hide under the cushions to avoid his gaze and wonder, ‘If I grew fur and had a cloven hoof, would he be more understanding?’ But he’s not the only one grateful to be dashing away. Also joining the morning parade of effectuals will be Nell, furious that I don’t have her cupcakes waiting by the door. She will toss her head around, lean over to pull up her socks, and then straighten up to sigh at me; a gesture many times more painful than if she had wrestled me to the ground, and hit me over the head. I try to get up and my whole right side starts to tingle. I see the reason I can’t feel my leg is I have one foot tucked under my hips, so oddly it looks like it doesn’t belong. I contemplate the incessant buzzing going on in my skin and marvel at the numbness because it’s such a welcome sensation. When I do move to a sitting position the long scratch on my ankle comes into view. Hmm. That must have happened when I kicked the wall. That means I won’t be able to wear the new skirt I bought for my neighbor’s party this afternoon, a gathering which will be populated by fellow thespians in our show of prosperity and pretense. I know, I know. I can tell you’re considering joining the ranks of the ‘really’ concerned. Sure, I do buy a lot of things, but it honestly helps me feel better. When I slip that iridescent plastic through the magnetic slot releasing irresistible treasures into my control, there is no sensation that matches its rapture. The machine dings, displays the words, “good swipe!” and soon I am toting embossed and patterned packages out to the parking lot, tissue paper blooming from the tops of the colored shopping bags like springtime azaleas, and filling the backseat of my car with badges of my good taste.

- 25 -

It’s invigorating, this rush of adrenalin that courses through me when I unwrap a new acquisition. I spread these trinkets throughout our home to remind my cynical and increasingly passionless family that I can acquire what I want, without having to ask their permission. I have power beyond the spoken word, and I use it. For a few hours at least no one wonders why I won’t talk, and why I won’t listen. To me it is proof that I have risen above the filth and fear that haunted me when Oacie, my sister and I were lost, hungry, and forgotten; because after all, that is where all the trouble started. There was a time in the middle, after the poverty and before the madness when I thought everything would be perfect. It was when I first met Steve, and I felt safe and protected in a way I didn’t think possible for someone like me. Our meeting happened quickly, on an afternoon when the chill in the air makes you grab for your coat, not realizing that your world is about to change with the next breeze. I was a very mature 18, having been just hired as a clerk in a boutique in Charleston, when a small altercation out in front of the store caught Steve’s attention. I had just finished completing a purchase for a snobby customer carrying a marble headed cane and a dangling watch fob, who, after exiting, stared into his bag and began a decisive march back my way. Not wanting a scene to ensure, I decided to meet him at the entrance to make sure everything was alright. “Sir, is there anything wrong?” I asked demurely. “Wrong? Are you kidding?” He yelled out at the top of his lungs. Through his screaming explanation I found out I had apparently dragged his purchase over an ink pen while removing a security tab and it was, as he stated, ruined. In spite of his Victorian appearance he then became hell bent on reducing me to trash and immediately assumed I was genetically prone to sloppiness. Leering at me like I had been raised by wolves, he asked with a sneer, “What on earth are you (the “you” emphasized so I’d know he wasn’t talking about anyone else), doing in a

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boutique of this caliber, when it’s clear you’re better suited for toilet cleaning and punching lottery tickets?” It was loud enough for anyone within fifty feet to hear, a radius which Steve had wandered into only seconds before, and he sprang into action. He ran across the street in a crouched posture that made him appear armed, and the customer stepped back a bit. Steve wasn’t that scary, though, just determined. With a thatch of red hair that caught the sun like copper, a slender build, and eyes that looked more like those you’d see on a boy rather than a man, it was hard to figure out where he carried his weapon. But verbally he knew how to cut to the quick, and as I listened to him strip my assailant of any recourse, all I could think about was, ‘This is the man I will marry. We will spend the rest of our lives together, and we will always be in love.’ “Are you okay?” He asked quickly, his coat blowing awkwardly in the wind “I’m sorry; I hope you don’t mind that I intervened. I don’t always know when to stay out of things, but you, you looked so hurt.” He was looking at me from head to toe, taking in the whole of me like he was seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time, and I liked how that felt. “Some people have no idea how to make friends, do they?” I mused, brushing my face to get rid of the shine and pushing my yellow hair back into place. As I said it, he laughed nervously, looking up only once to see if I was being sarcastic or truly crazy. Steve returned, “I’m glad he hasn’t the temerity to find out. If he had, I might never had been tempted to approach, and then I wouldn’t have a chance with someone like you.” It was an unguarded comment. Refreshingly honest, and it would have been embarrassing if I were one of those fragile ninnies who gasped every time a doily slipped out of place.

- 27 -

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to be so forward. My name is Steve. Steve Messner. I am very pleased to meet you.” “Likewise, and I appreciate your chivalry.” I purred. “I have to say, it shook me up. I keep trying to convince myself I fit here, but the truth is no one in that boutique has anything interesting to say.” Wait, perhaps I shouldn’t be so candid in return. If I was going to snag this guy, best I play the part. So I sighed heavily and coaxed a small, burning tear into my eyes, just to see how vulnerability played into the moment, continuing with a voice I hoped rang with the tone he craved. “Anyway, thank you. I’m still shaking a bit but I will be alright. I’m sure you were on your way somewhere important, and I’m just getting in your way.” It must have been the right reaction, because he cleared his throat, straightened his sweater and asked, “Do you need some time to gather yourself? Why don’t we take a walk by the water?” I nodded weakly to seal the believability of the façade, ran back into the store for my purse, and we immediately wandered off down the street, like two dancers on stage, feeling a breeze hit us squarely as we turned to face the ocean that swallowed us with a sting of salty air. He looked at me intently, cocking his head to one side, reaching down with a clammy hand to clasp mine, and in spite of the wind we both realized we were as well suited as any two people could be. He always said what he was thinking, and I was always thinking about what not to say. Our meeting happened within hours of Steve arriving in town for a vacation, there to clear his head after finishing his Veterinary School exams in Georgia. He was looking forward to a little cold beer and a couple of nights by the sea. Meeting me was, in his words, “A wonderful surprise.”

- 28 -

“It’s all so gorgeous here, isn’t it?” I said, after pointing out some of the most beautiful sections of the city, and licking my lips to bring out their color. “You’ll fall in love with Charleston, and everything in it.” “I think you’re right, Raynell. I think you’re absolutely right.” And that was how it began. We started to see each other every day, spending hours along the cobblestone streets, drinking mint juleps and kissing like school children. I never returned to the dress shop, or the any other establishment of employment. There was no need to. I belonged with Steve. As we starting sharing details of our past, I strategically skipped all the ugly parts. Suffice it to say I convinced him that I was an appropriate choice for any man seeking to climb the southern ladder of success, without having to lull him into boredom with all the details that would have alarmed any man. My collective résumé fit the bill, and it wasn’t long before we exchanged “I love you’s” and a “yes, I will.” And soon, an “I do.” I was now Mrs. Steve Messner. We honeymooned in the Caribbean, and within 6 months we were living in Atlanta. As soon as we moved into our home I couldn’t wait to decorate and make it my own. There were so many amazing things that came so fast, I just jumped in head first without ever imagining I would have to negotiate my demons along the way. Good thing I kept them to myself, too, because Steve had been invited by a friend to join a very successful practice, so money began to flow like water. Born into a New England family with no childhood drama and plenty of status and wealth, Steve was poised to acquire all the nice things we desired. I couldn’t have designed it any better if I had won the boyfriend lottery twice. ***

- 29 -

“Mom, please don’t wear those pink shoes to my recital tonight. You look crazy when you wear those.” Nell was already yelling from the kitchen, digging in to me before I was even vertical. Gee, how could someone so small insure that my day started so badly? That’s Nell for you. “Oh sweetheart, I bought another outfit just for the occasion. You will be so proud of me!” And I lumbered into the kitchen, pulling my hair into a pony tail and checking to make sure there was nothing dried and stuck to my face. The sweetness I try to imbue into our conversation is abruptly soured by her next statement that slides off her tongue like venom from a snake who wears petticoats and cherry lip-gloss. “You buy too many things. That’s why you and dad are always fighting.” Climbing back up into the kitchen from the pit she has thrown me into I retort, “Nell, sweetie, don’t talk to momma like that. Now let’s get you some breakfast and get you on the bus.” Unfolding her arms in retreat, she turns to the door to walk out and discovers the empty tray – the mound of pink and purple confections that should have been piled onto its porcelain plateau are missing, and there’s nothing more than a broken promise sitting in their place – and she’s furious. “Where are my cupcakes? Aaaaaahhh! You forgot again. I told you it was my turn for treats!” And then with a voice of panic she adds, “You’re not going to drop them off are you? Please, just forget about it now. I will just tell Miss Darnell you’re sick again.” Her tirade is actually quite impressive. If Hollywood were ever to come calling, she’d be set for life.

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I know this Miss Darnell type. She’s ugly, short, and stern and she’s never worn pretty clothes so no wonder she’s always frowning. I don’t like her and I can tell she’s making Nell mean, too. “Don’t you want breakfast sweet girl? I bought cinnamon bagels yesterday!” They’re the wrong brand, mom.” If she twirls around any quicker her chin will become dislodged. “Oh!” she shoots back as though she hadn’t pushed a dagger right through my left ventricle, “Don’t forget to wash my recital outfit. And please don’t argue with dad when you’re there, just don’t let him start.” I think I see a little sympathy in her eyes, and I swear I see her motion towards me for a hug. But she’s just reaching for the breakfast bar she has laid out the night before. It’s right next to the homework she asked me to help her with after dinner that I suppose has to be turned in today. Most moms would feel guilty. I was trying to decide if that was me. I’m caught off guard as Garner sneaks up behind me to say goodbye, and I realize he’s dressed a little fancier that usual. I’m guessing it’s because of a girl so I add, “Oh, sweetheart! I love that sweater on you. And I know your friend Angela is fond of it too.” “Thanks, Mom.” And his shrug and rolling eyes tell me I’m right. “I have a soccer practice after school so I won’t be home ‘til 6.” I watch him lumber across the kitchen, carrying all his gear and backpack in one hand and walking sideways under the strain of its weight. As he pushes his wet hair aside and fumbles in his pocket for his keys, he still has the physical prowess to turn on a dime and ask me one last question. “Oh, mom, did you call Evan’s mom to ask about going to the zoo this weekend?”

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It had totally slipped my mind, and as much as I try to hide the surprise in my eyes, I can see disappointment in Garner’s. Those eyes of his suddenly remind me of Oacie, and the way she would look at me when I wasn’t minding her. Garner, though doesn’t shrug, or sigh, or reprimand. He just turns and squeezes my hand with the two fingers that aren’t reinforcing his middle-school load, giving me a glimpse of the heroic figure he might grow into. “Just get some rest today, Mommy. I love you.” As they leave the house I am relieved. Not so much about being alone again but more about the fact that I survived the morning without any reprise of the night before. No one even asked about the noise, or the undone dishes, or the rip in the tablecloth. I must straighten up the house, turn over the cushions to hide the stains, and follow the little trail of dirty sox that Steve leaves behind as though I could never find my way to the bathroom without them. It is vaguely comforting, maddeningly repetitive, and it is my life. And it probably will never change – nothing in my life ever does and that’s exactly the way I planned it; even though I never meant it to happen quite this way.

- 32 -

STEVE I never noticed just how bad this place smells. It’s a mixture of a McDonald’s play area, a store I used to frequent in college, and the odor that lingers through the house after Ray bakes fish. If I thought about it, I wouldn’t put my feet down, or touch my glass. But the whiskey is smooth and the fog I’m slipping into is a welcome respite from the voices, the confusion and the recurring madness my wife suffers from. Maybe going crazy is catchy. Mostly I make my way here after work, long after everyone thinks I’ve forgotten the words I yelled to my wife, and the thoughts I regret thinking. I come here to ease my fears about the future, and with my lips shake the hand of my old friend swimming through sparkling ice cubes; this buddy who drifts down my throat to the music of Dolly Parton and the treble of squeaky stools. Last night was one of the worst fights ever and the more I tried to jump into Ray’s world, the more I saw her retreat. We went round and round for hours while she cried and paced and rocked back and forth with her arms wrapped around her like she was holding in something that would fall out if she straightened up. And then I made the worst mistake of all, I asked her why she won’t tell me about Oacie’s conviction, and why we she won’t share with me what brought her into my world without a family, a past, a penny, or even one friend. That’s when she grabbed her own chest, swirled into a circle and flung herself beyond my voice or my arms. I walked over to bring her a glass of cold water and a heaping dose of regret, but she glared at me like a cat, and snarled, “If you ever touch me...” As I backed off I felt like I was reeling into a vortex. I knew better than to get close to her when she was thinking of Oacie. I knew that the fight was over, too, and maybe even the marriage. That’s when I went to bed, opening the window to try and inhale the comforting dampness of a southern night.

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*** “You had enough, Steve?” Mick always watches me, especially when I go off into a stupor like this, but if I wanted another he’d grab the bottle and pour me a generous round of denial. “She was really doing better for awhile; starting to talk to us, to me, and sharing things like a person with things to say. That’s what I thought anyway. And then I went up into the attic…my God, Mick, it’s like I’m in a dream there’s so much stuff all over the place. It set me off all over again.” “What is she buying now?” He asks, as one bushy eyebrow disappears into his hairline. I think about not answering, but if I don’t talk to Mick it’s like it hasn’t happened. “I don’t know. Every box in there is huge, for God’s sake.” I shift in my chair as I hear a glass break in the background. “I just stood there shocked that it was happening again. She told me she takes her medication; she promises me for God’s sake but I found a full bottle this afternoon behind her shoes. Jeezus, it’s like I’m...like I’m some jerk who has to sneak around my own house to find the truth.” “So she stopped taking her meds?” Now both eyebrows have vanished. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed just how long and stringy his hair really is. “She’s so good at being this demonic Stepford wife and I’m so sick of seeing her cry that I stopped asking long ago. Even the kids avoid her. Nell won’t touch her, and I see Garner trying to stroke her hair or look into her eyes; anything to make contact. She casts them both off like enemies.” I take another swig of Jack and set the glass down a little too hard.

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“I know when I get home tonight it will be like nothing has happened. She will walk up to me and put her hands on me and I will respond just like I always do. And she will assume everything is okay.” “Man, I know you feel like you have to protect her, always have. She’s a delicate little thing and that last bout in the hospital about did you in, buddy.” He’s moving around behind the bar now, looking for olives for the waitress, but I know he hears every word I’m saying. “She thinks we’re all against her.” I continue, knowing that having his face out of sight makes telling the truth easier. “We smile, and she says we’ve got it in for her. I have always known she’s screwed up but I always thought if I loved her enough, she’d be okay.” That last part slipped out; one of many unsolicited emotional outbursts that I’m famous for. It’s not that I have a problem with my feelings, but it seems so sappy to sit here, nursing a glass of ‘woe is me’ and whining to a bartender about my inability to move off the dime with my wife. He looks long and hard at me and I’m afraid he’s going to walk the other way, tired of my complaints. And why wouldn’t he? I imagine every regular comes in with their own name tag and story tacked to their chest, “Hi, I’m George; my problem is I can’t get it up.” “Hey, I’m Cindy; my husband beats the crap out of me.” “Yo, Cal here, I’ve been stealing from my boss for 20 years.” I’m just a part of the parade of losers. “My son is in prison, Steve. Did you know that?” he had barely turned to look at me, and I shifted in my chair so he knew I was listening. “Mick, I…I had no idea you even had a son.” I wasn’t surprised by his admission, but still I could see he was about to share something personal, and I wanted to know it. I felt better then, about being so

- 35 -

honest. That’s what happens when you have secrets, you’re riveted by the skeletons of others. “He’s been there since he was 22; caught during a drug raid. I about killed him when I found out, and then … well my biggest mistake is that I told him we’d make like it never happened. I just couldn’t imagine myself … or I guess couldn’t imagine my son in jail. We’ve pretended for years and now. God, he’s so screwed up that I’m afraid to visit him.” I listened in silence as he cursed himself. His head hung and his eyes looking like they might tear up. Men with tattoos on every inch of their body always shock you when they cry. “I’ve got one piece of advice for you buddy,” he rallied. “Don’t keep your pain inside anymore. It will blow up in your face and explode all over you. Ray needs more help, you need more help. You need to get to the bottom of this whole damn thing. Man, take it from me. You need to find out for yourself why all these ghosts won’t go away.” Ghosts, there, he said it. That’s what I’ve been worried about all along. And the biggest ghost of all was Oacie; bitter, icy, solid, broken Oacie. She has penetrated every day, every emotion, and every word that comes out of Ray’s mouth. Not audibly of course, Ray rarely utters her sister’s name, but she is there. From the moment I first heard about her it sent chills down my spine. A woman in jail seems like such a horrible thing. But Ray’s sister? That was a different thing and it scared me that it might always poison our lives. When my children were born, I stared into their pure faces, I smelled their hair, examined their fingernails, listened to their cooing; all to see whether or not the demons had been passed on to them. When they cried, I leapt up at night to hold them, rocking back and forth with one of them in my arms, talking to them as though they could reach into the stars and answer all my questions. I wanted to

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float away with them to some ethereal place where people held you without extracting all of your strength and listened to you without waiting for you to finish so they could retort with some kind of compliment laden, pre-scripted nonsense about themselves. When I heard a waitress yell at an obnoxious man about his tab, my attention snapped back into place. I suddenly remembered this isn’t the kind of place you find answers; it’s a place you hide from your problems. These walls are covered with memories that can’t be left behind. Every glow from the lights, every wail from all the songs, every glass stacked against the mirror is laughing at the people huddled inside, slowly and insidiously whispering back that they’re worthless, and that they’ll never escape. The last sip didn’t taste as good as it should so I knew I needed to go. I placed the $20 down and turned to walk out. Mick winked at me and slowly added, “Think about it, pal.” I nodded without turning. He understood why. As I walked home that night I happened to catch a glimpse of myself in the glass of the stores lining Walker Avenue. The dirt in the windows cast an ugly light on my otherwise lean reflection. Pulling my hand above my head I smoothed down the one curl that always wrapped over my freckled forehead. My red hair made me look younger than I was, and the fact that I was never going to be muscular made me appear almost emaciated in the golden, milky light. I thought about the time I first met Ray and how stunned I was by her wide mouth, golden hair and soft, smooth, outstretched arms. Her legs looked like they could carry her on air and maybe me, too, and when she pushed away my red curl; I grabbed her and kissed her bravely for a long, long time. From then on we were inseparable. We seemed to strike this bond of silence where we both jumped in without oxygen. She clung to my need to make it all better; her fragility making me come back for more. I too had lost my mother

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when I was young, and that kind of hole in your soul is unimaginable, so I surmised I had something in common with Ray and we would grow through it. All during Veterinary school I worked to repair the pain in animals, instead of myself. Then I started investing, and made some good friends, and made my way through Vet School in Georgia with honors. After graduating it seemed that finding a wife was the next logical step. It’s not that I needed someone to do my laundry, but I wanted to feel whole, and that I had arrived. I wanted the silky feeling of a woman beside me in bed, the smell of stew in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon after playing golf. And I wanted children. It seemed they had been residing in me long before now. The best version of me brought to life by the merging of two bodies that have dedicated themselves to procreation. I know that sounds rather pious and I’m certainly not a religious man. Bar Mitvah’ed or not, I still feel that the life you choose is your own. It’s just that the feeling that fatherhood will soothe something deep inside me was always there. Of course, when you find the woman of your dreams, it catches you off guard. I was buying beer at an upscale grocery store, when I first saw. She was being reprimanding by a patron in front of a dress store and she seemed completely overwhelmed by the situation as though there was part of her ready to run and part ready to fight back. Whatever it was it caught my attention because I found the one animal that cried the loudest, with the biggest thorn, and the most awful secrets. It was there that she first called to me, and covered my mouth, all at the same time. I couldn’t get her out of my head so I made her a part of my life. And now, that life was sucking everything out of me. *** By the time I got home, dinner was in the oven, but on the table was a note, ornately adorned with swirls and hearts, written in the calm, exceptional handwriting of my wife. “Darling, we missed you! Your favorite is in the oven. Your other favorite is in bed. You choose which one you want first!”

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Dammit. I turned off the oven and walked up the stairs. The food smelled good but I needed to be close. I needed to see her eyes and get all the clues I could before I left in the morning for the long trip north to the penitentiary, to learn the secrets that I had to know. I had decided while walking home that it was time to figure this all out. Ray wasn’t going to get any better until I took all these loose ends and wove them carefully together, once and for all. There was only one thing to do, and I would have to do it. “Are you feeling better, Ray?” I said, slipping out of my clothes and surprised she wasn’t all over me for coming home late and very drunk. “Of course, sweetie, I’m fine.” She said, without ever missing a beat. Her nighttime ritual was a sight to behold. I tried to count once how many kinds of elixirs were massaged into her face losing count after six. I knew if I watched her any longer I’d lose my nerve and we’d slip into our usual routine. “Does that stuff really make a difference, Ray? I mean just how much of that is science and how much is you convincing yourself it works?” “Don’t be silly. The infomercial says they proved that it helps skin retain moisture and preserve collagen resulting in a thinner, more taut face.” “More taut? That’s what they said?” I chided. “You’re always teasing me, but you never complain. Why don’t you come over here and help me with the rest of the lotion so I can show you what I’m talking about?” It was a classic ‘Ray’ move, shift the conversation from reality to foreplay and sweep it all under the rug until tomorrow. Who was I kidding? It worked on me every time.

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I started carefully at her feet, caressing each toe, rubbing the palms of my hands around her delicate ankles, tracing the slender line from heel to calf. By the time I reached her knees, I was doing more than rubbing. Her legs opened easily and I slipped into the trance that has kept me under her spell for all these years. Working our way to the bed I shortened the journey by scooping her up into my arms, amazed at her lightness and bending my neck desperately to continue to keep our mouths connected as we fell onto the sheets. But the bed was already prepped for our encounter. Extra pillows were stacked on the side up against the headboard, and two candles filled the room with the smell of vanilla and anise. One of her best scarves cradled the lamp shade casting a golden glow. Lovemaking was always like this, intense, detached yet wildly passionate. Catlike in her gestures, she took her nightgown off in one single move and I could see her breasts, neck and waistline glowing with perspiration and eagerness. As I moved over her, grabbing her fingers so we could stretch out our arms, I was surprised by my lack of control. Too much thinking or too much Jack; one of them was throwing me off. “I’d do anything for you Steve. Everything in my life is for you.” She murmured softly. And although that would be an aphrodisiac for any man, I was still wired for honesty and it stole a bit of my excitement in spite of her tightness and warmth. “But I don’t want you to do everything for me. I want you to have a life of your own.” I said, almost breaking the spell that kept us both in sync. “Sssshhhhhh, quiet, baby.” She continued to purr. “This is my life. You know that. I didn’t mean to make everyone upset last night; I just wanted everything to be perfect.”

- 40 -

Her rationalization although transparent, was a sharp departure from her usually closed mouth and open legs, giving me the permission I needed to say what the whiskey demanded I share. “There’s more to life than trinkets and PTA meetings, honey.” But she was already using her mouth to trace thin circles around my fingers, which made it hard to say what I needed, but not impossible. “We can’t keep fighting like this. Things, well, things have to...” and I hesitated because after all, one wrong word and she would fall apart. What was I, an idiot? She wasn’t listening at all. Her next statement insured I was right. “Everything will be better tomorrow, sweetie. It always is.” And I grabbed her and continued with our ritual. She was beautiful, striking and intelligent and oh, so screwed up. And I loved her too much to separate it all out. Together it made Ray and that combination made us. It was then I made up my mind for sure that tomorrow, tomorrow everything was going to change.

- 41 -

Chapter Two – Resignation

RAYNELL His voice startled me and I could see the time on the clock showed 3:06 a.m., but I didn’t move when his spoke. “I am going to see Oacie, Ray. I’m going to do what you can’t or won’t or wish would be done for you. I’m going to find out what is tearing us apart, and I’m going to do it alone.” The feel of his words penetrated like hot lead, and I wasn’t sure he hadn’t shot me the sting was so real. I felt sick, and the room started to spin, but I didn’t budge or turn over to look at him. Only three hours before we had made love tenderly, silently, urgently, and silly me, I mistook that for his signal of retreat, not his last lay before he betrayed me. “You’re not going to say anything, are you, Ray. You’re simply going to lay there and be furious with me for stopping at Mick’s as though that’s where all the trouble started.” I knew he was right, I always knew he was right. It was the dagger that silenced me every time we talked. “I’m going to take a few weeks off, try and define all the dark spaces you have placed between us, and get this poison out in the open.” He almost sounded like he might start to cry, but it was a mixture of fear and determination that carried his words to me. “I’m not sure why it’s me going and not you, but I think I understand you’ve never known how to do this. To be honest, Ray, it’s a little bit my fault you’re like this. I’ve shown you love in the form of pity for too long.”

- 42 -

My grip on the pillow was so hard that I snapped a fingernail as I listened intently to his honesty spill out into the bed between us. As he continued, he spoke quietly, as though I might really be sleeping, and he enjoyed just saying it out loud. “I don’t want to be party to the self destructive behavior you can’t seem to break free from. I can’t watch you parade around like nothing will ever change as you manipulate each attempt I make to help you. We’ve both used our fears to erode the trust our family deserves. Worst of all, Ray, is what you’re doing to yourself. Playing dead when life is meant to be lived. Enough is enough.” Kissing the edge of my ear he hovered over me longer than usual, his breathing shallow, and the smell of alcohol still on his breath while the faint reek of us enveloped me. I was afraid to breathe it in, this stale evidence of his decision to leave. I’d heard my friends say it often: ‘When you decide something while drinking you’re either at the end of your rope, or you’ve seen someone hanging themselves with their own noose.’ My opinion was that every rope was coming up short. And with that he turned over, sighed, and rumpled his pillow until it contoured around his chin, coaxing him into an unusually comfortable position while I lay there, stunned, and paralyzed. There was no need to reply, no need to yell or make a scene. I hadn’t heard this kind of determination in his voice for years, and I knew he meant everything he said, so I settled into the sheets with my eyes wide open, still hoping it was all a dream. But sleep never comes when you have a life to resolve. He was right of course, the distance between me and Oacie was a canyon that kept opening up and swallowing me whole, with me never wanting to talk about it. I walked around all the time in a stupor, scared that at any moment she might burst through the door and snatch me away to return to our old life.

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I worried for nothing; she had been in prison for nearly two decades, and I was glad for it. It kept her out of our lives. And yet each moment was filled with the regret that we had been born to the same parents, and part of the same family, sharing an ancestry that would neither be erased nor changed. She was more than a hardship, she was the anchor that kept me just below the water line, gulping, gasping, and crying for her to let go so I could float all the way to the top and paddle away to safety. When I knew I was finally moving on, away from the memories and the poverty and familiarity that would choke me for sure, I went to see her in prison one last time. I had intended to deliver the message softly, and planned to sit and talk for as long as she needed to. But when I got there I could see that the strength was on her side of the bars, and she leered at me as though she knew what I would say before I even spoke, filling in the blanks with her own, special kind of sarcasm. “Bout time you high-tailed it out of here. I’m guessing that’s what you’re here to tell me anyway.” I couldn’t think of a way to tell her she was right so I just started in on the details about the business school which would lead to the job I had already been offered, and said it all with intention and cruelty. I spoke openly and harshly about the life I intended to lead, rubbing salt in the wound, and holding her down like a bully does when he knows that brute strength is the only defense against a true hero. And like the fist of that bully I kept hitting, and hitting. She never even broke a sweat. “There are only two kinds of people in this world, Ray.” She said coyly, interjecting her proverbs between my long list of self-serving plans, “Those who have freedom and don’t know what to do with it, and those who know exactly what to do with it but will never have it. Why don’t you tell me, Ray. Which one are you?”

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It was those damned double edged sermons that pissed me off the most. Designed specifically to dilute my happiness they went through so smoothly, carving another perfectly round hole inside me. “It’s not me that killed someone, Oacie. I’m not the criminal.” And I regretted my words the second my hissing jealousy passed through my cracked lips. She shifted only slightly, turning to put out her cigarette, shaking her head slightly and then affixing a gaze on me that shook me like a rag. “No, Ray. You’re right. You didn’t do anything. You are the lucky one.” And I had to pull my eyes away because I knew she could stare through a brick wall and knock it down. I could have rambled on about how I would send her letters and photos and keep her in my prayers or some other bull like that. But I couldn’t think about getting out of there fast enough. I knew she couldn’t come after me but I didn’t feel really safe until I had crossed the county line. I cried hard the whole way, promising myself that I would never end up like her. I would never let the idea that she had protected me, or as others had told me “rescued me,” interpret my life or my allegiances. I didn’t owe here anything more. I had already given her my childhood. I couldn’t give her my life. I know I replayed that moment in my head all night, turning over the particulars over and over again, and certainly recreating monologue after monologue that would have been infinitely more creative and mature than the venomous and disloyal statement I left with her. “And I will always be luckier.” I said finally. And I left. *** As the sun peaks through the shades I realized dawn is a cruel intruder. I see myself in its brutal light and I hate what I see. For some reason Steve has been able to sleep through it, the time on the clock now almost 5:45. I know he slept

- 45 -

because there is slobber on his pillow just below his open mouth, a sign that he has successfully negotiated with his demons, and they agreed to let him slumber. He was a good husband, and now he seemed damned intent on throwing all of that away. Had he really said he was going to see her; that animal? That elegant, long legged, smooth talking convict who would certainly be overjoyed at the chance to turn the lance back on me? I was busy contorting my face with scenarios when I heard him stir. So I went back under the covers slowly and carefully so he wouldn’t know I was awake. I didn’t have to wait long. When he stirred he didn’t lean over to kiss me like he always did. Perhaps he really had been privy to my musings the night before. Maybe he had been transported back in time and had been listening in and knew what I had said to Oacie. Oh God, did I fall asleep and say it all out loud? So I pulled the covers off frantically to fix what might have happened, only to see the indent in the pillow mocking my panic and immaturity. I could hear he was already in the shower and I could see in my mind’s eye as he shaved his long, freckled neck, washing his short hair twice, and then I heard him clear his throat with a low guttural machination that sounded more like a wolf than a man. I followed it all in my mind until I could almost hear the buttons on his shirt being fastened. When I heard the zipper to his suitcase sing out like a chorus, I knew it was true. He was going to see her and all would be lost. When he emerged from the bathroom I heard him hesitate for a moment, so I pulled the covers up to my chin and glanced over to see him staring at me. We locked eyes then, his lips pursed, his eyes dark and tired, with the duffle hanging heavily from his right arm. I mustered the energy to talk through my tears, and say what might be the last words we would speak for a long time. “You will not find your answers with Oacie, Steve. You will only find more questions, and learn about secrets that will make you regret the journey. Our life is here, our future is here, and the past only holds pain.”

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He was quiet just long enough for me to wonder if he’d simply walk out and ignore me or if he simply refused to converse with me, but soon I heard his feet shift on the carpet, and a calm determined cadence return to his voice. “I’m making the journey because of you, Ray, not me. The road we’re on here is leading nowhere, and pain has been our constant, limping, bleeding companion. Maybe just moving towards something will give us both a reason to get uncomfortable enough to change.” I could tell there was something else he might say, but he didn’t. He just turned away, stepped into the hall and closed the door. And with that he was gone.

- 47 -

STEVE After spending thirty minutes apologizing to Nell for missing her recital, promising Garner we’d go fishing in August, three phone calls to my clinic to clear my schedule, and two trips to the toilet to throw up, I jumped into our Tahoe and watched the house grow smaller, as the kids waved goodbye. As I rounded the corner and made one more attempt to see their faces, only Garner remained, still waving and smiling from inside the window. It struck me how much he looked like his mother, and I felt that pang of protection rise in my throat. I had been hard on her, brutally hard. But we would have to work it out when I returned, and it was the kids who didn’t get a chance to really understand why Daddy was leaving. Staring back at him I mouthed the words, “I’m going to find out the secret, buddy. Find it and make it all better. Mommy will come back to us; I will make sure of that.” Then as though he had heard me, Garner stopped waving and placed his hands on the glass, way above his head, with a stillness that said it all. *** Thankfully, it was a bright summer morning. The heat hadn’t come to its full swell and women were still finishing daily jogs, pushing around $3,000 prams with babies destined to be brats if someone didn’t say ‘no’ at least once in their lives. As I worked my way out of the neighborhood, past the Earth Wise and onto the Interstate, a mixture of adventure and fear gripped me. I glanced at my cell phone and saw that it was 7:02 a.m. I smiled a bit because that was the hour Ray gave birth to Garner. It was the last 3 digits of our phone number, and it was Nell’s birth date. This seemed like the right moment to begin the healing

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process, or the crusade. I would hold on to see which it turned out to be, fearful and anxious about what lay ahead. It’s funny how the hum of tires on the road makes you reminisce about sad things. For years Ray and I had been strangers, at least in conversation. We acted normal enough and except for her bouts of paranoia she still was a wonderful lover, and she kept our home perfect. I know this sounds weird, but the monotonous rhythm of life can blot out even the most vicious truths. Our desire for normalcy meant that for my whole married life I had been wandering around like everything was perfect, my family was charming, and that I wasn’t dying slowly inside every day. I think it disturbs us when someone else sees a piece of our madness. It was Nell’s teacher that first suspected Ray was a little eccentric, but as long as your kids come to school with matching shoes, their curiosities end abruptly, and the smiley faces on the homework return. By the time we decided to reach out for help, we thought we were on our way to a cure. Nothing could be further from the truth since having a diagnosis only made things worse. The doctor called it Oniomania, which is often manifested in people with traumatic childhoods. It is a disorder where one must always acquire, buy or collect. To Ray, having things around made her calmer, to me it meant hell. Somewhere along the way we both gave into it, rushing so deeply into a state of “I’m fine, and so are you” that we didn’t know what was happening. She seemed happiest right after coming home from the mall, or from a party with new treasures bursting out of her arms like baby bunnies rushing out of a magician’s hat. But within hours I would find her making new lists of items she said she needed, and Christmas was always embarrassing since most years we would end up giving boxes of things to shelters. I brought them to my practice; watching kids pour over the unused items like a miner when he breaks into a vein of ore.

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During one episode with a family therapist, who seemed especially serious (to Ray anyway), we would sit together, holding hands while he patiently explained about childhood trauma, and the need to feel in control. Ray simply nodded, and patted my hand, her large diamond glinting in the sun like some bizarre searchlight pointing out that success didn’t necessarily mean you could cover up your dirty little secrets. He would come over and pat her shoulder, asking her to talk about her sister, her foster homes, even her father and she would happily recount stories of swings in the park, catching frogs, making beaded necklaces and how her dad would fix her hair. But on the way home she fell apart. She started to yell at me and cry, asking why I was being so cruel to her. Wasn’t she the best mother, wife and friend? Couldn’t I simply understand that she enjoyed beautiful things? It was important that the neighbors understood our status, she’d say. “We have the money, and you always tell me to get whatever I want. Why do you have to torture me so? I have never been so embarrassed. And Dr. Flimflam, or whatever his name is. He has it in for me. I saw him drawing a skull and crossbones on his notepad with my name next to it. He is not a nice person.” It was after this brief but confusing outbreak that she snapped. I was waiting at a light, the same light I am waiting patiently behind at this moment, when she reached over and kicked the steering wheel. Shocked, I yelled and glared at her, “What the hell was that for?” And she then promptly passed out in the most lady-like manner I have ever seen. By the time she reached consciousness in the O.R., all the tests had come back without any clues. Blood work showed no problems. Urine, bone scan, EKG; all normal. Even Dr. Hysham, the flimflammer, or whatever she called him said it was simply an anxiety attack. Everybody is a damned idiot as far as I can tell. They don’t know what they’re talking about. I asked them to keep her for observation but when they started to question me, I sensed an abuse scam coming my way so I shut up.

- 50 -

When I asked Ray how she felt, or if she remembered, she said she forgave me for yelling at her, and that she knew she deserved to feel awful for taking the lovely Kleenex box out of the bathroom at the therapist’s office. Then she pleaded with me to take her home and her apology was so sincere, so poignant, and so contrite that we gathered up her things, and stopped to buy her new shoes on the way home since she had destroyed her heel on the way there. After that we obediently returned to a life of double stuff Oreos, backyard picnics, and never talked about it again. As the light turns green I realize I know so little about who Ray really is. I have been tiptoeing around her for so long that I have lost myself, too. I have forfeited the chance to show courage to my children, and to follow any other passion I ever had. I have completely annihilated my belief in living a simple life, and chasing the buck meant I wasn’t even there when my dad died of cancer last winter. I’ve told lies to my children when they asked if Mommy was okay. Now, as they grow, I continue to lie when they ask why I can’t make her stop. It’s as though a large rough blanket of sandpaper wrapped itself around all of us, grinding and scratching and removing the top layer of trust and safety as it dug into our connections as family. Now we all lay exposed and oozing, trying to stay together for fear that the outside must certainly be more frightening than the life inside our home. I once read a book about a boy who was partially paralyzed and couldn’t speak. He taught himself to communicate with tapping sounds and eye movements that were so remarkable that doctors all over the world now use his method. They should have come to our house. You don’t have to hear a sound to know someone is talking. The nonverbal messages we share are so loud and unbearable it seems I’ll go deaf. I think about that silly book all the time when I see Nell start to tap her foot at the table, or when Ray starts to play with her neck, or Garner begins to run in circles around the house. We’ve created our own little machine of helpless, hopeless ticks; a symphony of desperation.

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I should be at McCormick Correctional in three hours. At least that’s what the GPS says. How handy it would be if in addition to speaking the turns audibly, the voice could soothe by saying, “I know it seems scary, but you’re doing the right thing. Just turn at the next intersection in 200 feet, and keep a stiff upper lip.” Or, I could swerve and turn around, but then the voice would only say, “Recalculating!” and I couldn’t bear to disappoint a machine. If you have ever been to the Grand Canyon, a trip we all took together last year, you know that for the first ten minutes you can’t speak. The idea that water created this vast maze is almost beyond belief its scale is so mind boggling. In time you get closer, looking at the small flecks of color in the rock, and tilting your head slightly to orient yourself to the layers of sediment that go from pink, to red, to orange, and back to pink again. The Park Ranger starts to recant his compendium of facts about which civilization is represented in which tier, and if you really listen closely you find there’s a timeline of human existence that is marked specifically by catastrophe and then rebuilding, repeating endlessly over the eons. The entire whole of that place is a metaphor for what I’ve been going through. Over time, the small, incessant trickle of denial seemed like nothing more than a cool shower and we never noticed the water turning to a torrent. Soon all the ignoring has formed a crevasse of immense strength and scale which is almost more than we can comprehend. And to deal with it, we simply marvel at the scars visible in the walls left bare by the torrents of regret, like we’re looking at ourselves under glass. ‘Oh look! We’ve lost our mind. How interesting. I wonder which period that occurred in. Perhaps we can get a crew of emotional geologists out here and take a look to see if we were using clubs or harpoons when everything came crashing down.’ Lack of awareness is tricky. For one thing we never stayed at the Grand Canyon long enough for it to remind us we should kick ourselves in the ass for resembling her. We soon packed up and got on the road again, silent and

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unreflective, the kids fighting over their earphones, Ray thumbing through the Disney DVD’s until a suitable visual Valium was chosen so we could return to our own deafening silence in the front seat. I have plenty of time to keep reflecting with metaphors, that’s for sure. With each mile I put between myself and my family I am wracked with a sense of fear and emptiness. One always checks their gas gauge prior to a long trip. I neglected to see that bravery was in short supply. No matter. I will start like the rain drop, trickling down the side of the slope with nothing more than the desire to slide upon her craggy peaks on my way to the river below. It would do me no good to speak to the majestic cliffs and announce that I intended to change the landscape. The mountain would only laugh at me and I would be well on my way to evaporation, before my heresy was detected. And so it is as I plan my strategy for this journey. Bravely, intrepidly, shamelessly, I will face Oacie and Ray’s past, and my future, just one step at a time. Ready or not, the deluge is coming.

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RAYNELL The world is full of irony if you look closely. For instance, McCormick was the name of the Correctional Institution where Oacie had been moved to 8 years ago, when budget cuts didn’t allow for the high level of security she required. I didn’t call it McCormick, or jail, or prison. I haven’t even been able to talk about it. When her first letter came after the move, showing a return address of “McCormick Correctional Institution, 400 Redemption Way,” Steve handed it to me and said, “Now there’s an irony: Redemption Way. What beaurocratic moron came up with that?” Now redemption was what I needed most. On a good day, I never thought about who I was, or even who Oacie was. Surrounded by sparkling, beautiful things and hearing my footsteps echo within this huge home, the roar of the past stayed muffled. But now; the thought of Steve and Oacie sharing secrets without my permission, and ruining everything I have tried so hard to cover-up makes me furious. She will share all the horror of every situation like a vaudeville act because performing is her favorite pastime. All our poverty and survival will be laid out like a four-part play. And although the tales might be embellished, they are, of course, true as can be. It’s not that easy you know, forgetting what it’s like when you’re discarded. I lost track of how many times we moved or how many times we sat on metal chairs across the table from new foster parents who salivated at the extra packs of cigarettes and beer one more C-note a week would buy. We were paraded in front of these freaks like lawn furniture, our paperwork promising that we had been de-liced and de-venomed; suitable to even the most slovenly of caregivers who wouldn’t have minded if we came with our own set of trained maggots as long as we came with a paycheck.

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“Enjoy your new Mommy and Daddy!” each social worker would wail, clipboard in hand, and ballpoint poised over our names to check off another delivery. But each time we arrived at another location – and I tried so hard to be a good girl – Oacie would start in. She would never come home when we were told to. She was always keeping the light on too late and causing us to lose a meal, or feel the strap, or end up in trouble at school. It changed the kind of families we ended up with, transitioning our usual dirty and lonely homes into those that bred evil and violence. It was as though we were marked for trouble. She got me into all this. If she were sensible I might have a sister I could be friends with. If you ask me, I don’t remember any of the details that she keeps recounting in her defense. I just remember huddling under a stairwell trying not to scream when the rats showed up, Oacie’s hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t yelp and alert anyone. To stay warm we would take rumpled up butcher paper out of boxes and fashion them into a crinkling blanket because sleeping with our arms around each other inside that parchment cocoon would stave off the chill. To this day I rarely sleep outstretched. By the time we were found, following the exile Oacie said we were forced to follow, we had covered almost 25 miles. Twelve days of hopelessness and hunger, of looking over our shoulders and begging for food, and watching the sun rise and fall without hope. And, twelve days closer to Oacie turning into a killer. There were some fun parts I suppose. Hardly a tree went unclimbed or an adventure uncreated. My sister knew about everything and we built tents out of twigs, turned folded leaves into miniature trumpets, and draped blankets over clotheslines resulting in fabulous chenille fortresses. We really tried our best to laugh all the time, and we had friends and allies everywhere we went. Storekeepers would give us food. Nurses would often meet us as we were leaving school to check our eyes, bring us sweaters, or simply provide us with much needed medicine.

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It could have been survivable, so why did my own sister have to be so paranoid – so cautious at every turn? I can count on only one hand the number of times I would awaken and see her still sleeping; her vigilance was so fine tuned. When I asked her why she was always up first, she would say something silly to me like, “Because the hair fairies come out at dawn, and they’re bound to steal your pretty curls if someone isn’t awake to fight them off. It’s my job to keep your locks intact.” I would shrug and go back to sleep but I knew that she was making things up so she could watch over us. There was never a time when she relaxed. And so, I never relaxed either. *** I hate it when my thoughts turn to the past, and I know that housework will help me forget what is happening, so I gathered up the dirty sheets, first from my son’s room, careful to search for and discard the small green army men that work their way down to Garner’s feet as he sleeps. Then in my own room, where I am hit by the smell of us still lingering on the sheets, I realize I won’t be able to push things out of my mind today. I wish the army of green men were full size. That would have come in handy to keep Steve in check. The phone rings, and I bump my head on the cabinet door just as I’m reaching for another white mound of detergent. Cursing I lift the receiver just in time to hear the syrupy and whining voice of the school’s assistant principal, Miss Solomon with the second worst news of the day. “Mrs. Messenner?” What, did she have a hair lip? My name wasn’t that hard to say. “Yes, this is she.” I tried hard to cover up my distaste. “Mrs. Messenner, this is Miss Solomon from Drake Simmons Elementary. I’m afraid we’ve discovered a small fire in our cafeteria. There is no reason for

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alarm, but the children are being put on the buses now to return home. We wanted to call all the parents as soon as we could so they could make other arrangements for their child’s care today.” Good god, the demons are returning home. “Will you need us to send them to the afterschool activity facility, or will you be at home to greet them?” She finished. “Oh, that’s so unfortunate? Was anyone injured?” I replied, stalling for the time I needed to think about whether I should have them spend the afternoon with their underprivileged friends whose parents saw them only after dark, or let them come home to watch me fumble around in my own murky and unlit world . “Oh my no, everyone is fine. One of the teachers left a rag inside the oven after cooking for the event last night, and when the boilers went on this morning to preheat the ovens, the rag caught fire, that’s all. The fire department requires us to evacuate so that the smoke can be cleared, and the detectors re-inspected and certified. It’s a state law and we have to comply.” Rapt detail for a women whose biggest talent is licking envelopes for Principal. “Well, I’m glad everyone is fine, and of course I will be home to greet them.” I started to walk over to the kitchen to think about what to feed them…seems like food might be a good way to keep them from talking. “We expect the problem to be resolved by this evening so everything will be back on track tomorrow. School will start promptly at 8:10, Mrs. Messenner so all children should arrive on time, tomorrow, to resume their studies.” “There won’t be a problem Miss Solomon. Garner and Nell will arrive on time.” It was time to stop whining. Prayer would have to be reserved for later. Right now I needed to thaw out the whole wheat pizzas, and slice the apples. I was

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going to be on trial all week, that’s for sure. They would demand details of me. This would be tricky. But wait, maybe there was a stray rag I could stuff into my own stove? Maybe I could burn the whole house down and have the fire department come and recertify me? It would be glorious to be evacuated from life. To curb my panic as I waited for the yellow bus of doom, I used my time as unwisely as possible. Transferring the latest load into the dryer, I walked back upstairs and simply threw myself onto the bed. Just a little nap would help because there was no time to go shopping. I couldn’t wrap things in a shiny ribbon, or add enough glitter to blind myself with the glare. No matter how tightly I closed the blinds, or turned up the music…hmmm. Maybe just a few minutes of rest, just a few. *** “Mom! Are you home?” the voice startled me out of a slobbering nap, and I rose to my feet, and grabbed the empty basket to use as a prop while greeting them. “Yes! I’m here. I will be right down!” And I took each stair as slowly as possible. They were leering at me again. Garner running in circles around the couch, Nell standing tall and sure in the middle of the kitchen with her arms folded. “They’re such dorks at school.” She growled. “They made us wait out in the heat the whole time while the fire department walked every inch of the place. You could tell nothing was going on. I was in the middle of making a clay bowl and now it’s probably ruined.” I could see her disappointment so I figured perhaps this was a moment to bond. “I’m sure it was a lovely dish. Everything you make is lovely. Maybe they will let you make a new one tomorrow?”

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“The kit comes with enough clay for only one dish, Mom. You should know since you bought it for me.” And she grabbed her backpack and headed up to her room in a huff. I thought about following her into her cave, but maybe I was lucky; one down, one to go. She hadn’t quite made it there when Garner hollered, “Mom! Can I watch a movie?” Nell responded before I even had my mouth halfway open by shrieking, “No you can’t you little brat. Dad always says no TV until after dinner.” Honestly I don’t even know why I get out of bed. “Garner, it’s so nice outside, sweetie, why don’t you ride your bike?” I suggested without meeting Nell’s gaze. “Because it’s still broken, Mommy.” He responded quickly. And I knew I’d created an opening, because his next words were, “Daddy was going to fix it. When is he coming back?” With that question I heard the ruckus above in Nell’s room cease. She was probably listening in through her vent, which we discovered, far too long after we moved in, allowed her to listen to every word uttered in the family room. She wanted to hear the answer to this one, in person, and I knew she would be in my face again in moments. The answer I gave was lame, and I knew it. “Daddy is gone on a trip for work. He will need to be gone for several days. It’s just the three of us here so let’s think of something fun to do, okay?” “Like watch you go shopping?” Nell mocked and then ran back upstairs like she had just tagged me and was running away, so I was always, ‘it.’ “Young lady, there’s no reason to speak like that.” I yelled as she took the staircase in only three long leaps.

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“You apologize to me this minute. I want you in here now. Come down here this instant.” I called, again, sounding far too angry and out of control. But I knew she had already won. As she reached the bottom step, she was dragging her feet and dangling her hands at her side as though they weighed a hundred pounds. The sound of the TV whining in the background made even more of a mockery out of her fake contrition. “I’m sorry for telling the truth, Mommy.” And she darted away from me, returning up to her room. As she slammed her bedroom door, I turned to see Garner with his fingers in his ears staring at the screen. I should have given them away at birth. Oacie used to tell me we were ‘cherished,’ as she called it. “Mama adored us, Ray. You know that? We were cherished like fine china.” And I would put down my dolls to listen to her tell me more. “Twinkling beauties she called us. And you were the most sparkly of all.” I would giggle and she would tickle me. Unable to see my mother’s face in my mind’s eye I wondered how she always knew so much about Mama, and I always wondered how she knew about being cherished. Sure I was much younger than Oacie when she died, but it was like she had some kind of open connection to her. In fact, I never went near her headstone when Papa would take us over to the cemetery to visit her grave. It scared me too much to think of her lying there, cold and dark. Papa never forced me but I watched out the window when Oacie would kneel next to the mound, and talk like she had a playmate right next to her. Papa would stand staring, chewing on his nails and scuffing his feet. In a way, we both felt so left out.

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When they would return to the car, Papa would come over and scoop me up in his arms, pushing my hair away from my face and straightening my headband with his thumbs. “You gonna come say somethin’ to Mama someday, sweetheart?” He’d ask. But I would just shake my head and bury my face in his shoulder. “Ah, she ain’t really there, little one. She’s up in heaven, and looking down on all of us.” “Then why does Oacie talk to the ground, Papa?” I remember asking, because it seemed so silly to talk to dirt, especially if Mama was really flying up in the clouds. Oacie answered back, “Cause that’s where we are meant to commune. That’s where she talks to us.” This was the exact reason I was frightened of the whole ritual. “You don’t need to be scared, it feels good over there. Come on, I will take you.” “No!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, grabbing Papa’s earlobes, and kicking with my feet to keep him from giving in to her. “Easy little girl, easy. Papa done needs them ribs to breath in an out!” And we’d get back in the car and go home to our sad house without a mommy or any answers, Oacie watching through the back window, until the gravestone was out of view. *** “Mommy?” Garner asked, startling me out of my trance, as I sat in a kitchen chair.

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“Yes, precious.” I answered. “Yes, honey, what do you need?” “I will go shopping with you. Can we go?” I smiled weakly and reached for him, but he started back just a bit. He always did that whenever I tried to reach for him. It was strange since he was clearly trying to make friends with me, and soothe the open wounds caused by Nell’s biting words. “Not now, son. Mommy’s tired.” Resting his head on my shoulder I put his soft, small, dimpled hand on mine and compared the similarity of our skin. I stared at his fingers for awhile, and I must have been a little melancholy because he turned his head so he could get under my chin and look up directly at me. “Are you sad, Mommy? Why are you sad?” “Mama’s just tired, precious - so very tired.” “Then you need a nap. I will put you to bed and you can rest for awhile.” He began to stroke my hair, as though the motion was soothing to him, too. I started to laugh a bit, and cry even harder, looking pretty insane, which is a huge no-no. ‘Never let the kids see you fall apart.’ One doctor told me with the kind of surety that always makes you doubt it. I didn’t want my kids to be screwed up, but maybe it was too late? Princess of quite-a-lot-of-drama was upstairs throwing her things around, my son was playing therapist, and I was disintegrating while cartoon voices rang out in the background. “Maybe I do, son.” And I felt so guilty about it that I grabbed my stomach to keep from taking back what I had just said. “Can you fix yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, while I take a little nap?”

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And he nodded like the junior co-dependent I knew he was. “I will make tuna fish for Nell. She hates peanut butter. But I will take care of her.” He announced. “I don’t want anything to eat!” Nell screamed from the top of the stairs again, clearly eavesdropping at every opportunity. And before Garner could fall further into the pit of parental care-taking I stood up and walked over to the pantry myself, brushing my hair away from my wet eyes, and turning on a few lights to illuminate the dark, lonely kitchen. I had forgotten to even open the blinds that morning. And suddenly I could smell the garbage from the night before, rancid and earthy like everything I had run from. “Do you think you can help me make both sandwiches?” I asked innocently. “I can do lots of things mommy. You don’t know how smart I am!” But of course I did. Everyone was smart. The only one in the room that was dumb was me.

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Chapter Three – Remembering

CECILLE If I ever thought about touching heaven, or seeing what it would be like to hold an angel, I could never have known that it would be this sweet, or this transforming. I will never, ever be the same and this bond between our flesh, our souls, and the quiet that is the coda after the screaming and pain of birth, creates forever the state of mother and daughter. She is so very beautiful, so transparent almost, and I cannot believe that each breathe she takes is on her own. Like the sound of clouds exhaling after a long storm, her chest rises and falls in a terrestrial cadence that is more than I dare to witness. I am glad have these few moments with her, Omara Cecille (named after me) to call her my own without anyone else around. I want to look so deeply into her eyes and see what she knows of heaven! What can she tell me about its gossamer halls and white, clean gardens? About the peace that the Preacher promises, or the cleansing joy one wears when adorned with the grace we all beg to receive? I want to know all of it, right now, before it’s too late. Before the sun comes streaming in to break the quiet of predawn miracles, and before neighbors bring the smells of old clothes and stale tobacco into my room. I want us both to be skin to skin forever so I can stroke her hair slowly, and with reverence, begging for more and more time alone. How will I ever return to being a mortal, after I have joined with God to make this little girl? But the moment is soon gone. I can hear Mason’s size 12 shoes clodding slowly down the hallway, and I stare at the doorway anticipating his tired, loving gaze, knowing the spell will end when he appears. It’s just that I’ve never had nothin’ of my own, and this little girl, she is proof – proof, dear God – that I do have something good inside me after all. So

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hopefully you’ll understand why, for just the space of this last second, before I see him, I will pray that this feeling never ends. He stopped cold in the doorway, almost out of breath, but beaming. “Good Lord, Cece, you done alright by yourself.” I could see he’d been up all night and his beard was shadowed and thick, covering his chin and growing under his chiseled nose, even creeping wildly all down his neck to his chest where most men don’t have to worry about draggin’ a razor. “I don’t know what to say but you look prettier than the day I met you.” He could always melt me, with those green eyes that spoke to me like my soul was an open book. Psychic, he was, that’s what my friends used to say. He seemed to know right off that I’d been waitin’ all my life to have someone who saw right through me. “She’s amazing Mason, the prettiest angel on God’s green earth. She’s got your eyes, sweetie. Bless her heart; she’s got your eyes.” He laughed quickly with that admission, ‘cause we always used to tease that if we had a daughter and she could look at folks with eyes like his, she’d be the most amazing girl. For sure we’d both be toting a shotgun ‘til she was 35, to ward off the suitors. He reached over to see her, standing a little further away from the bed than he ought to, as though he could sense this heavenly space she took up was still a doorway to the other side. “I’m afraid she’ll break, Cece, darned afraid. But lemme take her, and look right close if I can.” The aroma of him darted up my nose, and I wanted to be held by him so badly! Oh, Mason! We have a daughter!!! I thought. We did something wonderful! God opened heaven, just once and gave us something to prove that he knows we’re here!

