Cattle-filled ranches mingled with neat, even rows of wheat, cotton, and corn. The flat plains were occasionally broken up by small towns with their one-street downtowns. There were no signs that Amara was nearing her destination, just an endless stretch of black tar.
Ba-dup. Ba-dup. Ba-dup.
The tires played a steady beat as they rolled across the road, and her head began to nod from the monotonous rhythm. She turned up the radio. As much as she wanted to stop and take a nap or even better, turn around and head home, she knew that she couldn't. She had to be in St. Louis by nightfall, otherwise Jewels would never forgive her.
They had been best friends since meeting in Miss Tipton's kindergarten class twenty years ago, sharing every milestone since. Losing their first teeth. Starting their first summer lemonade stand. First crushes. First school dance. First boyfriend. First kisses. They had gone to the same schools from elementary to college—this was the first year they had spent apart. After graduating, Amara had stayed in Dallas, working for the Museum of Art, while Jewels had moved to St. Louis to teach in an inner city school. Life had seemed to crowd out the endless amount of time they used to have for each other, and the year saw daily phone calls turn into weekly, and then monthly. Lately the friendship had been kept alive through short e-mails.
And now here Amara was, cruising through the Midwest to get to St. Louis for Jewel's bridesmaids' weekend. The wedding was months away, but Jewels planned this weekend for all the girls to be introduced and help her with the final bits of planning. Amara wished the year had given her as much joy as it had obviously bestowed upon her friend.
Crossing into Missouri brought a slight change of scenery. There, on both sides of the highway, were a series of little lakes. The waters were deep sapphire blue, the light from the sun creating a thick golden wave across the surface that were broken by tree branches. Tons and tons of branches. They were brown, dead, and lifeless. Stretching beyond the water's plane as if to escape and recapture the life they must have had. Amara had never seen anything like it. Some horrible storm must have flooded these little forests. But the lifeless trees remained as a testimony of what used to be there. Something told her this place was once beautiful, and she wondered why God would allow it to have been damaged beyond repair. What must have been a series of lush, beautiful green trees no longer existed. It was ruined.
In awe of the strange landscape, she pulled over to the side of the road and stepped out of the car. Standing along the bank of the flooded woods, Amara was struck by how silent it was. There was no rustle of the wind running its hands through few limp leaves that remained, no birds' chirps claiming this place as home. Not even the whisper of a car approaching.
She tried to imagine what disaster could have caused this. Even though they stood in an abundance of water, the trees looked as if they had barely survived a forest fire, the bark dried out and thirsty. None of them were uprooted or bore broken limbs, so she doubted that this could have been the cause of a tornado. Could hurricanes form this far in-land? Some colossal storm must have caused this ruined landscape, but Amara could think of no plausible explanation.
Standing on this bank was like standing in front of a mirror. A gust of wind suddenly blew past her, and Amara shivered. Quickly she got back into her car and continued driving.
"You're here!" Amara had barely set a foot out of the vehicle when she was crushed in Jewels arms. Jewels had been busty since puberty, and her double-Ds pressed against Amara's slighter frame. "Have you lost weight?"
Amara worked on forming the smile she had been practicing throughout the drive as the girls separated and Jewels began her inspection. Amara hoped her lopsided grin didn't look as fake as it felt. Jewels had always been the mother hen of the duo, and this was her weekend. Amara didn't want her worrying.
"Maybe you've just grown fatter," Amara quipped.
Jewels laughter bubbled out, like champagne from a bottle, and she crushed Amara into yet another hug. "It's so good to see you!"
"Bring that girl up to me, so I can see her!" The girls separated and Amara caught sight of Aunt Daisy standing on the porch of her bed and breakfast.
The Daisy Polk Inn had been the girls' summer escape during middle school and high school. For Jewels it had always been a second home, and Aunt Daisy was like a second mother to her. When they were much younger, Jewels often claimed that Daisy was her real mother—which could very well have been believable. They both shared the same pale skin, cheeks easily flushed by the summer heat. The same rich red hair, thick and silky, which today they both had pulled back in a tight French braid. And the same green eyes that constantly seemed to twinkle with joy and mischief.
