A Dangerous Healing
By Freda Buchner
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Copyright 2001 Freda Buchner
With the dawn of the new day, Anna felt ready to face her demons.
Well, almost. She
sat inside the car and gripped the steering wheel while slowly reviewing
her plans. First thing she
had to do was gather the courage to leave the car.
Then, she would approach the house, knock on the door, and when
it was answered, all she had to do was say hello and “why didn’t you
call?” and “How could you?!” and then she could leave.
No more feeling guilty or hashing over past mistakes.
Yeah, right. And that crow circling the field is really a dove.
minutes had passed since she turned off the ignition. Without the aid of the heater, the early morning sun did
little to chase away her chills. “Coward,”
she whispered. But, she
knew she either got this ordeal over with, or she gave in completely to
her weaknesses and left.
Face the demons, she reminded herself.
With a determined jerk, she opened the door and stepped outside.
The breeze barely disturbed the smooth lines of her plain blue
skirt. She brushed a hand
over her blond hair which she wore in a single braid that reached below
her shoulders. With an
almost wistful look at the car, she quietly closed the door.
had imagined this moment a hundred times in the sleepless hours before
she made the decision to come here.
Nothing good was going to come of this visit.
She knew that. And
there was a good chance she would walk away even more depressed than she
felt right now. But what
the hell. She had to at least try.
But maybe, just maybe, she could finally put her past to rest,
and that would make this all worthwhile.
she slowly put one foot in front of the other, she glanced around the
yard. Everything seemed so
familiar yet smaller than she remembered, and older, like a tired mother
drooping in the sun. But
the sun couldn’t brighten the shadows cast by scraggly trees and even
for an early southern autumn the yard looked bleak.
Weeds claimed the ground once filled with a vegetable garden.
Across the rest of the yard, grass grew as thin and unhealthy as
this place ever feel like home?
Anna took another hesitant step forward, then she stopped.
Her stomach flipped. You
don’t have to do this.
If she left now, no one could blame her.
Not if they knew the truth.
But no one did. Or at least, no one who cared enough to speak on her behalf.
The past drew her back just as she had always know it would.
But then, the past had never really left her.
It haunted her dreams and interfered with her life in a dozen
With a resigned sigh, she approached the porch. It had once been white but was now only dulled, aged wood. The second step creaked, just like she remembered. Anna’s lips twitched into a half smile. Some things never changed. She knocked on the door and waited. Maybe she would get lucky and the knock would go unanswered. But she also knew she would then have to find the courage to come back another time. And then she would worry that her mother was sick. Anna had learned form an old friend that her mother was rarely seen in town anymore. She could have died inside that house and no one would think to check on her. Anna didn’t even know if her mother had any friends. Well, someone had to deliver groceries if Ellie didn’t go to town and buy them.
Anna glanced around the driveway but couldn’t tell if there
were any new tire tracts or not. There
might be a car parked in the barn, but the door was shut and she
didn’t want to walk over and peek in a window.
She knocked again. And waited.
she said in a hushed voice. She
turned the knob. It
wasn’t locked. “Just
great. I could get shot doing this.”
She slowly opened the door.
Holding her breath, she leaned forward ever so slightly and
peered inside. “Hello?
It’s just me.”
That was stupid. Ellie wouldn’t even be able to recognize her own
daughter’s voice. “It’s
Anna.” Her voice
The cavity of the house was dark except for the slivers of light cast by covered windows. Shiny particles of dust floated in the narrow beams. As her vision adjusted, she could make out dim shapes. Memories swarmed her mind, each battling for attention. She knew that far corner. The odd bands of light were from the stairway. Many nights as a little girl she had crouched at the top listening to angry voices. Rarely had this house been as silent as it was now.
Anna didn’t want to face the memories, but she was worried
about her mother. She
either picked up the pieces of her shattered courage and went inside to
check on her, or she closed the door and ran away like the scared little
girl she used to be.
“That might not be such a bad thing,” she whispered, trying
to lighten her mood with humor. It failed miserably and she blinked away a tear instead.
She tried to see farther into the shadows.
She knew this house too well, knew all the best places where a
child might hide until safety, or its illusion, reigned.
She knew the places outside, too: the clump of bushes where a
thin boy could squeeze through and not be seen, which boards inside the
barn could be moved so that two children might huddle in darkened
corners. The small cave
across the field and into the woods had been her brother’s favorite
refuge. The two of them
used to play for hours there, free and safe and happy.
This house seemed so empty to her now.
So silent and so dead.
