Near Rockwood, Tennessee
How had this happened? Whose trip was this anyway? Max found himself fighting annoyment as he was packed into the back seat of the Buick like another piece of luggage, and belted securely next to Lily, who to top things off, looked at him with bewilderment before asking, “Do I know you?” His headache dulled by drugs on top of the commandeering of his plan almost got control of his tongue to snap at her, but one look at her searching eyes grabbed hold at the last second.
“Let me introduce myself. I am Max and I believe you are Lily.”
“We are going to the ocean. Do I know these people?”
Initially, he thought she was asking him about the highjack twosome in the front seat, but felt her put something into his hand. It was the family photograph that had brought them to this place. He took it and mulled it over. Much as he wanted to be offended and just plain mad, he realized if Sophia had not come up with a workable solution that would keep them traveling east, Andrew, Millie and Peggy too, would have arrived this morning to take them home. With careful attention, he told Lily once more who each person was.
Sophia looked back over her shoulder, adjusting her seatbelt, “You all ready to go?” Then over at Amanda, who in Sophia’s presence found some of her misplaced manners.
“Yes, m’am.” Amanda replied softly.
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!” Max muttered hanging on to a smidgen of his anger.
“I beg your pardon!” Sophia said, frowning back at him with her spinster schoolteacher look.
“Just drive,” Max said, “And be sure and stay on the roads Andrew marked.”
“Aye, Aye, Sir.” Sophia said with a mock salute, “Let’s take this boatload to Knoxville and points beyond.”
Max fully intended to keep his eyes open all the way to Knoxville if only to prove he could have done it. Before they were out of Crossville on Highway 70, Lily had conked out and her head lay naturally against his shoulder. Within minutes he also was sleeping soundly, his head nestled against the top of hers. ‘Darn drugs’ was his last conscious thought as he slipped into sleep.
Sophia turned her full attention to the highway, aware that Amanda cast occasional furtive glances her way. At times it seemed she was ready to speak, reconsidered and turned her gaze away. The silence was not uncomfortable, but electric.
For the last two days Amanda and Lily had been houseguests in the Winchester home. With Morris at Austin Peay in Clarksville and Samantha at David Lipscomb in Nashville, Elliot and Sophia had more room for guests. Their younger daughter, Amy, was a sophomore in high school and of the three Winchester children the most hospitable, so rarely were there any compelling reasons to turn away strangers. Sophia found it a natural outpouring of her volunteer chaplaincy at the hospital and Elliot, God bless him, agreed. Amy enjoyed having company and for the most part, her older children ignored it, unless of course, it caused them any inconvenience. They were good kids, but it was Amy who had a heart of compassion.
During their stay, Sophia recognized Amanda was despairing over something. She’d spent some time discussing it with Millie, Max’s daughter-in-law and her major liaison with the Carnes family. Whoa! That was a whole other issue. In fact she’d snapped some photos with her virtually unused digital camera and e-mailed them to Millie.
Amanda had no intention of giving up the truth easily, but Sophia sensed with her mother’s heart that out there somewhere there was a family heartsick with loss. Amanda vacillated from sweet, almost sugary, to hard cold and way older than her years. She also managed to hit a bunch of points in between. She seemed to have a genuine affection for Lily, who still called her Greta. It was hard to get a grip on how she felt about Max. One thing Sophia was pretty sure of was that Amanda’s family was not in Knoxville. She glanced over at her, finding Amanda staring back.
“What?” Amanda asked in that haughty teenage tone that summoned Sophia’s baser instincts, which included shaking the fire out of her. Instead she responded in as level a tone as she could manage, her eyes back on the road.
“Please do not use that tone with me or for that matter with anyone. It’s disrespectful.”
Amanda let out an intake of air, but did not speak. She averted her eyes out the passenger side window and crossed her arms tightly across her chest. Sophia sighed softly and checked her backseat passengers. The rock wall Amanda had constructed had very few toe grips and would have challenged the most skillful psychological rock climber. Recalling the past couple of days Sophia thought the time she spent playing basketball one on one with Amy in the driveway was the only time Sophia believed, with any conviction, she’d had seen the real Amanda.