From the first time Amara joined Jewels to spend the summer with Aunt Daisy, she was embraced as part of the family. Soon The Daisy Polk Inn became a second home for Amara, too. Summer life at the inn was more structured than life back home. The girls helped Aunt Daisy cook, clean, and serve the steady flow of guest during the week. And on Sundays, they were expected to be dressed their best and in the front foyer by 9 a.m. for church. Amara was not sure she would have ever learned about God if she had never come here. She also would have never gleaned her love of history, art, and nature that led her to her career at the museum. So much of who she was as a person was tied into Aunty Daisy and this inn.
But Amara hadn't been to the inn since her last year of high school, and as she and Jewels made their way up the gravel and to the 1940s-style house, she regretted her extended absence. The inn was still the same, painted sunflower yellow with white trimming. The wooden steps inviting her to the open porch, where guests often sat to sip tea and pass time in leisure. And pass the hefty mahogany door with ornate carvings of daisies around it frame, Amara was sure she'd find the inside equally unchanged. The foyer, the dining room, the sitting room—all full of period style furniture, yellow and white striped wallpaper on the walls, art-deco carpets covering the wooden floors. The wooden banister leading up to the six bedrooms—all named after flowers—with their four poster beds covered in hand-sewn quilts. The splattered on the wallpaper—daisies, roses, chrysanthemums or some other flower to correspond with each room's name—in bathrooms that hosted claw-foot tubs and pedestal sinks, most of them with the original fixtures.
Even Aunt Daisy remained the same, and as Amara fell into her outstretched arms, she breathed in the familiar scents of cinnamon and nutmeg with the slightest hint of peppermint. It was the same scent Aunt Daisy had had for as far back as Amara could remember.
This place had stood still in time, and somehow Amara knew that if she had spent the last four summers here, in this whimsical and charming home away from home, she too would have never changed.
"Sweetie, did you lose some weight?" Aunt Daisy's eyes clouded with concern as she held Amara at arm's length, giving her an inspection that was much less perfunctory than the one Jewels had given at the car.
"That's what I said!" For a second, Amara expected to get grilled and quizzed on her eating habits. But instead Jewels gave a flippant shrug and linked arms with her. "We'll just have to fatten you up while you're here! Let's go inside; the other girls are already here."
Amara let out a soft sigh of relief, and let Jewels drag her inside and toward the back patio. She could hear laughter, and the soft chink of ice against what she knew to be Aunt Daisy's heirloom crystal tumblers. She wasn't surprised to see the four other bridesmaids drinking Aunt Daisy's famous freshly-squeezed lemonade.
As Amara, Jewels and Aunt Daisy joined the other girls at the round patio tables on the weathered deck, Amara noticed the floor boards looked greyer, more worn. And she found some comfort in knowing that not everything about this place was untouched.
But even as she sank into the bright yellow daisy-shaped seat cushion one of the rickety wrought-iron chairs, knew she couldn't ward off questions forever. Especially since Aunt Daisy kept a watchful on her throughout the rest of the afternoon.
It was her final night in St. Louis and Amara found herself awake in the middle of the night, her whole body drenched in sweat. At first she was unsure of her surroundings, and her fear gripped her heart. Then she remembered—the bed and breakfast, Jewels' weekend. Slowly her heart stopped racing.
She lay on the wet sheets for a while, hoping now her dreams would not follow her out of the world of sleep. It was the same dream she had been having for months now. The same dream that often chased away sleep altogether. This was the first time she was having the dream this weekend.
Over the last two days, the girls had gone shopping for their bridesmaids dresses, gotten massages, manicures and pedicures. They helped Jewels put together and mail out the last of the 'Save the Date' announcements. At night, they reverted back to silly schoolgirls. Aunt Daisy pulled out many of the games Jewels and Amara had collected over the summers in St. Louis—Mall Madness, Girl Talk: Truth or Dare, Twister, Trivial Pursuit, Cranium—and it was like being a young girl again. Amara wasn't sure if it was the non-stop busyness, the presence of friends, or simply the joy of being back at The Daisy Polk Inn. But this was the first weekend she was beginning to get a glimpse and hope for freedom. She had refused to let her sorrows haunt her, focusing instead on the mirth and whimsicalness of this place, hoping to save some of it and take it home with her.