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I lifted her and her pink, polka dot blanket about my chest to hand her to Mason, and with the jolt that most newborns display when they’re reminded that gravity is their new master, Omara pushed her arms out fast and straight, and turned her toes inward in anticipation of a fall that would never happen. Mason held her like the most precious glass, and I warmed inside as I saw his tan, worn hands expand like a huge tree branch to cradle her small body. He pulled her right in close to his breastbone, up about three inches from his chin, and examined her with the curiosity I’d seen him show a thousand times with the small machinery he’d repair from the mill. He nuzzled in and smelled her deeply, and stared at her with a slow, determined and confident gaze so he could take the time to figure her out right then, so they weren’t strangers no more. I saw my little baby girl relax and stare back, the tiny noises that babies make when they’re tryin’ to tell you something, began to spill out of her heart shaped mouth. It had happened even quicker than I thought it would. They had already become best friends. She didn’t belong to me anymore, she was daddy’s girl, and they were in love. I’d have to carry the memory of just her and me in my heart forever cause she wasn’t ever gonna look at me the way she was lookin’ at him. And we all deserve to be loved like that. Then the dawn broke through, streams of golden light, pushing through the branches of the magnolia outside my window, sliced only by the metal shades that hadn’t been turned closed. It lit everything up as though God just woke up and saw his two favorite creatures communicating, just as he meant them to. When Mason turned to me he lowered Oacie back into my lap quickly, and his brow furrowed when he saw my tears. “You okay, honey? Why you cryin’? Somethin’ hurt?” I hadn’t even realized my face was wet, or that I was sobbing just a little. It was the kind of joy you hear people talk of when they say there’s nothing like that moment when you give birth. But they couldn’t possibly understand what it was

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like to see a family being born right before your eyes, when no such thing had ever occurred in your life before. I thought of my own family, lost so early, and the prettiness that had seen me through my teenage years without a ma or pa. Everyone said I was the beauty of the valley, with my long, blond hair, wide mouth and lanky, long legs. I thought about how I had relied on the way others looked at me to reckon whether or not I was useful, or loved. Prettiness didn’t stare back at me in the mirror, only imperfections. But compared to the photos of those women in the magazines, I guess I could see some resemblance, so that’s why I know what pretty is. When I won Homecoming Queen, I thought everything would be different. I figured that tiara had magical powers, and it’s bright, reflective jewels would make sure I would always be adored, and precious. But all that happened was everyone got even more jealous. They used to gather in the hallways and snicker about my spindly legs and big teeth as though it was my fault God gave me the appendages of a tree. Beauty seemed to be a curse from then on. In fact some folks who looked sidelong at me when I was walking along the street in my high heeled sandals, heading for the dance, or town, made me feel real ugly. Their gaze was frightening and smug, so I would just look down when they would pass me on the street. A girl can only stand so much rejection, and then her heart starts to wither. I didn’t want that. Someone might need my heart intact, someday. Soon having a heart became a curse, too. I wanted to things to change and praying was the only way I had to ask for anything. The preacher used to tell me, “Ask and it will be given!” which I pondered for a long time. For a preacher, who is supposed to understand suffering, you’d think he’d start to keep a sheet listing the hurtin’ people and the not hurtin’ people so he could measure God’s reliability. Fact is our town was way heavy on the hurtin’ side. And I can tell you these people asked God for things all the time. Weren’t one time I saw any of them transformed, walking down Main Street wearing a fur

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coat, or driving a Cadillac. All those prayers just gave us bad knees and sore necks. If there was a God, he most certainly wasn’t interested in us. I went to church all the time, though. If there was even a slight chance I’d be heard, church seemed like the right place to start. But that was also a failure. I’d sit on one of the front row pews, my face shiny and clean, my shoes polished and a lace shawl over my tanned shoulders waiting for a miracle. I would beg God to let me know he was there, or that he was taking care of Ma and Pa since he seemed to think he needed them more than I did. I hadn’t seen no evidence of him in my whole life like all the other folks who had their arms raised up with their eyes shut tight as they rocked back and forth, talkin’ to the Lord like they were hanging off a cliff or something, confident he would pull them out of the dark waters before the devil swooped in to claim them. I remember all the talk about being “saved,” and I always wondered: The earth was so beautiful, and magical and full of smells and sounds and textures, why would God make me think life was something he meant to rescue us from? Far as I could tell, what happened to most people just wasn’t their fault. How can you be saved from a sin you didn’t cause? That one will always be a mystery. And when the time is right, I will tell God that his preachers are very confused indeed. I was always outside, always writing about the sunset, or drawing pictures of trees, and rivers, and such. My favorite place was the orchard, and I would run through the rows of peach trees at sunset, when the flies buzzed with a friendly moan and the sound of the crickets and tree frogs were just tuning their instruments in readiness for dusk’s overture. I’d stop at tree after tree and watch the sugary, orange sap ooze from the ripe fruit, signaling that the flesh was begging to be eaten. I thought about all the beauty around me, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand what I had to be saved from. I could stay here forever, God or not. And since he never seemed to know I was around and he had already taken my parents, it appeared that was what he had planned for me all along. Saved? I like being alive.

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Nothing felt more like being alive though than when I met Mason. Tall, strong and a smile that covered his whole face, with a curl that seemed damned stubborn flailing over his forehead, I simply lost my head when he walked into the hardware store where I worked. We’d take walks, and talk about everything. I would tell him how I saw shapes in the clouds, how I would count the ridges in the paneling in my bedroom to fall asleep, how I could remember numbers so easily that sometimes they clouded my mind, and he never laughed or made fun of me. He would talk about how he was going to have a big family, and take them places like Paris or Cairo for vacation. He wanted them to see and feel everything. And I knew we were meant for each other. I didn’t have parents to tell me to watch out for my feelings, or to watch out for the burning between my legs that led me to open them and let him in within just days of us having our first kiss. I didn’t have anyone to explain that folks here don’t take kindly to girls who get pregnant before being married. I didn’t have anyone to help me know that the rest of my life was something that just starts and the road you choose is narrow, and points straight into the abyss of chance, and lost opportunities. I didn’t know any of that, but I did know I loved Mason. So during my 18th summer Mason and I went to the county courthouse, and had the clerk turn us into one, so we could share a name, and a home, and a baby. There was something amazing, though, about Mason. He was gentle and smart, could fix everything, and when he laughed, his forehead kinda moved back and forth like his brain was jiggling with the smarts he couldn’t contain. I knew we would have a long life, and lots of beautiful children who knew they were loved. I knew we’d visit the world and take pictures of the Eiffel tower and mail ‘em back to the all those nasty people here in town that used to laugh at my long legs. You can’t climb the Eiffel tower if you’re short and mean! I thought. In fact, if it hadn’t been for those legs, I would never have met Mason. Staring at my legs, he says, is his favorite pastime. But time has other ideas, and the mill where he got his first job, so there’d be money to pay for my medical care, started to suck the life out of him. Right early, too. It wasn’t long after I started to feel nauseous that I saw the dark

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circles under his eyes pop out like the jaw of a toad croaking. Then he started to have headaches from the smells at the mill, but the company doctor said that was normal and to just keep taking his lunch out back by the water. Then when my belly was ripe and round and kept me from looking at my feet or even feeling my toes, he started to get a sense of panic about everything. I just wanted to close my eyes and have him hold me. Everything was better when we simply shut out the world, crawled into bed, and started to talk about what could be, all over again. A nurse burst in to the room and broke my thoughts, so I looked up to see Mason looking at me like I had vanished, and then come back from nowhere. “No, nothing’s hurt, Sweetie.” I lied instinctively since Mason had to deal with broken things every day at the mill. Mason could never take the truth if it meant he couldn’t fix it, and since nothing was really broken, I couldn’t honestly say that I was hurt, at least not to him. “Your boss sent all these flowers, honey. Ain’t that the sweetest thing?” I crooned, trying to let him think all was well. When I’m faced with something powerful, I usually run back to the mundane. That way I won’t be disappointed if the moment doesn’t live up to all my expectations. “He don’t care nothin' for us, Cece. Just a gesture, that’s all. Just a gesture of good manners. At least he was kind enough to give me a couple days with you. I’m grateful for that.” I moved a little because just then I realized I did hurt bad, real bad. And I was tired. More tired than I ever thought I could be. But life moves forward without asking you, and it’s up to you to take the number that’s called and make the most of it, hurtin’ or not. And now that I was a Mama, I didn’t have to worry about people looking at me on the streets, or making fun of me no more, so it was a good trade. Taking care of my family? It’s all I really have, and it’s good to know they belong to me mine.

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*** For us, the first weeks of exhaustion were simply another routine to get used to. What seemed like too many baby clothes, soon turned into too few. Several didn’t fit, the rest simply disintegrated after three washings. In fact, everything was going fast. Why, I ended up sending Mason out for diapers at least twice a week. My friends had been right. ‘Ask for diapers and formula at your shower; you’ll never need anything more until they’re 3 months old.’ Once you get used to smelling like breast milk, the rest is rote. Your days become a ritual of pile control, and it isn’t for quite some time that you remember it’s for keeps. There is no time to think about dressing for completion, only a moment here and there to harness yourself in a nursing bra, and find a good lower back cushion. And the second Mason walked through the door each night, he’d look for us. Bathroom, bedroom, sometimes laying on the floor because it was cooler there than on the couch, and I could cradle the baby in my legs, and get some sleep without have to worry about her rolling off furniture, or me having to move to replace her pacifier. Tonight was no different and within mere seconds he had scooped his daughter up and removed his hat, the two of them anxious for a moment of ‘you tell me and I will tell you.’ “She’s trying to talk, Cec. I can see her formin’ words when she’s looking my way. My Lord, her mouth. It’s so tiny and pink, and she’s strugglin’ so to get them words out. What do ya suppose she has on her mind?” “What it’s like for two and a half minutes to wear a clean diaper, be awake, and not be hungry.” I joked. And Mason laughed when he realized I was teasing him for interpreting her gestures as premeditated conversation. “She’s trying to talk, sweetie. Don’t you see it, too?” “The books say it ain’t talk sweetie. She don’t even have control over her hands, let alone her mouth. She’s just happy to see her daddy, that’s all.”

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I had actually seen the magic in her face, when we were all alone. Mostly it was at night when she was the most alert. In my fleeting consciousness I would play the game, lost in the miracle of her journey to me and assume that silence only marked her vast wisdom. I would ask her about heaven and God, about her grandparents who were already there, and what Jesus’ face looked like, just in case she’d had a chance to see him afore comin’ to me. And together we’d figure out how to get past the mystery of our kinship. “Papa’s happy to see her little princess, too!” He cooed back at her, and her arms went up over her head as she spit up right onto Mason’s hand. He didn’t pull back, or lean over or attempt to hand Omara to me. He just stayed there and looked at her, intently. “Hand me one of them wet wipes and a rag, Cec. She done delivered me a bit of peas…ain’t ya, sweetheart? Yes, Papa hates ‘em, too!” For the most part Mason helped with everything. And for the brief periods we had together when the baby was asleep and I was still awake, we caught up on life and shared stories about our day. It wasn’t long, though before he began to share the trouble that was happening at the mill. There, in the darkness, because it’s easier to tell someone bad news when the sun is gone, I got the whole story. “Mike’s been laid off.” He whispered. “No! How? He’s the best Foreman they ever had? Best years of the mill have been with him.” I knew it had already happened. His wife’s sister had told me this afternoon afore last when I had walked to the park. I was sick from it all afternoon, almost listless with fear and anger. When Mason never shared the news I knew it had hit him hard the same way. Only now did he have to courage to say it and make it real.

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“He told me they said he makes too much money. Said they have to cut back, and if things are runnin’ so damn smoothly then why do they need someone who simply sits in a desk barkin’ out orders. They offered him a new job running one of the new looms, but he’s takin’ a job in Alabama with his brother. They are leaving at the end of the month.” “They have always been so good to us. I will miss them.” I said. And he shifted to sit up on his arm and face me, tracing his fingers around my shoulders and teasing the edges of my nightgown in the hopes I wouldn’t mind letting him touch me while he talked. “There’s more to it, Cec.” He continued and the jolt started to go through me all over again. “There’s talk that the whole mill will shut down. Bub, the new forklift driver came here two months ago after his mill closed down in Georgia. Said the whole industry is goin’ overseas and although we may not believe it, closures are coming our way, too.” “But you have lived your whole life, here. Both of us have always called this home.” I meant to be encouraging but the words just slipped out. I knew they broke his heart and I regretted not pretending to be asleep to spare him the pain. “Whole damn town don’t mean nothing to nobody, Cecile. We are all just bees humming around in a hive. If one of us get’s stepped on, they just keep walking by. What we do can be done for cents on the dollar in China. It’s just the way things are.” “We got some savings, Mason.” I finally shared, reaching out and cupping my hands around his arms and encouraging him to touch me, even though we both knew we only had about two minutes of strength left. “We can look for other work here and you can do something else.” “This all I know, Sweetie. I ain’t trained for nothing else. I’ve been thinking it over and we should be ready for what’s bound to happen.”

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I hoped he couldn’t feel my tears on his hands, and that my sobs were just small enough that I could still attribute them to a sharp pain from the birth without him being too suspicious. My guess was that his fear was larger even than mine. A man with dreams falls harder than a man without them. It’s a larger distance between where he sees himself and where he’s headed. And so, with all my strength I pulled him over onto me, and kissed him gently and urged him inside. The warmth of us both replacing the urgency that permeated our early marriage and offering the peace we needed to survive before the light of day made true the words we’d said. *** For some reason, the plant rallied. New orders and a rumored surge in military spending helped us forget the inevitable. Omara grew up strong, sassy and capable, learnin’ things so quickly that we could hardly keep up. She walked early, talked early and took ownership of the home like a CEO who walks around covered in mud and peanut butter. And with the joy of parenthood, and the continuing return of spring every year, we found ourselves pregnant, again, and on our way to the 2.5 children the census expected us to bear. Just as a woman forgets childbirth, she also forgets, on a cold, autumn night in October to keep her legs closed so that birth can happen during a civilized time when the tree frogs aren’t yelping in pain at the heat that melts every creature of July into one sticky mess. Summer is the toughest time when you’re carrying a baby inside. Beyond the heat I was also about to decorate a little girl’s room on a day so humid even the leaves stopped part way down to rest before falling to the ground. But we had promised Omara, before her sister was born, that we’d wallpaper to celebrate the new arrival. She wanted to make her room different, so that when the baby started walking around she would, let’s see how did she put it, “…so she will be able to find me when she gets a bad dream. Then I can make her feel safe.”

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It all turned out perfect, actually. The pattern we chose made me laugh when I saw it. Dancing cows, smiling moons and trees, and those stars, oh, those stars; they were bright, and happy, like a summer parade on Main Street where the drum majorettes throw batons up and in the air, the glitter raining all around them as they dodge the melted taffy flattened into pink and yellow dots all over the road. The little curtains I sewed out of the bolts of fabric that were in the clearance section went along with the whole look just perfectly. They didn’t come as a set, and didn’t actually go together, well not according to the sales woman, but I saw possibility, and Omara squealed with delight when we unfurled the acres of green and red fabric, telling me in her excited, breathless way that her little sister would soon be dancing in circles, with the cows and stars joining in. Truth is I was glad to have it done before the labor pains began to separate my courage from the reality of pushing something out of you ten times the size you’d like it to be. My second child was crammed so hard against my belly it’s as though she’d for sure been in there too tight from the start. In fact her little hands and elbows were always nudging and pushing as though she knew she was missin’ all the fun. She rode up high on me, right under my ribcage, and I was havin' a hard time breathing through most of the last six weeks. I guess when you know there’s another soul coming into your life, you wonder all sorts of things that might change when the squeezing was done and she popped out all red and crying, needing a name, and looking to us for survival. Would she be alright? Would Mason love her, too? Would she be smart? Shy? Bold? And would I know what to do when one was crying for the bottle, and the other was just being plain stubborn? My first delivery had been easy. It took most of the night but nothing tore, and I was lucky to come home in just one day. Since then things had changed as dreams often do. And all our fantasizing about traveling and such took a back seat to simply staying alive.

- 75 -

Work at the mill was back breaking, and I watched Mason’s spirit and posture bend slowly towards the ground. Don’t think I ain’t grateful for how hard a worker he was. Even though he was tired, there was never a day he didn’t come home and pick me up off my feet and twirl me around and call me his precious baby girl. We’d drop everything and make love in the kitchen, my shoe coming off under the table as we disappeared into passion and laughter, me looking for that dumb shoe the next day wondering with a smile how it got wedged into a corner like it did. We’d take long walks when the baby made it difficult for doing what wives do, and we’d stroll along the river instead, listening to the train whistle whine like an overfilled tea kettle, and watch the steam belch and twirl into the air over the plant; both a constant reminder it was our life line to survival. We just kept hoping nothing bad would happen and we’d always have each other. Of course, we never had no honeymoon. After the clerk said we were husband and wife we jumped in Mason’s truck and drove south to a city that had a two story hotel with chocolates on the pillow and a paper sleeve over the toilet. The neighbors and my Auntie Leola had chipped in a little cash so we could do it up right and after I ordered the crab cakes, I wish we’d just had a good hamburger like I’d been craving. I had brought a small pink nightie with me, a gift from an over-exuberant neighbor with romantic notions about who we all were, but it never got put on. We had made love just inside the door right after he carried me in. I wanted him and he wanted me and stopping to close up those 25 buttons on the front of that pink frock would have driven Mason out of his mind. After our daughter was born a few months later, we never thought we’d survive the sleepless nights, and we were both darned scared of doing it wrong. But little by little we got into a rhythm, and soon it all came as natural as any task we had ever performed. We settled into a routine: Me keep a journal of our days, until each page was starting to fill up with disappointment and I just tucked it away.

- 76 -

Mason heading off to work talking about management and a corner office, until he was simply glad that the locker they gave him was close to the door. From there the back and forth motion of life rocked us into old people as surely as flowers wilt after the spring. I was only 22 by the time the second baby came, but to look into my eyes you’d question whether I’d ever been a little girl. Only at night did I feel safe, wrapped under Mason’s arm, listening to his labored breathing, smelling his skin, and nuzzling against his stubbled beard; a reminder of our opposite textures and chemistry. It’s funny how losing everything creeps up on you. In your mind you know that one day what you’re spending will outgrow what you’re savin’. You understand that it’s a cruel countdown that knows nothing about the ache in your stomach, or the constant, nagging, body-wracking fear in your heart. But there ain’t nothin' you can really do about the ticking away of comfort and security ‘cept keep prayin’. And you know how I feel about that. So you just keep living and working each day, finding ways to smile when you can, and a place to hide when you can’t. I know for sure the best way to keep sorrow at a distance is just to choose to think of happy things. Filling my head with the day to day chores keeps the poison from crawling up into my throat and cuttin’ off my breath. It’s hard not to think about one of the last times I actually forgot about everything, and just listened to life, since it happens so rarely. It was just last summer, before Raynell was born, when we all decided to go lay out in the backyard. It was after watching Omara eat corn on the cob, butter dripping down her pink cheeks and determination on her face, that we decided to watch the shooting stars that were vivid in the night sky. So with a blanket spread it out all over the bumpy lawn, and a few determined mosquitoes buzzing overhead, we set out to enjoy the celestial show.

- 77 -

It was a cloudless and moonless night, the kind where Venus and Mars seem to have pulled their chairs a little closer to Earth to watch what it must be like to have storms and waterfalls floating out above you, and people, crawling over your surface, tickling the soft parts of your mountains and hills. We sat there truly contented, Omara’s head on my hips (since the baby owned every other bit of my middle) and her legs propped up on top of Mason’s chest, so that the three of us connected in a living H. Mason stroked the small, pink sandals Omara insisted on wearing each day with the same care he had exhibited the day she was borne, and she let him rub her legs and ankles, too, while her left hand reached over to fiddle with the top of the buttons on my shirt. My hands extended to play with the curls on Mason’s head, and with the other hand, I held tight to the grass, just to keep us from flying off, and reeling out to a place we might never return from. “Papa, what are there all those diamonds in the sky, and how come we can’t touch them?” It’s a question that caught us both off guard, and we looked at each other as though there was a script we’d forgotten to bring with us for just these kinds of amazing questions. “Those are stars, and they’re meant to stay right up there in the sky, Sweetie. They light up heaven at night for the angels that stay up late, watching over you, me, and your Ma. “I want one, Papa, can I have one?” “They don’t belong to us, sweet girl, they belong to Heaven.” He answered softly. I made an effort to look down at her face, staring up at the sky, as she worked to make sense of what Mason had just said. “What about the ones I see making skid marks across the sky?”

- 78 -

“Falling stars, baby?” “Yes, Papa. Why don’t the angels keep them from moving? Don’t the stars mind what they’re told?” He paused so long I wondered if he’d forgotten the question. When Omara moved her whole body around so she could stare into our eyes, and sit with her legs crossed and still be touching us both, we saw she was serious about these sparkling, celestial remnants; and we had to answer her. There was never a time when we won and she lost, the questions had to be answered or there’d be no peace. “Baby girl, when you wake up in the morning, and get dressed, all you can talk about is going outside to play. You can’t wait to go explore, and pick up rocks, and chase after cats and grasshoppers. You just have to get goin’. Ain’t that right?” She stared at him, part listening, part riveted to the fact that he was still holding one of her toes. He was still looking up, but began talking again, as though another cue card had just been revealed to finish the story. “I think falling stars; well they’s the adventurous ones, like you. They whip about, colliding with other star stuff, whizzing across the sky, wanting to learn something new no matter how far they have to travel. They ain’t good at being still. I think they just want to get to the other side of the universe as fast as they possibly can.” She stopped and whispered a statement that we never expected, trying to say it without giving in to the sobs that were about to break through, and it broke my heart to hear her pleading. “I don’t want to whiz, Papa. I want to stay right here.” She suddenly buried her head deep into his old shirt. “Say I won’t have to whiz about. Say it!”

- 79 -

It wouldn’t do any good to decide otherwise, and so the rule was made. Omara could stay as long as she wanted, as long as she possibly could. This little star didn’t want to fall and we wanted to hold on tightly, as long as we could, to the miracle of her.

- 80 -

Chapter Four – Resolve

STEVE As I turned into the parking lot of the penitentiary I saw a tall, burly guard standing askew at the entrance to the gate. In the distance, visible through the chain link fence, was a sea of orange jumpsuits, all resembling deflated balloons; a cruel way to saddle one with a constant reminder of anonymity. It would be hard enough to meet Oacie for the first time, but doing so here was going to be even harder. The bravery I felt was slowly fading into a desperate desire to turn, and run, as the reality of the pending encounter sunk in. I thought briefly about the cape I decided to don, and the dragon I had so casually intended to slay, and realized this was going to be a long hard, journey. The parking lot was remarkably free of potholes. Even the curbs were white and square. Everything was in perfect, perfect order, at least on the outside. Finding an empty spot I noticed a sign that said, “Family Parking.” It was the only sign of its kind. And how cruel not to let the Avon lady know where to deliver perfume and bath gel. She would certainly have to park around back, next to the truck that brings in handbags and gold earrings. Sarcasm: my best friend in a perilous situation. And I could see I was going to get punchy, and say too much if I didn’t get a grip. But the place seemed lost between dreams and nightmares, almost to the point where I feared I might not even be at the right place. Why I expected a reception, I’m not sure. Perhaps it was because the occasion was so important, and I wasn’t. Sauntering up to the front doors, I wondered how anyone could prepare for entering a prison. An almost imperceptible grime crawls along the walls, and although scrubbed and clean, the windows seem shut so tightly that no air or light ever gets through to those lurking inside. Do they even breathe oxygen? I would soon find out.

- 81 -

I moved towards the check-in area by walking through an empty lobby lined with public service announcements about crime prevention, hung next to ominous snapshots of America’s Most Wanted. Catching the eye of a woman who looks like Attila the Hun with a modern gun belt, the triangle of irony was complete. She looked up just long enough to acknowledge me, while robotically moving her papers into place. Then, grabbing a pen with tooth marks, she began her short interrogation. “Are you carrying any weapons or drugs on your person?” Her voice was louder than I expected, and gruff, and I thought about telling her that I was just asked that same question back at the Cracker Barrel when I requested my eggs on the side, but she didn’t appear to possess a remnant of humor. Making light of clearly frightening circumstances felt like a good strategy for about two seconds, and then I considered what the wrong answer might bring, even in jest, and just shook my head quickly. After a series of five more very intimidating questions, she handed me a clip board and pen, asked me to take a seat, and instructed me to fill out the areas marked in orange. The white boxes contained headings like, ‘FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY,’ so I wouldn’t be tempted to touch them. But how much more official could my visit be? As I repressed my growing panic, I finally signed my name with a larger than usual swish, and returned to her window. I hope there are no handwriting experts in the OFFICIAL section or I will be fitted for a straight jacket. As she put her hand up to my shoulder to motion me forward she admonished, “Please advance to Room B for a pat down, and then we will get you signed in.” An instant chill ran though me as I realized the only touch available to these inmates is simply a nudge pointing them in some random direction. There is no connection, no encouragement, and certainly no love. How can you rehabilitate without love? But I was already getting ahead of myself.

- 82 -

After the buzz sounded, and I was allowed to walk through the doorway, the reverberations began to echo like those you would hear when advancing on a beehive. As I shuffled along, low moans, shrill notes of laughter, and potent obscenities punctuated the looming hopelessness. The fluorescent lights were humming like trapped bugs on an electric grid, and the floor, although clean in the middle, had layers of dirt in the corners, all neatly waxed over like a transparent bandage covering an open wound. A large work area was visible through the grimy, tinted windows and guards were everywhere. They seemed bereft of gentleness, and determined to be imposing, each step awakening the bell-like clang of their keys, badges and belt buckles, and the quiet thud of thick-soled shoes. As we turned the corner and left any natural light from the outside world behind, I tried not to look into the faces of my sister-in-law’s caretakers. They certainly weren’t interested in mine. My sister-in-law, was – Wait, did I just refer to her as family? Suddenly I felt a little protective of her. Had I really thought about what she and all the women here had to endure? And if I was going to empathize, did it grind against my own sense of right and wrong to do so? Was I fine with the fact that she rubbed shoulders with Beelzebub every day stirring her coffee with a pitchfork, and walking on floors paved with lies? I imagined that entering any hell most likely featured the same kinds of stark hallways and sweaty gatekeepers. Maybe outer darkness was even fitted with fire-sprinklers hanging from the ceiling, just to make it seem like heat was actually an enemy, right before you found out flames replaced couches and chairs. To avoid the fiery pit, one had to be repentant, which made me wonder if Oacie was sorry for what she’d done. Perhaps she was the clever one and I would be lured into a trap. Maybe she braver than all of us and knew how to walk with the Devil and not take his hand. Friend or foe, I realized that no one deserves to burn forever.

- 83 -

After showing my ID badge to at least five people, four of whom glared back at me like having red hair was an automatic sign of ignorance, I was shown to a private room that was divided in half by one piece of thick, greenish glass and an intercom attached to graffiti covered walls. The stool I would sit upon was attached to the floor like a barber chair, and it looked cold and hard like everything else here. I guess two lazy-boy chairs and soft music to cut the tension was not in the cards. It wouldn’t be long and then I’d be facing her, and we would either become friends, or I would be another victim of naiveté and the confidence weekly arguments with the Rabbi seemed to give me. Because I was nervous, I started to read some of the messages scrawled and etched into the paint around me: “Janna spreads for all!” or “Bitches love Bitches,” and figured this wasn’t going to be a place I would find much to edify. There wasn’t anything here that was refined, or nurturing or forgiving. The place was full of wild cats that had been dropped on their heads, and their claws were out and filed sharp, waiting for anyone to walk by that had soft flesh and a desire to preach penitence. It was a funny time to be introspective, but it suddenly occurred to me that my wife was also trapped in a prison, and had been for almost as long as Oacie. Almost dumbstruck by my realization, I continued to muse that the windowless, dimly lit state of fear she occupied every day was just as real as this place. I was now certain that each time she bought something, that she was struggling to find the key that opened the lock, fumbling like a blind person to feel the curved, notched edges of the metal wafer that would produce the click she longed for. Then, swinging open the doors to her cell, she could once again bask in soothing breezes, and leave her shackles behind. I also thought about how Oacie and Ray were inexplicably connected by a desire to run from their respective chains, which rattled each time they moved or breathed; one staring at the bars from the inside looking out, the other building them up from the outside looking in.

- 84 -

I sat there musing, when suddenly, like a mouse crossing the floor that catches your eye, I saw her. Wow, was my first thought. She filled up the room the second she stepped into it. And her appearance was ethereal. She didn’t seem to be tattooed with that rubbery, brown color people wear when bad luck is delivered alongside them at birth. She didn’t amble about like a trapped bear, or arch her back like a bull who is about to charge. She didn’t look like that at all. She was, for all intents and purposes beautiful. I watched as she glided across the concrete floor, taking her time so that each step was deliberate and useful. She didn’t even look down at the stool before sitting, her movements were so rhythmic. With a gaze fixed on my face she threw a leg forward, and settled into her chair like a feather slowly coming to rest on the ground. Her hair was clean, and although it was pulled back into a barrette, it was dark and straight, and it fell across her shoulders like corn silk, messed up just enough to remind you that she hadn’t just emerged from her chaise lounge and pedicure, but was rousted from a troubled nap on top of a blue striped cot. I imagined that the blaring sounds of the television, and cussing inmates chiding her as she walked from her section, to here, through this labyrinth of ice. I didn’t know I was staring until an eccentric smile crossed her face, and she reached to switch on the sound system between us, so we could hear each other, since I wasn’t smart enough to do it first. Hearing its echo come to life on her side of the glass, I quickly spoke. “Oacie, I’m Steve Messner, Raynell’s husband. I’m glad to meet you.” I knew she had been told I was here, but I felt a need to be formal. She looked straight down at my hands, my fingers tapping frantically on the counter, taking in my nervousness from head to toe. But maybe it wasn’t shyness, maybe it was just the way someone in jail sizes up the person who has come to visit, and since we couldn’t smell or touch each other, there was no need to follow the usual rules of etiquette.

- 85 -

“I’ve seen pictures of you, but they don’t look anything like you.” She uttered, looking down at my wedding ring now twirled to the inside of my palm. And then boring a hole right through me she continued, “Nell does have your eyes though.” I cocked my head in surprise, they way you do when you hear your own voice on a recorder, or see a glimpse of yourself in a mirror when you’re sitting in the doctor’s office and you don’t even recognize the image. I was startled because her voice was almost identical to Ray’s. “Ray always thought Nell looked like you.” I answered feebly, still amazed at the smooth and low tone of her words. “Sure as hell no way I’d ever know that. Her letters don’t mention anything about the kids.” We’d started our conversation kind of in the middle, but it seemed a good way to get to know each other, so I followed her lead. “Ray never talks in a way that lets you know what she’s really thinking.” And I mentioned it like I was embarrassed. “Even I wonder what’s going through her mind most of the time.” It was the wrong response, and her face changed when I said it. “You just don’t appreciate how much she keeps locked inside.” She snarled. Now, that statement, uttered in an audible whisper, is the one that should have been written on the side of the wall. She had just summed up so much of why I was there and why I needed her. The trouble was, my words had sounded protective and defensive. I had come charging in with the flag of battle. Damn if I hadn’t left the white one at home.

- 86 -

Desperate to change my tone I continued, “That’s why I’m here Oacie, to get inside of what happened. I want to find out, I mean discover – well, I’m hoping you want to tell me the story of both you and your sister.” “You aren’t much for formalities are you, Steve.” She stared at me hard, and then losing her rigidity, slumped and continued. “Well, for that matter, neither am I.” she finished, pulling her hair over one shoulder so she could lean her elbows near the glass and come in for a close-up. I nearly jumped back. “Fact is,” she smiled, “you aren’t the one I figured would show up for the details.” She cocked her body backwards, with both hands stretching around her back, like she suddenly had a spasm. Then she leaned foward, and reached into one of those huge, buttoned pockets to fish out a cigarette. Putting the glowing stick between her fingers I watched Oacie breathe in the smoke, and exhale it masterfully through her nose and mouth, so it would curl around her dark eyes. She was staring at me like a lioness sizes up a wildebeest, so I straightened a little just to let her know I was serious and not afraid. But she could already see I was trembling. “I’ve been here more than 18 years, Steve; a really long time. What makes now so special that you want the whole story? You could have visited me years ago. Run out of people to bother?” As I was fumbling for a response, she jumped in and added, “And really it isn’t even your story to hear, so I’m curious as to why you came without sending me a letter, or making a call.” She animates a bit and I can see that she’s been thinking about this for longer than she is letting on.

- 87 -

“Here I am, just relaxing in my cell when someone tells me my brother-in-law from Atlanta is here, and I gotta come down and see you right now, and lah ti dah.” She had a point, and the drawl that she tried to conceal emerged slightly during her delicate southern reprimand. Manners were inbred, especially here in the south, and they etch large grooves you had better not ignore. My silent question, then, was whether or not she had thought about the fact that, crime of passion or not, it was equally improper to bash in someone’s skull, like she had done so many years before. But what your brain tells you to do and what it tells you to say are certainly two very different things. “Oacie, I’m mostly one for healing animals, not people. Maybe I like the fact that they can’t talk back and that makes it more comfortable for me.” Here I go again gushing with too much truth, and abstract metaphors. “I don’t know how to fix everything, but I do know when something is broken. Ray, she’s not doing well at all, and I’ve got to do something about it.” My voice sounded a little higher than I intended, and the more I tried to control it, the shriller it became even as I continued. “I’ve been watching her slide into a hole since the day I met her. We’ve been pretending for a long time that nice things, dinner parties and a big house will fix it. But it won’t. I don’t think anything can but you.” I paused for effect, hoping she might talk but she didn’t. She didn’t feel compelled to do anything. I wish I knew what that felt like. With silence closing in on me I resumed, “I have nowhere else to go, nothing else to open, and no one else to turn to. I’m ready to hear it if you’re ready to share it.”

- 88 -

She’d been holding the cigarette out above her shoulder to let it burn, and her other hand was wrapped around her stomach while she listened. As the glow reached the end of the filter she automatically pulled it to her lips, took a good, long, woeful drag and then put it out on the floor. When she started talking I knew I’d handled this all wrong. “There’s nothing good about being in a place like this, Steve. Everything you used to do and took for granted is gone, and worse yet, you have to fend off all the other shitty people who are lumped in here with you. I’ve been safe because I don’t talk much. Not that I don’t think, I think about things all the time. But if we’re going to talk, and you seem hell bent on it, then there has to be some kind of trade up front. Something to let me know you’re doing this is good faith, so to speak. You help me, and then, why I’ll be happy to help you. And because you’re married to my sister, I’m sure we can come to some type of agreement, don’t you think?” Smart, real smart. Pretty and smart. How the hell did she get in here with a combination like that? Not just a little ashamed at my misstated bravado, I realized I was way out of my league when it came to negotiating. I had been so set on getting this solved, and in record time, that asking for what I wanted just came out first, and I had no other bargaining chip to throw into the pile. “Okay, Oacie, where shall we start?” I tried to regroup as best I could, and waited for what she planned to say next. But she wasn’t in a rush to fill in words like everyone else in the outside world. She was enjoying her control, tugging at me with only her body language as leverage, twisting the knob on the fly wheel that pulled me apart, torturing me, one click at a time. When I thought I would have to shout Uncle, she finally levied her terms. “Steve, this is the beginning of a journey, and you cannot stop after it’s begun. The only reason it will start with you is because you’re the one that walked through this door first. And I need to know if you’re in it for the long haul.”

- 89 -

She was willing to talk. This was terrific. So I stared into those green eyes, wide and clear, really taking in all of her, and noticing how so many of her features erased all doubt about her being sister to my wife, and I knew I could trust everything she would tell me. When she kept staring back, I wondered if she’d simply get up and leave, taking hope and my ego with her, but she stayed very calm, and with just a hint of desperation in her voice she stated, “Listen closely. Just be still and do as I’m asking. There’s someone I want you to get to know first, someone that will find out if you’re for real. Or should I ask, if you’re up for it.” Flaunting her strident confidence she then gave me detailed instructions, and I wrote furiously. When she was done speaking, I stopped to ask the last question. “So there’s nothing to talk about until I go through the motions here?” “Hard to believe, isn’t it. Me negotiating with you?” she mocked, and I could see she was enjoying the chase. “I’m just curious why we can’t visit any longer. I have the whole day to be here with you.” “I’ll bet you do, Steve.” She answered sarcastically and I thought, Oh, crud, another slip of my tongue. “I bet you have all the time in the world. Why don’t you just go and buy a car or something, and then come back and tell me about all six cylinders, and how they purr when you’re going 80 miles an hour? Better yet, go ahead and sign up for one of those French cooking classes they have at the local Community College. I’d love to know how long it takes for a quail to roast over a cedar fire. Shit, I’m sure learning how to make a port reduction would be a goddamned epiphany!”

- 90 -

Venomous, sensuous, brilliant – I’ll never leave here alive. But was this just a game? I sensed it might be. But by the time I started to talk, she hardly had any patience left. “I’ve pissed you off pretty solidly, haven’t I, and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to saunter in here like a reporter and start in on an interview. That was rude and thoughtless. I’d like to start again, if you’d let me.” “Damn right you’re sorry. Who in the hell do you think you are?” And she was right. I had entered with fear and forgotten entitlement was affixed right beneath it, glaring at her like she was the prom queen who had cheated on her senior exams, and I was looking for an instant confession. “A fool, Oacie. Ask Ray. I’m a fool. A fool because I came here uninvited and unexpected. A fool because I’ve been trying to handle everything all by myself. I don’t know anything about you, at least not the real you. I suspect you know even less about me, so the apology is meant with double sincerity. Please, let’s start again?” And we both sat there, pivoting on a moment that would change both of our lives. Without warning she threw her hands up in the air and I jumped; jumped because I had seen Raynell do that same move a thousand times. It was the international signal for, ‘Hmmm. Can’t think of a good answer to that one, so I will pretend I’m giving in.’ and she did. “Ray know you’re here?” She asked? “Yes.” “Is she happy about it?” She laughed a little and reached for another cigarette, lighting it up before the packet was folded and put away.

- 91 -

“No. She’s furious.” “Hell of a temper, doesn’t she.” And if there was anything that meant she knew my Ray is was that. “Best kind. Fire in her eyes, and an argument so sweet you wish it would never end.” I said. Not caring that I was telling her between every line just how much I loved her sister. “She’s a bitch, too. And I think that’s my fault.” She shared. “Whatever it is that made her who she is, I love every bit of it.” And before I screwed things up again with my words I quickly added, “I’d like for us to visit every day for awhile, if you don’t mind. I have a lot to learn about my wife, even after all these years, and I know I have a lot to learn about you.” Like waiting for the click of a combination lock, I finally heard the tumblers drop into place as she said, “Come back tomorrow. If you have the balls…” And with that I laughed because she certainly had a pair. It was crude, and it was meant to throw me off, but it was also a challenge. And just maybe she was a tiny bit scared, too. I closed by saying, “I will visit your friend, and we’ll go from there.” It wasn’t long before she eased her posture, and unfolded her legs. With her hands resting on the counter in front of us, I could see her fingertips were red and swollen. She, too, had been holding her fists tightly, gripping them for courage, and maybe for balance. If I dared show her mine, she would have noticed the same thing, so I put them away before leaving so I could at least

- 92 -

keep some of my secrets; at least, until honesty evened the playing field before us, and truth, however sinister, would bind our futures together.

- 93 -

OACIE I can’t believe this is really happening now. I thought it would be sweet jumping into the past again, but Steve’s visit was worse than the flashbacks. So often over the years I have been resigned to my life in prison, avoiding any mention of what I had to do to keep Ray safe – hell, keep us all safe – so this new feeling is frightening. But having to talk to Steve? I’m not really sure I’m ready for that. The fact that he mentioned Raynell’s creeping madness really worries me. She won’t get better without the truth. I have walked around the grounds plenty of times thinking about the day she would return; acting out our visit in detail. It was a ritual not dissimilar to the argument about just how hot you can run the water and still hold your hand under the spigot before jerking it away. But Steve’s candor is unsettling. Sitting there with his frightened eyes, pleading me to tell the story like a kid with a melting ice cream come; it makes me nervous. God, I hate when I feel weak like this. Screw him and his lost youth, his inability to see Ray and her complexity, or his bold admission of need and desperation that was so embarrassingly transparent. I can see those things about people; see it right away. They don’t have to do more than just cock their head and I can tell you whether or not they liked breakfast, or had money in each pocket. And I could see that Steve was full of inconsistencies. Okay. Be calm. I need to think strategically, because two can play at this game. It’s not like I haven’t been on the defensive before. I can handle all this alright. It will all depend upon the story. Told the right way it all comes together. Told with feeling, people can’t wait to hear more. Told with passion? Everyone will be on my side. For instance he needs to know that I was no fool through all this; that it was easy it was for me to figure out all the idiots who owned us, and abused us, and I knew what I was doing. He will have to know I’m smart before he will really listen. And I will tell him about everybody, from the beginning to the end.

- 94 -

Maybe I will start with someone like Miss Iris Howell, owner of the first foster house we lived in on Porter Street. I know you’re supposed to say foster home, but it was never a home to us. She was simply dumb as a post, and for some reason assumed that if she said ‘I promise,’ we would automatically line up like a couple of stupid cows waiting for a salt lick. She was a regretful woman. Add to that her selfishness and we were dealing with a deadly combination. Her bad temper was the real culprit, probably on account of how darned ugly she was. She stood a whole 4 foot 9 inches tall and nearly as far across. Her graying hair was swept up in a clip most of the time so she could show off her big, colorful earrings that rattled when she chewed gum and talked on the phone. Sprawled onto the couch like a cat, she spent all day watching TV and eating licorice, keeping score cards stacked up on the scratched coffee table which boasted her doctored scores from playing armchair Wheel of Fortune. She dressed like Madonna, but walked like she was holding a bale of hay under each arm, the swaying back and forth interrupted by her platform sandals and tootight pants. You could smell her neglected body when she came close to you and a dusty kind of pallor permeated her face. It was meant to be a smile, but it never looked quite right. The room she gave us was sufficient enough, with at least a toilet behind a door that closed, and we shared one bed next to a drafty window. Most often the bed was barren, though. We weren’t allowed to touch the washer and dryer so it wasn’t uncommon for us to walk past the sheets, heaped into a fermenting pile next to the empty washing machine, for days on end. The house Miss Iris lived in with her slovenly husband, Lore was clapboard sided. The wraparound porch was taken up by two old couches as well as an old oven, and the muffler from an ancient Buick. It was accessorized with assorted beer bottles scattered next to used paper plates, and forgotten old shoes. The house might have been painted once since being built, but the only real color left was the famous ‘haint blue’ on the ceiling of the porch; the painting of which

- 95 -

was an old habit of us Southerners who seek to ward off evil spirits with the endless view of heaven plastered above. Down with that theory, Miss Iris walked in and out of that door twenty times a day and nothing ever happened to her. Nothing ever happened to all the evil people who entered that house, even the ones who would later decide to be our next foster parents when Miss Iris got an offer to watch two disabled kids for more money, and we got carted off, again. We stayed there long enough, however, to get a feel for what it meant to be forgotten, the ultimate millstone every foster child carries. After a time you get used to knowing that no one really cares if you eat, or if you are warm, or even if a small cough you’ve developed is going to get worse. You just wish there was more food, a quiet place to hide, and shoes that fit. Shoes! Oh, I never knew how much I would appreciate shoes that fit. Good ones meant you could run and disappear into a world of imagination. Bad ones meant you ran in your bare feet, the laces tied so you could carry them around your neck and take them home because someday they might fit. When barefoot, I was always stepping on rocks, or glass, or splinters in the porch. But not running was never an option, so I just tended to my feet with what was available. And that wasn’t much. Our favorite places to escape were always up high, and the best perch was a huge oak in the backyard with branches that stretched like a yawning giraffe over the savannah. We worked each day to find the right route to get us to the top of the tree so we could survey our kingdom of poverty. Once found, we could be at the top in seconds. “Oacie, I wonder what would happen if we just moved in to this tree?” Ray asked one day, breaking the silence first. “We could steal a couple blankets, bring up sandwiches, and you and me could just live right here, forever. Miss Iris could keep watching television, and we wouldn’t need to bother her at all.”

- 96 -

I knew what happened if you wanted something forever. Once uttered it was like you were strapped into some huge, butt-sized sling shot, which immediately catapulted you and your silly wish as far away as possible. No, no I wasn’t going to let Ray think that things can stay constant, so I worked hard at keeping her excited about the adventures. No small feat since I didn’t really believe in them myself. “Ray, if we stayed in this tree, then when the leaves start to fall, we’d be as obvious as a banana in a strawberry patch.” She laughed then, always entertained by my silly examples. “We’ll just use this branch to look out for the ice cream truck so on the days we have a few cents, we can share an ice cream sandwich.” The bait must have worked, because she switched gears and said, “I think next time I want to try the knee-ah-potion.” “Neapolitan, Ray. The flavor is called Neapolitan.” “It’s called knee-ah-potion, Oacie. And that’s what I want.” With everything we’d been through, she was always stubborn. So I laughed and we put our arms around each other until the sun dipped behind the crumbling chimney of the house across the street, and it was time to climb down. It was that kind of contentment, a three-colors-of-ice-cream kind of contentment, that I hoped lay at the end of this ride with Steve. I was hoping that after he met Miss Ida he’d be back for more of the story, and even more eager than before. But I’d learned a long time ago to just live one day at a time. *** “Mighty fine looking man in here today, wouldn’t you say?” The voice caused me to suddenly flick the ashes of the burnt out cigarette in my hand, which were balanced into a cone of grayish filth.

- 97 -

“No business of yours.” I retorted to Edna as she walked over to where I stood, intending to flaunt her status as McCormick’s newest armed guardian. “Don’t get too used to staring at him, Edna. I’m sure his visits will end soon.” And I put the butt into my pocket. “Word is he’s married to your sister. …Big shot, rich guy from Atlanta coming all the way up here to see you.” The main desk might as well be wired to the evening news. Nothing was private. “I’ve a mind to tell the Warden about this unless you want to make it worth my while?” She said even more mockingly, and I threw her a look of disgust, shaking my head slowly as I started to walk away. Edna was broken, more so that half the women in here. But the gun strapped firmly to her hips meant that her violent nature was validated. “If’n there’s something gonna upset you girl, you don’t want her to know about it. She just loves to keep you outta the spotlight by whatever means possible. I would think you’d be dying to make me your friend, so I have a reason to keep my mouth shut.” She spoke with pride and fear, as though she never knew what she was going to say until it skipped out past her lips. “Lots of folks come see me with wild stories, Edna. Just because he’s curious, doesn’t mean he’s going to get used to the smell of this place. I’m sure he will be gone soon. Go peddle your threats somewhere else.” I uttered it like I was claiming a prize, but actually I worried her lack of propriety might keep him away.

- 98 -

“You just keep that temper to yourself, and we’ll see how it goes.” She quipped, and for good measure she grabbed my arm, squeezing it tightly and then a little bit gently, as though a show of kindness would cover the fact that she was a psycho and an idiot. Pulling away I hissed, “Edna, let’s just keep this between us, whaddya say, honey?” She smiled, red lipstick all over her top teeth, then let me go, and walked away. How do I describe Edna, hmm. Well, she’s ready to sell out anyone at a moment’s notice, lonely as all hell the next, and I never knew which action motivated her more. I had encountered dozens of guards like her over the years. The hard part about Edna is she never really understands what the consequences of her meddling mean. She was under the impression that she and the Warden were friends. The last time I was ‘suspected’ of trying to tell my story to the outside world, I was put into solitary confinement. To keep the dump nit from putting two and two together, the Warden always created a paper trail marking me as defiant, and lacking the ability to feel remorse for my actions. Edna just sucked it all in. She was the perfect soldier to the Warden’s darkness. You know how I feel about darkness. It’s not even a state with me, it’s more like a venomous snake that crawls all over, weaving in and out of my limbs, entering my belly and slithering up and out of my eyes and ears only to coil up and wait in the corner for me to relax so it can strike over and over again. It was just a little thing, really, that brought my last visitors here. A group of students had found the record of my court hearings and found my story to be especially fascinating. Four of them, dressed like hippies with smart phones, had been lucky enough to have their work reviewed by an Ivy League School, who also happened to be studying the effects of prison on the reproductive organs of females, and from there, CBS came snooping around.

- 99 -

I know, somebody funds this shit, but it’s true. And so they came. But before the TV cameras even made it past the front gates, all hell broke loose, and I found myself lifted from my cell in the middle of the night, and thrown into the dank confines of block D. “What did I do? Why the hell am I here? I didn’t do anything. I want to talk to someone, and talk to them now!” I yelled down the hallways, screaming like a child who is experiencing punishment for the first time, desperately trying to find a voice with just the right combination of fear and power, to get someone to tell me what had happened. They wouldn’t even let me go to the toilet for 24 hours so I had to sit there and pee against the wall, the smell of even my own urine gagging me to the point that I spent the next day breathing through material on my sleeve. That was 7 and one half years ago. I wasn’t looking forward to having to crap on myself again. The rest of that night I wondered if I would go crazy I was so scared. But whenever I felt truly frightened, and out of control, it always helped to think of Mama, and how her confinement was even more deep and keyless than mine. For years she fought the cancer, bravely covering her dark circles with cheap makeup, and her drooping smile with lipstick and anecdotes. She was a hero to me, even with the unfairness of her life. And I dug deep to think about the courage it takes to fight a faceless foe, one who plays even dirtier than the Warden. As I walk back into my cell, I begin to stare at my surroundings, examining all the stuff I have collected over the years. Even I have fallen into the pit of false adornments. Anything real here is always used for leverage. People get hurt if you share something that can be used against you.

- 100 -

In the beginning some of the women who appeared to have an ounce of softness would ask me things like. “Did you do it for another man? Did someone force you? Were you in love? Did you ever get knocked up?” It sounded innocent enough, but about a year later a woman was found dead in her cell, stabbed in the throat by the very person who had quietly and sweetly asked me if I knew what it was like to have a broken heart. I had been tempted to answer her, actually. Tempted to strike a bond, form a friendship and maybe even cross the line just so I could feel tenderness and the touch of another human being. But, after that murder, my decision to stay quiet, and to myself, was set in stone. I might die of loneliness but I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the victim of a ball point pen. What does it all mean, anyway? You can’t take back the past. I will go out of my mind if I start thinking about what I’ve lost. Instead I focus on what I have saved; content to know that there are those who share my blood, and have a life. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it might keep you off death row. When a thunderous sound of the evening bell screams out, I know it’s time to rise and go to dinner. Tonight, while we eat, they will be cleaning the floors. Many things will be sanitized and washed away. Time is just one of them. Youth is another, and even innocence will be gathered up in the dirty and shredded mops that glide back and forth along our collective avenue of stone and sorrow. It’s as though we’re all leaving a bit of ourselves behind, and nothing remains but regret. Before that happens I want to pass on what I can. Pass it on to be heard, and understood, and maybe even be forgiven. Steve, I hope you come back. Please, please Miss Ida, tell him he can trust me. Tell him I can help him and I can help Ray.

- 101 -

Chapter Five – Reality

STEVE There’s a funny term in the south, coined by those who know that it takes a village to keep up with the weeds and Kudzu, characterizing their formidable desire to keep things neat and clean. It’s called bush hogging; an adjective created from what one does to a field that needs clearing. Powered behind a tractor, it is a piece of farm equipment with spinning blades, designed specifically to eliminate dense vegetation. It is a quick and effective solution for fields gone wild. Able to hop over large stalks and rocks, and still return low to the ground, everything gets done without whining or stopping. The results are highly satisfying and make everything feel as though it’s in its rightful place once again. It doesn’t matter that the weeds will grow back, that’s not the point. It’s what you can fix today, and so you do. In spite of the fact that it’s close to 90 degrees outside, there’s an honesty that hangs the air, and I feel how much all people are alike. Assimilating the multitudes into groups of either friends or strangers seems like such a waste of time when heat makes us all one. Most people are gracious and intentional, wrapping their deliberate statements inside the sugary stickiness of their drawl until you’re lulled into submission with a fork skewered firmly into your third piece of apple pie. Sure, I live in Atlanta, but it’s more L.A. than it should be, causing traditional Southern ways to be buried under designer jeans and BMW’s. Sometimes I forget where I am unless I’m inside a museum, or reading an obituary. Unless you know what it’s like to wring laundry through an old washing machine, not caring if your hands are calloused and dry, or turn frying chicken over with your fingers, or buy the person in front of you their groceries when you know they need help, you’re missing the point. It’s not about actions, it’s about habit.

- 102 -

I could feel myself being pulled into this kind of soft comfort the second I spoke to her on the phone, Miss Ida Mae Dowd, who runs the girl’s home in this part of the hills. I had called her promptly, as Oacie had requested, and she was happy to meet with me and talk about what she felt God had called her to do. She was expecting me, she had lilted, and knew that a prayer had been answered when I indicated I would be bringing a huge check to help out the home. “God is mighty indeed, dear boy!” She sang, after I shook her hand and introduced myself as Dr. Steve Messner from Atlanta. “He works in ways that none of us won’t never understand. Y’all are coming on the wings of the Lord, boy. Just as Saul heard God’s voice in the midst of his pride and confusion, you been sent to bring the blessin's we’ve been praying for, even though you ain’t been taught ‘bout Jesus, yet.” Nervously turning my Star of David around on my neck I felt like saying “Amen!” but that was just because I was nervous. Mazeltov wouldn’t have come out right either. Truth is, I wanted to know what it felt like to break into a fervent sermon, something that came easy to her. That’s the other thing – folks here are set firmly in the ‘things’ that call to them. They know what they stand for, and may God help the person who tries to talk them out of it. It hit me, then, that the reason I was seeing church spires every few miles was that Southern folks erected spiritual rest stops along the way for refuge from all the suffering that had been heaped upon them. The less you have, apparently, the more you praise. It was an effective combination that was working in their favor, and soon it sounded, would work in mine. Luckily I felt calm today in spite of the events surrounding my visit. The time away from home had already softened me. I hadn’t spoken to Ray since leaving because I knew she needed time, too. And my first meeting with Oacie had left me unsettled but begging for more.

- 103 -

I believe you have to back away from some things, far away from them too, even though it seems like they’re burning furiously, and you’re anxious to douse them with reason and debate. The thing is, when you back away from the flame, you quit fanning it with your desperation and ego, and it starts to smolder quietly. That is, until you return to heap another bit of fuel upon it by thinking you’re the only one who can save it. Really, it all turns out better if you just let things be. That’s only one of the lessons the South can teach you. I had a feeling there were several more in store. Like, even though I was an adult, I had never really learned anything of real value. Brave and confident, I marched into the prison to confront Oacie and walked out with a new curiosity about her – no, that’s not it – I think I felt respect for her. If it was me rotting in that concrete slab I would be sitting in a corner, sucking my thumb, moaning obscenities and writing things on the wall with my toes. But not Oacie, she held her head high. She knew who she was, and it was inspiring and creepy all at the same time. It’s as though where she’d end up had been revealed to her long before the prison doors locked behind her, and she accepted it as the consequence of circumstance. Her predictability was a mystery, and her grace, well it was formed from living through something that must have required her to muster every bit of courage and strength in the face of horror and evil. Maybe it was just a simple as trying to protect someone you love. “You seem sad, boy.” She drawled, while placing a large wad of chew carefully between her gum and back teeth. “Tell Miss Ida all about it. I knows when somethin’ ain’t right.” Keeping secrets was going to be impossible, and her next question proved it.

