Octogenarian Max Carnes has been married to Lily for more than sixty years, caring for her as dementia claims bits and pieces of her every day. He has some family near by, but the bulk of the load has been Max’s.  Their day to day routine revolves around the home, an unchanging repetition of the familiar, until Lily finds an old family snapshot and Max decides to take her on one last car trip to the ocean.  Getting out of town does not go unnoticed by his children, but after promising to abide by their directives, Max and Lily set off.  From their first stop of many ‘braking points’, the trip does not go as planned.  Adding a 14 year old runaway and then later a volunteer hospital chaplain to the entourage, Max and Lily’s journey goes every which way from the plan.

 

imagePrologue

The pictures tumbled onto the floor, old snapshots scattering at Lily’s feet; brow wrinkled with question, she stooped to gather a handful. What on earth were these?

She stared at the photos, struggling to recognize the faces, they looked familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time.  Why on earth did she have this box of pictures on the shelf of her closet?  Why on earth had she been in the closet? Was this even her closet?  She had no clue.  She let the handful of pictures fall from her hand, as they fell she spied one of them that captured her attention.  Fingers trembling she  picked it up and regarded it.

Who were these people?  Where was this taken?  The background was sand, ocean, and sea grass, a family photo with three boys, one a teenager with a scowl on his face, two younger ones grinning and squinting in the sun, a man—Lily touched his face with her finger, a wave of affection filling her momentarily before flittering away, leaving a hole that caused her to recoil her finger as if she had touched something hot.  The man was smiling and holding a little girl with bright eyes and tousled hair, a pretty little thing, Lily thought, and a woman sitting in the center of the group, laughter on her face.

Lily felt a pang of connection, almost smelling the ocean air, the warmth of sand on her feet, and with that a desire for the waves welled up in her only to come crashing down, leaving her confused.  She looked around her.  Who had spilled all these pictures on the floor?  Well, they could just clean up their own mess.  The family beach photo became a wad in her fist as she thrust it into her pocket.

Chapter One
Home-Todd County, Kentucky

No matter how well you eat, how active you stay, or how much you try to stay young, time, like rain and wind on a rock, chisels away at the flesh.  “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The thought was not a new one to Max, but he hated how his own body with its age related infirmities confirmed the erosion. He shuffled from barn to house across a yard which only a few years before he crossed with the wide gait of a tall man. He stooped slightly now, leaning to accommodate the catch in his hip present since he broke it two years earlier. He remembered following his granddaddy on this path as a boy. The distance looked shorter, but felt longer. Max remembered how feeble the old man became before he died and wondered if he looked that old and crippled.  Humph! Well, of course he did!  At eighty-seven he was older than his granddaddy had been when he died.  Max did the math in his head—he preferred doing math there, not relying on pen and paper or electronic gadgets. Ezra Carnes died when Max was twelve. Ezra was seventy-five that same year.  Max shook his head.  Granddaddy had been dead seventy-five years!  Max paused, took a breath, exhaling a sigh.  Whew!  Seventy-five years!

He was thankful for the memories that remained. Many had vanished. Max acknowledged his good fortune to have known his granddaddy and to remember their times together.  Max savored the value of those times as he hobbled toward the front steps.  He’d have paid more attention to remembering, if he’d known how important it could be.

Max focused on the steps.  These days avoiding falling concerned him.  The shortest trip, the simplest activity required careful planning. Once he would not have paid a lick of attention to the ordinary act of walking.  Now Max planned ahead when he moved.  When he reached the house he’d fix Lily and himself two tall glasses of lemonade. It would be his reward for having gotten all the way to the barn and back with no mishaps.  The plot of ground he was crossing contained more foot traps than mine fields he’d crossed during World War II.  The catch in his hip reminded him of that fact every day, but the accomplishment of crossing the yard was worth the danger.  What fun is life without a little danger?

He paused at the foot of the steps to the porch, catching his breath and preparing for what he knew he would encounter at the top.  He could see Lily from where he leaned on the railing.  While Lily remained a wisp of a woman, her catlike agility and her lively wit had faded.  She stared out at a world she no longer understood, a world that once beckoned her, now only baffled her.  People, family, even Max at times created such anxiety for her that she trembled and wept.  Lately, however, she had been some better. At least she seemed less frightened. He had worried this morning when he found her sitting on the bedroom floor, an upended box of old photos scattered around her.  He feared she would be agitated, episodes like that paralyzed her at times.  But, thankfully she seemed more concerned that “whoever made the mess in the floor needed to get right in there and clean it up” than frightened.  Yes, today she had even agreed to venture onto the porch.

Max watched her.  She rocked in the chair, picking with her fingers at something on the lap throw that shielded her legs.  Pick, Pick, Pick.  Rock, Rock, Rock.  Max studied her for a moment, trying desperately to glimpse into the present Lily, his Lily.  He shook his head and chided himself.  In spite of evidence to the contrary, his Lily remained.  The years had taken their toll on him as well.  He was hardly the man she’d married. The trip to the barn and back proved that fact.  Yes, Lily had changed, but deep down the essence of Lily remained.  Sixty-five years ago he’d promised to love her and protect her all the days of his life and with the help of God, he intended to do it.

There was no recognition in her eyes as he approached; only questioning.  He smiled in greeting.

“Hello, Lily,” he said, keeping his voice even.  He had learned to avoid startling her and to follow her lead in conversation.   She continued to observe him, but she was calm.  The tremors did not overtake her.

At the onset of her memory loss, he’d kept the rigid rules the experts laid out and reminded Lily constantly that he was her husband, that the man who came every day was their youngest son, Andrew, who lived across the road, that she had three sons and one daughter, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.  Over and over, day after day he reminded her of innumerable lost memories, only to watch her descend into a pit of anxiousness and despair.

Initially, she would repeat what he said immediately after he said it, clinging to the words only to watch them dissolve.  Later, she began repeating simultaneously, which tended to confuse not only Lily, but also Max, so that both of them lost the root of the conversation.  Five years earlier similar incidents summoned a shared silliness with laughter as the result.   Lily rarely laughed now.  Max heeded the orders of the professionals, until one day she dissolved into tremors that left her sputtering nonsense.

That’s when Max called it quits with the doctors and hit the brakes.  Hadn’t he promised to love not torture?  He made up his mind he’d learn to love the Lily of the here and now without forcing her to join him there. The doctors who told him to keep her based in reality also told him that she would never recover.  The disease, bit by bit, would steal her from him.  Torturing her wasn’t going to cure her.    His intention from that moment was to bring whatever bits of joy he could to Lily daily. He determined to share whatever life they had left on the earth, to follow her lead and trust the good Lord for the outcome.

Leaving the course set by the so-called experts, he returned to the pattern of love they had honored throughout their marriage.  He found in this path that his love for her deepened and as her ability to love him back slipped beneath the surface, Max gasped for air, but held on.

His broken hip had left him with a limp, but he didn’t badger it constantly to move like it had before.  He did his best to exercise it and adjust to the new way of walking. He didn’t chide Lily either. He intended to love her and care for her the best he could.  She wasn’t the same but she was a part of him.  They were one flesh.  She was watching him quizzically now, unsure but not frightened.  He continued smiling.

“Do I know you, sir?”

“I’m Max.”  His steady voice contradicted the hurt he felt, when she asked such questions.

“Max?” She narrowed her eyes.   “Have we met before?”  A slight smile turned up the corners of her mouth.

“We have now.”  He wasn’t lying.  Daily he reintroduced himself.

“Could I get you a glass of lemonade?” He asked politely.   She nodded.
***
As they sipped their lemonades, Max noticed the object she’d been picking at when he joined her on the porch was a photograph.  He asked her if he could see it.  Flattening it out with his hand he saw it was a family snapshot taken when Peggy, their youngest child and only daughter, was about a year old.  Max had Peggy in his arms. The boys circled them. They were posed outside a beach house they had rented for two whole weeks off the North Carolina Coast.  The Atlantic Ocean loomed in the background. Sea grass framed them.

“It’s a lovely picture.  I was trying to remember who the people are.”  Lily said.  It was the longest sentence, the most inquisitive, Max had heard from her in weeks.  He smiled.

Max fingered the photo before deciding what he would do.  Finally he held it out to her.  One by one he identified each of their children beginning with Ryan, the oldest, then Barry, then Andrew and finally Peggy.  She nodded slightly and touched each face as he named them. Then gently he took her finger guiding it to her own face in the picture.

“…And this lovely girl is you, Lily.” Then he pointed to his face and considered his words carefully.  He longed to scream, ‘and this is me, Lily, your husband, me, Max. Please, remember, Lily; we drove all night to Ocean Isle Beach.  You and I have been back several times.  Don’t you remember, Lily?’

But, what he said was, “and this is Max.”

“Max,” She said softly.

For an instant he wondered if she had spoken to him. He wondered if she remembered he had just told her his name was Max.  Perhaps she had connected the two, but watching her as she held the photo, he knew she hadn’t.  She studied the photograph and then asked again who they were.  Several more times he repeated the names.  Finally, wearily, she leaned back in the chair with her eyes closed.  Mercifully, the rocking and picking had stopped.   She was so still Max thought she was asleep.  He leaned over to take her glass before it fell.  Suddenly, he realized her eyes were wide open watching him.

“I always loved the ocean, didn’t I?”  Her voice contained more breath than sound, no more than a wistful whisper.

“Always,” he replied, just as softly.
***
The moon cast eerie shadows on the pitted ground.  Max realized he should have brought the flashlight, but it was too late to backtrack now.  The distance to the barn appeared to have doubled.  Struggling for footing and breath, Max put out one hand, steadying his frame against the solid barn door, when he reached the structure.  Moment by moment he waited until he regained stability, his pulse slowed and though still slightly winded his panting eased into deeper measured breaths. He glanced around almost expecting one of his children to pop out of the shadows.  With a yank, he pulled the doors open and felt for the light switch.  Ah, there it was; flipping the switch; he blinked repeatedly, adjusting to the light that bathed the barn.  There she sat, his 1996 Buick.  What a beauty!

Max slid into the driver’s seat, turned the key and backed her out of the garage.  A glance at the gas gage confirmed his suspicion that he’d need to fill her up, but other than that at eight years of age and less than thirty thousand miles on the odometer, she was primed and ready.  He pulled her around near the front steps, before climbing out.  As an afterthought he reached in and snatched the keys from the ignition.
***
It was after midnight when Max mounted the steps for the second time that day.  The Buick glistened in the moonlight, ready for the get-a-way.   He couldn’t identify the source of the plan, but the old snapshot and Lily’s brief remembrance gave it wheels.   His children were sure to pitch a fit, so he’d call them after several miles down the road.  He could hear their voices.  “Dad, what on earth are you thinking?”  “What business did two elderly people have taking a 700-mile road trip?”   He’d tell them what he knew.  Going was the right thing to do and it had nothing to do with business.

Tomorrow Lily and he were heading east.  He’d avoid the interstates; take the roads they’d taken back in 1960.  He’d court his bride of sixty-five years every day of the trip. Who cared if he had to introduce himself again and again?  He did that anyway. They’d travel the slow lane. They’d travel one mile at a time.  Foolish! Hah! Sometimes the wisest choices of all look foolish.

Entering their bedroom, he settled next to Lily and whispered, “Lily, tomorrow you and I are going to the ocean.”  She murmured in her sleep.  He kissed her shoulder. Then following the pattern of a lifetime, Max prayed.  As he breathed “Amen,” a weight lifted. He drifted to sleep knowing that tomorrow would a perfect day for travel.

 

Chapter Two

The morning of their departure presented more complications than Max had expected.  To start with Peggy dropped by at breakfast time. She hadn’t been by in two weeks, but that girl could sniff trouble (her word, not Max’s) clear from Russellville.

Max had Lily dressed and sitting at the kitchen table eating oatmeal when Peggy drove up.  She parked smack dab in front of the Buick.  So much for sneaking out and barreling away, Max thought, as he tossed the afghan off the sofa and over the open Samsonite luggage on the floor.

Humph!  A look at Lily, who began to tremble at the sound of the car door and then ignoring the tug of his hip he moved to meet Peggy at the door.  With an upward grimace, he murmured, “thanks for the reminder, Lord” as the tug in his hip erased any real chance reminded of barreling away. Where Peggy parked didn’t make a bit of difference even if it was a mile down the road.  Max broadened his smile in welcome, hoping she would not see through his facade.  He took Peggy’s arm and steered her past the nearly covered suitcases into the kitchen.  His fast getaway days might be over but he could still pull a fast one or two when necessary.

“Lily,” he announced, “You have a visitor.”  He watched Lily carefully as he spoke, keeping his voice even.  Sometimes she recognized Peggy, but more often she called her “Mama”. Max saw the resemblance; Peggy did in fact resemble the now departed Margaret Stanton of 40 years ago.  If it upset Peggy, God bless her, she never let on.   Lily and he had four fine children.

Today Peggy was “Mama”.  He noticed a little dampness in the corner of Peggy’s eyes as he set a cup of coffee in front of her.  She too had learned to let Lily, her Momma, lead the conversation or lack of it.  They sat quietly for a while.  Peggy patted her mother’s hand and sipped her coffee.  Lily’s trembling eased and a tiny smile graced her face.

She leaned closer to Peggy and in an audible voice intended to be a whisper said, “Know what, Mama?  We’re going to the ocean.”   Max both grimaced and delighted at what she said.

“Oh,” Peggy smiled, patting Lily’s hand some more and winking slightly at her Dad, who attempted a baffled expression with a shrug of his shoulders for effect.  “How are you going to get there?”

Lily looked up at Max and then started to whisper to Peggy again.  Max prayed but did nothing to stop her.  He had no idea what would come out of her mouth.  He’d stopped trying to guess.  And God forgive him, this morning he hoped she sounded delusional.  She’d always been the spontaneous one in their marriage but this spontaneity took the case.

“That man”, she inclined her head conspiratorially toward Max.” “He reminds me of someone”, she paused, screwed her mouth while scanning him from the top of his head to his feet as if trying to place him.  With a sigh of non-recognition she continued, “he is going to drive us there.  I’m quite sure he’s a gentleman and honorable, Mama. ” Lily smiled broader than he’d seen her smile in a while.  Peggy looked baffled and unbelieving.  This was certainly a new twist of her mother’s disease.

“Know what, else?”  Lily went on.  “I think Greta is going to meet us there.  Greta and I always have so much fun at the ocean, don’t we?”  Max lowered his head.  Lily’s sister Greta, a nurse, had died in London during the Nazi bombings.  She had been five years older than Lily, leaving home for England in 1938.  Lily was 18 years old when she left.
Peggy dabbed at her eyes with the napkin before looking across at her father.

“Where’s this coming from, Dad?”  She mouthed the words, trying not to upset her mother.

Max shook his head then regretted it.  He had tried never to lie to his children, to anyone really.  He hadn’t always lived up to that mark, but he had tried.  Today, he knew if he opened his mouth with any explanation, he’d likely succumb to temptation.  His headshake was just another form of lying. They’d all know soon anyway, so he signaled her to wait while he escorted Lily to the bedroom. A nap after breakfast always seemed to help.

Back at the kitchen table, Max spilled the beans.  He confessed his plans to Peggy over two more cups of coffee.
*
Peggy true to form sat with her mouth agape. The frown creases between her eyes deepened as Max tried desperately to present his plan as nonchalantly as if he were saying he was taking Lily to the grocery store.  These days even that would have been a challenge.  Peggy was silent except for a few guttural sounds of terror.  When she finally found her voice, she had Andrew on the phone, off the combine and in Max’s living room with his wife Millie in less than 20 minutes.  Barry lived in Greenville, South Carolina and Ryan in New Jersey or she would have had the whole kit and caboodle of them there.

Max did his best to ignore her impassioned pleas to her brother and sister-in-law on the phone.  He began to hum “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, one of his mother’s favorite hymns to drown out some of Peggy’s words, such as crazy, ludicrous, and idiotic. He busied himself with making another pot of coffee and said little to Peggy as they waited for Andrew and Millie.  Peggy, now pacing the floor, was saying enough for both of them.  Let her say what she would, Max decided.  The plan hadn’t changed.  He and Lily were going to the ocean.

“Dad, what in tarnation are you thinking?  You can barely get Mom off the porch, let alone take her to Ocean Isle Beach.  You’re too, too…” Andrew’s voice trailed off.

“Old,” Max supplied the missing word, adding some of his own, “Too old, too banged up and too crazy,” he nodded to Peggy who grimaced.  Good, he thought, a little guilt never hurts.  Immediately, he felt a little ashamed.  Works both ways, he guessed.

“Nobody is more aware of that than me. And not one of you is more aware of ‘Your Mother’s Condition’ than I am” He laid heavy emphasis on the last words.   He motioned them all to the kitchen, waiting patiently as they all sat.

Max let them stew a bit while he poured them each a cup of coffee. Then he started to repeat exactly what he’d already told Peggy, but at the last moment he stopped.  He pulled out the photograph Lily had been picking at yesterday afternoon and laid it on the table in front of them all. Millie, his sweet daughter-in-law, picked it up first.  She smiled up at him.

Millie and Andrew had been married almost thirty years; she was like another daughter.  Andrew came by daily, but Millie dropped in sometimes three or four times a day, bringing a meal or groceries.  She never came empty handed.  Sometimes she’d say she dropped by to chat, but while she chatted, she also gathered the dirty laundry and started the washing.  She tried so hard to pretend her visits were happenstance, but Max knew they were carefully planned.

Millie was taking care of the old folks, trying not to let on that she knew they were old.  She didn’t fool Max, but he hadn’t the heart to tell her he was onto her schemes.  Frankly, he loved their chats and didn’t want to mess up a good thing.  Millie had a way of brightening the worst of Lily’s days with her stories about family, friends and church.  Millie’s stories brought chuckles from everyone and for Max, at times, hearty laughter.  He watched her face as she looked at the picture, passing it to Andrew who passed it then to Peggy.

Once each of them had looked at the photograph, Max began telling them about the previous afternoon.  He told it simply, leaving out his own conflicting emotions.  His plan was to retrace steps once taken in hope of bringing some joy, if only momentary, toLily.  He didn’t need their approval.  His driver’s license was valid.  He held up his hand when both Andrew and Peggy started to interrupt, probably to remind him he only drove into town and back, not across the country.  He continued.
His eyesight, hearing and most of his brain still worked.

He winked at Millie who almost chuckled.  Well, he thought, I may have one ally.  He tried not to look at Andrew and Peggy.  If he had he might have been surprised.  Peggy’s frown lines had softened.  Andrew was attentive. They were listening, too, taking in what he said, and thinking.   When he finished, he rose from the table and began gathering their coffee cups.
“Well,” he said carrying them to the sink, where Millie intercepted him and started running a sink full of soapy water, “Now I have a lot to do, if Lily and I are going to get on the road today.”
*
In unison to Max’s astonishment, Andrew and Peggy both rose from the table and embraced him. Millie watched from the sink, her gloved hands dripping with soapy water.  They started talking at once, laughed and then tried it again with more success.  They had their concerns (long trip, adequate finances, and innumerable bad outcomes) but they understood what he wanted to do.

Andrew headed out to his truck and brought in recent maps of Tennessee, North and South Carolina.  He took the highlighter that Millie handed him from her purse and marked the old highways 41, then 70, into North Carolina heading south from there to Greenville.

“Barry and Sharon will be delighted to have you.  We’ll call them.  They will love to visit with you for a few days.  It will give you both a chance to relax, before going on,” Andrew suggested.

While Andrew studied the maps and planned the course, a task Max hadn’t really considered, Millie lifted the afghan off the suitcases and began straightening the heap of clothing Max had dropped into each. She then proceeded to finish the task, leaving the top of each suitcase slightly jumbled, as if Max wouldn’t notice as she folded everything else neatly and checked for obvious items he might have forgotten to pack.  Max dropped a aged cardboard shoe box into his bag just before she snapped the latches closed.

Andrew carried the maps to the Buick, pulled it out of the barn, and checked the fluid levels and tires.  He announced to Max that the old car seemed ready to go.  Max nodded.  He hadn’t really entertained the idea that it would be anything other than ready.

Peggy breezed out of the house the way she had entered earlier, always a woman on a mission.  Practical to the bone, she’d headed into Hopkinsville, returning an hour and a half later with cash, travel checks and a brand new cell phone.
Her entrance brought another flurry of activity as they all converged on Max once more.  He chose to wait out the whirlwind in his lounge chair.

Peggy instructed him on the use of the cell phone, a device he knew nothing about and therefore distrusted. Politely, he watched and listened as Peggy went on nonstop about the menus and other features of the phone.  She even showed him how to use the “message” feature, so this was texting.  She ran through the menu again this time with his hands on the phone.

“You mean I can order food?  That is convenient!”

Peggy’s head popped up at that and he winked at her.

“Oh, DAD! This is no time to be joking!”

Frankly, he couldn’t think of a better time.  Peggy was much too serious.  Where had she come by that?  She continued programming the important numbers into the phone.  Individually, they each asked him to call nightly, or if anything went wrong, Or if he just wanted to… “Call anytime, Dad.  One of us will be available.”

Andrew took part of the money and checks Peggy brought back and hid it in a corner pocket of one of the suitcases.  Max hoped he’d at least be able to find it.  Andrew, as a kid, being the youngest of the brothers, stashed his own cash in the most unlikely places.  Years later Max and Lily were still finding odds and ends of his reserves.  His plan was to prevent Ryan and Barry from becoming thieves, but his hiding places were so good, frequently he lost his own money.

Max craned his neck to see if he could see all Andrew’s squirrel holes. He noticed he put a hundred dollar bill in his Bible at Matthew 6.  Good choice, Max thought, “Lay not up for yourselves treasure on earth.”  Andrew caught him watching and flushed pink.

“You can’t be too careful, Dad.”  Max nodded at the words and patted his son on the shoulder.

“Sure glad I have a credit card,” Max muttered under his breath, relatively sure he’d never find most of the cash Andrew had stashed.
*
In the midst of all of this activity with no one paying attention, Lily awoke and wandered into the arena.  Their first indication of her presence was a piercing “Whoop”.  They all turned in unison to see Lily standing center stage in a faded swimsuit they remembered her wearing when they were children.  She had pulled an ancient yellowed swim cap onto her head sideways with one strap dangling over her nose.  Her eyes widened.  There was a unified babbling sound from the group, but Max shushed them, rose slowly and crossed over to Lily.

“Why, Lily, don’t you look beautiful?”  Max murmured, pulling the strap out of her face, but leaving the cap in place. “But we haven’t reached the ocean yet.”

He gently turned her around and walked her into the bedroom.  “Let’s pick out something pretty for you to wear in the car.”

“Something pretty?  Oh, that would be nice.  But, I don’t believe I know your name, Sir.”

“It’s Max.  I’ll be your driver, young lady” Max motioned to Millie, who joined him.  “This lady will assist you with your dress.”   Max heard a collective sigh of relief from his children as Lily grasped Millie’s hand and retreated to the bedroom.

Peggy insisted they all eat lunch and pray.  So much for an early start, Max thought.  It was near noon before the two set sail in the Buick heading down Highway 41 toward Nashville, Tennessee.
 

Chapter Three
Springfield, Tennessee

Amanda Carmichael crouched behind a large trash bin next to a convenience store gas station combo somewhere, she thought, in Tennessee.  Truth was, she’d been on the road for three days now and these places all started to look the same.  The aromas around the trash bin made her want to retch, but there was nothing in her stomach to throw up.  Hunger, fatigue and poverty kept her edgy.

She leaned against the brick wall, listening, until she heard the large rig she’d arrived in pull out of the parking lot onto the highway.  The creep of a driver aimed some profanities her way, but, thanks to whatever gods may be, he didn’t come looking for her.  Amanda sighed, slumped closer to the wall, and felt tears fill her eyes.

“Stop it,” she demanded, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.  She had to get something to eat.  She had to clean up. No time for tears. Amanda rose from her hiding place.  With enormous effort to stay upright in her platform shoes, she tottered toward the convenience store entrance.  She dug into all her pockets finding just enough cash to buy a cup of coffee and a pack of roasted cashews.  Protein, she thought scornfully.  She loaded the coffee with creamer and sugar.

The clerk behind the counter was a middle-aged woman.  At least 35, Amanda thought as the woman looked at her suspiciously.  Amanda glared back at her and then dropped into the grimey plastic covered booth near the front window to drink her coffee and eat the nuts.  The place was busy, so thankfully, Amanda found the woman’s attention waned as a steady flow of customers came and went.

*
Max headed south.  The maps Andrew marked rested on the seat in between Lily and him.  He slowed to 35 miles an hour as he entered Trenton.  Trenton was his hometown even though the family place set smack dab between there and Pembroke to the north.

The acres were contiguous back then, sprawling out in such a way that there were portions both in Christian and Todd Counties.   Today those acres remained in the family, but the vast land Andrew and his two sons, Brad and Bobby Lee, farmed included several thousand more acres. The land they farmed no longer formed a continuum, presenting challenges that taxed man and equipment.  Agriculture represented big business in the world so Max was proud of the fact that one of his sons and his grandsons continued to work the Carnes’ land as a family.

Max wondered as he had many times since he had retired from the day-to-day routine:  Did he miss farming?  At times he did, but he talked the talk with Andrew and the boys.  Plus there were his coffee buddies, guys who had grown up on farms like he had. Most of them he had grown up and gone to school with.  They debated agricultural issues among other things.  Their coffee meetings tackled two of the conversational taboos, politics and religion; they purposely steered clear of sex.  Top all that with having never really left the farm and he was satisfied.

The old high school where Max and five of his six brothers had graduated sat just past the downtown section of town, across from the Baptist Church.  His brother Ed, the only Carnes brother not to graduate, joined the army when he was a junior at Trenton High School, went off to fight the Japs and never returned.  Ed was the impetuous one. Born the fourth of seven sons, Ed fought to stay up with the older ones and ahead of the younger ones. Max remembered his younger brother as the first to act on a dare.

Youthful escapades played through his head and he chuckled out loud.  There wasn’t an act too perilous Ed wouldn’t try.  It was a wonder he lived through them.  Except, of course, he didn’t survive, Max acknowledged somberly; a Japanese bullet at Guadalcanal ended Ed’s earthly life.  He hoped to meet him in heaven some day but worried Ed hadn’t chosen that direction.  Years of Sunday school and church hadn’t rooted in Ed’s life.  A wave of sadness washed over him.  It had been years since he had grieved for his lost brother.

Max glanced back and forth as he crept through the old town. Even with all the changes, it never failed to remind Max of times gone by, hard times but still good times.

He glanced over at Lily.  She was sleeping.  Sleep came as a blessing sometimes.  Lily calmed when she slept, but Max longed for his chatty, sharp-witted wife who tried not to sleep when he drove on long trips, “to protect them all”, she said.  Ah, but that was then and this is now.  Once again he shook off the self-pity that dogged his footsteps these days.  They were traveling together again, that was sufficient. Max focused on the road, admiring the languid roll of the land between Trenton and Guthrie.  What had Robert Frost written?  Ah, yes, he thought, “and miles to go before I sleep.”  He wondered, how many miles he had to go, realistically.  One of his grandfathers died in his thirties; the other one at seventy five.   His Daddy had lived to be eighty two years old.  Max was five years beyond that.  Still, aside from his broken hip, he hadn’t spent anytime in the hospital in his whole life.  He’d come a long stretch down the road of life, but there were still miles to go.  Enough for this trip anyway, he prayed silently.

“Uh, where is this place?”  Lily asked in a tiny trembling voice, “Where are you taking me?”  Max had stopped at the 3-way stop outside Springfield when Lily stirred in the seat next to him.  Her head bobbed this way and that trying to find some anchor of familiarity.  She clutched her sweater around her and began rocking slightly.  At times like this Max usually could find some familiar point, but they were outside the realm of sanctuary.  He fumbled through the maps and withdrew the photograph.  Handing it to her, he said,
“Lily, remember?  We are going to the ocean, to the beach.”  He wasn’t sure this would work, but he glanced heavenward and breathed a silent prayer, “I’m floundering here, HELP.”  Lily practically snatched the picture from him, but he felt her calm slightly as he negotiated the right turn.  Moments later a sideways look told him she was studying the picture carefully.

“Would you like to stop, Lily?”  He asked once she settled.  She might not need to, but Max did. This was more excitement than an 87-year-old bladder could handle.  For the first time, he considered that restroom and gasoline breaks might prove a little challenging.  It would be best to try this close to home, not that he had any intention of going back.  Without waiting for an answer he pulled into a gas station-food center on his left.

***
Max paced nervously outside the Ladies’ Room.  She’d been in there for several minutes now.  He couldn’t help but worry.  The attendant assured him Lily had not emerged during his brief time in the Men’s Room.  Glancing at his watch and the door, he stewed over what to do.  If the clerk got a break in the seemingly endless trek of customers, he would ask her to check on Lily.  He toyed with the idea of opening the door slightly and calling her name. Not forty miles from home before potential disaster over-took them.  No! He scolded himself.  They were going to the ocean.  He turned and set out to get the female attendant.

Just as he did the door of the Ladies’ Room opened. Lily emerged, clasping the arm of a very young, rather disturbing looking girl.  The look on the young woman’s face was a mixture of bewilderment, disgust and panic.  Frail as Lily was, she virtually dragged the child forward.  Lily was grinning.  Max smiled himself uncertain what to say.  It had been months since he had seen her grin, let alone interact with people the way she seemed to be with this rather bizarre looking child.