But now the dream had broken into her weekend of peace, and as Amara got out of bed she could still see the dark, dreary, endless hallways that she could never find her way out of. She could still hear that soft, heart-breaking cry of a baby that she could never find and save.
Standing in front of the white pedestal sink in the bathroom, Amara wished to see a younger version of herself look back at her. A version that that was happier, a version that had yet to be scarred by her choices. She felt like she needed to apologize.
"I know you had high hopes for yourself," she whispered. "I wish, I wish…" Unable to find the words, Amara stopped. Who was she kidding? There was no way to turn back the hands of time. And there was no excuse for what she done.
She took the stair gingerly, hoping the creaking wouldn't wake anyone. She almost forgot to skip the seventh step—it was the loudest, and she and Jewels had been caught many times trying to sneak goodies from the kitchen in the past because they forgot.
"I knew you'd make your way down here one of these nights."
Amara was startled by the soft voice coming from the kitchen, peeking through the doorway she saw Aunt Daisy standing with her back to Amara, her focus on the yellow kettle on the stove. As soon as the kettle began to whistle, Aunt Daisy poured the piping liquid into the two mugs that lay waiting on the kitchen island.
Amara didn't even ask how Aunt Daisy knew she'd be coming. If she was honest with herself, she had been hoping to find her waiting. It had always been that way in the past. Any time Amara hadn't been able to sleep, she would creep down the stairs and find Aunty Daisy waiting—with cookies and milk, home-made marshmallows, or hot tea—to chase away the nightmares and ease away her worries. Aunty Daisy had been waiting the summer Amara was scared the arrival of her baby brother would make her parents love her less. Aunt Daisy had been waiting the summer Amara needed to be reassured that she could easily make the high school track team. Aunt Daisy had been waiting the summer Amara was dealing with her parents' nasty divorce. And Aunty Daisy was waiting now.
Aunt Daisy led Amara to a little nook just off the kitchen. She gestured for Amara to sit in one of the wingback chairs with floral upholstery, while she sat in the other. The table between them was missing the antique chess set normally displayed there. It was the first time Amara could ever remember seeing the table top, which had a dove carved in its center. It was also the first time Amara had ever known Aunty Daisy to let drinks of any kind near this table, and she felt like she was defiling something sacred by placing her mug on it. Amara shifted in her seat and wondered where the chess set had gone.
"You know I've been watching you all weekend," Aunt Daisy began. She paused, giving Amara a chance to speak, but Amara stayed silent. "I've noticed that you've grown thinner, your smile doesn't reach your eyes, your laughter sounds hallow."
Amara pursed her lips. As much as she wanted to let it all out, somehow she felt speaking her treachery out loud would completely condemn her.
"I've also noticed that you're no longer wearing your purity ring." Aunt Daisy made a slight nod toward Amara's bare right hand. She had given Amara and Jewels the same white gold rings the summer of their 16th year. It had been the girls' promise to her, to each other, and to God that they wouldn't have sex before marriage. Amara had taken that vow seriously—that had also been the year her parents were splitting up, and she the heartache she felt made her think she'd never want to be in a serious relationship, much less one that would led to sex. The small solitaire—a sapphire for Amara, an emerald for Jewels—that graced it was to represent what precious gems the girls, Aunt Daisy had said, to her and to God.
"Baby, I hope that's not what's got you down," Aunt Daisy said, taking Amara's hands in her own. "While I'm sad about what you've given up, nothing is beyond God's grace."
Amara looked into Aunt Daisy's eyes, wondering if she should tell her everything. How she had felt she was a precious gem to Jim, and hadn't thought to take the ring off after she and Jim first slept together. In fact, she didn't take it off until months later, when sex was all Jim seemed to care about. She took off the ring after she began to finally feel the shame of what they were doing, but Jim ignored her desires to stop, eventually breaking up with her for flat out refusing. She just didn't feel like a precious gem anymore.