But then she heard the soft rustle of cloth and knew her mother
had entered the room. Anna’s
stomach did another nervous flip and she felt the sudden urge to throw
up, a disgusting response to stress she thought she had outgrown.
Before Anna could think of any words to say, her mother’s voice
shot out of the gloom. “What
are you doing? I didn’t
invite you in?”
Anna jerked and darted a quick glance over her shoulder where the
safety of the car sat like a beacon of light.
Then, she squared her shoulders and swallowed against the rising
pressure in her throat. She absolutely did not want to face this.
But that was her mother.
The scent of alcohol drifted along with the hazy mist of
cigarette smoke. A thin
figure moved farther into the room, outlined by the dim light filtering
in through the windows. “I
heard you were back. What
do you want with me?”
“I–“ Anna cleared her throat.
“I thought I should. . . .”
what? Come see for yourself
the suffering of those you left behind?”
Anna clenched her fist. The
nausea vanished. “I
didn’t want to leave! You
know damn well I had no choice and you practically shoved me on the
always a choice. You made yours. Now live with it and keep away from here.”
“For God’s sake, Mamma–“
”Don’t call me that! It’s
Ellie Jordan to you. I quit
being your mother twelve years ago.”
Anna shook her head and gaped at her mother.
“You really believe that?
You quit long before that, Mother dearest.
You quit being a decent parent the day you married that piece of
garbage named Leroy Jordan.” The
nausea returned with a sickening wave and she clutched the door to keep
“Don’t you mention his name to me, Anna!”
”Oh, Mother, please!” I’ve
worked so hard not to hate you. Please
don’t make it impossible.
“You don’t have no business coming home and acting all high
and mighty, Dr. Capron.” Ellie
spat the words.
Anna turned her face away and sighed.
Of course her mother wouldn’t be proud.
The years she had lived away should have allowed her to grow
immune to the havoc that voice could create.
But she was not immune and that infuriated her!
I’m sorry I bothered you. It
was an obvious mistake. I
just wanted to make sure you’re all right.”
“Well take a real good look then leave.”
Ellie moved closer and a beam of broken sunlight fell upon her.
Anna blinked. Her mother stood before her, a stranger.
She was too thin and frail.
Her dress, a worn and shapeless thing, accented her age and
thinness. Strands of
gray-streaked blonde hair drooped from a bun, falling like strings down
her back. The skin under
her eyes was puffy and dark. But
in her mother’s eyes, Anna saw reflections of herself.
She saw a woman alone and
but too stubborn to let the feelings show, determined at any cost to
keep the shield of her pride.
“Well,” Ellie asked, “do you like what you see?”
Her thin hand flicked at her hair and her gaze briefly twitched
away. “I know how I look
but what you don’t know is how hard it was for me without Leroy.
I had to support me and Bobby and all I knew how to do was to
scrub other people’s floors. It
doesn’t pay near what doctoring pays.
Oh, Mamma, I’m so sorry.
I sear I didn’t want this to happen.
“I didn’t want you to suffer.
You never once asked me to stay and I thought it would be better
for everyone if I left.”
“Well it wasn’t! Bobby cried every night.
What was I supposed to tell that boy that he could understand?
You broke his heart, Anna.”
gasped and shook her head. “No!
I didn’t mean to, Mamma. Oh,
God.” She held her hand
over her mouth to contain a sob. “Why
wouldn’t you let me talk to him on the phone when I called?”
“Because of what you did!” Ellie spat.
“And then you went off and left us.
These good, Christian folks wanted somebody to pay for the crime,
and since you ran off, they took it out on me and your brother, that
poor, innocent boy!”
She clenched her hands tighter and barely felt the nails digging
into her palms. “How?
What did they do to him?”
Ellie shrugged and raised her chin.
“Called him names and the kids threw rocks.
I’ve been an outcast, but that ain’t the worst of it.
You’ll see for yourself soon enough.”
Ellie lowered herself into a chair.
Her eyelids sagged. “I
hate going to town.”
Anna stepped closer to her mother and almost gave in to the
impulse to touch her shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me about Bobby?”
Ellie glared at her. “You
were in school. What would
you have done even if I had told you?
There wasn’t no good reason to tell you and I was so sick from
it, all I did was stay in my room for weeks.
And, no I didn’t stay drunk so don’t even say it.
You had your own life and weren’t no part of mine.”
“But I wanted to be! I
called until your phone was disconnected, and then I wrote letters which
you never bothered answering. It
wasn’t my fault that I had to leave home.
You know that. But
Bobby died, Momma! He died
and you didn’t even tell me!” Anna
wiped a hand over her forehead and blinked several times.