“Oh, look, Greta, that man, he’s our driver, look; Sir, what is your name?”  She squinted at Max, but went on without waiting for a reply. “Look who I found, my sister Greta.  I didn’t think we’d see her until the beach, but here she is.  She has always loved cotton candy, but I can’t believe she’s wearing it!  Greta really knows how to have fun.”  Lily clutched tighter on the child’s arm while with her free hand she patted the mess of purple and pink hair that spiked out in a hundred directions from the girl’s hair.  The young woman’s expression reminded Max of his third grade teacher, Miss Sellers, the afternoon Bailey Johnson and he found her smoking a cigarette behind the girl’s outhouse.  Malicious denial with an element of shock glared at Max as she worked to break loose of Lily’s grasp.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here.  I tried to help her in the bathroom.  She had a little trouble ge…; oh, never mind that.  All of a sudden she’s calling me Greta and talking about going to the beach.  You,” She pointed her finger at Max, “need to watch her closer.  She could get into real trouble.”

Max grimaced. He found being scolded by a mini skirted teenager with pastel hair, both irritating and amusing.  This child obviously was sorely lacking in manners and a quick look told him, basic hygiene.  Still she had helped Lily and in spite of her insolent mouth she deserved to be thanked properly.  He wondered if her parents lived nearby.  Did they let her out of the house looking like she did?  He hoped not.

Max took Lily’s hand and led her to the single front booth, motioning the young woman to follow.  Once he had Lily seated, he spoke to the girl who did indeed have cotton candy hair.  He mused that Lily had pegged that one right. Her hair looked every bit as sticky as the sugary treat.  What he could not understand was why Lily thought this gaunt, dirty child was her long deceased sister.  Years of good upbringing and natural politeness won over a dozen other parental based disciplinary actions.

“I want to thank you for helping her in the restroom.  My name is Max Carnes and this is my wife, Lily.  She gets confused at times.” Actually most of the time, Max reflected, but no need to dwell on it with this vagabond.  He paused, collected his manners and said, “I am truly sorry if she caused you any inconvenience, but I would like to reward you for helping her.  Kindness should not go unappreciated” What was he saying?  The sooner this child was out of there the better.

The girl looked baffled and leery, as if the word kindness held some darker meaning.  She stepped back a couple of steps, practically colliding with the newsstand next to the door, as her ankle turned and one of her five inch platform shoes turned outward from her ankle.  Ouch! Max thought.  She recovered quickly continuing her backward movement to the door.

“Naw, that’s alright.  I’ve got to catch a ride and get going,” she waved her hand slightly, but there was a slight quiver in her nonchalance. Max couldn’t disguise a startle. Catch a ride?  To where?  With whom?  Do modern parents let their teenaged daughters catch rides?  He didn’t think so, at least not ones who cared or knew where their daughters were.  Max looked at her face; it was a study of practiced disinterest. For the first time, he glimpsed beneath the mask.  It wasn’t the mask created by heavily applied cosmetics, but the one that feigned detachment.  In that brief flash Max saw weariness, fear, and evidence of tears etched into the multiple layers cosmetics.  He must have been staring, because she snapped at him suddenly.

“What are you looking at?  You folks give me the creeps. I am so out of here!”  She turned toward the door.

“Wait!” Max said impulsively, “Are you hungry?  It’s the least we could do.  Please join us.”

She turned still clothed in haughtiness, moved back to the booth and sat next toLily.  Lily immediately clasped hold of her arm and murmured, “Greta.”

“Whatever!”  The child managed to say, but Max noticed a glimmer of softening.Eighty-seven years had taught him a multitude of things; one thing for sure, this kid was in trouble.

Over lunch he watched the girl. She, with pointed prompting, introduced herself as Amanda Smith, probably so he wouldn’t start calling her Greta, too.  In between the gulps of food she was consuming in huge chunks, she said she had encountered unexplained difficulties traveling to Knoxville and was stuck.    Her eating slowed only during the times when Lily grabbed her arm.   He noticed she was left-handed.  For some reason, that endeared her to Max.  His brother Ed had been a lefty.  Max ordered coffee for himself and ice cream for Lily.  His lunch at the farm still lingered.

By the time Amanda had consumed two cheeseburgers and a large order of French fries with a chocolate milkshake and a large coke, Max made a decision.  It wasn’t rational and it wasn’t safe, but not much about this trip was.

He pulled Amanda aside and asked if she would join them as far as Knoxville and help him with Lily.  Amanda feigned a “you have got to be kidding” look, but she was listening.  He could not fathom what was going on in her head.  When had kids become so rude?  He hadn’t noticed this before.  He waited for her answer; finally she shrugged and walked over to Lily, allowing Lily to pull her to the car.  She looked at Max before climbing into the back seat of the Buick and pointed her index finger at him.  He bristled instantly.  His mother would have snatched his finger from his hand if he had acted that way.

“Believe me, Dude; you’d better not try anything.  I am going to be watching you all the time.”

Dude?  Max thought as he buckled Lily into her seat.  He was unsure whether he should feel annoyed or flattered.  He chose annoyed based on her jabbing finger.  Before buckling himself in, he turned to respond to Amanda’s remarks, unsure if he should choose a defensive approach or an offensive one.  Would it be: “Young Lady, I assure you, you are perfectly safe with me?” Or “Now look here, you spoiled brat, settle down or you lose your ride.”  Neither was forthcoming. The child was sound asleep.

Two miles down the road so was Lily.  Max shook his head.  With both sleeping beauties momentarily out of commission, he was free to cut loose.  So out on the open road, Max picked up to 55 miles per hour and ignored the cars that rode right on his bumper and then leapt around him at the first straightaway.  Max hadn’t driven this far in years.  The roll of the highway made him long for that 1939 yellow roadster he’d bought for his bride.  Now there was a car, he thought.  Top speed was fifty miles an hour, but with the wind in their hair, it felt like eighty.

Would Lily remember that?  He doubted it.  She appeared to be living during a time he knew very little about, a time before they met.  Her mind seemed to have retreated to the early and mid 1930s.  The Stanton family had been living on the coastal area of Georgia.  Her dad was one of the lucky ones during the depression years.  He worked for the railroad.  Max met Lily on the train.

With those thoughts Max lingered a while in the past.  He thought about how Lily had entered his life. Those were the days! The thought of the roadster and those departed times before he went to war lifted his spirits.   Max began whistling as they sailed along.

 

 

Chapter Four
Cookeville, Tennessee

Near six that evening, Max found he could tolerate the ache in his leg and the burning sensation between his shoulder blades no longer. Lily had moved to the back seat with Amanda after they had stopped for supper near Lebanon. To the child’s credit she had begun to talk more than grunt. In fact, she seemed to be letting Lily continue to call her Greta without correcting her. It sounded like a game, he thought as he listened to Amanda question Lily about what they liked to do together best.

As Lily fell into the role of younger sister, only occasionally drifting off track from one era of her life to another, Max had relaxed emotionally. The conversation in the backseat aided his own memories of Lily and Greta together. Where on earth was this leading? Lily was calm, so he didn’t push those thoughts too far. Max pulled into Cookeville and stopped at the first clean, safe looking motel he could find. The action alerted Amanda. She bolted upright in the back seat.

“Hey, why are we stopping here?” She demanded, her eyes narrowing as she glared at Max. “Look, Gramps . . .”

Gramps? Now it was Gramps not Dude. Had he been promoted or demoted? He closed his eyes momentarily and mentally recited the Lord’s Prayer. His mother had taught him that to calm his youthful hot headedness. Usually it worked and it almost did this time, but his voice still sounded tense to his own ears when he spoke.

He began, “Amanda, I am eighty seven years…”

“Wow! Are you really that old? And you’re still, still Alive?” A genuine awe filled Amanda’s words.

“I must be, because at this moment every muscle in my body declares, “Get some rest, OLD MAN!” So Yes, I am still alive. Now, young lady…”

“Amanda” She interjected. That was it! He had enough! The sharpness of her tone and continued rudeness unraveled his efforts at civility.

“Amanda, my name is Mr. Carnes to you! No more ‘Gramps’ and no more ‘Dude’ or any other clever little ditty that rolls off your tongue. If you behave, I may let you call me Mr. Max, but at the rate you are going, don’t count on it. Now you stay here with Lily and keep her settled, while I go get two, count them, two rooms for the night. OR, “

Amanda slumped back against the seat and closed her eyes. Lily started stroking her arm.

“Oh, Greta, don’t cry.” Lily pleaded, then to Max, “Tell her you are sorry. You sounded mean!”

Admonished by his wife, who in spite of her confusion, knew meanness when she saw it, Max turned in the front seat to look at them just as Amanda swiped her eyes with her arm. He turned back toward the front and opened the car door. He had won the battle, but decided it had been at a price. Winning wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Max had learned that many years before. He recited the Lord’s Prayer silently again before speaking. This time a gentler Max materialized.

“Amanda, I am sorry I sounded mean. I am eighty seven and tired. But I would appreciate some show of manners and respect. Can you handle that?”

There was a pause. Then in a small childlike voice he almost didn’t recognize, Amanda said, “Yes, Mr. Carnes,” She sniffed back tears and turned her head away.

“Thank you, I will be back shortly.” He set out toward the lobby to register.
Ž
Max flipped open the cell phone Peggy brought him. Staring down at the unfamiliar gadget, he contemplated the variety of buttons, lights and sounds. The little screen had the date and time: 20:04, military time, he thought. Um, he translated, eight o’clock. Where had the last two hours gone? Had he drifted off? He certainly was exhausted. Just looking at the foreign object in his hand increased his weariness.

It made him long for the days when he picked up the receiver to hear a pleasant, familiar voice request, “Number Please?”

Well, there was no getting around it, he’d better figure this gadget out soon or he’d fall asleep in the chair. No telling what his children with their overactive imaginations might do then. It had been their mother, he recalled, who had encouraged their imaginations. Ah, Lily, all those bedtime stories certainly expanded their minds. Given their propensity for stories of ghosts and serial killers with hooks for hands, they’d probably send the Tennessee State Police looking for them.

Back to the phone, he mulled it over. Why had it seemed so easy when Peggy was explaining it? Probably, he decided, because he hadn’t really been paying attention. Besides, that was hours ago. He supposed he could use the phone in the room. He looked over at it on the bedside table but that represented yet another learning curve, plus an additional charge to an already outrageous room charge.

Sound from the adjacent room, where Lily and Amanda settled, drifted in as he pushed buttons randomly on the cell phone, only to open up new screens and baffling choices. Were they giggling? He listened. He had been apprehensive when Lily refused to stay in their room, insisting on staying with “Greta”. He didn’t push the point, though he was reluctant to allow it. To her he was ‘that man” while Amanda was her sister, Greta. They hadn’t been gone from home twelve hours and already this trip, like every trip he and Lily had ever taken, detoured from the neat excursion, he imagined. If he could figure this contraption out, he planned to tell his children very little. He especially planned to leave Amanda out of the mix.

He heard a tiny knock on the adjoining door. He rose to answer it, thinking maybe Lily had changed her mind. Even without recognizing him at home, it comforted him that they continued to sleep together like spoons in a drawer. As she had grown more fragile, he found himself holding her closer in the night as if she might dissolve with the morning dew. She hadn’t seemed to mind, but tonight she was adamant. That he would think she was “that kind of girl” disgusted her. He, Max, disgusted her. They could get a new driver! Max back pedaled, sputtering nonsense to his dismay.

Amanda had come to his rescue. Amazingly, the flippant rude child disappeared and a calm poised young woman stepped in. She calmed Lily. Amanda assured Lily thatshe’d misunderstood Max’s intentions. Max retreated in bewilderment, shaking his head. Who was this odd child?

“Mr. Carnes is such a nice man, Lily. He just wants to get our things in our room and get us settled for the night. He has his own room.” She put her arm around Lily and guided her to one of the double beds. Max sat the bag on the bed and Amanda flipped it open. She pulled out a nightgown and robe. “Oh, how pretty! Why don’t you wear this?” She said to Lily as she dismissed him with a backhanded wave.

On that note he backed out of the room into the adjoining one, but now the knock beckoned him. His stiff hip caught as he moved. He was slightly off balance when he reached to open the door. His body shifted sideways so that when the door opened, his weight carried him against the doorframe. Bobbling the cell phone, which suddenly was playing the “William Tell Overture”, he lost his grip on it.

The cell phone flew past Amanda who was standing in the door while he tried to grasp something solid and stay upright. Amanda looked between him and the cell phone before reaching down, picking it up, pushing a key and saying, “Hello, Mr. Carnes’ telephone. Oh, sure, he’s right here. He just dropped the phone when he was falling.”

So much for discretion, he thought, baffled by the ease with which Amanda described the situation so casually. She looked at him and asked, “Are you okay? It’s your daughter. She sounds like she’s wound pretty tight.” Amanda handed him the phone and showed him how to hold it.

Wound pretty tight, that summed up Peggy. Max collided with her formidable attitude more times than he could count. He limped slightly as he returned to his room to try and explain the events of the day since they had parted eight hours earlier. Before shutting the door lightly, he mouthed to Amanda, “I’ll be right back.” Thirty minutes later, only slightly mentally bruised, he was true to his word. He knocked on the door and Amanda answered. He held the cell phone out to her.

“Amanda. Do you know how to use this?”

“Well, yeah. Don’t you?”

“No”

“Do you want me to show you?”

“No.”

“No?”

“I would like for you to handle it; take my phone calls. Make my phone calls, at least till we get you home in Knoxville.”

“Knoxville? Oh, yeah, Knoxville. Sure. I’ll be your personal assistant.”

“Personal assistant? Yes, of course, Lily’s and mine. Will you do that?”

“Oh, sure.”

“My daughter put some family members’ numbers in there. Can you find them?”

“Sure.” She made it sound like child’s play. Well, undoubtedly it was. He discovered that some skills were best left to children. At least till Knoxville he wouldn’t have to mess with this blame thing. After Knoxville, he’d lose it somewhere in the Smoky Mountains. Bears probably used cell phones better than he did.

“Thank you.” He turned and started to close the door.

“Wait, Mr. Carnes.” He turned back.

“Yes, Amanda.”

“Would it be ok with you if I wore some of Lily’s pajamas? I sort of don’t have any and I wanted to take a shower.”

“By all means, whichever one you want.” The girl certainly needed a shower, no doubt about it. He smiled and so did she. Even with the make up, the smile transformed her face.

Thanks, Mr. Carnes. Good Night. She started to close the door.

Wait, Amanda. Is Lily ok?

“She’s sleeping like a baby. She talked and talked about all sorts of things we’ve supposedly done together. In fact, she fell asleep talking. I am starting to get a feel for this Greta. She’s pretty cool for someone who must be way old.” She paused then added, “Lily’s pretty cool, too.”

“Thank you and uh, Amanda, please call me Max.”

“Ok, Mr. uh, Max,” she said hesitantly, “Good Night.”

*

Amanda snapped the bolt lock on the door between the rooms. No need to take any chances. In 14 years she’d learned that the most innocent looking people could perpetrate the greatest evil. Tomorrow, she promised, she’d simply slip away into the shadows again and keep running. Today with her belly filled, the promise of a real bed to sleep in and a shower that beckoned, her guard had dropped. Certainly, the tiny woman who slept with the tiniest whiffle of a snore didn’t frighten her. Mr. Carnes, however, well, she just couldn’t be sure. Tonight she’d transform again and tomorrow she’d be gone.

The shower felt like paradise. She allowed the warmth to wash over her head and body. There was no regret as she watched the shades of purple and pink pool at her feet and wash down the drain. The complimentary shampoo bottle was emptied by the time she had washed and rinsed her hair several times. She scrubbed furiously at her face and body. Patting her eyes as soap threatened to seep in under her tightly closed eyes, Amanda emerged from the shower. Her eyes widened as the mirror cleared of fog.

Tears welled. There she was, the girl she’d been before she’d known the truth. Only a few days and yet a lifetime ago, she thought the worst thing that could happen to her would be to not make the basketball team roster.

She pulled on a nightshirt she had found in Lily’s bag and carefully washed out her only underwear in the sink. With careful avoidance she tried not to watch herself in the mirror. If Amanda Carmichael had been a lie, then who was she really? Where did she belong?

*

Max slept deeply, so deeply in fact that it took him several moments the next morning to get oriented to his surroundings. Gradually, as he stared around the unfamiliar room, his head cleared. He heard sounds in the next room before he managed to even sit up on the edge of the bed. The sound of a faint knock on the door finally roused him. “Mr. Carnes, you have a phone call.”

“Be there in a minute,” he called through the closed door. He struggled to get his pants on. The aches in his muscles resisted every movement. Just getting decent was a huge mind over body action. Getting old, no, he corrected his own thoughts, being old took more raw courage than crossing the Rhine. And it took more energy, too.

When he finally made it to the door, Amanda thrust the phone to him through a small crack. He took it, asking who it was. “Some man,” Amanda responsed. Before he could answer the phone, Amanda whispered through the small opening.

“Could I wear something out of Lily’s suitcase? Just today. Till we get to Knoxville.”

Nothing would please him more than that child in decent clothes, “Of course, and Amanda, help her pick out something to wear too. OK?”

“Sure, no problem.”

The door shut and he heard the dead bolt lock click. He stared at the phone, and then hesitantly, as if it might bite him, put it to his ear.

“Hello”

“Dad?”

“Barry!” They had the whole family on his tail. “Good to hear from you. How are Sharon and the kids?”

“They’re fine. Dad, what’s this about you and Mom traipsing all over the country? And who answered the phone?”

“You’ve talked to Andrew and Peggy?”

“They called us yesterday or rather Millie did. She said you might be dropping by for a visit on the way to Ocean Isle Beach. Dad, is this wise?”

Max mulled that over before answering. Wise? What kind of a question was that? It certainly didn’t seem that way. Right now he wasn’t sure a visit to his second son’s home would be wise given his tone of voice. He had no intention of submitting to an interrogation about his soundness of mind. Besides, who would choose to discuss wisdom with a man who twice, not once, brought property in a flood plain and lived to regret it both times. Of course, now he lived on a hill in Greenville, at least that was the account he gave.

“Yes, Barry, your mother and I are taking a little trip. Don’t know if we’ll make it by, I am just following the yellow highlighted road.” His voice tripped lightly over the last three words in what he hoped reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz.

“What?”

“Andrew marked the maps for me.”

“Oh.”

The remainder of the conversation was a series of monosyllabic exchanges and it wasn’t until Max snapped the phone shut that he realized he hadn’t answered Barry’s question about Amanda. Oh well, let him get the scoop from Peggy.

Suddenly, humming, he felt a little more energized. A plan was brewing. He’d promised to take Lily shopping for a new swimsuit and certainly the child needed something of her own, something modest, to wear. They’d get breakfast and go shopping before they got on the road.

*

Who was this chameleon? The child bore no resemblance to the Amanda of yesterday. Gone was the cotton candy hair; gone was the make up; gone were most of the earrings and the eyebrow doodad. Her light brown hair had been pulled back into a loose ponytail and she looked up from painting Lily’s fingernails when Max entered the room. She looked paradoxically both older and younger than she had just hours before.

The wonder of soap, Max thought. Who was this child? Where did she come from? Yesterday she could have blended with the fringe element he caught glimpses of on TV. Today she looked like Allison and her friends from church.

If Lily noticed the change, she wasn’t reacting to it. They looked like unmatched bookends, representing the span of life. Lily wore a red shirt and slacks while Amanda wore a duplicate in turquoise. He remembered Millie had bought them for Lily’s birthday, but he couldn’t recall her ever wearing them. Millie, bless her heart, must have packed them. He wondered what else Millie had discovered missing and quietly covered by seeing to it the bags held essentials and much more.

“Hi.”

“Good Morning.”

“Is this ok for me to wear?”

“Certainly, you both look lovely.” He bowed slightly. Lily giggled and Amanda blew softly on the fresh polish adorning Lily’s nails.

“Mr. Carnes, you crack me up.”

“Really.”

“You are so, so. . .”

“Old?”

“Nah!”

He must have looked bewildered. What new phrase could she come up with to call him now? He didn’t have to wait long to find out.

“Goofy.”

“Goofy? Well, yes Amanda, I suppose I am just that, goofy.” He smiled and stuffed his hands in his pockets, rocking slightly in place. He certainly thought that was a description even his children would agree fit.

*

Surely, it had not been his idea, this shopping excursion. He had lost track of time but checking his watch every few minutes hadn’t proved helpful. He sat now in a chair, which he supposed was there for the express purpose it now served. Amanda had grabbed up a couple of pairs of jeans and T-shirts for herself so fast, Max had been lulled into thinking they were going to be in and out of here in minutes.

Unfortunately, Amanda worked more methodically in selecting swimsuits for Lilyto try on. Max had no idea the endless selection of swimsuits available. The first few suits Amanda had pulled off the rack included a bright tangerine bikini. She draped it very seriously over Lily for him to see and then burst into laughter as his jaw dropped. He blushed, then mumbled something incoherent before taking the seat to which he had become permanently affixed.

Fortunately, the department store offered swimming attire much more suited to a woman of Lily’s age. Unfortunately, it offered more than one and Amanda seemed determined to get Lily into every possible combination before a decision could be made. He must have said “that one is perfect” a dozen or more times but still there seemed no purchase in sight. Lily looked tired, but strangely enough, continued changing from one to another without retreating inwardly or becoming agitated.

Max had amused himself reading the various signs that hung from the ceiling in the store. His favorite was: Shoes – Buy One get the Second 50% off. He supposed ruefully that might be an advantage to someone with two different sized feet.

“This is it!” Amanda announced, emerging from the dressing room with Lilyclutching at her arm.

Finally! Max thought, sitting up straighter in the chair and reaching for his wallet.

“Mr. Carnes, MAX! Look at Lily!” He did as he was told, a little whistle escaping his lips. Lily wore a bright blue swimsuit with large white flowers and a matching cover up. Perched atop her head was a white straw hat banded with a kerchief that matched the outfit. The combination erased years from Lily’s face. Her eyes told the story; the dullness he was accustomed to seeing had been replaced with a hint of sparkle. It was her face he noticed, not her eighty five year old body. His voice caught but when he managed to speak and not gawk, he said,

“Lily, you look beautiful.” And to the very depth of his soul Max meant those words. He smiled and nodded his thanks to Amanda. She shrugged, but smiled.

When Amanda disappeared with Lily into the ladies’ dressing room, Max settled back in the chair, pulling the photograph from his pocket. Looking at the faces of a much younger grouping of the Carnes’ family motivated him to push ahead to the sea, even though after less than 24 hours of travel he was road weary. He’d never been the one who loved to travel, he mused. Why would that change this trip? He settled back to wait and found his mind traipsing down various paths hunting for answers to questions he’d never adequately resolved.

Mitchell and Max Carnes, the two eldest sons of Walter Carnes accompanied their father to Savannah in the fall of 1934. His Daddy had business with a man to talk about introducing new cash crops, peanuts to the western part of Kentucky. Max had no interest in crops by that time; he had already made up his mind. Farming was not his ambition; he was looking forward to graduating from high school then setting out to see the country. That trip, however, convinced Max he was not cut out for the traveling life. Farming looked better than it ever had before when they returned home.

The trip promised to be the rarest of all adventures, traveling farther than either Max or Mitchell had ever been. At 17 and 18 neither brother had been more than 100 miles from home. Not only were they crossing two state lines, but they also were going to put their feet in one of the largest bodies of water in the world, the Atlantic Ocean. Geography books had whetted their appetites to see water that melted into the sky with no visible land on the horizon.

After a typical Carnes’ family discussion, which sounded like a heated argument and might have sent some people to get the sheriff, at least those who didn’t know them, the decision was made to travel by train. That choice altered the course of Max’s life.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee two young ladies accompanied by their aunt boarded the Central of Georgia Railways at the same time the Carnes family boarded. They sat across the aisle only a few rows up from Max and Mitchell and the younger one caught Max’s eye the moment she sat down. She smiled at him only to be scolded by her aunt who immediately pulled out some stitch work, slapped it into her lap and told her in a terse but loud whisper to keep her eyes and hands busy.

Aunt Isadora, ah, Max thought, those girls certainly tested her patience. The other girl looked at Max, then Mitchell; Greta then gently poked her sister. Instantly before Isadora could whip out work for her idle fingers, Greta’s glance turned to the passing scenery that amounted to nothing more than a scruffy smattering of warehouse type buildings that appeared to intrigue her. Greta’s ability to escape by the hair of her “chinny chin chin” became legendary among those who loved her best.

The pairs often exchanged quick glances and smiles. These exchanges drew an occasional glare from Isadora. The journey and their chaperone prevented much conversation, but during the journey introductions were made and minimal small talk occurred. The brief conversations allowed Max to learn that Savannah was also their destination. Nevertheless, the formidable Aunt Isadora and Max’s own shyness threatened to doom all hope of getting to know one another better. Lily, with a boldness he found out later came from being prodded and teased by Greta, pressed an envelope and small piece of paper into Max’s hand as she passed him on the platform when the train finally pulled into the station on Grand Avenue.

The envelope read: Mr. Walter Carnes and Sons. Then on the card in beautiful feminine script:

Dear Mr. Carnes and Sons,

Welcome to Savannah. Please join our family for tea tomorrow afternoon at 4 pm at the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church Parish House off the market square. We hopeto share a little Savannah hospitality with you. Sincerely, Mrs. Benjamin Robards, Greta and Lily Stanton. On a small loose piece of paper which Max received with the envelope he read: Aunt Isadora is really a dear and Uncle Ben is quite human for a priest. Lily

Once the note passed, she marched away quickly not waiting for a reply. She fell into step behind her rapidly retreating aunt. Max could not take his eyes off her. She rewarded him again with a quick glance and smile over her shoulder. He held the note in the air and nodded furiously. She ducked her head quickly as the crowd absorbed the entourage.

*

“Mr. Carnes, Mr. Carnes, MAX!”

He sat bolt upright, dazed by the brightness of florescent lighting. Someone was shaking his shoulder. What was going on? Where was he? He blinked furiously and squinted at the source of the interruption.

“What?” He said rather sharper than he intended. The fuzzy figure cleared. It was Amanda.

“Come quick, Mr. Carnes; it’s Lily. I don’t know …she’s freaked out or something. Hurry, Please. She’s scaring everyone.”

There was genuine panic in Amanda’s voice. Max tried to stand but his muscles and joints protested and he lurched forward. Amanda broke his fall. He could see she was crying.

“Just show me where she is, Amanda. And leave us alone for a few minutes, OK?”

“You got it.”

“I, uh, what?”

“I’ll get out of the way. She is way over the edge.”

Lily crouched in the corner of a tiny dressing room surrounded by mirrors. The swimsuit wadded in a little ball was clutched tightly to her chest. Her tremors alarmed Max, driving away the drowsiness he’d been fighting since Amanda awakened him. With great effort, he lowered himself to the floor, wondering as he did how on earth he would get up. He shrugged it off.

There were folks around; he heard muffled voices outside the tiny unit, redirecting customers to another dressing room in the next department. He’d ask for assistance. Time comes, he thought, when the Lord gets your attention in dramatic ways. Being self-sufficient either yields to the help offered or pride garbles your innards and bites the hand that feeds you. Lily needed him. Pride had no place here. He would need help getting up and he would ask for it. Right now his place was by her side.

“Help me, Lord,” he whispered as he reached out a hand to Lily. He had no idea how she would react. In an amazing moment she took it and moved into the circle of his waiting arm. He leaned back against one of the mirrors. For several long moments she laid her head on his chest as he held her. Max watched the whole scene unfold in the mirror on the opposite wall. The images reflected disturbed him. He closed his eyes, rocked Lily gently and sang the first songs that came to mind, Hard Hearted Hannah followed by Open My Eyes, Lord.

*

Amanda waited immediately outside the dressing room where she had left Lily crumpled on the floor. She knew she should have retreated with the sales clerks and other store patrons, but concern, guilt or some strange mixture of the two held her in place. She leaned her head against the wall. Everything had been going so well. It had actually been fun helping Lily pick out and try on the swimming attire.

One moment they’d been giggling like girlfriends, then Lily freaked out, jerked away, and screamed at her. The sales clerks had rushed in. They must have thought Amanda was abusing her. They tried intervening to calm Lily down which only set her off more. A tug of war had broken out as Lily refused to turn loose of the clothing. Amanda hung back watching. Lily’s sudden physical strength astounded her. She put up quite a fight. In the end the two store employees backed off and Lily sank like a trapped animal into the corner.

“You’d better go get your grandfather,” one of them said to Amanda.

“Huh? My grandfather? They’re not my grandparents!” Suddenly she had wanted to detach. Why on earth had she gotten involved with two old lunatics anyway? The clerk who had spoken glared at her. Amanda turned on her heel and marched out to get Max.

“Whatever!” she muttered.

Now outside listening, she considered the clerk’s assumption that Max and Lily were her grandparents. Her own grandparents despised her, so why would she want to take on another crazy old couple as substitutes. Her own grandparents lived maybe 700 miles away from this place in Mulvane, Kansas. She wondered what their reaction would be when they learned she knew the truth and had left. Hot tears stung her eyes as she recalled all the times she’d delighted in seeing them. They’d put on a pretty good act; she had to admit, pretending to adore her. She had swallowed the whole farce. Never again would she let anyone suck her into trusting them. Amanda knew the truth now. They wished she’d never been born. The pathetic twosome in the next room weren’t substitute grandparents; they were merely a free ride. She’d play the little game as long as it took to get where she was going. In fact, she patted herself on the back; she was getting pretty good at it.

