Noise wasn't really allowed when I lived here, so the morning jumble of voices cascading through the hallway jars me from my fitful sleep. The happiness in their tones is even more of a contrast to my own experience. Good natured bickering over whose shoes are where and who spends more time getting ready livens up the morning. Tyler's boisterous voice carries throughout the house and I couldn't love him more for being the one to finally free them from Clay. It was too late for me, but that little boy saved the others when I failed, and all without ever knowing his own impact.
The voice grows louder as the distance closes, his footsteps barely muffled by the hallway carpet, "Madalyn! Wake up. Mom says we can eat pancakes. It is Sunday. We eat pancakes on Sunday. Then we go to church. Mom says you can sit with us and we will scooch close. I do not really like scooching close, but mom says I will be fine."
"You can come in Ty." I offer through the door. Tentatively poking his head inside, he takes in the messy state of my suitcase and toiletries bag with a scowl, "I was just about to call my little monkey. Wanna talk to her?"
"My name is Tyler. Mom named me Tyler." He hates nicknames and reminds me of the idiosyncrasy with a frown, "Why do you have a monkey? I do not think that is legal unless you have a special license. Do you have a special license?"
"No, Tyler, not a real monkey, Riley. I'm calling Riley." How the heck am I going to raise this boy? How am I going to raise any of them? Some days keeping Riley and Jameson alive and functional seems to daunting a task. Now my mother expects me to add five more mouths to the mix. I wonder if they know about me, why I left. I wonder if they remember or if mom convinced them those memories were just their overactive imaginations at work after watching a scary film. I wonder if they think I'm sick or demon possessed, or evil.
"She is a girl. Riley is a human girl, not a monkey. You should call her Riley, not monkey. Hurry. We get to have pancakes. Pancakes on Sunday. Tomorrow is school. School on Mondays. Just toast with peanut butter."
Blinking back memories, I smile at the routine that comforts him, "What do we eat on Tuesday?"
"Oatmeal. It is very good for your heart." The words are flat, factual, rehearsed. "But, today is pancakes. Get dressed. No pajamas to church. Underwear, pants, shirt, shoes. Socks too. Do not forget socks. You will get blisters and you will whine. We do not whine in church."
"I can't make any guarantees about the whining, but I'll be down in a few minutes."
I make quick work of dressing in church appropriate garb as I chat with my daughter, sneaking a few moments in the bathroom before meeting everyone else at the table. Breakfast is lively raucous that carries into cleanup and the van. There isn't enough room for everyone in Mom's rusted Aerostar and frankly, I thought it would have died years ago, so my desire to ride in it is somewhere behind visiting the dentist. Logan quickly calls dibs on riding with me, offering directions to a location I could never forget.
We're barely out of the driveway when he cuts the radio and fills the silence with questions, "What did she tell you?"
"Who?" I doubt playing dumb with the fifteen-year-old is going to work when it doesn't even work on Riley, but I have to try.
His arms cross over his chest, deep green eyes rolling to mine, "I'm not stupid. I know something's wrong. She grounded me for three months after she found out I Facebooked you. She wouldn't just call you."
Good to know that she didn't hide her hatred. She blames me for everything bad that ever happened in her life, so why is she entrusting her children to me? "I think you should talk to her. It's not mine to tell."
"So it's bad." His jaw tenses, body rigid in that seat. He's grown, but he still looks like the five-year-old who found me and cried into my teddy bear the night I gave up. "I figured she was lying."
The little boy who used to sneak into my room and give me his bear when he heard me crying haunted my dreams, showed up in my notebook doodles, he was in the words on every page of my journals, because he was my only real regret. Alec worshipped his father and therefore had little to do with me, the twins were three and much more interested in eating dirt and watching Bob the Builder, and Tyler was still a few weeks away from his debut. Logan was my shadow though, inquisitive, intuitive, lonely. "I'm sorry. About this, about everything."
"I know." He squirms in his seat, memories playing out on his face, that same hatred I feel for my past flashing in his eyes when he considers his future, "So what's she want from you?"
"I think you should ask her." I reply, desperately trying not to cause more drama for him or myself.
"Right, because she'll tell me." He snaps bitterly. One look at my face and his voice softens, compassion and regret filling the space, "I was just a kid. I didn't know how to help."