- 104 -

“Y’all are from Georgia you said, right? Right purty down there, right purty. Y’all got a big house, too?” Nothing like getting right to the point, I was beginning to think Oacie was the most formal person I was going to meet here. “Yes ma’am, I am from Atlanta. Have two children and a lovely wife that hasn’t been feeling well. That’s why I’m here.” Once you get caught up in the talking, you’re hooked. One word answers would seem rude beyond belief. “Bless her heart, dear boy. The Devil must be inside her having a great ol’ time. Mmm, mmm. There ain’t no reason for it, but only God knows why He done released Lucifer to tempt our souls. We bes learn how ta cast him out ourselves.” I should write this stuff down. It was amazing just watching her move when she spoke. Her hands, set first on her waist, would move down to soil the already stained apron, and then return to her waist again just as quickly. Her hair was tucked tight under a net that smoothed out the curly and black tendrils growing wildly above a smooth, shiny forehead. Her skin was pulled taught by the biggest smile I had ever seen on any black woman, and her eyes were set above generous cheekbones, and full painted lips. With a cross hanging around her neck and a shawl draped over her shoulders, she almost resembled a manager in the ring, tools at hand to soothe those who battled the forces of evil in a choreographed, match. I had formed a picture of her in my head before I had arrived thinking she would be ample and slow, with white teeth peering out from the shadow of a black, wrinkled face. But nothing prepared me for her larger than life persona. She wasn’t ample, she was huge. She didn’t have white teeth, there were about 10 missing. And her face never let on about her age, although I can’t imagine that she’s a day younger than 70. She had command of her body and her voice was like a choir singing in especially tight harmony. It was a song I was already humming, and I liked it.

- 105 -

No need to size things up here like I did with Oacie. I could start talking from the middle and it would be a-okay. I felt that for some reason she already knew me, and this was a test for me, not a favor to Oacie, so I buckled in for the ride. “I’m not just here to donate money, Miss Ida.” I said. And she started to rock back and forth in her chair, nodding thoughtfully, and staring at her feet swelling half out of her shoes as she held tight to the arm rests like she intended to launch herself into the clouds. She seemed to be in an attitude that suited her for fixin’ folks and I knew she could make a bundle in Atlanta if she hung out a shingle, treating the sorrowful and depressed with her bottled salves and cooing voice. “I’m here to find out why, my sister-in-law who was orphaned, along with my wife at a young age, ended up murdering someone when she was very young. She’s incarcerated not far from here, which is what brings me to your porch and your home today.” She never stopped rocking, never leaned forward, never missed a beat, so I kept talking about what I was feeling. She and her sister had an unusual bond,” I continued, “and went through something that I’m guessing was horrible. Neither will reconcile, or talk, or share their pain. And I can’t take the secrets anymore. It’s tearing my family and my marriage apart.” Miss Ida never looked up as though this story was one she had heard many times before, and the soft creak of the rails against the floorboards, serenaded the inner peace that I had never quite been able to describe until now. So I told her the real reason I was there. “As part of her agreement to help me, my sister in law indicated a donation to your home would be the act of good will cementing my intentions. That doesn’t mean I’m not giving from my heart, ma’am, but you should know why this check reached your hands today, and the story behind it.” “What’s the name of this poor child, boy? She got a name ain’t she?”

- 106 -

Everyone is somebody here in the South. “Omara, ma’am.” I finished, nodding a bit with respect. “She’s about 35, and was born not far from here.” Southerners may seem informal, but formalities are their life. “Fine name that is, boy, fine name. She kin to the Taylors in Dillon?” It was a bit hard to understand her, but after she catapulted a wad of chew from her lips to a waiting spittoon, leaving a brown, slobbery stain on the front of her chin, I didn’t dare ask her to repeat her question for fear of being hit in the crossfire. “I have no idea, Ma’am; no idea. I’m piecing this story together out of the most flimsy of details.” “You’se husband to her sistuh, and you don’t know where her kin is? Or where her ma gave birth to her?” Ah, pedigree is a partner to formality. Live and learn. “Miss Ida, I’m sorry, I mean this with no disrespect, but yes Ma’am. I married her sister Raynell, even without knowing much about her past. She wanted it that way, and I agreed.” “Raynell Taylor? Why I knows that name, too boy. And her sister’s name is Oacie; Omara Cecile to be exact, after her Ma.” I was beginning to expect a gypsy to appear next to her in full costume, toting a crystal ball, so I quickly added. “Raynell, yes Ma’am. That’s my wife.” Miss Ida continued the magic act with grace and music in her voice.

- 107 -

“She’s got hair like gold chains and a temper like Lucifer, ain’t she boy.” And she chuckled at her own description that combined the creature of Venus with the scoundrel of darkness. “Son, she is a beauty, and a handful awright.” Hmm. I had gone from ‘boy’ to ‘son’ now. I hoped that was a good sign. “Lessee, now. Sweet Ray lived around here from da time she was 11, ‘til we hepped her get a job in Charleston.” “You mean to tell me she lived here? With you?” I hadn’t expected this kind of revelations so soon. “Lived with me for awhile, yes, boy. You see all dese lovely young girls here? They’s all needin’ a helpin’ hand, jes like she did.” “Yes Ma’am. I’m sure they are grateful for you. But my wife, she was here…?” “Quiet as a mouse that gal was, smart, too, and pleasant as ever – until you crossed her. I ain’t never seen such a lovely thing turn so quickly! Lord, we was all just a lil’ afraid of dat gal.” That was my Ray alright. “I weren’t of course,” she quickly whispered, peering through me like I was clear as glass. “I could see that she was still a child of God, and needed love to heal and thrive.” These praise-the-lord-moments happened a lot around here, so I just pretended I wasn’t thinking of taking a step or two back when her story took on an ecclesiastic tone. “Weren’t no one else dat would take her in ‘scepten me. Everyone else say she was too hard ta handle.”

- 108 -

It almost sounded like she knew my daughter, and my wife, this story was so close to home. I considered that if we all came with a history, like a Car-Fax or something, getting to know each other wouldn’t be such a mystery; and I wondered if she was going to start working on spewing out a future premonition about me. “Darndest thing,” Miss Ida continued, “she’d steal things and lie about it, too. She’d come inta dinner each night wearin’ something that belonged to someone else in town, sportin’ her treasure likes a female lion, refusin’ to return it, when confronted.” “Now she just buys the stuff she wants, Miss Ida.” I interjected with a little smile. “No kidding, son. No kiddin'.” She laughed, slapping her knee and sent the chew on her chin down to rest on her lap. At least she moved her head from side to side, breaking the forward rocking motion that was, honestly, making me a bit motion sick. “And what else is bindin’ her up, son? You say she weren’t feeling well?” Guess it was time to get to the point. Once you start telling a secret in the light of day, you realize that it hasn’t been defined too well by staying in your head. “She cannot stop herself from buying things, Ma’am. Our house is exploding with packages and shopping bags. It looks like the night before Christmas in every room. And, I’m afraid that her little addiction, as we call it, is masking a deeper trauma; one that I assumed would go away with a nice home, plenty of money and a family. I know now I was wrong.” She had stopped rocking but I kept swaying back and forth. “…And, that it might go away wif a good husband, too, I’m guessin’. You’s certainly a good husband, son, I can see dat right now.” She soothed.

- 109 -

“Well, I try, Miss Ida, and I love Raynell more than anything.” “That’s purty plain to see, son. She’s an easy one to love, I knows that much.” It was hard for me to process what was happening around me at that moment. I could see that she was floating away into the past, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her, but I wanted to take in the whole place. I had the desire to sit in corners where my wife might have curled up so I could beg the eaves and the foundation to share her secrets with me. But the house had too many to isolate the ones that Ray had placed inside it. “What I don’t understand, Miss Ida, is why you only had Raynell living here and not Oacie.” I shared, openly confused. “Were they separated into two homes by the state?” “Son, seems I knows a bit more ‘n you do. At age fifteen, Miss Omara was convicted of some petty crimes. Charges were brought on by the Sheriff of the next county. His name was Frank Scoggins I believe, if my mind ain’t failin’ me. He was sho popular ‘round here, and had taken a likin’ to da two girls, ever since they was livin’ with da Hammonds, who live in the county just over dat hill. They was talk that they’d seen one of dey Foster parents die in an accident, but those two girls never done talked to no one, and Frank kept his mouth shut, too, so no one really knowed the whole story. Uh, huh. Tight as a dried hide over a fence post they all was.” I could see that picture in my head. It was the way I felt after an argument with Ray. She couldn’t be stretched another inch after she pulled in following our fights. Miss Ida continued, even as some of the girls came in and out of the house to check on her. Maybe they didn’t know the story but something made me feel like I was the only one on the property who didn’t.

- 110 -

“Took a while afore these girls was caught up with by da law, and when they did, bof girls were like to starve ta death. Why after all da dust settled, and Oacie was back in prison again, lil’ Raynell insisted on staying with her sister, but Oacie wouldn’t have no part of it.” “Are you saying that Oacie kept Ray from visiting her?” I queried. “It was her desire that Ray stayed afar aways from her. She didn’t want that beautiful gal to be infected with what she called, ‘her demons.’” Miss Ida was a well spring of information. I already knew Oacie was guarded, I could sense that. But why push Ray away? The one person she apparently did everything to save? “She wanted Raynell to have a life, a good life. Without dat wish, she wouldna moved out of her past and into yo life, son.” She mentioned ‘prison’ with such nonchalance. For some reason I expected her to reveal some Hollywood type secret that would allow me to march down to the iron gates with a good lawyer and get Oacie out, and back home. But there was truth to it all, truth I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear. Oacie was in prison for good reason. “I’ve always wondered. Why would they send a fifteen year old to prison?” I gasped quietly. This time Miss Ida stopped rocking for good. She got up, slowly of course, and stood tall. Grabbing her apron, she walked over to the edge of the railing, and knocking the large pieces of chew into the wind, she stared off into the distance. Focusing intently out in the meadow where the only thing in view was a giant old oak tree, and a small headstone tipping sideways between the protruding roots, she sighed. When she did speak, I could hardly hear her. “They didn’t send a child to prison, son. They sent a woman, a full grown woman.”

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She turned to me and continued. “Y’all are gonna have a hard time of this. I know I have, but when Oacie was released from juvenile hall aftah three years, and shortly aftah she done turn eightenn, she went right back behind dem bars. She was convicted of murder after dey found her hovering over the body of the Sheriff, with a bloody ball bat in her hand, and a saber stickin’ outta Frank’s middle. It weren’t more than four weeks after seeing the light of day from her chains.” “Was Raynell there?” “She was home with me, son. Ten miles away, here in this house. No one but Miss Oacie and the crushed body of the Sheriff were found that fateful day.” Miss Ida spoke softly with her hand out and resting on my knee, knowing that these gruesome details would be hard to swallow. “Oh Lord almighty.” She continued, “The pain that girl has kept inside, breaks my heart. Darnt near breaks me in two.” I couldn’t believe it. By God, it was true. She hadn’t been framed, or set up, or accused through mistaken identity. She had killed a man all by herself, and done it, I suspected, given her calm demeanor, without remorse. A bat and a blade aren’t for self defense, they’re for mutilation. It was too hard to conjure up a mental picture of the graceful creature I had just met in a menacing and apparently pre-meditated pose. She was a killer after all. I turned in my chair, thinking I would gag, and the glass of iced tea that had been dripping water all down my arm slipped a bit as I cleared my throat. How would I talk, or recover, or face anyone again? If Oacie was trying to protect Ray, which is what I was hoping was the case, they would have been found together. Ray would have been huddled behind the proverbial wood pile, and the state worker would have rushed in to scoop up the girls, and declare justice was done. I would have an aunt for my children, and a

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sister for my wife. But instead I had nothing but a half told story, and a sweetheart who couldn’t be healed. “Miss Ida, you can imagine, I’m sorry; I was expecting a better explanation for all this.” Even my voice was cracking, and I was keenly aware of the mocking and shrill sound of the crickets as they ushered in the early evening. “I met Oacie just this morning, and she seemed wise and indomitable. It’s hard to believe she’s a cold blooded killer.” I thought Miss Ida was going to slap me in the face, she turned so quickly. “Ain’t no one said she was a cold blooded boy! Y’all ain’t no idea what went on in her life. She ain’t no more cold blooded than I am.” I was back to being an adolescent, as she berated me for my quick judgment. And I wondered, was there a clue in her responses? God, was there a handbook for southern lingo I could check out of the library? This many twists and turns would keep me decoding the innuendos forever. What was she trying to say? “But you sai…” “I said she was found over the body.” She retorted. “Miss Oacie never said nothin’ to the police, to the lawyers appointed to defend her, or to anyone else ‘bout how it all came to be. They had to pry that bat out of her hand she was a’clutchin’ it so tight, and they even cleaned the blood from her face without her saying nothin’. Darndest story I ever heard. His wife liked to beat the daylights out of that girl, right in court, too. Ran up to her on the stand and started to pull at her clothes and grab her hair and cuss a blue streak at dat poor, young girl.” I was getting confused as to who the bad guy was in all this. It was easy to see who Miss Ida believed it though.

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“Miss Oacie, proud, tall and beautiful just stood tall and looked right over at Ray da entire time, while Missah Prosecutor was spinnin’ his tale. She never done even shed a tear.” It was my turn, now hoping my next questions would get the world spinning clockwise again. “Miss Ida, if I may. Why didn’t the town come to her rescue? If she had a reason, why didn’t anyone get at the core of it? Why didn’t she fight back?” Son, you ain’t much at understanding about things, are ya? She didn’t have one friend in da whole of the world ‘ceptin’ me. Not one person breathing in and out, anyway, which was on her side. Truth is, the whole town was enraged, and they wanted someone’s head. She didn’t have no chance, a poor orphan girl like that, reputation as a troublemaker in a small, peaceful town, scandal surroundin’ her, and a conviction of assault from afore. Why, she was always in trouble and always scarin’ folks. For certain, ain’t no one thought she had an ounce a good in her.” I had to answer this – she expected it I’m sure. “But you did. And that’s why you are still her only friend isn’t it?” Miss Ida turned to face me, her jaw ceasing to gnaw on the foul smelling chew, and her eyes, black and deep, looked right through me. Why, she had known who I was all along. And because of that, I stayed and I listened and I watched the sun go from yellow to purple to gray, without feeling tired, or tugged on by the pull of time. I was in the company of someone I was sure would become a dear friend from here on out as she connected the unconnected, repaired the irreparable, and soothed the open wounds that had opened up in me from her story. But I kept thinking of the woman in the iron chains with the grace of a dancer, who had a story she had promised to tell. I only hoped I was worthy to hear it.

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I met the enemy today, square in the face like all brave people, even though the battle could not be won. I was holding Mason’s hand when we were introduced. I held it so tightly that when I let go I could see the marks I’d left in his palm where my fingernails had been digging in for escape. The moment I heard the C word, life changed forever and I knew it. I knew it like you know when you’re falling and can’t be caught. You simply hold on to whatever is around you as time suddenly goes to slow motion and you wait to see how you will land. I couldn’t breathe, so I fixed my gaze across the room on the funny wiggly, brown threads that meandered through the drapery panels behind the desk of our Oncologist in his tiny, dark office. I was suddenly amazed at the intricacy of the pattern, imagining the eccentric designer who brought it forth from a picture in her head. I followed it from the top of the rods all the way down the length of the fold, and saw it repeat every few inches before it curved into the hem and grazed the top of the orange, shag carpet. I almost felt like I floated out of the chair weightless and ethereal as I concentrated on the different widths of notches and squares repeating all the way across each one. But the words that I had heard could not be pushed out. The secret was told; the disease and I were now on a first name basis. Come to think of it, I don’t suppose it was a proper introduction. Proper means that you’re seeing each other for the first time. Proper is when someone you know and trust is allowed into your life and they have the good manners to shake your hand and look you in the eye as each of you recite the practiced script of friendship. That wasn’t the case for this new acquaintance. This enemy had already taken up residence within me years before, insidiously traveling through my sinews as it hatched its deadly plan, following pathways that were meant for blood and

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nourishment and the warmth of life. Without apology it lived on, thriving in places that God created for harmony, places that were now being reprogrammed to fail. There was no good breeding in this enemy. The reality was it had used me for its own good. I was no more than living fuel to the poison growing on and on without purpose. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared with the right armor. My ancestors, although good stock, had left me with a legacy of weakness and “predetermined risk,” as the doctor put it. If my mother had lived long enough, he said without tenderness, referring to her early passage from food poisoning, we might have known that my DNA was flawed, and been able to plan for this. As though we would have been happy to learn that my cells would turn into a mass of madness with a blood-thirsty hunger for destruction. Still, he was confident that his arsenal of drugs, chemicals and knives would give me a chance to live on for at least five years. That was supposed to be the good news. I was being scheduled for surgery tomorrow. No time to think or prepare. Even the words were horrific: “Double Mastectomy.” It sounded like what happens when you’re run over by two trucks, not one. But tomorrow? Oh, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t even see another sunrise before the first shot was fired! I had to return before dawn for pre-op and I couldn’t even eat a decent supper tonight. If this was a fight, it had all the earmarks of failure. Even people set to fry in the electric chair get a last meal. I would enter the operating room with my body and my sexuality intact and awaken without my breasts and a few other tissues that were neighbors to my now diseased and already drooping chest. Like an animal cut in two by a hunter’s bullet, I saw myself limping and deformed, asked to accept a shortened life as I began to deposit myself little by little into a waiting grave.

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It was at that moment, suspended between fear and anger that I thought about how I would never experience intimacy the same way again. I considered, as one considers a memory when flanking one’s own mortality, what would be lost. It was the vividness of the pleasurable feel of Mason’s mouth on my naked skin as he would envelope my nipples between his hard teeth, grabbing me hungrily between my legs, encouraging my warmth and moistness to the surface so we could both be lost in the ache of pleasure that permeated every bit of me. I choked thinking of how we would never have that familiar and sensual dance again. My arousal would have to be in spite of the black scars that would crisscross my chest. I would have to feel it all without being a complete woman. The ironic torture of it is that I could choose to have fake breasts installed on my frame, designed and placed there by a plastic surgeon that certainly moonlights as a mad scientist. Advertising their prosthetic pride and drawing whistles and stares, there were plenty of floosies in our town showing off their rubber-filled D-cups by swaying back and forth to encourage the bulge in their décolleté to draw the attention they craved. It seemed so pitiful and I always felt sorry for them. You see, there is no substitute for the flesh that gives form when womanhood begins to peek out as a young girl, that swells and balloons when life stirs inside you, and finally vibrates with pleasure when you’re sharing yourself with the man you love. Of course, giving up my breasts was supposed to be a fair trade. It’s not like lung cancer I mused. I was told the cancer would be contained and discarded inside what would be deemed ‘medical trash.’ But I think we all knew that wouldn’t be the case. A good scout always leaves behind a few stragglers to secure a post for the next invasion. This war was going to be one sided in its victory. I was simply a battle ground of destiny. All of these thoughts went through my mind in the space of a millisecond. But what brought the real tears to my eyes was the thought of my girls, Omara and sweet little Raynell and how the disease was stealing me away from them. These beautiful, vibrant, hopeful, and talented babies would be denied a mother’s

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refuge, spontaneously robbed of a bosom to escape into when the cruelty of life took its toll. Oh, God! This was more than a punishment for not believing in Him, this was the universe toppling over onto itself, and that just couldn’t be happening. How could this be? Nothing had changed. I could still hear the birds singing outside, and the sun; it hadn’t missed a moment of fusion. Surely I could muster all the energy around me and fight! Fight without apology I would, and by the time Mason and I walked out of the hospital, smiling weakly as the doctor promised to do his very best, I pursed my lips with determination, and he tucked me under his now slumping but broad shoulders as we walked out into the unknown. “We will beat this Mason. We will fight, and we will beat it.” I announced. Perhaps my trembling would be interpreted as courage and I kept talking to see if I could change the feeling inside me. “They cain’t know everything, you know. I’ve read about plenty of women who survive breast cancer. I’m young and strong. We both are. I’m ready to take it on.” I lied of course. Everyone lies when they know it’s hopeless. Mason stopped, and when he turned to me I could see how scared he really was and it threw me back into the feeling of doom I had felt just moments before. “Cecile, you are the miracle in my life.” his eyes betraying the fact that he was not buoyed by my valor. “ And I will be with you every step of the way. I ain’t ready to let you go and I hope you ain’t ready to leave me.” With that I flung my arms around his unshaven neck and held him as we dissolved into tears in the parking lot. We could hear footsteps around us as people walked by, giving away the fact that we had drawn the short straw, most likely scaring them into thinking that if it was real for us it could be real for them.

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We stayed there holding on and waiting. Waiting for time to stop, for the doctor to run out and tell us there was a mix up, waiting to wake up from the dream, waiting for the courage to look into each other’s eyes and breathe. “Take me home, Mason.” I interrupted, leaning into his ear to break the spell. “Draw me a hot bath and massage my feet. And then make love to me. Make love to me and hold me tight.” *** The operation had been a success, success in the sense that the cancer seemed to be limited to the ductile tissue of the breast and hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes. Success because I hadn’t died on the table, and success because it appeared we could fight the remnants of the cancer with radiation and chemo. When I got home and unpacked my suitcase I lined up my pain medication in the bathroom medicine cabinet and smiled when I saw that many of them were the same prescription as the ones prescribed after Raynell’s birth. It seems that stopping pain shares a common ground with all ailments, happy or sad. After six months things started to go wrong again as I felt myself coughing harder than usual. It was like someone had stapled my lung to my chest cavity breathing was so labored. When we went to the doctor, he told us it was probably pneumonia, since all my scans were clean and several people in town had been suffering from the same thing. “Cecile, you’ve responded well to the treatments. There’s no reason to panic. That won’t help you at all.” I began to feel a bit of relief in his words, but something had changed it me, I knew it. “It is not uncommon to panic when you get the slightest case of the sniffles.” He continued. “Go home and drink some orange juice. You’ll be fine in a couple of days.”

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And with that we walked out of the office, past the waiting room, and nearly tripped over someone standing on the steps smoking a cigarette who leered at us through yellow, crooked teeth. I felt like I had just brushed elbows with the grim reaper. *** “Mama, why can’t you pick me up?” Omara wailed one morning a year later, after awakening in the most foul of moods. “You are a big girl, sweetie. It’s time to go to school. Mama is tired and you don’t need to be babied.” Truth was I wished I could scoop her up in my arms. She’d had really bad dreams the night before and had come barreling into our room crying and scared. “But I don’t want to leave you today! I want to stay home. I don’t want to go to school!” It was so unusual for her to be unruly that I almost forgot who I was dealing with. Raynell was always giving me a reason to think on my feet. But Omara was always a dream child. “You have to go, sweetie. Please. When you get home, I will have pie ready for you.” Even bribery seemed foreign to our infrequent negotiations. “Promise?” She asked, whimpering and unable to catch her breath because she had been so out of control. “Promise, my twinkling beauty…now hurry. Go get your shoes. It’s almost time to leave.”

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I had thrown up blood only an hour after she left. By the time she got home I was in bed. Calling my neighbor to take the girls, I called Mason and told him to come home quickly. It’s funny when the inevitable happens. I have to say it was almost a relief to know that the end was near. I was so, so tired of it all. When Mason got home he simply turned back the covers and got beside me, stroking my hair, telling me jokes, even threatening to make the meatloaf. For those of you who think you can’t mess up beef and catsup, Mason’s cooking is a revelation in disaster. I laughed hard and then coughed, so he turned and picked up the phone to call the doctor. After spending two weeks in the hospital, we begged the doctor to let me come home. Unable to afford hospice, we simply created a place for me to be surrounded by all the things I loved and both the girls nearly lived on my lap. The TV was never turned on and dinners were almost always brought in by neighbors. It was then that Omara walked in with a pie she had made and it all came back to me. “Oh my, baby girl, I, I am so very sorry. I had promised you I was going to make you a pie that day. I didn’t do it and I’m sorry.” And I put a shaking hand up to my mouth, covering it as I recalled my broken vow. “That’s okay Mama. I understand.” And she held me tight. At that moment I realized I had to write them each a letter. I had to leave more behind than the memory of blood and sorrow. I had to give them something they could anchor their lives to, something that would always be there if promises had been broken, something that would last forever; that’s what they needed. I prayed long and hard about what to say to my first born and this is what came out.

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“Dearest Omara, As I sit here thinking of how delicate mortality really is, I cannot help but think about the grace of life and how each moment is a blessing and a teacher to us all. I think about how every time I was able to hold you and peer into your soul I was lucky to do so. I consider all the moments when I saw you learn something new, from the first time you discovered your fingers to just last week when you conquered a spelling test and I saw pride and power swell inside you. I have, with your help, fought a good fight and earned wisdom that God only gives the suffering. You have been by my side, after each treatment or surgery, displaying a distinct poise and maturity that I know will serve you well as you enter the adventure of life. We have spent many hours tucked under my quilt, reading books, playing games, and laughing until we both started to cry. It will be these tender moments that are the most exquisite foundation for all things eternal. But today I am compelled to give you another gift, the gift of my voice inside your head through the written word, forever hoping to share with you the wisdom that I will not be allowed to meter out over the next sixty years. I trust that God will give me the strength to choose the right things to share in the pages of this letter; a letter that you will open after my death and hopefully use throughout your life. Read my words often and when you do, we will be together, under that quilt once again. First, and this is the most important thing, you must realize that all things are a choice. Joy is a choice, humor is a choice, even helplessness is a choice. All that you experience in life will be colored by your ability to choose how you react to it. Wherever you find yourself, know that it is a direct result of the choices you’ve made, and wherever you want to end up is also completely within your control! Choose wisely my lovely daughter!

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Secondly, never stop being curious. God has created you to grow, expand and learn each and every day. You will never reach a point where you know all things, nor should you seek that. The answer to any problem you struggle with is to ask what it is that you are being taught, not why you don’t know the answer. You must reflect on all things, question every fact, examine every truth, search for the door when you see a wall and make a path when you see a mountain. Third, you do not have control over life. Whatever goes your way in the future is not a result of the hold you have had on it. Thinking this will surely bring you sorrow and confusion. Do not try and hold on to things with the idea that you will mold them into the shape of a future you have already determined is what you deserve or must create. Life moves and changes, only to return to another more interesting path. Embrace each change and adventure as tightly as you can. Think not of what people are thinking of you, but work hard to be a friend and respecter of yourself. What moves away from you may move back in front of you in due time, and when it returns it will be there to stay. Lack of control is the ultimate rhythm of life! Celebrate your talents. You, my dearest, dark-haired, gifted soul are a story teller. But I do not know where that will take you! It could be that the vocation you choose will not include a pen and paper. But you see deeply and profoundly into the soul of others and you see continuity in their hearts. Storytellers bridge the emptiness of the unknown. They heal and soothe and entertain. Never forget that your gift is given to you to help bind the family of man together in peace and knowledge and joy. Use your talent, nurture your talent, respect your talent-This is my wish for you most of all. Finally, I want to give you an assignment. An unfair one if you will. Your father is already worn and tired. I fear that his life is already empty having seen me struggle to cling to a life that has been fading for some time. I believe he will join me in heaven, or in whatever place we will dwell together, much sooner than you deserve. That may leave you, Omara, to watch out for your sister and it is this task that I humbly ask that you accept. I ask this favor because she is delicate and not as strong as you are. She will read her letter from me and may

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not be able to connect to its power for some time. You must help her through the starkness of my absence and carry her through to maturity. The fact is, Omara Cecile, you are me, only better. You see all the beauty in things and make sense of them. You are able to organize things in an elegant way, and make them work for you. Without you we will lose Raynell, and the beauty she has brought to all our lives. It is in this final request that I ask for your eternal forgiveness. I cannot think of another way to protect her. You and she are connected in a way I have always marveled to behold. You both seem to share a common heartbeat, and even though she is moving through life without your unwavering strength, you also share a common soul. I ask this finally because I know without her you won’t survive either. In closing, I must tell you that I cannot forget the day we all gathered on the blanket to watch the falling stars. I remember the pact we made that you would never have to go, never be asked to fling yourself across the universe to be a stranger to familiar things. And I apologize that I made you think you would be able to avoid the inevitable sorrow you are grieving over now. The fact is, a falling star is the brightest star, she is the bravest star, and she is the only star with enough courage to expel her glory out in one sparkling breath, so that all creatures of earth can be illuminated with truth and light. All wondrous things are meant to live in this way. Shine, Oacie. It’s what you do best. Love, Mommy”

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Chapter Six – Radiance

OACIE Being a girl is simply a small version of being a woman, which is different than how I would describe a man, because he is simply a larger version of a boy. These roll reversals seem to be the start of all trouble, especially if you expect to find a man that you can trust. Other than my Papa, who of course is exempt from this comparison, all the others fall short of giving you the understanding, trust and calm that you wish you could find. They’re too busy trying to get away with everything, straightening up when you walk into a room like a kid trying to hide something under his shirt, or advancing toward you in a menacing stride, intending to take what they want. Steve is caught somewhere in the middle, but I think he knows that. His red hair makes him approachable, and even a little silly, but there something about him that belies his “boy” beginnings, and crosses over to grown-up potential. I stopped thinking about people with potential after the first foster parents we lived with made us sleep in the closet, so they could have friends over without being bothered by us. Being afraid heightens your senses to the point of exhibiting an animal instinct in the face of it, and even through a crack in the door you see what people are made of. You can smell them, hear them (and I don’t mean just their words,) and that combination gives you all you need to know to stay away from everyone. Of course, this tide of memory only accelerates my story-telling hormones, programmed and set in motion by the need to take revenge on the people and circumstances that catapulted us into the horrors we endured. Said in plain English? I knew I had decided someone was going to have to hurt for us not to. Funny how life’s path winds and dips in random circles, carrying you along for the ride like a slurp of soda through a spiral straw; and then dumping you into

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the basin of common experience. I wasn’t used to floating with everyone else. But then maybe I never looked around to find out that we were all bobbing around together. *** I watched Steve try out several sitting positions before he settled into what appeared to be one he’d used many times before, and took pity on my brotherin-law. The look on his face was kinder than I had seen on almost anyone. He seemed transformed, and for a minute I panicked about what Miss Ida had told him. I wondered inside if she had spilled all the beans. That would mean he would be before me as a potential rescuer, incapable of listening without infusing the story with the whole, “What a poor little girl. Someone has to stick up for this kid,” attitude. I feel like a medieval martyr attempting to piece together a tale of oppression and pity with no ending to call my own. The man before me; was he a hero or another villain? I didn’t know. But I would attempt to catapult us both back in time using only the script of a child. Perhaps it’s easier to see things more clearly when traveling the worn cobblestones of memory with a friend. Was he a friend? In the quietest whisper, like the first sound a twig makes when it bends under the weight of a small bird, I spoke the first words of my story to him… “I was there when Mama died.” There, I had spoken it, and the walls hadn’t crashed in after all. “In fact,” I continued before he could start asking all those irritating questions, “I was the alone in the room with her when it happened. I was holding her hand and she just looked at me like it took all the might she had to turn her head and

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face me for one last smile. She looked right through me, and I felt as though she was watching me in some movie replaying in fast motion: Me growing up, getting a job, falling in love, taking my vows, tending to grandchildren, and then becoming old. It was like traveling through a tunnel with her the feeling was so real. I was so, so afraid to let go you know, because she was pulling me along, and because we were exploring heaven together.” I was reflected deeply, but another thought came to me just as quickly. “… but now that I think of it, I wasn’t scared at all.” I looked over and Steve wasn’t gushing with some syrupy look. I wasn’t sure, but he seemed transfixed, just as I had planned. This made continuing much easier. It made everything easier. I had an audience who cared. “Just as quick as I took her hand, I saw a light fill up the room. Not with my eyes, but I sensed a breeze enter, and rush past the back of my head, only stopping to lay a gauzy finger on my shoulder. It was just enough pressure to hold me down so that when they came to take her, I wouldn’t accidently be pulled into the light and die, too.” Then, something new happened to me as I spoke. A soft feeling of warmth and understanding that made me feel like I was hearing this story, and not telling it. Suddenly I was aware that I was whispering, holding back small whimpers that sounded so foreign. I couldn’t swallow, or hold back the squeak in my voice, or quell the feeling that I was being severed in two. But I had to get it out, I had to. “Then, she was….gone, Steve. She was gone.” Hold on Oacie, you can get through this. “…And she took her grace and beauty and all that tenderness that made the world feel light and happy along with her. You know, after it sunk it to my small head what happened, I looked around the room and I knew, I knew even the angels were gone! Everything was gone, the light, the hope…everything.”

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I stood up and paced because sitting didn’t seem right. Walking back and forth with my hands on my hips, or rubbing my thighs to stave off the dizziness, I obeyed the words rushing out of my mouth. “You know, um, you know that sound that fills up your ears like the ocean? The sound that lets you know your heart is still beating and the world is still spinning?” “I do, Oacie. I know what you mean.” It was the quietest of comments and he barely uttered it without moving, not wanting to interrupt, but I needed it. “Well, that sound was gone as well. Even the magic that always surrounded Mama had vanished and nothing remained; nothing but stillness.” He nodded and smiled like someone hearing a joke at a funeral who smiles but not very obviously. But I knew he understood. “You know what was weird?” I inquired, as though I was across from a friend in a schoolyard. “She didn’t even look like Mama anymore. In that instant she turned into skin and bones, yellow, mottled and damp, the evidence of suffering in the curled fingers of her hands, and in the swelling of her abdomen and face. She was gray in some places, and her neck was recessed and brown. Although I wasn’t afraid, I pulled my hand away quickly, feeling like I was in the clutch of a stranger. It was like, well, it was like an empty shell that looked like her, but she was gone. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do when you’re in a room with a stranger, or when you’re only eight, for that matter, so I slowly stood up, regained my balance so I could walk to the door – and screamed.” Steve got up and put his hand against the glass, as though he was trying to reach through it, and connect with me. I looked over at him, with tears streaming down my cheeks, a feeling of freedom coming over me and said, “I’m alright. I’m okay, really. You okay?” “I’m okay, Oacie. I’m here. I want to know more. Please keep talking.”

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And he said all of that with his hand still on the glass. I looked over briefly, trying to catch a glimpse of the lifeline on his palm, like some lone gypsy looking at someone before gazing into her crystal ball. Opening my own palm and assessing the roadmap that was the future of me, I continued. “After I screamed, I heard a glass breaking from down in the kitchen where Papa had retreated before leaving me in charge. It sounded awful, like the shards had scattered everywhere. Then within moments, he was at the door, pale and out of breath, his eyes wild as a cat’s.” “I felt so bad he had missed it!” I keened, “He usually never left her side! He asked me to simply hold her hand while he refilled her ice cup. Something that should only take a moment so he could stretch his legs, and feel the cold water on his head, as well as the water streaming into the glass. All he wanted was a break away from the smell and the coughing; just one moment that he didn’t have to watch the love of his life gasp for breath.” “He couldn’t have known, Oacie. No one could have.” Steve had said it so quietly I wasn’t sure it was even meant to be heard. “But I should have known. I knew she was going to die before the doctors did, and I felt something was going happen when he called me to stay with her. I knew this was the moment, but I wouldn’t refuse Papa. He was so tired, so skinny, his faced so puffed with tears, his clothes hanging on him so sadly… So, I said yes to him and watched him walk out, and held her hand tightly, thinking that I, strong, formidable, stubborn Oacie could keep her in our world, just till he returned. She wasn’t going to whiz across my sky and fall, not my Mama, that’s what I thought.”

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Steve looked askew for a minute because he didn’t know what I meant about “whizzing.” No one would really understand that but me. No time to tell him all that now. “Funny, thing is,” I chuckled with drooping, withered energy, “I didn’t have any power at all.” Glancing through the glass, I saw Steve riveted and still. His arms were now wrapped tightly around his middle and I could see the fists he’d made with his hands, awkwardly tucked under his rib cage. He seemed to be sitting in an uncomfortable way with one leg crossed over the other for balance, and the pencil he held in one hand to record my ramblings was pushed against his shirt, drawing funny gray lines on the waist of his otherwise perfect button down as he breathed in and out. I watched the scribbles grow, like the jump a Richter scale needle makes when recording an earthquake – which was, for the most part, exactly what was happening to us both. I was starting to cry harder now. Shit, I was falling apart. I felt a snotty string drip from my nose and land in my lap. Embarrassed, I started wiping it away with my other hand discovering it was already all over my face so I pulled both hands up and groomed myself like a cat, gathering myself and becoming whole once again. The story had started to carry me and I couldn’t wait to keep telling it, so before my audience realized what a sad sight I must be – this skinny, convicted, murderer in her thirties, sobbing behind glass – I kept talking. And amazingly, Steve kept listening. It was like being with Miss Grismore all over again. “I stayed with Papa for a long time after he came back upstairs, and we just stared at Mama. Her face was twisted and flat, her eyes were already closed, and her mouth was hanging open. We weren’t more than 3 feet from her and neither of us moved.

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“You know, you’d think he’d hold me,” I shrilled, back to feeling the full force of the moment. “… but he didn’t have the strength to comfort anyone. Even though I fit inside his chest, and his arms were fully around me, the comforting was coming from me.” After a big sigh I said, “I waited a long moment. Then I understood why Papa couldn’t have hugged me back. I realized that although the angels were able to keep me from being sucked up into heaven with Mama, they had neglected to notice that Papa’s heart, and hers were one, and I knew it had been ripped from his chest and was already beating in heaven with hers, leaving a hole as big as the whole earth inside him.” I looked up into Steve’s eyes, wondering if he had the same picture in his mind of two hearts with wings, as his mouth started to form a question. Sadly, he disappointed me with his educated tone. “Was anyone there to help you understand what had happened?” I suddenly felt embarrassed about being so transparent. I was lost in this moment, but again, it was only my moment, so I struggled to respond with tact. “Steve, there was no one, don’t you understand? There’s never been anyone. The only help I had was in here.” And I beat on my chest hard, and strong…three big wraps to be sure, in case he didn’t get the drift that my only friend was me. And because I wasn’t interested in the cultural path he was leaning towards, I decided to do what I always do, and keep telling the story to lure him away from the inquiries. He would have to follow me over the rough spots, and tend to his skinned knees and faltering ego later. “You know, when you’re little you don’t have any understanding of space and time. Days seem like years, and they drag on without perspective. I think I knew

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things would never be the same or that no one was going to rescue us. We simply had to get on with life; so that’s what we did.” “But, how did you survive without extra help?” He was really pressing me hard for an answer. “I can’t believe there wasn’t someone who came to make sure you were properly cared for after your mom died. Wasn’t there some kind of child service group?” “You really are living on Mars, aren’t you Steve. No one had any extra time or money for anything other than survival. Do you even understand what it’s like to be stripped of everything?” I could see him negotiating the full force of our tragedy in his head, running through the pictures of us separated from safety, sporting puffy cheeks, and carrying ragged duffels full of lost dreams. I was always trying to separate myself from others since that day. Had that always been the right choice? I had to change my tone before the poor boy was overcome with sorrow. “It wasn’t insurmountable, Steve. I just didn’t have perspective. I was only a child.” And I surprised myself with the cheer ringing in my voice after such a dismal recant. I didn’t want to keep talking about death, anyway. “Ray and I found ways to keep busy as most children do: throwing blankets over the clothesline to make a playhouse, fitting building blocks together in endless combinations, and stacking books to make believe we were secretaries typing on humming Selectrics. But every few weeks, when I had the courage to talk about it, and Ray would ask me again where Mama was, I would explain to her about the stars and the angels and the holes in heaven where Mama could peer down at

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us, and that we’d be okay if we stayed together. She’d look into my eyes with that narrow, hole-boring look she’s so good at, to make sure I wasn’t lying, and then she would stroll over to stare out of the window trailing a fistful of crayons in one hand, and wiping her nose with the other.” “She’s always doing five things at once…” He mused and I was relieved we were back in a rhythm. “Yes, she is that way. Bugs the shit out of me, I’ll tell you that. But it was strange, really how she was never missed a beat. I watched her looking out the window, and once she had secured the right cloud to project her imagination into as the place where Mama must be, she sighed, returned to our circle, and picked up exactly where we had left off. I was always tempted to run to the window as well, wondering what kind of telltale sign had so quickly satisfied her curiosity. Had Mama waved? Had God? I never asked and she never said a word.” I think I saw a small smile cross Steve’s face which served to convince me that we were family. He knew her in ways that let me know she was still the same, and it comforted me. “In the evenings, when Papa would return from the mill, I would of course have supper ready. Corn bread and meat loaf was his favorite, and sometimes we just ate cereal if the money jar hadn’t been robbed for emergencies like fixing a flat tire, or repairing a broken window. It was a strange ritual, our eating in silence, and also comforting at the same time. Each bite we would take was in harmony, entering each of our mouths like a slow engine firing pistons in sequence, a piece of human machinery humming relentlessly through the silence of our broken hearts.” “Did you talk at the table?” Steve interjected like this was an interview, even though the pages of his book lay blank. “Sometimes we did, sure. Sometimes when he had the energy to ask about our day at school we’d jump right in and blabber away about everything. Ray and I

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would be armed with stacks of drawings to show him, or boxes that held crafts we had made out of scraps laying around the house. Sometimes we even showed him a dead bug that we had captured and skewered for display. He would nod with a sad smile, lean over and kiss our heads not knowing we could see the tear fall from his eyes and stain the collar of his green work shirt.” Steve looked down and I realized I didn’t mean for that to be so sad. It just was that way. We were that way. “I actually liked taking care of Ray and Papa. I was good at most of it, even though I was just a little girl. I did all the cooking, all the cleaning and all the shopping. Laundry was my favorite part, though. The sound of the washing machine was comforting. Do you like those sounds?” He answered quickly to keep the feeling real. “My favorite time is Saturday afternoons in May when I can hear the sprinkler clicking and dancing across the yard, and the low hum of the washer in the background, and the windows open so they both complement each other. I look up from my paper and all is well with the world. I know what you mean. It’s wonderful music.” “It is wonderful, isn’t it?” I acknowledged. “Sometimes I would stand in front of the washing machine, waiting for the right interval to begin to twitch and sway with my arms out and my toes in –kind of a domestic ballet accompanied by wangs and thuds. I’d move along with the sounds it made just to make Ray giggle.” I didn’t want the social commentary about kids and machinery and “what were you doing alone in the house?” kind of questioning. So I added, “Don’t go thinking I was careless, though. Things were scarce and I was mindful with everything. It may sound crazy to you but these are the things that

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sustain you. I knew how to keep myself busy with chores and keep a home moving and functioning.” “I know now where Ray gets it from. She’s as clean as clean can be.” He added. Steve was looking down and smiling, and so I kept on with the story, adding all the details as they rushed into my head like the fact that we could always tell when Papa got up in the middle of the night because of the squeaky plank at the top of the stairs, or the train whistle that blew at 3:45 a.m. every morning as freight and cotton made its way through our tiny city to be spun into frocks and tablecloths for a faraway customer. “There’s a lot more to tell, but really the days were all the same; the same droning, nervous, lonely days over and over again – until Papa was found dead one day by his locker from a heart attack, crumpled on the floor with one shoe off and his sock in his hand.” I knew Steve was thinking about his daughter and what would happen to her if he died. Man, I didn’t mean to throw out the part about Papa so quickly, I didn’t know what the right thing was to say, I was just letting my heart talk and he was listening with his. “After he was buried in a pine box and placed on a hill next to the church, they delivered me an envelope containing the things he kept with him at the mill. And you know what was in there? One of Mama’s lost earrings because he was incessantly looking for the other and keeping the found one seemed like a good luck charm. His time card showing days blocked out in red by his supervisor because of budget cuts. A book he had checked out of the library to learn Italian that had expired seven years earlier, and finally a photo of Mama after they first met, and were picnicking by the river. We asked that the picture be buried with him. Do you know they even included the remnants of the sandwich I had made him that morning? Why they kept it I don’t know.”

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I paused suddenly; paused because it was starting to feel really weird hearing my voice telling all of this out loud. “He had only lasted two years after Mama died, or at least he took care of us for that time, but it didn’t seem like he was alive at all. I think he was simply waiting for the time he would get his heart back.” “How long before they removed you from your house?” It was obvious Steve was thinking about his own children again, answering the question of what Garner and Nell would do if they lost both of their parents. “Not long at all. After the funeral, the social worker followed up back to our house, quickly packing a few personal things, and we were off to a home for girls.” I shared matter-of-factly. “And that was that. We were officially orphans. No kin, no friends, no one at all to speak for us, or take us in.” “Was Ray starting to show signs of withdrawal, then?” Steve interjected shyly, and I was tempted to throw him a look of disgust because he simply couldn’t resist making everything clinical. But instead I offered the only segue that made sense because now wasn’t the time to separate our plights. We had been yoked to our circumstances by family. “We both withdrew, Steve. We spent the next year at that home, learning quickly that we weren’t special, or worthy of any nurturing. We were cogs in a wheel that turned based on a headcount, and the only hint at civility was the cross that hung ominously over the large oak entry doors, and the photo of the Pope in the lobby. It stared back at us from a greasy broken frame, his index and middle finger pointing upwards like he was trying to keep his balance, and not fall over from the weight of that ridiculous hat.” With that recollection I started to think more about our circumstance and the details flooded out of me. “I used to think our house was old, but this building was positively ancient. The entire structure seemed to be tipping slightly, and

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whenever someone turned on a faucet, it screamed in pain like a suffering creature being stabbed by a knife.” I realized I had acted like this was a religious institution, but nothing could be further from the truth. I didn’t want Steve thinking I was praying all day like a believer, so I put the notion to rest. “I’m not really sure if it was run by a church, but I do know it was run by witches of all shapes and sizes, moving along the floor as though walking didn’t come naturally, hands entwined like branches to keep them from losing each other. Ray and I soon recognized a recurrent limp among the lot of them, and judged that their weak feet proved a broom was their preferred mode of transportation. We were also fairly certain, had cannibalism not been illegal, that we would have been eaten by every last one of them.” It was those kinds of interjections that Miss Grismore rewarded with extra credit and I couldn’t help embellishing the story. Truth is often too hard to swallow. “I don’t remember how small, but our room was definitely tiny, with a wood floor, and one small window smeared with fingerprints and the desperate outline of cheeks and lips that were pressed against it in the hopes for escape. We ate two meals, breakfast and dinner, but nothing was very edible. I asked once if I could help cook, and I was slapped so soundly that I nursed the welt on my cheek for three weeks. That was the end of my chivalry.” He moved around and uncrossed his legs, sat up, and put both his hands on his thighs, so he could hunch over and put his head down for a split second to stretch, or maybe remind himself that this was his idea to come here and exhume the past. Soon I got a taste of what he was thinking. “Oacie, because I am married to your sister I have a unique window into what might have happened, and she once told me, in a fit of emotion, not unlike what you’ve shown me, that you told her to quit thinking of people as equals. You said that if you ever stop to think someone really loves you, you’re bound to find

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yourself trapped without a way out. Did that begin in that girl’s home, or before?” I had said that, many times. But it was because she was getting too near to letting the wrong people in, people that could hurt us, and in doing so she would be tempted to trust them, and then the worst would happen; the ‘worst,’ that I still had to gather the courage to tell Steve about. “Steve, you’re not listening. It was all shit. All of it.” “I’m just wondering when Raynell started to change.” It was getting harder to be patient. “You don’t think we changed when our parents died? It wasn’t gradual; it was like being hit by a train! Look, your life is easy and spontaneous. Ray and I had to learn to disappear so we didn’t get slapped or locked into a closet. It’s not that you decide to give up; it’s just that having dreams makes it impossible to concentrate on survival. I don’t give a shit about anything subtle anymore. Who cares which day we stopped laughing or which week we forgot about birthdays. And I don’t want to get all enlightened, or reflective about this. If you don’t want to hear any more, you can go. It’s my story so deal with it.” That didn’t satisfy him and I was trying to keep my temper in check. “What I see again and again in her is that her behavior has to be connected to a moment when she lost all hope; a moment that made her incapable of accepting connection. She doesn’t even understand that I want her because of all that she is, not in spite of it.” He got up, turning his face away as though he was searching for the words that would put this all back together and cause me to give him the answer he wanted; which was impossible since I didn’t know what he wanted. Shit, she was his wife. I hadn’t spoken to her in years.

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“Love is something that happens in spite of life, Oacie, it crawls all over you like shivers and goose bumps, it makes you ache and feel powerful all at the same time, it whispers that you don’t want to give up on someone, that you’re willing to see the amazing in them even if they don’t see it themselves. It’s a bridge to the place you know you want to be, and you’ll do anything to get there.” This guy is really sincere, and full of crap. He hasn’t a clue what it’s like to see death in every door. Love is a verb he can’t get enough of, and he could see me closing up with his rhetoric. “Oacie, I’m sorry I got started on this. I’m desperate, desperate and mad at myself. I have a wife and family back home who cannot figure out why I’m here, a practice that is thriving and I don’t care, and if we tiptoe around the past, churning out arguments that center on why I don’t know what it’s like to hate someone, then we’re going to spin around and go nowhere. You’ve probably figured out that I’m the biggest chicken of all, but we need to agree that I can ask you questions. You have to let me talk crap so I can start putting the pieces of my world back together.” I could see he was hoping his epistle might have worked. So I shut him down just so he knew he wasn’t winning, at least not today. “Steve, my love is reserved for Ray and no one else. If you can’t listen with that in mind, you can go back to your doggie doctor business, and leave me alone.” I would have gotten up then, and walked away like I always did. But the battle would have continued to rage inside me, and staying angry wasn’t going to change anything. I had learned that much. The fact that Steve returned today, with glass and secrets and time between us was another reason I felt that he had some humanity in him, and that he might actually believe in me. It was time to test the waters even further.

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“Did Ida tell you who she was, who we were?” I knew she would and had; in fact I sent him there to hear it bluntly from her, and changing the subject, again, was the perfect way out of this mess. “Yes, Oacie, she told me. I know all about it. I know that you killed a man all by yourself and I think I understand why.” He was looking right at me. “You don’t Steve. You think you do, but you don’t.” “Then I will ask you again, Oacie,” He shared in slow, thoughtful, deliberate tones. “Will you keep telling me about you, and Raynell, and everything that brought the two of us to this moment?” I could feel my hands start to shake, and the cigarette, which had long burned beyond the tobacco, snuffed out for lack of fuel or encouragement, fell from my fingers to the floor, and the words…the words came tumbling out. “When you wake up each day, Steve, you have endless choices that you take for granted. Choices that accumulate and shape a growing numbness you develop to wonderful things that appear ordinary but aren’t. And slowly, almost beyond your control, you stop seeing all the little things. All of these miracles are replaced with worry and regret. Then a war begins to rage inside and you find yourself saying that you don’t have any choices; that you’re trapped by a job, or a debt, or being ugly and poor. You’ve talked yourself into thinking that when you awake each day, you have been robbed of the ability to choose. But the truth is, you’ve forgotten how to.” “I understand, Oacie. I see it in the eyes of everyone here. But to tell the truth, think you’ve forgotten that you can still choose, too.” I should have been mad. I should have walked away. But instead I wanted to reach through the glass and actually hug him. But I couldn’t, and that was the reminder that we were different, and he still didn’t understand.

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Suddenly, the guard in the corner started for the door, reacting to the fact that there had been silence between us for a good sixty seconds. When she moved I put my hand up, and I said quietly, even deliberately, “Excuse me, I think we still have more time. Steve’s not done and neither am I.” And we talked the afternoon away.

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Chapter Seven – Revolution

RAYNELL Can you change in an instant? Is it possible to have your heart beating flatly in your chest one moment, and then, as though a bolt of lightning strikes, become infused with a completely different view of life? Given the euphoria I am experiencing at this very moment, I’m going to have to say yes; I believe you can. For someone who has wandered in shadows, and cried more than she’s laughed, experiencing this kind of lightness has to be a miracle. I haven’t been this clear headed in maybe my whole life. Sure, these strange thoughts could be attributed to hormones, or too many Lifetime Channel movies. And, without a doubt it is a widely held belief that motherhood in general requires you to communicate mostly in grunts and shouts. Sometimes it’s hard to even conjure up a decent word or a coherent thought, and everyone from Erma Bombeck to The Old Woman in A Shoe will tell you that being a parent can turn you into a raving lunatic. I mean really, one minute you consider the price of a magazine a fair trade for your horrible children, then in the same instant, you realize that if your babies were under a car you could lift it away like a feather. In summary, in the last few hours, my innermost aches and burdens have evaporated like an obscure mist, while clarity has taken their place at the table. If this is truly a permanent new state of mind, then even the weakest of souls have a chance at enlightenment. And I am the poster child for weakness. I share this now because the scene I find myself in would be foreign to the old Raynell; its incongruence making my head spin. I am sitting here at an iHop, in the middle of a school day, surrounded by my children, and enjoying pancakes and sundaes like a college kid on a road trip. We are here, together, because the three of us decided to pile in the car and find Daddy together, our lifelong

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misunderstanding fading further into myth by ordering the $4.99 breakfast special. Why, even more bizarre is the fact that I just won the milk moustache contest, inching out my son’s best efforts at stickiness because the whitish liquid adheres better to lipstick and foundation, than it does to the smooth upper lip of a child. Is heaven really furnished with vinyl booths and four kinds of syrup? This morning, when we packed our car for the trip, I promised them we would stop for a meal anywhere the kids wanted to eat. As soon as the blue sign came into view, there was no question that chocolate chip flapjacks would be our next meal. I even tipped the scale by suggesting we begin with caramel waffles, which everyone agreed was the perfect appetizer. It’s working, you know. If you can imagine it, Garner is grasping his fork like he’s eating the feast of his life, the other hand placing a winning “x” in the fifteenth tic-tac-toe game I let him win, when he told me I cheated with the milk. He looks up at me with a triumphant smile, and after only half-swallowing to clear his throat, spits at me, “Okay, are you ready to get creamed mom? Let’s play again!” The vision of my son beaming and confident is something I can turn away from only to look down at the little head tucked into my lap. A tousle of moist, blond curls cascade over the face of an angel, revealing ever so gently the longest and most beautiful eyelashes I’ve ever seen. Her hands are open and dangling at her sides, fingernails sporting teal and yellow Anime stickers that we bought in the truck stop gift shop. Nell had fallen asleep not long ago which surprises me after all the sugar she has just consumed. I mean this is a girl who has been deprived of mindless snacks for most of her life, and the two of us have been in a kind of sucrose-standoff since birth, because I needed a point of contention to feel parental, and food was the perfect battle ground.

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To celebrate her victory, she had three helpings of cheese blintzes, a grin crossing her face when I nodded to the waitress that my daughter needed more whipped cream. After all, if you’re going to celebrate, pile the condiments as high as you can. I think my surrender was more pivotal than I imagined because I could see her whole body relaxing into the childhood she deserved. I know now her stiffness has been a contingency I created so that my own broken childhood would stay in the shadows. I honestly never considered how something as glorious as innocence was a birthright, not a punishment. As I watched her chest rise and fall I thought,’ what does it feel like to win against your mother?’ Maybe it was like visiting Wonka’s chocolate factory where I was sucked into a transparent Oompa Loompa tube, releasing her from parental bondage. But she didn’t say a word after finishing the last bite, or to gloat over my surrender. She simply came over and hugged me tightly, slipping down into my lap and drifting off into a motionless sleep. I learned everything about forgiveness from her in the sweetness of that transcendent moment. Before you believe that I am high on sugar, know this. I took my first pill today in nearly two years, and I washed it down symbolically with the free milk shake I earned by joining the Email club. I intend to keep swallowing them if it means more of this. *** My metamorphosis had started during as a scuffle earlier that morning. Battles are the hallmark of communication with my children, so I was demanding, actually begging them to finish packing their suitcases so they could stay with our neighbor, and I could get out of town. I had been scared out of my mind when Steve left, pacing the house at night and reliving over and over again the look on his face before he shut the door behind him. I can still hear the tone of his voice, and even remember the tender, wonderful and quiet way he had made

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love to me only hours before his departure. And I knew the next move was mine. The real fear was that I might have lost him, like I lost Oacie, and like I’ve lost myself. So, I did what every co-dependent Southern woman does and decided to save things all by myself. Of course, thinking and doing are often two very different things for me, and preparing my children for their days with a babysitter was sloppy and obvious, and it ignited a scene that nearly cost me a daughter but bought me a life. I was lugging my six piece set of designer luggage down the stairs, bumping into the balusters along the way and probably cussing under my breath – a bad habit I picked up of late and one that irritates my daughter – when Nell appeared before me. My tirade must have sent her over the edge because she planted herself squarely at the bottom of the landing, brushed a wild curl away from her face, rolled up her sleeves and confronted me in all her four foot eight-ness. Actually, when she does that it scares me to death, so I stopped short to think about what to do next. “Nell, don’t give me that look. You’re not going with Mommy and I mean it. Put your homework in your suitcase and go get your toothbrush. Miss Pat will be here any minute to pick up you and your brother.” She glanced over at Garner, each of them nodding as though it was time to enact phase two of their pact to intercept me which I figured included being hauled down to the basement for a little interrogation and slapping around. She took in a deep breath before she hit me with her words. Words that formed from the bottom of her little girl heart, even though they were delivered like poison. “You’re leaving us, I know it!” She shouted, doing her best to look tall and menacing in spite of her frilly nightgown and the Hello Kitty slippers she wore every day. It could have been steel toed shoes her resolve was so firm.