The life she’d lived up to now had been a lie. Could she ever run far enough away? Far enough from the knowledge that the people she had loved all her life, her Nana and Poppy, Granny Nan, her mom and her dad, had never loved her, never, ever? If she hadn’t seen the truth in black and white, in her mother’s own handwriting, she wouldn’t believe it now and would go on living as if she were loved.

With her head against the wall, she could hear Max singing, his scratchy old voice drifted through the partition. Lily and he were strange old birds. In spite of herself Amanda had been lulled into a false safety with them. Up until Lily started striking at her, she’d weakened, started to care a little. She was trying to help, then bam! Lily became a witch. Was she so desperate for love that she would latch onto two people she’d only known since yesterday? Amanda wiped her eyes on her sleeve.

“Amanda,” Max called weakly.

“Yeah?” she answered reluctantly. What did he want now?

“I am going to need your help in here.”

Amanda let out a loud disinterested sigh.

“Whatever!”

With Amanda’s help, he really was a feeble old coot, she thought, Max finally led Lily from the dressing room. In spite of her lack of concern she appeared in an instant, helping him rise from the floor, get balanced and then together they had lifted a calmer, though still trembling, Lily from the floor. Amanda wasn’t sure which one of the two looked worse. Max seemed wobblier and less sure of himself than he had earlier in the day, but he put his arm around Lily and escorted her out into the department store. If he noticed the stares of the store personnel, he didn’t let on. Amanda thought he had forgotten the swimsuit but just before the door, he handed her his wallet.

“Pay for the clothing, Allison. We will be in the car.”

“Allison? Who’s Allison?”

“What? Did I call you Allison?”

“You certainly did.” What? Now he was going to start calling her strange names.

“I’m sorry, Amanda.” He said wearily, “Allison is our youngest granddaughter.”

“Oh”. She looked down at the wallet in her hand, “Let me get this straight. You want me to pay for the clothes and bring your wallet to the car?” She asked, thinking perhaps he was nuts. Who cared? If he was crazy enough to turn it over to her, he deserved to find out you couldn’t trust people. She would bolt and run with his money and credit cards. She already had possession of his cell phone. It would be so easy and somebody would take pity on them.

Amanda broke with her thoughts still holding the wallet as she watched Max and Lily’s departure.

He looked back at her as he held the door open for Lily and with a slight smile he said, “I’ve decided to trust you. Call it a little message from God.”

She stood perfectly still absorbing his words, then turned and marched back to the sales clerk and paid for the clothes. But just in case they tossed her out on her ear, she tucked a fifty dollar bill in her pant’s pocket. Max didn’t look the least surprised when she climbed into the backseat of the Buick with the shopping bags and handed him his wallet. He didn’t have a clue how close she’d come to ripping him completely off. What a loon!

“Amanda”

“Yes.”

“Our travel plans are changing.” Max said.

“Whatever.”

He grimaced slightly at her tone, but continued.

“We are staying here another night. Your folks may be worried, so please give them a call, if you’d like, or if you want to go on, we could get you a bus ticket to Knoxville.”

Amanda stopped short of snapping, “Calling my folks will be the last thing I ever do!” but instead she reined herself in and changed tones, “Thanks. I’d feel safer with you and Lily, if that’s ok? I ran into a couple of bad dudes before I met you”

During lunch Amanda decided she did feel safer with these aging crazies than she had with her previous rides. Besides, the Carnes were feeding her and providing lodging. What a deal! She could put up with Lily clutching and picking at her arm. But if Lily freaked again, she would bolt then.

Lily had a comical side especially when she was calling her Greta and acting like they shared secrets. It bothered her more that Lily wasn’t talking and though no longer combative, dullness had settled over her face. In spite of herself, Amanda felt a trace of sadness for Max and Lily, but the anger she carried since she discovered the truth about her whole existence tainted any empathy Amanda could muster.

Patting Lily’s arm, Amanda actually wished she’d start calling her Greta again. Maybe she could change her name to Greta; she considered it, but then was reminded that a name change wouldn’t be necessary. Run until she couldn’t run any longer and then swim as far as she could, that was her plan. It was a plan that only required reaching the ocean, which was exactly where Max and Lily were heading.

 

 

Chapter Five
Cookeville, Tennessee
Extended Stop

Max watched Amanda pat Lily’s arm. He’d seen this girl dressed like a hooker then like the girl next door. He had caught glimpses of humor and rudeness. This morning she had proved resourceful, helpful and honest. After the incident in the department store she had become almost surly, but now she was acting quite kindly. He realized he had taken a chance when he handed her his wallet. Andrew would have a conniption fit if he knew. But crouched on that floor with Lily he saw Amanda’s shoe poking around the corner; he knew she was listening. She hadn’t interrupted but she’d stayed close. In the quietness, he’d heard her sniffling, crying. He sensed that child had a heavy load. Something was tearing her apart and for reasons he couldn’t begin to understand, Lily and he were supposed to help. Max couldn’t figure how he knew that, but half the time anymore he couldn’t figure out how or if he knew anything.

He rubbed his eyes. Later he would take a stab at finding out what was going on with her. He certainly had no intention of dropping her off on a street corner in Knoxville. At least that possible conflict had been delayed. He needed some recovery time. Lily’s breakdown, awful as it was, postponed Knoxville.

“Ladies, let’s get back to the Inn. We old folks are going to need a little rest. The young one is going to have to fend for herself a while.”

He slid out of the booth and stood awkwardly. Amanda rose also helping Lily to her feet. He put the tip under his coffee cup, reached out to take Lily’s arm, but she pulled back gripping tighter to Amanda. Lily’s lower lip trembled.

“Can I go to sleep now? You never let me go to sleep.” Lily accused. She looked up at Amanda. “That man, what’s his name?”

“Max.” Amanda said gently not able to look up at Max. Ouch, that must have hurt. Not that she cared, but it had to hurt when his own wife couldn’t remember his name.

“Max. Why can’t I remember that? That man is mean to me.”

“No, Lily, Max isn’t mean.”

“Yes, he is! He never lets me sleep.”

“No, Lily,” Amanda began. Max interrupted by touching her shoulder. When she looked up she saw his watery eyes with a quick shake of his head. Her eyes shifted quickly to her feet and she was silent.

Back at the motel Max helped Amanda get Lily settled under the covers. She lay on her left side with her right knee pulled up to her chest. He watched her settle into the bed. The experts said she would gradually pull into a fetal position, but for now she slept pretty much as she always had. When she was asleep, he leaned over and smoothed back her hair from her face and kissed her gently. Amanda sat on the other bed simply watching. He couldn’t read her expression but heaven knew he’d never unlocked the mysterious way women’s minds worked.

He finally rose. His legs felt especially heavy today. With a nap, a good dinner, some time with the box of old letters, maybe even a little TV and then a good night’s rest, he’d recover. Tomorrow they might make it to Knoxville, but with the way things were going so far, Max wasn’t going to count on it.
As he started toward the adjoining door, Amanda spoke for the first time since the restaurant. He paused.

“Mr. Carnes?”

“Yes.”

‘Later, would you tell me about this Greta? The one Lily thinks I am.”

“Ah, Greta.” He pondered that. “Tell you what, Amanda; could you wait until we are on the road in the morning?”

“Sure, no problem. You don’t mind do you? I mean she’s not like the “bad seed” is she?”

“Hardly, though I suspect she had her doubts about that. She was Lily’s older sister. Tomorrow, Amanda.” He waved to her as he stumbled slightly over the threshold. “The lounge chair in here is calling my name.”

“Whatever.”

Max pulled the door shut behind him. Just as he settled into the chair, he heard the deadbolt click on the adjoining door. Amanda wasn’t taking any chances. Sleep came as a warm tingling upward from his legs spreading out over his whole being.

Two hours later he was awakened to a distant orchestra playing the “William Tell Overture”.

*

“Millie!” Max said, “Good to hear your voice.”

“Yours, too, Pops. Andrew came in for lunch just a bit ago and we were wondering where you all were now. Peggy and Barry both told us you and Momma Lily had a young traveling companion. Everything going ok?”

“Fine, just fine, Millie. We are still in Cookeville. Momma had a little episode while we were out shopping this morning.”

“Are you ok? Is she ok?”

“We are now. Our “traveling companion” as you called her helped. She is about Allison’s age.”

“Good grief, Pops! What on earth is she doing traipsing around the country alone? Where are her folks?”

Max started to share his suspicions about Amanda but he looked up before he answered noticing the adjoining door open and Amanda’s shadow through the partially open door. Better save that discussion for a later time, he decided.

“That still hasn’t been established, but we’ll get there eventually.”

“Huh? Oh, you have company.” Millie replied softly. Max could almost see Millie’s look of understanding. Andrew had gotten a good one in that woman. She was quick.

“What’s going on there? Have you been out and about any?”

Millie took the hint and launched into sharing the most recent event she could think. With the deft flair of a good storyteller she could take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.

“Well, I carried a casserole up to Uncle Fred’s today. I thought he might be getting hungry since Evelyn’s in the rehab center now.”

Fred was the fifth of the Carnes’ brothers, eighteen months younger than Ed.

He’d never married but lived his entire adult life in the home of Max’s oldest brother, Mitchell, and his wife, Evelyn. The couple had no children, so Evelyn had devoted her life to cooking, cleaning and taking care of both Mitchell and Fred. When Mitchell died suddenly five years ago, nobody in the family raised an eyebrow when the living arrangements of a lifetime continued.

Unfortunately for Fred and Evelyn too, Max acknowledged, Evelyn had a stroke six weeks ago. Her residence changed for a yet undetermined time to the rehabilitation center in Pembroke. The whole family wondered what on earth Fred would do. Here was an 80-year-old bachelor who had never even made a pot of coffee by himself. Millie had immediately started taking a casserole by every week and just checking in on Fred.

“How is Fred?” Max asked, anticipating a good tale.

“He’s taken up cooking.”

“Fred? Cooking? Sounds  downright dangerous to me.”

“Probably. I mean, maybe not, but the place isn’t quite as tidy as it was when Evelyn was there. He’s been rolling his cigarettes on her dining room table and evidently his cooking experiments have involved every square inch of the kitchen. He invited me in to sample his stew.”

Millie’s intonation lifted on the last phrase meaningfully followed by a pause. She was baiting him and though he tried to resist, at least momentarily, he found himself lunging at the dangling interval anxious to know the outcome.

“So, did you?”

“Well,” Millie drew the word out to hint at her reluctance to enter the kitchen, let alone taste anything Fred might have cooked. Max tried to imagine the expression on her face. “You know, Pops, there he stood in the kitchen, surrounded by stacks of dirty dishes, holding a large crusty wooden spoon. I mean, Pops, that spoon had stirred more than one pot of stew, if you get my meaning. But, darn it, there he stood proud as a peacock, grinning from ear to ear.”

“Did he have his teeth in?”

“No.” Millie stated matter-of-factly, “But, he did have a cigarette dangling from his lower lip with an ash the size of Texas.”

“That would be Fred all right,” Max, laughed at the description. “So, did you sample his stew?”

“I did. Only a little bit and I closed my eyes really tight to avoid catching a glimpse of that spoon up close. And you know what? It wasn’t half bad. Now he did want me to sit down and have a bowl, but I declined. Told him I might ruin my supper.”

Max whooped aloud at the very thought of Millie’s eyes clamped shut tasting Fred’s stew. His laughter evidently drove Amanda away from the door. He saw the shadow dissipate. To check for sure, he crossed the room and peeked through the opening in the door. Lily still slept and Amanda was across the room at the table, painting her nails and watching TV.

“Millie,” he said quietly, changing tones while moving as far from the ajar door as he could while still watching it. “This girl, Amanda, I think she may be running away from something. Can’t quite figure her out. Big mood swings, you know.”

“Do I ever? We have a teenaged daughter, Pops. Seriously though, most parents don’t let their teenagers tramp across the country hitching rides with just anybody.”

“Wait a minute.”

“Pops, I wasn’t talking about you and Momma Lily. I am guessing she’d been on the road before you picked her up. Am I right?”

“Looked that way. She was broke, hungry, dirty and madder than a Momma Bear with cubs. Still is angry, at least some of the time. Rude, too, but then she can be sweet. Tarnation Millie, I am too blame old to figure out female emotions, but I am worried about her.”

“What name does she give?” The sound of Millie pulling a pencil from the holder by the phone caught his ear.

“Amanda Smith. I think Amanda’s her name but Smith isn’t.”

“Take a picture of her, with Lily or alone.”

“Darn it! Millie, I don’t remember packing a camera.”

“Pops, use your phone and text the picture to me.” she hesitated, ” do you know how to do that?” There is a camera in Lily’s small bag.”

After a lengthy pause, Max muttered, “I ‘d do better with a camera, Millie.”

“Pops, there is a camera in Lily’s small bag.”

“There is? I’m sure I don’t remember packing one.”

“You didn’t.”

“O-o-h” he said understanding. Millie laughed.

“You are going to want some pictures and I suggest you start taking some tomorrow. Get some good ones of Amanda then take them to the one-hour photo shop at Wal-Mart. Get duplicates and send one set here to me.”

“Huh?”

“Pops, I’ll scan them.”

“Scan them?”

“Right and put them on one of those missing or found children sites on the Internet. In the meantime I’ll get on some of those sites and see what I come up with using the little bit we know.”

“You can do that?” The hedge in his voice indicated his doubtfulness.

“I can.”

“Watch your mail.” Max conceded. He heard Lily stirring in the next room.

“Lily’s waking up, Millie. I’d better go. Give Andrew and the kids our love.”

“Will do, Pops. Don’t forget the camera and pictures. Write it down.”

“Bye, Millie” he said pushing the off button thinking, why’d she say that? My mind is as good as it has ever been; a mental note should suffice.

Later that evening Max reclined again in the lounge chair, this time with his Bible and opened the old box. The door between the two rooms was open. Lily had awakened from her nap more communicative, but after dinner dropped into another slump. Though not like the morning episode her confusion increased. He had handed her the photograph to reassure her. She now rested on her side with it tightly gripped in her hand. Amanda sat across the room watching TV.

Occasionally, when he looked up to check on Lily, he’d meet Amanda’s eyes, but she hurriedly diverted her glance. Was she watching him? He wasn’t really sure.

His Bible lay open in his lap to Isaiah, the prophet. Until recently he’d been a regular church going man. If he recorded his life in words a typical Sunday entry in his journal would have begun with, we went to church as usual. In the last several months, he’d stayed home with Lily more and more. Lately, after he discovered the box and arranged the contents chronologically, he read a letter every night. He was now reading through Lily’s collection the second time.

On Saturday night after reading from his Bible and reading one of the letters, he would pull out his Sunday school lesson book, study the lesson for the next day and then decide the following morning that negotiating the obstacle course of getting Lily and himself ready required more energy than he could muster.

His excuses were many, but in the lounge chair in a motel in Cookeville, Tennessee, he knew they were lame. If he could take Lily to Ocean Isle Beach, he could get them to church on Sunday.

Reading the words in Isaiah 43, he felt slightly ashamed. “When you walk through the fire.” He knew his reluctance to attend church came because of pride and a lack of trust. He hated people seeing Lily like she had become. He hated asking for help, getting ready, though certainly Andrew and Millie had offered. He hated enduring the pity he read in every face in the congregation. His flesh crawled knowing people they’d known all their lives pitied him.

The last time they had attended together, Lily had sat quietly through the whole service. When he helped her up from the pew, Agnes Wilcox descended upon them jabbering nonstop. He was barely listening to her, trying to get to the exit, when he noticed from the corner of his eye that Lily was looking down at her dress and fidgeting nervously with her pearl necklace. Tuning back toward Agnes and Lily, he heard his name and the word husband.

“Max? My husband? I don’t know any Max. I’m not married. Why are you saying those things? Who are you?” The edge of fear in Lily’s voice was unmistakable.

Agnes flushed and stepped backward, sputtering, trying to say something to disengage herself from them. Finally, she managed, “Well you do look lovely, Lily. That dress is very becoming with your pearls.”

Lily stared at Agnes and then down at the dress, grasping the pearls even more tightly, “This isn’t my dress,” she proclaimed loudly, “It must belong to this man!” She glared at Max, “tell her, you wore it yesterday, didn’t you?” With her index finger she thumped him in the center of his chest.

Everything stopped. Silence fell where moments earlier the clatter of multiple conversations had filled the air, as people said their good-byes, planned activities or decided where to meet for lunch and whether they would beat the Baptists there. The descent of the silence and the clatter of pearls coincided perfectly as Lily’s necklace broke from her strangle hold. A chorus of pings resounded as the pearls hit the hardwood floors and rolled a myriad of directions. Immediately, the remaining crowd went diving for errant pearls or dodging them as they bounced and rolled. During the confusion, Max managed to wrestle Lily out the door and in the car.

All the way home he replayed the scene in his head. Without intending to be, he admitted he was embarrassed and angry. Not angry at Lily, Lord, he knew she couldn’t help it, but angry still, angry with himself and, God help him, angry with God.

Wednesday that week, Brother Tom their pastor for the past 15 years brought Lily’s pearls out in a sealed envelope. He told Max he wasn’t sure if they were all accounted for; some might have rolled into the vents near the front of the sanctuary. They sat out on the porch for a long time talking about everything but Lily. She was napping. Neither man mentioned the scene the past Sunday.

Max couldn’t bring himself to talk beyond idle chitchat. Often since then he’d wished Brother Tom had brought it up, but he didn’t. The incident hung in his heart like a fish bone caught in his throat. The envelope with pearls, which were imitation, rested in the junk drawer in the kitchen where he had tossed it after Brother Tom drove off that day.

Petty, he thought, blaming the pastor and the folks he’d known most of his life for imagined failings. They were at a loss as to how to help a stubborn old man who was bound and determined to act as if he didn’t need help, as if nothing had changed, when in fact, daily, the disease progressed, stealing more of Lily from him and all who loved her. He longed to know the woman he had missed so he picked up another envelope from the box and carefully unfolded the thin paper within with the now familiar script.

The sense that he was being watched caused him to look up. The child stood in the doorway watching him.

“Do you need something, Amanda?”

“Nah. What are you reading?” She asked suspiciously.

“Just an old letter.”

“An old letter?” her voice matched the smirk that twisted her face.

“Yes, an old letter.”

“Why?”

He had had about all he could take of the girl’s attitude, but caught himself before giving her any satisfaction by snapping at her. He just wanted her to go away and leave him alone.

“So, I can know Lily better.”

“Whoa! Are they love letters from an old boyfriend? Are they full of secrets?”

“Secrets? A few maybe.” He pondered that statement. They really weren’t secrets. Lily would have opened all this to him from the beginning, if he hadn’t been such a hard headed fool.

“Really! Do you have secrets too?”

“Me?” In spite of his agitation with this girl’s insistent probing, he chuckled.

“No, a man my age usually has very few secrets, at least not any worth writing down. Most of them have either been exposed a long time ago or simply forgotten. I doubt much about my life is secret. It certainly doesn’t escape the eyes of the Lord, anyway.”

“You mean God, right? Do, do, Do, do, Do, do, do, Do,” the smirk on her mouth and her rendition of the theme of the Twilight Zone annoyed him, but he suspected she intended to do just that. She certainly could be a little twerp when she wanted to be.

“That’s the one,” he said matter-of-factly, returning his attention to the page before him. He was way too tired to tackle theological issues tonight even if he wanted to do so, which he did not.

“My mother had secrets and she kept a journal. She wrote down lots of secrets, dirty secrets.” Her voice dripped with the haughtiness only the young can produce, it clung to him like a wad of spit on the snow. He looked up to say something only to find that she had retreated. The door between the rooms snapped shut. The dead bolt clicked.

So much for that conversation, he thought. Max tucked the box and Bible in his suitcase. After his bath, he slid between the covers on the bed and slept soundly.

 

Chapter Six
Somewhere between
Monterey and Crossville
Tennessee

“So tell me about this Greta. You promised.”

Max glanced sideways at Amanda who was sulked in the passenger seat next to him with her arms crossed over her chest staring out the side window. Her indifferent attitude throughout the morning was complete with lethargic movement when he asked for help loading the car. She had a full repertoire of bored facial expressions that any actress would admire; her attitude did not incline him toward storytelling.

He’d stopped short of sending her packing a couple of times. If she hadn’t been so kind to Lily, he might have done just that, he told himself. No, he admitted, he wouldn’t have, not that she didn’t deserve it, but because something in him wouldn’t let him. So natural inclinations aside, he thought back a few moments about Greta, glanced over the seat to see Lily sleeping soundly and began.

“Greta was Lily’s older sister, five years older…” he began.

“Please! You already told me that!” Amanda groaned as if she were addressing a doddering old idiot.

“Young Lady!” Max snapped keeping his voice quiet but without disguising the annoyance he felt, “If you want to hear about Greta, I suggest you try to avoid interrupting me, because I would be just as comfortable not talking as talking.”

“Ok” she said quietly, eyes still out the window and arms still crossed.

“From now on, I thought we had covered this before, I expect you to show me some respect, if only because you are getting a free ride.” He saw her open her mouth and before he thought, he pointed his finger at her, waggling it like some old fogey. Well tarnation, he was old! And this flibbertigibbet of impertinence tried his patience. She clamped her mouth shut and glared at him.

He sputtered, “Haven’t you learned any manners in your short life?”

“Yes, Mr. Carnes.” Her voice was almost flat but there was a tinge of contriteness in it, he decided. Of course that prospect seemed unlikely in view of her body language. He took a deep breath, said the Lord’s Prayer silently and remained silent for several minutes, taking in the scenery and negotiating the endless curves that marked Highway 70 as they moved forward through Monterey toward Crossville.

Being behind the wheel of a vehicle had always helped Max organize his thoughts. Of course, most of those vehicles had been farm equipment or his pickup truck. He’d really never been a long distance thinker. Too many hours at the wheel of a car dulled his mental resources creating instead a compulsion to get where he was going, then get back as fast as he could.

Fortunately, most family car trips and the two or three Lily and he had taken after the Carnes’ children were grown didn’t require long hours of reverie on his part, because Lily developed a number of ways of breaking up a trip and keeping things interesting. Before cassette players were in cars, she’d pick a book for all of them to share and would read the miles away. For a man who had for the most part read only his Bible, newspaper, and Sunday School lesson, as well as to a lesser degree, an occasional farming periodical, her long readings on the family trips introduced him to literature he never would have picked up to consider. When they did finally own a car with a tape player, she’d sometimes get books on tape from the county library.

It hit him as he remembered those trips that he could get a book on tape for this trip. Of course that might not prove too easy without a library card. Surely, he considered, you could probably get them other places and locked in some memory vault in Lily’s brain was where. Max frankly hadn’t a clue. He shifted his eyes toward Amanda; maybe she’d know. He shook his head, no, probably not. She caught him looking and with a look only slightly a notch above a sneer, muttered disgustedly,

“What?”

“Nothing.” He said, returning his eyes to the highway. “What would you like to know about Greta?” What did he actually know about Greta, he wondered?

Mostly stories Lily had told him. And, of course, now that he had read the letters, many blanks had filled in, but not without bringing a new load of questions. He’d only been in Greta’s company five or six times throughout his courtship of Lily and only once after their marriage. After she’d run away to England in 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Stanton rarely spoke of her again.

At her funeral in Savannah, her Uncle Ben had eulogized her as a free spirit; an idealist who sought to do something to help the suffering rather than sit idle while evil ravished the world. Max remembered watching his in-laws out of the corner of his eye. They sat stone cold. For them Greta had died over a year before. It had been a strange funeral. Maybe it was the unfamiliar liturgy of the Episcopal Service, but Max sensed the tension between Lily and her parents. To his knowledge the tension never resolved; it remained at every family gathering with like the heavy air before a thunderstorm no matter how joyful the celebration.

Lily and Isadora wept unashamedly at Greta’s funeral, as did Ben, who wiped his eyes often during the eulogy. Max, too, found tears pooling in his eyes, for Lily primarily and because he too had some unresolved issues about Greta.

“I don’t know.” Amanda said, “Where did she live? What kind of person was she?” She paused and then added as an afterthought, “And why on earth do you think Lily thinks I am Greta?”

He thought he would leave the last question until some hint of a reason occurred to him. So far he hadn’t any idea. He started the story carefully, wondering what he should leave out.

“Greta and Lily were born and raised in Brunswick, Georgia. There were only the two sisters, no other siblings. With the five years between them and their remarkably different personalities they easily could have grown up virtually strangers, but as far as I can tell, Greta doted on Lily from the day she was born.”

“Where’s Brunswick, Georgia?” Amanda asked.

“It is on the coast near Jekyll Island, south of Savannah. They spent a lot of their time in Savannah. Their Aunt Isadora and Uncle Ben helped raise them. Mrs. Stanton, Lily and Greta’s mother, had a nervous disorder after Lily was born and Mr. Stanton worked for the Central of Georgia Railroad and was gone a lot.”

“Post-Partum Depression.” Amanda declared.

Max glanced her way. Where on earth did a child learn such things, Max wondered. She was undoubtedly right because Mr. Stanton had once in a rare moment confided in him that Margaret took to her bed and could not even look at Lily. In retrospect, Max realized he’d told him this after their first child, her grandmother’s namesake, died at birth. It had been Mr. Stanton’s way of showing concern for his only remaining child’s well being. It had been his way of warning Max to be vigilant.

“I think you are probably right, but they didn’t know much about that in 1918. Anyway, even though Mrs. Stanton recovered, Isadora and Ben became like second parents to both girls. Then when Lily was twelve and Greta seventeen, their mother got polio.”

“I’ve heard of that!” Amanda said proudly. Her voice took on a tone of interest that he had not heard all morning.

“Well, halleluiah, our educational system has not failed!” He laughed and amazingly she did too. The next voice they heard was a drowsy drawl from the backseat.

“You remember, don’t you, Greta? Momma had to stay in a sanitarium and we went to live with Aunt Isadora and Uncle Ben. We never went home again.”

Amanda looked at Max before saying anything. With a shrug of his shoulders and his eyes fixed ahead, he deferred to her. Frankly, he wasn’t sure what to suggest. When Amanda turned to answer after a brief pause, Lily had already slipped back into a deep slumber. She watched her for a moment wondering if she would open her eyes or show some sign of consciousness, but Lily did not.

“She’s sound asleep again.” Amanda said. Max wondered where Lily’s response had come from. It had been so, so out of the blue and on target.

“So go on, they went to live in Savannah then what?” Amanda prodded.

“Well, I met them both on a train from Chattanooga to Savannah in 1934. Lily was sixteen and Greta was twenty one. We managed to spend some time together in Savannah and then for the next four years I courted Lily through letters. At the end of that four years I struck out to Georgia and brought her home as my bride. They had stayed on with Ben and Isadora even after their mother had been released from the sanitarium and other than a slight limp, was fully recovered., By the time that happened both girls were in school and quite happy in Savannah. Greta was in nursing school at a hospital in Savannah when I met Lily and later she worked at the same hospital until,” he paused.

Max wasn’t sure what he should tell Amanda about Greta at this point.

“Until?”

“There were a bunch of things happening all over the world at that time. Greta became passionate about how the Nazi’s were overrunning Europe and targeting Jews. She often quoted Edmund Burke ‘For evil to succeed it only takes good men to do nothing’. Lily and she corresponded constantly. The letters, every one of them were in the box he’d found. I had never read them until after Lily became sick. They were personal and well, you would have had to know about Greta and Lily together to even begin to understand how sacred that privacy seemed to me.”

“But you have read them now?” Amanda asked. Max nodded and continued trying to explain Greta and Lily to a stranger, a child.

“The bond between them was so great that even as adults with thousands of miles separating them they could sense each other’s joys and pains. A long time before fancy gadgets like the web and cell phones, those two sisters were hot wired together. I watched it happen more than once.”

Max forced the next words, “The night Greta died, Lily was washing dishes in the sink. I was drying and kidding around with her. Earlier in the evening, I had carved a jack-o-lantern. From the scoops of pumpkin Lily had made a pie for supper. It was a night to celebrate. We had been married a little over two years and had just found out that we were going to be parents. It had been a wonderful evening. There we were both laughing, hopeful, when suddenly Lily turned as white as a sheet. She literally froze in place. I panicked, started shaking her. She folded like a rag doll burying her face in her apron. It was only minutes but it seemed like hours before she spoke. Finally, she raised her head and said calmly, too calmly, ‘Greta’s with Jesus.’ For two days after that incident in our kitchen, Lily seldom spoke; she moved like a mechanical toy until the telegram arrived. The tragedy became even more personal to me, when Lily lost our baby.

He paused, the long ago loss of Lily’s sister and their baby, washed over him with a freshness that left him near tears, but he continued.

The Nazi Luftwaffe’s air attack on London pounded that city for fifty seven consecutive nights in 1940 from September 7 to November 2. Greta had been walking home from her shift at the hospital when the air raid siren sounded; she never made it to a shelter. It was the fifty fifth night of the blitz, Halloween.” His voice broke with emotions the memory raised in him. He had wrestled with those feelings for all the years since.

Max remembered the helplessness he had felt those two days, how he tried to reach out to his hurting wife, tried to tell her that she was being silly; she couldn’t know Greta was dead. But she had known. Unreasonable as he knew it was, Max had been jealous of the connection Greta and Lily had shared. Jealous that Greta could break into their lives in Kentucky and ruin a perfectly lovely evening. Mostly he was jealous because as much as he loved Lily and she loved him they did not have what she had had with Greta.