The clouded road wavers in front of me, shimmying in the morning light. My mother will attribute any tardiness to my poor driving skills or poor sense of direction or some other sort of personal shortcoming, so I pull off into the ill kept grass. "It was never your fault, Logan. None of it was your fault. You know that, right?"
"I do now." He shrugs, "So, the pastor's in the middle of this series. Mom uses it as an opportunity to scare us out of hell. He's going over all these little sins we commit and how they screw up our lives. Ironic, huh?
"Should be an interesting morning." There's nothing more to say. This was our moment. The past six months of small talk and getting to know you calls and texts all led to this exchange and now we can move on. Now we can get to know the people we are now without him focusing on that blood stained seventeen-year-old disappearing into a blur of red and white lights, without me remembering the small little boy with crystal tears. We can be ourselves, whoever we are now.
The service isn't filled with total nonsense, but it still doesn't remind me of the church that healed all the wounds that this one made. Those old undertones still leak into the sermon. Pastor Graham preaches about the call of the Lord to be obedient to his will and the will of those he has put in places of authority. He talks about the sins of disobedience. That call to obedience was drilled into me growing up. It could excuse any punishment, cover any shame, any horror could be done in the name of the Lord. Every appalling memory in my mind starts with some indiscretion that demanded correction, swift and often brutal. By the time the closing prayer slips from Graham's lips, I'm nauseas and begging for escape and edging through the flood of people, hoping no one recognizes me.
"Oh. My. Dear. Goodness. Madalyn Collins! I can't even believe my eyes!" A voice that tormented me through school harpoons me with a forced drawl, leaving me paralyzed and at the mercy of someone who doesn't know the definition of the word.
"Heather. Hi." What else do you say to your worst teen enemy? We hated each other and she added another level to my hell every chance she got. I've always wondered if she knows the part she played in my scars, wondered if she'd even care.
Her bottle blonde hair glows yellow in the florescent light bathing the sanctuary a Barbie doll smile plastered on a perfectly painted face, "My goodness. It's been forever! How have you been? Your Momma just never talks about you."
Big surprise there. The crazy psycho home to visit and help out while her momma's recovering from surgery isn't exactly the tale of the prodigal son.
She takes my silence as an invitation to continue her monologue, those shrewd green eyes settling on my ring finger, "So you're married. I always thought you and Jameson Parker would end up together, but I suppose all those ladies have nothin to worry bout with this tidbit. He's quite the eligible bachelor since he moved back. All the girls just swoon. Well, except those of us married ladies."
Knowing her plan doesn't keep me from falling into her trap, "Jameson moved back?"
That sadistic grin puckers her pink lips, "Moved back to help his Daddy when his Momma fell ill."
"Oh, that's unfortunate." I never liked his mother much, but I wouldn't wish illness on anyone, especially someone who only wanted the best for her child. I could never fault her for loving her child, it was more than my mother had done for me and something I've admired in my own way as I've raised Riley.
"It's MS. Poor thing, not much to be done for it." She shrugs as though she's talking about someone losing a button on a coat, not about someone losing their quality of life. "How've you been? I always wondered after you…moved."
"Well, I kept my baby, though I doubt my momma mentioned that she sent me away because I was knocked up." Nasty little twit. I should tell her I enjoy one night stands and drinking too much on Thursday nights. Being happy seems more vindictive though. "Best thing that ever happened to me though because without that trial I wouldn't have met my amazing husband."
Her lashes flutter life a butterfly caught in a windstorm, "Well, the Lord does work in mysterious ways, doesn't he?"
Where is my family and how is it that my prayer time Barbie can still make me seething mad with a singular words smothered in that fake southern charm? Some parts of the south may be charming, but Flatwater is not one of those places. Flatwater is more the type to be the film site of Deliverance 2. There's a certain oppression that still hangs in the air…or maybe it's just me. "Sure does. Good to see you."
"We'll be prayin for your momma tomorrow." That dazzling sweet southern drawl gains an octave of exaggerated concern. "Those of us on the prayer chain have a schedule."
I'm going to need a prayer chain to keep from decking her if another passive aggressive word leaks from that dripping tap of hers. I wasn't the praying type before, but I used to pray horrible things would happen to this girl and it seems that those old habits could easily resurface.
"Maddie, hey, Mom says we're gonna be late." Suddenly Logan's arm's looped in mine and he's pulling me toward freedom, "Bye, Heather."
A final glance back reveals a quick look akin to that of a perturbed cod fish, "I still hate her guts."