"Stan! Stan, over here!"
The Atlanta airport was enormous, but its baggage claim was less so. Most people passing through were doing that—passing through. Usually Atlanta wasn't a destination. It had been a long time since I'd navigated its labyrinth of concourses and shuttles. I ended up at the long stretch of shiny metal belts with my mother waving at me from amidst the chaos, dressed in white capris and a floral button-down, the sort of thing she'd wear to church.
When I approached, my mother enveloped me in a firm hug. She didn't look any different than I remembered, but I wasn't sure if that was due to her never changing or my own faulty memory. I'd gotten my red hair from her, but her hair was going gray, forcing her to dye it a more unnatural color. She kept it short and permed, and because she never went anywhere without make-up, her eyes and lip were lined to perfection.
"Oh Lord, you look like a wild man," she said, reaching up to touch my bearded cheek. "Don't young men shave anymore?"
"Nice to see you, too, Mom," I replied with a sigh.
She squeezed my arm and smiled. "Oh sweetheart, I'm so glad you're here. I'm just saying… you could have shaved, that's all."
I decided not to fight her on it, and we went looking for my flight's baggage claim. As we stood there waiting, Mom filled me in on everything that had happened in my absence—what high school friends of mine were now married, what the ladies in church were selling, local news about my hometown that I hadn't much cared about when I lived there, let alone now. But I didn't mind, because I hadn't seen her in so long, and if she was talking about someone else, she wasn't criticizing me.
"How's that memoir of yours coming, by the way?" she asked as I hauled my luggage off the belt.
"It's almost finished."
"Everyone in church will want a copy."
"You told people in church?"
"Well, of course. If my son's going to be a published author, I have to share that with people."
"Mom, the people in church will not like this memoir."
"Why? What's wrong with it?"
"I talk about marrying a man, for one."
"Oh, everyone knows you're gay. I hope you don't go into much detail about it. Do you?"
"Where's the car?" I asked as we stepped outside, hoping to abandon this topic.
"Long ways from here, that's for sure." She paused, giving me the stink eye. "Is the beard to attract men?"
"What are you even talking about?"
"I've never seen you bearded before."
"I've always had some form of shag."
"Not this much. You look like one of those Arabs."
Please shoot me. Why did I think this was a good idea? "This is not to attract men, no. It's because it's December and really cold in Chicago. I prefer my face not freeze."
"Well, that's fine, but I think you look more handsome without the beard, dear. You've got a good chin and jaw. There's no reason to cover it up."
The walk to the car was bordering painful, but she dropped the subject of the beard and moved onto topics that weren't about me. Driving out, she cursed other drivers in her non-cursy way, muttering "Gosh darn it all!" when someone cut her off. It was almost charming.
It was a two-hour drive from the airport, and my mother filled it all with chatter. Some of it I cared about, some of it I didn't. She didn't ask much about what was going on with me, even though she hadn't seen me in years and rarely spoke to me on the phone. I had to resist the urge to goof off on my cell, because I knew the stink my mother would raise about it. You kids and your gadgets, she'd say, ignoring the fact that I was almost thirty and not really a "kid" anymore.
Somehow we got onto the topic of dating. I wouldn't have brought it up if she hadn't first, but when she started to imply that there were some girls at church I'd like—oh God please no—I said, "I'm actually already dating someone."
"What? Who?" she demanded.
"It's only been a few dates."
"Who?" she asked again breathlessly, as if holding out some small hope that person would have a female name.
"Someone named Jeremy."
"Oh." She deflated.
"He got back from the Army for Christmas." I figured my mother would like that detail, because she was big on patriotism. "His family is from Tennessee."
"That's nice," she said in that way that implied I don't care.
I shouldn't have really expected anything different. I dropped the subject and let her move onto something else. If my mother had met Jeremy without knowing he was gay, she probably would have liked him—initially, at least. He did in fact look like a typical Army guy, with a crew cut and square features. I hadn't expected much from him on our first date, which had been no more than a "thank you" for letting Abby and I use his SUV to drive to South Dakota. His brother Mason was already dating Abby, so I'd had to suffer Mason's company more than I would have liked. Mason was a nice guy, but he was a total jock and therefore nothing like me at all. He treated Abby well, which was all I cared about. Yet Jeremy proved to be awkward and dorky despite his appearance, and his family was eerily similar to mine—Southern, traditional, evangelical, and very hesitant to accept his "lifestyle", as they called it. Mason, at least, was very cool about it, and I envied their fraternal relationship.
Jeremy was not yet a replacement for Craig, who I still called and texted on a regular basis, but with some time, I could see some kind of future there. I was moving painfully slow; Jeremy and I had not so much as kissed, despite going on three dates. I was scared of dating, but so was Jeremy, being only recently out. We were willing to work on it.
"I'm going to stop at the grocery store before we head home," Mom told me. "Gotta get some milk."
I was tempted to stay in the car, but I knew my mother would make a big deal out of it—you haven't seen me for years and now you want to hide from me in the car? I am your mother!—so I followed her into the grocery store. The place hadn't changed since I was a teenager, except now the produce aisle had tile floors that made all the grocery carts sound like trains clacking around. My mother went in for milk, but instead started looking at the assortment of fruit, weighing the pro's and con's of buying grapes over apples, asking me rhetorical questions that I never answered.
