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A Dangerous Healing

By Freda Buchner


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Copyright 2001 Freda Buchner

Chapter One


     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.  Right? 


            Yeah, right.  And that crow circling the field is really a dove.


Five 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. 


Anna 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.


As 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 starving children.


Did this place ever feel like home? she wondered. 


     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 little ways. 


     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.


“Damn!” 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 quivered.


     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. . . .”


“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 plane yourself!”


     “Bullshit!  There’s 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 from swaying.


     “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!


“Look, 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

frightened, 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.”


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.  “Go away.”


     “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. . . . “


     ”I won’t.”


     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 had.