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Sure, I jumped a little, but I was getting short tempered and exhausted, truly ready to trade her instead of save her, and she knew it. I didn’t really want to face off with an 11 year old and Nell was probably thinking the same about having to argue with her mentally ill mother. So, I decided to change my tune, shifting at once the muscles in my jaw to form the largest smile ever to cross the face of a desperate parent. “Mommy’s not leaving, sweetie, she is just going on a little trip to see Daddy, that’s all. It’s far away and there isn’t anything fun to do. You will be so much happier with Miss Pat.” Truth is I wasn’t sure what I’d find when searching for “daddy,” but sitting around here was driving me nuts, and I had to do something. There would be no room for my children on this excursion. There was little room for me. Her resolve escalated and her face was red with fear. I had never seen her so distraught and I was beginning to wonder if she would pass out if she didn’t settle down. “You think I’m an idiot. You and dad always think I don’t know what’s going on! But I know, Mommy. You guys have it all worked out. I’ve been listening!” She used the voice I knew meant business. “You can’t stand being around here. You hate us both, and you’re leaving!” I still had my fingers through the handle of my heaviest case, the numbness growing to an ache so I tried to look away, and chuckle with innocence. I always did that, like a scared kid laughs nervously in the presence of a frightening and capable bully. Garner had now slipped down into a crouch on the floor, and he was holding his bare feet tightly, I assumed, to keep from running. Nell wasn’t deterred by my lack of attention either and yelled, “I know all about the hospital, and the medicine, and your fights, mommy. I don’t always go to bed you know.”

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She took a deep breath and exhaled until a sob caught in her throat. Garner was watching from his perch beside the kitchen door, half his face safely behind the wall, and I almost wondered if the two of them had rehearsed these lines, the short straw being drawn by his sister as the one to face the storm. But what she said next stopped me cold and turned my whole world upside down. It was full of desperation and loneliness, a pronouncement of all that had tortured her and all that she had feared was true. It was the dagger I needed and it pressed to my core. “I don’t mean anything to you!” Her sword of truth thrust so deeply I should have been cut down. But it wasn’t poison it was honesty; and the truth of it healed the wound as quickly as it began to bleed. It was then that I realized the words Nell had just uttered were the same words that I had said to Oacie, so many years ago, after my only sister told me she didn’t want me a part of her life any longer. The next day she was sentenced to a life behind bars, and they took her away and locked her up for good. I had assumed she was abandoning me. But that was not the case, no not at all. It was my big sister’s final and most noble act of love and protection. And, until this minute I never understood how selfless her choice was, or the good life I followed by leaving her behind. I had always held her responsible for discarding me. When in actuality, she had set me free. And now I had to do the same for my family or we would perish and Oacie’s wish would be in vain; her whole life would be in vain. When I looked at Nell, mustering all her courage to set me straight, I thanked God for miracles, and for daughters, and for sisters and for life. This time I listened with a mother’s heart, (news to me actually that I had one,) and I understood that I had been given another chance. So I seized it.

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When I didn’t speak right away Nell and Garner hesitated, assuming I would immediately send them to their room, or fall into a pile of tears, or display any one of my manipulative, immature and protective tricks to evade the situation. But I didn’t. I went down on one knee; put my arms around my chest, and smiling, looked straight at my children and said, “Then I shall have to change your mind. I choose us. Will you choose me?” They were still for a long time, and although I would have bet that Garner would be the first to fold, it was Nell, beautiful, lonely and brave Nell that made the first move. She broke into a run and held me around my neck so tightly I thought she would never let go. Garner followed, nudging his head between us and wedging a foot around my waist until I fell over holding them both. We laughed and cried and I kissed their eyes, and noses, and hands. I looked at every inch of them and admired their ears, buried my nose into their chests to inhale the smell of them, bringing the scent into my head so I would know this moment was real and lasting. And, so they would know – that they did mean everything to me. For all the times I had tried to force the bad memories out of my mind I realized, that standing as a sentinel to every ugly event and to all the awful moments when I felt most trapped or scared or hurt, was Oacie. She had been there when Mama died making sure I went to bed on time, helping me with my homework, or scolding me when she found out I had taken something from the company store. She had been there when we had no food always offering me her share and acting like she was full; pretending to burp to make me laugh and convince me she didn’t want to eat. She had been there when the nightmares started to happen stoking my hair and telling me stories about fanciful places and magical people until I fell into a deep

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sleep and stopped listening to the violence and anger that was right outside our door. She was there during our mystery exile, pulling me along when I wanted to stay in the bushes and shiver myself into a coma, getting us out of town so that we would find a new home and wouldn’t have to be afraid of the retribution she promised was near and very real. And finally, she had been there to tell me that by continuing to live in the city where she was incarcerated would mean that I would never rise above our past. She knew it was important for me to learn and see beauty and find a life that didn’t include filth and regret and poverty. And no matter what I said to her, it never changed how she felt about me. So now, it was my turn to be her hero. All of this went through my mind in the moments that my children rushed me and held me tight; forgiving me in the instant we embraced, waiting all their lives for a chance to show me that I was loved, too. In a way we’re all waiting to see evidence of being loved. From the moment we are born the instinct to be needed, understood, and useful is as natural as any thought we possess, and it continues, no matter how long we live, or how we live. Our eyes are not only to be used to see out, but to beckon others to see in, imploring the world to accept our mortal confusions. I could see that in Nell and Garner. Oh, that had I seen in sooner! But I resolved to see it now and tomorrow, and every day hereafter. We frolicked for awhile, hoping to elongate the moment of peace and connection when the doorbell rang. When we had ignored it long enough, Pat finally opened the door and came inside with a look of worry, thinking our laughter was the cry of pain, and had panicked. But seeing us on the couch intertwined and giggling, she simply picked up her keys, winked at me and left. Within an hour or two we were packed and in my car, toys and electronics left at home, just the three of us together, heading up the highway to retrieve Steve and

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put the rest of our family together. Even thought the whole trip wouldn’t take more than 3 or 4 hours, I wanted to take my time and enjoy this new lesson of life and let all of it in, one glorious moment at a time. “Mommy, where are we really going?” It was a simple question, but I knew the answer immediately. “Home, sweetheart.” “But whose home? We don’t live in two places, do we?” And there, thrown into the void, was another perfectly posed question that children are famous for. I thought about the nuance of my response and decided to tell her exactly how I felt. “Home can be how something feels, and a place, Nell. I guess today we’re heading to a place that feels like home. We’re going to visit a place where mommy grew up. It’s a place where there are a lot of memories for Mommy. Good and bad. Does that make sense, sweetie?” “Are you happy to be going there? Maybe Daddy’s still mad at you and we should go back?” I was shocked at her question. I had never seen her back down from a confrontation. But maybe that was because she was only brave during her feuds with me and I missed seeing that she was just as fragile as I was. She might also feel the predicament ahead of us and didn’t want our Eden to end with a familiar skirmish between her parents. Relationships are a battle ground with lines drawn spontaneously making clearheadedness impossible. Without warning, fangs emerge where pouty, eager lips once parted and fists clench where sweet caresses once loitered. I was that person not more than just a few hours ago; a Jekyll and Hyde inside the body of a debutante. I was always ready to strike, no matter the location or theme. Nell only knew that woman and couldn’t be expected to understand that I truly

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intended to change. I would have to show her how I had changed. I would have to show everyone I had changed. “Yes, Nell. Yes, Mommy is very glad to be going there.” And I hoped that the heavens had heard me, because it might just take another miracle to put everything right, once again.

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With each of Steve’s visits, I was beginning feel real change. Whether it was me doing the changing or him; I’m not sure. But ‘different’ is obvious in a place like this. I had seen it in his bright and eager face when he arrived. And today, even his notebook was left behind as a gesture that he intended to understand and not record. Steve offered a lot about what he had learned from Miss Ida that first day; he just returned with a look of understanding, so I considered our bargain was struck, and began to talk, just like I promised. He would nod and hold his chin tightly, which made me feel like I was saying the right thing. And this morning, when I heard the thunder, and the storm press upon the roof of the prison, I wondered if he would brave the weather to see me. But he did arrive, just as he had promised, and I found myself anxious to begin. As we both settled into our chairs Steve didn’t spend as much time staring or fidgeting as he had in the beginning. He just got right to it and said, “The rain is nice outside. I listened to it all night. Do you like the rain?” He was even dressed differently. Gone were the khakis, the silly vests, the tasseled shoes and even the cuff links. The man before me looked like he just left the local diner, and I’m sure I saw a bit of ketchup on his pant legs before he sat down. So he’s a ketchup kinda guy, eh? I would have bet money on Dijon mustard and cracked pepper. “I don’t get to see much of it, but I can smell it.” I whispered almost imperceptibly. He had yet to understand how important my senses were to me. “Do you have a window in your cell?” He solicited. I thought about the small opening that I was lucky enough to enjoy. It brought the sun pouring in during the afternoon hours, and the gift of moonlight at night. Its energy fed me like a flower facing the light for nourishment.

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“Yeah, I have a window Steve. Do you?” I didn’t mean for it to be a challenge, so I was glad he ignored my militant tone. “Yes, and I spent all night looking out of it, Oacie. I didn’t stop until I went to breakfast this morning.” “And you’re wearing some of that breakfast, too.” I chided. “The potatoes at the diner are terrible. They needed some flavor.” And we both laughed and nodded. Me because I enjoyed hearing about the simple tastes I was denied, Steve because he had expected my keen observations. I wondered if he was going to tell me about all the things he’d seen. Oh, I hoped he would. I hoped he would tell me every single bit of it. “Just because it’s quaint, doesn’t mean it’s going to be good.” I shared. “Folks have been coming to this part of the country for years to pretend they understand our ways, and they swarm around our broken down vignettes like they’re in a Confederate theme park. We nod, and drawl, and hand them some boiled peanuts and moon pies, laughing as they leave twenty percent tips behind for day old bread and cheap eggs.” “And you know about these social textures, how?” he asked, cocking his head sideways as he mocked my cultural omniscience. “You’re funny today,” I mused. “And you seem happy for some reason. You’re certainly more comfortable than you have been.” “I’m sorry. I was, and still am a little scared of you. I’m just trying to keep it light.” He answered, and nervously threw his hands in the air in surrender. I always knew he was scared. Everyone was scared of me.

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“Then why don’t you make the most of our time and tell me what you want to hear today?” I taunted. It was fun to act like a couple of women on the front porch with doilies and cheese straws, but let’s be honest, one or two more visits and he’d be gone. No one is ever ready for really sad endings. “Well, I’m in new territory here.” He said, talking slowly, like he had rehearsed what he was about to say. “And you have offered me more insight in the last few days than a hundred therapy sessions. I want to make you feel comfortable, and I’m doing a bad job it seems. Maybe I need to ask what you need from me?” The first word that popped into my head was trust, but I was no more ready to really trust him than bend the bars in my cell. Had he been betrayed? You can’t understand trust unless you’ve endured the loss of it, and just because the tassels were gone didn’t mean he was ready to get his feet dirty. In the beginning he had waltzed in here like a scared cat, fidgeting and staring like a kid, and now, he was asking me to strike a bargain with him. No sir, I’d seen that before. Nod your head three times and smile and then sign here to have all your problems solved. You just got screwed. “I need for these damn walls to fall down, Steve. I need a decent meal, I need a goddamned advocate. Shit. How does that grab you?” My attack was evident on his face, but he didn’t move. He kept peering into my eyes like he was looking in a closet for a jacket, without so much as a hint that my whole body was halfway down his throat. “You forget I’m married to your sister. That’s near the reaction I get when she feels like I’m getting too close to making her talk.” “Fuck you.” I retorted and immediately regretted saying it. “Shit, Steve. I’m not in the mood for games today. It’s hard as hell to share things with you that are so raw. You start the day with a cool shower with a new bar of soap and I stay here

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avoiding becoming someone’s bitch before the water gets cold. You’d be mean, too.” I even surprised myself at my own candor. I had been thinking all morning about how I would start the stories, still going back and forth about whether he was really ready for the words that had never been uttered. So, contrary to my tirade, I really wanted to continue. “I’m sorry. You just caught me off guard.” I said. And I meant it. “You keep trying to pull me in, and then cast me off. If I didn’t know better I would think you don’t know how to talk to people at all. Look, I’m not leaving you. I just thought if you felt we were friends it would make it easier, so if my levity is part of the problem, I apologize.” And it sounded like he meant it. “You tell me how you want to start the day and I will follow your rules.” “Just listen, Steve I guess.” I countered, giving him the request he craved. Before I started to shake uncontrollably I lit up a cigarette. Watching the first swirling tendrils make their way to the ceiling, I got lost in their hypnotic dance and it made it easier to piece together what I wanted him to know. “You know exactly what you’re going to tell me today, don’t you.” He asked. I always know what I’m going to say. “I have an idea. You a big boy, Steve?” I rasped. “Do you understand what it’s like to claw for survival or what you will do to preserve it? Do you have any idea at all?” I knew he didn’t. Hands like that are never seen anywhere but wrapped around a five iron, or next to a fountain pen, writing checks. “I’m no stranger to tragedy, Oacie. My mom died when I was young, like you. I wasn’t there when she died but I know what it’s like to lose someone.”

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“This ain’t a Disney movie. You don’t end up where I am because you put your hand over your eyes when the shark starts eating the girl. I’m not talking about boo-hoo moments. I’m talking about your heart stopping.” I don’t know why I felt I had to rationalize the telling of brutal truths. Maybe I was stalling myself. After all, I hadn’t spoken about this to anyone except Miss Ida, and even then I left out all the details that marked the moment as unthinkable. “If it was anything that affected you and Ray, I want to know it. I want to know every bit of it, Oacie. I can handle whatever you need to talk about.” But I knew that was a lie. No one sits down and says, ‘Hey, shock the ever living hell out of me will ya? I’m feeling way too peaceful today. Go ahead; paint me a picture I will never get out of my head.’ So, against my better judgment, and because I like the sound of the rain, I began to paint away. *** *** *** It’s hard to describe to someone what fear smells like. Since smells are everything to me, it was the first thing I checked every morning before waking Ray, probing the air for anything that meant we needed to hide, or for something as simple as knowing breakfast was better left behind. It was also the last thing I did before falling off to sleep, always inhaling deeply the smell of her hair and neck as we wriggled around to find the position that would suit us in our small, shared bed. But this day, the day we ran, I could smell fear and death even before dawn. And I was right to be afraid. Our current foster mother, Vernie really was the most kind of our caregivers. Keep in mind the context in which this message is shared, but she at least acknowledged our existence, and for once we had soap and water available so we could be clean. She was tall but emaciated, with dozens of tattoos on her

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wiry neck and spindly legs, their green and red outlines making her body appear used, dirty and unworthy. Her voice had been destroyed by tobacco, and her tummy hung over her pants like warm play dough. Vernie was even ‘born again,’ she told us, believing that Jesus really lived in her heart. When she walked by, a cloud of sickly drug store perfume hit you like a wall of dead flowers, the aftermath dissipating into a menagerie of startling odors, not the least of which were dirty feet and bad breath. No matter how much of the eau de something she used, it was never enough to cloak her stench. She lit a cigarette every 15 minutes, waiting until the taper was snuffed out between her fingers before discarding it onto the rug in front of the TV. You could tell the age of each butt by determining which had been flattened by someone walking by and which ones still had the imprint of her swollen, painted lips. The piles were randomly scattered in every direction, adorning her feet with sprigs of charred paper and stinking up the whole room. Speaking of her feet, it was weird how she always wore flip-flops, even in winter. I think it was because she had bad joints, and horrendously large toes that drooped over the edge of her shoes and brushed the floor with every step. I don’t know why I remember that so clearly, it’s a defect that didn’t really mean anything. But it was something I noticed as she lay there, bleeding and broken as we ran past her out the door. I remember too that her toenails were painted a sickening shade of green to match the ball cap she was wearing that day, which was later crammed sideways against the door jamb. I remember the words, “Redneck and Red Hot” embroidered above the brim. Letters that chided her unfortunate position, as her body lay askew. It had happened quickly, the tragedy that ended her life. But in reality, she had chosen this ending long ago by electing to follow self-loathing instead of self respect, which freed her to indulge in the heady and drug-like enticement of impulsive living. It always feels good to say you can do whatever you want, but it’s a proclamation that you’ve given away every bit of power you ever had.

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She always flirted with the Sherriff, casting long looks his way as he would come in and inspect the household, writing illegible notes on his report and delivering alcohol and drugs to her before licking his lips and pushing her behind closed doors. He never got past the first floor on most visits, and usually stored his boots and gun on edge of the couch as he walked her into the back bedroom to defile her. You couldn’t really say it was sex, because their joining was urgent, and animal, and dirty. I don’t think either one of them desired anything other than getting off, and if he had to get his with Vernie – cheap, flirtatious, and smelly Vernie – he must have been pretty desperate. Hell, they both were. You could hear them from upstairs, screaming and yelling, the sound of Vernie’s head hitting the wall, the grunting and farting of Frank Scoggins’s rancid bowels echoing out, their two useless bodies banging alongside the gurgling whimpers of Vernie as she wailed in pleasure. They talked filthy, too. They would beg each other to hit and scratch in moaning entreats. I could hear Vernie saying, “Make it bleed!” and knew that Frank loved to slap her in the face and everywhere else. It was awful, but it happened all the time. Frank was the slimiest kind of person you could imagine. Putting my mama on the top rung, you would have to travel a long, long way down to even get close to where he fit on the food chain. He had been the Sherriff in our town for almost ten years, winning the seat with the help of a few corrupt developers, and insuring we had a new school in the middle of town to keep folks thinking he cared. It doesn’t take much to be a hero to idiots, so his win was sure and overwhelming, and his reelections were secured with stolen cash, and a quick affair with the preacher’s wife, who insisted that he was a man of God and worthy of everyone’s vote. I know, in your mind you are imagining someone fat, bug-eyed, and in possession of a large, oversized and slobbery lower lip that encourages tobacco juice to slide easily onto his shirt and down onto his big, ugly shoes. But that’s

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not Frank. He was handsome in a perverse kind of way. A full head of hair announced his good genes, and it tapered down perfectly into large sideburns that curved around a square jaw. He parted his hair on the side, and carried a comb in his back pocket to nervously maintain the slick ducktail that rubbed oil onto the collar of his shirt as he coiffed in front of the social ladies at church. He took a liking to all the ladies. And unfortunately, he had taken a liking to us. From the day we came to live in his town, he personally saw to it that we had the best foster home possible. Of course, that’s like saying you’re going to give a starving person the least rotted meal, but none of these folks could read between the lines, so it sounded noble to them. Placed initially with two other families who soon asked to have us taken away, we were lucky when Vernie’s home became available. Turns out Vernie had been blackmailed by Frank in the first place, and that’s how we ended up there. That way he would have an excuse to come see her whenever he got horny, which was often. And being as dumb as a post, as well as cursed with relatively lovely ankles and pretty blue eyes, she was bound to get the wrong end of his temper, sooner or later. I was mostly sickened by him, but my contempt turned to hatred the first time I saw him talking to Ray alone. I saw him put out a hand to her one afternoon, offering to give her a leg up to the tree out back, so he could look up her dress, and I rushed out and climbed up with her so she wouldn’t be alone. Not wanting to alarm her, I simply changed the subject once he had gone, and continued my ongoing epistle about not trusting anyone, adding in a few anecdotes for good measure. I knew it was only a matter of time before Vernie wasn’t enough for Frank, and he’d come after us. I was big enough and mean enough to take him on, but Ray wasn’t strong at all, and her blonde hair was just the kind of thing Frank seemed to want a handful of.

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I had several plans of escape in mind, all of them hatched in the mind of a teenager who never saw a lack of logic as a barrier to success. The first plan entailed grabbing his car keys as soon as he walked into the bedroom. We would then simply drive away. But the key was dangling alongside about forty others, and even touching the chain meant alarming the beast. Not to mention the fact that it’s easy to spot a black and white car speeding down the highway with two kids at the wheel. Nope, that wouldn’t work at all. Next, I thought about poisoning him, which seemed quick and clean. He ate like a pig, so when they tried to do an autopsy on his putrid entrails, it would be hard to discern between intentional toxins and the one I had put there. However, I wasn’t a chemist, and the TV shows made it look far too easy to figure out who had done the deed, so that plan was scrapped. It was my third plan that worked, although not the way I thought it would. On this day, the day everything smelled wrong, and the day nothing fell into place, fate took the wheel and drove us into darkness. I knew things were about to change because the smell of Frank that day had more than just whiskey mixed in it. He reeked of vomit, like he had been sick on himself, and when he walked into the house he yelled at Vernie to get in the bedroom before he shot her and the two brats that lived there, so I ran upstairs and put my plan into action. Knowing that now was the time to think clearly and not be afraid, I manned the window to keep a lookout for Ray and grabbed a weapon – and waited. Usually, when I saw Frank’s car coming down the road, I sent Ray to the corner to buy candy, or steal it if she had to; anything to get her out of the house. She knew I wanted her away, so she always left without arguing with me, turning to skip and sing one of her silly songs, never looking back. But this time, she

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wasn’t there for me to get rid of. She had stayed late after school, taking care of the stray puppy her teacher had decided to adopt. When I did see her approaching with her signature aimlessness, she had a stick in her hand, twirling it in innocent circles, unaware that the squad car was parked across the street or that she was walking into a trap. As she hopped onto the porch – scuffing her toes against the crooked steps, and making the kind of sloppy noises that all children make before they’re aware that walking can be done quietly – all the sounds within the front bedroom ceased. It was silent, for just a second, and it was the longest second ever. You think I sound brave, or maybe cold. But I was just smarter and faster than the rest of them; and good thing, too. It was the sound of him getting up I heard next, the sound of his belt being fastened, and the sound of his boots on the floor as he crammed his big feet into them, and the sound of Vernie saying “no...” just a little too humanely. I heard him snort and cough and say, “Vernie, you are the sorriest pussy I ever had, it’s time I get someone good. Get the hell outta my way, or I swear this is the last time you will ever, ever…” and I ran down the stairs as fast as I could. Ray never even saw it coming, he grabbed her so fast. Her head was whipped back as he clutched her hair and threw her onto the couch, the back of her skull squarely hitting the butt of his gun on the chair, nearly knocking her out. It dazed Ray for a minute giving Frank the opportunity to rip her shirt off and grab at her nakedness, sweat from his brow dropping pools of clear, salty fluid onto her frightened face. Because he wasn’t himself, he had to look up every second or so to keep from falling, and that hesitation offered just enough time for Vernie, running out in her skirt with her bare breasts bouncing up and down in protest, to jump onto Frank and start yelling at him to stop. She cried that little Ray was “just a baby!” and not to hurt her. But he turned on Vernie like a lion and growled, “Jeezus Gahd almighty, Vernie, it’s time a dirty, loudmouthed whore like you got what she deserves. Ain’t no way I’m letting these kids stay with you any longer. They are coming with me – and you’re going to hell.”

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Vernie stared back in horror, and simply touched his arm to try and plead with him. With that he whirled around with eyes flashing, Ray falling to the floor as he let her go. He turned to look for a quick weapon and grabbed the lamp off the table, turning it around so the heavy base was jutting out of his hairy hands. Then lifting it up, he poised himself to crack open the skull of the poor lady with bad breath and a good heart. As he cocked his arm Vernie looked at me with fear in her eyes, and tried in vain to lift her hands for protection, her breasts droopy, withered, and exposed as the porcelain dug into her head, and killed her. I will never forget it, that moment when life left her. I saw one of her eyes pop out, and blood squirt from her mouth like a squashed lemon. Her arms jerked up for a moment in reflex with her fingers outstretched and taut, and the smell, oh the smell of blood and feces and sweat covered us all. Frank stood there for a moment, staggering from the booze and off balance from the fact that the lamp has sunk in deeper than he expected it would, and then he turned. I had seen it all because I was there already, standing on the bottom stair, a baseball bat in my hand wondering how he’d missed seeing me in the first place. He never expected me to strike. Never expected that I would be brave enough to walk into this surreal scene and confidently, calmly, and with all my strength, hit him over the head and send him to the floor and the hell he had intended to deliver to us. When it was over, I surveyed everything and knew I had to move fast. That’s the moment I controlled what was out of control, so grabbing the knap sack I had readied, we ran…and ran … and ran. We ran out the door and leapt onto the dead grass, ran past the neighbor’s fence and the tied up dog that we used to feed, ran past the train tracks, the abandoned boat store and the bus stop. We ran until we couldn’t feel our legs anymore,

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angry at the wind in our face slowing us down, singular in our mission to simply tell our legs to keep going. I could hear Ray behind me, screaming at the top of her lungs and trying to keep what was left of her shirt around her body, resisting the tight hold I had on her arm, certain I had dug into her flesh and reached bone. But I refused to let go. First to answer your question: Frank didn’t die. If he’d died we’d still be running to this day, still fleeing over asphalt and meadows, hovering over trash cans, eating out of dumpsters, sleeping under bridges and crying every minute. But he lived. The monster lived. And when the police came, Frank had already put some of poor Vernie’s blood on the bat sporting my fingerprints, and said I had done the deed. He knew no one would ever trump his crime scene, just as no one descends into Hell to tell Lucifer he needs to ‘come downtown’ for a little questioning. He had control of everything no matter who perished, and with his silly penis safe and sound in his pants and his entrails yearning for another meal, the day ended with his good reputation precisely intact. *** When I finally stopped telling Steve the story, I looked up to see if he still had color in his face. But then I felt weakened and weary. I could see the gray of the sky through the frosted windows and realized it was raining hard. The sound making it difficult to reengage, and it was as though nature was telling me to stop and rest. It was time to end for today. The pictures were too gruesome to continue. “That’s the truth of it, you know.” I offered feebly, hoping he had caught every word. “That’s how all of this started. I had to protect Ray no matter what.” I felt bad suddenly; really bad. I wasn’t sure if Steve believed me. I hoped he would. It was the safest version of the story, and it would keep him from thinking about Ray in a way that would forever stain their relationship.

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“I’m sure it is, Oacie. You tell it like you have said it thousand times, but I believe you when you say that no one has heard all of it until today.” “There’s no reason for me to make it up. It would be too fantastic to try and twist something that is already twisted.” And my mouth started to dry up with fear. “I never said you did. No one who knows you, and I like to think I’m becoming one of those souls, would think otherwise.” I watched him retreat a bit, rubbing the sides of his cheeks as though his face had gone numb. He would look up at me slightly, a wry smile crossing his face as though he was trying to keep the thought of his wife being sexually abused out of his thoughts and conscious mind. I so rarely talk to people that I was shocked at how uncomfortable it made me to see him holding on to a piece of poison that I had already learned to live with. It’s like the story took on a new meaning, and grew in size and weight by being passed on to him. But he was always thinking of Ray, and his next statement proved it. “How do you think I should handle this with her? I mean, do you think she even recalls the moment she was nearly raped?” “But she wasn’t, Steve. I stopped him.” And I hoped he couldn’t hear the break in my voice. He shuddered a bit, and looked at the tiles on the floor as he spoke again, wounded yet buoyed by the truth. “I’m suddenly aware of a part of Ray I never considered. I knew she spent her childhood lost and forgotten. And I knew she had been dirty and lonely. I just didn’t think abuse was a part of her past. I really didn’t.” “We’ve all been abused, Steve in one way or another.”

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“It damaged you, too, didn’t it, Oacie? You searched out Frank and cut him down years later, after, I’m guessing, he tried to do the same thing to you.” I let it rest at that moment because it gets more complicated, and I needed time to regroup. And opening up another story wasn’t appropriate at this moment. Nothing felt right, and I wished, just a little bit, that I hadn’t even told him this much of the story. “Anyway, I think I need some time to think.” He whispered weakly, coming to his feet and grabbing the edge of the counter to steady himself before turning to walk out. And I could see a small tear enter the inside of his bloodshot eyes as he straightened his ruffled collar that was buttoned down in certainty, mocking the fact that he had tried all his life to be pressed and perfect and now knew that buttons never hold anything in or out. As he stood up, I stared directly at the small ketchup stain on his now wrinkled khakis. We had laughed about it just a little while ago. And now, I worried that when we saw it later on, he would only think of blood, and not think about how we had been good friends, just for a minute. When he heard the rest of this, he may never want to be friends again. Surprised by the loud slam of the door as another guard came in to retrieve me, I realized we were way over our time limit. I didn’t look into Steve’s eyes; I just got up and walked out. I saw him move, like he was going to say something else, but didn’t. I knew it wasn’t right to just end it like that, leaving him with the memory of Frank’s hands on Ray’s body and the idea of death everywhere, but suddenly I was worn out, and embittered by the story. If he admitted it, he was, too. But he did say something, and I couldn’t have been more surprised. “Oacie, I’ll be back. The story has to end better than this, right?” And he slumped over holding his head.

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“It doesn’t, Steve. I have said it all.” And my voice trailed into an echo even I didn’t recognize. I heard him ask if there was a bathroom he could use. I’m sure he went in there to throw up. Hell, that’s how I felt. Each word was the downbeat of chaos, and every sentence ended with epithets and poison memories. It was like walking into a dark forest and hoping they had trimmed the sharp branches only to find more gremlins hiding between the ferns. After hearing Steve tell me about Raynell, and her confusion, and obsessions, and certain detachment with the people who should have meant the most to her, I knew for certain she had no recollection of the event. It was the reason she could never forgive me for what happened later on. It was why, during her last visit to me so many years ago, she walked away half a person, through a doorway I carved from the shadows of a rescue she never even had the chance to understand. At least he would know the moment we had been damaged. What he could never know is the fingers around the bat that day weren’t mine. They belonged to a girl with blonde hair and a wild cowlick, wearing underwear that had a tear right through the image of Ariel the Mermaid, changing her from girl to victim in the instant that defined it all.

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Chapter Eight– Renewal

STEVE In the hazy, rolling hills of western North Carolina, sleeping within the bosom of the south and her whispered stories of hardship is a place once referred to as, “the back of beyond.” It’s a term that gives title to a place not only out of reach, but perhaps inaccessible to imagination as well. They say visits and deliveries were spaced apart so unmercifully that life was sustained in a way unthinkable to us now. Folks, who lived there were gaunt, and nearly nameless, experiencing a way of life that depended solely on others to reach them with supplies, tools and human connection. Today it is glimpsed from afar in time and place, seen by tourists who view its eroded footpaths through the window of a train perched upon uneven and oil stained ties, holding up imperfect rails that were laid by bleeding and calloused hands. The passengers, exposed to only the barest details of her protracted history are tourists, or more accurately, dispassionate voyeurs into her silent past. I am not near this hallowed place, or within ear shot of her ghosts, but I can still feel the heaving sighs of the all forgotten drift up from the graves that dot the perimeter of old churches here. They speak with voices that call to me from a place I am only now beginning to understand, as though the leaning, wooden steeples are radio towers broadcasting truth into my heart, softening my deeply held and stubborn beliefs, and dissolving the prejudices that have poisoned every thought. It is certainly beyond any place I have ever known. Piecing together the story of Oacie and Raynell was like the journey so many things take here in the south. Beginning as hard, like the bitter, chewy leaves of the collard, things seem to soften and sweeten with the addition of heat, time and salt, emerging without a trace of rigidity or stubbornness. Like awakening from a bad dream everything will change, and this leafy weed now embraces its

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ability to please folks sitting around a table set with mismatched plates; its soft sinews now surrendered and warm. Oacie isn’t the only one who is baptizing herself with remembrance or hardship. All the people I have met this week have surrendered their hardness as well. Take Trace, the innkeeper, with a gnarled nose that looked like it had been removed then reattached; it is a disfigurement strangely incongruent with his angelic and kind smile. While checking me into the Pixie Inn Motel with his young infant daughter clinging to his neck, he pointed to the signature line on my check-in form with his middle digit and thumb, not even working to hide the stump between them that was once an index finger. He walks with a limp that he manages to time into such a perfect cadence that he navigates the uneven floor of his lobby with ease. Welcoming me to his city with a drawl and a nod, he even included a red and white striped mint in the envelope. After explaining how to jimmy the doorknob when stuck, he shook my hand and vanished behind a warped pocket door separating their meager living quarters from the counter where I stood. Then there’s Bud, the man at the gas station, who had insisted on pumping my fuel, twice in fact, because he had never seen such a shiny and fine automobile in his life, and touching it was all he wanted to do. He worked like a surgeon to remove every trace of dirt from my windshield, using, at the end of his task, the cuff of his torn shirt to bring a glow to the final spot of glass that wouldn’t take a shine quite right. When I tried to tip him, he looked at me as though the $10 bill was a serpent. And with the grace that is choreographed into every move people make here, jerked his hand away almost imperceptibly, and reached for his handkerchief. Rubbing his brow he said, “God never meant for us to be rewarded by nothin’ ‘cept the blessing of servin’ others, son. Y’all have a nice day now, and watch out for that hole on Highway 375, ya hear?”

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What kind of royal reception would have been mine had he seen Ray’s Mercedes, instead of my 3 year old truck? To make sure you feel all of the texture of this place, I must include the two children, Dot and Bubba, seven and eight respectively, that join me near the picnic area to dine on tater tots and catfish. When they first approached I thought of retreating, thinking that once you feed a stray, it never goes away. But they crawled over me so desperately, circling and whispering to each other like puppies in a pound, and I knew we would be friends. They never asked for a morsel of food, in spite of the fact that they always had the same clothes on each day and the sandals they wore were held together by duct tape and heavy safety pins. They would sit with me and ask me all sorts of questions. For instance, had I had ever been on a plane, or seen the ocean, or tasted snails? When I told them about traveling on a cruise ship and watching the waves rise and fall through my port hole, they quickly looked at each other in wonder, oohing and smiling as they reclined like cats with one arm each on top of my notebook and pen, a gum wrapper and matchstick in each hand. Finally, I asked them where their mommy was, and after a short silence, Bubba simply said, “Aunt Tee tol us Mama tryin’ to find hersef’.” So I didn’t ask those kinds of questions any more. Perhaps the most perplexing of all was the woman who I watched trudge to and from the Laundromat each afternoon at exactly the same time. Hunched and dragging her feet; she had the appearance that once she might have been gleaming and polished, marrying for love and security as a young bride. Then, through some kind of terrible tragedy she ended up being thrown into desperate circumstances; left only to see the world over the pages of old gossip magazines while gazing into the cigarette machine to rebuke her own reflection. I got the feeling she was using all her quarters to buy soap to remove the stubborn remnants of food on worn overalls, left behind by a son who rarely said thank you. I mused that serving him gave her a joy I might never understand.

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Why do I include her? Because the day I arrived she walked over and asked me if I would like to join her for a good supper. She was a fine cook, she told me through cracked lips and uneven teeth, and there wasn’t a soul in the county that made better homemade apple sauce. She set back on her heels while reciting her culinary prowess like she had just skinned a deer and presented it to me with the carcass still steaming, and I was startled by this generous invitation given her emaciated appearance. I told her she could count on it, since I would be staying awhile, and every day since then she has glanced over to me with basket in hand, waiting for the hungry signal I would use to let her know I would be the guest at her table. Then there was Miss Ida, who had occupied so much of my imagination; her life and lilted storytelling acting as a window to secrets I longed to hear. I had fallen in love with her with more than anyone. And all of them, all had started out hard, and were softened over time, life changing each into new creatures, none perhaps more new than myself. **** This was my day to explore, and I was glad for it. My back was still hurting from nights on a paper thin mattress and although my digestive system was beginning to respond normally again after being forced onto a diet of deep fried everything, I wasn’t going to push my recovery by gorging at the roadside diner. I suppose I unconsciously assumed their might be a health food store lurking along the abandoned streets that stretched out in all directions so I set out on an empty stomach. The real reason I needed a walk-about? I couldn’t bear to smell the inside of that prison this afternoon. I always planned my time away from Oacie carefully, so armed with a few details from Miss Ida, and a couple of clues from the day before, I planned to see if I could find Dillon, and the house where my wife had spent her first few years before being plunged into her own back of beyond.

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I just couldn’t think of a way to face Oacie this soon after the stunning clarity of her story. It had hit me like I was watching a hunter disembowel his kill. I know I am a coward and queasier than I’d like to admit, but I also could see that maybe Oacie needed a break, too. Never one to show weakness, this morning she seemed to lean intently towards me with each bloody detail, shoving the surrounding air into my lungs with every sad word that passed between us. Never mind how cathartic this may have been for her; I could see Frank in my mind’s eye with the kind of clarity that comes from our bizarre fascination with horror. I knew he swaggered with evil, and breathed fire in and out of his shallow lungs. But to save myself from fainting, I kept thinking that maybe there was going to be a good part, hoping that in the middle of this suspension of reality that no one really died and that Ray and Oacie were saved and tucked into arms scented with cinnamon, clasping each other with joy and relief as their new parents knelt beside their small, clean faces, thanking God for a pair of beautiful and perfect daughters. Maybe you’re assuming nothing macabre has ever happened to me. But you forget I am no stranger to blood and death in my animal realm. I will tell you that I watched an old mare giving birth to a colt one day last fall, inside a cold, creaking barn, and the experience changed my life. Arriving too late to offer a balm to the suffering mother, all I could do was make sure the colt was delivered safely before putting her down. But the birth was hard and long. I knelt down on the concrete during the entire ordeal, small rocks under my knees cutting deep into my skin, moving my arm up across my face now and then to wipe away the birth fluid that gushed onto me as she writhed in pain. I had enlisted the owner’s oldest daughter to hold down the mare’s head as she suffered, so that we could save the new life begging to begin. The daughter was braver than I could have imagined as she stroked the jaw of the mare like a mother with a child, gazing bravely into her huge brown eyes, and helping her to breathe as she worked to help me bring things to an end.

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I cried all the way home that day, cried hard and without comfort. I opened my mouth and hung my chin the way you do when the tears wretch out of your soul unchecked, hanging there like the colt did from her suffering mother. I drove around for hours I was so distraught. I needed to make sense of what I had seen, and I wrapped my arms around myself and rocked back and forth wondering if I could endure the same. After dusk, I pulled over by a brook and stepped ceremoniously into the cold water to baptize myself, and wash the placenta laden clots from my arms and legs. Death was nothing short of horrible, a vile payment one endures to enter a promise of eternal life, and pass into everlasting joy and light. It is ironic that those who pass through it are unable to come back and tell us that it was all worth it, or that it even exists, and so we do all things with the hope that it does. That is how I felt after listening to Oacie. Fascinated by the story, hearing her own ability to push back the suffering, and focus solely on saving the life of her sister, my respect grew along with my nausea. I never interrupted her when the details got a little too translucent, never moved off my chair to push blood back into my leg so I could feel my toes. I just sat there, transfixed and frightened as each detail pulled me deeper and deeper into her wounds, wrapping me inside them like a spider’s silk as they choked me and fascinated me with their vividness. That is why I cannot go back just yet. This moment is for life; for sunshine and cool earth and maybe some more tears. And so, with the sound of the 13 year cicadas ringing in my ears, and a worn map on my car seat, I was carried away into yesterday and lost in the memories of others, seeing a story in every bend, poverty in every eave, and a plea in every bent tree. The driving did me good, so much so that I began to have a feeling that something amazing was about to happen. Up ahead, just as I was about to give up on another dead end road I saw it. Lost and twisted in the weeds, lying behind another sign that had been splintered and left to rot was the sign pointing to the state highway. I think I can make out the words, “Dillon,” next to the

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arrow, and under the mud and scars of time, and it startles me. Barely visible is the marker pointing right, a ghostly, triangular sentinel I feel destined to have found, and fearful to follow knowing it will carry me onto a place I have thought about only in myth. Was the sign set to be seen by those going north, or those going west? There was no trace of this village on the map, not on any map. It was never meant to be found again. So I thought of BP Bud, who told me to watch out for the hole on the highway (the road I now traveled), and concluded that the thin piece of metal on the ground had originally meant to point riders to turn North onto State Route 375. I imagined that Bud’s intrepid advice was the ghost of Ray’s past leading me into the answers I had begged the universe to provide, and I gripped the wheel tightly, turning towards it. Suddenly the whole of the my time here rushed in like a waterfall, like when a humble sinner is overcome by the spirit and he simply dissolves at the feet of a traveling pulpit caller. I felt the weight of fear that must have borne down on Oacie as she was overcome by the police the day she murdered Frank, weapons in hand, with surely a crushing sense that her whole life was over, and there was no way to take it back. But perhaps there were other feelings at work. Maybe, just maybe, it had also been inexplicably freeing that in the midst of it, she vowed to endure every day with class and courage. She knew she was now free from her villain: a menacing, constantly advancing, and horrible captor who was now mercifully dead. All promises after that must have been easy. I know you’ve experienced this, the gentle hand of fate taking your chin and pointing your face into what you dread, but want most. And when I looked over my left shoulder, down a road that was barely marked by worn curbs, I saw it. The one, lonely, emaciated house that had to be the abandoned home of Cecile and Mason Taylor.

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The eeriness of a town abandoned is not quiet. It shouts at you with a thousand voices of pain. There is no reason for the ghosts to hide, for there is no one left to frighten. So, with the resonance of the past in my head, and a feeble crunch of twigs beneath my tires, I straightened my shirt, got out of the car, and made my way to the entry. The first thing I noticed is there no longer a true doorway. But when you visit someone’s home you always enter from the front. It’s rude to do otherwise, and quite frankly; this was the only part of the house that didn’t appear to be ready to swallow me whole. Creaking and lamenting with regret, the door swung open, and I crossed into the threshold of the past. Immediately apparent was the fact that it had been taken over by creatures who had been wooed by its tender, tasty wood. Termites had most certainly been dining on the lumber for years, and snail trails marked shiny freeways of slime and discoloration on the little bit of color left of the walls. I noticed all these things not because I am here to take evidence back to a lab, but because I am moving very slowly, knowing it would be unwise to move quickly, and trust the boards beneath my feet. No more than five paces from the foyer, the kitchen came into view. Surprisingly, there was no odor. No scent of decay or habitation. Filth in the corners was certainly proof that at one time a homeless group of people had been glad for the roof and the walls, but everything else was almost mummified in its place. With fear that something would leap out in front of me, I opened one of the cupboard doors and it snapped off its hinge immediately upon touch. After jumping a bit I looked in to see nearly perfect but curling shelf paper patterned with strawberries and picnic baskets that had once been brimming with bread and cheese. Seeing so many elements untouched, I found a new sense of adventure, as though I had come back in time to right a wrong. Heading for the stairs I would

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look first for the obvious things that may link me to Ray or Oacie’s past: Crayon marks, rusted sinks filled with hair, or mirrors that might show me a reflection of the fourth dimension. I searched for dates, and marks on the edge of a door jamb where each girl might have stood against it with her back straight, and a pencil set atop her head to mark her progress. And, I hoped for fingerprints that might still linger around a doorknob or handle. I even walked over to the few windows that remained to feel the cold of the glass against my hand. Eager to commune with the pointed hand of fate – my experience with these kinds of adventures limited to the TV dramas I watch to put myself to sleep back home – I stopped to sit atop the stairs, and think. I had found my way to Oacie, I had found my way to Ida, and I had found my way to this house. Without knowing it, I let myself say aloud, “Oacie, where do I need to go? What do I need to do? Where is the evidence of Ray, and of you?” If I was going to be guided by this ghost, I would have to notice a time portal into my wife’s earliest memories that was a small as small could be. I would have to think about being a child and follow my heart. I strained to hear the laughter of two little girls as they ran through this house playing tag or hide and seek. Drawing pictures, making macaroni bracelets, braiding each other’s hair, even jumping on the bed; all these things made me smile. I wondered with an audible chuckle whether any child from the beginning of time was able to resist the squeak of springs beneath their small bare feet. My own Nell was a fiend when it came to bed jumping, and one day I decided to try out her makeshift trampoline, and see if I could help her touch the sky. It worked alright. Somewhere in the dump is a mattress with a hole in the middle, caused by my feet. Why, the thud was so loud, and my body fell so awkwardly, that my mishap caused her to gasp in delight. She ran and locked the door so we could do our best to disguise it before Raynell came in to see the damage. To this day I don’t think I ever shared that story with Ray. Mistake number one million and three.

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Come to think of it, Nell and I decided to start playing a daddy-daughter game after that. It started after one really bad day at school. Visibly shaken from being the third wheel in a nasty, mean-girl triangle she simply fell at my feet with a sigh. She was so angry and confused, so I asked her how I could help, and she asked me so sweetly, “Daddy, what do you do when you are holding something inside that you just can’t tell anyone, but you know you have to get it out?” “Well, that’s a tough one,” I mused, rubbing my chin, “because sometimes it’s important to tell Mommy and Daddy if someone has been very mean to you.” She twisted her face and dropped her chin onto her hands, immediately telling me that I wasn’t getting the point. “Okay, then.” I recanted, not just a little embarrassed I had tried to turn her into a snitch. “How about this: Each time you feel poison in your little heart, I want you to get up and grab a paper and pen from your drawer. Then write down every awful thing that is sticking in your throat, no matter how long it takes. After that, fold the paper up as tightly as you can.” She looked up at me with a small, understanding nod, ready to hear the rest of our secret plan like a true musketeer. With her wide eyes egging me on, I continued telling her we would then have to open up a secret passage in which to discard her secrets, so we could be rid of them forever. Majestically I ended by saying, “We will find a place to send them so they will never bother you again.” “Where, daddy?” She begged, “Where shall we put the poison so it goes far away?” You know how it is when you’re telling a story to a child, you have to think quickly, even if you’re making it up as you go. Because our home had been remodeled, we had taken a passageway into the hall bathroom and used it to

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enlarge Nell’s closet leaving ten extra inches in between. That left a small space between the walls where I knew I could punch out an opening and create her secret spot. With a small hammer, and a whisk broom to carry away the evidence, we created the cave in minutes. It was amazing how quickly she wrote down her thoughts. It took me three months to write one paragraph of my thesis about Canadian wolf feeding patterns, but Nell had found a way to take all the bad things from her heart and fit them onto one sheet of pink paper. I knew I had much to learn from my young wizard so I just nodded when she handed me the small square, proud that she allowed me the honor of being her deliverer, and the destroyer of pain. When we placed the first, carefully folded diary of dread into the small opening, she stared at the space for a long time. With all the joy she could muster she turned and grabbed my neck so hard I fell backwards. I was glad we were on the floor together because it made the words she said next fall so softly onto my nose and cheeks that to this day it is one of my fondest memories with my daughter. “Daddy, you have made my heart feel like a balloon. Thank you for teaching me how to send my bad thoughts away. You are my best friend.” Everyone needs a secret space, a place to put to rest all the things that make our souls heavy and sad. But some burdens can never be cast off. Some will always take up more than a small piece of paper. They will never be written down and discarded into a small slit, forever enabling our secret balloons to be refilled with the weightlessness of peace. Hmm. Perhaps what I was feeling, in that old hallway, was the ghost of a father and daughter together so very long ago. Could they be guiding me on? I was getting stiff sitting there, so I knew it was time to continue my odyssey. Strangely enough, Oacie’s voice came into my head and I started to wonder about where their mother had died; where Cecile had been when she held

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Oacie’s hand for the last time. And where, through the roof, I would see evidence of her spirit as it trailed away into heaven, taking her daddy’s heart with it. Since there were no bedrooms downstairs, the largest bedroom upstairs had to be the place where they conceived my wife, faced the pain and inevitable demise of the town, and struggled to keep it warm and cool so that Cecile could rest in peace, during the last days of her life. Turning first into the front bedroom, I was caught off guard when I saw it. Cow wallpaper? Could it be? The whole room was alive with animals, and stars, and laughter still clinging to the almost faded walls. Nell had too much style to choose these kinds of gaudy surroundings but then, perhaps that was something she had been hiding, too? At my feet, nearly tripping me, an old mirror lay on the ground, the attached screws marking where it must have been fastened to a dresser already removed long ago. Who wouldn’t take a mirror? Someone superstitious, of course, and the whole of the South fit into that category. As I knelt down to adjust it so that it wouldn’t fall, I saw the outline of a small slit along the side of a board in the wall. A space that surely would be the kind of place a young, innocent girl would tender her most valued treasures. And I gasped. With one small nudge I could see that there was a crease about 5 inches to the right of the board, and like a pirate who has discovered his enemy’s treasures, I searched for a way to get deep inside. So taking my keys out of my pocket, I used the rough edge to pry open the space. I thought, naively enough, it would only be full of rat droppings and exposed, worn wiring. But what came out of that hole was extraordinary – no, it was amazing. What I saw was a treasure, no maybe an apparition. Either way I knew it was granted to me for only a moment, and if I were to leave and return, I might find that the entire house wasn’t even standing at all.

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Inside the bowels of the house was a small metal box, and inside of it a photo of a little girl, a little brown-haired girl with spindly legs and courage in her eyes. She was holding the hand of a woman, and written on the back, in the clear wobbly handwriting of a child were the words, “my Mama.” I knew it was Oacie in the photo. She was wearing a jumper with pockets embroidered with figures of frogs and lily pads, and she was looking up in the eyes of her mother who was, at that moment, looking down upon her daughter in a gaze that transcended time. Oh, God. What pain it must have caused for Oacie to leave this photo behind. I felt like I was exhuming a dead body, and I moved from a hunch to sitting flat on the floor so I could hold the flimsy and clear color photo only by the edges, assuring that eternity would not blame me for inserting myself into its meaning. Staring intently, I could make out the outline of the front door in the background and a few tenderly planted tulips lining the walkway. They were squinting, and it was obvious that the morning sun was bright and warm. Each was holding a small basket of colored eggs; Oacie’s brimming with green plastic grass and oversized yellow marshmallow chicks, Cecile’s with a package containing a large plastic bunny. Easter had brought them together, demanding they wear their Sunday finest so this moment could be captured. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. When you’re trying to memorize something, you trace a pattern along the edges of what’s most recognizable. The long, graceful arms of Cecile in youth, the dark flowing hair that wrapped around Oacie’s chin as the wind whipped through it. And the beautiful, golden hair of a mother that appeared to hover just a bit off the ground she was so proud. I could see the resemblance between Nell and her grandmother. The similarity of their longs necks was something I detected even in this two dimensional form. What began as an ache, and deepened to sadness, was the knowledge that Ray had only been given a few years with this wonderful woman who gave her life.

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It was such a short time to smell her scent, and be engulfed in the bosom of her care. I couldn’t stop staring at this photo, because when someone loses so much so young, there is no way that the hole can ever seal over. I knew Ray still showed the evidence of the breadth of that chasm. It has been a hole that everything has fallen into. Everything from her confidence to her truth, her past and even her future is at the bottom of this family tomb. It had all found its way to the edge of this precipice to teeter slightly, and then plummet into its bottomless form. I don’t know how long I stayed there hunched over the photo, maybe as much an hour or so. But when the afternoon sun began to drop below the line of the roof, I knew it was time to put things back as they were, and move on. I may never come here again. But I was glad I had seen the photo. Glad that heaven had shared it with me. I missed Ray and the kids then like I never have before, longing for all of them in a way only a father understands. I needed to have them around me, I needed to tell them I loved them all, and that they were wonderful and perfect and divine. Even Ray, with her demons still intact, was the love of my life, and we would find the answers together. We would each grab an edge of something strong, and cover this fissure, so that we could walk around it without fear of being lost forever. You think my story of Dillon ends here. That I neatly placed the photo in the box, the box in the wall, and the board back in place. You imagine that I walked down the stairs, shut a cupboard door for good measure and rode off into the sunset. But that’s not how things work when karma is on your side. When I put my hand back in to replace the photo, I brushed against something that moved. A small, container no larger than a box of playing cards that contained only one thing: a tattered, white envelope. Sliding the contents carefully out into view I could clearly see something written in a small, graceful hand. It was the word “Raynell” clearly and plainly printed

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on the front. On the back it read, “To be opened on her eight birthday, love, Mommy.” If I left this behind, I might be turning my back on the one gift that would change the course of our lives, or I might be introducing something Ray was never meant to find. The question was: Did Oacie leave it there, or did Mason? If I knew about my daughter’s secret spot, what if Mason did, too? What if he had decided to place his secrets there as well while he waited for his golden haired daughter to reach an age of accountability, and honor his wife’s wishes to deliver the letter only when she was ready to take on the meaning of its contents? I cried to think that when he died, and the children were taken into custody, the letter lay there languishing for decades, never to be read. Would Oacie have kept a secret like this? Would Cecile want Ray to have it? I had no idea, but I took it with me anyway, and then I did close the cupboard door for good measure, before leaving the house and photo behind. I would not open the letter myself. I knew better than that. I would carry it with me back to Atlanta after all of the stories were told, and the poison was out. I would take it back with me like so many bandages to wrap around the wounds of my lovely, suffering wife. Together we would explore who had really loved her first.

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OACIE As a little girl I was fascinated with lighting bugs. I couldn’t figure out why they were given the right to glow when other insects were denied a shimmering lantern of their own. Still today I am drawn to their green, phosphorescent beacon; their luminous glow piercing the thick darkness of Carolina nights. I still watch them from my cell when the moon is hidden behind the horizon and the forest is quiet and still. It’s the only time I flirt with the idea of freedom, letting my thoughts block out the cacophony of madness inside these walls and it works to calm me every time. The first ones appear in mid spring when the sun’s warmth still clings to the moist ground, heralding the beginning of summer’s long simmer. They seem so cheerful, these pixies of dusk, unaware that their illuminated dance invites capture. Without fanfare they move about showing off to each other, innocent of what may lay ahead, and I think I know how they feel. I summon the vision of fireflies on two occasions. The first is when I’m most afraid of dying by myself, and imagine I’m floating away on a stream of green light, unblemished and pure. The second is when I recall the face of a first love lit by the soft green glow of sulfur and kindness. When I am afraid of dying alone, I think about how much I miss Raynell. The last time I saw her was only weeks before she moved to Charleston, nearly 4 years into my prison sentence, and far into her desire to leave me behind. It was a quick visit and she came, I’m sure, out of obligation to flagrantly cast a judging gaze my way so I would know I’m nothing to her. She spoke only of her opportunities, and about all of the excitement and pride she felt. ‘It was a new life she was about to embark on,’ she had said coldly. “I’m happy for your Ray. You deserve to be happy.” I responded. “Well, I’m glad you’re happy for me Oac. Sorry I won’t be able to come see you as often, but you understand.”