His hands tightened on the steering wheel. His resentment, which had reached a crescendo by the time the telegram arrived, crumbled. In the face of his young wife’s grief, he dealt with two other menacing emotions; revulsion at his selfishness and fear that Lily would not be able to forgive him if she ever learned how he felt. And then she lost the baby, so his grief became real, but in a way he still blamed Greta. Lily grieved, but in time recovered enough to move forward. When she recalled Greta, which she did often in the beginning, she told funny stories of their antics and adventures as children. She seldom, if ever, talked at all about Greta running away to London or any of the events that precipitated it. She never spoke of her parent’s refusal to forgive Greta.

After Ryan’s birth in 1945, she dropped all references to Greta. Max suspected it was because of his reaction to his moodiness when she mentioned her sister. The gravity of her anguish hit him hard as he discovered whole story from the letters he had discovered since her illness. All evidence of her search for answers ceased after the war. There were questions left unanswered, but Lily had never spoken a word of it to Max. Likewise, he had never spoken of his own resentment of Greta and had never been able to ask her forgiveness. He wondered now if she had suspected. If so, she never said.

He glanced back at Lily in the rear seat, still sleeping, regretting again that he had failed to ask her forgiveness while she could still forgive him. Returning his eyes to the highway, he noticed Amanda looking at him.

“What?” he asked, more impatiently than he intended.

“Never mind. You just looked kind of, you know, sad. Are you ok?”

“It was a sad time. The war was sad. My younger brother died at Guadalcanal in 1943. Lily lost a sister and I lost a brother.”

“This was World War II, right? Nazis and Japanese?”

“Yes, I guess they still teach you about that in school?”

“Yeah, sort of. Did you go to war?”

“Yes, I enlisted after Pearl Harbor. You have heard of Pearl Harbor?”

“Oh, sure, I saw the movie. It was really good, but long, you know.”

“Not nearly as long as it was for the people who lived through it,” Max replied, not sure what to say next. As it turned out, he didn’t have to come up with something.

“Look out! Stop!” Amanda screamed.

Max fought to find the brake with his right foot, but it slipped. He felt Amanda’s foot over his leg and the Buick swerved to the right and came to rest in a canopy of trees. Mercifully, the vehicle had not hit anything, but Max banged his forehead against the steering wheel and fought the involuntarily trembling that overcame his muscles from head to foot. Lily was screaming, but apparently unharmed. Amanda shoved the gearshift into park and bounded from the car.

What on earth was going on! Max struggled to break loose of his seat belt, but felt nausea rising in his throat. Where was that darn release? He heard a tapping in his left ear, looking up he saw a State Trooper. Max rolled down his window, painfully aware that Lily was still screaming in the back seat. He needed to get to her, to help her. What on earth had happened? Why had Amanda hit the brakes and grabbed the wheel?

“Sir, are you folks ok?”

“My wife, I need to get to my wife. She gets confused.” He struggled again with his seat belt, finally pushing the release button. Fumbling for a moment he managed to get the door open, just as everything went black.

 

World War II Nurses

Chapter Six
Somewhere between
Monterey and Crossville
Tennessee

“So tell me about this Greta. You promised.”

Max glanced sideways at Amanda who was sulked in the passenger seat next to him with her arms crossed over her chest staring out the side window. Her indifferent attitude throughout the morning was complete with lethargic movement when he asked for help loading the car. She had a full repertoire of bored facial expressions that any actress would admire; her attitude did not incline him toward storytelling.

He’d stopped short of sending her packing a couple of times. If she hadn’t been so kind to Lily, he might have done just that, he told himself. No, he admitted, he wouldn’t have, not that she didn’t deserve it, but because something in him wouldn’t let him. So natural inclinations aside, he thought back a few moments about Greta, glanced over the seat to see Lily sleeping soundly and began.

“Greta was Lily’s older sister, five years older…” he began.

“Please! You already told me that!” Amanda groaned as if she were addressing a doddering old idiot.

“Young Lady!” Max snapped keeping his voice quiet but without disguising the annoyance he felt, “If you want to hear about Greta, I suggest you try to avoid interrupting me, because I would be just as comfortable not talking as talking.”

“Ok” she said quietly, eyes still out the window and arms still crossed.

“From now on, I thought we had covered this before, I expect you to show me some respect, if only because you are getting a free ride.” He saw her open her mouth and before he thought, he pointed his finger at her, waggling it like some old fogey. Well tarnation, he was old! And this flibbertigibbet of impertinence tried his patience. She clamped her mouth shut and glared at him.

He sputtered, “Haven’t you learned any manners in your short life?”

“Yes, Mr. Carnes.” Her voice was almost flat but there was a tinge of contriteness in it, he decided. Of course that prospect seemed unlikely in view of her body language. He took a deep breath, said the Lord’s Prayer silently and remained silent for several minutes, taking in the scenery and negotiating the endless curves that marked Highway 70 as they moved forward through Monterey toward Crossville.

Being behind the wheel of a vehicle had always helped Max organize his thoughts. Of course, most of those vehicles had been farm equipment or his pickup truck. He’d really never been a long distance thinker. Too many hours at the wheel of a car dulled his mental resources creating instead a compulsion to get where he was going, then get back as fast as he could.

Fortunately, most family car trips and the two or three Lily and he had taken after the Carnes’ children were grown didn’t require long hours of reverie on his part, because Lily developed a number of ways of breaking up a trip and keeping things interesting. Before cassette players were in cars, she’d pick a book for all of them to share and would read the miles away. For a man who had for the most part read only his Bible, newspaper, and Sunday School lesson, as well as to a lesser degree, an occasional farming periodical, her long readings on the family trips introduced him to literature he never would have picked up to consider. When they did finally own a car with a tape player, she’d sometimes get books on tape from the county library.

It hit him as he remembered those trips that he could get a book on tape for this trip. Of course that might not prove too easy without a library card. Surely, he considered, you could probably get them other places and locked in some memory vault in Lily’s brain was where. Max frankly hadn’t a clue. He shifted his eyes toward Amanda; maybe she’d know. He shook his head, no, probably not. She caught him looking and with a look only slightly a notch above a sneer, muttered disgustedly,

“What?”

“Nothing.” He said, returning his eyes to the highway. “What would you like to know about Greta?” What did he actually know about Greta, he wondered?

Mostly stories Lily had told him. And, of course, now that he had read the letters, many blanks had filled in, but not without bringing a new load of questions. He’d only been in Greta’s company five or six times throughout his courtship of Lily and only once after their marriage. After she’d run away to England in 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Stanton rarely spoke of her again.

At her funeral in Savannah, her Uncle Ben had eulogized her as a free spirit; an idealist who sought to do something to help the suffering rather than sit idle while evil ravished the world. Max remembered watching his in-laws out of the corner of his eye. They sat stone cold. For them Greta had died over a year before. It had been a strange funeral. Maybe it was the unfamiliar liturgy of the Episcopal Service, but Max sensed the tension between Lily and her parents. To his knowledge the tension never resolved; it remained at every family gathering with like the heavy air before a thunderstorm no matter how joyful the celebration.

Lily and Isadora wept unashamedly at Greta’s funeral, as did Ben, who wiped his eyes often during the eulogy. Max, too, found tears pooling in his eyes, for Lily primarily and because he too had some unresolved issues about Greta.

“I don’t know.” Amanda said, “Where did she live? What kind of person was she?” She paused and then added as an afterthought, “And why on earth do you think Lily thinks I am Greta?”

He thought he would leave the last question until some hint of a reason occurred to him. So far he hadn’t any idea. He started the story carefully, wondering what he should leave out.

“Greta and Lily were born and raised in Brunswick, Georgia. There were only the two sisters, no other siblings. With the five years between them and their remarkably different personalities they easily could have grown up virtually strangers, but as far as I can tell, Greta doted on Lily from the day she was born.”

“Where’s Brunswick, Georgia?” Amanda asked.

“It is on the coast near Jekyll Island, south of Savannah. They spent a lot of their time in Savannah. Their Aunt Isadora and Uncle Ben helped raise them. Mrs. Stanton, Lily and Greta’s mother, had a nervous disorder after Lily was born and Mr. Stanton worked for the Central of Georgia Railroad and was gone a lot.”

“Post-Partum Depression.” Amanda declared.

Max glanced her way. Where on earth did a child learn such things, Max wondered. She was undoubtedly right because Mr. Stanton had once in a rare moment confided in him that Margaret took to her bed and could not even look at Lily. In retrospect, Max realized he’d told him this after their first child, her grandmother’s namesake, died at birth. It had been Mr. Stanton’s way of showing concern for his only remaining child’s well being. It had been his way of warning Max to be vigilant.

“I think you are probably right, but they didn’t know much about that in 1918. Anyway, even though Mrs. Stanton recovered, Isadora and Ben became like second parents to both girls. Then when Lily was twelve and Greta seventeen, their mother got polio.”

“I’ve heard of that!” Amanda said proudly. Her voice took on a tone of interest that he had not heard all morning.

“Well, halleluiah, our educational system has not failed!” He laughed and amazingly she did too. The next voice they heard was a drowsy drawl from the backseat.

“You remember, don’t you, Greta? Momma had to stay in a sanitarium and we went to live with Aunt Isadora and Uncle Ben. We never went home again.”

Amanda looked at Max before saying anything. With a shrug of his shoulders and his eyes fixed ahead, he deferred to her. Frankly, he wasn’t sure what to suggest. When Amanda turned to answer after a brief pause, Lily had already slipped back into a deep slumber. She watched her for a moment wondering if she would open her eyes or show some sign of consciousness, but Lily did not.

“She’s sound asleep again.” Amanda said. Max wondered where Lily’s response had come from. It had been so, so out of the blue and on target.

“So go on, they went to live in Savannah then what?” Amanda prodded.

“Well, I met them both on a train from Chattanooga to Savannah in 1934. Lily was sixteen and Greta was twenty one. We managed to spend some time together in Savannah and then for the next four years I courted Lily through letters. At the end of that four years I struck out to Georgia and brought her home as my bride. They had stayed on with Ben and Isadora even after their mother had been released from the sanitarium and other than a slight limp, was fully recovered., By the time that happened both girls were in school and quite happy in Savannah. Greta was in nursing school at a hospital in Savannah when I met Lily and later she worked at the same hospital until,” he paused.

Max wasn’t sure what he should tell Amanda about Greta at this point.

“Until?”

“There were a bunch of things happening all over the world at that time. Greta became passionate about how the Nazi’s were overrunning Europe and targeting Jews. She often quoted Edmund Burke ‘For evil to succeed it only takes good men to do nothing’. Lily and she corresponded constantly. The letters, every one of them were in the box he’d found. I had never read them until after Lily became sick. They were personal and well, you would have had to know about Greta and Lily together to even begin to understand how sacred that privacy seemed to me.”

“But you have read them now?” Amanda asked. Max nodded and continued trying to explain Greta and Lily to a stranger, a child.

“The bond between them was so great that even as adults with thousands of miles separating them they could sense each other’s joys and pains. A long time before fancy gadgets like the web and cell phones, those two sisters were hot wired together. I watched it happen more than once.”

Max forced the next words, “The night Greta died, Lily was washing dishes in the sink. I was drying and kidding around with her. Earlier in the evening, I had carved a jack-o-lantern. From the scoops of pumpkin Lily had made a pie for supper. It was a night to celebrate. We had been married a little over two years and had just found out that we were going to be parents. It had been a wonderful evening. There we were both laughing, hopeful, when suddenly Lily turned as white as a sheet. She literally froze in place. I panicked, started shaking her. She folded like a rag doll burying her face in her apron. It was only minutes but it seemed like hours before she spoke. Finally, she raised her head and said calmly, too calmly, ‘Greta’s with Jesus.’ For two days after that incident in our kitchen, Lily seldom spoke; she moved like a mechanical toy until the telegram arrived. The tragedy became even more personal to me, when Lily lost our baby.

He paused, the long ago loss of Lily’s sister and their baby, washed over him with a freshness that left him near tears, but he continued.

The Nazi Luftwaffe’s air attack on London pounded that city for fifty seven consecutive nights in 1940 from September 7 to November 2. Greta had been walking home from her shift at the hospital when the air raid siren sounded; she never made it to a shelter. It was the fifty fifth night of the blitz, Halloween.” His voice broke with emotions the memory raised in him. He had wrestled with those feelings for all the years since.

Max remembered the helplessness he had felt those two days, how he tried to reach out to his hurting wife, tried to tell her that she was being silly; she couldn’t know Greta was dead. But she had known. Unreasonable as he knew it was, Max had been jealous of the connection Greta and Lily had shared. Jealous that Greta could break into their lives in Kentucky and ruin a perfectly lovely evening. Mostly he was jealous because as much as he loved Lily and she loved him they did not have what she had had with Greta.

His hands tightened on the steering wheel. His resentment, which had reached a crescendo by the time the telegram arrived, crumbled. In the face of his young wife’s grief, he dealt with two other menacing emotions; revulsion at his selfishness and fear that Lily would not be able to forgive him if she ever learned how he felt. And then she lost the baby, so his grief became real, but in a way he still blamed Greta. Lily grieved, but in time recovered enough to move forward. When she recalled Greta, which she did often in the beginning, she told funny stories of their antics and adventures as children. She seldom, if ever, talked at all about Greta running away to London or any of the events that precipitated it. She never spoke of her parent’s refusal to forgive Greta.

After Ryan’s birth in 1945, she dropped all references to Greta. Max suspected it was because of his reaction to his moodiness when she mentioned her sister. The gravity of her anguish hit him hard as he discovered whole story from the letters he had discovered since her illness. All evidence of her search for answers ceased after the war. There were questions left unanswered, but Lily had never spoken a word of it to Max. Likewise, he had never spoken of his own resentment of Greta and had never been able to ask her forgiveness. He wondered now if she had suspected. If so, she never said.

He glanced back at Lily in the rear seat, still sleeping, regretting again that he had failed to ask her forgiveness while she could still forgive him. Returning his eyes to the highway, he noticed Amanda looking at him.

“What?” he asked, more impatiently than he intended.

“Never mind. You just looked kind of, you know, sad. Are you ok?”

“It was a sad time. The war was sad. My younger brother died at Guadalcanal in 1943. Lily lost a sister and I lost a brother.”

“This was World War II, right? Nazis and Japanese?”

“Yes, I guess they still teach you about that in school?”

“Yeah, sort of. Did you go to war?”

“Yes, I enlisted after Pearl Harbor. You have heard of Pearl Harbor?”

“Oh, sure, I saw the movie. It was really good, but long, you know.”

“Not nearly as long as it was for the people who lived through it,” Max replied, not sure what to say next. As it turned out, he didn’t have to come up with something.

“Look out! Stop!” Amanda screamed.

Max fought to find the brake with his right foot, but it slipped. He felt Amanda’s foot over his leg and the Buick swerved to the right and came to rest in a canopy of trees. Mercifully, the vehicle had not hit anything, but Max banged his forehead against the steering wheel and fought the involuntarily trembling that overcame his muscles from head to foot. Lily was screaming, but apparently unharmed. Amanda shoved the gearshift into park and bounded from the car.

What on earth was going on! Max struggled to break loose of his seat belt, but felt nausea rising in his throat. Where was that darn release? He heard a tapping in his left ear, looking up he saw a State Trooper. Max rolled down his window, painfully aware that Lily was still screaming in the back seat. He needed to get to her, to help her. What on earth had happened? Why had Amanda hit the brakes and grabbed the wheel?

“Sir, are you folks ok?”

“My wife, I need to get to my wife. She gets confused.” He struggled again with his seat belt, finally pushing the release button. Fumbling for a moment he managed to get the door open, just as everything went black.

 

 

Chapter Seven
Crossville, Tennessee

The bright light pierced like a bolt of lightning through Max’s head. He tried to blink, to shut it out, only to find his eyelid was clamped open by someone with a very strong thumb. He shook his head to break free, sending rivets of pain to every corner of his head before traveling down his neck to his shoulders.

“Whoa!” the possessor of the thumb cried, stepping backward. “Looks like you are coming around, Mr.” he checked a pad in his hand, “Mr. Carnes. You got a nasty goose egg on your forehead. How do you feel?”

How did he feel? Like his head was in a vise grip, like he had been run over by a truck. There were so many aches and pains, he couldn’t count them all, but definitely the pain in his head took top honors.

“My head hurts.” He stated the obvious. Better not to elaborate, Max thought, nothing like listing numerous physical complaints to confirm his age. Not that he was trying to hide anything, but he needed to find out what had happened before they went off on how he shouldn’t have been driving at his age.

“We are going to get a CT Scan of your head and neck, Mr. Carnes, just to make sure there is no serious damage. But it looks like you are going to be ok except for that bump on your head, which is going to cause you some headaches. I think you should be able to get out of here by tomorrow. Of course, we’ll need to see the x-rays first.”

Max squinted at the doctor or he supposed he was a doctor. He was writing something on a clipboard. He appeared to be about Bobby Lee’s age well, maybe a little older; he was blurry. Where in tarnation were his glasses? He reached to his shirt pocket only to find he wasn’t wearing his shirt. They had him in one of those ridiculous backless hospital gowns.

“My glasses? Do you have my glasses?”

This time he heard a female voice and realized another unfamiliar person was standing next to “Dr. Thumb”.

“Mr. Carnes, I believe your granddaughter has your glasses. She’s out here in the emergency waiting area with your wife. Do you want me to bring them in? It will be a few minutes before they get here to take you for your scan. You’ll go to room 318 after that. They could come in now or we could have them meet you in 318.”

It took a second to sink in.

“My granddaughter?”

“Yes, Greta, I believe. Is that right? She has been so helpful to Mrs. Carnes and she told everyone how your quick response was the only thing that saved your lives when that log came off the flat bed truck. Those curves out on that piece of Highway 70 can be real problems when things aren’t tied down tight. You are all very fortunate.”

“Please, send them in.”

This should be good. In the precious short time he’d been out of commission, Amanda, waif from who knew where had become Greta, his sister-in-law, now his “granddaughter”. One thing for sure, the lying had to stop. But with the relentless pounding in his head, he couldn’t handle straightening it out right now. It took a few minutes to dawn on Max that the doctor had said he would need to stay overnight. He couldn’t do that. Lily needed him. He would have to get released. They could stay locally, wherever locally was. Good Grief! He realized he had no idea where he was.

“Hey, how are you?” Amanda edged toward the narrow emergency room bed with Lily clinging to her arm for dear life. Lily looked bewildered and wary..

“Greta, where are we?” Lily asked. “I don’t like this place. It smells.” Her eyes darted all around and she shrunk behind Amanda out of Max’s vision.

“My head hurts.” Max answered Amanda. “Do you have my glasses?”

“Yeah, they’re right here. They fell off when you hit the steering wheel, but they didn’t break.”

“That’s one good thing,” He said, taking them from her and putting them on his head. The pressure on the bridge of his nose and over his ears sent little electrical charges through his skull. He must have grimaced.

“Hey, are you sure you are ok? They said they are going to do some more x-rays.”

“I’ll be ok. How is Lily?” Lily hung behind Amanda, peeking around occasionally like a shy child.

“Pretty scared, but she calmed down a little in the back of the patrol car that brought us in to the hospital. We went to the cafeteria and had ice cream. She liked that.”

“How?” he started.

“How did you get here? By ambulance. You passed right out. Scared the wits out of me.”

Max knew he was circling around the big issues, but for some reason circumventing appealed to him. Maybe it was the pain in his head, but he was avoiding getting to the crux of the matter more directly.

“What about the Buick?”

“Car’s fine but they towed it in since I don’t drive and neither does Lily.”

“Amanda, where are we?”

“Crossville, I think.”

“What happened? The nurse was going on about logs, quick reactions and so forth. What I recall is you screaming, grabbing the wheel and stomping on my foot on your way to the brake.”

“That’s ok. You’re welcome.”

“I’m what? Welcome for what?”

“I know that was your crabby old way of saying ‘thank you, Amanda’ for saving our lives, not to mention my driver’s license.”

“What!”

“Look, Max, Mr. Carnes, did you or did you not see that log fly off the back of that flatbed?”

Max closed his eyes. He could not remember. They had been talking about Greta, then Amanda was screaming, they were swerving, the trooper was at his door and now he was here. They had almost been killed. What in him resisted admitting this child had reacted quickly and appropriately averting almost certain death? It was his old nemesis, pride. Would he never be rid of that devil?

“No.” He admitted softly. “I never saw the truck or the log. Thank you, Amanda.”

“Like I said, you’re welcome.”

“Mr. Carnes?” A voice interrupted and two attendants entered, one briskly checking his hospital bracelet. “We are going to take you for a little ride. Your wife and granddaughter can meet you in room 318. That’s where you’ll wind up after this.”

He didn’t have time to protest as they efficiently rolled him from the room. Amanda waved good-bye with Lily peaking out from behind her.

“We’ll meet you up there. Come on Lily; let’s go get us something to eat while he’s gone.”

“You know all about hospitals, don’t you, Greta.”

“Huh? Oh yeah, that’s right I’m a nurse.”

“And a good one. You went to save the children, but you’ve been gone so long. I thought he’d stolen you away. Momma hated him, Papa, too. But you are back and I am so happy.” Lily smiled and Amanda smiled back.

Amanda didn’t know what to say, but she would let Lily talk as much as she would. It helped ease her sense of apprehension. She had thought about moving on, especially when the cop was asking her questions at the scene and then here in the hospital. He had assumed she was the granddaughter, but suspicious. She could see it in his eyes when she had to dig through Max’s wallet to come up with an address. Lily had calmed in her presence and called her Greta, so maybe that made him decide to stop questioning her, but she couldn’t be sure he wasn’t checking her out.

Not that there would be anything to find. Nobody had wanted her since before she was born. If it hadn’t been for some do-gooder on a sidewalk she’d have been toast before she even popped out. Nobody would be looking for her. Of that she was certain.

As they approached the cafeteria, Amanda became aware of a faint rendition of the William Tell Overture in her pocket.

“Uh, Oh,” she thought, one of Max and Lily’s kids.
*
The phone call had been from Dr. Ryan Carnes. La-de-da, Amanda thought. He’d certainly wasted no time letting her know that information, as if she cared. When she had asked him what kind of doctor he was, he let her know in crisp tones that he was a full professor of International Studies and Economics at Princeton University. Amanda listened as politely as she could.

She’d been introduced to Home Economics in the eighth grade. Her teacher, Mrs. McDermott, had been the home economics teacher at William Howard Taft Middle School for forty years. Amanda’s Granny Nan had been in Home Economics the very first year she’d taught and then she taught her mother before winding up with Amanda, who had neither skill nor inclination toward sewing or cooking. Mrs. McDermott stressed the basic skills, but frankly, who cares if you can do a flat felt seam or a bound buttonhole.

Needless to say, Dr. Ryan Carnes, professor of Economics and world history or whatever he said, did not impress her in the least. Foremost on her mind was how she was going to get him off the phone without raising any suspicions and keep him from checking with the Tennessee Highway Patrol. As she listened to him list his credentials, she pulled Lily toward her into a window alcove near the hospital cafeteria.

Dramatically, she crossed her fingers in front of her. Amanda marveled as Lily’s face uplifted with a conspiritory smile and she mimicked Amanda’s gesture crossing her fingers in unity with her. Drat it! Amanda thought Lily looked so cute, so cute in fact, that Amanda smiled also and winked at her. Don’t get distracted, she thought.

“So, young lady, now that we have established who I am. Just who are you?”

Oops! She hadn’t anticipated his asking her that. She flinched slightly trying to remember if she’d said Smith or Jones. Neither rolled off her tongue very easily so she said simply, “I’m Amanda.”

“Amanda, who?”

In an instant the name came. “Smith”, she responded with what she hoped sounded authentic. If it didn’t he was too busy a man to be chasing that rabbit. He came to the point.

“Amanda,” Ryan Carnes said emphasizing her name. Why had he done that? Was he on to her? He completed his request, which allowed her time to exhale the breath she’d been holding. “Please put my father on.”

This was the request she had expected. To make this work she needed to tell the truth without really giving all the details.

“He’s lying down at the moment.” That was undoubtedly true, at least he had been the last time she’d seen him. “Could I have him call later?”

“Lying down? It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, maybe noon there. Wherever there is?” The last of his response trailed away from the first, and then he asked with what sounded like genuine concern for the first time in the conversation, “Is he sick?”

His response instantly solved one issue for her. No wonder she was hungry. Lily must be too. They’d eaten breakfast at 6:30 in the lobby of the Inn in Cookeville. She smiled at Lily who stood straight as a soldier with her goofy look and crossed fingers.

“Amanda, are you still there? Is my Dad sick?”

“No, no, nothing like that.” Banged up, confused as all get out, cranky, sporting a knot on his head the size of a golf ball, but not sick, at least not exactly sick. She continued as quickly as she could, anxious to get the conversation to a mutual disconnect. “We had a little car trouble on Highway 70 so they brought the car here to Crossville. We are going to rest here overnight and get going again tomorrow. I’ll have him call you, I promise. His daughter programmed in all your numbers.”

“Good for Peggy,” Ryan commented, “at least one of my siblings did something sensible before letting them set out for the Atlantic Ocean.”

Amanda really didn’t like his tone. They were doing just fine! So what if a log almost smashed them. Almost being the key word; it didn’t. Max was ok, she assured herself, hoping more than knowing.

“I will have him call you!” She reiterated emphatically. “Now I have got to go. Your mother and I are hungry.” As she was shutting the tiny phone, she heard Dr. Ryan Carnes plead distantly, “Wait!” She did not.

Dropping the phone into her pocket, she took Lily by her crossed fingers hand and started toward the cafeteria. “Let’s go get some lunch, Lily. You hungry? I am.”

She glanced at Lily and found her searching her face, slightly confused.

“What is it, Lily?” She asked gently, worried that she might be getting ready to freak out again.

“Greta, who’s Amanda? Do I know Amanda?”

Amanda squeezed her upper arm slightly, “Yes, you know Amanda. She’s your friend.”

“Okay, Greta. I have trouble remembering sometimes.”

“That’s ok. I’ll help you.”

“Yes, you always have. You are the best big sister in the whole world.”

Amanda looked away and blinked. As long as she was Greta, not Amanda, at least one person in the world loved her, even if it was a senile old woman. Keep focused on the ocean, she warned herself, even as she turned to Lily and smiled.

*

The cafeteria was crammed with people. Evidently noon or one o’clock, whichever, was a universally popular time to convene for eating. Earlier when they had come in for ice cream, negotiating the various food islands had been no problem for Amanda with Lily in tow. Besides the focus had been the soft serve ice cream machine but now called for more substantial nourishment. Amanda had not been hungry many times in her short life, but she had not forgotten that two days before, she’d experienced real deprivation. In spite of the ocean of people, they were going to eat, but obviously a strategy was needed.

The swarms of people around them were bent on getting their trays filled and finding a place to settle and eat, so Amanda and Lily found they were being bumped from all sides. Mumbled “excuse me’s” and “sorry’s” sufficed as acknowledgement of intruding on another’s space as they became pressed by the crowd. Amanda felt Lily tighten and begin to shake slightly beside her. Something like a low moan rose from Lily’s throat. Amanda scoured the cafeteria for a place to settle Lily so she could get them both some food.

Momentarily, her eyes came to rest on a circular booth in a far corner from the food service, which was amazingly empty, far from any visible escape routes and in direct line of sight of the food islands. It would be perfect. Amanda, pulling an increasingly nervous Lily along, headed for it. As she drew closer she read the sign above it and her heart plunged. “Reserved for three or more guests.”

As she turned with Lily wondering “what now,” she bumped the tray of another cafeteria patron. Now it was her turn to say “excuse me and sorry.” Her eyes began their careful search of the even fuller appearing room, when a rich soft voice broke her concentration. She looked up into the face of the woman she had bumped. Her defenses gathered as she expected a reprimand for her clumsiness. The voice inside was already snapping out a crisp, ‘I said excuse me!’ which fortunately did not make it to the level of audition.

The substantial woman before her was smiling, not just with her mouth but her eyes. Her face was the color of dark honey and her voice had that quality, too. When she spoke, Amanda thought she must be an angel.

“Were you looking for a place to sit? I was wondering if you would like to share the booth with me.” She indicated with her elbow the very booth Amanda had been heading to before the forbidden sign became readable. Amanda sighed with relief and realized that Lily wasn’t the only one trembling. She too felt her lip quiver as she nodded and knew she was on the verge of tears. The day with all its unexpected events, coupled with her hunger, was imploding all her inner resources, which were not any more extensive than any ordinary fourteen year old. With the potential of tears as close as the deepening pools in her eyes, she could only manage a nod.

She introduced herself as “Sophia Winchester” and proceeded to scrunch her amply endowed body into the booth. Amanda could see as she helped Lily into the booth that Lily had calmed and was staring at Sophia. Sophia didn’t seem to mind. She didn’t even flinch or look upset when Lily began questioning her.
“You’re Bertha Mae’s sister, aren’t you?”

“No, m’am. I have two sisters, Clarisse and Jeanine, but no Bertha Mae.”

“Well you look just like her!” Lily stated matter of factly. Amanda started to try to shush Lily and apologize to Sophia, when Sophia smiled up at her and waved her off. “You go on. Get you two some food. Ms., uh?” she stopped and looked at Amanda who supplied Lily’s name, “Ms. Lily and I will be just fine till you get back.”