They would be in Knoxville soon. Sophia had no intention of leaving her at a bus stop or anywhere else, but she also had no plan as to how to prevent it, short of turning her over to juvenile authorities, which she also had no intention of doing until she had more information. With all her thoughts in disarray, lunch seemed the only viable solution to delay some serious decision-making. Less to engage conversation and more to obtain information, she spoke to Amanda.
“We ought to stop for lunch pretty soon. I’m sure getting hungry and I expect everyone is.”
“I’m fine,” mumbled Amanda, her face averted from Sophia. Sophia restrained herself again, unsure how long she would be able to keep doing that; she instead picked up the map on the console and shoved it without even a side glance into Amanda’s lap.
“Stopping points so far have been circled. Find Crossville and tell me what the next town is after. She squinted at the sign on the side of the road, Rockwood. It’s time you stopped sulking and started participating in this little trip.”
“Why, I, I’ve been helping, with Ms. Lily and the cell phone and—uh,” Amanda protested sitting up straight for the first time that morning, “I was helping a lot until you came along and took over . . .Bitch!”
Sophia didn’t think; she reacted. No way was she going to put up with trash talk. She whipped the Buick off the road onto a patch of green just off the shoulder. She set the car in park and turned off the key. Max and Lily started to stir in the back seat.
Sophia usually maintained a fairly even keel, she’d never been easily riled, but she had been raised to speak to adults, indeed, to all people with respect. She’d demanded it of her own children. She wasn’t about to let this vagabond, no matter how needy she was, call her names.
For an instant Amanda and she locked eyes before Amanda jerked on the door handle, found it still locked and let out a yelp of undecipherable venom as she tried to find the release. As soon as the lock snapped open, she yanked the handle again and bolted from the car into the brush and trees along side the road. A few vehicles slowed as they approached the scene but then continued on their way. Sophia felt molded to the front seat, staring at the open door and empty seat that marked Amanda’s departure. She knew she should move, go after the girl, but she also knew that she had to get her emotions under control before she would be of any good to either of them.
A tap on her shoulder reminded her she was not alone in the car. Turning, she saw Max’s face, as he leaned forward.
“I’ll go get her. You stay here with Lily.”
“Oh, Max, I don’t know. You shouldn’t be out…”
“Hush!” he ordered, “I may be old, but it’s you who shouldn’t be leaving this car until you calm down.”
“Oh, Max, I am sorry. I really blew it. That child is hurting, but I . . .”
“I heard her, Sophia. She had no business talking to you like that.”
Sophia looked at the heavy foliage into which Amanda had disappeared, “How will you find her?”
He smiled, “Don’t you worry about that. I grew up in the country and was a foot soldier. I’ll find her.”
He got out of the car, closed the doors, stretched to loosen the kinks and started off, only to return a moment or two later to tap on the window. Sophia rolled the window down. He leaned in and smiled at her.
“Try praying the Lord’s Prayer.” Her quizzical look prompted him to explain, “Something my mother taught me to control my hot headedness. Works pretty good most of the time.”
Sophia smiled, “Thanks.”
The search took Max less than ten minutes, even moving as slowly as he did with his bum hip. He found Amanda seated on a rock next to a natural spring that emerged from a rock near where she sat. The sun was bearing down so he was thankful she’d at least chosen a shady spot to light. She sat with her knees tucked under her chin, turned at the sound of his movement through the brush. So much for stealth, he thought, and looked away as if she could drive him back by ignoring his arrival. He also noticed she’d been crying and suspected she didn’t want that vulnerability revealed.
“Go away,” she commanded as he settled down on the rock near her but not too near.
“I will not. You disrupted my nap, young lady!”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“Wasn’t your fault? Hmmm?”
“She is so all fired bossy! She even bosses you and Ms. Lily. You don’t like it either.”
Galloping goose feet! The child had him there. Max wasn’t a man who liked being bossed around. It had been the source of many a bloodied nose in his youth.
“Sophia is a strong willed woman, isn’t she,” he assented in part to Amanda’s observations, “ decisive actions, strong opinions, and down right annoying at times to folks like me and you who have a lot of the same characteristics. I’ve certainly been called stubborn and a few other terms I wouldn’t care to repeat. You certainly can get your back set, too. Why I’ve only known you, what is it now, about five days? And darn if you haven’t made me want to bring you down a notch or two.”