“God, how could you have been so cruel?”
“If I’d told you when he first got sick, you would’ve run
back here and I really thought he was going to get better.
He was always so healthy. But
he didn’t. Then, after he died, it didn’t seem to be worth it.
Poor white trash like us can’t commit a crime and expect to
walk away free. Not in this
town. If you’d a come
back here, there would have been hell to pay.”
She shrugged. “And
there’ll be hell to pay now.”
Anna shook her head. “No,
it’s been too long. Why
would anyone even care?”
“Well they do. The Harrison’s bought you girl.
And people resent that fact, though they would never dare say it
to his face. Old Doc
Harrison sent you to college. I
never could have afforded to. I
know what the arrangements were. Now
Alton can deal with you because I sure don’t need no more problems.
All you’ve got to do is give Mercywood Hospital five years of
cheap labor then you can run back to your fancy home up north.”
“I don’t have a home there,” Anna said.
“I thought maybe I could make this town my home.
Like it used to be.”
Ellie leaned forward in her chair.
“Well, things ain’t gonna be the way you want them to.
Not in this town. People
remember what you done, and what facts they don’t know, the lies have
filled in. They believe in an eye for and eye. You’ll find trouble here.
Mark my words, girl. So,
you should leave.” Ellie
slumped back, closed her
eyes, and waved her hand in dismissal.
“But–“ Why bother? It
was obvious her mother didn’t want her here.
There was nothing she could say that would break down the walls
of the past which separated them.
She lifted her chin. “I’m
going. Not back up north,
because I do have my five years of work to do, but I promise not to
bother you.” Her voice
softened. “If you ever
need anything. . . . “
Anna turned and left. Despite
the anger and the sorrow and the guilt raging inside of her, she managed
to close the door without slamming it.
Her lips trembled as she got in the car.
Anna leaned her head back, closed her eyes, and took several
slow, deep breaths. Gradually,
the racing of her heart settled and the nausea in her stomach turned
into a dull, steady burn.
She had only been sixteen years old when she left, still naive enough to believe that a mother couldn’t hate her child. She had convinced herself that her mother was only sick with grief over her second husband’s death and the horrible circumstances that surrounded it. Ellie would realize eventually that Anna hadn’t meant for any of it to happen. So, in the meantime, she tried to fit in with the new home Dr. Harrison had sent her to. But if was as if she had been cut off from her past, her family. Things changed. People were born. Others died. None of it belonged to her. She had been alone, a frightened girl living in a bubble of middle class wealth–-a borrowed world.
So much of her life had been a lie.
As Anna drove home, she blinked furiously against the gathering
tears. Crying was a luxury
she had given up years ago.
Bobby. Being back in
that house brought the memories of her brother gushing forward from the
well where she had so desperately tried to bury them.
Bobby was dead. His death had been a blow she had never expected and one with
which she had never fully dealt. Healthy
young men did not die of pneumonia. Yet that was exactly what Alton Harrison said happened to
Bobby, the boy who had been so physically strong, yet so intellectually
afflicted. Alton had
sounded so cold when she spoke to him over the phone several months
after her brother’s funeral. “Don’t
worry over the whys of it, Anna. We
did everything we could to save him.
I am sorry for you loss, but it is time to move on with life. In
another year, you’ll be ready to come back.
I have great hopes for your career at my hospital.
Don’t dwell on the past.”
Anna wanted to ask him how she could not dwell on the past when
it was like a great black hole that existed at the heart of her.
Her father was dead. Bobby
was dead. Leroy, her step-father was dead but that didn’t matter
because she had hated him. Her
mother was all the family she had left and Ellie couldn’t stand the
sight of her. Anna was not
a machine without emotions and having to face what was left of her past
was not something she could turn from and forget.
But life would go on. She
was strong. She had to be. Tomorrow
the true test would begin. Dr.
Alton Harrison, son of the man who had put her on that plane for
Michigan all those years ago, expected her at his office at eight. She hadn’t seen him since.
He had been in his late teens with a tall, lean build.
His haughty, aristocratic face had leered at her with cold eyes.
She had learned from him the absolute dislike one person can have
for another and how quickly a feeling of danger can come from an area
that had seemed without threat. But
he had not touched her–-except with his gaze.
He had stared at her too small dress, bare legs and worn shoes
and found her contemptible. His
words were still so fresh in her memory.
“You can’t let the brat get away with this, Father.
She has got to learn that crimes are punished, if not by man,
then by God. Don’t let
her forget that.”
And, he would be impressed to learn, the impoverished brat never