“But she’s kind of confused. She gets really nervous, too.”

“Like I said, you go get something for you to eat and I will watch after Ms. Lily till you get back.”

Amanda didn’t need any more prodding. Sophia might not be an actual angel but she was certainly one to Amanda at that moment. She selected food she liked for both of them and hoped Lily would like something on the tray. At the cashier she could see Lily and Sophia in the booth chatting. No telling what Lily was saying. She pulled Max’s wallet from her pocket and paid for their lunch. Putting it back in, she felt the fifty dollar bill she’d picked from it the day before and with it a ripple of guilt.

Amanda watched Sophia and Lily as she ate her lunch. Sophia seemed to have a knack with Lily, who ate ravenously, better than Amanda had seen her eat in the two whole days she’d known her.

Amanda’s attention, however, rested primarily on Sophia. Sophia wore a hospital identification badge and her half sized glasses around her neck. They both rested atop her generous bosom which seemed purposefully designed as a shelf for both objects. The badge was attached with a clip, therefore fairly stable. Amanda could see the hospital name, but could not even with her perfect vision make out anything else on the badge without staring really hard, and that seemed embarrassing, given where the badge resided. The glasses on the other hand were free floating on Sophia’s natural shelf, bobbing and shifting as Sophia talked and threatening to slide over the edge when she laughed, which she did more than once during lunch.

Who was this woman? Amanda thought. She was wearing a very tasteful dress, not a uniform or scrubs, plus she possessed an air of authority. She reminded Amanda of the guidance counselor at her former school, Mrs. Dorthea Watkins. Sophia had the same quality of being a subdued, but wise listener, that Mrs. Watkins had. Amanda shared an abbreviated description of the accident and Max’s need to stay overnight without ever really identifying herself, a neglect that was not missed by Sophia.

“And you are…?” Sophia asked with eye contact that seemed to penetrate every lie Amanda had told since she had left home a week ago. The look was not unkind, but probing and uncomfortable nevertheless, especially to someone who was beginning to have to keep her lies in proper order to remember them all.

“Greta” Lily announced, “She’s my wonderful older sister. Are you sure you don’t know Bertha Mae?”

Sophia smiled at Lily then looked back at Amanda, who breathed and shrugged. Rising, she helped Lily from the booth, paying careful attention to chatting with her as she piled their plates, napkins and utensils on the tray. Sophia remained seated and mute, evidently not bent on pursuing the answer to her question, but watching. Finally, she rose and took the tray from Amanda, scooting her own underneath and piling her dishes on top.

“I’ll take these, Greta,” she said with emphasis and elongation of “Greta”, “I know you and your sister want to get back to check on the patient.” Her tone was not easily readable, but conveyed a tinge of disappointment. Rats! Amanda thought, there went that tingle of guilt again. She started away, but her feet felt like she was wearing iron boots. With a sigh she looked back at Sophia, who continued to watch them.

“Amanda.” She said quietly. Sophia nodded and smiled.

*

The trip for the CT Scan had left Max exhausted, but anxious, too. Just as he was being inserted into a tube head first, he remembered he had been supposed to take some pictures and send them to Millie to be scanned. His memory was none too sharp anymore either. When Amanda and Lily got back, he’d have Amanda get Millie on the cell phone so he could tell her—Whew! What could he tell her?

Max couldn’t say he had never told a lie, but telling the truth had always been a priority. He’d stressed it with his children, finding they paid attention to truth and plain old listened to him more, if he lived the principle. His Daddy quoted “practice what you preach” so often while Max was growing up that he supposed it had taken root. So, he didn’t have many choices. The outcome would depend, not on how skillfully he could spin the story, but on how Millie reacted to the bare bones facts. Max knew he was going to need a sizable portion of Divine intervention, but he didn’t expect it in the form of his next visitor.

“Good Afternoon, Mr. Carnes, I am Sophia Winchester. I’m with the hospital’s pastoral care.”

Max batted at the night table in search of his glasses, so he could get a clear view of this apparition. Sophia crossed the room and gently slid them from the top of his head onto his nose. “Ouch,” he said quietly. Now he remembered why he had them up there. He stared up at her round pleasant face.

“I’m sorry. Are the glasses painful on your nose?” She apologized. ‘Would it be better if you had them off?”

“They’re fine,” he replied, even though the pressure was relentless, “my whole face is painful right at the moment. Did you say you were a preacher?”

He cocked his head slightly sideways and studied her. She didn’t speak immediately, but instead, found one of the chairs in the room and pulled it up bedside, then sat.

“No, I am with the pastoral care staff. I’m a volunteer chaplain. I usually only preach to my kids.” Her voice remained pleasant and level. She looked down at the sheet on her clipboard. “When you arrived at the hospital, your paperwork was incomplete. Evidently, your granddaughter was answering questions and didn’t have a lot of information. She didn’t list a religious preference, so as a part of my service I came to fill in the blank, see if you have a preference and to offer any spiritual assistance, whether you do or don’t.”

“Oh, we attend a Christian Church back home.” Max relaxed against the pillow as best he could. His head was still pounding. Without thinking he slid his glasses back to the top of his head.

“Is it Independent?”

“A few, mostly Democrats; at least that’s the way they register. There’s a smattering of Republicans. I doubt you’ll find many Libertarians.”

She looked up at him ready to restate and explain her question. As she met his eyes she recognized the sparkle of genuine amusement. Sophia raised her eyebrows and shook her pencil at him. She changed the subject.

“They tell me, Mr. Carnes, that you were traveling east on Highway 70 N, when you had your little mishap. Where were you headed?”

“North Carolina coast, down just a little north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.”

“Seems to me I-40 would be a little more direct.”
“No,” he said turning his head to look at her, “too dangerous.”

The absurdity of his response registered as Sophia’s eyes swept up and down the hospital bed before resting directly on Max’s face. She managed a very serious, “Doesn’t appear to have worked too well.” It probably wasn’t all that funny, but they burst into spontaneous laughter.

Sophia laughed heartily. Max could tell she was a woman who laughed often. He liked that in people. Max laughed less heartily because the action sent waves of pain throughout his head.

As Max often noticed, people who love to laugh frequently get caught in a self-perpetuating cycle. Sophia’s laughter continued unabated for several minutes and when she tried to stop, it bubbled up again. Even clamping her mouth to shut off the giggles proved fruitless. Her face resembled an inflating balloon as she tried to regain her composure; pressure built until another eruption occurred, signaled first by sputtering spit-filled air escaping through her lips followed by another round of uncontrollable laughter.

She finally managed to shut it down in gradual increments, only to find that she had the hiccups. Max smiled at her as she poured a cup of water from his bedside pitcher. He’d experienced uncontrollable laughter, but Lily really had been the one with the unpredictable funny bone and a dysfunctional laughter valve.

“Careful, they charge me for that water.”

“I’ll leave a quarter on the table.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh?”

“It’s a dollar.”

“For a man who escaped a battering ram through his windshield, you seem a mite too relaxed. They have you on heavy drugs?”

Several minutes passed; the conversation expanded to include several topics. Max, in spite of his headache, relaxed in this woman’s presence. He felt a pressure lift from his spirit. When she finally seemed rid of the hiccups, Sophia continued down yet another path, but one that seemed utterly suitable for a hospital chaplain talking to an eighty-seven year old man who had come within inches of meeting his Maker.

“Are you a Christian, Mr. Carnes?” Sophia asked pointedly, her pencil back in the slot at the top of the clipboard and her arms folded across her chest.

“Guess that depends on what you mean by a Christian.”

“How so?”

“Well, Mrs. Winchester . . .”​

“Sophia”

“Well Sophia, if you have in mind some old stuffed shirt, self righteous, all fired sure only his “church” is really the only one right with God sort of Christian, then by golly, I am not. My dearly beloved wife of sixty five years was a high church Episcopalian when I married her and still is as far as I know. She’s gone to church with me all these years, taught Sunday school and Bible School, cooked for shut-ins—you name it–without ever joining the church. She thought about it early on until one preacher’s wife got right in her face about her infant baptism and implied she was in danger of the fires of hell unless she chose to be fully immersed.

Lily wasn’t against immersion, you understand; every one of our children were immersed. Lily stood firm in her faith that the God who had saved her wasn’t measuring her by the number of drops of water or when they were applied, but by her relationship with Jesus. By golly until she got sick, Lily’s faith kept me on an even keel and probably is what still does. So I’d say I am a vanilla Christian–one who knows, by the Grace of God, the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord.”

“Halleluiah!” Sophia proclaimed softly. “Now, tell me, Mr. Carnes . . .”

“Max,” he corrected her.

“Max, just between two old ordinary—how did you put it—vanilla Christians, your wife, Lily, would she now be in the company of your granddaughter, Amanda, or is it Greta?”

Sophia leaned forward in her chair so that their eyes could engage without the painful pressure of his glasses. Their gazes locked. Max made a decision, though later he decided they’d over medicated him. In the next several minutes he unloaded the past two and a half days lock, stock and barrel on Sophia.

Sophia, who practiced listening, sat back without comment, while Max told her of the photograph, his family’s concerns turned to cautious support and how Amanda joined the little journey. He slowed down a bit as he described the wild child they had somehow become tied up with when they first met in Springfield. He shared with Sophia what Millie had suggested. He also told Sophia that it had been Amanda’s flash reactions earlier in the day that had saved all their lives. When he finished, he felt tired from the telling but relieved that someone knew the truth or at least as much of it as he knew.

Sophia opened her mouth to speak when a knock sounded on the door, followed by Amanda’s head peeking around, “Hey, Max, can we come in.”

*

Amanda entered with Lily close behind. She stiffened slightly when she saw Sophia sitting in a chair beside Max’s hospital bed. What was going on? What was Sophia doing in Max’s room? Getting Lily in and out of the bathroom after lunch had taken a lot longer than she had anticipated. Now she wished she’d hurried her a little more, not that hurrying Lily was possible.

“Hi.” She said uncertain how to proceed.

“Hello, Greta-Amanda,” Sophia’s response to Amanda’s greeting had a hint of teasing in it, but did nothing to calm Amanda’s anxiousness. Since the Trooper questioned her that morning, she’d felt the urge to bolt and run more than once. She would, too, if Lily would turn loose of her arm for five seconds. She had Max’s wallet. She’d take the money, most of it and leave the rest behind. It was a plan that could work, which did not explain her next words at all.

“I still have your wallet, Max. Do you want to keep it here?”

Max wrinkled his forehead as if uncertain of what she had said. Boy, he looked awful. The knot and the skin across his forehead were bruised and the color had deepened to a dark purple since their last visit. The sound of deepening fatigue could be heard in his voice.

“Wallet?  You have my wallet? I don’t know. . .” He tried to squint to see her better. He sounded slightly confused and his voice was fading.

Sophia broke in, “The hospital can put his wallet and any other valuables in the safe. I’ll go get the nurse and we’ll get that taken care of. Then we are going to need to get you two ladies settled someplace so Mr. Carnes. . .”

“Max,” he corrected her in a drowsy breath. She patted his hand.

“Max is going to need to rest and so are the two of you.”

What right did she have running the show? Amanda’s first urge was to tell this bossy woman to back off, but frankly she was tired and had no clue where Lily and she were going to stay until Max got out of the hospital. She’d learned the inside of the hospital pretty well, at least the areas she was allowed in, but she certainly didn’t know anything at all about Crossville. So let the power hungry dame charge ahead. When Amanda looked up at Sophia, eye contact confirmed that she guessed the content of Amanda’s thoughts. Sophia gave her a ‘don’t even go there, girl’ look.

Amanda looked at Max and saw he had fallen asleep, then at Lily who was clawing at her sleeve.

“Where are we? Won’t you let me sleep? I’m so tired? Where are we?” Lily’s plaintive tone indicated they’d better light somewhere soon.

Amanda lifted her eyes to Sophia once more and said, “Thank you, Lily and I are both pretty tired.” Sophia smiled and left to go to the nurses’ station.

*

The afternoon passed with Max in and out of sleep. The pain medication and muscle relaxants kicked in, allowing his body to relax into several respites of slumber. The doctor showed up about four o’clock to pronounce him a mighty healthy, not to mention lucky, eighty-seven-year-old man. The bump on the head had caused a minor concussion but with no other problems. Max would be a free man after his overnight stay, barring any unforeseen events. He would need to take his medications for several days and Doctor “Thumb,” who was actually Dr. Thomson, directed his next words with the authority given to him by virtue of the white coat he wore: “No driving until you are off your medications.”

Max smiled benignly at the physician, who, he noticed, did resemble in shape and motion, a large thumb. No wet behind the ears pup of a doctor was blocking his departure post haste from Crossville, TN. A plan was hatching, even as the doctor continued listing restrictions, while writing prescriptions to be filled. It might have worked, if Sophia had not chosen that precise moment to pay Max a visit to update him on Lily and Amanda. Oh, but that woman could be bossy.

 

 

Chapter Eight
Near Rockwood, Tennessee

How had this happened? Whose trip was this anyway? Max found himself fighting the spit and fight he felt,  as he was packed into the back seat of the Buick like another piece of luggage.  Soon he found himself 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 as he was sorely tempted to snap at her, but one look at her searching eyes grabbed hold at the last second.  Taking a big breath, he spoke.

“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.

 

 

Chapter Nine
Near Midtown, Tennessee

Sophia pulled the Buick into a space outside a converted brick schoolhouse, which looked like it had been built sometime in the 1930s. The sign at the road read “Bartlett’s Emporium and Restaurant.”

“Folks around Crossville say this place is worth checking out,” Sophia announced. “I’ve heard the food is good and the old classrooms are set up to represent different rooms from the 20s, 30s and early WWII years with antiques appropriate to the 1930’s kitchen in that room and so forth.

Maybe,” she pointedly looked at Amanda, “we can get something to eat and start this day over again.”

Amanda managed a nod.

*

Lunch was excellent. Afterwards Max found a bench in the broad hall of the building, leaving the females to their wandering. Sophia had insisted he take his medication over his flimsy protestations. It was barely afternoon, but he was bone weary, partially because of his trek through the shrubbery along the highway. The girls were off exploring. Last he’d seen of them Sophia was guiding Lily into a 1930 style living room just past the restaurant. Amanda had been close behind. He doubted Lily would last very long so he wanted to sit someplace that didn’t jar his bones like the car. He had always considered it a smooth riding vehicle, but that morning he had impressions of every bump on his old carcass somewhere. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes, just to rest them for a moment.

“Max, Mr. Carnes, Max.”

He stirred, opened his eyes and found Amanda sitting next to him. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He wondered how long he’d been asleep.

“I thought you were shopping.”

“Nah, Sophia’s with Lily and I, ok, now don’t be offended, I am really not into old things, if you know what I mean. Besides, I wanted to ask you something.”
“OK?” What on earth was she about to ask?

“You remember the other night when you were writing in your journal.” He nodded and she continued, “Do you write down the truth in there or do you write stories? I mean if I were to read your journal would I be reading facts or fiction or what?”

“Well, I just try to record the things that happen on that day, but sometimes I write a little about how I feel about it. I would say it is true for that day from my perspective.”

“Would it be wrong for me to read your journal?”

His impulse was to say there was nothing in his journal so private but that anyone could read it with or without his permission, but Max was recalling slowly the conversation they had had that second night in Cookeville; Amanda’s mother had kept a journal, one filled with secrets, according to Amanda. And the fact was he had read letters belonging to another without permission only to take up a burden that he longed to unload, but couldn’t quite put down. And there was the matter of the letter from Ed tucked away in his Bible. He would be devastated if someone read that without his knowledge and judged Ed. He mulled over her question for several moments, so long in fact that she interrupted his thought process.

“Max? Are you ok? Did you hear me?”

“Yes, I’m sorry. I was distracted momentarily. You asked if it would be wrong to read my journal, but I think you were asking me if it was ok if you read your mother’s.”

Amanda looked away quickly and then back again. He could see tears pooling in her eyes. She swiped at them with the back of her hand. Working hard to pull her face into a semblance of contempt, but failing miserably, she finally managed to speak again. This time regret hung on every word.

“I lied to you. My family isn’t in Knoxville.”

Every fiber in him wanted to break forth with the questions he had been asking himself about Amanda since Springfield, but he struggled to find the self-control to restrain his inquisitiveness for the moment. That would need to happen and soon, but there was time.

“I know,” Max said simply and pulled the now weeping child close, letting her cry on his shoulder. Oh, dear, he thought, what to do for a crying woman always baffled him, so he did what he had always done. He patted her shoulder and whispered repeatedly in hushed tones, “There, there, everything is going to be alright.” Silently, he prayed his words were truth.

*

After several moments, Amanda headed to the Ladies’ Room to wash her face, and hopefully, reduce some of the swelling and redness around her eyes. Max idly observed the traffic that was thinning as the lunch crowd dispersed. The clock, an antique itself, indicated it was nearly 2 p.m. Max was ready to go and delighted when he saw Sophia headed his way.

“Well, you about ready to get going to Knoxville? Once Amanda gets here with Lily, we can be on our way.”

Max’s puzzled expression must have alerted Sophia, but it wasn’t until a second later when Amanda joined them that she realized Lily was not with Amanda. Try as she did Sophia could not hide her sudden apprehension.

“Amanda, where’s Lily?”

“I don’t know; she was with you the last time I saw her. You were in that kitchen over there.” All three of their heads turned at once.

Max struggled to remain calm. The three of them stood as if nailed to the floor. With the exception of their heads they remained perfectly inert for several seconds. Their heads, however, moved in unison; if one looked up, they all looked up; if one looked down, they all looked down. There were three levels if you counted the basement in the building. Inertia gave way to a state of panic with everyone talking at once. How had this happened? I thought she was with you. Well, I thought she was with you. Where could she have gone? Finally, Sophia held up a hand and spoke.

“We need a plan. I am going to find the manager and see if we can get some help from the staff. Amanda,” Sophia looked directly at her, ready to give her marching orders, but changed course at the last minute, “Where do you want to look, upstairs, down? Max, you stay on this floor, no stairs, or better still, sit here and wait.”

“I will not stay here and wait! Lily is MY wife. I should have stayed with her. I will look on this floor.”

“Of course, sorry, Max.”

Amanda spoke, “I’ll look upstairs, but,” her voice got quieter, “someone needs to check outside, just in case, you know.”

They all sighed in unison. Amanda had brought up the one possibility none of them had really wanted to consider. Outside was far more dangerous than inside.

*

Some of the staff remembered Lily. No one recalled seeing her leave the building, but the manager, who grumbled about watching out for the senile, reluctantly sent two of the clerks out to check the parking lots. Amanda set off up the stairs. It was hard to imagine Lily climbing stairs, but the manager pointed out that an elevator had been installed to make the building accessible. Sophia went to check the elevator and the basement rooms. Max watched the frenzy with no comment before making his way along the hall where he’d last seen Lily.

He could hardly check the Ladies’ Rooms, but he suspected they’d sent someone to do that. He knew Lily better than any of them, well enough to know that the chances of her being on the elevator were nil to none. Lily hated tight places especially since she’d begun to slip mentally.

Max needed to get in touch with Lily, his Lily. Would she wander around or would she come to a place that would reach out like the smell of bread baking and hold her attention? Would she seek something not only familiar but desired? What would draw her in this place with so much of the past in every corner?

As he walked slower, because he felt weary and sore more than he’d been earlier in the day, he thought about her state of mind lately. When he’d peek in a room set up to display articles from the different eras in natural settings, a part of him responded emotionally to the common furniture and household items that he recognized from the past. Lily with her mind that traveled randomly down this path and that, sometimes in the present, but more often stuck in some past place, might have searched for a particular object or room.
Down the hall behind him the troops were still looking.

He could hear them calling her name. Near the end of the hall, he saw a room with its door partially open. He felt a slight breeze. There was a window open. With a slight swell of anticipation, he peeked in. Pushing the door wider, his eyes scanned the room slowly, taking in the beauty of it. The lighting was subdued, further adding to its charm. It was a bedroom but looked oddly out of place here in Middle Tennessee. Above the four-poster bed, suspended from a ring on the ceiling, fine white mosquito netting billowed down draping extravagantly over the bed. Fine white pine furniture formed the perimeter of the room with articles clearly feminine set in various displays. A white wicker rocker occupied a spot diagonal to the bed. The open window allowed a breeze that played with the lace curtains.

Uncle Ben and Aunt Isadora had refused to let them take off immediately after the ceremony to head for Kentucky. A wedding night spent in a Pullman car on the Central of Georgia suggested the poorest of manners. Lily laughed at them good naturedly, but they insisted. They had arranged for Lily and Max to stay on the coast at the Seaward Hotel. The room in which Max stood reminded him of that room, reminded him of that magical fulfilling night with the only woman he had ever or would ever love. The memory caused him to blush. Enchantment almost obscured his hearing as a familiar voice spoke his name, but not for long—Lily?

Where was she? It had been a while since she had spontaneously called his name.

The room’s poor lighting was no help so he moved farther into the room and listened closely, hoping that she would speak again. Momentarily, she did and he caught the direction of her voice. He turned toward the bed and saw movement beneath the heavy netting. Oh my goodness, he thought, she’s in the display. As he approached the bed, he noticed a path of clothing strewn across the floor—Lily’s clothing. Oh my, what in the world? He was processing the scene, when he felt her arms reach up and around him through the mosquito net and pull him onto the bed with her. Flattered as he was and warmed by Lily’s display of desire, Max heard other voices and realized the searchers were approaching.

He struggled to keep his footing on the floor, while trying to lift Lily off the bed. Footsteps clicked on the hardwood floors. Where did this frail woman get this sudden burst of strength? He tugged and she tugged back, squealing with delight. Suddenly, with simultaneous crescendo, the netting pulled loose from the ceiling and the search party, with Sophia as head scout, burst into the room.

*

The whole scene erupted as people kept pushing around Sophia who had stopped dead in her tracks, flung her arms out and tried desperately to block the door. The shock at the sight of Max and Lily on the bed wrapped in gauze clothe startled her at first, but it was when she saw the scattered items of Lily’s apparel on the floor, that her mouth fell open, remaining agape for several seconds.

She was doing her best to hold back the crowd, but to little avail. Good thing it wasn’t a crime scene, she thought, because contamination was rampant. It took her a moment to realize that Lily had Max clamped tight and was, yes, giggling. Oh my stars, Sophia thought. She began to hear nervous laughter from the staff members who had pushed their way in and were now better able to observe the twosome on the bed.

“Oh, Oh, Look what they’ve done to my Savannah room. What on earth happened in here?” The manager arrived full of angst over any damage her antiques might have incurred in the fracas. With some effort, given her petite height and broad build, she stretched to see over Sophia’s arm and then slid beneath it with a grunt into the room. Her sniggering employees received a stern look and genuinely tried to stop laughing, but with no effect. With a decisive thumb she sent them scurrying out of the room and turned back to Sophia, but not before glaring at the shrouded couple on the bed.

“Old Fools!” She muttered derisively, and then back to Sophia, “I need to speak to you in my office, after you get them back together again. And don’t, I repeat don’t try to fix anything in here you’d undoubtedly only make it worse.”

She pushed from the room in a huff almost knocking Amanda off her feet. She’d come running when she heard from one of the giggling staffers that Lily had turned up in the Savannah bedroom, in bed with her husband. The manager’s exit was anything but silent, so the silence that followed gave the remaining group breathing room.

Sophia still stood in the door, with Amanda at her side now, “Max, are you and Lily ok? What happened?”

“We’re fine. I’ll explain later. Help us get loose from this ghastly gauze net and one of you…”

Lily’s voice strident with fear cut him off. “Max, are there people here?

Where’d they come from? Oh, oh… I’m not dressed. Oh, Oh. ” She released the clamp she had on him and began clawing at the fabric, drawing it up and around her body and pulling herself into as small a ball as she could.

“I’ll help her.” Amanda said, quietly assertive, “You two go settle up with the old witch and I’ll get Lily dressed and to the car.”

“Amanda!” Max said sharply as he managed to get to his feet.

“What?” She screwed up her face in genuine obliqueness.

“Watch what you call people.” He said softly but with emphasis. “Ms. Who- ever-she-is is an adult and deserves to be treated with respect.”

“I said, “witch”, not…” Their eyes met, she paused and then said, “Yes, sir.”

As Max and Sophia moved away from the door they heard Amanda talking to Lily about unwinding the netting and getting dressed, so they could get to the ocean.

Max looked at Sophia as they walked down the hall, stopping outside the manager’s office. She turned to enter and he put his hand on her shoulder. Bewilderment graced her face momentarily, before light dawned.

“I’ll go get the get-away car started.” Sophia said brightly, “while you handle the b . . .” she paused before completing the word, “business here.”

He frowned, disapprovingly, but there was a twinkle in his eyes.

“Did I ever tell you that we Carnes’s are famous for two things and one of them is bear wrestling?”

“And what might the other be?” Sophia asked looking down the end of her nose at him.

“Bare Wrestling.”

Her quizzical look told him he’d put that one over on her. With great resolve, but aching bones and joints, Max reached for the doorknob. Turning the knob he heard Sophia break out in laughter.

Her laughter pushed him through the door to settle matters with the manager of “Bartlett’s Emporium and Restaurant.”

 

Chapter Ten
Not Quite Walking Distance of Knoxville

The inn Sophia chose for the night was less than thirty minutes down the road from the Bartlett Emporium, which Max had assured her would not be looking to have repeat business from the likes of them. Max also assured her that he had let Mrs. Hatchett—yes, that was her real name—know they had no intention of ever darkening her door again. Clearly, it was a case of good riddance on both sides.

“When it’s up to you, live at peace with all people,” Max quoted as Amanda and he helped Lily into the back seat of the Buick, which, true to her word, Sophia had running and ready to go.

“What?” Amanda asked.

“Did you know you say that a lot, young lady?”

“What?”

“Never mind. I said ‘When it’s up to you, live at peace with all people’. It’s from the Bible, not a direct quote just a good solid principle. Some people just make living at peace exceptionally hard to do. Somehow I doubt Mr. Hatchett gets much peace around that woman.”

“Whoa!” Sophia chided from the front seat. “I think you’d better check your attitude, Mr. Max Carnes.”

“Yeah, Mr. Max, you’d better watch it.” Amanda playfully waggled her finger at him

Not one soul had protested when Sophia pulled into the motel. Knoxville could wait till tomorrow. They’d get settled in the rooms, then get some supper. Sophia thought one of those beds surely had her name written all over it, but somehow she wanted to contact Millie before conking out. She didn’t need to worry about that, because just as she was settling the suitcases in the room she was sharing with Amanda, she heard the faint plaintive cries of the “William Tell Overture.”

*

Max sat in the easy chair near the bed where Lily nestled, and by the sound of her whiffle of a snore, sleeping soundly. He marveled that for the first time on this trip, she had not protested sharing a bedroom with him. Maybe he should buy some mosquito netting; he snorted at the thought. His journal lay open in his lap. Sophia had knocked on the adjoining door earlier and told him she had talked to Millie and that she would talk to him more the next day. He supposed that was about Amanda. He would wait to hear what Sophia said. After that he would decide if he would share Amanda’s confession earlier in the day. His head ached, as did his hip. His arms felt like leaden weights, but he wanted to write something about the day, so with great deliberation, he recorded:

There are four of us traveling now. Sophia Winchester, volunteer hospital chaplain, wife and mother and officer in charge, joined us. She was the condition I agreed to so that we could someday get to the ocean. Fortunately, I like her. Amanda has had her ups and downs today, but she’s softening. I hope I help, but its been a long time since our kids were that age and I don’t remember them being so mouthy, but it was probably Lily who took care of that. We lost Lily, but we found her and I only had to shell out $200 for damages. Enough said about that. Hope we make it to Knoxville and further tomorrow. At the rate we’ve been traveling we’ll be lucky to get there next month, but it’s not like I have a pressing appointment.

Max closed the journal, leaned forward and propped his forehead on his folded hands. Crawling into bed with Lily, he sensed a truth about love. Loving someone is far more rewarding than being loved by someone, but to have experienced both in a lifetime is a hint of paradise.

*

The morning came with a hint of rain on the breeze. It felt cooler than the day before, Max thought, as he sat on a redwood deck that extended out from the lobby of the Inn. Inside a scant few of the guests were stirring, coming into the lobby to get the complimentary breakfast provided by the establishment. He had poured himself another cup of coffee, not yet feeling very hungry. They all seemed content to stay inside; maybe it was the dampness of the air. Max was just as glad that they did. He’d already had a healthy dose of human contact and it was only 6:30 or so.

Lily had gotten up around three a.m., awakening Max with her pacing and moaning. He’d managed to guide her into the bathroom finally, which helped, and then back to bed, but twenty minutes later she was up and pacing again.

That time he had been unable to calm her, so he took a seat in the chair and simply watched her pace. He’d catnapped some, but it seemed to him just as he would drop off, she’d round the chair again and tap him. Sometimes she spoke and sometimes she didn’t, but try as he did, none of it made sense.

Around 5 am, he had heard a knock on the adjoining door. Opening it he found Sophia with two Styrofoam cups of coffee in her hand. She indicated with a tilt of her head that Amanda was still sleeping soundly. He nodded and she came in. Sophia took Lily’s hand and led her back to bed. She sat there next to Lily, rubbing her back, sipping the coffee she’d brewed in the room and looking at Max, who settled back in the chair once more.