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In truth her final statement was meant as an excuse to discard me, and as the words, “I will finally be rid of this place,” exited her lips I felt the sword of cruelty push clean through me and exit from the other side, without a drop of blood clinging to its metal shaft. But this is what I had wanted all along, right? It is what Mama had asked of me, it is what I had dedicated my life to doing. I wanted one of us to be good, and clean, and upright. Now Raynell was on her way. As Steve began to share more of Ray’s problems, I realized her madness had gone undetected, even to me. I just assumed she had slowly blended into the backdrop of wealth and upper-class unconsciousness, which was certainly better than what we had been through. And although I was furious at her lack of outward depth, I secretly hoped she kept her distance, and stayed away. Steve was correct when he reflected that we were both prisoners. Both of us apparently shackled by vile circumstances that bled us dry of normalcy and trust. He boldly told me that she teetered between shallow contentment, and a kind of forgetful hell. Afraid of her children, hopelessly compulsive, she seemed even more miserable than I. We, or should I say “I” had intended to free us both when I killed Frank, assuming naively, and with the heart of a little girl, that by ridding our world of a demon named Frank Scoggins, all other demons would be slain. Yes, Frank is now dead, although that happened years later and eons beyond our adventure with Vernie. I had confessed that crime with impunity to the local D.A., not imagining I would need my own attorney, and I signed my statement with a flourish over the “i” in Oacie, and settled back into my chair, waiting for the parade to start. First, I expected an acquittal, thinking his previous crimes were now laid open to view. Then, taking the advice of my court appointed lawyer, I plead guilty and was told I would get maybe 3 to 5 years in a low security prison. The strangest part is I was about as street smart as you can get. I knew every trick, every back alley maneuver, and every rule in the book to stay free of the law. So when the

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“threat” returned in all its horny, violent and determined glory I struck back without fear, and saw only a yellow brick road ahead of me. All along I assumed his death would take us from one place to another on velvet carpets, transporting us like rock stars to receive the restitution we deserved. But in the end, even when it seemed like it was the only way to be free, what I did took everything from us. You may be wondering if Miss Ida told Steve the whole story. You may be wondering if I will ever tell you the whole story. But sometimes pieces are all you need to understand the truth. It’s how they're put together that matters. When we left that night, and ran, Ray changed. I mean really changed. Like Saul in the Bible, she was transmuted into another creature. She still let me tell my stories, but she stopped listening to them. I soon realized she wasn’t humming anymore. And what’s worse, she always looked at me like I was wearing an ugly hat when I asked her to tell me if she was okay. “Quit talking all the time, Oacie. I am sick of all the questions and I don’t know what you’re even blabbin’ about. All I know is Vernie took care of us alright and you had to take us out of there. You ruined everything. I wish you didn’t drag me everywhere!” The fact that she didn’t talk or cry for the whole seven days of our exile should have told me that there was something huge that had been erased from her memory. Although I didn’t know it, Frank had actually been downplaying the whole ‘Vernie’ event to preserve his sick reputation as a hero to all broken children. He was, at that moment, headed for the same county that lay before us, requesting and receiving a transfer away from a failure to bring in the two horrid children of death, and clean up the city. He didn’t think he’d find us. We didn’t plan to be found. And because of the care of one woman, our lives turned beautiful for just a little while, and running was left behind. Towards the end of our running, we ended up living in a small abandoned car behind a barn. That’s where we were when Miss Ida found us, shivering, nearly

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starving, and too tired to flee or fight. I saw her approach, and raise a worn hand to her mouth to gasp at what she saw. We hadn’t bathed or eaten properly in a long time, and our clothes were torn and soiled. I would have understood if she turned on her heels and fled, given the stench that must surely have heralded her arrival.I figured, like some of the livestock that would look down at us that I could simply shoo her away, too. When she ran to get help, I would gather up our belongings and be gone before she returned with the local rubberneckers. But I couldn’t move that morning. I was too tired to run or cry, so when she came back with blankets and a wheel barrel and reached in and lifted Ray into her arms, I didn’t flinch. After securing my sister, she reached her hand out for me, and I took it. It was a glorious seven months while living with Miss Ida Mae Dowd. Warm meals, book reading, and hugs were given away like free candy. We laughed all the time, and each evening I recreated a past that entertained us all. The best part is there was nothing to be frightened of. It was easy to let that sense of safety creep in because she made life so wonderful. At that time I had no idea Frank was still breathing. But she must have known we were running from somebody because she fixed up a room in the shed for us, saying it was our own little house. Not more than 8 feet square, the smell of hay still stuck in the timbers, and sawdust on the floor, it was a glorious mansion with soft feather beds and the sound of the creek as a lullaby. We never even considered being put up in the house. That was her house, this was ours. At least in the beginning. Sometimes she’d come out and tell us to go and fetch wood down by the creek, or ask us to play hide and seek out by the old root cellar behind the house; chores that would take a lot of time to complete. I knew it was because she was covering for us, or guarding us against strangers snooping around for two little girls going by the name of Taylor.

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“They ain’t no reason why I’d be keeping a couple of juve-nile duh-linkwints under my roof, boys.” She’d drawl to each uniformed visitor. “Good Lord Almighty, pert near everybody knows that about me. I’m a God fearin’ woman, so ya’ll can just git on yer way.” What Miss Ida said was always the truth, and we knew it. Her voice was so sweet and honest that even in a lie to Jesus himself, the Son of God would have turned and walked away without question. So it was no surprise that no one paid any mind after she sent them packing. It was the third week of March, when the dogwoods were teasing us with their small buds, when I knew we’d have to be moving on. Ray was just starting to sprout the smallest little knots under her shirt, a sign that cross-your-heart lingerie was in her future, and I had started my period, so there would be talk in town when Miss Ida Mae Dowd started buying tampons and bras. Even though she said we could stay with her forever, I knew it was time to think about finding another home, and getting even further away from our past. When I first informed her of my decision, she just lowered her glasses to the very tip of her rounded nose, set down her sewing, and talked with a grunt that emerged when she tried to turn, and her girdle wouldn’t. “Darlin’ girl, you’se and Miss Raynell needs ta know somethin’.” She took in a long breath, opened her chest, and nearly popped the buttons that fitted the bodice around her ample chest. Setting her hands upon her knees, she took a worn finger and raised it up in front of her lips. Then, pointing to the meadow she continued. “Dear Mr. Dowd…ya see, he’s layin’ out dere all peaceful like under that oak tree out yonder, ‘cause he done died of a heart attack near ten years ago. Dern fool done broke my heart. Cain’t believe he lef me, but God takes what he takes.”

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There was an unmarked gravestone out back under that huge old tree. Whatever was written on the stone was long gone. But the rumor was a Union soldier had been found by a group of widows during The War of Northern Aggression, and they had given him a proper burial to offset the fact that their husbands had never been found. It would take more than ten years to erase those words, if there ever were any, no matter how many tears Miss Ida had scattered over it. Still, if Miss Ida wanted us to believe it was Mr. Dowd out there pushing up daisies, I wasn’t going to be the one to correct her. “He wazza good man, but not the best.” She warbled. “So, I aims to stick around here and make shore he gits hissef inta heaven. Lord knows he cain’t do it hissef! Too darned dumb.” Her laugh echoed off the porch, and tickled the leaves of the trees. I knew they heard her because they shivered when she spoke again. “So, they’s no reason for y’all to move on neither, ‘cause I ain’t goin’ nowhere, and neither are you… Y’hear?” That’s probably the reason, after we eventually parted, that she started a shelter for the homeless girls. She knew all us forgotten females had too much pride to say for ourselves that we needed help. Deep down inside we all yearn to feel we are helping someone. Nevertheless, on a morning warm enough to set out towards the rail lines without freezing in the empty cars, we hugged her hard, took our sacks of sandwiches and pickles, and set out for the road. That’s when I saw him. Joshua Dawson: Tall, bushy hair, all white teeth, and ears that were tucked down perfectly. His cheeks were sporting small, brown freckles that were still visible behind a beard just learning to be real. He held himself with confidence, although he didn’t know what to do with his hands, and after he stopped cold in front of us, he kept raising a finger to brush away a piece of hair stubbornly hiding one eye. I could see into his soul, the door was open so wide, and I fell right in without even trying to catch my balance. He had come to help Miss Ida

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start cleaning out the root cellar, and we had, by fate’s hand, run smack dab into each other. “Ow! Whatcha stopping for Oacie!?” Ray whined, running right into the back of me. Since I had halted not six feet from the front door, I suppose I deserved her loud retaliation. “Oacie, it is, eh? I’m Josh. Glad to meet you.” Sure his voice cracked a little but I thought it sounded like music. “Get the heck out of the way, you big tree!” Ray continued to squeal, deciding quickly to walk around me and look up at Josh like a bird watcher squinting to see a red tailed hawk. “Hi, I’m Raynell. Or, The Shadow as she calls me. Oac and I are on our way out, if you don’t mind stepping aside.” In spite of her command, I had not uttered one word. Wasn’t even sure I could feel my face anymore. “Not at all pretty lady. I’m just here to lend Miss Ida a hand. Y’all been staying here long?” “No!” I retorted nervously, spouting the words like the first steam popping out of a teapot. Then my voice finally emerged, sounding like a firecracker when all it does is hiss, scream and fizz out. “We’re just passin’ through, and we’re making our way out of here.” Could his eyes be any bluer? Josh seemed to find his words easily, and I was jealous and spellbound by the way his lips moved. “That’s a shame Miss. I’m going be around for awhile until

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my uncle comes home from Desert Storm. Then we’re gonna start plowing our own field, and making our own way. Until then, I’m at Miss Ida’s service.” “We’re not from around here, actually, just enjoying Miss Ida’s hospitality.” I feigned. Soon my eye started to twitch uncontrollably and my hands were as damp as a wet rag. What the heck was going on? Suddenly, the moment when I could have escaped was lost forever. Miss Ida emerged and walked over to give Josh a huge squeeze, lifting him off his heels, and terminating her amorous gesture with a huge kiss planted squarely on his left cheek. “You two oughta meet each other proper like. Josh, darlin’, dis is Oacie. She’s smart, n’ she’s 15.” She said it like it was my number in line at the meat counter, embarrassing me to no end, and making Ray giggle in delight. “She tells everyone she’s sixteen, but that isn’t gonna happen for a while.” Ray chimed. “She just likes to talk big, that’s all.” It was the first time I actually wanted to pop her one. “I can’t always remember when my birthday is, and I get confused,” I said, loathing my ridiculous answer, but still unable to connect my brain to my mouth. Gosh, he was smiling nicely. “Kids, y’all come over here and sit down, now. It’s time you made a friend, Oacie. And Josh, I knows you could use one, too.” With only two dozen words, Miss Ida had made us both feel like five year olds. But for some reason, we didn’t mind, and taking the bench next to the fern, I

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watched Josh float over to the wicker chair Miss Ida just happened to whisk into place. And we started to talk. “Miss Raynell, honey, bring them wild yellow pigtails, and come on in da house with me. Let’s get dem sacks unpacked, and yer things all puts away, and leave these two out here ta visit a spell.” As the screen door closed behind them, I could hear Ray’s shrill and indignant response echo through the house. “She is so full of it, Miss Ida.” “She’s full a’heart, little girl.” Miss Ida retorted, making sure they had retreated deep into the house to leave us alone. “Das what she full of.” *** For six glorious weeks Joshua P. Dawson and I were inseparable. We walked along the creeks, climbed into caves, and hunted for currants amid the underbrush of our own precious wilderness. When he kissed me for the first time I felt like I was falling into a mound of soft, warm caramel. Before long, as most young folks do who are curious and yearning for more, we started finding private places to do more than just kiss, and I learned that there was such a thing as tenderness. Josh made me feel like I was amazing, and beautiful, and everything that came out of my mouth was brilliant and important. It was during one evening, when the fireflies were thick as fog that we had decided it was time to find out what sex was all about. So one night, alone in one of our caves, he pushed his hands under my blouse, and nervously gripped my breasts between his rough and slender fingers, and I let him. I had such a rush of heat and tightness between my legs that I grabbed his other hand and shoved in down between them to connect with the soft flesh bursting with heat, not knowing what else I was supposed to do. With that he pushed his mouth over me, hard, and we both fell away into sensation and experimentation, the rocks and cold beneath us transforming into a bed as soft as a meadow in the spring. When I finally took him inside me, I gasped only quietly, savoring the

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taste of the sweat on his skin, and thinking how scared he looked as he held himself above me to do what he had most likely been told was the way to make me feel good. Hell, he could have been doing anything and I wouldn’t know. Everything felt perfect to me. It was then, when those green little lights of spring flashed on his face like a heavenly breath of air, that he asked me. “Yes, Josh. Yes I will marry you.” I answered, and buried my head deep into his chest, feeling his embrace hold me hard and strong, and hearing his breath go from slow to fast as we both let the moment turn us into one. And so it was decided. I could stay as long as I wanted to in the house of Miss Ida, tucked into the bosom of safety, and nuzzled within the clean, quiet embrace of passion. This star had just fallen – in love.

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RAYNELL I am flooded with an emotional mixture of relief and dreadful anticipation, and my stomach is leaping around like I’m a young girl on a first date. Taking in the scent of the mown hay and getting it mixed up with all the other smells darting in from the lazy and loamy highways of home, I am immediately transported back to being young and afraid. But it is a sweeter smell than I remembered, and it chants like the voice of a lost friend telling me it is safe to keep moving forward. It whispers that I will be embraced in the end. As I get closer to the motel, I think briefly about putting the car in reverse, and retracing my steps all the way back to Atlanta. Soon I will face a man who has been in the company of my incarcerated sister, and most likely knows every detail about our past. By now he has diagrammed each lie on his motel stationary, writing things like “oh no!” and “could it be?” in his small steady handwriting, slowing down only to make copious notes along the margin where he marks the most sinister lies with stars and big, black dots. I tried not to feel dirty. Staring down at my shoes to make sure they were the same apricot sandals I put on this morning, and not the worn, oversized slip-ons that I wore when I was a child, I thought about how I can’t control any of this. There is no way to predict what will happen, and what is worse, if this is the end of my marriage, I am about to expose my children to a scene that will get them closer to earning a place on the therapist’s couch, right next to me. While considering these opposites, the GPS chirps politely at me to turn left “now,” and as I dutifully oblige, by yanking the steering wheel over and over towards the inevitable, my bracelets clank against it like so many fine gold gongs in a lonely and empty palace, where no one has any sympathy for me. If I had time to ask myself, I know that nothing could have kept me from this moment, or from being here in this town. I know the children need their father and I need my husband. And strangely enough, now that I know that everything had to change, I need Oacie as well.

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We had traveled leisurely up the Interstate to detour onto quiet highways, taking gravelly side roads, and stopping all along the way for diversions and laughter. Determined to savor the moment in spite of our eagerness to see “dad,” we enjoyed every adventure as a family anew. The bonus to this sauntering was the chance to think everything over in my head, and redouble my intentions to become whole, and brave, and better. I had discovered feelings that I never knew existed, unlocking maternal nuances with each mile that I had always hoped I possessed, but never knew were mine. To keep peace in the car, each child took a turn sitting with me up front while the other was awarded the ability to choose the junk food of choice, and devour its contents without a word from me. So when we switched up kids at the first rest stop, and I saw the orange cheesy skid-mark on the inside of my E320 door, the empty bag laying on the floor like a guilty accomplice, with Garner’s sloppiness written all over it, I simply leaned down and licked the greasy tattoo off the leather, smacking my lips as loud as I could before walking away. Garner laughed so hard, I thought he would poop his pants. Nell was anything but predictable. She laughed the entire trip, and surprisingly would never let go of me, reaching up from time to time to caress the back of my neck with her small, slender fingers. When she did, and without saying anything, I would extend my hand backwards to clasp her fingers in mine, wishing that she would stay small, and with me for the rest of her life, so I could get to know her for real. God knows what the house looks like back home, or even if I have enough clothes to last the trip. I dumped my yoga pants, new trainers, two hoodies, three t-shirts and my entire drawer of underwear into my overnight bag. After all, a wife has to be prepared for unscheduled make-up sex no matter what kind of rush she’s in, so most likely my wardrobe contents will be a cross between a Victoria’s Secret model and an exiled Katrina survivor. Garner put on his favorite sweat shirt, and grabbed his baseball glove so he could play catch with his dad, but it doesn’t really matter what we brought. Even

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though I haven’t shopped at a discount store since Clinton was in office, I am sure we will find what we need to survive here in the wilderness of the Carolina backwoods. It was almost dark when I finally turned into the parking lot of the Pixie Inn Motel, and in spite of the thunder that rumbled above, Nell, Garner and I were overwrought with the prospect of seeing Steve. More accurately being reunited with their father and my husband after nearly a week was something we had played up to for the whole ride. But before I knew it, Garner had opened the door and spilled out onto the pavement, almost running before he had his balance, racing toward his weary looking father who had been sitting on a picnic bench alone, and had only then recognized us in the twilight. For what seemed like an agonizing eternity, and with Nell still pasted next to me on the front seat, we watched Steve bend down on the ground, open his arms to Garner, and scoop him up into the air. They giggled each of them; Steve spinning around with his son in ever quicker circles as the gap of time closed quickly between them. Once Nell saw the reunion, she instinctively knew I would be alright, and took her turn running down the sidewalk, racing to her father’s side where she was met with the same eager reception. Even in the low light I saw that her fingers were curled into his coat, and her grasp was tight and firm. Then Steve looked up at me, sitting in the car with my hands on the dashboard, and I realized I must have looked like a stray ready to run. He leaned down and kissed each of our children on the forehead, and pointed them to the playground behind the café, and turned towards me. Nell was too old for swings and slides but they both took off anyway, and I turned to watch them leave me behind to do what had to be done. I opened the door and stepped out, trying to be as graceful as possible but caught my heel in a crack and nearly fell. Having advanced toward me, and arriving at the car door before I could get out, Steve grabbed my arm hard, and I reached instinctively to hold myself up by grabbing around his neck. As I looked up into his eyes he uttered only one thing.

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“Ray, thank God you’re here.” It was no use, I wasn’t going to be able to start sharing all my well rehearsed apologies, or plan the perfect moment where I would convince him I lied because I wanted to protect us. Dissolving into his arms with tears streaming down my face, I held him tightly, sobbing so hard I could hardly take a breath as his embrace tightened with each trembling gasp. We stood there for a long time and when I pulled away, my arms numb and my legs weak, I looked up at him and said, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” He beamed then, and I fell in love all over again with his red hair, his sly smile and his easy, trusting way. “I don’t understand. Why didn’t you...” “There was no time, Steve. I couldn’t call. I just wanted to see your face.” I said rallying. “You look so beautiful, and the children. Are they alright?” He glanced over just to make sure they had found the swings, and we both saw the street light over them suddenly crackle to life. How could I tell him in one sentence just how amazing they were? How amazing it all was? How would he understand what had happened to me that morning, when I suddenly knew that I was the luckiest woman in the world and all of the shadows that I had been walking among were turning into crisp and colorful pictures of joy? “They’re wonderful. I don’t know how to tell you exactly, but they’re the most wonderful people in the world.” I gushed. I knew I would recant the whole episode all at once, me in my familiar frenzy, trying hard to use the right words instead of the real words.

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Just then I heard a siren go by, and it made me think about how fragile life is, and how I used to think of things in terms of avoiding life, instead of running headlong into it. “I just couldn’t sit around any longer, Steve. I didn’t think you were coming back, so I came to ask your forgiveness.” As my words trailed, he grabbed me again and held me even closer as the words spilled out of me. “I just remember your face when you left. You just closed the door and you were gone. You were headed for the enemy, towards the truth, towards the details that I have worked my whole life to forget. I just couldn’t let us end this way. Not without hoping that there was a chance to explain everything to you.” We rocked back and forth in unison as we spoke, something we had started when Nell was born so he wouldn’t get dizzy when we talked during my rocking sessions late at night. It felt peaceful and familiar and I could see he remembered it, too. “Explain what, Ray? That you had been forgotten, and that you were scared? That you had a sister who lived her whole life to protect you from something she couldn’t possibly have prevented? That you survived a childhood that would put most people into a straight jacket?” He looked almost crazy as he talked, and turned to shake me a little bit to make sure I was listening, and before continuing. “I’m the one that’s been going about it all wrong. I could see for years that you were masking something deeper. Why, I knew it the moment I saw you, in the street. You had been hurt, badly, and needed a rescuer, even though you were polished and clever. I took on the role because I needed to feel strong. I figured that if I never acted like I knew anything, and you never told me about the real you, we could go on pretending.” “But it doesn’t work that way, does it Steve.” I added. And he only nodded his head slowly and sadly.

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“Nope.” He answered, turning me towards the playground so we could walk over to the children. “But love does. Love works, Ray. And I love you, very, very much.” *** Turns out I didn’t need the underwear, or gas for a trip home, and the way things were going I wouldn’t need shoes either if bed was where I planned to stay. It was 9:30 a.m. when the door burst open, bringing the sounds of footsteps, laughter, and the smell of breakfast with it. “Dad said you should eat breakfast in bed, so we brought you some country ham and scrambled eggs.” Nell announced. “It was my idea to order scrambled!” Garner nearly shouted. “That’s how you always make them for me.” Nell corrected her brother mercilessly as she sat next to me on the bed. Her arms crossed intently like an attorney who has just trapped her witness in a blatant lie. “He’s making that up, mom. Dad asked the lady to scramble them. It was his idea.” “You just wanted eggs so you could get the waffles along with them!” Garner retorted, and Steve gently pressed one hand around each of their faces, softly and comically covering their mouths to restore silence to the room. “They’ve been a little hyped up this morning…” he whispered, kissing me on the cheek. “We just wanted to make sure you got some rest.” “This cannot be just breakfast, can it? I think I smell caviar, and champagne. I feel like a queen.” My tone just perfect, my comments well timed, our offspring quelled and beaming with pride, we all grabbed a blanket and huddled on the bed as I ate every bit of this feast, stopping only once to slip one spoonful of the buttery, yellow mound to Garner and a syrup covered morsel to Nell.

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Steve was staring at me with a look that confused me with its urgency, so I knew it was time to face the day. “Off you go, kids. Mom and I have some things to talk about.” He commanded. “Can we go see Bud?” Garner almost spit on me he was so fast to ask. “He said he was going to show us how to work his cash register!” Garner was halfway out the door when Steve nodded his head, knowing that Bud was trustworthy, and just as eager for the play date. “I’m going over to sit by the stream, Mom. Is that okay?” Ever the lady, I could see Nell had her pen and paper in hand ready to either record her thoughts, or find an unwitting victim to join her in a rigged game of hangman. So I just winked, and she was off. With the warm blanket still around my knees, I reached over to set my hand atop Steve’s leg, experiencing what could only be described as tingles. “I never knew they were my best friends. I never knew what it was like to have a friend.” I shrugged like a child just then. “You cannot believe what it’s like to find something wonderful like this, Steve. It makes me feel…lighter.” And he laughed and nodded, like he knew exactly what I meant. “I am realizing that we have spent a lifetime trying to side step our pain, Ray.” He said while staring into the distance. “All we accomplished by turning our back on it was that it piled up against the door and waited. It waited until we couldn’t hold it off any longer before it rushed in like snow against a barn, burying us all. I’m also realizing that it lingered there not to taunt us, but to teach. And happiness, well it was there waiting to replace it.” Quietly he turned to the open window and whispered, “I’m learning that here.” I loved hearing him talk, but I needed to know some things first, so I changed the subject quickly; maybe too quickly.

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“Steve, the only thing you haven’t really talked about is Oacie.” Pretty brave of me to step right in the middle of it, don’t you think? Steve looked down and I wondered what he had kept from me. “I didn’t know if you wanted to know all the details yet, Ray, but you should know this much, she’s the one that’s teaching me.” I didn’t expect to hear that, and with a growing pit in my stomach I asked the hard question. “Has she told you everything yet?” He didn’t answer so I asked again. “Has she told you why she’s in prison for life?” “Ray, I know most all of it. Maybe more than you do. She’s paying a price that has to be paid, a debt that right now may take the rest of her life. But I think we can help. I think you will agree if you’ll only go with me to see her.” Now it was my turn to look down, and I put his hand next to my cheek so I could disappear into it. “You don’t want to go, do you Ray. You’re afraid of her.” He whispered. “I’m not, Steve. I’m not afraid of that anymore. I’m afraid she won’t want to see me.” And I could feel a warm tear betraying my gallantry. It’s not like that, Ray. She’s stronger than that. And even though she hasn’t come right out with it, I think she’s ready to move on, too.” There was certainly more to this than I had expected, so I kept listening and trying not to cry as he kept talking.

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“It’s like the two of you are still connected somehow and I’ve come to the conclusion that each of you has been in your own prison for a long time, both placed there by a fate you never asked for. I also think you won’t be released from it until you see each other once again through new eyes.” Suddenly I was getting freaked out again. I wanted to run back to Atlanta, grab our children, lock the doors, and stop the clock. But there was no running this time so I helplessly pleaded, “I might need a week or so, Steve. Can’t we just drive around for awhile and talk it over?” We can take the rest of our lives, Ray. We have time. But Oacie, she doesn’t.” He was truly transfixed because I could see it expand with each word. “I think we should go tomorrow. I think we should go together.” “Steve, there are a lot of things I’m going to have trouble talking about, and I’m pretty sure there must be some things I don’t remember. I’m not sure it’s best to exhume all of this so quickly.” “You’re running again, Ray. Don’t do it.” He countered. “Steve, I’m trying to keep from falling backwards. Don’t you understand?” I could hear the shrill element return to my voice, so I dug my fingernails into my palm to keep calm. I hoped my bravery would work this time so I could have a few days to think. He could see me escalating, but instead of placating like he always did, he took my hand, and made me look at him as he continued. “We are going to face this together, once step at a time, and get through it. We will take care to make sure nothing is hurt along the way, sweetheart, but I won’t wait another minute to live our lives. Please, let’s give reality the air it deserves.” Then the strangest and most random thing happened. A bird flew right into the large plate glass window of our room, and I jumped. We both knew that we

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couldn’t just sit there, so we got up and opened the door to see a small Robin, stunned, lying on the ground, his eyes gently closed, and his mouth partly open. I ran back in the room and got a towel, moistened it with warm water, and ran back out. “She’s still alive, Ray. Let’s see if we can help her get back up.” He said, directing me to come to his side to watch him become Dr. Messner. With the care a surgeon exhibits while sewing stitches back into a human heart, he slowly began to test each wing to see if it was broken. Going down an unconscious list of things to check, he held his thumb against the neck to make sure it still bounced back, and gently tapped the nose to see if he could get it to move. Miraculously, after just a few moments the bird blinked, and twitched her small feet against his palm while he nudged her back to an upright position; key in getting the heart to pump normally again. In no more than a whisper he said, “There you go, sweetie. You’re alright. We shouldn’t have left that darn shade up. You just flew right into the sky’s reflection and didn’t even know what happened.” And soon, this small bird with the orange breast and the gray wings looked alive again. She didn’t seem frightened or hurt at all, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. “Do you think she’s alright?” I asked? “Sure, You’re alright aren’t you sweetie?” he said, speaking right to the bird. “Just stunned a little, and probably wondering who I am, aren’t ya?” He continued to rock her back and forth with skill and empathy. “Come on. That’s it, you can do it. Fly – fly!” Suddenly, in a whoosh that startled us both, she flew away and out over the playground, soaring over the roof of the Pixie Inn Motel, and away into the sun.

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Flapping her wings with determination and symmetry I watched her resume her avian life, and smiled. “Guess we’re going to the penitentiary tomorrow, aren’t we, Steve.” “Staying upright keeps everything in perspective, sweetie.” “I know – I’m learning that here, Steve.” And he laughed knowing that I didn’t want him to be the only one gaining all the wisdom, and that I my heart was beating normally as well. It was true. I was ready to fly.

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Chapter Nine – Reconnection

RAYNELL When I was hospitalized two years ago, fogged over by drugs, and crying through the confusion, I remember having a frightening dream about Nell falling off a ledge, and dying. She was sitting right next to me, each of us dangling our feet over a chasm that spewed out bits of fire and ash, making both our faces dark. It was a strange scene because we sat there laughing in spite of the filth. Although only a toddler, she was able to form words, and she had her hand out to hold onto my arm which she patted gently; her dimpled knuckles winking back as she stroked the edge of my cuff. For some reason, her moving hand would wrinkle my blouse, and I was irritated that she wouldn’t leave me alone. I was upset by it because I didn’t want my clothing tugged on, and I didn’t want someone sitting so close to me. I just didn’t want to be dirty. Soon the ledge began shifting more violently, but in spite of the movement, I turned away to look over at a bolt of lightning strike at a tree and rend it in two. The noise was deafening, like something really awful being broken forever, and I put both of my hands up to my ears, and squeezed tightly to keep the sound out of my head. As I pressed my fists in more tightly I could see out of the corner of my eye that Nell was teetering. She threw her arms up in effort to counter the effects of gravity, trying so hard not to lose her balance. And even though she is only inches from me, I don’t reach out to her as she falls…pulled into the gray nothingness in an instant, swirling and toppling end over end until I awake just as the thud of her head is about to slam into the rocks below. It was an awful dream, and I knew I had caused her death. I awoke with sweat pouring off my neck and shoulders, refusing to reach over to call the nurse or sip any water. Nell was a tiny baby in my dream, but the reality was she lay safe in her bed, with molars growing in the back of her mouth, grown up and dreaming

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about her own future. But still I let out a gasp. It was as though I was being told of something horrible to come. More often than not, even when I’m at home in my own bed, I awake feeling some kind of dread. And like that dream, the nightmares have taken on a misty quality, odorous and rank with death still hanging in my nose as the day begins. I rise and go to the bathroom, lift the toilet lid, and lean into its expanse to allow the retching that is at the top of my throat to empty into the water and be flushed away. But the vomit never gets any higher than my chest and the rancid taste of fear and poison stay in my throat. I am filled with darkness, and afraid I don’t know how to really care for anything or anyone. I have never spoken about this because it has been my burden. Or so I assumed until lately. Essentially I have carried nothing alone. I have levied a kind of emotional tax on everyone I ever loved by thinking that I could bear all sorrow individually, and deny the leavening power of each nightmare as it expanded around me. Even now, while sitting next to Steve as we drive down this hickory scented highway, I am thinking that the dream has a symbolism I must not miss. Its tangible essence creating an almost palpable conflict of thought broiling just below the surface as I work to see everything through the thin but immediate lens of trust. As we advance along the narrow mountain roads, we do so only as husband and wife. Garner and Nell have been left in the care of Steve’s new friends back at the motel, leaving the two of us without any excuse not to truly communicate. In my hands is the letter that Steve presented to me this morning. He told me about our house, about the secret chamber that contained Oacie’s treasures, and about the note he found that my mother had written on her deathbed, with words formed just for me. Unfolding the yellowed sheets was as miraculous as any moment I have ever experienced and I read the words over furiously, dozens of times, pressing the paper to my nose to breath in the miracle of her. There’s so little of my mother in my memories, but I do recall how she would hold me and caress my long hair. I remember the four of us on one occasion at a

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county fair and how I got sick from one of the rides. She had cleaned me up in the cold concrete rest room and then wrapped me in a blanket to take me home, watching me carefully throughout a long, miserable night. I trace my finger over the advice she had intended I receive on my eighth birthday and imagine Mama and Papa together in heaven. What I hadn’t imagined is that she had charged Oacie with my care, and asked me to understand that request. It’s an encumbrance she would never have levied had she not felt, intuitively, that perhaps she would soon welcome her husband through the same pearly gates she was about to cross through herself. I hold onto it now as though it will buoy me up, and keep me floating atop the ebbing blackness of my past while I settle in to blink randomly as the flickering shadows of leaves dance up and over the windshield of our car. I am surrounded by metaphors! Nightmares of dying children, resurrected praise from a mother long gone, and an imprisoned sister…a sister perpetually trapped, and whose only crime against me was that of expelling me out of her life on purpose. All of it was interwoven somehow. I just need to find the hidden threads. It isn’t until we stop for gas at a small country gas station with a red soda mural on the side of the building and a faded picture of Jesus over the cash register that it starts to come into focus. I feel at home here, really at home like never before; like I can pull up a chair and know where to find every spoon and touch each lost promise, and I feel a kind of spiritual resonance vibrate furiously around me as the truth breaks in. I quickly piece together some of my better memories when Oacie and I would sit in the boughs of large oak trees, ignoring the scrapes and thorns of the brown fingers that supported our weight as we hoisted ourselves far above the landscape to giggle and hug. It’s where we felt the safest, teetering up in those

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trees, and away from the back of an angry hand across our cheeks, relying completely on the bond between us. Gosh, we were so wild and adventurous. I would never let my kids climb that high; for one thing they would get really... Wait. Being dirty? Climbing into high places? It was starting to sound even more like my dream which made me jump like you do during a nap when you’re sure you’re falling, alerting Steve to thoughts that were crashing in with clarity. Suddenly I realize who the dream is about. “Jeez, sweetie, you okay?” He said, his arm darting out to grab me. It was the first time I realized how alert he’s always been to me, constantly on guard where I’m concerned and I felt so sorry. Leaning over to him I began a sloppy confession. I am not good at confessions so he understood. “Steve, I can’t imagine what kind of a wife I’ve been all these years. All I ever wanted was for things to be pretty, and neat, and safe. All I ever wanted was to make our life the picture of perfection.” “I’m not looking for a life that’s perfect, Ray. I’m looking for a life that’s whole.” And when he said that, I stared at him intently. I saw the way he always held his head slightly to the right, almost as though he was unconsciously leaning towards me. I noticed how his wedding ring spun around to the inside of his palm, scraping against my palm when we held hands, and he never pulled it so the diamonds faced outside. Suddenly he was a collection of the most endearing set of twitches and I reached up to put my hand on his cheek, Steve puckering instantly and grabbing my hand as he kissed my fingers. “You’ve always been the one I want.” He finished. “I don’t really know how to tell you what I’m thinking right now. I’ve been silent for so long that I don’t even know where to start. To do it right I would have to tell you everything I’ve been thinking for thirty plus years.”

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“I don’t have anywhere else to go, sweetie. The day is ours.” It made me laugh, but I didn’t want to lose my nerve so I continued, “I know we have time, but I need to talk right now. I want to tell you about a dream I had years ago. I think I understand, just today, what it means.” He just nodded as I continued. “It’s the trees. There’s something about them; I don’t know. They are so strong and quiet, and they make me feel protected. They carry me back to when I was young.” “They are comforting, aren’t they? It’s as though they know everything.” He shared. “They are comforting, and Oacie and I felt protected in them. They remind me so much of the times we used to climb into them, escaping the reality of our lives. Gosh, we spent hours in their arms.” I paused and there was enough silence for me to keep forming my thoughts and eventually speak them out loud. “Like pieces of a broken mirror, things are coming into focus and the cracks between the images are disappearing. You’d think I would put this all together but I don’t think I ever considered just how high and dangerous these perches were. Why, we could have fallen at any time and broken our necks. No one would have noticed, and no one would have cared because no one knew we were there.” “Amazing we live through childhood, isn’t it?” And he was trying to keep it light, but I wanted the meaning to stay clear. “I know Oacie never really put me in harm’s way, even while climbing. I remember she made me sit on the inside of the branch, where it was most strong. And she would hold on to me when I would change positions, or reach down to remove an acorn that had been digging into my leg so I wouldn’t shift too quickly.” I was rambling and avoiding the point. Why can’t I tell a story?

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“You were talking about your dream, Ray. Does this have something to do with your dream?” I could tell he knew I was close to a discovery. “My dream – sorry. Yes, and it was a bad dream. I had it in the hospital a couple of years ago. Do you remember much during that time?” It was a silly question. Just because I was foggy didn’t mean the whole world was. “I was in the room with you for most of the night, but you sent me home after the second night. You were pretty adamant about it, too. I knew you were struggling, and although you were talking in your sleep, I couldn’t make out any of the words. I just assumed it was the drugs.” He was smiling as he talked, so I knew I didn’t need to apologize. “I dreamed that I had Nell on a ledge with me, and we were so dirty, and we were laughing. She was so small, Steve, so little and helpless. Before I knew it...” The words caught in my throat so profoundly that the sensation caught me off guard. I reached up to my throat, and then looked over at Steve with a smile as the tears gushed down my face. “It was only a dream, Ray. What happened?” “Steve, I let her fall! I didn’t want her touching me and making me dirty and I let her…I let her fall!” I put my hands over my face, clamping hard over my mouth so the sobs wouldn’t be so loud, but the cries still caused my body to vibrate with pain. So much so that Steve pulled over to the side of the road, and turned to hold me. “I just let her slip away, and watched her tumble and roll. I let her die…because I didn’t want to be dirty.” “Oh Ray. Ray, sweetie. You were under so much medication, and when you were awake, all you spoke of is how worried you were about the kids. You kept asking me what they were eating, if they had clean pajamas, if I had bathed them

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and brushed their hair. It was all you talked about before you slipped into sleep again.” I just stared at him in wonder. I thought the only time I had been a good mother started at the pancake house two days ago. “Steve, why didn’t you ever tell any me this before today? I didn’t know you remembered any of this.” “We don’t; we can’t. We haven’t talked like this in a long time.” He answered and it was the truth. “God, I know. – And what’s even worse is I created a hundred conversations with you in my mind. But not one of them ever came to be.” It was getting easier to say everything. “Tell me more about the dream, Ray.” He continued, “Tell me what you know now.” Like all truths, it formed dryly in my mouth, the words awkward and foreign on my tongue; like biting into a lemon and reckoning with the sourness of regret. “It’s not about Nell. It’s a dream about Oacie, Steve. My daughter was the object of my dream because I wouldn’t or couldn’t dream of Oacie or our past. I wanted to be clean, and important, and good. You know what’s sad? There are huge chunks of my past I don’t remember. It’s more of a sensation than a memory, now. Isn’t that awful? I’m worried about how much has been buried inside me, or what might be gone for good.” I could see he was surprised by my statement but I could also see he didn’t seem surprised at my dream. “It’s not gone, Ray. It is just somewhere deep inside you. It’s hidden because something happened that was too awful to remember. What I’m worried about is how much of your memory you’ve lost. Do you even remember any of your foster homes or the people who raised you?”

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“Oh I remember them, alright. That’s what is so strange. I can recount every horrible word, every contemptuous action. And Oacie and I went from home to home it seems because she was always in trouble. But I really did feel safe with her. But something, something happened between us that made me want to push her away, off a ledge so to speak. Steve, I don’t think she’s done anything except protect me, and maybe every fragile and tender thing or person she’s ever met.” I turned to him with a new resolve. “Steve, we have to help her. I haven’t seen her in so many years, but I know her. I think I’m the only one that really knows her.” “And maybe, only one other person, Ray.” And I knew instantly who he spoke of. If there’s anyone who can make sense of this, it will be Ida Mae and we would be in her company very soon. Turning into the small, rock driveway I was overwhelmed with emotion. Miss Ida’s large, white clapboard house hadn’t changed at all. Even after two decades, it still had the same grinning shutters, the same wobbly front porch and out in the distance I could see the small hut we had lived in so many years ago. It was leaning badly, but it was still there. We waited for a moment before getting out, giving me time to take in the smell of the air and the sound of the small brook jumping over old rocks in the background. I could see a couple of young girls coming back from the edge of the trees with fire wood, and another girl laying on the porch, propped up against a railing with her feet in the air and a book in her hand. It was crawling with life because Miss Ida infused it into every creature she met. These girls now had hope and because she demanded you believe in your own potential. You had your mouth nearly washed out with soap if you didn’t repeat it every night before saying prayers. Then I saw her; a large, smiling, and ambling creature with her arms already out emerged from the screened opening. I could tell she was bent over a bit but still

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ready to greet me with a hug. I couldn’t help it. I jumped out of the car like a child, and ran up to her and into her arms. It was soft, and safe, and the beating of her heart next to my neck was like a slow motion cradle for my thoughts. It slowed me down and it made me remember all of the good things. She hugged me back for the longest time, never letting go until I was done refueling my own vessel with the strength of Miss Ida Mae Dowd. “Child, you feels wonderful. I cain’t believe you is here!” “I have missed you…Miss Ida.” I gushed, and pulled back so I could curtsy in her presence as all ladies should do when meeting an elder. “Oh, you is formal now ain't ya? Well, when a child comes home, ain’t a visit, issa reunion! Y’all come on inside, and let’s catch up.” By then Steve was behind me, and I could see her reaching out to put her hand on his back as well, and urge us both into the parlor. As we entered, the smell of the old house nearly knocked me over. Suddenly I could see Oacie barreling down the stairs to chase me around the room. I could see us playing cards on the floor, crossing our legs in a way that would sever my ankles if I tried it today. “You been too long gone, sweet girl. Too long. You tell Miss Ida what you been up to. Yo darlin’ husband here, he done already showed me photos of yo kids. Yo is a momma, and I’m bettin’ a fine one. Mmmm, mmm. Ain’t that wonderful?” “It is.” I chimed. “I am a lucky woman. But today I’m even luckier because I’m here with you.” But she could see right through me, see the questions on the tip of my tongue and the eagerness I couldn’t hide. We hadn’t been there more than 10 minutes before my transparency was called out. “You ain’t wantin' to waste no time, is you girl?” She stated. “I can tell the trees done do a spell on you as you was comin’ here, ain’t they. You wanna ask me about Oacie.”

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“I’m embarrassed and ashamed, Miss Ida that I haven’t been here sooner.” “You is here now, girl. You is here now.” One can never really define the sweetness in reminiscing. Like falling into deep, white snow it cleanses you, carrying you back to moments that need to be alive again. We talked for hours doing just that, and sipped on tea and ate lemon cookies and shared stories until I had to ask Steve to get my sweater from the truck, which left a small gap of time when I could talk to Miss Ida alone. I kept rocking in the chair but not talking, so the first question came from her. “You needs to see yo sister, Miss Ray. You needs to see her soon.” “I know. But she won’t be so happy to see me.” I shared, feeling the tears start to come up hard and hot. “You has a heart don’tcha?” She mocked and I simply nodded like a child. “Why then you has all you need to find yer way. “They’s a season for all things, child. When the wind changes and the days are shorter, the geese know it’s time to come down to where its warm and so they fly following only a tiny little memory in da back of dey heads. If’n they tried to fly sooner they wouldn’t know where to land. They waits for the leaves to fall, and for colorful forests to point the way to a lake or beach that calls ‘em home. Now is yo time, sweet girl. Look for the place that you been called back to.” I looked up at the trees, noticing the crepe myrtles which were bursting with a bouquet of pink flowers like dozens of blushing women sharing their collective courage. Then I turned to see Steve coming back with my sweater, his gait tired but his smile wide. Finally, I turned to Miss Ida who was already off her chair and I stood to hug her. It was like I felt something in the air and was moved to fly away too, just like the winged creatures of fall. “We’ll be going now, Miss Ida. Thank you for the hospitality.” And I walked to Steve and turned him around and led him back to the car, telling him that a little

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bird had told me it was time for me to head towards Redemption Way, figuratively and literally. “You decided all this, just while I went to the car and back?” Steve teased. “About 3,000 days and 60 seconds ago, actually. But yes. “And what did you say that I have been unable to, Miss Ida?” And he asked it only because he could tell that both of us displayed a new sense of urgency that pulled us along. But there was no more time for talking. The sidewalk beneath us was already moving, as though we had already deposited our quarters and had forgotten to hang on. Miss Ida could feel it too, and so she said her goodbyes without answering Steve’s question. “Y’all come back now. You come and see Miss Ida every chance you gets, Ya hear?” And with that Miss Ida had already retreated into the house, the chimes on the porch still swaying back and forth as though they remained to wave goodbye. “Steve. I want to talk about everything. And then, in the morning, we will reunite two sisters over a chasm of time and tragedy. I know now that I’m ready.”

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OACIE I don’t know how she does it, but Miss Ida has always been granted permission to do things a tyrannical society forbids. Namely, to visit a friend face to face, even though that friend is a hooligan like me. She doesn’t sit on the outskirts, or wither like a new flower beneath a stampede of cloven hooves. She isn’t an onlooker at all. Most visitors exude a kind of apathy that prevents them from seeing into the darkness. And they lean back in fear, drooping like the tatted lace on the edge of a great aunt’s pillow case: Delicate and self important, but with no real use to anyone. You see, Miss Ida steps right off into the darkness, as though she has bought a ticket to see it and cannot wait to be ensnared, or perhaps tutored by its inky omniscience. I don’t care why she does it. Her presence helps erase the finite and ever present limits of my incarceration, and I am grateful. Without glass between us, I hungrily accept the gnarled and beautifully wrinkled hands that reach out for me in this cold and vile dwelling. And, as we talk, she infuses a bit of humanity in a life of bitterness and solitude. More precious to me than our time almost, is her smile. An upturned helix that angles sharply downward on the right side because of a bout with Bell’s palsy when she was pregnant with her first and only child, conceived and then lost while still in her womb, after falling down a flight of stairs. That smile is the tattoo of her faith in God’s mercy, and her worsening limp is a stern chaperone to the joy that follows her wherever she travels. I love Miss Ida, almost as much as I love the smell of freshly mown grass, or being tickled behind my knees, or even as much as I love my dear little sister Ray. But Miss Ida’s love for me has somehow worked a magic I was unable to experience during all the days I roamed God’s earth as a free creature. It is selfless and respectful, as though I live inside her and feel her erratic heartbeat like my own. That is why just from a glance, I know she is about to levy a sermon on me that is more than just an admonishment to give Jesus all my burdens. She has something else to tell me. Something that proved one of her

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crazy predictions had come true, and I had best be on my knees before the sun set so I can “plead for the wisdom to know what to do with God’s love.” That is exactly what she will say. “Y’all ain’t been sleepin’ has ya, Miss Oacie. Dem beautiful eyes a yos are hanging on your face like a couple a slippery eggs in a cold pan. Lord-a-mighty sweet girl. Dat boy been givin' you pause the likes I never expected.” Finally reaching a sitting position after hovering over her chair for several seconds, it’s as though she was suspended from a long string affixed from the ceiling, one that wouldn’t allow her backside to touch the seat until the earth had stopped its spinning. “You are pretty damn certain that you and Moses are on the same terms with God, and you think you know everything, don’t you...” I chided. “Darn right, child. Ifn you been on yo knees as much as me you’da learn what da Lord’s message is all about!” And she sat straight up and put her thumb and forefinger up against my right cheek to plump it up and bring the blood back to my face. I smiled then, and sat up a bit taller, letting her take my skin hard so I knew what it felt like to be beloved. “You have been telling me that someday Ray would come back and she would want to understand all that had happened. But I know now that she isn’t interested in me. She’s not curious about who I am, or who we were when we were together, or she would have come with Steve.” I could feel a small tear heating up behind my eyes. and I worked hard to keep it floating so it wouldn’t rush down my cheek and baptize my fears. “I guess I have enjoyed Steve’s visits more than I thought I would. It’s like I’m real again. And, surprisingly, telling the story has come easy, Miss Ida. So much easier than I thought it would! The voices are clear; the sting of every moment so vivid, but it doesn’t hurt to where I can’t share it. And you know what? He

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listens. He hears all of it like no one, except for you. But I’m telling you, I don’t think Ray’s coming.” And I pulled away. “I don’t think she remembers, and I don’t think she wants to. It’s buried and over for her.” “What part dint you share wit him, Oacie. What part you holding back? What been going on?” I knew she could see the pain, a pain that rushes into your face when you tell part of a truth but not the whole thing. “Nothing’s wrong with me. I’ve just finally realized who I am and what I deserve, that’s all. Spending time with Steve has just confirmed the fact that I don’t belong with any of them.” “But he done told me that Missy Ray is ill, and taking the hand of the past into the future is what he knows she needs. Why Miss Oacie, you and Miss Ray, you is one heart.” I kept shaking my head as she talked, knowing that too much yearning will sap whatever memory I have in my head of Ray, beautiful and separate from all we endured. “It’s about them healing, not about me.” I told her through moist lips. “That’s just the way it is.” “Miss Oacie, you is brave, too. You knows that.” “Bravery never earned anyone a warm bed, or a place at the table. You know, all of my life I have never let myself get close enough for anyone to see inside me. They look at me and they see their own fears get bigger, because spending time with me means you have to fess up to your demons. And I’m just a reminder of what happens when you do follow the devil inside.” “You is proof that love is the mos powerful thing of all.” She stated quietly.

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“To who? To you? To the guards?” I was almost shouting then. “To the students and misfits that come in here to see what a real ‘lifer’ looks like? There’s no reason for us to sit here and debate the truth, Miss Ida. Don’t make me go through this with you. When you’re here I want to talk about the fireflies down by the river. I want to hear about what it’s like when you’re rolling out the crust for my favorite cherry pie. I want a description of the dance your fingers make when you tie a bow in your apron. Share with me, Miss Ida. Share the world with me and don’t make me cry over the past and a family that doesn’t exist.” “Ifn I thought you was only made up of cross words and impatient thoughts, I woulda stopped comin’ here ee-yons ago. But each month I comes, and I bring you news of life, and I know that today you has earned da right to hear the best news of all.” She didn’t hesitate with good news, unless it was amazing news. She had learned my trick that the storyteller has the power to lure and delight, which means you don’t tell stories, you release them. And you do it artfully so that the ripples they leave are round, and even, and high. You create magic in the lilt of your voice, skipping across words to create a verbal soundtrack, and carry the soft ones on your tongue until they all melt like cotton candy. She was playing with me today, alright. Damn if this woman wasn’t part performer like me. “What do you know, Miss Ida? Tell me.” I was almost afraid of the answer. “She’s here. Miss Raynell is here.” I was flooded with chills. She had never lied to me but I looked deeper into her ebony eyes anyway, searching for confirmation. “How do you know? Who told you?” I managed to eke out a couple of words before she got up and began to strut around the room like a fat hen with a damn egg getting ready to shoot right out her backside.

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“Why, I seen her with my own eyes. Jus yesterday in fact. She and Mr. Steve done come to my house to ask ‘bout you.” Continuing more slowly after seeing me visibly shaken by the news, she artfully dispatched all of the details. “They’s with they children, too. Yo niece, Nell and yo nephew Garner. Dey’s all together.” I thought about the connections I had with Ray over the years, and how clipped and brief they were, coming in envelopes filled with curt notes and sarcasm. Even the baby announcement was a surprise. I’m not even sure she meant to send them. I still think the postcards had found me because I was included into a large pool of people who you don’t speak to but you do send them mail. I stared at those postcards for days, putting them up on my wall to admire and use as a portal to my sister. I pulled the photos so close to my eyes that keeping them in focus was difficult. So close in fact that the colors turned into miniature squares of tint and pattern. Inversely, I would stand at the furthermost corner of my cell and squint, trying to make out the shape of their faces, and dig deeply to see where our DNA had randomly landed. As is my curse, I could see right away that Nell was going to be like me. Maybe it was the way she held her head up, already indignant that her first portrait showcased her wrinkly backside mooning the whole world. I’d be upset too if they made me sit naked, and I knew Ray was going to have a handful with this little girl. I prayed, yes, you heard me, I prayed that she would see her spirit and not her wrath, and care for her the way I knew my mama and daddy had when they discovered a pint sized spitfire in me. Then there was Garner, his sweet face full of promise and mystery, staring back and me with such tenderness. A lock of curly hair took up space in the corner, making it obvious that the photo had been difficult to crop without eliminating its stubborn arch. As thoughts flooded into me of what motherhood would be like, I checked each stat, marveled at his small fingers, musing that his 7 pounds and 4 ounces belied a soul full of potential. A soul with my daddy’s ears, Rays’ cowlick, and now that I know him, Steve’s innocence and courage.

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Jolting me from my thoughts Miss Ida broke in, “Missy Ray and Missah Steve, why they sat with me fer hours, and we talked about what Mr. Steve’s been learning at yo feet, dear girl. He been glowing with the light dat only you gives off, and I knows it.” I had felt there was a connection with him. I had felt it the moment I walked through the door and saw him. I tried to act cool, of course. I flicked my cigarette ashes around like a diva, and tried to shake him up with a little drama here and there. But he didn’t flinch like I thought he would, so I trusted him and told him details and stories that no one knew but me and God. I’ve even started to think about what it might be like if I ever got out of here someday. Spared the death penalty, I am sentenced to life imprisonment. But maybe, maybe I would know freedom again? Shit, it was these kinds of silly dreams that had been keeping me up at night. And just before Miss Ida had arrived I had decided that it was all nonsense and I needed to get back to reality. I wasn’t going to let her fill me full of her stories about Steve. I had sent him there, sent him there to be shocked and learn more about the stories that needed to be told by someone other than me. I knew he would give her money. I knew I could count on that. But what I didn’t count on was becoming connected to him, and then reconnected emotionally to Ray. I intended to show Miss Ida my strong side, but she could see my pain. She looked right through me all the time. “Tell me all about it, Miss Ida. Tell me about her.” I begged. God, I couldn’t wait to hear any little detail. “She ain’t been well. She ain’t had no perfect time of it like you wanted fer her, Miss Oacie.” Her voice was soft, because Ida Mae knew about not having a perfect time of it. “She been tired. Tired like an old shoe that won’t be put away, and confused, too. I could see it in the way she kept stutterin’ over her words. Why, every time

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she spoke of you, I could see regret in her eyes. She done ready for a change Miss Oacie. I can see it.” “Tell me from the start. Please. Paint me a picture.” And so she began to tell me about the visit. About how during the early afternoon, when she’s about to rub down her legs and put them up in front of the TV so she can watch old movies, the sound of a truck on rocks announced the arrival of guests, and how she was there to hug Raynell first. She told me about how a fragile woman who didn’t look near her 32 years came into her home and tried to make peace with a place she was clearly happy to return to. She told me how Ray and Steve described the children, and illustrated for me, in the most beautiful words that punctuate the sadness of the south, a family that lay at the feet of a memory, begging it to make things whole. “Is she coming to see me, Ida Mae?” “They’s piecing together they own hole in da middle of they hearts. Miss Ray, well seems she been fighting somethin’ she cain’t even remember, and Mr. Steve, he being right patient with her. I knows that when dey see you, it will be when they’s ready.” I knew what she meant. She was talking about my own story that was bigger even than running from the law; bigger than me putting a hole in Frank Scoggins’s skull. Something buried so deeply that it was hard to believe it was real. If I am to tell my sister and my brother-in-law these deeper truths, Miss Ida knew it would be in my time. “Have you even hinted to them about any other secrets?” She shook her head slowly, and walked back over to sit down and touch me. With the instinct of a mother, she reached down and put her hands on my belly to try and heal the most secret inner parts of me.

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“Somewhere, beyond da graves of the dead, beyond da broken heart of silent children, even beyond the voices of dose who been misunderstood, issa place where all secrets are told.” She said. “It’s a place you has to go, little girl.” Miss Ida had both her hands around my head, caressing me like a pastor who’s offering a prayer of healing. “I’ve stayed silent to protect everyone I love, and stayed sane by forgetting about them at the same time. I suppose I always knew that even if I ran the other way, this doorway would still come up and ask me to walk through it.” I looked up just in time to see the sun shift slightly in the sky so that its light was streaming right into my eyes. “I am certain now that Ray and I hold the key to that door. It won’t open with just one of us standing there, will it, Ida.” I shivered and she nodded. “I’m scared, Ida. I’m really scared.” “Telling da truth ain’t half as hard as keepin' a secret, now is it? But we’s still telling ourselves it’s the truth we’s scared of. Ain’t we? My, my. Why you kept lying to yosef all these years…hmm, it’s always broken my heart. You know, sometimes the deeper we bury things, the more they done float to the top. Like ice cream in a glass full a root beer. Jus cain’t keep it down.” “God, Ida. I don’t even know what to think first. I have to wrap my head around this.” I knew that when the real reason I killed Frank came out, that all I’ve been holding down will float to the top. People will become vulnerable, lives will be changed, even fortunes shifted with truth burning through it all. “You have been loyal, and you have been true to me, Miss Ida. You’ve kept all my secrets. I suppose it is time to set you free from them too, so you don’t have to keep them anymore.” “I is already free. Is you, dear child dat needs freedom.” “So many people will have to change when they know everything. It’s not my place to change all that. Is it?” I asked, really wanting an answer.