"Stanley Fairchild?" came a flabbergasted exclamation beside me. I turned and found myself facing down an older and hairier Ronny Farrough, a football player in high school who may have shoved me in the hallways once or twice. He wasn't one of my main tormentors, but he had no problem laughing when someone slapped the books out of my arms or greeted me with an effeminate "Hello, Mrs. Fairchild," every day in homeroom.
"Wow, it's been a while, hasn't it?" Ronny said with a grin. He wore a camouflage jacket and an Atlanta Braves baseball cap, so at least his sense of fashion hadn't changed in ten years. "Whatever happened to you? You weren't at the reunion."
I didn't tell him that I'd rather have my nails removed with pliers than attend my ten-year high school reunion. Instead, I gave him a forced smile and replied, "I live in Chicago now."
"City boy, huh? Can't say I'm surprised. Hello, Mrs. Fairchild."
For a second I thought he was talking to me, but he was in fact addressing my mother.
"Hello, Ronny," my mother said, as if she saw him all the time. She probably did. Our home town was pretty small, and I didn't imagine Ronny had ever left. "Stan's here for an early Christmas. I couldn't convince him to stay for the whole holiday. Flights can be so expensive, you know. Stan, Ronny got married a few years ago to Kathryn Trout. You remember her?"
Of course I did. There were only eight-four people in our graduating class. I couldn't recall Kathryn ever being mean to me, but she clearly had bad taste in men.
"And you have a little boy now, don't you?"
"Yes, ma'am. He's been nothing but trouble, but I love him."
Mom made that maternal "aww" face common whenever children were mentioned. My mom and Ronny talking about his son for a minute, and Mom kept looking at me, as if trying to say, See? Ronny's straight and he's so happy with a wife and children. Or maybe I was only interpreting it that way. I was so paranoid about my mother's acceptance that I took any ambiguous gesture from her as criticism.
"You married, Stan?" Ronny asked me, then instantly flushed with embarrassment. If he hadn't known I was gay in high school, he surely knew it now. My mother had made sure the whole town knew.
"I was, actually," I replied. "But my husband died a few years ago."
"I'm sorry," Ronny choked out, then quickly changed the subject.
I had always wanted Ronny to tell me sorry, but not for this. When he finally excused himself and continued shopping, I told my mother, "He bullied me in high school, and now he acts like we're all cool?"
"Oh, Stan," my mother sighed. "You know how teenagers are. Let's keep the past in the past."
For a second I was ready to walk out. There were no cabs to call, no easy way to get back to the airport and fly the fuck home. I felt prepared to find a way, but I took a deep breath and tried to remember how I'd dealt with this sort of thing in high school.
Oh right. I hadn't dealt with it. Instead I'd hated myself and grew depressed. It had taken years with Henry to erase much of that damage, and he wasn't here anymore to make it better. It was up to me to deal with this. Like an adult.
"Mom," I said firmly, "I was suicidal in high school. I'm sure if I had killed myself, you'd be saying the past is in the past."
"Stanley!" my mother hissed in reprimand. "Don't get smart with me."
"So don't minimize what happened to me." I took a deep breath to calm myself. "I will be waiting for you in the car."
Without waiting for her reply, I made my exit.
The plantation house looked as it did in the brochure my mother gave me. For a second it seemed as if we'd traveled back in time, especially when my aunt emerged from the house in a blue gingham gown, complete with hoop skirt and bonnet. Judging by all the cars in the gravel parking lot, tours were still ongoing.
When I climbed out of the car, Aunt Mary Anne ran to me with a squeal, stretching out her pudgy arms and then enveloping me in them. Despite our differences, I'd always felt most welcome with Aunt Mary Anne and Uncle Wade. She would at least show interest in my life and listen to me when I spoke, which is why I'd spent so much time here as a child.
"Stanley, Stanley, Stanley," my aunt exclaimed, grasping my biceps and holding me at an arm's length. "Look at you! Ain't you handsome? Why don't you all come on inside then? We're gonna put somethin' fried and buttered in that gut of yours."
"You look great, Aunt Mary Anne."
"Oh, this?" She gestured to her 19th century antebellum-style dress. "Can you believe I made this myself? The skirt at least. I got some help from the ladies at church. I think I might be a true blue Southern belle, what you think?"
"You're gonna have to start churning your own butter."
Aunt Mary Anne giggled before ushering me and my mother toward the house. Part of it was partitioned off for visitors to look through while Aunt Mary Anne and Uncle Wade lived in the other half. It required turning an old parlor into their kitchen, since they had turned the old kitchen into part of the museum after renovating it to look as it had before electricity and gas stoves. Uncle Wade was inside reading a paper; he stood and gave me a firm hug when I arrived, but he didn't say much. He'd never been a talker.