“Your face looks awful.”

“That’s what I like about you, Sophia, you don’t sugar coat the truth. I am eighty seven years old and I got less than four hours of sleep last night.”

“That may have something to do with it, but the multicolored forehead alone would make you look awful.”

“May I remind you, I was in a motor vehicle accident, let me see, about three days ago.” Max moved to the mirror over the dresser. He frowned at his reflection and gingerly touched the offensive forehead.

“Ugh! I do look awful.”

“What did I tell you? You’re hurting this morning?”

“Some, not so bad; tired though, Lily got us both up a couple of hours ago. She wouldn’t go back to bed for me. Thanks for stepping in.”

“I heard her moving about so I got up and thought coffee might taste awfully good this morning. Besides I wasn’t sleeping very well anyway.”

“Oh?”

“I talked to Millie last night. You know that?”

He nodded.

“Mercy, Max! That child in there is a runaway. Her name’s really Amanda Carmichael. She’s just 14, Max. She’s been posted on one of the internet websites by a “Granny Nan” with contact telephone numbers. Millie called the first one listed and got her mother on the phone. It didn’t take long to send the picture by e-mail and confirm her identity. Her parents live in some little town near Guthrie. I can’t right off remember the name; it’s . . .” She puzzled with it for a minute as did Max.

He could hardly imagine Amanda had run away from somewhere within minutes of home. Daysville, Elkton, Tiny Town, surely not Trenton, he turned the names over in his head. Before he could speak, Sophia continued.

“Well anyway it’s between Oklahoma City and the Kansas state line up I-35, according to the information Millie got from her mother.”

“Oh, Oklahoma, not Kentucky.”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway—she told Millie they thought at first she would head for her grandparents near Wichita, Kansas, but obviously she didn’t. She left a note, so she is officially a runaway. Millie said her mother wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about the note’s contents. She was glad to know she was ok, but get this, said she needed a little time to sort things out, so would we keep her for a while longer and not tell her we know. She said she wanted, no needed to talk to her husband and parents.”

“What?”

“I know, sounds mighty odd, don’t you think?” Sophia had continued to rub Lily’s back but looked over at her and stopped, “She’s back to sleep. All curled up and snuggly like a toddler.”

“Well, too late for me. I am wide awake now. I think I’d better mosey on down to the lobby and get a little breakfast. I need some time to think all this through. I don’t want to lie to the child. Would you mind staying with Lily for a bit?”

“I wouldn’t mind at all. You go on. I’ll do some thinking of my own while I take over this comfortable, already warmed chair you are vacating.”

“You do that.” He picked up his Bible and headed out the door.

Even with all the sleeplessness of the night before and the news Sophia had brought, Max loved days like these. So even if it was only for a short while, he was going to sit outside and enjoy it. At home he’d find his rocker on the porch, which faced south, and watch the thunderclouds build.

The deck, which connected the lobby to the swimming pool, bore little resemblance to their front porch. He sat in a plastic molded chair in which he had to shift every few seconds to keep it from pressing clear through to his tailbone. He had come in his older years to appreciate creature comforts a good deal more than he had as a youth. Lily and he had rockers with well-padded cushions and just the right amount of seat depth and leg length.

At first, simply because it was there in his immediate line of sight, he stared out over the swimming pool, cement pond, he mused remembering how his children, the younger two at least, had enjoyed “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Now, there was a show you could watch as a family without wondering about the language or anything but a bunch of silliness that everyone knew was silly. He hardly watched TV anymore, but he did like “Wheel of Fortune” and found he was pretty darn good at solving the word puzzles.

Lily had loved “Jeopardy”, even after her short term memory started slipping but she had to watch that one with Millie who gave her a run for her money. The rapid fire approach didn’t suit Max’s contemplative processing even if he knew the correct questions. Even the news wasn’t fit to watch half the time; it wasn’t the news itself but folks trying to make out like everybody, who was worth anything, had to think just alike or accept the trends of society.

In his younger years, why even in his family, strong opinions and lively debate were respected. A person could call right, right and wrong, wrong. People still made poor choices, but everybody didn’t blame somebody else for their mistakes. Even the true victims he had known, like Greta, hadn’t coveted victim status.

He stared a few more moments at the pool, thinking about whatever captured his mind before his thoughts rested on the conversation with Sophia about Amanda. TV was probably one of the reasons she talked like she did, but how she talked was the least of her problems, or his for that matter. He didn’t want to pass judgment on the girl’s family, but who would have thought they’d say hold onto her for a few more days so we can decide what to do. He shook his head and when he did a wave of dizziness washed over him.

Sitting back in the chair, he closed his eyes; the episode passed. He tried to remember if he had taken his medicine that morning. When he opened his eyes, his focus had lifted from the pool.

With his eyes looking beyond the structures immediately around him, he beheld the wonder of the hills beyond the motel, heavy with foliage. The hills magnificent in their own right were capped by a sky, the center of which was full of blues, pinks, lavenders, and yellows. Surrounding these pastels, majestic anvil shaped cumulus nimbus reaching ever upward framed the center as if it were a portal to the world beyond.

As Max watched, the movement of the thunderclouds squeezed the window of light closed, until only a pin hole remained, then it too was gone. The wind picked up, blowing some of the empty plastic chairs around the deck, knocking them over. He felt a spray of water on his face. Still he did not move or look away.

“I will lift up my eyes to the hills from where my help comes.” He remembered and knew that for a long time out of stubbornness and pride, he had been looking in the wrong place for solutions. Times like this made him aware of the pattern of returning to his own resources, limited as they were, trying to figure out the right thing to do. In that way, he contemplated, he was a whole lot like a cement pond thinking it was the ocean.

The gathering storm with the wind and rain reminded him that the cement pond required constant maintenance and filling by people while the ocean, lakes, streams, all created natural things needed filling from above. Call it ecology, or conservation or whatever, the system God designed worked best when man took care of it as if it belonged to God, while recognizing that his cement pond brain might not always be able to figure out how it was going to work out.

What a relief! He didn’t have to fix Amanda or Lily or his own physical ailments, but he sure had to depend on the One who could. The rain was sweeping in sheets across the deck and Max. He heard his name being called, looked back to the sky and then realized it was Amanda standing in the doorway with a jacket. He turned and went in, suddenly hungry for breakfast.

*

Convincing Sophia he could drive to the small local café for a real breakfast had been the hard part. Her formidable resistance rested on her responsibility to Max’s children to do the driving to Greenville. Hands firmly on her hips she stood her ground for several minutes. Max told her that was fine, so they all needed to get into the car and go, because he wanted a decent breakfast. However, she certainly had no desire to get out in the wind and rain when the motel was serving a perfectly acceptable continental breakfast.

How stale donuts and weak coffee could compete with sausage, eggs, biscuits and gravy Max could not fathom but he had to agree about her second reason; Lily needed more time to acclimate to her surroundings before traveling even a short distance. Even though Sophia had gotten her dressed and down to the lobby, she moved as if in a trance. The sparkle that had teased and flickered the last few days, along with the episodes of anxiety, had retreated down another path in Lily’s brain maze evidently hitting one of the increasing numbers of dead ends.

In the end, after several uncomfortable minutes of deadlock, Sophia had agreed, handing him his car keys with all the admonitions a parent gives to their teenage son who just acquired a driver’s license and wants to borrow the family car. The bottom line, of course, was Max was behind the wheel of the Buick again as Amanda and he made their way to the Main Street Diner. He whistled all the way, which seemed to amuse and embarrass Amanda.

*

“You look awful.”

“Well, thank you.” Max responded with mock sarcasm. Galloping goosefeet, females were just plain tactless.

Amanda and Max were sitting in a booth near the back of the Main Street Diner, which appeared to be a gathering place for locals, many of whom were congregated closer to the front around one big table having pulled two or three together, drinking coffee, smoking and spreading the latest gossip. Their laughter and conversation filled the relatively small place.

The smoking would single-handedly have been enough to propel Max away from the group, but he also had caught the drift of their conversation that centered around some crazy old couple reliving their honeymoon on one of the displays at the Emporium out on Highway 70. Their language and embellishments of the story caused Max’s neck and face to burn as he passed by as quickly as he could. If Amanda had heard and he wasn’t sure how she could have avoided it, she didn’t let on. He appreciated her silence on the issue, but now she was criticizing his appearance.

“I mean, your forehead’s really swollen and it’s all yellow, green and purple. Does it hurt?”

“Oh, some,” he rubbed it and winced a bit as he touched the tender areas. The waitress brought two breakfast platters, refilled Max’s coffee then drifted back to the group at the front, leaving Amanda and Max to dig in and eat. Max was still wondering what direction their conversation should take when Amanda spoke again.

“You know what I told you yesterday about my name and that my family isn’t in Knoxville?”

Max nodded, his mouth full of scrambled eggs.

“Well, I wish you wouldn’t say anything about it to Sophia. You can tell Lily if you want.” Her eyes looked down, appearing to study her plate of food.

Max swallowed, took a sip of coffee before answering. “I think I must tell Sophia something and I won’t lie to her.”

“Rats! I knew you would say that!”

“Then why did you ask?”

“It was worth trying.” She played with her food more than eating.

“In all honesty, you haven’t told me much. Like your real name, it’s not Smith is it? Or why you are on the road by yourself? Or even where you’re from? I don’t know that Sophia will let you off so easy once she finds out your family isn’t in Knoxville.”

“She won’t turn me over to the police will she?” Amanda asked, her head coming up and meeting Max’s eyes. There was true alarm in her expression.
A shuffling of chairs at the front along with the sound of coins being dropped onto the table signaled a break up of the hometown boys. The noise provided a needed diversion for both Max and Amanda from their conversation.

The bell on the door dinged as each one departed shouting back at the waitress, whose name evidently was Betty. The place grew quiet and for the first time the sound of the rain and wind could be heard, indicating the storm continued to rage outside.

Max answered her question, “I don’t think she will do that, but Amanda what can you tell her or me to show us that is not exactly what we should do. How old are you for example?”

“Fourteen.” Her eyes had returned to her plate.

Max wasn’t ready to reveal the little they had found out about her, but he was elated that she had not lied about her age. For several seconds they remained silent. Max sipped at his coffee and Amanda stared at her plate.

“Tell you what, Max,” she paused as if uncertain whether she really wanted to continue.

“What?” Max asked after a few seconds with the unfinished sentence still unfinished.

“You finish the story about Greta and I will tell you my name and—” The open phrase pause hung in the air between them once more. This time he didn’t speak but waited. Finally, the words he had hoped for came, “why I am on the road.”

Max waited and stewed over her request and promise. So much of Greta’s story seemed inappropriate to share with one so young, but to leave anything out seemed a dishonor to his wife and the sister she loved so dearly. Did he have the right to reveal it? What about his actions and inaction would he reveal? What did he have to gain? Absolution?

On the other hand, what did he have to lose? A deep aching reminded him of his struggle when he read the letters. The contents had provided insights into his wife, opened doors to communication almost sixty years overdue, just when the ability to communicate freely was rapidly withdrawing. He wanted to share what he had learned.

He knew Amanda’s last name. Still, he didn’t know her story. He also wondered if she really was interested in Greta or if it was just a ploy to try and wriggle away from her end of the bargain, or worse, make a getaway from them. She was watching him quizzically. He met her eyes.

“Ok, but I must tell you some of what you hear doesn’t make a pretty story.”

“Life’s not very pretty sometimes.” She muttered with a tone that conveyed a cynicism that seemed just plain ugly because the source was a fourteen-year-old mouth.

Max took another long sip of his coffee, because now that he had agreed to tell Greta’s story to Amanda, he was uncertain how to begin. He wanted to be true to the letters, which dated back to soon after he had moved Lily to Kentucky. Initially, while the exchange contained family news, discussions about the latest news and a sharing of feelings and concerns, a decided difference of tone had appeared in Greta’s letters in the fall of 1938. The intensity of the sister’s correspondence darkened.

Max studied Amanda, who was now eating voraciously, then plunged forward with what he knew beginning with that autumn.

“Greta, as I told you earlier worked as a nurse in Savannah with children. In September of 1938, a Dr. Joel Levin joined the staff of the hospital. He had come from Austria to America. Do you know where Austria is?

“UH, I think it’s in Europe.”

“That’s right. He, the doctor, became a friend of Greta’s. They both worked with children. Dr. Levin was Jewish. He worried a lot about his family in Austria and Greta, dear Greta, became a willing ear for his concerns. Her problems started with that friendship.”

Max paused as he saw questions arise in Amanda’s face.

“Let me finish.”

Amanda nodded.

“Greta noticed things. She wrote her observations to Lily. For one thing, the other doctors and staff avoided Dr. Levin, not working, but socially. She noticed that few people in Savannah seemed interested at all in Hitler or any news from overseas. Greta, however, began to read the papers closely and listen to the radio. Her letters to Lily breathed outrage at the attitudes around her. People—Jews mainly, but others, too—were being robbed, carried away from their families and killed by a mad man.”

“Hitler?”

“Yes. Sometime that fall she started attending meetings with Dr. Levin at the synagogue in Savannah, mainly meetings to try and get some relief to Jewish families in German occupied countries. She shared all this in letters to Lily”

“Were she and Dr. Levin in love?”

Oh, the romantic notion of the young—love has so many faces. Max shook his head.

“Not romantically. She was quite engaged and quite in love. Her fiancé, Charles Lewis was from Brunswick, her hometown. The Lewis family held positions of power, not just in Brunswick but well, Charles’ father had been a state senator and both he and Charles’ brother, Wade, were lawyers. There may have been a sister, I don’t quite remember.”

“Was Charles a lawyer, too?”

“Hardly, Charles, unlike his older sibling and father, took no interest in the law. Charles’s passion was music. He was an accomplished organist and, in fact, that was how Greta and he met. ”
“He played the organ—you mean like at church?”

“Yes, in fact he was organist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Savannah, where Greta’s Uncle Ben was rector. They were seeing each other before Lily and I married in June and engaged soon after that. Lily and Greta exchanged letters almost daily, planning together for a wedding in the spring.”

“Well anyway, everything seemed to be going well as far as anyone knew, but in November 1938—well, uh, no it really started before then.” Max stopped, took a drink of water before continuing.

People began to notice the frequent conversations Greta and Dr. Levin shared and her visits to the synagogue. Lots of people, even people here in the United States, distrusted or down right hated Jews. Snide comments and slurs were made to Dr. Levin and to Greta. Someone sent a note to Charles warning him of Greta’s growing attachment to the “Jew Doctor”, suggesting he get her under control before she defiled her reputation as a “Christian” woman.

Charles took the note directly to Greta and evidently her explanation satisfied any concerns the message raised. She assured him that her interest in the plight of the Jews in Europe did not constitute a romantic relationship with the Doctor. She even invited Charles to accompany her to the synagogue for the meetings. He did not, and encouraged her to consider helping in less visible ways. Greta stood her ground. Finally, Charles, seeing no way to stop her, agreed she could attend the meetings. I think he really loved her, at least as much as he could.”

“So what changed in November?”

“Ah, so much happened during that month. Gangs ravaged Jews and Jewish businesses in Germany and Austria. The news trickled to the United States, bringing with it reactions as wide and varied as the multitudes who live here. There was shock, some anger, but a few grasped it as a license for attacking Jews in the United States.”

“Dr. Joel Levin’s fear for his family overwhelmed him. For several days no word came. Finally, he heard from a former gentile colleague in Austria that, though his family was spared injury, his brother-in-law’s business had been destroyed. His anguish over the news led him to telephone Greta. His tears prompted her to meet him at a small café near the hospital. By the time he calmed, it was dark outside. He offered to walk her home–.”

Max stirred his coffee, wordless with the weight.

“What happened?” Amanda asked after several seconds.

“She refused.” Max’s voice broke. When he recovered, he added, “She should have accepted.”

Suddenly he sagged, his head hurt and he felt weak. Max wondered how Lily had managed this load alone for so many years. How had she stood up under it and why had she kept it a secret?

“Max, are you ok? What happened?”

“I’m feeling a little tired, Amanda. Could you wait till a little later today? I promise I’ll finish. It’s just a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

“Sure, that would be tight. We’d better go anyway. Looks like Betty is giving us the evil eye.”

The rain had stopped and when Max looked at the dash clock, he realized they’d been gone for an hour and a half. Sophia would be beside herself.

*
Sophia met them at the car, but her expression was hard to read. If she was upset about the length of time they had spent at the Main Street Diner, she hid it well, but she was anxious and that immediately caused Max to be concerned about Lily. Sophia opened Amanda’s door almost before he came to a full stop.

“Amanda, would you mind going up to the room and sitting with Miss Lily for a little bit. She’s sleeping pretty soundly.”

“Sure, but shouldn’t we be packing our stuff in the car?”

“I need to discuss our travel plans with Max, but,” she looked from Amanda to Max, “I don’t think Miss Lily is up to moving on today.” Sophia returned her gaze to Amanda, “Will that be alright?”

“Sure, why not?” She waved casually to Max and headed into the inn.

Sophia took a seat where Amanda had been sitting in the car. Once in and with the door closed she handed Max the cell phone. He handled it a little like it was about to explode and gaped at Sophia.

“We have some business to take care of.”

“And that would be–about Amanda?”

“That and our future travel plans.”

He furrowed his brow and waited for her to continue, no need to get riled up over something before you knew what it was. However, it sounded like there were going to be some changes made and he wasn’t too sure he was going to like them.

“While you and Amanda were in town, Millie called; oh and yes, your son Ryan—you must give him a call later—he said he’d called while you were in the hospital and some teen queen obviously had not given you his message.”

“She gave me the message. I just didn’t call back.”

“You, in the habit of stone-walling your children.”

“Only when I anticipate being scolded. They used to do that to me. Now I return the favor. One of the perks of growing old.”

“Humph!”

“Humph, yourself. Now what did Millie have to say?”

“Amanda’s Granny Nan, her mother’s mother, called Millie back. They are deeply concerned about Amanda and want to come for her as soon as the path is cleared, but there are some issues. Before you interrupt, she didn’t say what those issues were, but she asked Millie to have you call her as soon as possible. Millie shared the trip itinerary, which by the way isn’t even close to the original time line now, and they want to fly to Greenville and pick up Amanda, hopefully tomorrow night.”

“Greenville, tomorrow night?” Max tried counting the miles and time in his head. He was shaking it slightly as he turned it over. Sophia went on.

“I told Millie there was no way Miss Lily was up to travel today,” she began only to notice the alarm on Max’s face. “Not to worry, Max, but she’s exhausted and when she gets tired like she is right now, everything seems to become a jumbled mess to her. She needs another night here, but I figure if we get on the interstates, we can make it into Greenville tomorrow afternoon. Would you be willing to alter your travel plans that much?”

Max remained thoughtful for a few minutes. Lily had been on a roller coaster since the trip began, not that the trip itself had not been a roller coaster, but he wondered for the first time whether his decision to take her to the beach had been wise. He closed his eyes for a moment and Sophia, bless her heart, kept her mouth closed. He pictured Lily on the porch with the photograph. He’d shown her old family photos before, without heading off toward the rising sun. What on earth had made him think this was different, so important that he would risk both, now all, their necks to go? Maybe he was a crazy old fool, like he was sure at least certain members of his own family thought.

What business did he have, he paused mid-thought and remembered, this trip had nothing to do with business. So what difference did a change of route make? If there was any sure thing about this whole adventure, at every stop something new happened. He opened his eyes.

“I think that would be just fine, Sophia.”

“You’re ok with that?” She sounded dubious, but relieved.

“Now show me how to get “Granny Nan” on this cell phone.”

“Her official name is Nancy Mayes.” Sophia punched in the number, handed the phone to Max and exited the car.

*
Max’s conversation with Nancy Mayes did little to calm his spirit. The headache he’d been fighting for two days had taken up residence, which dulled further his ability to make sense out of the convoluted set of circumstances in which he found himself.

In the past when his bucket had been full, he sought the wisest human counselor he knew, Lily, and as if she took a siphon, she removed the pressure incrementally. The bucket became manageable with little collateral damage in the process. How he needed to talk to Lily. He entered the room, finding Amanda sitting in a chair near the bed where Lily slept. She looked up at him.

“She’s sleeping. Could you finish the story about Greta?”

He must have looked blank, because she continued, prompting him.

“ You got to the part where she had just left the café and was heading to the church.”

“Maybe later today, Amanda. I am going to have to lie down myself. I have a little headache.” Inside he was churning, the headache real as it was, didn’t even scratch the surface of his dilemma.

She shrugged, trying he could see to keep from nagging him, “Ok, but later, Ok?”

He didn’t, couldn’t answer. He simply sat down on the bed next to Lily and began removing his shoes. Amanda took the hint, retreating to the adjoining room and closing the door. Max lay down next to Lily and pulled her sleeping form to him until he could nestle his face in her hair. Tears rolled down his cheeks, but he did nothing to abate them.

“Too many secrets, Lily. I wish I had left you an opening so you could share them. Oh, Lily, I love you. Forgive me.” He calmed as he held her, his breath coming easier, then right before he fell asleep, he murmured, “Poor Greta, poor Amanda—Oh, Lord, help.”

*

Lily woke before Max. She looked over at his sleeping frame before getting up. He looked vaguely familiar. For a few seconds she studied his face. Who was he? And where was she?

Scanning her surroundings as she sat up, Lily struggled to locate even the smallest reminder–something, anything–that would help her. She needed to go to the bathroom, but couldn’t remember if this place had one. There were three doors in the room. She looked from one to the next to the next and then back again. Where did they lead? Nothing looked like she remembered—where were her crocheted pillows, her rugs.

As she became more frantic, her eyes swept the area again landing on the snapshot on the night table. Snatching it to her, a flood of relief washed away her panic. Of course, how could she have forgotten, they were going to the beach like the people in the picture—now she remembered. Without even another thought about Max, Lily picked up her overnight bag and headed for the door immediately in front of her. She’d better get going or she would surely miss the train. With determined resolve, she tugged open the door and stepped forward.

Sophia and Amanda both looked up when she entered with expressions of surprise. Sophia rose and crossed to her, taking her bag.

“Going somewhere, Lily?”

Lily smiled congenially at her and then looked at Amanda.

“Come on, Greta, we don’t want to miss the train.”

*
Later Max roused and lay quietly trying to acclimate to the gathering darkness. How long had he slept? He reached over for Lily and then sat bolt upright, a motion that sent bolts of lightning through his head and down his neck. Where was Lily? Fine job he was doing taking care of his wife. Muted laughter drifted through the barrier of the door, as did the aroma of Italian spices. He flicked on a light and slowly made his way across the room. He guessed he’d better take some aspirin before he went to bed that night. He needed to kick this headache soon. With what he hoped was a firm hand he rapped on the door.

“Come in,” the chorus of female voices shouted.

Inside he found all three ladies sitting on the bed watching an ancient movie with—was that Clark Gable? on the TV and a pizza smack dab in the middle of the bed. They all looked up, but it was Lily who spoke first.

“Do I know you?”

“Max, I’m Max.”

“You help me sometimes.”

“Yes, yes, I do. Are you doing ok, Lily?”

“We’re having pizza. It’s good.”

“I see you are; it looks good.”

“Want some pizza, Max?” Amanda asked, pulling off a slice and handing it to him on a napkin.

“We are having a girl party, but you can be an honorary.” Sophia interjected, “Pull up a chair.”

Why not? Max thought, relieved that Lily was ok and glad to be included, even if it was as an honorary female for the evening. After the movie, Max escorted Lily to their room, leaving Sophia and Amanda with the mess. When Lily slept he decided to take his pain medication rather than the two aspirin he had intended to take. The headache obviously needed the big guns.

With great effort he pulled out his journal and wrote:

It stormed this morning, so Amanda rode with me to town for a hot breakfast. I started telling her about Greta, but it hurts having to reliv,e not only my memories, but also the truths I never knew. Amanda’s grandmother and mother want to pick her up in Greenville tomorrow evening, but they want me to prepare her. After all her grandmother told me, I don’t know if I can and I don’t know if I should tell her any more about Greta. My head hurts. Lily’s sleeping—my dear Lily—what would become of me without–?

Weariness and medication wove their magic over Max’s body. Sleep came without even a yawn. The pen dropped to the floor at the same time his head lolled against his shoulder. The unfinished sentence in his journal found completion in his final conscious breath of the day—Lily.

*

Sometime near midnight Max awakened to a nagging cramp in his neck. As quietly as he could—remembering Lily’s nocturnal wanderings the previous night—he moved from chair to bed. Once supine, he stretched out as far as his hip would allow. Briefly, he wondered if he would be able to get back to sleep, but the moment he closed his eyes, he drifted away.

 

 

Chapter Eleven
Main Street Diner
Munford Crossing, Tennessee

Sophia announced as they loaded the last of the luggage that she didn’t fancy donuts and stale coffee again, so it was Sophia’s suggestion—the capital “S” implied by her tone—they should return to Max and Amanda’s local preference, the Main Street Diner, for breakfast. If anyone felt strongly opposed, there was no evidence in the silent response of the others.

Max settled in the back seat with Lily, helping her secure her seatbelt, before snapping his own. He really didn’t care whether they ate a big breakfast or not. The Main Street Diner compared poorly to his all time favorite eating establishment—the kitchen at home—and neither Betty’s service nor the food could hold a candle to Lily’s.

Of course, that was before she began to decline. Lily hadn’t cooked a meal since she tried boiling potatoes on a cold burner, while melting a Tupperware dish in the oven. Like Fred, he’d learned a bit about cooking since that incident. Food tasted ok—hard to ruin or improve canned stuff—but measured poorly against the meals Lily had prepared.

With care trying not to frighten her, Max put his arm around Lily and grinned inwardly. When he’d first started trying to fix meals for the two of them, his biggest learning curve was the electric can opener. During that earlier stage of her disease, Lily would wander into the kitchen and start lifting lids and sniffing. Invariably she’d turn to him before heading out of the kitchen and say something like, “I don’t remember starting supper, but I guess I did. What am I fixing?” Back then he’d still been able to see her wit.

*

Lily traced the checkerboard blocks on the plastic tablecloth with her finger, occasionally sweeping a tiny crumb off to the floor. She wasn’t looking at the tablecloth; she was looking at the folks sitting around her, trying to place them. She wasn’t scared. Sometimes she was, but right now she felt safe.

With effort, she remembered they were all here to eat—oh, what is it?—breakfast, that was it. The nice waitress wasn’t Betty, whoever Betty was, she was Elaine. Elaine was a nice name. Lily tried to remember if she knew Elaine. No, she didn’t think so, but Elaine had a nice laugh, not mean at all. Lily knew that because when she pointed to Liver and Onions on the menu, Elaine had laughed a good hearted laugh. Uncle Ben would like Elaine. The nice gentleman next to her had told her it was too early for liver, it was breakfast time. He had ordered for her. What was she having? Oh, my, what?

Pancakes, yes, she thought, he had ordered her pancakes or was it oatmeal?
The faces of her companions all looked vaguely familiar. The robust woman across from her looked something like Aunt Isadora’s housekeeper, Bertha Mae, but somehow that name was not right. The young lady next to her—Greta?—in disguise, of course, so that no one would know she was back home. The man—well, he looked the most familiar of all; she should know him, she knew she should. She tried retrieving his name, but try as she did, his name did not come. Lily mentally caught fleeting glimpses of his face, younger and now older, but the movement jerked like an old film and though he said his name repeatedly, it was garbled.

She watched the three of them talking, but there was no way she could keep her mind on conversation. She had things to remember, breakfast, Elaine, pancakes—or was it a poached egg? Down the aisle she saw the waitress, ELAINE—Lily noticed on her tag, yes—bringing platters of food—breakfast, yes. Lily looked up expectantly as Elaine began distributing the orders. She smiled at Lily when she put her plate before her.

“And, French Toast for the Liver and Onion girl.”

Of course, Lily thought, I was right—French Toast, breakfast and the waitress’s name, oh what was it—a mist obscured it, but yes,yes, “Thank you, Ellen.”

The waitress smiled again and winked at the others over Lily’s head.

“You’re welcome. Enjoy your meals.”
 

Chapter Twelve
Oak Ridge Road Harvest Fellowship Church

Lily fell asleep on Max’s shoulder almost before Sophia had the Buick started. Max treasured the weight of her body as she nestled against him. Public places wore Lily out. She complained that her head was hurting before they finished their meals. He watched for signs of anxiety and noticed when Elaine the waitress brought the check that Lily’s fingers were rubbing, rubbing, rubbing the edges of the tablecloth and her body rocked slightly to the beat.

When Elaine laid the check on the table, she smiled broadly at Lily.

“Now, you come on back for supper sometime and I’ll see you get that plate of Liver and Onions you wanted.”

“What?” Her eyes searched Elaine’s face, “Have we met?”

Elaine backed off a bit, no longer making eye contact with Lily. Obviously embarrassed she addressed the others at the table.

“I am so sorry. I didn’t realize she was,” Elaine tapped her forehead, “You can take care of this at the register. You all have a good Sunday. Sorry.”

Max hated the gestures people used to avoid the words they wouldn’t say. Funny about people, they presume the gesture to be kinder or less offensive than the word. Max wondered what word Elaine meant with her tap on her forehead, the choices were endless, crazy, empty headed, brain dead, dim witted, senile—so many words imbedded in that one small tap. Max sucked air into his lungs letting it out slowly.

“Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”

By the time he reached, ‘forever and forever, Amen,’ his irritation subsided. A few more minutes and they’d be traveling east down I -40 heading toward Knoxville and beyond.