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Her words were hard, their meaning solid and serious. “What has happened has happened. Now is now. You been livin’ in the past and kept a shroud over all of it. What makes you think you is da one that controls da fate of all people? You think you is God or somethin’? You ain’t. You is only in control of you. You didn’t kill jus to kill, girl. Hep us, for once in your life to hep you.” “I don’t know how, Miss Ida. I don’t know where to start!” And I gripped her hands tightly, wishing she didn’t have to leave as the clock ticked on. “God knows it tooked you years afore you even tol me. But things gets easier the second time. And I ain’t even kin. When you looks in Ray’s eyes, you will know what to say.” I saw her grab her purse and she hugged me and walked over to the door so I asked her my question quickly, before she vanished. “Do you think my daughter is happy in life, Miss Ida? Did I do the right thing?” “You always do the right thing. You just sometime do it in the wrong order. Set it straight, sweet girl. Set it all straight.” *** As I walked back to my cell, I thought if I knew Miss Ida at all, I knew that Ray could be here soon; too soon to give me time to create a mask. She was right. I needed to put things right. With one last look I walked over to those baby announcements to touch the paper and the words that said, “...proud to announce the birth of…” and wept.

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STEVE As Ray and I drove to the prison, Oacie’s simple words, spoken to me during our last visit, were ringing in my head. ‘Sometimes, death is a tool to take you from one place to another. But in the end, even when it seems like the only choice, it takes everything from you.’ I thought about how Oacie was willing to give everything up in exchange for the safety of others, and I thought about the trade she made with open eyes. It was a trade that defined her courage and her resolve. She was capable of extreme violence that was for sure. But weren’t we all just one terrible tragedy away from death row? When we visited with Miss Ida, I could tell she was holding back something important about Oacie that was meant to be said, and might even change the entire game. Were we ready for another curve ball? I worried at every moment for one of Ray’s spells, or that I would do irreparable damage if I tried to dangle the past in front of her without professional help. I was banking on the fact that Oacie would perform the same miracle with my wife as she had done with me. Giant holes were meant to be filled, weren’t they? When we entered the main hall of the prison, the guard, who knew me by now, took me aside. As she approached, I dreaded what she might have to say, worried that Oacie has decided to refuse our visit, or that something had happened and she couldn’t receive visitors. But her good news startled us both. Miss Ida, the miracle worker of the South, had just that morning arranged for a chaperoned, but face to face visit for us. We would be led to a special room and after being searched, a routine I was now comfortable with, we would be escorted into the same breathing space as someone who they believed was a menace to society. “Haven’t you always been able to see her in person, Steve?” Ray inquired, surprised by my hesitation.

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“No, actually. Not at all, Ray. She doesn’t get to see anyone in person. There’s been glass between us from the start.” “Why would they keep her from people?” Ray’s innocence almost made me laugh. “You and I know her differently, I suppose, Ray.” And we both turned to continue our march down the white, stark corridor. Arriving in the room first was a relief. It was large, cold and empty, with a mirror on one side and a bench for the guard I assumed, in the other. In the center was a table, with 4 chairs. It was round, which I projected was meant to allow for a sense of equality. But that didn’t seem right. Man, what was I talking about? Looking for incongruent circumstances was a habit of mine, especially when I was experiencing a sense of profound anxiety. Suddenly a loud sound from the air return exploded like a drum roll, and I jumped. Ray, calmly looked over at me and said, “It’s just the air conditioning humming. I thought I was the one that was supposed to be nervous?” I was glad for her levity so as we took seats next to each other, Ray facing the steel door, me facing the mirrored window, I couldn’t help but muse about our individual reflections and the bright circle of perspiration that rested atop my forehead and nose. In contrast, Ray looked like she was ready for a photo shoot. Every hair was in place, her legs neatly folded, and her neck smooth and without any stress or kinks. She seemed to be calm among the calmless, cool among the heated, and smart among those who could never keep their heads. “How is it that I’m the one sweating like a pig and you look like a debutante?” I chided. “Genes and upbringing, my dear,” And we both smiled underneath the bright lights knowing that upbringing was her code word for all she had been through.

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Before long there were voices outside, and the sound of keys unlocking what must have been Oacie’s handcuffs. When the knob turned we both arose but only the guard walked in. “We want to let you know that this is a special circumstance, folks. We understand that you’re her sister, Mrs. Messner, is it?” “Yes, ma’am.” Ray drawled, aping the guard’s thick accent and folding her hands together in front of her as a gesture of submission. “We cannot let you touch, even though we’ve searched you. And as strange as it may seem, it is to protect Oacie.” We both nodded with protocol but it seemed a strange thing to say to us before bringing us together without glass. “Y’all understand? Hands on the table please.” And she turned to motion for the prisoner. “When Oacie entered, she was, as I suspected, standing tall and strong. She first looked in the room to see if we were the only occupants, straining slightly to peek over at us before straightening her hair. With a small twitch of her mouth, she looked straight at Ray. I swear the room broke loose from the prison that moment. We were floating up and away on a cloud. The noises outside subsided and the vibration in the floor calmed to nothing while only the voices of two beautiful and lonely souls broke the silence. When Oacie spoke she said the one thing that I had been thinking all along, “You are looking beautiful, Ray. I knew you’d still be beautiful.” As expected, Ray held her hands up to her mouth, the normal reaction if you couldn’t reach out to a sister who needed a hug more than anything in the world, and you were looking upon her with new eyes. And then Ray smiled, and I saw her body relax, like someone had just said a prayer to keep her safe. Maybe Cecile and Mason were watching after all?

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Her calmness calmed me. It was the emotion I had always prayed she would experience when I was lucky enough to get her to visit therapists back home who sought to clinically extract the demons I knew were locked so very tightly inside. Were we close to doing that now? Would all that was suppressed come to light here today? Would it emerge in peace, or destroy us all? I prayed, then, like a small child on the edge of a precipice that we could do this, together, without the hand of a doctor to be there with medicine, or restraints, or worse yet, a wet signature on the commitment papers that Ray always said they were itching to complete. “You haven’t changed at all Oacie. You look beautiful, too.” Ray answered, snapping me back to the moment. And there wasn’t anything but smoothness and confidence in the low and comforting tones of her beautiful voice. What else could they have said? It was a perfect start. What other formality would have been appropriate to breach the chasm between them, other than grace and compliments? “You have fifteen minutes, folks.” And with that a new guard came through the door, passed between Oacie and Ray and took a seat over in the corner, blending into the painted brick like as she had done thousands of times before. Oacie, with her usual grace, took her seat and kept staring at Raynell until I felt I had to talk. Because, well, I always felt like I needed to talk. “Oacie, Raynell arrived here two days ago. I didn’t ask her to come, she came on her own.” I realized my statement sounded a little like an apology, something that I knew both women already forgave, knowing my finesse lay in other talents besides social speaking. “I just mean, today is because of her, not me.”

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Best that I just sit back and be quiet. If I’d had to play out this moment in my head I never would have guessed the grace that passed between them. They were nearly children the last time they sat like this, and after hearing clues from both of them, they had acted fairly standoffish and immature. It seems time does heal the broken voices of our past. “Oacie, I’ve been afraid of this moment for so many years.” Ray began with poise and softness, saying what was most in her heart without needing to begin their dialog with useless talk. “You are my sister and I should have been here for you.” God, this was torture knowing they wouldn’t be able to touch. Again I mused that if hell were real, that the inability to feel another human being would be the punishment that exceeded even the pain of eternal fires. “There’s a lot to say, Ray; a lot.” Oacie answered with a small smile, knowing that they wouldn’t have all afternoon to chit chat and that each moment was precious and important. “I’ve been telling Steve about everything, and he’s been a good friend.” She looked right at me, before turning again to Ray so I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. “Oacie. I’ve been a coward. I’ve, I have...Well, I have abandoned you, and I’m truly sorry for how everything has turned out between us.” Oacie, unable to maintain the resolve that I knew was her daily companion, let the tears run freely down her cheeks, reaching up to push against her eyes and prevent the deluge from being released. I had seen her cry in day’s past but this was different. It was the kind of crying you do when you’re tired, and worn out. The kind of crying that would last forever if the right shoulder was presented, and there and no one was looking.

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“Dear, dear sister, I understand so much more now. Please forgive me.” Ray continued. “I understand now that everything you did was to protect me.” Ray paused for a minute, a hole suddenly closing between them, and Ray extended a long, beautiful finger and reached over for Oacie’s hand. When Oacie returned the gesture and put her hand out a few inches, the guard did not jump. She let the two of them intertwine fingers, a rule that would have brought down the sirens had it not been taking place inside a bubble that was holding up this room. We could all feel it, as though the past was rushing through each of their minds, a breeze slowly tingling past our necks, an eternity of estrangement closing like the door to a large empty tomb. When the white parts of their knuckles began to turn pink again, I knew dialog would return. I knew before she even said it that Ray would need to talk about a past she couldn’t remember and I wished I had a bar to hold myself level because certainly everything would begin to topple when the truth started to emerge. “Oacie, part of what has kept me from you is that I don’t really remember all of what happened to us. Before we arrived at Miss Ida’s, and after our last foster home, I am guessing that something happened - something bad. I know we were running for a long time but I don’t know what we were running from.” It was interesting, going back and forth, watching these sisters piece together a tattered past with carefully worded questions. They spoke a language with their eyes only, reading each other’s minds through blinks and twitches…until, “But there’s something else, isn’t there Oacie. Something else you haven’t told anyone, not even Steve. Something else you need to say to me today. And,” Ray paused just then strangely, like an angel had just whispered a secret in her ear and she needed to let Oacie know. “…and you knew you would be telling me today, didn’t you?”

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I looked up at the guard in the corner, staring into the space between us without a hint of emotion. I looked over at the mirrored window, trying hard to imagine who may be able to witness this. And I suddenly felt we were being violated in the most distressing way. “Wait, wait.” I croaked. They both looked over at me strangely, as I awkwardly whispered, “Maybe I shouldn’t be here for all of this. There are a hundred ears in here, maybe I can help if there are two less.” “If it hadn’t been for you, Steve, we wouldn’t be here. Of all people, you need to stay.” Oacie stated. “You are the rock that Ray needs now. Please, don’t go.” It was as though Oacie knew she was the one to answer my question, that this was her platform, however crowded it was. And so, I pulled my chair closer and waited; waited like a theatergoer waits for the dancing hotdogs to go away and the lights to dim, like a child waits for the jack-in-the box to click, and like a sister waits to end the silence that has lasted too long. “You were so young, Ray.” Oacie started, “You were brave and trusting and matter-of-fact. So much so that you put yourself in harm’s way more times that I could prevent. I let that exist in you. Partly because I was so jealous of your innocence, and partly because telling you to do anything usually meant an argument. Perhaps it was my fault that I let things go for so long in that house. I should have known that you were the target of Frank’s glare. But I was young, too. Innocence flashed before both of us that afternoon and then vanished. We both saw and lived through too much.” Oacie had settled into a kind of catlike stance with her feet apart and her toes turned inward. Her hands, never twitching like mine always do, were long and white and sure. She started the conversation with her palms nearly covering her mouth, but after a few sentences both of her arms were around her narrow waist, shoring her up for a tale that should have been told in a book, taken in from the pages of a novel while sunbathing at the beach, instead of being uttered here in a high-security prison humming with sorrow on Redemption Way. I settled in to

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hear the story for myself, always captivated and amazed at the detail Oacie could create with her words. And so, she continued: “During one hot summer, just before you turned a very young 11, you and I used to take buckets of water out to the back yard of our house and fill up a small wash basin that lay just under a pecan tree. It was shady after school, and there was still a little grass on the ground so that we wouldn’t track too much mud into the cool water. We would play there for hours, me telling ridiculous stories to keep you from wandering off. “My voice must have been a bit too loud that day because just as we were about to finish one afternoon, Sherriff Frank Scoggins came into the back yard to hear what the commotion was about. I don’t know if you remember him, but he took a liking to you right away. At first I thought his kindness might help us. That perhaps we were finally in a place where the law could be a friend, instead of contributing to our misery. But just as I started to smile I could see that he was looking at you in a different way. It was the way I had seen the man at the clinic look at one of the blond nurses only one month before. It was this same nurse that turned up missing not too many weeks later, and she was never found. ““You is sure a purty little thing, girl. What’s your name?” He droned; sticking his hands into his pants right behind his belt buckle as though if he let them dangle they would grab at something they shouldn’t. ““She’s my sister.” I quipped, and without even looking my way he advanced more closely to you and knelt down so his head was the same height as yours. “Hey, Mr. Sherriff!” I yelled, “We live right here so there ain’t no reason for you to find out where we belong. We are already home.” ““Why, I know that girl. Miss Vernie, why she’s one of my best friends.” He talked like he was used to making everyone cower, but I knew there was more to him so I kept listening as he spoke.

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“When I saw your pictures at the station as the next foster kids comin’ in to town, I made sure Miss Vernie would be given the opportunity to raise you fine girls.” ““Miss Vernie is your friend?” I asked, and it must have sounded a bit sassy because he finally turned to me, ran one long fingered hand through his greasy black hair and drawled, “She is very special to me Miss Smarty Pants, very special.” ““Why don’t we all go in and say hi!” You of course, chimed in to create a perfect social engagement opportunity, with all your southern sweetness pouring out over the ground like chocolate syrup for him to drown in. And then, you began jumping up and down, splashing a bit of muddy water onto the pants of Frank, and I watched him step back to avoid the brown shower you created, almost falling back in his haste. “Can’t say that I didn’t wish he had landed right in that muddy pile of gunk. Would serve him right for thinking we were both some kind of stupid kids. But keeping my ground I growled, “We have homework to do, Mr. Sherriff.” which caused you to look at me with your head cocked. But then you must have known I was going to refuse his invitation, because you folded your arms just like me and stood by my side, leering at him in all your little girl glory and spewing, “We’s cain't entertain tonight Mr. Sherriff.” You sounded awful grown up as you put him in his place, that’s for sure. ““Another time, then girls?” Frank jeered with a voice wincing just a bit as he made his way back to a standing position, while rearranging the large pistol that straddled his hip. I’d had enough of this man, and knew from then on that he was trouble. Eyeing you the way he did, Ray. It wasn’t right.”” “I remember him, Oacie. I didn’t think anything of it.” Ray added but I could already see something coming over her. Oacie had already hit a nerve.

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“Well I did.” Oacie continued, “I had to start watching you every minute because he’d follow you to school, follow you to the store, and sometimes watch you as you ran up the stairs to the front door while he drove by. Then, he started to make ‘visits’ to Miss Vernie if you know what I mean, so he could see you more. Hell, Miss Vernie really thought he was in love with her. Every woman in the county wanted to be ‘loved’ by Frank.” “They were having sex?” Ray looked like an innocent teenager, her mouth dropping open just a bit. “God, Ray. They went at it like bunnies. But it only happened when you weren’t home. I’d watch for you from the top window, and then I’d rush out and we would go to the park, or to our favorite tree, or just run into the meadow until sunset; anything to intercept you. I knew he was only seeing Vernie so he might have a chance, someday, at you.” “Gosh. I never even thought of him that way. He was sort of good-looking as I remember.” “Dangerously so!” Oacie retorted. And even I sat back a little at her loudness. I had heard most of this before, but watching her tell Ray was truly mesmerizing. She was a consummate story teller. “You don’t remember, but I started to make plans. I started to worry that I wouldn’t be around when, when something happened, and I needed a way to rescue us. I had to make sure Frank never got to you.” “Oacie, you were only a little girl – so much to carry on your shoulders.” Ray whispered as though she were the counselor, a small twitch beginning to take over her hands that she didn’t even see happening. “Mama had asked me…” And then Oacie stopped, as though revealing a secret pact with her mother was more delicate a detail that ramping up to explain why she had tried to bash in Frank’s skull.

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And when she hesitated Ray took the letter out of her pocket, and the guard started just a bit. Ray instinctively outstretched her arm to the guard so she could inspect the letter, which she grabbed quickly from her hands and turned it over and over again before returning it, just to make sure it wasn’t anything dangerous. “That’s Mama’s handwriting. Did she write a letter to you, too?” Oacie asked amazed. “How long have you had it? Why didn’t you tell me?” “Steve found it, Oacie, just the other day.” She said quietly. “He was at our house.” Oacie scoffed at me then, as though I had opened a grave and kicked new dirt over the face of her parents. She was really mad, and disappointed. So I quickly defended by saying, “I went looking for clues, Oacie. I went looking for the rest of the story in case you weren’t able to help.” “Did you find them Mr. Break and Enter? Did you find my box?” She was holding the edges of the table, crouched and low looking like a lioness that would pounce on me but knowing that the leash would hold her back. She had gotten used to feeling rage that couldn’t be expressed, but it still let me know I had gone too far. “It’s still there, Oacie. I didn’t bring it back with me. It’s still there, and it will always stay there.” I tried to utter the words like a father soothing a child, but her searching eyes still looked wounded. “I’m sorry, Oacie. I never expected to find anything like that. I will never tell anyone about it.” “Mama belongs in that house, Steve. She loved it there, she loved us there. I don’t want her stained by the world. Not by you, or me or anyone.”

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She spit out the last words through a small cry and I simply nodded slowly so she knew I understood. “You gave up your childhood for me, Oacie.” Ray said, unaffected by her rage and anxious to focus on the words of their mother. “She wrote me one, too. Ray.” Oacie said. “She wrote me one that I used to read every day. I always wondered if she had written one to you.” They had returned to a primal rhythm in such a short time it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. And I hoped that Ray could lull her back into the story even though it was apparent that her nerves were beginning to betray her. But the letters had opened up another window and it helped the conversation move forward. I could see Ray’s attention was quickly turning to piece together the timeline of Oacie’s life, and incarceration. Soon Ray spoke again. “I know they found you over his body when you were 18, years later. But I don’t know what set you off the day we had to leave. It doesn’t make sense unless...” We held our breath as Ray continued, “Wait..did…did he…” And then Ray went silent, like when a movie stops because the sound has been turned off, and everyone in the room is disoriented because of the quiet. I simply held on for dear life, with only the soundtrack of my racing heart to keep me in check. She bowed her head and stared at the floor, a gasp rising slowly from her chest, and a slight pall overtaking her otherwise pinkish skin. Both Oacie and I stared at her intently, wondering how she would fare as the memories penetrated her consciousness and discharged themselves on the cold floor below. I assumed Oacie and I were waiting for the same moment. I couldn’t have been more shocked when the real truth came out. Before Ray could speak the loud speaker blared to life and a small voice asked, “Mrs. Messner, are you alright?”

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We froze as she lifted her head, he hand over her mouth, the other hand on her belly and she began to rock back and forth like a trapped animal, opening and closing her eyes and shaking her head slowly at first and then more quickly until we both thought she would pass out. “Sweetie, I’m here. Let me hold you.” I pleaded, hoping she would open her arms and lean over to me and we could leave and sort this all out together. Damn the past, damn this prison and the people who had hurt both of these women. God, why? Why would these girls have to go through this when life has so much good in it?” “Oacie,” Ray finally squeaked in weakness, “I, I…I used to dream about what happened. I dreamed about it, and the fall and all the other horrible things that I couldn’t make sense of.” Oacie looked over at me like I could decode the outburst, hoping that it made sense to me. But Ray put her hand out again and the guard, who had figured by now that all was well, only slightly moved from her perch as Ray grabbed Oacie’s hand hard and sure. Ray extended her elbow as if to lock the distance of her grasp into place, keeping her from running into the arms of a sister who had quite literally changed her life. “I thought it was only a dream, something I made up because of the medicine, or the nightmares, or the goddamned bad food we had to eat. I thought it was because I had breast fed Nell, and that made me go crazy.” And she smiled a bit through the confession. We all visibly relaxed just a bit, knowing she was lucid. But so much was running out of her; so much that gave me an insight into my wife and her nightmares, her hesitation, her efforts at going overboard with all that was proper and good. She was compensating for a monster inside her. A monster she thought she had created. And now the monster had a face and a name. It was Frank Scoggins.

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“You didn’t do anything wrong, Ray. I did. And when I came down the stairs to intercept him, it was only the fact that Vernie came to try and save you, that we had a moment to think. He turned on me, Ray, and knocked me against the wall. If I’d only been stronger I could have stopped the whole attack. I’m sorry, so sorry it had to be you.” “I remember now, Oacie. I remember the blood, and the lamp. I remember him attacking me, and ripping at my clothes, and trying to put his mouth over mine and without warning watching Vernie die in front of us. I saw you motion to me to run away but I couldn’t. And that gave Frank the chance to….” “To what?” I asked incredulously, shocked that the story was unfolding differently than what Oacie had told me. “What happened? What is going on? How could Ray have…” “Oh Oacie, he hit you so hard!” Ray continued, “I thought he had killed you when you went flying across the room. I saw the bat come out of your hands after you were hovering over him and then…God, he came after me again.” Oacie only nodded, so slowly I thought maybe everything was going in slow motion and we were all falling down a hole. “But it was me, wasn’t it.” Ray continued. “It was me that kicked him in the stomach, knocking him out because he was so drunk. And it was me that grabbed the bat off the ground and hit him as hard as I could across the face. It was like slow motion watching that bat hit his head and I was sure that he would come back at you and me and we would both be dead. But he didn’t come back at you, did he. He stayed there silent, just long enough for us – to run. You never even got the chance to hit him.” “Not then, anyway, Ray. Not then. And I’m sorry I never brought it up again. I just thought it was better if I took all the blame. You were too – too pure.”

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The room was heavy and light at the same time, heavy because two women had cast off huge burdens that lay between them, wallowing in a kind of horror that should have shut them both down. It was an intervention that made the world stop spinning, dumping them into confusion, and exile, in one fell swoop. “Oacie, I can’t feel anything. I’m numb. I don’t know what to say. I have blamed you for so long for something that you held inside your heart all these years. I remember it all now, and I think I’ve always known. God, forgive me. God forgive us both.” They helped each other then, crying and rocking back and forth as they tried to close the gap between them. The sobs weren’t loud, and they didn’t lament like mourners in a mosque over an open casket, like I expected them too. I realized that if Ray had to remember such horror, it couldn’t have been in another place or with another person. In fact it might have been the end of her if she had pieced together the story in any other way. When the guard seemed to shift in her seat, I knew that Oacie saw that time could not be suspended and they had to move on. She made one final double tap of comfort on her sister’s shoulder and each pulled away, brushing the tears away from each other’s faces and smiling just slightly. “Thank you for coming to see me, Ray. Thank you.” “You have to let us help you, Oacie. I know I need to hear the rest of all the stories and find out what happened. But I know we can help you.” Ray said, urgently this time like having her head clear was quite literally changing everything. I sat there; watching this miracle before me, but there was still a pit in my stomach. We were still in a prison, still dealing with someone incarcerated for murder and I prayed for a fairy godmother, or a pumpkin on wheels, or even a talking mouse to find a way to break the spell.

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But, here’s the problem with fairy tales. We think they’re true. We imagine that once the prince jumps off the white horse, that all evil things are simultaneously extinguished in one moat-draining moment. But when the room came back to earth and reconnected us to reality, we knew that chains were still real and punishment had already been levied. When I could hear the buzz of the lights again, and the cold, hard seat tell my back that it was time to move, I looked over at Oacie so I could gauge whether or not she knew what we had to do next. Although Ray and I had taken a breath and settled down, she had not. She still stood tall, and full of courage and determination, and I knew we were in for more. “We’re not done with secrets yet, Ray. There’s more to tell you about why I eventually killed Frank, so many years later.” Oacie slowly offered. “There’s something else you need to know. Something I’m even more afraid to tell than all the secrets I’ve kept so far.” Oacie’s voice was different again. There was now reverence in it; a strange, labored, and sacred tone. “But I understand now, Oacie. I know you did it all for me.” Ray returned, holding her hands out again as though she was trying let her sister know it was all over, and things would only get better from here on out. “I know that when you got out of juvenile hall, Frank must have threatened you again and vowed to have me. He probably said he’d kill me and that set you off.” Ray looked confused again for a moment, as though a piece of the puzzle had slipped, or the pattern didn’t match up. “I’m not sure why he didn’t try and find me while you were in jail, but I’m sure he was watching me.” “He didn’t attack you while I was in prison … because he had lost interest in you. There was someone else in my life he planned to hurt. Someone else you don’t even know about.” Oacie was staring intently into Ray’s eyes, hoping to transfer an element of seriousness into this new subject.

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When a voice broke the silence, we all jumped like hens in a field. “Folks, I can’t let you stay any longer. We’re past the time limit, and we need to serve meals, and do lock-down. You will have to go home and come back tomorrow.” This was a voice more cruel and unfeeling than all the voices we had resurrected that day. Like someone putting a sword between lovers telling them they would have to part. I couldn’t imagine what must be going through Oacie’s mind, a rushing of thoughts and awkwardness that threw off the timing of our entire reunion. And I wouldn’t have it. “Listen,” I growled, staring straight at the mirrored window. “If I have to call Miss Dowd and tell her about you refusing to let these two women finish what they started…” “Mr. Messner, we cannot allow you to make your own rules here. This penitentiary has other women to care for besides your sister-in-law…” “I want 5 more minutes, that’s all.” “We will be restraining you and the prisoner if you do not rise and vacate this moment. Edna, please escort the visitors out.” And the silent robot in the corner arose and put her hand on her baton as she slowly placed her elbow on Ray’s shoulder. Soon the door swung open with an awful squeal, and two more guards entered, bringing with them a whiff of the outside world. “Please back up Mr. and Mrs. Messner.” One of them barked. I instinctively backed away, and with a good 10 feet between myself and the back wall of this cavernous confession chamber I thought about making the most of the escape route surrounding me.

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Ray just stood there, staring at the guard as he pulled out the handcuffs and slowly restrained Oacie. No one in the room was struggling but me, so when Oacie’s voice emerged, we were startled to hear her small but powerful words cut through the fog of the past, of the truth, and of all the torture and horror, to say the quietest and most shocking words of all: “I have a child.” All of us, every one of us, even the eyes behind the glass must have stared straight in the direction of Oacie. We stopped and looked at her, trying to put it all together; the when, and how, and ‘why now.’ It was like being yanked to a stop by a chain. “What?” I asked first because it just didn’t seem possible. I thought about being an uncle and about our children’s new cousin. I thought of my wife and the fact that her family now included one more person. But Oacie, her face was angelic, and terrified. I could see that she was worried she might have revealed the most precious treasure of all. Soon Ray turned to her, leaning over partway like an old woman who can hardly carry her own weight as the answer came to her swiftly and surely. “Joshua...” she uttered and Oacie just nodded as they escorted her out.

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Chapter Ten – Rescue

OACIE I hate to throw up. I hate retching and hearing your screams echo out of your chest and into a cold hole because you feel so out of control. But after seeing Raynell and Steve, and feeling for some reason that it was time to tell them about Legacie, vomiting was the only thing I could do. It was my own fault, two weeks ago I began letting my pen wander around much too freely on the pages of my notebook, scattering letters and making words that betrayed the secrets I had kept since the day my daughter was born. Now it was hard to think about the number of people I had put in jeopardy with four simple words, filling up folder after folder of case files in the local police station with one innocent sentence. Dammit. It was a moment of stupidity brought on by that most sinister of seducers, touch and truth. And it wasn’t just me at fault, somehow Edna had found her conscience that day, like a tin-man with a gun she felt a heartbeat begin to thrum and vibrate and she let Ray reach out and connect. When I felt her soft hands on mine, a cascade of flashbacks clogged my thinking and returned me to an innocence that I thought was gone forever. “I have a child!” I had stupidly proclaimed like I was in a scene of some sloppy daytime drama, and one confession wasn’t enough for the day. Even Steve, who in his own virtue had assumed that all the dark secrets had already left my mouth, was astounded by my confession. After working so hard to convince the guards that I deserved a voice, I found it all on my own. Miss Ida would hear of all this soon enough and be glad I had exhumed the past. Rushing to her side they are, Ray and Steve glowing with the light of certain justice, anxious to dig into a scab that should have disappeared long ago. And

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because I have left small bread crumbs of evidence along the way this last 18 years, locating the whole loaf will be easy. “You, you all right in there?” Edna rasped. “Gotta say that last 5 minutes sure did shock the hell out of me!” She chuckled and I could feel the poison starting to seep into a memory I had kept pure. Standing upright finally, after emptying every bit of food from my stomach, I had to hold on the bars to keep from falling down. “Course I’m alright. When haven’t I been?” I sneered, leaning towards her through the bars hoping the sour, putrid odor on my breath would make her back up and remember who was who. “Already talk goin’ on, Miss Oacie. Already a fistful of talk going around. In fact,” she retorted, “When the warden returns tomorrow I’m guessin’ that lots of things are gonna come to light.” She backed away only slightly after my advance. Her two-pack a day habit had probably rendered her sense of smell inert. “There’s more to the ice queen than we thought, ain’t there…” and she slowly walked away shaking her head. Throughout the night I suffered, reliving moments whose genuine joy will get twisted and soiled before everything comes out in the end. A small part of me must have felt something important with Raynell and Steve, or I would never have gotten that carried away. It was a flicker of hope, a tiny light that seemed to float out of our locked gaze as it tempted me to follow it down the rabbit hole to a land where everything was possible. It was the same kind of light I saw the day Legacie was born, and it drew me in. Just like the warmth that told me to trust the nurse whom I’d bargained with, and let my daughter gently fall into the hands of God, and good strangers. You think Miss Ida was in on all this. But she wasn’t. Her pact with Jesus? I wouldn’t dare ask her to help me with something so fraudulent. I had no other choice but to trust a stranger, and through a series of carefully planned deceptions, God had allowed it to all happen. That is, until Frank killed a woman over the secret and came after me.

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*** It was only a few weeks after Joshua and I had planned to run away together that the morning sickness started. I was walking around the back of the house, getting ready to lift the door to the cellar to stow the wood I had just collected, when everything went weird. My heart started to race and the whole view in front of me shifted, kicking up and swirling around like I was inside a snowglobe, and I nearly fell over. I dropped the whole of the wood on the ground, nicking my shin before it settled in a pile, and I sat down on the ground holding on to the cool grass, breathing deeply and waiting for my panic to subside. I was barely 15 for God’s sake and completely unaware of what was going on around me. Being hidden from view was a blessing, because it took a full five minutes before I could tell which way was up so I could stand and finish the task I had started. “Stop lying around, Oac!” Ray badgered. She had just skipped around to the side of the house and I could see that the sight of me had caught her off guard. Never to admit that she herself had been startled, her words were simply a defense against being caught as a fellow shade-stealer on a warm, fall afternoon. “I ain’t lying around, you try and lift all that wood and see how you feel!” I yelled. “I can lift twice as much as you.” She spit back, before disappearing into the woods to put the distance between us I had hoped for. Later on that night, I woke in a cold sweat, dizzy and hot with the taste of acid in my mouth. So, peering at the old clock in the hall on my way to the bathroom, I detoured outside to be sick, knowing that any sound I made would awaken Miss Ida. If I was heard, she would be hovering over me with frowns and inquisitions before the toilet had flushed down the evidence.

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I couldn’t be caught feeling bad. Miss Ida doesn’t let anything go, and I would instantly have thermometers sticking out of my ass before the coffee was brewed. No, I would have to suffer alone, and hope that whatever it was would pass. Hell, I’d been sick before. It wasn’t anything compared to sleeping in an alley next to a rusting trash can surrounded by rats and the seeping trickle of rotting trash. No way. So I decided I would get through this without any kind of help at all. I was wrong about it being just the flu. Day after day, morning after morning I hid the dizzy spells, vomited in secret, avoided the food that now sickened me, and tried not to think about how many times I had to pee. I did this for over 3 weeks, waiting and wondering and trying everything from chewing on parsley (which ended very badly) to sitting sideways on the swing, threshing back and forth and counting to a thousand trying to get my mind off this incessant vertigo. How I fooled everyone I still don’t understand. No one asked why I didn’t want eggs in the morning. Nobody questioned when I went to bed early or was never found sleeping late. I had succeeded so long in being invisible that neither Ray nor Miss Ida ever suspected a thing. By the end of the fourth week, though, I started to get really scared, and I could feel that my pants were tighter. I also sported a belly that looked a bit swollen and thick. Actually, I think Miss Ida was secretly proud as though a fattened runaway was the ultimate pronouncement of her success. Still the feelings wouldn’t subside. I wasn’t much for talking to God, but if this was some tumor, I prayed hard that I wouldn’t become the boney, yellowed eyed creature that my mom turned into before she died. And so, in my innocence, I kept pleading with Him to take it all away, and He simply kept quiet, until... There’s always a rescuer when you pray for one. For me, I had simply forgotten to be specific in my prayers. In asking for a way to keep Miss Ida from finding out about my certain brush with the plague, I forget to mention that being discovered by Frank’s goons and being hauled off to jail was not the rescue of choice.

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It happened early one morning, when the frost is just starting to turn the autumn leaves into pieces of art as nature tats a ring of lace around the fingers of each fallen scale. The full moon was still shining through the window so that the whole of the house was still blue and slumbering when the front door burst open with such a thwack, that none of us had a chance to gather our wits about us. Then, a high, whining voice screamed, “Police, everyone out in the open! We have a warrant for the arrest of Miss Oacie Taylor, ward of the state, wanted for assault with a deadly weapon. Git yer selves out here and make yerselves known!” There were two of them. Adorned in all their beige glory with both shoes polished and I gagged at the smell of cheap aftershave wafting through the hallway. Full of adrenaline, we could see them shaking slightly, knowing that arrests in this county only happen once in awhile and by God they were going to be dressed and ready to do their civil duty. It didn’t take long for the real boss to emerge and she ambled out angry and large to see who had broken into her home. “You boys, hush up. What is the name of Jesus’ sweet mother are ya doin’ in my house?” Miss Ida, one slipper on and her robe dangling around her waist burst into the living room and turned on a light. “Like to scare the soul out of Elijah with shouting like that. What you two idots have ta say fo yoselfs?” “Miss Ida, beggin’ yer pardon, but you is in a whole lotta trouble. Word is you been hiding a fugitive from the law. We is here to take her in.” And with that she stopped and stared down the hallway to where I slept, since it was too cold to stay in the shack. Her glance giving us both away, and she said she always regretted that moment. By the time I knew what was happening, I was in handcuffs, pulled out into the light and placed in a chair while they read me my rights and squawked confidently into their radios, “Fugitive in custody, Sherriff. We have her.” The

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static on the other end included a faint, but crisp response that answered, “Good job boys, good job.” When Ray saw us she screamed, and started to kick the officer who was beginning to do a pat down search on me, while Miss Ida held her back with both hands. “Get off my sister! That’s my sister!” She ranted, “Leave her alone! She ain’t done nothin’ to you!” Burying her head into Miss Ida’s side, Ray continued to levy threats to them as they escorted me out to a waiting car. I could hear the skinny one shout only one thing as we exited the house. “Sherriff Scoggins gonna be mighty happy with us this morning, Mighty happy.” And then the screen door shut, and I was shoved into the car. We drove away with the sirens quiet, and the sun just starting to awaken silvery shadows between the trees. I vowed never to pray again. You’ve figured it out by now, if you know how to count that in about 7 and one half months I was the size of a barn. The morning sickness subsided quickly after I was arraigned, and I was nearly back to my fighting self in no time. Given my age, and that fact that I had no parents who had to be informed, I put myself in the hands of the state, and insisted that the pregnancy be known only on record and kept secret from my sister and Miss Ida. Without true parents, and in the custody of no one, they honored my wishes. Yes, if you’re wondering, the baby was Joshua’s. He had been traveling with his brother during the “sick” period and by the time he returned, the news of my incarceration sealed our fate, and we never saw each other again. His family had better plans for him than to end up with a discarded whore like me, and I heard they even moved to Texas where a relative promised them a stake in some recently inherited land. Uncles, cousins, sisters and even their dogs were packed up and gone by the next full moon.

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I think about him almost every day, and wonder he was broken hearted like me. His parents had tolerated our affair, thinking that that bulk of our encounters were spent making whistles out of long spears of grass, and watching our toes turn blue in the cold waters of mountain creeks. I’m not sure they ever suspected that we were experimenting with the first blush of love and lust. No parent ever admits that their children can be carnal. In their minds the life of a child only ends with the first sprout of gray hair. Children don’t have sex, because they’re busy playing. Surely appetites are sated with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, not the joining of flesh. To this day I am glad that I knew love, but I ache for him with all my heart. I wonder who he married, imagining myself at times the woman in the veil, sharing his name, reveling in the task of wiping ice cream from the face of a toddler that inherited his eyes and my chin. When I did allow these thoughts to penetrate reality, it was really the only time my vulnerability shone through, bright and uncovered. I caressed my growing belly and thought about what kind of stories I should tell the person inside. What had I done? Oh, God. What had I done? As time went on and the day dreams faded, other thoughts filled my head. If you’ve had a child you know how many things go through your mind as a baby grows inside you. Starting out with only small movements, the life inside you simply flutters like an invisible insect; the proof of it showing only in your swollen breasts and thickening hair. You think about the fact that you’re creating a life, partnering with God and forming a face, two arms, and a heart that beats quickly and firmly. It all seems so amazing until the glory melts into a feeling that you’ve been invaded. Soon you can’t breathe and you lumber around like a giant blimp, unable to sit still or sleep, and the romance turns temporarily sour. I wasn’t the only one pregnant in the small barracks they called Prospect Juvenile Hall. There were two other girls there. Thirteen year old Reese was blacker than water in a tree trunk, with a wide, white smile, and stubby little

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fingers. She talked loud and continuously, mostly about the fact that she had no idea who the father was, bragging about the number of boys she considered as possibilities. The other was Jolene, a girl who seemed to be a bit touched. She couldn’t write her name or tell time, but in the afternoon she would come over and rub my feet and we would talk about food and television. Her favorite shows were always about happy families, and she would hold her arms around her growing belly every time she watched them. For the most part I kept to myself. Horrified that my belly button flattened out like an inflated tire I watched each day for the blood I was scared to see. Every week Miss Ida would bring Raynell to come see me, but I refused all visitors. I insisted that it wasn’t good for Ray to see me locked up, and that the both of them should just stay away. I knew the years would pass quickly. I would be out and back with them soon enough. Surprisingly, the letters Miss Ida wrote never mentioned anything about Frank, or whether or not she ended up having to fight charges for harboring me. Knowing her like I do I can’t imagine anyone having the gumption to place handcuffs on her wrists. To this day I believe the two twits that brought me in take the long way around her place when they’re on patrol in her neighborhood, to avoid the spell she has surely cast on them. She is certainly beloved, and large, and not just a little intimidating to every soul who knows her. I watched her spit tobacco fifteen feet one afternoon so sitting closely to her when she’s mad would be a mistake. My guess is that Frank, so happy to have rid the county of a stringy haired loud mouth like me, settled in to think about becoming Mayor or something, and turned instead to finding another unwitting victim to receive the violent gifts of his affection. I was just happy that Raynell seemed to be off the radar. I would deal with whatever his next card was when I was released. When the dogwoods were just past peak and the slightest hint of humidity began to return to the late afternoon I got a kick in my belly so painful, I reeled around

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to see if someone had hit me with a bat. Dizzy and amazed to feel another pang of agony within ten minutes of the first, I screamed out just in time to feel the hot liquid spill down my leg and gush down my pants into my shoe. It was May 25, my Mama’s birthday and the exact date Nancy had predicted my baby would be born. It was time to put the plan in place. I adored Nancy, the nurse in the infirmary at Prospect. She was well under 50, but her wrinkled face and neck, and rotted, yellow teeth told made her appear so much older, and gave away the fact that she hadn’t always been in the service of others. At this time in her life, though, tattooed with the evidence of profound sadness, she had taken a liking to me. We had seen something in each other at the start; a kinship that would be safe; a mutual sense of self reliance that proved tragedy hadn’t completely rendered us helpless, like everyone had assumed. And, luckily enough, we each shared an unfathomable dislike for Frank Scoggins. Although I never told her the story, we seemed to intuitively know that I was in jail because he probably deserved the beating he had charged me with, and Vernie had not fallen into the lamp base as was stated in court. What else can you think when you dissect the story of a 15 year old wielding a bat on an armed and drunken man, and an 11 year old covered in blood? Temper tantrum? But that wasn’t the only reason we were friends. Because she didn’t ask a lot of silly questions and because I saw she was kind to Jolene, our friendship blossomed. “What are you gonna do with that baby when she’s born?” She asked me one night, weeks before the birth, and well into my 8th month. “All I want is someone to love her. I don’t know how I’m going to do that yet. But she deserves to have everything.”

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I already knew it was a girl. No testing, no lab results, but the heart that beat inside me was female. I could tell. “Do you have a name picked out?” She asked again? Funny, but I knew from the day I felt the first twinges of life what I would call her. “I’m going to name her Legacie Mason, and spell it with an “ie.” I was insistent on leaving out the ‘y,’ this little girl didn’t need anything that questioned her strength like a whiney letter at the end of her name. Eliminating the ‘y’ was pure genius on my part. Nancy was always intrigued by my resolve, and dogged innocence. So I’m guessing that in addition to the fact that all life deserves the chance to find its true way, Nancy also knew that something had to be done to save my baby. By the time I reached 38 weeks, Nancy came to me with the most fantastic idea of all, and we both set out to make it so. When I gave birth, it was more painful than anything I have ever experienced. I was screaming and terrified in the delivery room, grabbing at the edge of the sheets as the waves of agony came closer and closer together. I had to focus on something else, or I would pass out, so I looked over at the open windows just in time see a single crow on the edge of the sill. His black, shiny feathers and deep eyes staring at me as I winced and knotted up my hands during the last of the contractions, that brought Legacie Mason Taylor into the world. I knew then, that this avian visitor was the spirit of my father, watching his granddaughter as she laid claim to her voice, and her life, just as he had done when I entered the world just a short time ago. Perfect in every way, crying up a storm and weighing in at 7 pounds 3 ounces, my daughter was perfect. After they cleaned me up, severed the cord, washed my daughter and gave me something to help me sleep, I was allowed a few moments to view her. In juvie,

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you don’t get much time with a child. And since plans had already been made for the adoption when the pregnancy was first discovered, I would have only a split second to look into her eyes and set in motion the strength and courage that she deserved. Weakly, and with the sun shining on her pink and wrinkled face I said out loud, “Dear Daughter, you are strong, remarkable, and have parents who love you. But that won’t be enough. You must reflect on all things, question every fact, examine every truth, search for the door when you see a wall and make a path when you see a mountain. Shine brightly, and shine always baby girl. It will be what you do best.” And with that she was taken away from me. Nancy, dear Nancy already had a 28 year old daughter, Aleigh, who had tried four times before to bring a baby to full term without success. Aleigh was a wonderful woman, with kindness in her eyes, and according to Nancy had long, soft arms that were always around someone’s neck in comfort. She had a wonderful husband, believed in God, and was Nancy’s pride and joy. All she lacked was a child. Aleigh had been pregnant almost to full-term when the baby had died inside her just two weeks ago. Nancy had discovered it during a routine exam that ended with the stethoscope proving the heart was silent. There had been no spontaneous abortion, only the realization that her womb had now turned into a grave. They were heartbroken, mother and daughter, knowing that the family would be devastated if they had to endure news of one more miscarriage. So, the two of them kept the secret until they could find the right time to share the sad news, and that’s when Nancy shared her idea with me. Like any good nurse, Nancy’s knew that soon the body would miscarry and deliver the fetus naturally, since Aleigh was already feeling contractions every few days. So, in an act of love and risking her entire career and safety, Nancy had forged the named on the adoption papers, instead insisting that she would supervise the delivery of the baby herself. And because of her seniority, no one questioned her control. No one suspected that she carried little Legacie out of

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Prospect that night, wrapped her in a blanket that she had crocheted herself, and delivered this beautiful, healthy, deserving little girl to the home of Aleigh and Joseph McConnell, having already performed the D and C herself on her heartbroken daughter. No confessions were uttered, no funeral was held, no tears fell beyond the eyes of Nancy and her daughter. I had given birth to the miracle that was prayed for. I was safe, and so was Legacie.

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Chapter Eleven – Redemption

STEVE Sometimes, when there are no clues, no answers and no leads, you have to return to where inspiration came freely. For me I knew Raynell and I must return to the house in Dillon, passing forgotten roads and abandoned structures to cross over a creaking porch into the bowels of her past. During my first visit to the prison, Oacie had shared with me what true hearts seek to protect. She had in a way brought Ray back to me and her children, healing us with powers that she drew from the soil and sun that were just beyond her grasp. And now, she needed our help. We were furious of course when we returned to the prison the next day to see her. Incredulous at the inability to reason with the Warden and horrified to hear that she was ill, and visits wouldn’t be allowed for quite some time. I had thought about launching on the old hag, using large words and educated threats to prove myself a match to the system and her stoic resolve. But Raynell simply put her arm on mine when she saw my red hair wagging comically over my eyes, calming me with her hugs, and convincing me I was not the bully I portrayed. She knew my small frame and my thin voice were no match for the dragon across the table; understanding by birth that this country, deep inside the foothills of the vast Appalachian range, still had rules of their own and I was not a part of them. Ray would be visiting me between glass if had tried any harder, so we walked out of the prison with tears in our eyes and a new resolve to discover the rest of the truth ourselves. “You say the house is in shambles?” Ray asked with a childlike voice as we kissed the children goodbye and drove out of the motel parking lot. “I haven’t been there since we were taken away, Steve. Are you sure this is a good idea?”

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I had been good and spooked myself the first time I found it, duly superstitious, too, so I knew that it paid to be cautious about visiting ghosts. “If this trip has taught me anything, it’s that we are not alone.” I said confidently, working hard to avoid the huge pot holes that covered every mile between where we were, and where we were headed. “I felt as strongly as I’ve ever felt anything in my life that the souls of your parents are still in that home. They loved you both, and I believe they’re still guiding you if you listen honestly.” “But what if there’s another secret I’m not ready for? What if I remember something awful and we realize we never should have come?” She was frightened and still quite delicate from her epiphany, and Oacie’s confession, so I pulled the car over so I could hold her in my arms and listen deeply to what she was saying. I hadn’t been very good at that in the past. I hadn’t been good at very much at all except wishing nothing was wrong. “There’s more to this story, Ray I can feel it. It’s so close to the surface it feels like it’s almost in my hands.” She was wringing her delicate hands in her lap as I continued to speak, the look of her pampered skin and jeweled fingers a stark contrast to the slender white fists she had touched in the prison. “Oacie killed Frank.” I started, “We already know she did it in cold blood. And yet I know you feel what I feel, that she is an almost spiritual creature and in a way, above all the evil she’s experienced. She’s keeping something else from us, Ray, even beyond the secret of her child, even beyond the assault you both survived, and even more than Vernie’s death. When we find it I feel almost certain that we can reopen her case and get her out of that prison.” I knew I was talking crazy but it was my turn. “You think more about fairy tales more than I do, Steve.” Raynell was laughing then, holding her beautiful fingers around my face, and looking deeply into my eyes as though she was seeing me and everything else for the first time. She was amazing to look at. But her soul was full of kindness and cleverness. She was so untapped and mysterious, and I realized suddenly those were the qualities that had drawn her to me in the beginning. It hadn’t been her weakness that had

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enchanted me, and kept me in love with her; no, not at all. I only told myself that so I could feel strong. Hell, it was her deep, boundless complexity that mesmerized me. “You’re strong, too, Ray. I’ve told you that. Miss Ida has told you that. Now it’s time for you to take over and own it.” I looked away from her; just for a moment and pulling her close I put my mouth next to hers so she knew I needed her to hear me and said. “I can’t guarantee that I know what will happen at the house. Hell, I can’t guarantee anything. And I apologize now for all the times I kept telling you it would be alright without taking any action to get you well and whole. I should have grabbed you, held you and told you that I knew you were scared. I should have convinced you I wouldn’t leave you if I knew where you came from. Even more unforgiveable on my part is that I always suspected that you came from nothing and it never, ever made any difference to me.” Her arms got tighter and I could feel her body shuddering from the crying, warm tears beginning to wet my neck, and then my collar. “You cannot imagine it Steve. You cannot know what it’s like to be lost and hungry and dirty all the time. To begin to believe that you are nothing and that you will always be in the dark...It’s awful. When you came along, I – I actually felt hope.” “But there is hope!” I answered. “There is always hope!” “I want there to be hope for Oacie.” She answered quickly, “I want her to have another chance, like me. But I can’t imagine how we can reverse the past. She took a man’s life, Steve. She ended him, violently, and apparently with no remorse. How is it you know we can change all that?” I knew I had to say something real, so I looked up into the sky before answering her with a confidence I rarely exhibited. “I know because when you and Oacie connected I felt something magical. I felt her drawing strength from you for

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maybe the first time in her life. It was a miracle, Ray. You found something inside yourself that’s been buried for a very long time, too and you’re actually okay. My God, the whole universe is shifting and we’re along for the ride. You know it, don’t you?” When two people are healing decades of pain, time stands still. In those few moments by the side of the road, while the emergency flashers kept time, we both suddenly experienced the whole of everything that both Oacie and Ray had lived through. Ray was a little girl with style and sass who went from safe to vulnerable in the blink of an eye. She had lost a sister and a best friend, someone who should have been a protector. Ray had been abused and almost killed at the age of 11; the memory of it exiting her unconscious mind only, so she could survive the rest of the ordeal. It all passed through us, like a shockwave, showing us all of the filth, the fear, the hopelessness and confusion. It stayed swirling between us, teaching us, refining us, and showing us the way like some bright, pulsing star. I knew where the light was coming from, and we had to move quickly before the prison extinguished it forever. Soon it was in view, the only home my wife knew, standing before me. I expected her to hesitate but she opened the door and leapt out, straightening her blouse and taking in a deep breath before turning to me with a smile and a quick wave to hurry and join her as though nothing existed but this moment. Without a word I followed her in. This was for her to experience on her own so I stayed a few steps behind in case she needed somewhere to retreat. But she wasn’t hesitating at all. She walked through the front doors like she had just arrived home from school, turning from side to side to take in the familiarity of every beam and floor board, so I jumped out, and caught up to her, so I could feel the memories, too. “I remember, Steve. I remember the joy. I was happy here, very happy. We were all happy.” She was almost skipping her lightness came so easily. “Come on, let’s go upstairs” And she jumped over the first two risers taking in the whole of each step with the ease of a child.

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“Careful!" I yelled as I negotiated each step with caution, ready for the wood to bend and snap beneath my step. By the time I reached the top of the stairs, she was in Oacie’s room, sitting on the ledge peering out the window through the small opening left vacant by a break in the Kudzu, the view through it narrow and bright. She was sitting with her legs crossed, her hands wrapped around her knee, balancing the best she could on a thin ledge of peeling, white paint. With a look of reflection on her face and a smile that seemed so innocent and sad, I could tell she had passed through to another time. “I used to sit here and listen to Oacie tell me stories.” She started. “She would make up the fantastic tales, Steve. So many amazing places she took us with her words. She loved things that were wild, and different and colorful. God, just look at this wallpaper!” She laughed, pointing around the room and laughing, “The girl was nuts!” And she wiped a small tear from her cheek. “I believed everything she said to me. There was no reason not to. With her everything was possible.” Twisting around, she went from the sill to the floor, and then, sprawling out like a cat she laid completely down on her back. I was surprised that she didn’t seem to mind the splinters that snapped and tugged at her silk blouse. Why, she turned into a child right before me. She shifted and stared at the ceiling, searching the peeling and rotted eaves for answers to questions only she knew. “When Papa died, I asked Oacie to bring him back to life. I had so much faith in her that I asked her to bring him back. Can you imagine what it must have done to her to know that I expected her to fix everything?” “I think she was born that way. I think it surprised her she couldn’t.” I answered softly. Hoping the keep her thoughts going I continued, “Do you remember leaving the house, Ray?” “Nope.” She retorted. “I don’t remember very much at all except certain feelings, or images of days that passed, or holidays, or times I shared with Oacie.”

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“Describe them to me.” I appealed waiting and hoping she wouldn’t sit up and realize her hair was entwined in the splintered oak with one earring already nearly unhinged. I didn’t want anything to break the spell. “Things like squishing mashed potatoes between your teeth, and then smiling so it can all ooze out and land on your chin or walking with her to the grocery story to get laundry detergent and bread. She always handed me a small box of cinnamon mints as we left. I’m not even sure she paid for them.” “They’re your favorite even today.” “No they’re not.” She answered, sitting straight up and looking at me with a smile, crossing her legs and replacing the earring before it fell. “I only eat them because I want to remember what it felt like to be with her. They give me canker sores every time.” I didn’t have to beg her to continue, now. She was immersed in memories, and I was fascinated by them. “Do you know we could see the July 4th parades from this window? See, see over there the edge of the corner where we turned into the city? All the floats would gather there, staged and ready to move forward. I got to watch the beauty queens put on their sashes and pin tiaras to their flowing hair. And do you know how long it takes to put a tuba together?” We giggled loudly, thinking about the time Garner came home from kindergarten and announced he wanted to play the tuba, and we both rallied to list a long set of negatives, making up all sorts of silly excuses to get him to see it our way. It was one of our little jokes: ‘No tubas!’ we’d chant as a metaphor for anything someone asked for that was absurd; it was one of the millions we had accumulated over the years. “Where did you sleep, Ray?”

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“My room is down the hall. It’s pink. I checked and it’s still pink. Yuck. Actually, I spent most of my time sleeping right here.” She pointed almost directly where she sat, insuring that I knew where the bed had originally been, even though the metal frame now sat in the corner with a lace of spider webs suspended across the sagging coils. “She didn’t mind.” We heard a distant train whistle, and then a cow moo in the distance, and it sounded warm and familiar so I got up to leave the room and see if I could go to the other side of the house to spy further into its origins. “Where did you find the letter, Steve?” She begged, before I could exit. I turned and slowly knelt down, like you would if you were hovering over a headstone, or kneeling to pick up a small treasure, and pointed to the loose board behind the dresser. She crawled over to me, hand by hand, and sat down staring at the opening, wondering with wide eyes, what kind of magic might be behind the wall, and accessible to us both. She returned to her prone position, chin on the floor, and hands on her cheeks while she nodded in agreement. Like a genie’s lamp I carefully grabbed the old, worn slat and shifted it to the side so I could reach inside and get to the box. Handing it to Raynell she looked at it for awhile only inches from her face, like she was afraid to handle it. “Open it. It’s your mother inside. She wants to be seen.” “Is she pretty? Does she look happy?” She asked. “See for yourself.” And she carefully removed the rusted lid to see the treasures inside. Fingering the items gently, she only grasped them with two fingers. Her reverence told me she respected that these were her sister’s treasures, and only the photo was meant to be shared. Turning it over carefully, I watched her face as she smiled and puffed out a small ‘humph’ as she recognized the photo, the time, and the reality of it.

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“She does look like Oacie, doesn’t she? They’re best friends in this photo.” Then she saw something new and sat up and handed me the photo. “Look! Look, Steve. See in the background? I’m there, in the backyard, peeking around the side of the house! I was there!” She laughed, and then said again quietly. “I am real, after all.” Just like before a small gust of wind shuddered through the house, whistling between the holes in the attic and crawling along the floorboards, moving our hair and bringing the smell of the old wood into our noses. “I suppose it’s time to put her away.” She remarked, and carefully replaced the photo and the lid and pushed the small box back over to me to replace, as though I was the guard of the realm. She returned to her position flat against the floor staring at the opening from the vantage point visible only to a small mouse and declared, “She’s tired and Papa’s calling her. Put her back, Steve. She wants to go home.” For some reason, I suddenly felt like I was in a hurry. Maybe the wind scared me a little and I felt we needed to get out and get home. Not every ghost in Dillon was friendly, and in my haste as I pulled up on the board it snapped. It broke loudly, pinging with a sharp slap, breaking cleanly in two. We both gasped. Wary that the spell had been broken, I was sure the house would launch an arsenal of poison darts and spinning saws to silence us and punish our disturbance of the dead. But before Ray could get up she stopped. I thought maybe a sword had emerged from the floor, impaling her she was so wide eyed, but she grabbed my arm and pointed to the opening like she’d seen a phantom in the shadows. “Steve, don’t let go of the top of the board. There’s something sticking out behind it; something else above the nail hole. Do you see it?” Women always ask you to turn yourself in a pretzel to see what they see. Of course I would have had to remove my head and pass it over to her to be able to see what she saw so I asked her, “Sweetie, I can’t bend that way. Hurry, fish it out. I can’t hold on any more. There’s a splinter in my finger.”