Amanda started to protest, when Max held up his hand. She dropped into silence and began watching the water again.
“Truth is, Amanda, if Sophia wasn’t driving, we wouldn’t be back on the road at all. Lily’s and my trip to the ocean would become a family tale, more of a joke than anything else. And you, young lady, wouldn’t be meeting up with your family in Knoxville. Seems we both need to examine our attitudes and show a little gratitude to Sophia and her family for sharing her with us.”
Amanda didn’t speak. If his words penetrated, there was no visible sign. Still, her silence and the quietness of the place had a peaceful quality that lulled Max into his own thoughts.
Max didn’t know if it were the drugs or just the jumble of events of the past few days, but in the hospital he had started trying to put together some of the absent pieces of his and Lily’s life together. He’d been dreaming more about the past, about his brother Ed, about Greta, and about the secrets Lily and he had kept from one another. Sitting on the bank of a nameless spring in Tennessee let him indulge in those recollections.
He sensed it was too late to clear those lapses of openness with Lily, but he wanted to understand them, to get a handle on them, and to find a resolution that would finally lay them to rest. Lily and Greta’s correspondence had been difficult to read and digest because he recognized his own lack of discernment about the whole matter. He had judged Greta without ever knowing the full truth. Perhaps Lily had tried to share and he cut her off. Maybe he just chose not to listen. So much time had passed that he could not remember.
He had his secrets, too. While he was in Italy, he received what was to be the last letter Ed wrote to anyone. A lot of water had gone under the bridge since he tore open that letter from his younger brother. Still, brim gathered in his throat; the letter stood in time as one of the saddest secrets he carried. When he received word that Ed had died within possibly hours of sending the letter, he wept more bitterly than he ever had before or had since. Like Lily saved Greta’s correspondence, he had saved the last letter he had received from Ed, unable to understand how war had brought him closer to God while driving his brother away. Sitting next to Amanda now, he hurt for his brother who had died denying God and felt ashamed he’d kept his hurt from Lily all these years. Of course, he had always hoped in the last instant of his life that Ed had changed his mind, but the letter was all he had.
If Max’s drop into reverie troubled Amanda in the least, she did not let on. The stream of water seemed to have mesmerized her. Max looked over at her. He suddenly wanted to finish his story about Greta, to pour out what he had learned from the letters to this girl, but was that wise? But what possible purpose could unloading the events of more than a half century ago on an unstable teenager have? Did he need a confessor so badly that he would choose Amanda, because she had expressed an interest and seemed the least intimidating? The rock was leaving a permanent imprint on his bottom so with no resolution to his thoughts forthcoming, he finally reached over and touched Amanda’s hand.
“Let’s get back to the car. Help an old man up.”
Amazingly, she stood without protest and offered her hand to Max.
Amazingly, he had expected she would do just that. As they walked back, she finally spoke.
“I am not apologizing!” She stated emphatically.
“Yes, you are!”
“I am not.”
But at the end of the trail, she did and found Sophia’s arms wrapped around her in an embrace that would have suffocated her if it had lasted one more second. Sophia’s tears drenched the top of Amanda’s head as she cried over and over,
“Oh, child, child, child . . .”
Finally, her grip loosened and she held Amanda out at arms length as if to check her over, a wide grin burst forth on Sophia’s face and Amanda could not help but smile back.
“Know what, nothing like a good scuffle to work up an appetite. I checked the map and I think we will stop and eat at Midtown.” Sophia proclaimed, hustling around to the driver’s side door.
Max started to get into the back seat, when Lily spoke, her voice shaky.
“Greta, Greta, I was so worried. Sit back here with me. You shouldn’t go walking alone. I don’t know where we are, do you?”
Amanda slid past Max into the back seat with Lily, patting his hand as she did.
“I’m ok, Lily. We are going to the beach. You remember that, don’t you?”
Max saw Lily’s tenseness relax with Amanda next to her.
“Oh, yes, Greta. We’ve always loved the beach, haven’t we?”
“As long as I’ve known you.” Amanda replied. Sophia and Max exchanged glances, as the Buick pulled back onto Highway 70, headed for Midtown and lunch.