He looked at the backs of Amanda and Sophia’s heads contemplating how on earth he was going to maneuver Amanda so that she would tell Sophia at least the little she had told him without letting her know Sophia already knew. They were approaching the entrance ramp, when Max saw a sign that read: KNOXVILLE 21 miles. Revelation was going to have to be quick.

Once past that hurdle, he’d crawl under it if he had to, he’d have the mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina to figure out how to tell Amanda her grandmother and mother would be waiting for her in Greenville. How did he get stuck with this job? With tenderness, he smoothed Lily’s hair as she slept on his shoulder, kissed the top of her head and prayed Sophia would choose the minimum allowed speed on the Interstate.

Sophia did not slow down, she stopped, whipping the Buick to a grinding halt on the shoulder just as a semi blistered by, blowing his horn.

“Tailgater.”

Amanda gasped! Max gulped. Lily slept.

“What are you doing? You want to get us all killed?”

“Sophia?”

Sophia switched off the key and turned to face the passenger side of the car. A quick look across her shoulder rendered Max speechless. Clearly Sophia’s attention was on Amanda. Amanda stiffened, turned away and stared with fixed attention on the piece of asphalt outside. Sophia waited. Max watched.

Sophia’s face didn’t suggest either impatience or anger only expectancy. Amanda wearied of the asphalt and began drawing circles on the window with her finger. She pressed her forehead against the pane. Seconds later, though it seemed much longer, her shoulders sagged and Max thought she might be crying.

“We’re less than 20 miles from Knoxville, Amanda. I don’t know your whole story, but I know most of what you’ve told us is a lie.” Sophia held up her hand as Amanda swung her head around poised to react. “Hold it, young lady! There is flat out no way Max or I or frankly anyone can force you to tell the truth. So I’ve decided to do what I do practically every Sunday morning and hope I’ll get a word of wisdom from the Lord.”

Sophia’s eyes swept all of them with a declaration of finality. “That’s right, Folks. We are going to church!”

“That won’t change anything! I won’t go!”

“Don’t know if it will change anything for you, Child, but let’s hope I get it right with the Lord for all our sakes!”

“I won’t go!”

Perplexed and unnerved by the prospect of attending a strange church with Lily, as Max felt he had never allowed his own children to refuse to go to church and he wasn’t about to let Amanda refuse.

“Amanda, as Sophia said, we are all going to church.”

With one swift look she let Max know she felt betrayed. He cringed. It hurt, but he held his tongue.

*

 

All but Lily recoiled from the others to lick their wounds. The Buick’s interior tensed and flexed with the breaths of its occupants. Except for the keys occasionally jingling and the air conditioner blowing, silence prevailed. Like people silences have personalities—good, bad, and indifferent—good silences relax; indifferent silences isolate, but bad silences generate electrical current. Decidedly the hush in the Buick felt like a thunderstorm with lightening flashing. The three involved retreated into their thoughts, but the car remained charged, a whiff of ozone seemed likely any moment, as the potential of a lightning strike grew.

*
Amanda wrapped her arms as tightly around herself as she could and slumped down, pressing her body against the seat wishing she could disappear. Her thoughts ran rampant. Max had squealed to Sophia. That was obvious. Max was the only one she’d told anything. And to think that just last night—her lip trembled in spite of her effort to stop it—just last night it seemed like well, they all liked her. I am such an idiot! If my own family doesn’t love me, why would this bunch of loonies. Church! Yuck! I’d rather she’d just stop the car right here and let me go. They are certainly not my only ride to the Atlantic. What’s the point of church? Just another guilt trip—it’s worse than being sent to my room to think about what I’ve done.

Granny Nan goes to church all the time, but she’s the one, the one who tried to leave me to be emptied with the other ba-a—garbage. As soon as we stop, I am so out of here. There are plenty of truck drivers—an involuntary shutter ran up Amanda’s spine—I’ll get there no matter what. Anything would be better than staying. I don’t need God and I sure don’t intend to endure the insufferable self-righteousness of losers who do.

*

The turn signals clicked as Sophia negotiated the exit ramp. Amanda weighed heavy on her mind. The idea of dragging a surly teenager to church had as much appeal to Sophia as passing a kidney stone like she had the year before—an experience she relived in nightmares. So why on earth was she doing it? What about Max and Lily? Max—she knew—worried about Lily and her anxiety attacks. She’d probably already had her full load of the unfamiliar today and now church.

Not too late to turn back to I-40 and stop near Knoxville to lay out all the cards to Amanda, but she kept driving. The sign for “Oak Ridge Road Harvest Fellowship Church—Come Visit Our Family” had leaped out at her as soon as the pulled onto the Interstate. Well this morning, the little slice of Americana in the Buick, would be paying them a visit. Sophia hoped they were ready. She prayed the preacher had a mighty word from the Lord, because she, for one, surely needed one.

*

The crunch of the tires on gravel as Sophia slowed and negotiated a turn signaled Max that they had indeed arrived at church. He peered through the windshield from his back seat position. A glimpse of the brick building, complete with steeple, settled his insides, which had churned dangerously since Sophia had decided the course of the morning for all of them. The appearance of the structure suggested a small congregation, a thought further enhanced by the gravel versus paved parking lot. He chanced a look out the side windows and saw only a few cars parked near them. Lily began to stir.

There hadn’t been enough time for Max to work out the logistics of getting Lily through the church service with the minimal amount of anxiety. Now he needed a plan. Frankly, during the short drive, after the outburst he’d thought more about Amanda than Lily.

The story her grandmother had shared haunted him. No wonder the child had run, but where on earth was she going? Max grunted quietly—he’d never been a master of conversation. Truth was, he’d never had much need for conversational skills beyond the ordinary, but today he’d be delighted if he could get a transfusion of, not only the gift of dialogue, but also the sense to use it. He had promised Amanda’s grandmother he would talk to her and he had promised Amanda he’d finish telling her about Greta. With or without sense Max planned to keep those promises—today. The exact timing would wait until after the church service, getting Lily through that would require the majority of his waning energy.

A squeezing sensation that ran from his forehead to the nape of his neck heralded the return of the persistent nuisance pain he’d endured for days. ‘Tough it out!’ He commanded, acknowledging that gulping down an analgesic might provide pain relief while robbing him of his full faculties. Heavens to Betsy! At eighty seven he needed every one of his remaining brain cells for the tasks ahead. He leaned over Lily unfastening her seatbelt when bedlam broke out in the front seat.

With the Buick securely in park, Sophia turned to open the door, when she heard the passenger side door swing open and the sound of Amanda’s clogs on the gravel. Sophia groaned, pushed upward and rounded the car in pursuit. In spite of the clogs, Amanda had enough of a head start that even though her running form resembled that of a hobbled ostrich, Sophia running at her top speed could see her chances of catching up diminished as her lungs began to burn with every painful breath. She’d run track in high school and college but twenty five years and seventy pounds later slowed her pace. Gasping for breath, she pleaded heavenward, “I’m dying here, Lord, Help!”

Providentially or coincidentally—let the great minds argue that one—at that moment, one of Amanda’s four inch clogs slipped off her foot, followed by the other one leaving her hopping painfully on the gravel. With all the authority of a middle school disciplinarian, Sophia swooped down on Amanda, who had slumped onto the gravel. Standing over her, Sophia heard her sobbing and swearing as she tried to get hold of her errant shoes and wrestle them onto her feet. Amanda’s predicament allowed Sophia time to catch her breath and the briefest moment to think before she spoke.

“Amanda, the church is the other direction.”

“I don’t, don’t want to go. You can’t make me.”

“That’s true. I can’t. Nobody can make you do anything.” Sophia lowered herself onto the ground next to Amanda. “I am inviting you to go. Just like Max and Lily invited you on this trip. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I’ve been a mother long enough to know that you are wound in a little wad of hurt inside. Now if you still want to run for the hills I can’t stop you, but you at least owe Max and Lily the courtesy of a thank you and a good bye.”

Amanda struggled to her feet, and then reluctantly assisted Sophia who held out her hand for a lift. She continued to refuse to make eye contact with Sophia, choosing to study her feet.

“Max told you, didn’t he?”

“What?”

“That my folks don’t live in Knoxville.”

“Amanda, Max didn’t tell me. You just aren’t a very good liar. You should thank the Lord for that.”

“He didn’t, really?”

“That’s a fact, really.”

“Now what’s it going to be? You want to come say your thank yous and good byes so we can get on into church and you can get on down the road? Or, do you want to join us for church and talk all this out later?”

Amanda looked up at her skeptically. Sophia held her gaze.

“I’ll go.”

“Where?”

“To church.”

“Good choice.”

Sophia took her arm and guided her back toward the Buick as Max was getting Lily up on her feet. Relief washed over her. She wasn’t quite sure what she would have done if it had gone the other way.

*

The congregation of Harvest Fellowship Church, in spite of their sign on the Interstate inviting visitors, seldom had visitors in the worship service, other than family members or friends from out of town. By the time Sophia approached the doors firmly escorting Amanda, the observant members of the congregation had reported the child’s attempted escape, the chase, and the fleetness of the amply built “sister” to anyone who had missed the whole scenario.

Responses among observers and non-observers were varied, but positive; some had been quite impressed by how swiftly a woman of Sophia’s size could run, some silently applauded as they watched her apprehend the fleeing child, others cheered aloud. Members of Pastor’s Prayer Team promptly bowed their heads and prayed for the child’s soul. Others found their favorite pew for fear that one of the visitors might mistakenly assume it was available simply because it was temporarily unoccupied. White suited gentlemen stood at their posts near the front doors prepared to welcome the guests warmly. Mothers cast no nonsense—you’d better pay attention or there’s a price to pay—glances down the pews at their children. Mothers’ glances, however, were not the result of the visitors but a long established pattern that passed from generation to generation. Fact was they could be seen on any Sunday with varying results.

Pastor Lincoln Pierce quivered with expectation as he took his seat on the riser at the front of the church. He couldn’t help stealing a look at his wife, Ruth, who was grinning from ear to ear. Just that morning they’d opened their day with a prayer calling out to the Lord to send new ears to hear into their midst. As unobtrusively as he could, he checked to see that the deacons were properly assembled in the Amen section to the right of the podium. He nodded at the two Wases (Women’s Altar Service Endeavor) designees, who stood in white suits like the greeters at the door. He saw they were eagerly awaiting the entrance of the visitors. He felt, rather than saw, movement behind him in the choir loft indicating Miss Ruby Almstead had her two sopranos, one alto, one bass, and two tenors, counting Mr. Hiram Forester, who—God bless him—made a joyful noise, assembled.

The doors opened and Sophia led the way, nearly dragging Amanda. Behind her the pastor saw an elderly couple. Children all over the sanctuary and a good number of the adults were sneaking looks at the foursome. A sound akin to a captured insect’s buzz rose from scattered areas around the room.

Labelle Watts took her cue from the restless to begin the prelude. Labelle firmly believed the word of the Lord that said “Love covers a multitude of sins”, but her experience as organist at Harvest Fellowship led her to another firmly held belief that a prelude of sufficient amplitude could quiet the noisiest of congregations or at least shut out the drone of their murmurings.

Pauline and Frances, the Wases on duty, quarreled briefly over who would seat the guests finally agreeing that both should participate. Frances, who at eighty five years was the elder of the two, welcomed and ask the guests to follow her. With Frances leading the way Max followed with Lily close to him, Amanda and Sophia came next and Pauline served as rear guard. The small parade down the middle aisle drew attention from every side.

With a flourish that coincided with the last measure of the prelude, the guests were seated in the short second row pew on the organ side. Frances and Pauline—mission accomplished—marched shoulder to shoulder to take their appointed places in two small chairs at the front of the Sanctuary next to the Communion table.

Wedged into the pew so near the front, the visitors had to tilt their heads back to see Brother Arnold rise up and step to the pulpit. Brother Arnold was a meticulous man who obviously never rushed. Prior to speaking he adjusted his glasses, cleared his throat twice, shuffled through the papers before him and stood to his full height, which barely allowed him to see over the massive pulpit. Sophia couldn’t help but think they ought to get that man a stool to stand on.
His fussy mannerisms and diminutive build faded rapidly from consciousness when he spoke. With the deep tones and articulate speech of a man accustomed to public speaking, he began with a robust “Good Morning.” A few hearty souls in the congregation responded likewise. Brother Arnold shook his head and swept his barely visible eyes over the crowd. “Let’s try that again. I said good morning!”

This time everyone including Sophia, Max and even Amanda responded. Lily burped. He proceeded to thank Miss Labelle Watts for her fine prelude, and Sister Frances and Sister Pauline for their altar service. His eyes scanned the crowd before coming to rest on the tightly packed group on the second row.

“Do we have visitors this morning?”

Sophia looked at Max and Lily; Max looked back at her then at Amanda who shrugged, then whispered to Sophia, “Pretty obvious isn’t it. We are the only white people here.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“Oh, that’s right. So? Are we supposed to stand or something?”

“Beats me.” Sophia whispered.

Max looked up at the man behind the pulpit, who signaled for him to rise. Max grasped the back of the pew in front and pulled himself to his feet. Brother Arnold waited, obviously he had mastered the art of the pregnant pause. Seeing Max was upright, he simply nodded. Max pointed to his chest and raised his eyebrows. Brother Arnold nodded again. It was Max’s turn to adjust his glasses and clear his throat.

“I’m Max Carnes from Todd County Kentucky and this lady to my right is my wife Lily.” True to her current state of mind Lily narrowed her eyes and stared at him in utter disbelief. He smiled at her, turning left he indicated first Sophia then Amanda, “and these are our friends Mrs. Sophia Winchester of Cookeville, Tennessee and this is Amanda. We are passing through and thought we’d stop for worship.”

The crowd applauded. Max startled; he had never been applauded in church. The last several years he’d noticed people applauded in church for special music and such even in his own church. As the applause died away, Max felt a couple of pats on his back and turning took the offered hands and shook them heartily. Brother Arnold—true to form—waited again before holding his arms up and palms down to calm the show of hospitality.

As quietness fell, he said, “I know each of you will want an opportunity to welcome our guests after the worship so I am going to ask our guests to follow Pastor Pierce and myself to the back door at the conclusion of the service.”

“Oh, dear,” Max deliberated, glancing at Lily.

“Rats!” Amanda reflected.

“This could be interesting,” thought Sophia.

Two congregational hymns, one choir anthem, a personal testimony about the Lord’s deliverance of a rebellious son who had, for sure, been hell bent, a call to the Altar for prayer, collection of tithes and offerings—during which Amanda poked Sophia and asked if tithes were better than offerings or what?—and a heartfelt, albeit lengthy, prayer by Brother Malcolm, a man every bit as tall as Brother Arnold was short, ALL preceded Pastor Lincoln Pierce’s message.

Sophia glanced down at her watch when he started; it was 11:50 AM; she never looked at again until they all stood to sing the final hymn. Pastor Pierce displayed the characteristics she liked best in a preacher. He stuck to the Bible and he delivered the message with conviction and compassion—and a hint of humor. A couple of glances at Amanda told Sophia she was either listening or in a permanent catatonic state.

Amanda saw Sophia look at her but chose not to look at Sophia. Initially, she had planned to assume a pose of youthful disinterest commonly employed by her peer group and promoted heavily in youth driven media. The result commonly forced adults to shift into overdrive to create even the slightest spark of interest in a group of teenagers.

Teachers and parents encountered this form of elder abuse more often than other adults. Some of the crueler of her classmates kept tally of the number of teachers they’d driven from the room in tears. The unwritten but well understood code of Amanda’s comrades included abandonment of any classmate who showed the least form of enthusiasm. A smile without an accompanying condescending look might mean you ate lunch alone for a week.

So knowing Sophia wanted her to listen drove her to new levels of resistance, but the story—Rats!—captured her attention. Though it sounded vaguely familiar, her religious education, which consisted of regular Sunday School and Church since childhood, but with only casual regard to all of it hampered her ability to place the story. Somewhere mid sermon, she got caught up in the vivid word pictures of the son who ran away and the other son who felt unloved.

However, it was the father in the story she wanted to know more about.

Amanda tried to figure out if he had loved one son more than the other.

 

 

Chapter Thirteen
Ruth and Lincoln Pierce’s Home

The swing in the backyard of Lincoln and Ruth Pierce’s home over looked a minor branch of the Tennessee River. The setting was beautiful but elevated high enough above the river that the sound of the water rushing over rocks was muted. The rocky hillside dropped sharply to the stream; nevertheless, its descent sported blooming rhododendrons and Dogwood trees. The verdant drop presented little place for roots to sink but there they were clinging to the barest measure of soil. Max considered the tenacity of those plants; they reminded him of the poster he’d seen in Allison’s room of a cat gripping a branch with only its front claws.

He tried to remember the caption thinking it was something like “Hang in There.” When he saw the poster for the first time, he had identified with the cat. During that period, right after Lily’s diagnosis, he felt a lot like he was hanging by his nails from a limb.

The rhododendrons and the Dogwoods growing out of the rocks, on the cliff he now observed, refused to turn loose of their sparse bit of earth adding their testimony to the countless numbers who refuse to stop living even as the earth crumbled beneath them.

No longer hurried by the schedule of others, Max had carried his ice cream bowl from the back patio to that very spot. Multiple concerts of the William Tell Overture changed the course of their journey—yet again—slowing once more the pace of the trip.

Some of the changes were almost humorous—Ryan had decided to fly to Greenville and accompany his parents to Ocean Isle. Suddenly, after months of being the busiest professor in the history of modern academia, he found he had at least two weeks to spend with the folks. Some changes were disturbing—there were issues Nancy Mayes needed to deal with in Oklahoma and Kansas, before she and Amanda’s mother came east. It might take a day or two. Please, please she had begged through Millie who shared the information with Max talk to Amanda, prepare her.

Before Sophia handed the phone to him she carried on in muted tones with Millie. Listening to the one sided conversation between Sophia and Millie before being handed the phone led Max to believe that the two females were in cahoots about something and also suddenly caused him some anxiety about the cost of long distance calls on cell phones. His conversation with Millie did nothing to relieve his anxiety but it did shift his focus from feminine plots and cell phone bills to Amanda and her family situation.

Both Barry and Peggy called as well both inquiring about how Lily was holding up and how he was recuperating from his accident. They also had brief conversations with Sophia resulting in a rise of fresh suspicions on Max’s part, but nothing he could put his finger on.

The alterations of the travel plans allowed Max to accept a gracious invitation to a home cooked Sunday dinner. Ruth Pierce invited them all after the worship service. Ruth’s mother had lived with them the last year of her life, she told him. Lily reminded her of her Mom. Seeing his embarrassed look, she went on to say that the year had been hard but had proven to be the most precious time she’d ever spent with her mother. It would fill a hole in her heart if Max would bring Lily and his friends to dinner. He’d been ready to refuse, but Ruth Pierce’s gentleness as much as her words told him she understood his heart—this woman he’d barely met understood how love worked.

The ice cream capped off a sumptuous feast of fried chicken, fresh greens, mashed potatoes and gravy plus a variety of side dishes, all begging to be sampled. He had sampled plenty. “Lord, I do love southern cooking.” He repeated several times during the meal. After dinner, Ruth with Amanda had helped Lily to one of the bedrooms for a nap. Sophia engaged Pastor Pierce, who asked to be called Lincoln, in a lively conversation about his interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal. Max had excused himself and gravitated to the spot above the river.

His ice cream finished he sat the bowl next to the swing and began to pray about the ground that needed to be covered—not simply the roads to the ocean but the numerous tangled paths created by truths withheld in the name of love. He had his and Amanda had hers as did Sophia, the Pierces, and everybody—the just and the unjust. Certainly neither youth nor old age offered protection from the forces of nature nor the acts of man—including the consequences of choices made without thinking.

*

Amanda watched Max from the window of the bedroom where Lily slept. Ruth Pierce sat in a rocker near the bed, occasionally rubbing Lily’s back when she stirred or moaned in her sleep. She was singing as she rocked and Amanda found herself half listening; Ruth’s voice was smooth and deep and the melody pure. Amanda had temporarily abandoned her plan to run out on Lily, Max and Sophia. So now she was, in part, debating whether to go talk to Max or wait.

Though she feigned skepticism when Sophia told her Max had not ratted on her, she knew Sophia spoke the truth. The expanse of lawn reminded her of Nana and Poppy’s backyard in Mulvane. Poppy took pride in landscaping and gardening. For as long as she could remember her times with him included digging in the dirt or picking tomatoes or beans. When she was little and he was younger he’d swing her up on his shoulders and let her pick the very first peach of the season. Amanda swallowed hard feeling the sting of hot tears threaten to fall.

Poppy had built a gazebo for Nana in a corner of the yard. He called it her private garden. He surrounded it with hedges and planted vines that under his tutelage soon covered the structure. Amanda loved the spot. In the summer, she had traveled to Mulvane to spend one week with Nana and Poppy and the following week with Granny Nan. Her parents would drive her up on Sunday afternoon and she’d transfer from one home to the other on the following Saturday. At the end of her visit the three grandparents would drive her back.

At Nana and Poppy’s she’d carry a book to the gazebo to read or merely watch the light and shadows playing through the vines and leaves. She wouldn’t be going this year.

Max walked to the edge of the yard and stood for a while looking down, before returning to take a seat in the swing. Amanda watched as he sat his bowl on the ground, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his head resting on his clasped hands. ‘Is he ok?’ she wondered.

Earlier all indications were that they were going to cover lots of miles to make up for lost time, but shortly before the last of the congregational hand shakes and hugs, Amanda had answered the cell phone. That call had been from Max’s snotty son—put my Dad on, please–. Within moments of the end of that conversation, The William Tell Overture signaled another incoming call. That time it was Max’s daughter-in-law for Sophia and Max. When the band struck up again, Amanda handed the phone to Sophia.

“Why don’t you take care of this?’

“Shouldn’t there be a ‘please’ in there somewhere?”

“Please.”

“I’d be happy to.”
Sophia had flipped it open and answered it.

Even with the door of the room closed Amanda could hear Pastor Pierce and Sophia talking about his sermon. The discussion sounded like it could continue for hours, a sort of self-perpetuating conversation. Without turning she could feel Ruth Pierce’s eyes on her. The dinner had been great. During the meal she had watched for any signs of discomfort on the part of their hosts and finding none, settled down to eat her fill.

Even with her limited exposure to religious rituals in African-American churches, praying and the like, she’d found the church service at Harvest Fellowship livelier than she expected, but no one flopped out in the aisles or wailed or anything like that.

She certainly did not feel uncomfortable in the Pierce’s home and she hadn’t felt uncomfortable in Crossville at Sophia’s. Truth was, Amanda couldn’t see in any of these people as victims in need of empowering. Sophia—for sure—didn’t need a grain more of power or she would likely be dangerous. But she had lived a pretty “white” life back home.

Bits and pieces of the conversation in the other room filtered through her daydream. Sophia and Pastor Pierce were discussing the father in the story. The subject interrupted her negative thoughts that were spiraling downward to a pit inside her that Amanda had not known existed before last week. With some effort she turned her attention to their conversation, still aware of Ruth’s eyes on her but not minding that so much.

*

Later, Amanda trudged down the sloping yard toward the swing with a glass of iced tea and a sandwich for Max. Ruth Pierce was talking to Sophia inside, while Pastor Pierce prepared for evening services. Amanda suspected she’d been given this task because she asked too many questions.

She hadn’t intended to do anything but listen, but when the subject of honoring parents no matter what came up, she left the bedroom trying to get some answers, but she realized it probably looked like she was itching for a fight. To Lincoln Pierce’s credit, he never flinched at her bluntness; instead he’d simply indicated a chair and asked her to join them. Amanda did.

Frankly, she thought shortly after joining the discussion, she should have stayed put in the bedroom, because the convictions she’d nurtured the last several days suddenly felt less like fact and more like a one-sided view—hers. The struggle she had with the radical viewpoint coming from both sides confused her. There had been a moment when she wanted to dump the whole mess of her life on both Sophia and Pastor Pierce. Maybe they would see her point of view if they knew her existence had been an accident from the beginning, a series of miscalculations, bad judgment and outside interference.

Amanda knew what they didn’t the fact that she had ever drawn a breath resulted not from the love of her parents but from a poor choice of scheduling. Another minute or two and she might have unloaded; however, that didn’t happen.

The conversation, discussion, debate—whatever it was—had ended abruptly when Lily had awakened in the strange room with a stranger. Ruth tried her best to calm her, but it took Sophia and Amanda to help Lily get oriented enough to ask for the bathroom—unfortunately, not in time. No adults Amanda had ever known had wet themselves.

Lily stomped her feet in frustration as urine ran down her legs, drenched her socks before pooling like a moat around her. Wringing her hands repetitively Lily wailed like a child, “I peed my pants. I peed my pants.” Amanda blushed with embarrassment for Lily.

Calm, take charge Sophia worked with Ruth’s help to calm Lily and get her into clean dry garments. They moved her quickly from the bedroom to the kitchen and Ruth went to work fixing a light supper. As Amanda prepared to take out Max’s supper, she paused to watch Lily, who now sat in the kitchen, nibbling on a sandwich. She continued shaking slightly, but otherwise seemed ok. Impulsively, Amanda leaned over and pecked her cheek. Lily looked up her expression devoid of recognition. With a trembling hand she patted Amanda’s arm. “Are you my friend?”

Amanda wanted to scream, “I’m Greta; I’m Greta!” But how foolish would that be? She certainly hadn’t liked being called by Lily’s dead sister’s name at first. Why on earth would she perpetuate such a morbid delusion? There was no good answer, but somehow Lily’s failure to associate her with Greta bothered her. Without being Greta she was no one to Lily.

Amanda swallowed hard, searching Lily’s flattened affect for a tiny spark. None came. Amanda patted Lily’s hand and turned to go. Before reaching the door she glanced back into the room. Sophia and Ruth talked quietly at one end of the kitchen table; Lily sat empty eyed staring at a spot in space; with her hands in her lap she was picking over and over again at an invisible particle.

So whatever their reasons for sending her out with Max’s supper, Amanda was glad to be outdoors. Lily’s current condition frightened her as much as the scene in the dressing room at Cookeville. Nothing was turning out like it was supposed to—too many stops and little or no progress. Here they were not ten miles from where they started that morning. From the conversation she’d eavesdropped on between Sophia and Ruth, it looked like they were going to stay here for the night. Her thought patterns bounced from past to present to future and back again in the short trek from the house to the swing.

“Hey!”

Max looked around as Amanda approached, rising because he’d been raised to do so when a lady entered the room. A whoosh of dizziness swirled around his head. He blinked his eyes and reached for the swing. Amanda stepped forward steadying the swing with her body till Max stabilized.

“Whoa! You ok?”

Max nodded but couldn’t get his voice to work. Finally, still twirling inside, he turned and sat in the swing Amanda continued to hold. ‘Just have to let it settle’ he thought. In a few moments with only a mere residue in his head like the slowing of a merry go round, he found his voice, though it didn’t sound quite right to him.

“Did you bring that to me?” He asked, lifting his right arm to point at the sandwich. The arm felt like an enormous weight was attached. The sluggish movement bothered him momentarily, but then it passed as the last twirl of the gyroscope in his head completed its cycle. All that remained was the persistent headache, but it wasn’t any worse than before.

Amanda studied him for a moment then took a seat in the swing handing him the sandwich followed by the drink. Thankfully, he sighed, his hands grasped the items firmly.

“You’ve been out here a long time. What have you been doing?”

“Thinking, mainly,” he managed between bites. The shadows stretched out across the lawn elongated by approaching twilight. “I thought we’d make Asheville today at least. Guess I whiled away our driving time. Probably ought to get on to Knoxville and get a place to stay for tonight.”

Amanda grunted. “Think again.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Sophia and Ruth practically have our rooms assigned.”

“Oh, My! We can’t intrude like that.” He shook his head then bit off another piece of the sandwich. His next words bothered Amanda though for a moment she could not figure out why.

“This trip hasn’t been anything like I wanted it to be. I thought . . . Imagined. . No, fantasized that Lily and I . . .” He looked off toward the river. Amanda realized Max wasn’t really talking to her, but his tone bothered her—plus hadn’t she just been thinking the same stuff. Sadness clung to his words weighing them down until every utterance sounded forced and mechanical.

There had not been a moment since she’d met them that Amanda had thought of Max and Lily as anything but old. Nevertheless, Max hadn’t seemed decrepit or feeble—until now—now he sounded really old.

A light went on in the kitchen. She looked back toward the house and pictured Lily picking over and over again at something only she could see. Rising from the swing Amanda patted Max’s shoulder. He jolted, blinked rapidly—stared at her before a tentative smile emerged. They exchanged knowing looks both aware that for the briefest of moments Max could not identify Amanda.

Neither moved. Neither spoke. Amanda fussed with gathering the remnants of ice cream and supper. Max steadied his frame and rose from the swing. This time—thankfully—the dizziness remitted. Together in silence they walked toward the light. Max tested his foothold with each step. On top of everything else, he certainly didn’t need to fall.

*

Once the majority of the current occupants departed for evening services a peace settled over the house. Max relaxed in the larger lounge chair in the Pierce’s living room content to watch Lily sleep in the companion chair. The twitching he had noticed earlier when he had returned from the yard with Amanda disappeared as she slept.