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She leapt up and using her two longest fingers as pinschers, she tried moving what was dangling down from the opening. “I can’t get it Steve. It looks like something that’s stuck to the inside of the wall. Do you think we should pull out the boards and see if we can get it?” The old me would have dismissed it as old insulation hanging down, or the remnants of plaster that had deteriorated, and I would have chided her for believing in its mystery. But after what happened this week, I knew what I had to do. I ripped off the rest of the board, then another, and another, and then the trim at the chair rail height, and still only a small part of the mystery was visible. “Go get the toolbox out of the truck, Raynell.” I begged. “Hurry, get it quickly before whatever this is disappears.” I heard her run down the stairs, and I could hear the back of the truck hatch rise, the clanging of metal as she moved the jack and then finally that dull sound that a tool box makes when you shake it. Soon she was back in the room, and she carefully placed it by my side. “I started to bring that big tin thing you use to loosen the thingies on the tire when you change it, but I just did what you said.” It’s a wrench, sweetie and this is what I needed.” Charming and quick thinking even in the midst of a haunted house -- she was quite a girl. Turning back to our adventure, I chose the small pliers, and started to carefully remove the rusted nails now visible without the trim. Running horizontally, there were five nails that seemed to hold the next panel secure. I removed each one, letting them fall between the floorboards, not even hearing them come to rest somewhere deep in the forgotten shadows of the house. Then with one quick yank, the panel came off and the treasure was visible. Hanging on the inside was an envelope, placed on a hook clearly added to allow the papers to be suspended and unnoticed. It would never have been discovered

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unless you accidentally broke the wall apart, like we did. Carefully removing it from the hook, the manila envelope was large and in surprisingly good shape. I couldn’t understand why it was still rigid until I opened the clasp and saw that the contents inside were safely tucked inside a zip-lock bag, protected and interred without air, like all good secrets should be. There are shivers and then there are shivers. Mine was about nine on the Richter scale. It must have been obvious because Ray put out her hand and said, “You’re shaking, Steve. Hand it to me. I will open it.” Parsing through paper clips and staples, it only took a moment to see that these were important documents. Collected for years they represented an eerie timeline of Oacie’s past transgressions, and the occurrences that marked her life. Laid out on the floor we recorded each item in a notebook Ray retrieved after I sent her out to the truck for a second recon mission, and cleaned a place on the floor so we could see what we had found. First, we saw an order, signed by the court, naming Vernie Goodwell as the guardian of the wards Omara Cecille Taylor and Raynell Jeneva Taylor. The request was entered by one Frank Scoggins, Sherriff of Black River County. Next was a copy of the investigation summary for the death of Vernie Goodwell with all the details filled in with handwriting that matched the signature of Frank. It asserted that Vernie’s death had been an accident and that Oacie Taylor was charged with assault with a deadly weapon on one ‘Frank Scoggins.’ We looked at each other, charged with energy, frightened and bursting with amazement as the papers kept telling the secrets of Frank’s bizarre obsession with Oacie and his long line of forgeries, lies and misrepresentations. There was a copy of a death report for a young girl named Kate Hunter who was found raped and murdered in a ditch not far from where they lived. She too had been cataloged as forgotten, the description as a known whore written clearly in Frank’s careful hand along the margin of the page.

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“Everything in here is contrived!” Ray gasped. “It all shows that Frank was following us both from the time we were first transferred to his county, to the time they arrested Oacie in 1991. It shows that he was lying about everything!” “It doesn’t, Ray. Actually it doesn’t. What it does show is that everything they ever said about Oacie was true. It’s a collection of papers that would insure she gets the electric chair instead of a key to freedom. It won’t help us at all.” “That doesn’t make sense. Who would put all these things here? Who would hide a collection of evidence like this?” “Someone who loved Oacie very much.” And I kept thumbing through papers to see what else the envelope held. What was conspicuously missing was any of Oacie’s interrogation reports. There was nothing from her side of the story. No personal defense to counter the lies and onslaught of premeditated proof offered to the angry jury. And I wondered, as Ray had mentioned, why there wouldn’t be anything to counter her guilt. Why would only the bad things be hidden when Oacie was sent to jail without any challenges? She had confessed to the crime without remorse, she had told me. So why all of this? Then we both stopped, and thinking the same thing we both reassembled the papers, put them back in the plastic bag and kneeled down to reach again into the abyss between the walls. “Take off the rest of those nails, Steve, all the way to do the door. We’re not leaving until this whole room is taken apart.” Ray directed but I was already starting to do just that. Little by little I worked, carefully removing rusted nails and discarding the pieces of the wallpaper as I advanced along the wall. The area below our project was littered with small ripped squares printed with earring-wearing cows and purple and red stars. It was like voices from the past the urgings to continue

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were so strong. Soon the last nail was removed, and the final panel under the wallpaper came free. Just as we had expected, treasure number two appeared. Taped inside the wall was a smaller, now yellowed envelope. Weathered and moth-bitten, it seemed to reach out to us like a trapped victim to a welcome rescuer. As I grabbed for it, it could tell it was a cassette tape. For a moment my heart sank because I knew the dampness of this house would have long destroyed the magnetism. But when I opened the flap I could see it was a small plastic box only meant for a tape. What was inside, gleaming, craggy and magical, was a safe deposit box key. And a note signed by a woman named Nancy. Ray and I huddled together to read the small, miniature letters, perfectly spaced, immaculately written and purposefully composed. It read: “June 16th 1994 Dear Rescuer: If you’re reading this note then you know I was unable to escape. Not unlike so many victims of Frank Scoggins, I will be dead before the end of the day. That was his promise. My promise was to deliver Oacie from his grip, and save her from acting out the execution she has vowed to perform. On May 25, 1991, at 7:02 a.m., Oacie Taylor gave birth to a girl she named Legacie Mason Taylor. With that birth came much pain and fear. But for me came a miracle. I broke every vow I had made to stay straight to forge the papers and deliver the baby to my daughter and her husband only 7 hours after the birth. That joy has been one that only God could have created, and so on that day I promised I would do whatever it took to save another life from pain. That life I wanted to save was Oacie’s. Whatever happens to me is not important. I just hope she survives. I have known of Frank Scoggins’s actions for a long time. He has cast a long shadow across our countryside for nearly my whole life, and no one had more

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access to his secrets or the vault of proof than me. I began finding and copying all of the elements that earmarked his obsession. When I compiled them I could see they only pointed to Oacie’s guilt so I set about on a path that might ultimately lead to my death, but could still save a friend. I’m happy to say I was successful, and I hope that the letter I mailed to Oacie telling her, in code, about this evidence, reached her in time so she knows she has been set free. This key opens a safe deposit box, paid for by me, and contains an audio tape that I recorded during a secret meeting with Frank Scoggins. Also, recorded is the sound of him assaulting me and verbally confessing to many crimes, including those against Vernie, Kate Hunter and Raynell Taylor. I was unable to move the recording device before he came at me, raped me and left me for dead, so sadly, that is recorded as well. I should have died then. But I lived. I lived to place this evidence here. In it is all you will need to set Oacie free and put Frank away forever. Hurry, for I know he will find me again. God speed and blessings always. Pray that I am in the arms of Jesus. Love, Nancy Rusk, RN – Mother to Aleigh, Grandmother to Legacie and friend to Omara Cecile Taylor.

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Chapter Twelve - Revenge

OACIE For the most part I have learned to navigate the halls of this prison without becoming too connected to anyone. It was an intentional strategy to combat the fear that I might slip more deeply into the evil that surrounded me. It was months, even years before I actually learned to sleep here. But soon I gave in to it, feeling it change even the little things about me. It was the constant stench staying in my nose night after night, leeching into my clothes and my hair until I, too began to blend into the malodorous assortment of society’s cast offs. But now touch has electrified me, healed me, and even atoned me. All my senses are set on “high” and I can feel my face is flushed and glowing. Not that I haven’t had various visitors over the years: eager young lawyers, or pastors sharing the glory of penitence, but even with the dream of seeing Raynell again in my heart, nothing even came close to the tangible transformation caused by the simple, honest, touch of kin. Chains make a horrible noise but having them around my ankles was a customary gesture before being escorted to see the warden. In spite of the clamor I hovered above the ground with ancestral confidence, as we navigated the hallway to my rendezvous with the devil. Rounding the corner into her office I see her full height. The wrong word to use when describing someone less than five feet tall, but she worked hard to take up every bit of it by keeping her head back and her posture rigid. Her skirt lay pressed and straight against her legs. Her hair, tangled and wild was carefully folded into small, brownish curls, and she was truly and remarkably ugly. Her hands were twisted with arthritis, her neck the color of bread dough, and her shoulders humped over and dusted with the snowy signs of dandruff.

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By the time I sat down she had returned to her chair making it squeak and groan with her weight, and placing her hands on top of her desk, neatly nesting in one another as though she was about to tell me I had won the lead in the school play, she cleared her throat to talk. She only spoke to me to wield her power, so I held on tight for the ride. “Ms. Taylor. You and I haven’t been very good friends over the years, have we.” Sneering was what Warden Pollard did best. And this question was delivered with the same signature contempt as it had been during every conversation we’d had over the last 8 years. An answer from me would have given her too much joy so I simply stayed quiet and stared shamelessly; comparing her homeliness to the striking beauty I had seen in my sister, a smile escaping my chapped lips. This did not sit well with “Lardy” as we called her. Heavy and mottled with cheap makeup nothing could not hide the craterlike pores that began shifting with grand gestures as she struggled to maintain her conversational control. It was one of her more obvious flaws, this undulation of her leathery skin and hollow stare, especially today. The only symmetry in her face was the way her eyes followed you as she sauntered across the room; a misshapen figure more bovine than human. They say she walked fewer than 50 steps a day, ordering around her staff with hand written memos distributed hourly because rising and sitting again caused too much pain in her knees and feet. Glasses thicker than coke bottled teetered across her small nose, the lenses reflecting back the curse of her nearsightedness with cruel magnification. “Miss Taylor, it has come to my attention that you have been quoted as admitting to the fact that you have a daughter. Now given that fact that your vagina has probably closed shut over the years, I’m going to assume that this offspring is of significant age. Would I be correct?”

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Had her words been different, one would think she had the grace of a swan, so I answered confidently, “Without knowing your age Warden, it’s hard to really calculate what ‘significant’ means.” “Clever, Miss Taylor, but my age is nothing compared to the eons that you have left to rot here in our little grotto for losers. So let’s dispense with the niceties and get to it.” Hissing with purpose, I could hear her lisp even as she leaned over the small tea set she kept in the corner of her office, a favorite place to hover when she was speaking to those unlucky enough to find themselves in her office. Fussing with the cup, pulled from among the antique colonial tea set that had arrived along with all of her other treasures the day she became my captor, she continued. “We’ve made some concessions I have not thought very wise. We have allowed you a great deal of leeway in the past which is incongruent with your character. I attribute that, as I’m sure you do, to the fact that your sniveling nigger is a friend to that chicken-loving Mayor of ours. But that’s beside the point.” It was one of her favorite pastimes, to slur about white trash and blacks, and their place in the world, but I knew that her remark was meant to mask the punishment she had in mind for me. Finding my Achilles heel had made her giddy. And no doubt, after buckling her gun belt around her sagging hips this morning – assuming she ever removed her revolvers at night – she must have applied that fuchsia lipstick to her wide, uneven lips with a new excitement. “Your record here, Miss Taylor,” she continued, “Is glowing with mediocrity. There’s nothing here that shows me you have ever deserved one of the kindnesses we have extended to you.” …which was a blatant lie. I had never caused any trouble from the day they turned the lock, and she knew it. “It is decreed, then, through careful consideration by our board of advisors, that your face to face visitation be curtailed to once a quarter or less, the final decision falling at my discretion. And this daughter of yours,” she heaved, “should she surface, whining and moaning like a ninny that she just ‘has to see

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her mommy,’ will NOT be allowed any physical contact with you without permission from the Governor.” I had suspected this from the moment Edna mocked me last night. The two of them, although it sickens me to think of it, are probably lovers. And anything that made Lardy happy most likely resulted in some kind of silly gift being presented to Edna. I can’t imagine it took more than two nano-seconds for her to tell Lardy the whole story. “I have not seen her since the day she was born, so there is nothing to worry about.” I countered. Facing her squarely I continued, “I wouldn’t let her in this place anyway. This place is only for misfits, you certainly know that better than any of us.” I was beyond devastated; feeling like a heavy ball had hit my gut. Then I began wondering if Ray and Steve would actually find her someday, and bring her here. And that scared me more than anything, so I shut out the thought and waited for more. She had been the elephant on my back since the day we met. “Why that’s good!” She droned. “Because our job is of course to protect you from those who would seek fame and fortune by aligning themselves with some famous wanna-be, mountain-trash, such as yourself. We must take measures to protect your constitutional rights. That kind of press would be harmful to your next parole hearing. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?” I had guessed correctly. The wheels were already being turned against me. And with that she reached into her waistline and pulled up hard on her belt causing the long cascading string of keys to clink like a set of jacks hitting a stone. Looking out of her window she motioned to Edna to return for me, strutting over to stand at her desk to watch me fully rise and walk out of her little den of horrors. “Miss Taylor?” She added. And I turned with only part of my head to let her know I was listening. “We’re moving you to another cell shortly. The one you

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have must be very drafty, and so, so bright! Why, that sun shines in there every afternoon, threatening to mar that lovely ivory skin of yours. Surely you’d prefer some darkness, so that sleep will come a bit easier for you. Won’t that be wonderful?” I could deal with her sarcasm, I could deal with punishment, but without light she knew I would wither. The thought of it hit me so deeply that I felt the air go out of my lungs. Tugging hard on my arm, Edna pulled me to the door as I worked to square my chained feet and walk without tripping. If I thought it would do any good, I would pray for the strength to rise above her foul and bruised soul and smite her like I did Frank. She was just another in a long line of people who had been threatened by my confidence, and powers of intuition, and maybe my survival. So I was anything but demure in my response. Grasping hard onto the new found strength I had discovered by being part of a family, even if it was only for a moment, I turned and simply said, “There isn’t enough darkness in hell for me not to see that you’re a true serpent. I may die here a prisoner. But you, you are already dead.” *** The sound of a rat screaming is unlike any sound you have ever heard. The vilest witch buried in the deepest grave in Salem, her heart cut in two by an axe and a forgotten lover, could only come close to emitting a noise like this. It is high and earsplitting, bleating with the sorrow of a thousand lost voices, chilling the spine in one single note. Without the comfort of the usual sounds coming through my small window, or a thin curtain of sunlight to nourish me, I am cut off from the creatures that rely on the cadence of night and day for structure. Every inmate, no matter how hardened they are, will tell you that nothing is more terrifying than the night. Your conscience screams out without mercy, and memories shape-shift into morbid apparitions of a past that cannot be changed. When the warden banished me to this crypt she did so with a fervent prayer that it would break me in two.

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Using the loosely worded rules in her book as a catalyst, she took away what little I had left. Then, another, lower and more menacing sound emerged from the shadows; a gasp of madness from the cell down the hall where Myrna, serial killer and child molester, was living out her final days as a stranger to herself. She suffered from Alzheimer’s, and no one had come to see her in a decade. Just turning a rancid 72, she still had 210 years left on her sentence and the doctors said that the TB would soon overtake her. Would she be buried under a tree next to a peaceful creek? Or would her embers, gray and powdery, be cast outside the walls of Redemption Way with tire tracks scattering them to hell and back? Either way, she would soon be gone, and all chances at change would be lost. For one last time I went over the details that transported me from a frightened girl to a sinner that could never be forgiven. I went back over the details, just to be sure I wasn’t wrong on the night all hell conspired with all the angels of darkness, helping me crack open the skull of the most evil of evil men and restore those that I loved to a life of peace and possibility. I had plenty of time to think. I had plenty of time for all of it. *** I know every part of the road between Broom’s Mill and Miss Ida’s. Not more than 6 feet apart, carved ruts jump above the fine, green grasses demanding every tire be cradled inside their fractured forms. Pulled low and sad by time the street was narrow and covered with the bowing branches of ancient oaks. It was on this road that I walked with happiness and exhaustion, shoes almost worn off my feet, after being released from the Juvenile home just 2 weeks shy of my 18 th birthday. Spanish moss, sometimes referred to as gray beard, is spotty here, but it does survive randomly in forgotten hollows and moist forests. Strangely enough, it is

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not really moss or a parasite as everyone believes. It creates its own nutrients, drawing only from the air and sunlight to survive. Remarkably, it exists without being connected to anything else. It’s a lot like me. I walked this path only hours after being released, happy in a way only those who have been captive and are now free can understand. My departure had been unceremonious. Stripping my bed and avoiding the morning meal, I gathered the small group of personal items I had with me and bundled them into the handkerchief that Raynell had sent along with all her letters and news. It was a soft pink, and crocheted on the ends with yellow thread. On the corner were the embroidered figures of little honey bees hovering intently over a large, purple pansy, the golden stamen bending out to greet them with her irresistible pollen. It was just big enough to wrap up the treasures that made me, me: A small group of rocks that I had collected because they were pretty and perfectly smooth, a pen that had found its way into our campus from a resort in Charleston, and a simple bit of a blanket that I had ripped off the swaddling clothes that Legacie’s small body had been wrapped in, not long after she was born. Without any conversation, I walked into the office of the director to sign my name, and receive instructions about my release. She was waiting, Warden Dora Boatwright to deliver her speech in measured, rehearsed tones. “The time has come for your new life to begin.” She said her voice nasally and matter of fact. She was a kind woman, small in frame and large in spirit and she actually believed what she said mattered. “You’ve paid your debt, Miss Oacie. Now move forward and straighten out this misdirected life of yours. God has a plan for you dear girl if you will just put your life in his hands.” Seems I’ve spent my whole life looking at people across a desk which accurately describes the nature of my interaction with authority. If I could have changed just one thing about those encounters, I wish that just one of them could have reached over to hug me, holding tightly until the tears came hard and real

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and the sorrow rushed out of me. Even then I waited, just for a moment to see if the cross hanging around her neck might nudge her into a gesture of love. Although she could smile, I realized that she was as much a stranger to touch as every soul I’d known. So I nodded and curtsied and turned towards the door ready to face an uncertain future. “Where are you headed dear girl? You got a place to call your own?” “I do, Miss Boatwright, thank you. I have a sister close by, and a woman who said she will help me find a job in Sugar Creek. I’m sure I will be okay.” “We can’t do anything more for you at the state level you know. You are nearly an adult now. Your choices from here on out will be your own.” I had news for her, they always had been. And I was relieved that my fate was out of the hands of rural government, and back into my own control. She must have seen me shrug because she added, “God bless you and God help you.” And with that I turned to leave, the door shutting behind me as I walked down and out the front gate. Feeling the rocks under my shoes and anxious to find my way back to town, I wondered what it would feel like to turn into Miss Ida’s lane knowing that Joshua would not be there to greet me. I hadn’t seen Raynell in almost three years so the thought of her towering over me, begging me to show her any scars I had obtained while “incarcerated,” terrified me. Suddenly I tripped inside one of those ruts and turned my ankle. I hoped it wasn’t an omen. Within the hour I saw Main Street and the marquis on the local theater now covered over with a banner that read, ‘Computer Station. Come on in, we don’t byte.’ I looked down towards the Interstate, miles away of course, and saw that a new gas station was under construction. The grocery store parking lot was full, and the church steeple was still standing but it was enshrouded behind a labyrinth of scaffolding that would give the painters access to her roof now being scaled off like a bad sunburn. And the old motel was nearly torn down so

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a new hotel could be built in its place, bringing a new brand of thin sheets and scorched coffee to her boarders. Everywhere there was evidence of change and progress. Except for the Sherriff’s office that sat on the corner, it appeared Sugar City had worked hard to renew itself while I was gone. I must have stood on that corner for a good 10 minutes, taking in the fact that so much had happened while I was busy learning my lesson, when I saw the most frightening sign of all, convincing me that nothing was going to be different. A billboard above the Bank entrance carried the words, ‘Vote Scoggins for Mayor,’ and I cringed. I thought of him, panting with the thought of sweet revenge while his posse of greasy haired deputies scoured the countryside for my hide, as he made his way back into the hearts and minds of the locals, like he had in the last town. A chill of fear ran through me wondering if he had already plundered my sister, and set up another ring of deceit designed to trap other young girls wandering by. But not one of Ray’s or Ida’s letters had hinted as much. Vernie had been too insignificant to ignite an investigation, and with the deck stacked against her, her dying had already been swept under the corrupt rug Frank had been weaving his whole life. I was the trouble maker. Maybe there was reason to start more. After a wonderful homecoming, and a bout with depression as I wandered back and forth between Miss Ida’s and the places Joshua and I had made our own, I settled into a job in the local café. For five dollars an hour plus tips I worked every day from 5 a.m. to 2 in the afternoon, serving watery eggs and dry toast to truckers and tourists. Often I saw Frank walking by, sauntering in his slithering manner with his hands resting inside his belt line, a highly polished shine on his boots, and his wavy, black hair reflecting the sunlight, and I would freeze. It was like I was in some

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kind of bubble; close enough to touch him but not far enough away to forget what he had done. Soon, I could feel myself retreating into a kind of foreboding that made me jumpy and secretive. At the end of my shift I always ran quickly to the alley behind the café to catch a ride with the girl who worked in the dry cleaning store across the street, avoiding any socializing or chance of entrapment. And on the ride home, I would scan the asphalt behind me, sure that Frank stood erect below the flashing Main Street semaphore that ticked off the seconds counting down his revenge, like a giant red eye squinting through the afternoon heat. Most of the time the deliverance of bad things is mercifully curtailed by fate, and folks go about their business stepping into the path of trucks that swerve at the last minute, or leaning out of windows without holding on, or maybe falling in love at 15 – and nothing ever happens to them. I had been taught, by the dry and white skinned preachers at the services held at our Juvenile Hall, that blessings come upon those who obey, and God sits on his gilded throne just waiting to shower blessings on his faithful, like a baker whose sugary pastries swell beyond the rim of a heavenly bowl. The sinners however seem to have all the power. Mature and omniscient, these no-good conspirers are able to turn the great Creator into a menacing, premeditated torturer with one lousy choice. God is good, but only until you piss him off. In an instant, folks who fall into drinking or carousing can expect to find a lightning bolt strapped to their ass just as their hangover subsides. It never made sense to me, this quickening of the spirit, or whatever it was that flipped the switch, so I spent the time watching, fanning my face and deconstructing the details of the whole brimstone monologue until I knew I couldn’t believe in hell at all. It was just too silly. I lived like this for weeks, saving a little money and avoiding would be friends until soon, the hand that I was dealt at birth showed her black ace, and motioned darkness back into view. I knew something was going to change. I knew it like I

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knew I needed a plan to save Ray from Frank the first time. But now, older, with a little coin in my pocket, a sure knowledge that there would be no intervention for people like me, I waited, and waited and waited. I didn’t have to wait very long. “Stars amighty, who this boy think he is?” We were all fixed to the TV at the café that summer afternoon in 1994, watching a white bronco swerve in and out of traffic against the backdrop of smog, palm trees and the shadow of a helicopter’s blades. “Hell, he ain’t never gonna get a fair trial now. Stupid cuss!” Most of the locals that sat at the bar to sip from their bottomless cups of coffee shared the same sentiment as our current Mayor, who had just broken the silence with his jolly bellowing. “Bet you wish you had a shiny rig like that one, don’t you Craig?” The Mayor shouted to the patrolmen sitting in the corner, eating his usual pork chop and pulling the tough strands of it out of his teeth between each bite. “Wouldn’t be no fun, Mayor if they knew I was comin’!” and the café erupted with laughter. “If we had enough money for a fleet of cars like that, I might be able to go someplace decent for lunch.” The Mayor chided. “Who knows what would happen to this town if I didn’t have to stop and take antacids every afternoon, napping so I don’t have a damned heart attack.” He yelled. “You finally figured out we been tryin’ to poison ya, eh Mayor?” And the manager, Jeb, slapped his own leg after his comment, laughing heartily at his perfectly timed jab. “Who is O.J. Simpson?” I asked him as we walked back behind the counter to uncover another chocolate pie for the Ladies Club that was scheduled to arrive soon.

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“Oacie, you need to get a life. He is, or was, a famous football player living in California and married to a shiny white girl.” He didn’t even look up and I appreciated that he didn’t answer my question with the same kind of sarcasm he had used to dig under the skin of the Mayor. “They’s fixin' to send him to priso…” And he stopped dead in his tracks, remembering that I had just returned from the land of locked doors and numbered shirts only weeks before. “Damn, I’m sorry Miss Oacie. Your hard times ain’t evident on your face. Purty as it is. Sometimes I just get caught up on all the stupid jokes we share ‘round here and…” “No need to apologize. I just feel stupid ‘cause I missed out on so much the last three years.” “You missed more than that girl, if you don’t know who OJ is. But then, doesn’t make much difference really. You do your job and that’s what matters.” If Jeb hadn’t been willing to take a chance on me I don’t know where I would have gone and I appreciated that he showed me a little respect. It softened me for a moment and took my attention away from the fact that the entire room got very quiet. I looked up in time to see Frank, who now sported a good sized gut, turn down the TV and tip his hat at the Mayor before sitting at the edge of the counter to leer at me. “Something you need Sherriff? Ain’t seen you in, oh, more than 2 months. Y’all doin’ well?” Jeb set one elbow down on the counter so he could get closer to Frank as he spoke. He didn’t know our history so when he motioned to me to take his order, I could feel my hands begin to tingle and a rush of heat come into my face. I thought I was going to faint but soon my legs started to move and I walked toward them both. “Been busy workin’ on winning elections, Jeb. Can’t do that on a diet of sweet tea and potato salad.” I hadn’t heard his voice since the day he wielded a bat over the head of poor Vernie and a knot lurched into my throat as he continued.

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“Now it’s time to get back to the business of running this town. Can’t do that without a few dumb friends, eh?” It was a bold statement, and the Mayor looked over only shyly. But Frank wasn’t fazed. He had his eyes on me and his hands, as usual, were sitting perched atop his damn belt buckle while he maneuvered the toothpick around in his mouth, gleaming from his spit and moist lips. “For instance, take Miss Oacie here. You know she’s a convict, don’t ya, Jeb?” “She done paid her debt, Frank. She’s the best waitress I got.” Jeb demurred. After a long, serpent-like pause Frank continued, “Sure, I know that. Hell. Just wondered how she’s settling in. I like to know ‘bout everyone in this town. And a mighty fine lookin’ woman like her, especially with her past, is likely to need some lookin’ out for. You catch my drift?” His meaning was obvious, to me anyway, and Jeb simply answered, “I’ll let ya know which month she ain’t the ‘Employee of the Month,’ Frank. But it ain’t likely to be very soon. I’m wondering what mix-up musta taken place for someone like her to have ever been thrown in jail in the first place.” It was the opening Frank needed, and he straightened like a soloist does when the conductor motions in his direction, and the orchestra pauses. “Thing is, there’s quite a bit to her story, Jeb. And I’m actually someone who knows Miss Oacie first hand. Why I watched her nearly grow up in the next county over. An orphan she was, and not just a small troublemaker too.” Because Frank’s voice had gotten so high in his attempt to minimize my reputation, Jeb laughed nervously in anticipation of what might come next. I could see he wanted to break away from us. As the first group of women arrived and motioned they would take the big table in front, he was glad he would have an excuse to move on.

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“Given my proximity to her upbringing, I’m just feeling a little kinship, that’s all.” And with that Frank took his hands up to his face, plucked the toothpick out of his mouth and hurled it a good 6 feet to the trash container by the window, missing the edge and sending it to a final resting place in the sill, next to the OPEN sign that was never turned over. It was rude and bad timing. Plus, it made everyone look as he turned to glare at me one more time before making his way to the door. “Nothing to eat, Frank?” Jeb nervously asked, already halfway across the café. “Lost my appetite, Jeb. Nothin’ in here looks good anyway.” And he turned and walked out. As we watched him cross the street, it was as though a large cloud had fallen over the café his presence was so disturbing. I could see Jeb throw me a small look of suspicion disguised as a smile, and it broke my heart to think that little by little Frank could continue to ruin my life without provocation. Everyone clearly regarded him with caution. Luckily, the noise started up again as quickly as it had ceased, and I could hear the sizzle of burgers being turned on the grill, bringing me slowly back to reality. I took all the orders from the women’s group, cleaned two tables, and was actually starting to forget the encounter when the other shoe finally fell to the floor. Like slow motion it began. First the TV program switched to show a breaking story, and I recognized the face of Nancy instantly framed behind the face of the local news anchor. She had been shot. Apparently resisting arrest during a raid on an abortion clinic that had been the target of threats over the years. The next face that I saw was even more familiar. It was a strong face with beady eyes, black hair and a badge clearly in view. Soon the reporter’s voice droned, “…It has been confirmed that the victim was Nancy Rusk, resident nurse at the Prospect Juvenile Detention Facility. Reports confirm that she was shot twice in

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the chest by Sherriff Frank Scoggins, of Sugar Creek, who led the raid and was praised by the DA as the sole peace officer in ending the stalemate between police and the aggressors. Witnesses tell us that warning shots, coming from the clinic, had been fired into a crowd of protesters and a 911 call had alerted police to the situation. Police have not yet released the identity of the caller or the names of those inside the clinic who have been apprehended.” “Sad day, Carmen.” The other anchor added. His head was shaking slowly back and forth as he straightened the papers in front of him looking to segue to the next story. “We should share with you that only two murders have occurred in the tricounty area since 1984, so this kind of news is sad indeed.” I heard only part of the commentary whine on. I was already halfway out the door. Running as fast I could, never noticing Frank in the alley, I tripped and scraped my elbow as I reached out for support against the sharp edges of the old brick wall and fell squarely into his arms. He caught me, and the clammy feel of his hands made me leap into place, yanking back and up on one foot. But his grip was sure and hard as he pulled my face close to his, as he fired the first verbal shot. “People who try to cover things up end up covered up. You hear me, girl?” I froze in place, unable to breath or move. “Nancy the nurse had a secret and I found out. The seed of your hot little nasty loins is running around somewhere here in my county. I don’t need no more troublemakers stirring things up, or growing up to screw half the county. I will find her. You can be sure of that.” So now I knew why he wasn’t after Ray anymore. It was the surrender he craved. Adding to his pleasure was making sure it wounded me as well, no matter what the cost. His drunken rape attempt on Raynell had been sexual, and probably nothing more. Nancy had told me just how many young girls had been violated by him over the years, noting that he never attacked twice. But it didn’t hit me until now that he was motivated by a sick need to sate his own sexual appetite with virgins, and once deflowered; they no longer drew his wings to their stamen.

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I leered at him, mustering every bit of power I had to not wince or slump or cry and levied the only threat I could think of. “There are two kinds of people, Frank.” I whispered, spitting in his face as the tears hit my lips and were pushed out into the warm air with the force of my breath. “Those who go through life assuming no one will ever stop them, and those who do the stopping. You know which one I am because that red scar over your eye reminds you of it every day you look in a mirror. But one day you won’t be seeing your scar in a reflection, you will be seeing it from afar, after I yank the soul out of your body and send you to the grave.” For a minute I thought I got him, and I hoped he still thought I was the one that marked him for life. He blinked hard, pulled his hand up above me like he would strike, and then licked my tears into his mouth like a sick animal devouring young flesh. “You are nothing but a worthless and forgotten piece of dog shit, Oacie Taylor; big mouth, tiny tits, and too much nerve. I’ve been planning my revenge on you for over three years. Nothing can stop me until you are broken.” And with those words he sealed both our fates forever. He let me go, and I nearly tripped as he threw me back a bit. I ran home, trying not to think about my friend and walked around to the back of the house to throw up. I wasn’t vomiting from pregnancy this time. I was vomiting because I knew what I had to do. Avoiding Miss Ida’s questions, and working even harder to throw Raynell off the trail, I numbly moved throughout the rest of the day. I made it through the night even, pacing and mumbling my way through a dozen scenarios, all of them ending badly. I tried to find out more about Nancy, but no one understood my relationship with her. We had made sure our connections were severed after Legacie was born so I didn’t know where to find Aleigh, or others, that might have known their whereabouts. I felt a strange instinct overcome me like the transformation a turned warrior experiences when torture becomes his only experience.

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I thought about running, and running far. But I was through with that. And I certainly couldn’t leave Raynell behind not knowing if she was safe. It might be the victory that motivated Frank to violence, but I knew he would do anything to find me. The next morning, after being fired by Jeb and once again seeing the look from townsfolk who had already been poisoned on me, I retreated into a place that shut down everything in my body that I didn’t need to stay alive. First I had a long talk with Miss Ida, who was wildly worried about me, and I asked her to promise me that no matter what happened to me that she would make sure Ray had a chance. Ray was smart, always had been, and she hid the graces of a fine southern woman underneath her dirty nails and ratty hair. I knew that somewhere else she could blossom and thrive. I made Miss Ida promise. “There’s somethin’ in you das died, Miss Oacie. I dunno what it is. I’s been prayin’ hard to knows what do to. But I ain’t been told what that is. You’se kept us away since that night they came and took you away as a buddin’ young girl. You’se refused to see us, which breaked yo sister’s heart and tored mine right out my chest. What you up to sweet child? Don’t you know you’se has the same fine soul as Miss Ray? Don’t you know that yo blood is royal, too? A child of God you is, through and through. And yet, you trusts no one.” I just stared at her, not flinching or showing any emotion. Talking back only wasted time. I had to find out what was known and what was hidden so Legacie could stay safe. “Fine then.” Miss Ida retorted, seeing I wasn’t going to change my mind and talk. “ Only ‘cause it’s the right thing ta do, will I promise you. And I promise dat when dis is over, I will still love you like Jesus himself.” “Good.” I answered coyly. And as I began to turn away and walk down the steps, I knew that it was the last time I would touch her. It was the last time I would touch anything real for a very, very long time.

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OACIE The darkness is closing in. I am trying hard to cover my ears and block out the sounds now echoing against the walls of my cell that seem louder than ever before. The mattress is cold and lumpy, the toilet reeking of urine, the air moist and still. It’s all closing in so hard that I can’t quite remember where I am. There’s no way to tell what time it is, and I don’t know when I’m conscious or asleep because suddenly I can hear the sound of the lamp hitting the skull of Vernie, and the drops of blood and tissue smacking against the wall and splattering onto me. The droplets then turned into small insects, writhing and changing into small little men that march down my shirt and organize themselves on the floor, in front of my feet. They began to crawl all over me, burrowing into my skin, ripping through my face and hair, stinging like a thousand pricks of a sharpened knife, and working hard to change me into a creature of darkness without form or face. I watched them crawl all over Raynell and drag her across the room into Frank’s grasp before I can stop them. I watch him take out his gun and shoot her – shoot her dead right in front of me. It isn’t until I feel gravity yank me back onto the cot that I realize it is a dream. During my initial stay in solitary, not long after arriving at McCormick, this dream had visited often. It isn’t a new one. Lurking in my subconscious, it waits for a moment of darkness to come alive to show me another version of hell. With the return of this dream I know the Warden has won. They have all won. I will not get the chance to share what made me plan Frank’s death so intently. They won’t see why there was no other choice. And now, I cannot ever hope to know what freedom will feel like. Perhaps I can slip into nothingness without pain, retreating with the pictures in my head of family and caring, and the freedom that the act of giving in stirs up inside you. Maybe it is time now to believe that all whom I had protected are now safe. Maybe I could stop whizzing across the universe and stay warm with

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Mama and Papa, and feel true peace. But maybe there will only be darkness. Maybe this is all I have left. Thank God I saw Raynell, thank God I had touched her hand, and thank God I told them about Legacie. Just knowing there is a part of me, the good part, breathing and existing in the world, numbs the sting of everything. I made sure she was beyond the reach of my poison. She had been conceived in a moment of pure joy. I have, and will always love her, until my dying breath. Is it sane to think Ray and Steve might find her and tell her who her mother really is? They have no clues, but Frank found her, so why wouldn’t they? I have never seen a photo of her, never heard her voice, and never touched her skin. But she is as real to me as the bars that separate me from freedom. And I thank God that she continues to be safe. There is an unspeakable peace in me knowing that as long as she stays away from me, she will always be well. But I want a new story! I want another chance. I want to survive and learn and grow. Oh, God. I don’t know if I can take this. I was so close to finishing the story! I have to complete it or no one will ever know me. It’s so easy to recreate horror in the blackness of solitude. I see everything so clearly. You may not consider this, but when one contemplates murder, it becomes a time of great peace. You don’t think about the things happening around you or the people whose lives you will touch. Sounds are magnified, even eating takes on a new form of sensory excitement. It’s as though you’re about to take a journey into a place where everything is on high, loud and screaming like the crescendo of a great symphony, trumpets blaring and drums beating away. In comparing that moment with this one, I find that everything seems chaotic and out of place. No matter how I struggle to make sense of things I cannot get my thoughts in order with darkness around me. It’s like a slow leak in a tire; no matter how much air you put in it, it’s never really full.

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*** In referring to the day my plan came together, I was full of everything. Strong, resolved, heightened and invincible. Only the sound of the rain beating on my umbrella as I walked to the mill reminded me that I was still a part of things. Ever since Frank had cornered me by the café two days before, I started to calculate his moves. With a pure sense of certainty, I stopped worrying about him wanting to hurt Ray, so keeping track of him became more focused. Nancy had given her life trying to protect Legacie, I knew that now. She had tried to intervene somehow, maybe making the mistake that she could gather evidence, and find a friend to show it to. Discovering that Frank had found out about my pregnancy and birth she must have gone into high gear. Why she didn’t alert me I will never know. I did some digging into the events that surrounded the shooting at the abortion clinic. I knew Nancy didn’t belong there but I also knew that from time to time she often car-pooled with the receptionist. And because the Prospect Juvenile Detention Facility was still another 10 minutes away, the break room at the clinic, always brimming with extra Danish and hot coffee, meant sustenance that would tide her over for the rest of the trip. That morning must have been one of those times when the call of breakfast was too much to resist. The mob was created by Frank it seemed. More digging yielded story after story about some extra money to be made if you were willing to join the protesters, and get a little rowdy just for fun. Masked, and then escaping without being identified, the published sub-story on the shooting was about whether or not there was even a gunman inside the clinic. Although a couple of the witnesses remembered hearing a shot, no one from inside even knew what was going on until they heard the bull horns out front. After the crack of what I’m guessing was firecrackers, the police entered, and through a brilliantly choreographed set of moves designed to incite panic, Frank started to wave his gun wildly and tell everyone that they were there to retrieve a nurse named Nancy, who had called

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earlier, and indicated she had a bomb. That’s just a bit different that the story we all heard on TV that day. But again, if you are forgetting that this is a small town, and that we’re deep into the heart of the south where loyalties trump all rules, then you are smoking something you best not share. Nancy, beloved as she was, had made a lot of mistakes when she was younger that everyone still remembered. She was kind in heart, but had the face of a mass-murderer, so it was easy to believe she had snapped, and would soon become the white-shoed Uni-bomber of our County. On the far side of town, hell on the far side of every town within a hundred miles of a magnolia tree was an abandoned mill, not unlike the one I was approaching this drizzly day. It was a favorite hangout of teenagers, the few drug dealers that pretended they were tough, and the police when they wanted to scare someone into ratting out a neighbor or friend. The hallways were dimly lit, and all the windows were reinforced with wire, so there really wasn’t an easy way to escape. All those variables, I hoped, would also work in my favor. If I couldn’t make things change by wishing for good luck, perhaps raw action would change my fortune and deliver me out of a situation that had no good ending. I had arrived early to our rendezvous point, anxious to watch for anything suspicious. But silence was my constant companion, and other than an occasional crow that lit upon the light standard in the weed strewn parking lot, everything was quiet, and things were falling into place. Inside my pocket was a very small knife, dull of course, but it would fool Frank at the right time, if needed, lulling him into a sense of safety that I was all talk and no horsepower. I had learned a few moves since our last encounter; something I knew he wouldn’t be ready for. It would take quite a bit to take me down.

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When I heard the 4 o’clock chime from the town square, I made my way into the bowels of the old mill, stopping when I got to the double doors marked, “Foreman,” before entering and sitting down at the lone desk in the center of the room. It wasn’t long before I could hear the cacophony of Frank’s official accoutrements clanking as he made his way down the hall, and my heart raced just a bit as his silhouette began to take shape behind the frosted glass of the doors. ‘Dear God, give me the strength today to do what needs to be done.’ I quietly prayed. ‘My daughter is in danger. My friend has given her life. My sister must be able to flee. Only I am expendable. I am not a sweet girl living under a privileged roof rocking babies in her arms, singing in a church choir, or even changing the world with a new drug. I am in fact meant to be here, at this moment. Help me, oh God. Help me.’ I hoped I wouldn’t jump when he came crashing through the door, but I did. He didn’t notice, though. I changed the look of confidence on my face to fear, right on cue. “This is simply too good to be true! A secret rendayvoo to – let’s see –how did you put it, talk things over?” He snarled as he spoke, grinning and sporting a swagger that belied his date with the bottle before making his way here. “I’ve got five, loyal, and trigger happy deputies outside to haul your ass to jail again when we’re through. You’ll be charged as an accessory to the crime of kidnapping, and for your part in the murder of Nurse Fancy Pants. I swore out the warrants myself since Nancy told me before she died that you were the one that came up with the whole idea. Being the whore that you are, with a bastard child running around, too, you’re as damaged as she was. Easy to make anything stick to you.”

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My senses were on high alert, and I could see the beads of sweat on his face, so I knew he was nervous. His body language was the real giveaway, though. He acted in control, but that flatulent piece of flesh between his legs was doing all the thinking. “What a pleasure it will be to see you rotting away again, this time as an adult, Miss Oacie Taylor. In fact, maybe you’ll make a few of them boys outside happy on the way to the courthouse? Couple of ‘em ain’t been on a date for a while…be nice of you to help out their self confidence by spreading your legs.” “I’m only here for one thing Frank.” I started, my voice filled with the shrill sound of panic and desperation that I knew would be catnip to my counterpart. “I’m willing to get out of your way, to go to jail and stay there, if you will just promise not to harm my daughter or my sister. Leave them be and I will go easy, without a fight.” “A fight?” He shouted. “A fight? I lay in the hospital for five fucking days because of you! I looked like a goddamned idiot! I don’t want a fight, I want a war!!” Perspiration started to bead on his chin and neck now, and his voice was cracking. “This isn’t about making deals, you piece of hillbilly shit.” He was so drunk I could barely understand him. “This is about me getting back at you and anyone else that makes me look like an ass. You going down is only so’s I can have you out of the way when I take your brat daughter away from her fake mother and place her in the home of my choice.” He was really getting into it, and his perfectly combed hair started to ruffle right out of place, moving over his ears and leaving a greasy trail on the side of his cheeks.

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“Don’t you worry, though. I’ll work real hard to make her into a nice young woman. I’ll nurture her, mold her, refine her until the day I do to her what I do with all the little pansy ass shits that run around like a bunch of pure little teases. And furthermore, when dear little Ray has a baby I will do the same with her kid, too. Found a lineage that suits me fine for fucking up. And I plan to do it.” “Oh, God. Please Frank! I beg of you! I know somewhere inside of you is something good. You can’t possibly cover all those tracks. Someone will find out. Please, don’t hurt them at all. They’re all good people!” He seemed surprised and confused at my contrition, slipping his hands back into his waistline, resting back on his leg, even leaning slightly against the window in mocking boredom as he attempted to smooth back his hair. It was clear he was taking the bait. “This is fun, really it is. But if you’re gonna keep bawling, we’re done.” And he went to grab his radio which I couldn’t let happen. “Frank, I will do anything.” And I stopped moving, dried my eyes, looked up to the ceiling and then down, slowly raising my hands to my blouse to undo the top button, intending with great care to loosen every one of them, until I showed him what I knew he couldn’t resist. It worked, because his eyes got as big as a full moon and he started to tuck in his shirt, and returned the radio to its home underneath the snap. “Now, there, that’s a new one.” He hissed. “Been wondering what those little titties looked like for a long time. Don’t suppose it would hurt to be the first in line before you go down.” It worked. Slowly and deliberately he walked my way, beginning to undo his pants, taking his club out of his belt so he could hold it against my throat. “Why sure, sweetie. Sure I will be good. I won’t let nothin’ happen to that baby of

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yours and cross my heart and hope to die I promise that your dumb little sister will be safe, too.” “Frank, there’s no need to hold me down. I love my daughter. I will do anything for her.” And I lay down on the desk with my legs wide open. “Do anything you’d like.” The next few minutes are a bit hazy. You’ve heard people say how things unfold in slow motion when adrenaline is running high, and this was no exception. It was almost like a ballet it moved with such ease. Watching him come closer, smelling the bourbon on his breath, the stench of his skin and watching the tiny droplets of sweat drip onto me from his tan and shiny forehead, I arched just enough so he would look down instead of up at my arms that were extending around the desk to steady myself before the blow. He hesitated just long enough to spit on the floor, and take off his gun, so I made my move. The knife lodged under the desk was anchored loosely by the two nails I had placed there just the night before. I had put them in solidly and confident after eyeballing the size of the blade and the handle, knowing that this perch would work. Mercifully the lip of the table was over four inches so I knew the weapon would never be visible even if Frank happened to circle around it like a raptor before the kill. My fingers, which would easily have been sweaty and slippery had I not applied a little chalk to them, clasped sure and tight around the handle. And when he came down on top of me, I countered enough to push his nakedness back away from me, knocking him off balance and causing him to fall fully on top of me. Because the desk was narrow and there was no place for him to steady himself he flailed on top of me now sure that something was wrong. But it was too late to obey his brain; too late to grab his radio, or even to knock me across the face. By then he was bleeding slowly and painfully, the 10 inch butcher knife stuck squarely into his back. I had done it and done it well.

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The next part shocked even me. Leaning up and nearly hysterical, he stood to his full height even with the wound bleeding all over, and struggled like a fish on a hook to reach around and remove the knife. I watched blood coming out of his mouth, a gurgling that meant he couldn’t breathe, and his eyes rolled up inside his head. But that’s not what stunned me. It was the fact that my second weapon, a ball bat that I had hung just below the knife in case plan A failed, suddenly found its way into my hand. Without thinking clearly, I walked over to his dying carcass and begin to hit and hit and hit and hit until it broke, and crumpled into the blood and guts before me. Soon it was over. Frank was silent, still and dead. I don’t know how long I stood there before the doors flung open behind me. I could feel the handcuffs close around my wrists, scraping the skin and twisting my arm in pain. The rest of the deputies drew their guns and shouting started while another went over to Franks body, turning to wretch because the corpse had no face. I was dragged out of the office and down the hall with my feet scraping the floor, not one word coming out of my mouth. I think my silence scared them just as much as Frank’s mutilated body because I heard them gasp like I was hearing a distant voice. But only one thing went through my mind as the chaos around me ensued and that was: We are safe…Forgive me. I am done.

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Chapter Thirteen – Resilience

STEVE When one begins a journey one has a certain idea in his mind of what he expects to find. For me it was the certainty that I would meet a demon for whom I had no point of reference. I steeled myself against what I thought would be a distasteful, even frightening experience. My only goal was to extract truth and use it to rebuild the marriage and the family that was slipping away from me. I had visions of being a hero, marching through the streets of Atlanta with young people whispering in awe, recounting the gallantry I had faced while in the presence of Beelzebub himself. Journeys are funny things. You can only see the beginning of them. The end is not meant to be in sight no matter how much you squint to see the goal. Assuming you can see the finish line means you’re focused only on the victory, and now I know that the lesson is not in the arrival but in each intentional, frightening, exhilarating step. Really, who do you know that is brave enough to start on a road without any inkling of the twists and turns it will offer? Don’t we all want a sure thing? In wanting only the ending, have we lost our sense of what life is meant to be, and surrendered the faith to put one foot in front of the other? Is it a fool or a wise man who can leap into the unknown, sure of his character and his beliefs? And wisdom is rare indeed. But somewhere along the way I believe we’ve all lost that essence. We want everything stamped and guaranteed before any commitment is made. I’m here to tell you that there is nothing sweeter than a surprise. Here’s the real truth. Miracles are for fairy tales; at least that’s what I believed until today. But now I hold in my hand a genuine miracle. And it feels good.

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As Ray and I make our way back to town I already have her on the phone to our attorney, to find Oacie local representation. Furthermore, I have already called the bank where the safe deposit box resides, and it is located only miles beyond the prison, and near the Interstate. We will need a court order to open it, but opening shall be granted. I am sure of it. We may not be able to commute the sentence but we have hope for parole, and from there we will dream further, not focused on the end but the moment. Finding the letter had been unexpected and happenstance, a result of a moment when the two of us were rebuilding a marriage, and a friendship, by exploring the past. If Ray had not lain on the ground in peace, prone like a small girl who had just awakened from a long nap, our fingers wouldn’t have found the envelope, or the letter, or the key whose teeth haven’t ground against a lock in many, many years. It is hard to believe that the elements didn’t destroy it, or insects compromised it, proof further that light bends, showing the way around corners, confusion and time. Out in the distance is another spectacular sunset, the kind that hangs low on a violet silhouette of oak and ash figures, heaving with the last protest of another hard day’s work. It makes me think of Oacie and how hard she’s worked to stay alive, and to stay real. I am certain, that through the years, she has penetrated our lives in ways we cannot measure, instilling in the melancholy a foundation of honesty that only poets and tragic figures can imbue. Hold on, Oacie. We’re comin’. *** “This place feels different in the dark, doesn’t it, Steve…” And I shared Ray’s sentiment. It felt like we were crossing the river Styx as we made our way over the black topped parking lot to grasp the cold, metal handle of the building’s entrance.

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“I don’t really care, Ray. I couldn’t have gone back to the motel first, knowing what we did about the key and the letter. We have to talk to the Warden. We have to see Oacie. Come on, we’ll be fine.” But it wasn’t fine. When we locked eyes with the night guard, we noticed immediately that she looked away in shame. “Excuse me, but we need to talk to the Warden right away.” I cut in, holding my hands firmly on the edge of the counter that was cut in two by a small slit of wire reinforced glass. “Not here, sir. She’s gone home and there’s no visitors allowed now.” Her shame turned to venom as her hissing response left a tiny droplet of spit on the inside of the glass. “We have some new evidence that’s come to light about Oacie Taylor. Who do we speak to about this?” I demanded. “We know there’s someone in charge at night. Who might that be and where do we go to meet them?” “I guess you are hard of hearin’ sir. There is no one here at this hour to see you. Come back tomorrow after 10:00 a.m.” The same shiver that climbed up and over my neck just a few days before, when I heard Miss Ida tell me about Oacie being found over Frank’s lifeless body, returned and engulfed me. It was a message, spoken ever so quietly about a creature in pain, crying out alone after becoming the only surviving Gladiator in an arena of hungry lions. “Where is inmate Omara C. Taylor, sergeant?” If I had been simply an idiot who didn’t know what ‘no’ meant, then they wouldn’t have flinched. But in the background, a small, delicate woman who appeared laden with sweat looked over her shoulder as though I had called her name. At the same time, the Sergeant at the window bent her head slightly and

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looked over at the young girl, and nodded ‘no’ in just a very small gesture. Without suspicion the movement would have gone unnoticed. “What is going on, Sergeant? I want to know right now what’s happening. This may be the backwoods, but it’s still governed by laws, isn’t it?” “Now Mr. Messner…” how did she know my name? Raynell and I exchanged looks that galvanized our new resolve and prompted her to remove her cell phone from her purse to be ready to make a call. Who knows who we would have called, but it seemed like a life line so she held it out and brought it to life. “Sir, you have come at a bad time. Now we told you that she had been a bit tired when you tried to see her this morning. She’s resting fine now, and there’s no reason to be alarmed.” “Who said I was alarmed? What do I need to know?” I whispered with mock sarcasm. “We walked in here asking to see the highest officer on duty. Now it seems you have another agenda. I am losing my patience.” “As are we, Mr. Messner.” I hardly saw her enter the room she was so quiet. A tall, slender woman with reading glasses low on her nose, a large badge on her protruding chest that signaled her high rank. She had her hands to her side and I could see fingernails at least 4 inches long that were painted like a Mardi Gras celebration. Her face was long with a pointed jaw and cornrows that matted her hair down low and tight to her head cascaded down to a long tumble of twisted braids that went all the way down her back. Her forehead shone like a polished chrome fender and her words emerged from a mouth twisted by frowns. “You’ve been told nicely to come back tomorrow. That don’t leave us with any other choice than to bid you goodbye tonight.” And with that she stood at the shoulders of the sergeant so that I could see she was calm and ready to do her job.

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“Whom am I speaking with, ma’am?” I countered, seeing an opportunity to question someone new. “Deputy Warden Carla Evanston, sir. Not often I have the pleasure of turning away visitors at this hour.” Raynell had been quiet by my side, but she began to walk around behind me, staring at the lights above the old worn chairs in the waiting room and equally curious about the big yellow lights that lined the hallways just beyond the swing doors to our right. We had walked through those gates only a day before, noticing only the shine on the floors and the overbearing echo of loneliness in our ears. I could see she was taking stock in the clues around us. She was keen that way, looking for other ways to open a box, skin a cat, or maneuver around sinister guards. “Why is that light flashing yellow? It repeats all the way down the hallway.” She pointed towards a corridor that had no bends or turns for at least 200 feet, giving one a glimpse into the belly of the concrete beast. Again, that flash of discomfort from the young guard and I flinched to try and read her face through the glare, but Ray had already seen it, and moved closer again to the pane of glass that separated us from the dungeon beyond. “We have it under control.” Warden Evanston levied, looking back over her shoulder to look at the time on the large, white faced clock with a red second hand that swept in ever repeating circles. But the pace of the minute hand was interrupted as a young orderly burst into the back of the office and provided the information we had come for. “Inmate Taylor is having seizures, Warden. We need you in the infirmary, now.” “Please take a seat, Mr. Messner. We’ll be back for you shortly.” The Deputy Warden demanded, and we were escorted to a small enclave just off the lobby to

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wait and wonder; the recognizable eeriness taking hold of us in the dim greenish glow of the windowless room. “Ray, don’t panic.” I soothed, turning to see Ray with a rising sense of panic in her face. “We’re not leaving until we know what’s going on. We’ve called all the right people and they will be here soon. Just try and relax.” My words were more self talk than advice, as I found the sweat pouring off my brow falling down the arch of my nose, and stinging me as it followed a wrinkle, and dumped into my eyes. Remarkably, a young man soon came through the door, purple latex gloves still covering his hands like colorful finger puppets. He spoke in an animated manner with wild movements and gave us the bad news that we hadn’t expected to hear. Oacie had fallen, fallen badly, and had a large nodule protruding over her eye. He offered no comfort, no course of action, just a clinical pronouncement of her condition and their plan to transport her to the local hospital for treatment. “But how did she get this way? What happened?” Ray asked, almost crying and begging for more details. “We found her in her cell two hours ago...” came the quiet answer. “She was unresponsive, her heart was racing and she had sustained a head injury.” There was no emotion in his voice, no eye contact and no sympathy in his tone. ‘She would be transported to Magnolia General’ we were simply informed. Apparently Redemption can punish, they just can’t heal. We learned she had been in solitary before arriving in the infirmary, put there that morning. It was a punishment for becoming violent, and threatening the guards. It was all bullshit, and we knew it. But, since our last breach of the rules was met with a heavy fine for Oacie, we decided to stay quiet. There would be time for inquiries. Right now we had to think clearly and head to the hospital.