She wondered if she should tell her what happened afterwards. How she found out she was pregnant. That she tried to tell Jim, but he didn't care. So she drove over 100 miles to find a clinic where she was sure no one would know her, no one would recognize her. And then she sat in a hard metal chair in that cold waiting room, and when her name was called walked down a long dark hallway that led into an exam room. How she walked out a few hours later without the worries of the utter disappointment she'd see on her friends', her parents', Jewel's, or Aunt Daisy's faces if they had seen her growing stomach. But instead, she walked out of that clinic feeling even less of a gem, and daily her emptiness mocked her. And every night in her dreams, she still saw that hallway, and she heard her baby crying out to her. How even if Aunt Daisy still deemed her valuable, she was so far from ever again being a precious gem to God.
"There's nothing?" Amara asked, letting out a sob that racked her slender frame. "There's really nothing that is beyond His grace?"
Aunt Daisy stood and came to kneel before Amara. Stroking her fingers through Amara's thick, black hair, she whispered in her ear, "I promise. There's nothing. What's more important is that you want His forgiveness. That you want to come home."
Coming home, Amara thought, sounded good. Being at the inn this weekend had been like living in a moment from the past. She had been grasping at each moment, hoping she could gain back even a sliver of the joy and innocence that had been lost. She hoped what Aunt Daisy said was true. She hadn't allowed herself to hope as much before, and even now she was hesitant to believe. But she was so tired. Tired of the sleepless nights. Tired of being suffocated by the anger, the shame, the guilt.
Amara broke down, crying without abandoned, unconcerned if any of the girls would hear here. And as she began to confess all, she let the love and forgiveness she felt in Aunt Daisy's touch wash over her.
On the way back to Texas, Amara passed the series of lakes again. Nothing was changed about them—the dead tree branches still stuck out from beneath the depths of water—but again, she stopped to stand at the banks and get a closer look. This time, however, Amara saw a sense of beauty in these ruined forests. The silence was no longer eerie and discomforting, but calming. How could something ruined exude such magnificence and peace?
She thought of the verses Aunt Daisy had shown her in the inn's age-worn Bible before she left this morning: Isaiah 6:5-7. As Aunty Daisy read, Amara had pictured Isaiah, standing before the Most High God, certain that he was ruined for setting eyes on such glory. Aunt Daisy had always described God as omnipotent, omnipresent, omni-everything—and yet here was Isaiah, face to face with Him.
"From that moment, he was ruined," Aunt Daisy said. "Ruined for this world, ruined to no longer be a part of the norm, but to stand out and to speak for God. In a way, we all are ruined when we meet God.
"Isaiah was made worthy when an angel touched a piece coal against his lips," Aunt Daisy continued. "In that moment, Isaiah's sin was atoned for."
Amara hadn't really understood why Aunty Daisy had shown her those verses. She was just glad to know that Aunt Daisy still loved her. Once the other girls had left, it had given Amara the confidence to confess everything to Jewels, who crushed her into a warm embrace and chastised Amara for not sharing sooner.
"God is so much greater than any of our mistakes," Jewels said while the girls cried together. "He sees beyond all that. I see beyond all that."
Now, staring into the water, seeing her reflection in the murk, stray leaves and drowned bugs running through it, she could still hear Aunt Daisy's parting whisper in her ear: "Nothing. Nothing can separate you from God's love."
Amara bent and let her fingers graze the surface of the grimy pond before her. Then bringing her fingers to her mouth, she moved them across in the motion of a cross. Some of the water seeped through her slightly parted lips, and while it tasted stale and felt gritty, she felt as if she had just been purified.
Head lifted, and arms stretched to the heavens, Amara began to shout. "I want to be drowned, Lord! No longer in guilt and shame. But in the grace and peace of God." She repeated this over and over, her voice beginning to crack, both from dryness and the overwhelming emotion.
When she could shout no more, she made her way back to the car, casting a final glance at the waters.