My mother and my aunt fluttered around the kitchen, gabbing away in their thick Georgian drawls. I accepted a glass of iced tea and watched my aunt pull her phone from her purse and tap at it. There was something odd about watching a woman in a hoop skirt fiddle with 21st century technology.
After I'd finished my iced tea, my aunt insisted on showing me around. "So much has changed in the years you been gone," she said. She and my uncle had collected more artifacts and bought up some of the acreage they'd lost to time. They had weddings here, she said, and they were planning on putting in a new building for a small bed-and-breakfast.
"We considered using the cabins for that," she told me. "But they're from the original plantation, so we wanted to keep them accurate."
Right. Because no one wanting a romantic vacation paid money to sleep in a slave cabin.
After a few hours of talking and touring, I asked if I could walk the grounds myself. It was December, but the winters here were always mild enough that I needed only a sweater to stay comfortable. My aunt insisted I be back by five-thirty, because she was planning to cook a big meal to celebrate my arrival.
I headed down a long, narrow gravel path until I reached my first destination: the slave cabins. There were only two that remained, and my aunt had kept them somewhat dilapidated to maintain historical accuracy. There was a plaque out front detailing the horrors of slavery, but outside of two blurry black-and-white photos of slaves and three paragraphs, there wasn't much explanation. The low porch creaked under my feet, and the door whined when I pushed it open. Inside it was dark and empty, nothing more than naked floorboards and two windows without any glass. I didn't sense any spiritual activity here. Perhaps the sadness I felt was just my knowledge of history.
I left the cabins behind, traipsing across the mowed lawn to the trees beyond. There used to be huge cotton fields that stretched for miles, but by now it was mostly forested. No one walking through here would ever guess what had happened a hundred and sixty years prior. Years of suffering, reclaimed by nature and replaced by bird song.
The woods hadn't changed much since my adventures as a child, so I followed a deer trail to the place I remembered, a small clearing by a stream. I wondered if escaping slaves had once traveled through it in hopes of masking their scent from the hounds.
I sank down onto the edge of the stream and watched the water trickle past. I wasn't sure how long I sat there, but when I finally looked up, I saw two figures standing on the other side of the stream, watching me. They weren't solid, and to an inexperienced eye, they might have seemed like tricks of light. But I know who and what they were, and my chest clenched. After all these years, they were still here, lost and terrified.
"Hello," I said gently. They jolted and faded, but I followed up with, "Don't leave. It's okay. I can help you."
They stilled—two women. I don't know how I knew that. As a child, I remembered their long skirts and dark faces, even though they were little more than glimmers. Sometimes your mind knew more than you could see.
"I can help you get to Heaven," I said. I didn't normally call it Heaven, but I assumed these women were Christian and religious, as so many were back then. "I can help reunite you with your children and everyone you've ever loved. You just have to take my hand."
They didn't move, still cautious.
"I bet you don't trust me," I continued. "God knows you have every right not to. But I am here to help."
One began to drift forward, and then the other. They had to be either very brave or very stupid to be listening to me, especially since the man who had probably killed them was my ancestor.
"I'm so sorry," I forced out, feeling my throat close up. "I'm sorry for what was done to you. I just want to make it as right as I can."
They reached the edge of the stream, and I stretched my hand out further. Together the two women floated over the creek, and I felt their cool fingers graze mine. All three of us dropped through the darkness until we landed in the brink, where the spirits solidified further. Both were women, one in her late teens, another in her early forties. They resembled one another, but the teenager was fairer-skinned. I wondered, fleetingly, if she might be some long-lost relative of mine.
I stepped aside and gestured toward the light in the distance. Both women spared me one look before sliding toward it, their hands clasped together.
When I woke, I was laid out on the grass, the sun glittering through the naked branches of trees above me.
I closed my eyes again and smiled.
A/N: Thank you to all my readers and reviewers. :) I really appreciate your support. If you wish to support me financially in any way, please visit my author profile for more info on purchasing books. Also know that I have a webcomic on Smackjeeves called Rainbow Mansion, and my tumblr is wandaluvstacos. I love getting comments/questions! Please note that I can't respond to anonymous reviews on this chapter, but I still appreciate receiving them.
Anyway, I hope ya'll didn't forget about Jeremy and the date that was promised to him for letting Stan and Abby use his car. XD
To eve: I like bittersweet endings, too. Or better yet, I like hopeful endings, that don't wrap up every loose thread but make a promise of brighter horizons. Thanks for reading!
To Avelynn: Yeah, I would have like Stan and Craig to be a thing, but I couldn't see a realistic way of making it happen. So for now it's that quintessential summer romance. :) And hey, even if you're bad at writing right now, you can't get better without practice. Thank God I didn't have the internet in middle school. Ya'll woulda been subjected to the writing ability of a 12-year-old me, lol. For now I'm taking a posting hiatus in hopes I can remember what it's like to enjoy writing, but we'll see what happens.
I actually made up the name "Tima", though if that's your name, I guess it's not as unique as I thought, lol. All the shifter names are meant to be sort of English-sounding without being typical English names. But now you're Tima and that character from Transparent is Maura, so I'm waiting now to find a character named Farel, ha.
To LOK: Thanks!