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When I took Ray’s hand to walk out of the prison, they were clammy and dry. Her eyes stared into the distance and she never spoke to me during our ride down the hill. As we arrived at the hospital, the breakdown I feared started to take shape, and her voice was low and lifeless at first, developing into a whine that was all too familiar. “They put her in a hole, Steve. A dark hole. Our visit got her in trouble and they put her in a hole.” Ray started to pace around the hallways as I led her to the waiting room. Then her hands began to move about nervously as she ranted on and on about her sister. “From the time we were little girls she could never, ever stand being in the dark, and these people here have put her there like an animal.” She cried. Her shrillness increasing as she wailed, “I acted like that too, you know, like her enemy. I acted that way for a long time. God, I’m rich and comfortable for heaven’s sake. I go around showing off and trying to remake myself into everyone else’s idea of what I should be and I, I should have been busy here. I should have brought her friendship or written her more letters. I should have talked to her about Garner and Nell. I should have asked her about Mama and Papa and I should have, I should have been braver….” “Ray!” I intervened, waiting for a breath to insert my pleadings. “Ray, there’s nothing we could have done. We had no idea about any of this until today. Please, honey, please. Don’t fall apart now. We have to stay focused and make sure she gets through this. Come on, sweetie. I know you’ve already been through so much. Look. I already spoke to the attorney and he’s driving up now. Let’s just stay calm and wait and see what the doctors say.” “She’s in the dark Steve, we have to save her.”

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“We will precious, we will.” *** It was nearly two hours before we heard anything at all. Then at midnight, we got an update from the attending doctor learning that surgery might be necessary. It was grating on us, and we were getting impatient knowing that all along a cover-up had ensued. I had already lodged a complaint with the county Sherriff, and given a statement about the circumstances surrounding her collapse. It was hard not to wish that Warden Pollard would be cleaning toilets by the end of the year. But right now, we had to focus on the rest of the game. No sooner had we found a place in the corner, away from the blaring TV’s and bad news, that a nurse tapped me on the shoulder and told me I had a visitor. As I turned to meet her gaze I saw in the distance, Miss Ida, her traveling cane astride, standing just outside the elevator, waiting for a motion to come forward. Smiling with that knowing grin of hers, I ran over to her and took her in my arms enjoying the full feel of her large embrace. “There was no time to let you know, Miss Ida. Forgive us for not letting you know.” I smiled. But she simply pointed her cane in the direction of the biggest and nearest chair in the waiting room and settled in like it was the rocker on her rickety front porch. Ray came to her from across the lobby with tears in her eyes. Kneeling down and burying her head in her lap, Ida reached out with an arthritic hand to coo and shush her as she stroked her hair. “Now, now then little one. Jesus, he watchin’ us all! You know dat? Is all gonna be fine now.” “They had her penned up, Miss Ida. Like an animal.” Ray frenzied. But Ida knew how to handle her outbursts, and she continued to soothe with each word. “She done been penned up for near 18 years now Miss Ray. She been the victim of a whole lotta people who didn’t understand her. Dis ain’t nothin’ new.”

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There was a touch of heaven in her voice, and the hairs on the back of my head started to rise again. “But why didn’t you call us years ago? Why? I don’t understand why all of this had to happen now when we could have prevented it?” Ray was still on her knees and she held herself steady with one hand, resuming her nervous gestures with the other. “Miss Ray, from the time I found you two in dat car, you has both been the most stubborn things I done ever laid eyes on. As much as I tried to hol you down, you kept bouncing back up to do it yo way. And then, when I began to understand what must have happened to you, I realized that you was gonna have to climb outta things yer own way. Both you and yo sister, you’s been teaching me ever since.” It was sounding a bit crazy to me. I too wanted to know why Ida had kept secrets from us. This woman was obviously a confidante, and protector of Oacie, so why didn’t she stop this abuse long ago and reunite us with her? “Sweet girl, you may not have thought much about it, but both you and Miss Oacie in there, you’s been carrying burdens around yo whole life. Yes?” And Ray nodded feebly. “But burdens, deys funny things. Why you, and even Mr. Steve. You probably think life is about watching out for things dat may need to be solved. Das how you live! Walking around on eggshells, you both spens all yo time looking for problems that need carin’ for like yer watching for bubbles in a pie crust. And when you sees one, you bang it down, and hard. Satisfied that if you ain’t come along and mashed it good, it would keep growing and growing and take over yo lives. But, y’all is seein’ it all wrong.” She was mesmerized the crowd like she was one sermon away from being carried up to heaven and skipping death altogether. “Burdens, and you know dis as well as anyone, sweet thing. Burdens is tricky. Even with yo beautiful things, and nice friends, and perfect life, you knows a

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burden ain’t an easy thing to unload. The thing is, it has two parts, like riding a swing up in the air and pausing, for jes a second up at the top, and then riding it on down again. Firs’, there’s getting rid of the load you carryin’ and second, there’s knowin’ where and when to drop it off.” In trying to follow her metaphor I was hanging on her every word. “You try and throw somethin’ off a moving car?” Miss Ida continued, “Well, it ain’t easy. And if you do it wrong, whatever you is throwing just might hit somebody or something and do some harm. No, unloading has to be done carefully. You have to come to a clean stop, step out yo car, and then carefully choose which item you done supposed to leave behind. Why, you do it at the wrong time you gonna be driving around wondering if what you lef is gone, or still with you.” She finished her epistle on one last bit of wisdom: “If’n you don’t allow somebody the time and space to decide if they’s in the right spot to unload, don’t matter how awful the sting of it is. They ain’t gonna give it up. It will stay there til it finds its own time.” There was more than truth in what she had just said, there was prophecy. Even I had carried the pain of Ray’s denial with me for years, yet I didn’t decide to solve it until just days ago. Raynell, carrying her secrets around like a tightly woven blanket was also incapable of crossing the river of pain until the moment her children had reminded her that sometimes leaving someone behind is really a form of love. And Oacie, her courage lasting well beyond the limits of most of us, had helped us come together as family by telling her story to us all. We had all found the right place to stop and unload. Wrapping our fingers firmly around the handles of our familiar and agonizing pain, we had finally cast it off into the void. I was holding my arms around my middle again, like my guts would fall out, but Ray, she was still at the feet of her dearest friend. “Miss Ida, I don’t know how

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you know all this, and I don’t know how you can be so patient and calm. But all I want is for this to stop. Sure, I understand now what it means to feel free, and to trust, and also what it’s like to let the terror pass through me and watch it exit through the other side without it really taking anything more than a couple of heart beats. But this isn’t about us. It's about Oacie. She’s lying in there hurting, and she doesn’t even know how close she is to seeing all this change. We can’t waste any more time on this. Please tell me, you will help us see it through?” Except for the buzzing of the one broken fluorescent lights in the corner, nothing and no one moved. Time neither ebbed nor flowed. All was still with the hope that we could get Oacie through this, and bring her home. “Mr. and Mrs. Messner?” If he’d been on a white horse I couldn’t have been any happier to see him. “I’m Doctor Erikson. I will be taking Oacie into surgery soon. There appears to be a very small aneurism on the right side of her head, just above her eye. We are confident we can remove it. The bleed is small and very inconsequential at this point. With rest and some good care, she will be out of here in just a day or two.” “How long will the surgery last?” Ray’s small voice inquired. “Won’t know until I get in there and see how the blood vessels are arranged around the bleed. No less than 3 hours, I’m sure. You may as well get comfortable. It’s going to be a long night.” As he turned to walk away I started, “Dr., we have some evidence that your patient may have been treated inhumanely. We may need some time to build our case. Just how long can she stay here and rest?” “I’m not sure what you’re asking me, Mr. Messner. We are not equipped to retain inmates, even if their circumstances are less than ideal. Her injury doesn’t suggest suspicion, which means there is nothing to compel us to keep her.” We could see in spite of his sincerity, he wasn’t going be able to help beyond the gift of his hands.

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“Folks, I’m needed now in surgery. Please just stay here. I will come out when I’m done and we will talk then.” For most of us, news from a doctor elicits a sigh of relief, and the following ritual: Figure out which God to pray to during the surgery, find a gossip magazine and a good candy bar, resolve to invent a comfortable waiting room chair and submit it for a patent, and then simply wait out the night. After putting a few chairs together, asking for blankets, and intercepting two more calls on my cell phone from the attorney who was fighting bad weather on his way in, we glanced across the room to Miss Ida to see what she needed. Ever self sufficient, she set the tone for us all by simply nodding knowingly and setting her cane down on the next chair. Then she leaned back to take a much needed nap. For most of the night I will pace back and forth, visit the vending machines and drink bad coffee until my heart is racing. In spite of Miss Ida’s magic and Ray’s broken heart we will watch the clock, perform the rituals borne of boredom and dread, and await fate’s silent, perpetual poetry until the dawn comes again.

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RAYNELL Even with my emotional liberation still new and vital, the real ‘me’ is still unsettled. My mind races between every possible scenario, working so hard to carry burdens before they’re handed to me, and I cannot bear to be here when the news arrives. I just know it will be something awful or serious. Will Oacie’s mind become blank, and erased from one simple fall? Will she forget who we are, and then our coming will have been in vain? Will she die during the operation? Each possibility looms larger than the last. “I can’t stay here, Steve. I can’t just sit here and wait to hear I’ve lost the sister I just reconnected with.” As I get up to pace around the room once again, Steve’s eyes follow me like a cat watching a ball of string flit around in the air. “You don’t know that, Ray. All we know is that it will take some time before it’s all over. Why don’t you just go to the cafeteria for a break and I’ll stay here and wait?” He sounded calm, but he was perched at the end of his chair, ready to pounce on me if I went postal, something he was used to doing in the past. “The smell in here, the sounds – it’s all too much.” I said before realizing I was verbalizing my thoughts. “I need some air. And we haven’t seen the kids since this morning, so I am more than exhausted, I am disoriented. I have to get to them and make sure they’re all right.” My words trailed to a hoarse whisper and I felt the panic surge into my throat. By now Steve had come off his chair like a high wire walker who judges the weight of everything that falls across the width of his path and doesn’t move until he knows that nothing will break. “Look, Miss Ida is sleeping.” I pleaded, worried that as he advanced I would run for the door. “You have a book to read. I don’t have anything to do. Let me go to the motel and look after the kids. Please, Steve? Let me go.” The truth is the idea of running back to the hotel was bait. I knew I wasn’t heading for them or anyone. I wanted to get in the car and drive far away from the hurt that was all around me. Flee to a place where there was music, flowers

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and waterfalls instead of coughing, elevator bells and the lone whine of a janitor’s machine waxing the floors amid a faint smell of urine. Since recalling the episode with Vernie and the Sherriff, I was haunted by visions that threatened to tear me apart. Coupling those memories with the full awareness of my neglect as a sister made me want to rush to the bathroom, and be sick. But I could be caught there, too and encircled by do-gooders who would be glad to gauge my madness, and then I would never get away. Please, Steve…let me get away. Finally, I could see he knew he had lost. Given that he was exhausted, too, he let me off the hook with only a squeeze to my hand, and a few words of advice couched in the coded syllables husbands speak to their hysterical wives. “Don’t go driving around by yourself. It’s late and dark, and the thunderstorms are moving this way. It will be hazy, and I don’t want you on the road when you’re…when you’re like this.” And I knew what he meant: he meant crazy. “I’m going to see the kids. We’ve been rude to leave them there for so long. Just, just call me when you know something.” And I grabbed my purse to escape before Miss Ida stirred. I made my way quickly out of the waiting room and out the door, dodging an ambulance that had just parked near the opening. It was unloading a gurney holding a bloody old woman who was headed for the trauma center, or a coffin, or both. Why is there blood everywhere here? I can’t stop thinking about the night Oacie and I ran, and the blood that was all over my hair, my legs and my face. I was screaming, I know that much now, reeling from the disaster, out of balance from running so hard and confused about where Oacie was taking me. I remember everything feeling tingly and hot, and even quiet. Because these memories are new they are heavy and real. I remember hearing the hum of the overhead wires pulsing with current. I remember seeing a huge

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dog, tied to a tree lunge out toward us and stop just short of us when the chain snapped loudly around his scarred shoulders, and visible ribcage. I remember my hair, whipping about in the wind, streaking across my mouth and how I tried to reach a hand up to pull it away, only to be jolted back to a dead run by my sister’s fleeing. I was crying, I know that, and I was screaming, too. I was begging Oacie to stop, or slow down or let go but she never turned to me. She just kept running and running and running. The last thing I remember was looking down and seeing a small piece of what must have been skin from Vernie’s skull stuck to my pant pocket, small hairs visible like threads from an angora sweater holding the flesh together while the underside stained my clothes and held the last of the warmth of her now dead body. After that, nothing. No memory of stopping, no recollection of a discussion, no idea if Oacie stopped to hug me or clean me up or scold me. It all crashed in so immensely that the sight of that human shrapnel must have knocked me into a stupor. And I have kept all of it locked away until the moment I touched my sister’s hand. What kind of monsters are there in the world? What kind of people would live only so others could die? Where is the beauty promised in songs and sunrises? I crumpled down into a crouch after that, making my way around the corner of the building to a small patch of moist grass, plopping down to hold on and grab tightly to the soil that rose up and around the base of the tree, to stop me from falling over. Would I ever feel whole again? Would I ever be able to stop thinking about what happened or what was happening? How could I resume my life after what I had ignored? What would I do when the time came to explain to my children about who their aunt is, answering their innocent questions about death and loss and deception?

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It’s weird because I always liked the darkness, scolding Steve’s when he wouldn’t close the gap in the curtains and thrust me into the blackness I required for sleep to come. But now it seemed to gnaw at me. It held no peace. “What the hell is wrong with me?” I screamed aloud, feeling suddenly weary of my circumstances and my habits of self loathing. “I have children who love me, a sister who needs me. Whatever happened is in the past. Oh God, please. How do I find the strength to simply be here, now?” I looked up into the night sky, counting the stars as they flickered randomly through the pre-dawn hours. Oacie and I used to love sitting up in the trees and watching the stars come into view after sunset. She said they were all worlds out there filled with people, just like us, who were sitting up in a tree and looking our way just the same. She said that the light we were seeing was from a long time ago because light takes something like a gajillion years to travel across the universe. “Why are we looking at something that’s not there?” I started to answer as I got old enough to know about light years, and pulsars, and black holes. “Because every moment you look is a moment you capture inside you, Ray. Think of all the things that are happening, right during this moment, all around us. And when you look at the stars you’re looking at a moment in time that was so long ago it probably doesn’t even exist anymore.” “But if it’s not there, now, why does it matter?” I answered. “Now is all that matters, Ray. Right now, this minute. It’s the miracle of this millisecond no matter when it happened. That’s what’s so cool.” And she meant it. She watched the stars all the time. “Look! Look, it’s a falling star, Oacie! Isn’t it beautiful?” I asked her, remembering her response so acutely that even today I can hear her voice in my head.

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“Every time a star falls, someone has lost their way. They’re being tossed across millions of years and they will never find their way back. They will simply burn up and die early without ever finding a way home because that moment is now gone.” Then she added, as though it had just occurred to her, “And the brighter they glow, the faster they vanish, forever.” I understood now, what she meant. Steve had told me Oacie’s story about our parents, and the backyard, and talking to our Papa about falling stars. It changed her, made her worry that she was out of control and she had vowed, at that moment, that it would never happen to me. But the universe has other ideas. The universe always has other plans. *** When I tried to get up from the ground I could see my knee was starting to bleed slightly, and I brushed the small dots of blood away with a Kleenex from my purse. ‘Time to get with it, again,' I told myself. So I arose, and straightened my shirt, catching a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a car rolling by, marveling at how put together I still looked. I have children, and I have a life for hell's sake. I have things that are glowing right now. In the distance was a flickering light, with a marquis below it that read, Fresh ham and eggs, 24 hours a day. The sign reading Flo’s Diner, a gastric satire to the life saving efforts going on in the building next to me as fat and sugar flowed freely behind its doors. Coffee would clear my head, I thought, so I headed across the street and entered the amber cavern, bustling with food and conversation. These are the places where the real doctors gather it seems. After saving a life or even losing one, they line up along a yellow counter for escape, their bootied feet dangling from squeaking stools. Sooner or later they all light up acrid

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cigarettes, and down a cholesterol laden plate of macaroni and cheese, finishing each plate with satisfaction and inhaling the smoke deep into their tired lungs. Numb to the hazards of both, they prattle on wildly about real estate, ex-wives and high heeled drug reps. I can be invisible here. Perhaps it will help me empty my mind of the anxiety that hangs so tightly around me. It’s warm, and the dim light is soothing. But before I know it, an apparition in a food stained apron sidles up beside me. “Coffee, sweetie?” She asks and I nod imperceptibly as the black liquid she has already begun to pour settles in against the constraints of my porcelain mug. I look up into her glowing face and I know her instantly. Not by name of course, but by her place, and I am calmed by her permanence and obviousness. It brings me home to my roots and the fact that everywhere, someone like her is probably pouring another cup of coffee for someone like me; someone who is one person on the outside, and another deep within. She knows I am fearful, we are similar creatures actually. Given the time to talk I’m sure my tales of loneliness and bad luck would be met with a knowing smile from her worn lips. Sure, I grab my chipped chalice with manicured hands while hers are only a landscape for blisters and blame. But neither of us are strangers deep down. I’m drawn in now, smothered happily by the dust and smell of toast and biscuits and I look around in awe. Dirty windows are kissed with the gaudy lipstick of summer storms, obscuring the faces inside who have rushed in to sit beneath the wisp of arctic air that labors to exit through the rusted slats of an old swamp cooler. Its rickety hum and moist breezes buffet the peeling wallpaper that hangs on to uneven walls. Old carpets seem embedded with words that fall from tired, mismatched tables, and trendy music prevents the scene from feeling nostalgic, adding flavor to the bland cabbage casserole and homemade apple pie. As I adjust the utensils below me that are sheathed in small, white paper bags I notice a tent card, spattered with ketchup and fingerprints, announcing this

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café’s dual life as a sanctuary on Sunday. It’s home to the Community Place Church and ‘all are welcome.’ Perhaps I’m sitting where a lonely, tattooed victim of abuse was ‘born again.’ His elbows bent in the attitude of prayer, tears falling generously where my coffee sits, hot and bitter. It’s a good café and it is here where my self-titled waitress “Flo” spends her nights. Fine hairs on the side of her weathered face glisten like felt in the dusty moonlit window, a profile of humanity growing old through the mask of her weary smile. There’s no makeup on her face but she is bright and clean. And I wonder; does she love music? Does she eat oysters? Has she ever run away? What brought her to this café? Where did the poison apple come from that she ate to become lost in this place and time, wearing a soiled apron and dragging heavy legs beneath her bulging waist? Maybe the waltz she dances each day, arranging plates along her forearm and glasses between her fingers, is the only graceful moments she experiences. I’ll bet she never drops anything, except, perhaps, her heart and her dreams. Spending her life presenting food and retrieving scraps, her rhythms are almost choreographed. But her art is lost in this small room; her grace unknown to all but me. “You have somebody over there in Magnolia?” And as she asks, she motions to the large neon Emergency sign across the street as she refills my cup and brings over a tray of crackers. “My sister. She’s in surgery now. She has an aneurism.” I wanted to say more but stopped short of offering any more particulars. “Doesn’t make any difference why you’re there. It’s terrible no matter what.” She answers sweetly, touching my shoulder with one finger. “Some are worse off than others, I suppose.” I share, answering honestly after realizing she was making a true effort to connect. “I’m guessing you hear a lot

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of the stories by serving so many doctors in here.” And I could see she intended to linger a bit. Perhaps she sensed our kinship as well. “They don’t talk about it really. Coming here is a chance to leave it behind for a bit. All that blood and bad news…Don’t know how they do it.” And she turned to nod at one of the customers leaving, winking boldly as the doctor hesitated and then vanished into the fog. “Every doctor is always plum worn out, all the time. Some work 24 hours a day. Why, they start their careers working weeks and weeks of 72 hours shifts, crawling in here on hands and knees, shoes covered in blood, bags under their eyes so deep they can hardly see.” We glanced over to the counter full of Interns, made obvious by their camaraderie and tired faces, and shook our heads in unison as she finished her thought.”You know, I don’t get it. Why would you wanna train a doctor by abusing him? How could they ever know how to take care of you?” Suddenly I panicked that the doctor with Oacie’s brain in his hand was her last, coughing customer. “Why do you suppose they do it?” I questioned. She probably knew more about all of them than their own wives, husbands or lovers, so I felt my question was valid. “Control.” She replied quickly. “They want to be in control.” “Don’t we all,” I chided thinking this response was hitting awfully close to home… “Don’t we all.” “You want some pie or something? Maybe some eggs? It’s coming on dawn in a few hours. You look like you could use one of our three egg omelets.” And suddenly she was back in character.

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“I’m just waking up so I can drive back to the motel and see how my kids are doing.” I hadn’t planned on going anywhere but here, but suddenly I felt a renewed sense of urgency about them as though being connected would renew me. Something I hadn’t felt in such a long time. “We’ve been out here for days already. They haven’t been able to spend too much time with us.” “Kids are resilient. That’s what I’ve learned. They just want to see you smile is all. Can’t learn about happiness less’n they’ve seen it. You know?” And I startled at her response, marveling at the way everyone here could read your mind. I must have been staring a little blankly because her next words helped shift the focus from me to the business at hand. “You can pay at the counter up front, sweetie. But take your time. I’m here ‘til 4.” And with that she turned to go and change someone else’s life with her steaming carafe of consciousness. As I drove in the darkness I thought about her simple words. Oacie and I, we had only seen happiness for a short time -- me less of it than her. I truly didn’t have a point of reference for it, only snippets of peace and comfort. I remembered the kindness of my father’s touch and the way Oacie always scooted over to give me most of the bed on the nights I crawled in under her covers for warmth and connection. Most of it though, was shrouded in obscurity and hunger. How is it that Oacie took strength with her to the chains of her circumstances, and I took catastrophe? I wrapped myself in the comfort of precious gems and square footage, manipulating others with looks shot from made up eyes and waxed brows. If I thought about the number of nights I spent laying flat on the floor, holding on to it like it was a saucer ready to launch into the sky, I would have to admit that all the things that I had amassed did nothing more than perpetuate my deceptions.

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Is that what the doctors were doing at the counter? Pretending that a stethoscope and prescription pad could keep the earth from spinning off its axis and hurtling us all into space? I hadn’t even asked the waitress her real name. Not sure she even wore a name tag. It didn’t matter to her who knew her, she knew who she was. And it was interesting that she was content to wander the aisles of the desperate, feeding them french-fries and taking their crumpled bills to stay alive, as she watched them escape the realm of renal failure and dissolving sutures. Was it important who we were? I mean did it make a difference to the rest of the world what we had, what we bought, and who we showed it to? Just a few days ago, Nell and Garner erased the memory of who I thought I was, and embraced me into their world of perpetual forgiveness. We frolicked at roadside diners and city parks, oblivious to report cards, soccer matches and 4 car garages. All that mattered was the moment. The moment; was that the answer? I have been so busy trying to use the moment as a bridge between then and where I thought I should be I only regarded it as a link. But I think it’s the only thing there is. Was that what Miss Ida was trying to say back at the hospital? It sounded like she had known every bit of the facts all along. But the only thing she really relies on is the ‘now’ and the only thing she is an expert with is the present. Wherever she is, she’s in the most important time of all. That is the only life she needs. That is the only life there is. Eventually I turned into the motel and stopped the car, realizing how really exhausted I was, but feeling a renewed sense of self. I walked over to the office to awaken the man with 9 fingers who had been watching my children. We walked through the lobby and slid open the door to his living quarters, wincing at the squeak that never seemed so noisy in the light of day. He knew I was anxious to see my kids so he didn’t stop for small talk or to fire up the coffee maker. He simply motioned to the room where they slept, put a hand on my shoulders and whispered, “Don’t wake ‘em ma’am. They’re

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sleeping so soundly. If you are troubled, keep it to yourself. They’re dreaming of paradise.” So I took the blanket he offered, reclined in the chair only a few feet from the sofa they shared and stared at their faces in wonder. “Your daughter, she’s quite a girl,” he whispered. “Been helping my wife all day with cooking, and cleaning, and right good at it, too. You raised her right, ma’am. She’s a fine girl.” “I have to say, I didn’t know she loved to do that. I’m sorry, did she mess anything up?” I inquired, allowing him to share whether or not I owed him for any broken glass, stained carpets or bad language. “No! Not at all. Said you taught her everything she knows – seemed so proud of it, too.” After I halted the tears that choked into my throat, I asked about Garner, hoping that a change of subject would keep me composed. “How ‘bout this little angel?” And I pointed to his wide open mouth, snores coming loudly with each breath. “Did he stay out of trouble, too?” And I saw his eyelids move as he enjoyed the dream before him. “Bout the sweetest boy I ever saw. Watched my little girl every time I had to make a call to one of the patrons here. Played games with her, helped her stand up since she’s learning to walk, and even made some tents out of my wife’s tablecloths so they could pretend they were camping.” Pointing to the other room where I knew his wife and toddler lay waiting for him to return, I froze with emotion. For a minute my heart squeezed into my chest so tightly I thought I’d keel over with nostalgia. I thought about the simple humility of my dad and his voracious love for his own daughters without anything to show for it but a broken heart. I could see that every breath taken by

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this kind man before me was for his little girl and knowing that Garner shared that tenderness filled me with satisfaction and pride. Was this man’s life a heaven? No. You could see they struggled to survive each month. But he wasn’t worried about that. He didn’t spend his days wondering why he didn’t have better luck, or nicer clothes or more money. He wasn’t concerned about what he looked like to others, or what cards he should have been dealt. He was simply in the moment; the sweet, fleeting, illuminated speck of time that holds the entire universe inside it. “Good night. Oh, and thank you.” I offered as he turned to close the door seeing that I was settled in. And it had been a very good night after all. *** It was 6:45 a.m. when my cell phone rang, making me jump and stirring the kids. Steve had called to tell me that Oacie was out of surgery, and recover, and was doing wonderfully. The bleed had been small, just as they believed, and she was already awake with no sign of brain damage or infection. “Can you come back, Ray? Or do the children need you?” He asked in a raspy whisper and I could hear how weary he was from a night on a metal bench. “They’re fine, Steve. They’re here in the chair with me; all of us sound asleep, until the phone rang.” I laughed because I knew he’d be surprised to hear that we’d spent the last few hours in a La-Z-Boy, piled on top of each other like puppies. They had crawled over to join me not long after I arrived and I was holding on to both of them. “I just have to freshen up a bit, and then I’ll be there as quickly as I can.” “You sound good, sweetie. I’m sorry it was too much for you to stay.” He offered with a sigh. “It’s going to be a couple of hours before we can see her so no rush.”

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“I want to be with you, Steve. I want to be there with you. Every moment is important.” And I realized I did feel great. “Is that Daddy? Can I talk?” Garner urged after stirring from the noise. He yawned big and long, and the old shirt he was wearing was faded and tattered, certainly a gift to a little boy who knew that getting ready for bed had to be a ritual and had to include changing clothes. “Steve, you got another second? Garner wants to say hello.” And with his quick yes, I handed the phone to my son, marveling at how his hair was standing absolutely on end, with no intention of falling down. “Daddy, I got to be the babysitter yesterday. I got to take care of Genny. She’s a good girl and Mr. Trace said I was a responsible young man. Daddy, can we stay here again today?” And I watched him nod several times as he listened to his Daddy say what must have been just the right thing. They talked like this, back and forth for almost three minutes before Garner asked, “Daddy? Can we have a new sister soon so I can play with her, too?” I wondered how Steve was handling that request, so I motioned to Garner to give me the phone. As he ignored me I saw a huge smile cross his face, then after a moment or two, he turned and gave me the receiver, and settled back against my shoulder. “Daddy said there are lots of angels to choose from, and that you guys will work out which one will come live with us.” He had said it matter-of-factly, as though a pact with his father meant I had absolutely no say in the outcome. “He did, did he?” And I ruffled his unruly mane and put the phone to my ear as he nodded in certainty. As I took it to my ear I asked, “Handing out angels are we?” “Hah! Is that what he said? I told him there are a lot of angles to be examined and we’d have to work it out.”

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“Guess we all hear what we want to, don’t we.” I answered. And I shook my head in wonder as Garner jumped out of my lap and scurried over to the door separating us from our innkeepers, rapping loudly and calling for them before I could pull him away. “Ray, there’s more.” And the adrenaline shot to my heart as his tone changed and my blood pressure halted. In my peace I had forgotten to panic. “The attorney and I have been talking for the last hour or so. He had me fax over the letter and he said if we can authenticate the handwriting, and the voice on the tape, there’s a good chance we can reopen Oacie’s case in the next few weeks. He couldn’t stop asking about how we found the letter. Isn’t that wonderful?” I jumped up from my chair with his words, grabbing the phone with both hands in case it slipped through my fingers, and then I twirled around like a little girl. I thought about my panic when I left the hospital, about the waitress and her words, about Trace and the harmony of his life. And I realized that healing wasn’t going to happen all at once, and that was okay. I had to stop worrying that if one watershed moment isn’t immediately followed by others, it isn’t an omen that enlightenment has ceased. I know now that light sometimes comes in spurts, but it comes. It always comes. “It’s more than that, Steve. It’s just as it should be.” I answered. And I lifted my sleeve to retrieve the waterfall of tears gushing down my cheeks, rubbing again and again as the sobs baptized my tired face. Just then Nell awakened and turned towards me, the sunlight illuminating her face and putting a sparkle in her eyes that shone like heaven. “Mommy, is everything alright?” She uttered through yawns and shivers. “Everything is fine sweetie. I’m on the phone with Daddy.”

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“Where is he? Why aren’t you two together? Why aren’t you at the prison visiting Auntie Oacie?” And I stopped short. I could hear Steve on the other end, asking if I was still there, but I couldn’t speak. Wondering how she knew about Oacie I asked, “Who told you that, sweetie?” “I hear things, ya know. I listen real good, too.” Repeating a statement she had uttered just a few days before, an eternity before, and had caused me to see her in a new light. “She’s your sister, right? Then she’s my Auntie.” And I curled my arms around her, leaning into the receiver to calm Steve who was still talking into the phone. “I’m here, honey. Sorry. Nell just woke up.” And I stroked her yellow hair as she nuzzled into my chest. “I’ll see you soon, my dear.” But I heard an echo as I uttered these words, because Steve and I had each said the same thing, at the exact same time.

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Chapter Fourteen – Reunion

OACIE Chains: They come in all shapes and sizes. Silver, shiny, dull or black, they are machined and fashioned into a rudimentary string of brutal icons, and they symbolize hierarchy and torture. They are meant for animals by design, for creatures whose strength exceeds those of their captors; the lack of an eternal soul preventing them from civilized thinking. But at their core they are cold, they are cruel, and they scare me. I know what it’s like to be afraid. I’ve known fear for a very long time and I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t like it, but when the adrenaline rises hot into every limb and the stinging tingle of terror turns everything crisp and certain, I simply switch into another mode, inhabiting a body of steel that is profoundly quiet, and alert. I’m sure my heart has grown two sizes larger over the years to accommodate my preparatory rituals and it beats so strangely some days I think my chest will burst. Like a foreordination, I have learned to weave these life saving characteristics into my daily routines. For instance, I never stretch for my food with an extended arm. Instead I move in closely and grab the tray with a taught wrist. I would be much too exposed if I expended all my leverage into that long, dangerous and lazy motion called ‘reaching.’ When I sleep, my back is against the wall, and I guard my feet obsessively to insure they are warm, and ready to run. Even in the shower I am holding my legs together tightly and stand somewhat hunched over. There’s nothing worse than a slippery surface if you have to act fast or keep a lonely, violent female on her side of the hot water spigot. Noises, I have learned are also clues, and odors carry with them the secrets to the future, confessing primal signals that cannot be cast aside or masked with slander and subterfuge. For instance I can feel meaningful vibrations when

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leaning against a cold, black wall and know instantly if they are waxing the floor of the main hall or if new inmate has just been locked away. What you may not consider is that I’ve honed these skills over decades. Or, even more accurately, feel they were my own long before I wore the chains of a prisoner behind bars. Locked to a strand of code, affixed there in permanence along with my other genes, they are as much a part of my DNA as green eyes and smooth skin. They have been mine since the beginning. But what was I before the beginning? From what part of everything and nothing did I begin? How is it that I was shaped and formed and placed into this time and space as a conscious being, trapped on the linear treadmill of existence to know what only I know? Omara Cecile Taylor – I am human, woman, and creature. I have no boundaries now. I have no edges holding me at bay. For I am free and I must now learn to understand that as well. Now is the time to celebrate purpose. It is time to become an apprentice to experience and see things with a new touch and a new awareness. I shall cup the supple textures of my acute senses between fingers that have learned only to repel consciousness; her cruel metronome of boredom knocking me nearly senseless, and I will replace it with the sweet song of impulse. Ah, I don’t know what I’m saying. I feel like a poet today. And who knows what a poet feels like except that everything seems to be swaying in the same motion. Branches are synchronized to the swelling of the clouds, which in turn tap the smallest butterfly on the shoulder reminding her to wind up nature’s Symphonia and begin the tranquil, familiar melody of life. Maybe there are words to describe these feeling, but I don’t think so. I don’t believe anyone should even try to write the words that God has already written upon all creatures. Ours is only to stand in awe and be grateful. And I am grateful because I have never felt this good before.

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“We’re almost there, Miss Taylor.” His voice cut through my daydream, and I see that the road has narrowed and digressed as we come upon the outskirts of town. “This where you grew up?” The chauffer asks, speaking again without reverence, awakening me from my enchanted delusion of uninterrupted consciousness. And catching a glimpse of his light blue eyes in his polished rear view mirror I simply nod my head, careful not to move away from the sunlight that is shining full and warm on my face. “Not much left around here, is there?” He continues to ask, not understanding that I have no desire to speak. “Must be a special place if we’re heading there in this limo, though. Wouldn’t you agree, ma’am?” He will keep asking and talking I assume so I stretch a bit and look at the old road out in front of us as I answer softly, “Wasn’t always special, but it is now.” And he nods to himself this time like he knows what it means when things change. “My people are from here, too.” He responds. “Left long before I was born I was told. Heard stories, though, about what happened when the mill closed.” “What parts you from?” I ask, purposely clipping the grammar to transform my question into our own mountain language. “Oh, it’s not far from here. My granddad used to farm up there on that craggy ridge, selling cabbage and Christmas trees to make a living. We attended church in a small town called Collier’s Mill, ‘ceptn there weren’t no education there. So, we went to school in Bergland, on a bus that took all of us kids at once – and I always sat next to the older girls.” I could see he was staring at me, even though I kept looking away. When I did meet his gaze he added shyly, “We didn’t have no one as pretty as you, though.”

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And as though experiencing an instant punishment for his forwardness, we hit a large pothole square and full. “Watch out, this road will eat yer car, boy.” I muse. It’s my turn to be candid so out of the blue I ask, “You ever know the Dawson’s from Sugar Creek? There was a boy, Joshua. We were friends long ago…” And what in the hell was I thinking, asking that? What if he said yes? The poetry was carrying me away. “No ma’am. That name don’t sound like one I know. Not at all. Who else he might know?” He politely adds so we can both close the gap by finding common people in our pasts. I respond quickly aware I will have to change the subject in case he wants to know more. “Not sure, sir. Just the only name I know that’s from around here. We left when I was very young.” And that part, at least is true. “I understand that for sure.” He said in agreement. “Broken people out here, ma’am. Folks scattered all over, tarnished, forgotten, and sad. None of ‘em even knows where they came from…the poverty done spread us all out without any bond. T’Shame. Ain’t it?” I answer soberly, counting in my head the multitudes of us that have vaporized, wondering where the rest of the lost souls might be at this moment. “It is. Guess someone, someday, needs to gather us all up and find out who we really are.” I should have asked the driver about his kin, too but it seemed too bold to do so. Maybe he’s a fallen star; maybe we all are. For the last 19 years I have only been thinking of myself when there are fallen stars all around me. But I was

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having a hard time being anything other than excited about the experience before me. I was caught off guard by nearly every passing tree. And it felt good. He is laughing quietly and I can tell that both of us are thinking how grand it would be if every one of these lost souls could be sent a ticket to a seat at the table of man, and we could all assemble in a large, flowered filled square to hug and connect and share fables and fact. You could heal my wounds, I could heal yours and we could all feel at home together. In fact that’s pretty much what Ray and Steve have done for me, picking up the pieces of my celestial waste and reassembling me into a whole person with nothing more than a touch, and the faith that everyone is a part of something. We had been driving for almost two hours before he had decided to talk to me. Our journey, beginning at the exit gates of another prison far away from here, gave me the time to remember I was lucky to have been transferred away from McCormick almost a year ago. Ray and Steve wanted me closer, and it made it easier for them to monitor the attorneys and the local people who had come out of nowhere to testify for me, and against Frank Scoggins, and about what should be set straight. The freedom had started last Wednesday, when the parole board finally granted me a second chance. I sat there before a group of 3 women and 2 men, who in spite of their foggy expressions seemed genuinely interested in my contrition. I had been coached thoroughly by my lawyer but I didn’t need anyone to help me tell the truth. I had assumed once that people could read my mind; I wouldn’t make that mistake again. The hall where we met was a large room just outside of the main reception area at the prison, accessed right from the lobby so that the Board could avoid the rest of the forgotten. We talked impersonally for about 20 minutes, getting to know each other before the real questions came out. And the first one was a doozy.

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“Miss Taylor, what guarantee do we have that you feel true remorse for the violent and premeditated crimes you committed in 1994? The court transcripts are devoid of any testimony from you. Once would think you approached the bench of justice proud of your transgressions. What have you to say at this time – not including the cruel situation of your youth and the certain devilish actions of the Sheriff – to convince us we should grant you your freedom?” It was a text book question but it brought back a flood of memories and even though I wanted to cry I held on tightly to the insides of my thumbs and spoke clearly. I remembered then to sit up especially straight and avoided the transcendent desire to first ask for a cigarette so I wouldn’t shake so badly. All the visions passed through me at the same time, and the one emotion, more clear than the others was the fact that when I smashed in Frank’s skull it wasn’t just me doing it. I had the strength of 100 and given the chance today I would still do it again. I thought long and hard about what they wanted to hear but most of all I thought about what I felt. No sense in starting out my new life with lies. Ray would give me a piece of her mind if this panel denied my request but I had to speak from my heart. “Ladies and Sirs, if that’s how I am supposed to address you, this is a question that I cannot answer the way you are expecting me to.” And I could see them shift with discomfort. “Remorse is a strong word because it means that you wish things had not been changed, that given the chance you would put things back in exactly same order that they were before the crime was committed. And if I were to say that was how I felt, it would be a lie, a blatant lie.” As I continued, a tremendous calm came over me. The words entered my mind with ease and I was filled with the wisdom of Miss Ida, and the courage of a thousand Oacie’s. “What hurts me are the things that no one is remorseful about. No one has said that they wished cancer hadn’t taken my mother when she was only 27, or sorry that my Papa died of a broken heart only a few years later. No one is sorry that

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the social workers and foster parents were cruel and selfish and our care was traded for liquor, and stolen goods.” “Miss Taylor, there is no pl…” “There is a place for this, begging your pardon once again. There is always a place for the truth and for accountability. That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? It’s just that if you are going to judge me by my past, then we have to decide if remorse is due in all things. If remorse is the key to freedom then every tear that fell, every scream that escaped, every prayer that was unanswered has to be accounted for. And if that is the case then yes, I feel a huge amount of sorrow for it all. If I could have stayed safe and loved, and kept my parents alive, I would give everything back. But that isn’t how life is. Life isn’t a series of pasts and futures. It is only now. This moment, this small flicker of awareness is all we have. And it’s the only thing I can comment on with conviction.” After seeing one of them smile and one of them shake her head I started to speak with a new resolve. “I, I don’t want to live in the past any longer. I wouldn’t even be here in front of you if that’s what I believed. I followed my heart, a heart that was lost and buried under cruelty and misguided assumptions, and I let it tell me to receive a stranger who came to see me one afternoon with a heart as big as the whole world. It told me to trust this man who was only there to help save his wife.” The one who I could see was on my side from the start spoke her question urgently, hoping they would restore the rest of the board to logic. “Is this ‘wife’ you’re speaking of Mrs. Messner?” “Yes. She is my little sister. And I found out, through many conversations with Mr. Messner, that she was in a prison too, right alongside me, trapped in the past and in chains that were no less forgiving than mine. You know, without each other there was no key, no ‘rehabilitation,’ as you put it. It was only together that we were able to rebuild our lives, and it helped me understand why a young,

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frightened and threatened 18 year old protected those she loved from a real and present danger, any way she knew how.” They were all silent now; no one cleared their throat, not one of them even made notations with their smelly, red markers. There was no sound at all. And I, well I was roaring like thunder and shaking the world in two. But then, I realized it was time for true silence. Whether they understood me or not was not for me to judge. Either they felt the light I was trying to share or they, too, were unable to see it. And that was not for me to worry about. We all sat there for several minutes, while the clock ticked impatiently, casting imaginary lots to see who would speak first. But wait, I was the story teller after all. Maybe, maybe there was one more thing to say… “I used to think what happened to me was because of darkness. That someone unhinged me from the safe place that all children deserve and tossed me across a vast space into a place without light or hope. But I recognize now that all things are already moving and just because I ended up somewhere else, didn’t mean other places hadn’t changed right along with me. Here’s what I know. Wherever it’s dark there is always someplace that is light. That’s just a fact. What you see before you is someone who knows that she is part of something bigger now. Someone who is happy to be alive, happy to have found kindness, and amazed that through the unselfish acts of a friend, and an angel by the name of Nancy, that I stand before you – the gatekeepers to my future – hoping you will see that I want life and light and freedom. I want more nows, and more today’s. That’s what I want and that’s the only thing I can tell you… All other things are as they should be.” Steve later told me it was one of the only times a parole board did not have to meet after the interview to pronounce a verdict. Although my release is connected with literally dozens of conditions, I have another chance to live a life in the light. And today is only the beginning.

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*** Before I know it, the limo is turning uphill and I can see the rooftop of the home I grew up in. Sad and whimpering with age and the weight of vegetation sewn around the perimeter like a green hemline, I could feel her anticipate my arrival. It was almost as though she tried to straighten up, straining every last nail to see me coming over the knoll. Oh, she was so sad, time taking all her strength and beauty as nature reclaimed was what left. But I saw more, I saw the house as it had been, proud and clean and immortal, like all souls. “So this is where the party is, eh? You must have some right crazy friends, Miss Taylor.” Again, his twangy voice brought me to the present. “You can just pull right into the drive if you’d prefer.” I directed. “The street is full of cars!” And it was, too! I knew the truck was Steve’s and the attorney had to be driving the gray sedan since his vanity plate read, “I OBJCT,” making me laugh as this was the first time I had actually seen the car. It welled up in me; the fact that all of this was a part of the creeping utopia of my freedom. Would I ever have the time to take it all in? Would they all understand if I just stayed here and wrote down all the endless details of one beautiful, perfect day and didn’t spoil it by jumping into their midst? I was frozen. Stuck and speechless, afraid it was a dream, not even knowing how and when to get out of the car. I had no muscle memory of the mundane. “Oacie! Oacie, over here!” Ray screamed as she ran over to the car, a lone balloon still in her hands and a perfect smile across her beautiful face. “Oacie! Get out of the car! You have to see it all!” As she opened the door for me, I looked down at my feet, crammed into the bejeweled flats Raynell had bought me to wear for this occasion. My ankles were white and skinny and nothing like the tanned, toned legs of my sister. And I was, for the first time, flustered.

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I straightened out the white capris that curled over my worn knees, and reached up to pull a lone bra strap into place beneath my sleeveless tunic. Ray had already opened the door so staying in was out of the question. “How the heck are you supposed to keep these things up?” I announced, thinking that bras were really the most amazing miracle of all. Underwire was my new best friend, and somewhere, hidden from view were the teal lace panties that kept the secret of my out of shape ass smartly in check. “God, sweetie. You look beautiful. I’m a perfect judge of size, aren’t I?” And Ray beamed like a designer just ready to have her line paraded down a Parisian catwalk, instead of adorning the emaciated body of an ex-con. She was kind enough to feign genuine admiration even though I had the scarf she had insisted I wear laying on the seat next to me because accessories were still just a bit foreign. “You don’t mind, do you Ray? I just can’t stand the feel of it around my neck…” And I said it boldy, before I saw the horror in her eyes as she apologized by saying, “Oh! Gosh, I forgot. I didn’t, I mean, nothing around your, gosh. Whatever you want is fine. Please, please. Come with me. They’re all here.” When I reached to put my hand in hers, I felt that same rush of strength as I had the first time she touched me, back at McCormick, two days before the accident. We had held each other many times since during our visitations. But this touch was special. “You’re going to have to tell me all your beauty secrets, you little brat. No one should have hands this soft.” And I squeezed her hand tight, just so she knew I was making fun and admiring her at the same time. “Wait until you try a pedicure. It’s heaven.” She said with a preening gesture. And we both laughed as I turned to wave goodbye to our Chauffer sitting quietly

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in the front seat, the air conditioning blowing at full force so he could enjoy the stay. Then Ray looked at me and then back at the driver, and quickly making a decision she motioned to him and mouthed the words, “Why don’t you come along?” When he recognized the message, he quickly turned off the car and grabbed his tie. What an idiot I was for not thinking to invite him myself. “Thank you, ma’am. I don’t want to intrude but that food smells right good.” “I’m Raynell Messner. I’m sure you’ve met my sister?” “Russell Lawrence, Miz Messner.” And he reached out cordially to shake Ray’s hand. As he looked over at me he just tipped a finger to his brow to calm the horror that crossed my face knowing I had not asked his name. He didn’t betray me, he simply said, “Yes, I have met Miss Taylor. We is right good friends now. Right good.” And another angel was born. Before I knew it I could see the one face I longed for more than any other. It was Miss Ida, walking towards me in her familiar and very slow pace. Her face was hot with tears, her limp more pronounced, and her face was shining and bright and true. I fell into her arms, holding her tightly and burying my face in her shoulder. I only had to lean over just a little to do it, since the ground where she had stopped was a bit higher than mine, most likely pushed up from an old root that had exploded out of the ground and cracked the sidewalk in two hoping one day to feel the arms of the reunited upon her wooden fingers. I didn’t even know what to say it was so glorious. “Miss Ida…” I started. Shushing me she simply said, “Now, now. There’s my bright star. Welcome home.” It was like that with everyone as I made my way around the house, stopping only once to brush the back of my hand against the crooked clothesline that was

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draped with a large banner heralding and welcoming my return. The metal was hot and rough from rust and the warm sunlight, and I reveled in the visions of Mama hanging my dresses on it, fluttering out into the wind to be kissed by nature’s terrestrial perfume. The table; oh, what a glorious table it was! Brimming with epicurean wonders both breaded and fried, I found my mouth begin to water in front of a heaping bowl of three bean salad, mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of greens and browns. I saw a platter with mashed potatoes stacked so high it threatened to topple over and spill the yellow, melted liquid nestled in its apex all over the lacy red tablecloth. There were cucumbers, watermelon baskets, and a bouquet of breadsticks that looked like a stand of wooden soldiers tied into a knot. Steaming and white, I saw the shrimp and grits arranged elegantly in a crystal compote, a verdant dusting of parsley accenting the pinkish curls of crustaceans that were proud to swim in the chewy porridge. As I looked over to the desserts I could see two children guarding the lemon pie, who upon seeing me approach, parted like felt curtains to showcase the fluffy meringue and hand-formed crust. “Tah, dah!” They rang, and I put my hands on my sides in amazement to let them know the surprise was a success. “How did you know I love lemons?” I asked, shaking my head back and forth with a mocking and robotic turn. That was how I met my Niece and Nephew for the first time, feeling them cling to me like sugared candy, and asking me millions of questions about Raynell, and their real Me maw, and if I had missed watching movies and walking in the snow. “I’ve been saving all those experiences so that I can share them with you.” I said quietly, and at once they reached over and hugged me, talking over the top of one another as we learned how to be friends. They chatted freely, and I couldn’t help but see familiarly in each of their movements, the sounds of their voices carrying me back to a time when conversations between sisters was the most comforting thing of all. They never

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seemed to mind me holding their hands as I turned them over again and again to examine the youthful splendor in their pink, dimpled skin. It seemed like everyone had come to the party. The attorney and his missus were sitting comfortably in two folding chairs; his wife turning out to be just as large as he was. If they had wanted to, they could have been stand-ins for Santa and Mrs. Claus their likeness and demeanors were so full of the magic that Christmas always delivers. He would poke me with his cane, stroke his long beard and from time to time take out bits of toys and trinkets from his pocket to dazzle the children with his vaudeville like-sleight of hand. Even the attorney’s office assistant attended, and the owner of the motel where Ray and Steve spent so much time that first week. One of the biggest surprises came in seeing the local social services worker who had helped us in finding all the old records of our foster homes. Turns out she is the kindest and prettiest woman I have ever known and one mega hugger. I was glad, really. I knew I didn’t have to worry about the orphans in her care. They would all be looked after and squeezed into happiness. None of them would end of up in old cars and found by Miss Ida, well not unless it was really necessary. Only the lucky ones are found by Miss Ida. As I watched them all I felt a prayer in my heart, singing out to a heaven I had cursed not long ago. It was the most bizarre and perfect afternoon of all. It had been Ray’s idea to meet at this house. She knew it was the place to start our new lives. We had to get permission from the county, since the structure had been marked for demolition. It just had to be here, because it was, after all the place where all the true miracles took place. It was the spot where God had brushed against me when he took Mama and Papa’s heart; it was also the spot where He had winked at Raynell one day to tell her that her mama was safe with him in heaven. And it was here that Nancy, dear Nancy had hidden the secret confessions and atoning documents that would bring me to this moment.

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“Oacie? Oac, honey? Oacie, sweetie, are you okay?” Jumping from the sound of Ray’s voice I could see that she had been trying to get my attention for awhile and was now seated next to me on the edge of the back fence that looked out over the mill site. Who knows how long I had been staring into space. “Sorry, I was, dreaming I guess.” And instead of plopping herself next to me, she bent over to stroke my hair, filling me with a tingle and making me lean my head towards her hands. “Oacie, honey. We have one more surprise for you. I hope you still have room for one more good thing today?” One more good thing? How could there be more? And then, as I looked up I saw her. It was Aleigh, standing right there in front of me, holding her hands nervously in front of her waist, her body turned slightly sideways as though she thought she might have to run if I thought the meeting wasn’t a good idea. Glancing quickly over to Ray, I could see she was panicked and nervous as well about the surprise. Even Steve was holding the kids in the distance to keep the space open for us to collide, metaphorically at least, just in case it was messy. Only Miss Ida stood up as Aleigh advanced towards me, putting her cane to her side and expecting me to look her way, which I did, for direction and permission. She simply winked once, put her hand on her heart and nodded for me to stand tall and brave. I couldn’t even feel my face or my feet or my mind for that matter. It was all just more than I could believe. The truth is Aleigh was tall, like me, and had long dark hair and green eyes. She was slender and graceful and had kind features. Her dress was simple, almost a hand-me-down but it was clean and colorful and it told me instantly that she was a woman full of joy and celebration. Her hands were well kept, her fingernails unpainted and I was sure I could see a bit of ink on the inside of her palm. It almost looked like she had written down my name. I was shut down with humility. This woman was perfect.

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The strangest part? She didn’t remind me of her mother, Nancy, at all. I would never have made the connection. But maybe this is what Nancy was underneath all the fetid poison that had twisted her beauty into knots of wrinkles and mismatched features as a punishment for her reckless and rebellious youth. They shared the same figure that much was true but I couldn’t believe the likeness she shared with me. It was almost like looking in a mirror. Older than me, by a dozen or more years, she still appeared young and tranquil. For all the time that Nancy lost in life by lying in the grave, she seemed to have given it all back to her daughter. I felt I was in a fairy tale. But fairy tales are real. Didn’t you know? Because just then, the sun shifted from behind the clouds, and shone on all of us like a golden spotlight, spilling bits of magic dust all over us and lighting up our eyes. It would only be there for a moment, and we knew it, because it was also sitting on the horizon. Its blissful rays were stopping to shine just long enough for us to make this moment our own. It was, I was sure, Mama winking at me from her celestial perch, showing me how much light she really had to give and for me to pass it on to others no matter how closely behind us the darkness follows. “I’m Oacie Taylor. It is a pleasure to meet you.” I almost whispered it, the moment was so sacred. “Aleigh, Aleigh McConnells. The pleasure is all mine.” When our hands met, I knew we didn’t have to speak about the past or the future. She was there to peer into my soul as much as I wanted to see into hers. We understood then that this was not a prelude to another meeting. I would not be seeing Legacie, or talking to her or even sharing with her who I was. That was not going to happen. And I knew it never would. And amazingly I was completely and utterly fine with that. This was a chance for two souls, who across the universe had been joined to encircle the life of a special miracle, and who were meeting today to simply brush against each other and make peace. We had each been players in God’s plan and it was because of us it that I had

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entered Aleigh’s life, that promise had entered Legacie’s, and peace had entered us both. “Thank you, Oacie. Thank you for…for sharing your light with me.” And I hugged her too, for a long, long time. I knew she wouldn’t stay and visit. I knew there were no tables for her to sit where she would feel at home. So when it seemed time for her to turn and leave, making the obvious excuses we all knew were appropriate, she walked out of the yard, around the corner of the house, and vanished forever. As I heard her car drive away I felt a small bit of panic. But not the bad panic. It was an urging. A nudge from something I couldn’t quite identify and it made me jump up quickly and crouch with determination. I could see Ray’s eyes following me so I just winked at her quickly to quell her panic as I leapt around the corner of the house, into the front door and up the stairs. I could hardly feel my fingers the importance of my journey was so palpable and with one, long motion I grabbed the door jamb to my bedroom, swinging my body inside like I had done a hundred times as a child, and landed squarely on the floor; right in front of the mirror that still lay on the floor concealing the secret tomb that was dearly, reverently, gently holding the photo of my mother. I reached in ceremoniously until I felt the edge of the cold box in my fingers and pulled it out in one, quick, motion. And without hesitation I pulled off the bent lid, moved aside the rest of the contents and carefully, deliberately lifted it out. I thought I would cry, that the tears would fill up my eyes and spill out until I couldn’t hold them in. But instead, I felt joy; pure, innocent, penetrating joy. I stared at the photo for a long, long time, immersed completely in the scene before me. I was able to feel her hands on mine, sense the weight of the Easter basket I carried, and I remember that my sock was twisted and I couldn’t stand the feel of the seam against my instep. How funny to recall that now, but I could even see on my face the half-smile that meant I was posing and not comfortable.

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However, that wasn’t the reason my gaze couldn’t pull away. What I could see most was her light. She glowed with it. It effused every curve of her face; pumped color into her cheeks, splayed out all around the yard and made even the grass look happier. It was a though she was the source of all light and all peace tucked into an Easter bonnet and white gloves. “Mama, oh mama. I have missed you!” And nothing else could come out because she wouldn’t have let me be sad another minute. Right there, and with the reverence of a child’s prayer, I decided it was time for her to leave her house. I couldn’t hide her light anymore. She may have lived here, but she belonged in the open. She belonged to everything that was bright, and shiny, and warm. And best of all she belonged to me. I thought back to the night we spent under the stars when I was a little girl, and the night the rule was made. And I realized Papa had kept his promise. I could stay as long as I wanted. I could be with them and all the other creatures of light. I could ‘shine’ as long as I wanted. I now know that the darkness will never be so empty, and the stars; well they have finally fallen into place.


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