Except for Lily’s whispering snore, the room was quiet. Max’s Bible and journal lay open in his lap, but he did not choose to read or write. The episode at the swing troubled him. Tonight he would swallow two aspirins rather than the pain medication he had been using since his accident. The side effect of high-powered pills often packed a bigger punch than the condition they were designed to relieve. He’d observed that in Lily.

Medications often had to be changed almost as quickly as they were prescribed. He’d learned the hard way. Within a short period of time the medication shelf became packed with useless expensive prescriptions. Peggy had thrown a fit when she saw them lined up like soldiers in the cabinet. She had been right, of course, they needed to be discarded, but he had to leave the room when she flushed them like the waste they were. Max learned quickly to ask for samples or to fill only a portion of the prescription.

Maybe the pain pills were the root of his dizziness and headaches. Another disquieting thought picked at him—the brief amnesiac episode with Amanda. Only an instant passed, he was pretty sure of that, but in that instant he existed in a place he didn’t know—in an unidentifiable time period, with a person he’d never seen before in his life. Search as he did for clues that fractured piece of time, Max acknowledged he had not even known who he was. Maybe dropping back to plain aspirin would help. He hoped so.

His eyes lifted from the pages he was not reading to find Lily staring at him. He smiled at her, watching to see if she still displayed the anxiety she had earlier. Her eyes while filmy did not appear to be frightened.

“Are you my friend?”

“I’m Max and yes, I am your friend, Lily.”

“Max, what a nice name. My husband’s name is Max.”

“Ah? Is that right?” Rare moments like these seldom happened anymore.

Lily remembered she had a husband named Max. He couldn’t recall when she taken that pathway in her brain. “Is he here?”

She frowned and looked around the room. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Where do you think he is?”

“I,” she puzzled with the question, scanned the room again, before her eyes found his again, “He joined the army. He’s . . .I don’t exactly know right now, but he’ll be back.”

“I am sure he will.”

“Yes, after he finds Olivia.” She leaned back in the chair evidently satisfied that the conversation had ended. Max swallowed hard. To his knowledge Olivia’s name had never been spoken between them. He’d seen it in the letters, but until that time Max had not known the name of Greta’s child. In his stubbornness—his pitiable self-righteousness—he had chosen never to ask the child’s name. A name might validate the child’s existence.

Only Greta’s body and a box for Lily arrived from London. No mention of the child occurred within the family, but Lily’s letters—Lily’s half of the correspondence had been the contents of the box—reading those letters and the ones Lily saved from her sister shattered his prejudicial opinions about Greta. Max noticed she slept again.

Max leaned back as well, still watching her. Nowhere in any of Lily’s letters to her sister had she let on that Max felt anything but love and compassion for Greta. Not a word crossed the pages about the harsh words they had exchanged nor the cold silent wall Max erected after the fight. She never shared the nights he had heard her crying softly into her pillow when he would simply grab a pillow and blanket and leave. Gradually, his anger faded, but the letters revealed the damage.

In effect, Lily had lied. She knew perfectly well where Max stood on the issue. His hot words—his frigid withdrawal left no questions regarding his verdict.
Still her slender cursive penmanship wove the reality of their marriage like a master weaver given inferior thread for the loom. If a thread broke, she’d simply keep on weaving, catch the thread with a stronger one and tuck it out of sight.

Reading the letters was an epiphany that forced Max to see the pain he had caused and to recognize in Lily’s lies, grace. The pictures she painted with words portrayed Max with such true strokes that he came to believe Lily not only loved him as he was but saw him as he should be. The letters brought Max insight, but Lily could no longer comprehend. The damage left a gap he’d been oblivious to—a chasm he’d waited too long to cross.

With tenderness he leaned forward and caressed her hand. The trip to the ocean was his way—at this late date—of trying to show Lily that he was striving to exhibit the fiber she’d skillfully attributed to him 60 plus years earlier. He closed his Bible and journal, leaned closer to her while he continued to stroke her hand.

“Come on, Miss Lily; let’s get to bed before the crowd gets back.”

She opened her eyes and let him help her to her feet.

Before he crawled into bed, Max walked to the kitchen, poured a glass of water and downed two aspirin.
*
The fragrance, clean starched bed linens, slowed the rapid pace of her heart on awakening. The room was dark except for the slivers of moonlight peaking around the edges of the curtains. Lily stared at the ceiling, watching the movement of light and shadow.

There was nothing remarkable about the ceiling; as far as she could tell it was ordinary. A turn of her head to the right as her eyes adjusted to the dim light proved more perplexing. What details she could distinguish bewildered her. The furniture, the placement of the doors and windows didn’t fit. Were it not for the scent of the sheets and the run of the mill ceiling, Lily might have panicked. She lay still, trying to backtrack in her mind.

*

Laundry was done on Mondays in an outbuilding just behind the kitchen.

Isadora and Bertha Mae supervised Bertha Mae’s two nieces, Joyce and Lolly who came every week to help with the washing on Monday and the ironing on Tuesday. A large wood burning stove took up most of one end of the wash shed. Pots of water set on every burner.

Wash tubs and scrub boards lined one side of the wall while rinse tubs lined the others. Lolly’s son Malcolm transported fresh water throughout the day from the pump. Everything was hung on the clothesline to dry. The best drying days were in the fall when the breeze swept in from the Atlantic. The power of that aroma embraced Lily.

She leaned into the embrace tugged the sheet close to her nose, inhaled, held her breath, exhaled and then repeated the sequence until she found a cozy spot in her memory to rest. The room–its ordinary ceiling and its unfamiliar arrangement—dissolved on her third or fourth breathing cycle. Her eyes closed; her breathing deepened; Lily slept.

*

Sophia and Amanda packed the car early the next morning. The smell of coffee woke Max. He looked to his right and saw Lily curled up. Leaning over her he saw she still slept. Lily was present and accounted for, but a look around the room told him his suitcase had disappeared. At closer observation he noticed a change of clothes and his shaving kit rested neatly on the bureau. Lily’s things sat next to his. Humph! This was a good sign. Human elves had been at work. Maybe they’d cover some ground today.

Stretching his frame served to work out some of the kinks caused by the inactivity of sleep. A familiar proverb mentally resonated “Too much sleep and too much slumber, too much folding of the hands to rest and poverty will come upon you like a bandit.”

The gremlins of atrophy stole from his body and mind without so much as firing a shot. His hip triggered a reminder that brittle bones broke with the slightest fall. The battle demanded his full determination to stand his ground for as long as he could. Extending the muscles in his legs and arms before rising helped assemble the troops who had not gone AWOL.

The few minutes spent organizing his faculties, allowed Max additional time to prepare his soul for the day. Of all the greasy little bandits of poverty, the gremlins who threatened his spirit taunted him most. Battling them took more than the grit of his will. Those nasty harbingers of doom retreated only when Max reached into his closet arsenal. He’d recite bits and pieces of scripture he’d memorized as a child—whatever came to mind. He prayed and he sang. The latter he’d learned from his mother, but it was the one he saved until safely under the hot running water of the shower.

The rituals completed, Max rolled to a sitting position on the side of the bed. Whoa! The gyroscope in his head tilted; the spin began. Complicating the dizziness, an invisible Suma wrestler pinched his head together from the forehead to the nape of his neck. When the nausea erupted, lying back down attracted Max, but he swallowed the bile and stayed upright; his hands grasped the edge of the bed, which was tilting forward threatening to buck him off.

Max had attended a few rodeos in his life. At that very moment he suspected bull riding to be no more challenging than his current condition. His eyes open he tried to fixate on a stationary object. Shutting them he found escalated the problem. In spite of the fact that his eyes seemed to be jerking and rotating in his skull, he managed to lock onto his shaving kit on the bureau.

The tilt diminished and the whirring slowed, and with its demise his nausea subsided. The retreat of nausea and vertigo thrust his headache to the forefront. The Suma wrestler’s grip hadn’t lessened in the least and Max noticed a high-pitched ringing in his head. Nothing a couple more aspirin couldn’t relieve, he thought pushing to stand, testing his legs before venturing toward the bathroom. Max rotated his head slightly—checking for residual disturbance in his head—before turning to check on Lily. The tilting bed evidently had not bothered her a bit, he mused.

He stepped forward and moved with as much determination as he could to complete his preparations for the day. As he went he decided his fight songs for the morning would be, “I Shall Not Be Moved” and “The Solid Rock”. Spurred to ignore his headache, Max hummed as he went, reasoning in light of the forces in his cache that bandits and gremlins of poverty had better beware!
*
The front porch of the Pierce home faced south so that the morning sun filtered through the tree branches providing agreeable lighting, the pleasantness of sunlight without the heat. The furnishings consisted of two cushioned rockers. The provisions formed a pleasant environment in which to sip morning coffee. Of course, Max reasoned that no amount of pleasantness could hold him long. There was unfinished business he needed to discuss with Amanda, but he had hoped to be on the road by now—a glance at his watch told him it was 8:30. Talking to her here in the Pierce’s home didn’t fit Max’s ideas, but strangely he couldn’t seem to get a handle on what the right place would be?

He had tried to read the paper, Ruth had brought him, but the print doubled up on him, so he sat and waited. Lily had awakened agitated about washday. Everyone in the house had tried to calm her, get her to eat some breakfast and help her get ready. For someone who didn’t top the scales above 90 pounds, she could sure put up a fight.

In the midst of the fracas Amanda noticed Max’s strained expression and clumsiness first, but it wasn’t long after she asked if he was alright that the women en mass exiled Max to a seat on the porch while they got Lily ready to go. Lincoln Pierce had gone off to a minister’s alliance meeting, so as the lone male, Max did as he was told.

Not for the first time since beginning the trip Max questioned his thinking. Half the time or maybe more than half, he’d discovered how frail and dependent he had become. Taking care of himself on the open road required most of his energy, which left very little for Lily, who needed constant attention. Without Sophia and Amanda, without folks like Lincoln and Ruth Pierce, aborting the trip would be the only option.

His own disgruntled murmuring brought a wave of depression, “Should of stayed on the farm.” No sense bothering other people with his problems; Max preferred being able to handle whatever came along. A westerly breeze brought a hint of rain, though the sky denied the possibility. The fragrance refreshed a recent but distant memory from the deck of the inn, two days previous.

He lifted his eyes out beyond the lawn to the road. Everything looked like it was a 3-D comic book with multiple images off setting each object. The strange blur failed to pass when he closed his eyes then reopened them. His stomach lurched. Reluctantly, he shut his eyes again holding the position a few seconds longer before testing his vision. This time things looked a little sharper and his stomach ceased doing flip-flops.

“You okay?” Amanda stepped out onto the porch and perched on the rail facing him.

“Of course,” Max lied. “How’s it going inside?”
“Sophia and Ruth are helping Lily shower and dress. She had some breakfast. They sure didn’t need me so I came out here to talk.” Her eyes shifted left uncomfortably.

“Ah, yes,” Max sighed, thinking what she wanted to talk about and what he needed to tell her were miles apart, unless she’d come out to tell him why she’d run away. With no clues from her side, he wasn’t about to launch into the conversation he’d had with her grandmother. Max chose to wait, let the aspirin do its work and listen.

“Finish Greta’s story—she’d started walking through the park,” Amanda invited, her eyes carefully averted to the lawn.

“Greta?” Temporary confusion jumbled Max’s thought patterns. He’d been seeking a starting point to share the information he’d received, half expecting Amanda to assist him. Lord, he wondered, could Greta’s story help or hurt?

Max had promised to tell her, but in the wake of the other account, Amanda’s story, he feared Greta’s might do more harm. The decision, right or wrong, fell to the promise. With a breath he hoped would clear his brain, he began. Amanda continued to look away, but the nuances of her body told him she was listening.

“Before she reached the other side—three men in hoods—they . . . attacked her.” Max’s voice dropped to nearly inaudible as he struggled with the words. Amanda’s face turned slightly, but she didn’t flinch. “They beat her…especially her face…she screamed so loudly, one of them pushed her face into the mud to keep her quiet . . .thinking she might suffocate in the mud, she stopped struggling. Mud mixed with her blood filled her nostrils and caked over her eyes, but she managed to lie still. Greta knew she might die at their hands, but her stillness spooked them.

With their footsteps retreating, she managed to get to a sitting position and wipe her face with her sleeve. Just as she started to rise, one of them or maybe the fourth man grabbed her by her hair, spun her toward him and pummeled her face some more. That beating mercifully slid her into unconsciousness.”

“How do you know all this? Did she tell you?” Amanda’s voice demanded, swinging her body and head toward the yard, away from Max.

“Letters, she wrote Lily all about what happened, but not right away, not until much later.”

“Did she go to the police? Did they catch them.”

“No, she was too ashamed and humiliated.”

“Why? For Chris…goodness sake. She didn’t do anything wrong.”

Max grew silent. Greta hadn’t done anything wrong. Amanda hit him dead center with the dart without ever knowing it. Guilt rose like the bile of his early morning nausea leaving just as foul a taste in his mouth. With effort he continued wanting, no needing to tell this story out loud even if it was to a child.

“When she regained consciousness, she discovered the last man or she hoped it was only the last one, had . . .he had . . .defiled her.”

“Are you saying he raped her?”

Max recognized once again how worldly children were—What on earth did fourteen year olds know about rape? Why on earth did fourteen year olds need to know about rape? —But he supposed they did given the evil in the world and so many children being abused. He couldn’t stop to probe so he pressed on.

“He did or they did. Greta never knew for sure. She managed to pull her belongings together and get home. She avoided the church where Charles was practicing. It was January before Lily received Greta’s letter about what had happened. Funny thing was they continued to exchange letters during the interval but Greta’s bothered Lily. They became hardly more than duty notes written to a distant relative.”

Amanda leveled her gaze at him for the first time that morning, started to ask a question, shook her head and turned back to the lawn. Max thought about prodding her—ask your question; save me from having to come up with the words—and then decided not to. He wanted to finish the story.

The act of sharing the sordidness of Greta’s violation honored her in a way he could not explain—honored her, as she should have been all those years ago. The shame thrust on Greta by her attackers turned out to be only the beginning of the shame she would endure. Lily had shielded her from Max’s harsh opinions, but protection of Greta from the actions and gossip of so many in Savannah and Brunswick was impossible.

The pause in conversation wore thin on Amanda’s demeanor. She fidgeted on the railing, finally moving to the top step of the porch. Settling with her back against the post opposite Max, she stared up at him. A touch of orneriness prompted him to latch eyes with her like a mad dog. With a sigh of exasperation Amanda threw out her hands palms up, breaking first.

“Well?? What happened? Did she tell Charles?”

“She actually told Charles the next day after it happened. He didn’t buy her made up story that her battered face with a broken nose occurred when she fell in the park. Remember, I told you Charles loved her. He really did . . . to a point. He ordered her to stay away from Dr. Levin and her activities at the synagogue for her own protection. Average citizens, good people in Savannah and back home in Brunswick found associations with Jews hard to stomach.

He encouraged her to keep her story to herself because few people would sympathize with her, because they didn’t know her like Charles did. Charles had grown up in Georgia and he knew what incited violence in normally gentle folks. Greta withdrew from those associations, but her relationship with Charles began to slide. Normally, she was stoic not given to tears like some southern women, but after the park incident, her crying became so unnerving to Charles that he ordered her to just get over it.”

“Yuck, what a loser!”

“Sixty years ago, I probably would have acted just like him. Greta no longer was the woman he fell in love with and he was determined to force her back into that mold. Charles continued his frustrated attempts until that January. Greta wrote Lily before she told Charles. The truth she had denied became undeniable, she was expecting a child.”

Max paused, wiped his damp face and looked at Amanda whose mouth formed a silent “oh”.

“Lily wanted Greta to come to Kentucky and stay with us. She might have done that if Lily’s husband hadn’t been such a hard hearted fool.” Max looked at Amanda for her reaction. A mildly astonished look crossed her face.
“You wouldn’t let her come? What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking—at least not like I should have been—I was judging Greta. Nice girls, “who got in trouble”, he drew quotation marks in the air, “went quietly away some place, had their baby, gave the baby to a family and returned home with some cockamamie story about studying at a boarding school or somewhere. They sure didn’t flaunt their mistakes in the home of their sister, not even one who lived two states away.”

Amanda scowled, but chose silence over speaking. Max appreciated that. He just wanted to get the rest of it out as quickly as possible. His head had begun to pound again and the nausea of earlier lurked in a corner of his abdomen.
“Greta went to Charles. Charles loved her but the idea of raising another man’s child appalled him. Not knowing what to do, Charles went to his older brother Wade.

Wade like Charles recognized that Greta had been violated, but no way was the child to become a “Lewis”. Charles retreated to his music while his brother Wade took charge. It was Wade who arranged for a doctor he knew in Atlanta to end Greta’s little problem. What he didn’t count on was Greta’s reaction.”
“He arranged for an abortion? Wasn’t it illegal back then?”

“It was.” Max restrained his tongue before blurting “not to mention immoral.”

“Greta rejected the offer and told Wade to get on back to Brunswick. Charles and she would handle it. Wade went directly to Charles, helped him pack his belongings and both brothers took the train back to Brunswick. Charles left a terse note, but to my knowledge they never spoke again.”

“So then she decided to go to London,” Amanda interjected.

“Not immediately, she simply kept on working until her pregnancy became obvious to her co-workers and everyone. The hospital medical director fired her on moral grounds.”

“What?” Amanda roared. “How could he do that?”

“It was 1939, Amanda. Unwed mothers were not viewed in the same light as today. There were unspoken morals clauses in every job place and frankly, even married pregnant women didn’t work in public. He had grounds to fire her. Her options were to fight an uneven, humiliating battle or leave. She left.”

“She probably wished she’d gone to see that doctor in Atlanta.” If Amanda was fishing for a reaction, which he presumed she was, Max denied her the pleasure and let the remark go.

“That night Joel Levin came to visit her. With reluctance Greta allowed him to come in for a few minutes. Needless to say her mood hardly conveyed hospitality, but Joel Levin didn’t come for a social visit.

With no preparation he launched into a lengthy often convoluted tale of the insidious Nazi persecution of the Jews and other “inferior” people in Europe. There was good news though, he told her, his nieces, Sarah and Rachel had an opportunity to escape Austria legally. England had opened her doors to accept Jewish children between 5 and 17 years of age if their parents had the 50 pounds necessary to assure their transport.

They would not be allowed to bring anything of value with them, and they had to have relatives or a family willing to accept them in England. Joel told her he had sent the money through his Gentile friend. The girls were scheduled to depart Austria in a month.

Greta listened but the plight of Dr. Levin’s nieces didn’t arouse the ire she would have felt a month or two before. Her struggles dampened her normal “Good Samaritan” qualities. Her biggest concern that evening was how she was going to tell the rest of her family she was expecting a child. She had vowed to Lily that she would never share the horror surrounding her baby’s conception. Even with her own inner turmoil raging, Greta tried to be polite but her patience wore thin during the visit.

He rambled outrageously, repeating himself several times, as if he was circling a jumping off point. He kept rotating his hat brim in his hands and staring off in the distance. Greta just wanted him to leave and was about to insist on it when he turned to face her squarely. ‘So you understand, Greta, I have the utmost respect for you. Perhaps that is not enough, but my nieces will need a woman in their life.’ Greta’s letter to Lily highlighted her confusion at his comments. She had no clue where his tedious monologue was headed, but suddenly he had gained her attention.

Greta watched as Dr. Levin straightened his spine, raised his eyes, and looked her square on—you know what I mean?” Max asked Amanda, who was looking him square on. “With very few words he let her know how deeply he respected her and, well, he, he, well he told her that he had received word from her attackers shortly after the incident in the park. They brutally informed him of “what happened to “Jew-lovers”. He had tried to talk to her about it, but realized after several rebuffs that she was not willing or able to do that. He understood and backed off. Then without a break Joel Levin took her hand, dropped to his knee and asked her to marry him.”

The breeze picked up a bit, catching dust and whipping it into a tiny whirlwind that jumped across the lawn. Max and Amanda turned to watch it. The audibility of the voices in the house intensified. They suggested the solace of the porch was an endangered entity.

“Did she?” Amanda asked, cocking her head toward the voices, but staring Max in the eye.

“Yes.”

Amanda opened her mouth to speak but stopped as Sophia pushed open the door and walked onto the porch with Lily on her arm and Ruth trailing.

Max looked up and smiled. The weight of the conversation combined with the throb in his head welcomed the interruption. Further chats, if that term fit at all, could be continued later.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen
Rest Stop, I-40, North Carolina

A remarkable thing happened following the hugs, decisions on seating arrangements for the three passengers, latching of seat belts and waves that marked the oddly assorted group of travelers. For the first time in days, they actually traveled.

Once on I-40 they practically flew to Knoxville where they encountered some slowing of traffic due to the inevitable Tennessee road construction. Sophia pretended patience, but Max saw the tensing of her jaw as the Buick crawled along, strapped to one lane and boxed between two semis. Lily had chosen to sit next to “Bertha Mae” and was actually chattering. Nothing she said made sense so it reminded Max of the toddlers he had observed as their gift of gab emerged—gibberish, but an attempt at communication. Amanda sat directly behind Sophia, awake, but distant, deep in thought or bored. It was hard for Max to define the minor nuances Amanda displayed with so little alteration in her typically bland countenance.

Max read the orange highway maintenance signs. “Left lane closed ahead. Merge Right”; “Slow Road Work in Progress”; and, “Fine will be doubled in Work Zone.” They amused him. He turned his head toward Amanda.

“Do you know that Tennessee didn’t invent road construction, but they have perfected it?”

“Huh?” Amanda barely shifted her head to give him a “so what” look.

“It’s a fact. Believe I read it somewhere.” His attempt to mimic her bland look, even slumping his shoulders included failed to bait her. “That’s why all road construction signs and pylons in the United States are orange. To honor Tennessee and the fine traffic conduits they manage to place on every road in the great state.

Sophia chuckled softly in the front seat. Amanda tucked her chin to her chest, furrowed her eyebrows and gawked at him.

“I haven’t a clue as to what on earth you are talking about.”

“Orange. . .University of Tennessee colors…you know.”

“Oh.” Her voice conveyed in that one word a total apathy regarding his attempt at humor. She retreated to looking out the side window at the huge concrete divider that almost touched the Buick as Sophia edged her way through. Max returned to his own reverie as well, closing his eyes hoping to catch a little nap and rid himself of the headache. He’d hardly relaxed against the seat when he felt acceleration as the Buick broke through the concrete gauntlet and pushed forward toward Asheville.

The tenseness in Sophia’s jaw relaxed. Lily quieted; Max couldn’t see her clearly because of the head rest, but speculated that she slept. A somnolence settled over him, too. He yawned a couple of times, his head bobbing forward. The drowsiness nearly sunk him into sleep. He lowered himself into the warm pool of slumber, when two factors delayed him

The first began as a muscle tic at the right corner of his mouth, and then spread its tentacles upward across his right jaw, upward toward his ear. Tiny currents of electrical activity followed the pathways giving rise to yet more involuntary muscle movement. Instinctively, he started to reach up and touch the twitching muscles only to find trunk lines of electrical current in his right arm. He winced with pain, inhaled, held his breath a second or two before releasing the air. Whatever triggered the incident faded away. His sleepiness dissipated replaced by an uneasy feeling. Carefully, he stretched out his arm, flexing it a couple of times. Once sure it functioned, Max touched the right side of his face; the skin felt like, well, like skin.

With some trepidation he glanced toward Amanda. Sensing his interest, she turned her head to face him
.
“Max,” she said, “Did Greta have her baby?”

He nodded, cleared his throat and remembered the pink bordered birth announcement he’d found in the box of letters. “In August 1939, a little girl, Olivia Levin. She was born in London.” His voice was barely a whisper.

“What happened to her?”

A painful sigh filled his lungs before he answered.

“I don’t know.”

“Does Lily?” Amanda tilted her head toward the front seat
.
“I don’t know.” An overwhelming sense of loss unlike any he’d ever experienced before threatened to pull him under. There had been nothing about Olivia. He’d gone over it again when Lily mentioned her last night. Greta and Joel had kept his nieces and Olivia in the city until the bombings began. Joel sent them all including Greta to the country in August of 1940; Olivia was a year old. Greta stayed with the girls a month before returning to London. She died in November. What had happened to Joel Levin? What had happened to those little girls? If Lily had only asked, he would have searched high and low for them after the war. Or would he have? Max honestly couldn’t say for sure how he would have reacted. Now he would, but then he, well he just wasn’t sure. The question never arose. Lily never asked and now she never would.

Amanda reached over and clasped his hand with a quick squeeze. She even offered him one of her rare smiles. He returned it
.
“Carmichael” she spoke almost inaudibly.

“Pardon.”
“My real name is Amanda Carmichael. I promised I’d tell you.”

He nodded but said nothing, uneasy with the information he had about Amanda, knowing he had to tell her and dreading the possible reactions.

*

“Welcome to North Carolina.” Sophia announced. “I do believe we have surpassed our mileage record by traveling greater than 60 miles without a stop. At least that’s true since I joined this little trek.”

Interstate 40 sliced into the mountains of North Carolina with the Buick and her passengers ascending more rapidly than they had in Tennessee. Almost in unison everyone’s ears popped as their Eustachian tubes worked overtime to equalize the change of air pressure.

“I may need some gum,” Amanda announced, swallowing hard several times.

“We will probably be climbing all the way to Asheville from here; this part of I 40 cuts right up the mountain range.” Max interjected.

“There should be vending machines at the first rest stop. Ruth packed us a lunch. It shouldn’t be too far; they usually put those Welcome Centers pretty close to the border, so you can find all the fun things to do in North Carolina. Would you look at those rocks?” Sophia pointed to one side and then the other.

“Gosh, it looks like they just came down off the mountain!”

“Looks that way, but this road’s been here a while, so. . .

“What’s that orange netting? Do you see it? Are they trying to catch them as they fall?” Amanda looked upward as if at any second a huge bolder could plummet crushing them all.

Max listened and looked, trying to remember when the rock slide that closed I-40 in this region happened. It hadn’t been all that long ago. Noticing the apprehension on Amanda’s face prevented him from sharing that tidbit of trivia. Instead he said,

“Interstate 40 was in the original group of Eisenhower Interstates. Construction started in the late 1950s during the height of the Cold War.”

A skeptical Amanda shifted her eyes toward him away from the threatening boulders. “What?”

“Eisenhower started the interstates?” Sophia asked suspiciously. “You know that for a fact?”

Max looked between them. Amanda had shifted her bored expression a notch upward to “still bored, but I’ll humor you” while Sophia had cocked her right ear just slightly toward the backseat. It was no surprise that Amanda had missed this part of history—her own history beginning in the latter part of the 20th Century—but Sophia! Lily stirred in the front seat probably uncomfortable with the change of pressure.

“Where are we?” She asked a tremor in her voice. Max spoke before the others could.

“You remember, Lily, we have to travel through the mountains to get to the ocean. I was just telling about Eisenhower building the interstates.”

“Oh,” she murmured, “We are going to the ocean? Will we miss the election?”

“No, do you remember Eisenhower, Lily?” Max probed, uncertain where this would lead.

“Oh, yes.” She looked at Sophia, “My Max served under the General in Europe, during the war. I have a button.”

“A button?” Sophia asked
.
“I Like Ike!” Lily exclaimed. Soft laughter filled the car, even Lily laughed then fell silent working her fingers in her lap as if she were crocheting.

“Anyway, the story goes that as a young lieutenant in 1919, Ike had traveled in a convoy from the east coast to the west coast in an amazing 62 days. On some roads travel speed averaged 5 miles a day.” Max began only to be interrupted by a short burst of laughter from Sophia.

“Sounds like this trip!”

Max shook his head unable to come up with a quick retort and continued his little history lesson
.
“Well when Ike was in post war Germany, he noticed that while Allied destruction of airports and railways virtually destroyed those transportation routes, the wide autobahns remained usable. We moved our equipment and men down them. Apparently extensive miles of asphalt and concrete present a far more formidable target than railways and airports.”

“Weren’t there potholes and such from the bombs?”

“Huge ones but the roads were still passable with little repair necessary. It actually impressed us all.”

“So you’re saying Eisenhower built roads here because of the roads in Germany?” Sophia sounded as if she could hardly wait to get to the computer to check out his story.
“That’s right. He saw how important roads could be to a strong defense program. Under his leadership as President, Ike hunted for support to provide adequate roads for the transportation of troops and equipment as well as provide evacuation routes for citizens. So the Department of Defense budget financed the original interstates. Interstate 40, this very road, is one of them.”

“So how long is this one?”

“Interstate 40 starts in California and ends here in North Carolina near the coast. It was completed I think in the late 1960’s”

“How do you know all this?” Amanda pressed with the attitude of an interrogator.

Max looked again between Sophia and her, sighed and admitted what they all could agree on.
“I’m old.”

With a quick nodding assent, they all fell silent again. Max continued to contemplate this particular section of road. It had been non-existent in 1960.

Some stretches of the roads were easier to build than others. Max remembered that the fifty miles from the Tennessee border to Asheville, North Caroling presented a significant road construction challenge. To Max the man-made valley appeared to have been created by a divine hand with a wedge driven into the mountain range, but he knew the finished product was the result of dynamite and land moving equipment. The angle of the mountains with walls of netting to prevent sliding rocks from landing on the road gave the impression that mountains and Pisgah National Forest might yet retake the road
.
“Sophia, is there a rest stop somewhere close?” Amanda asked.

“Should be one pretty soon. You all ready to stop? We can picnic. Ruth sent a passel of food for lunch.”

“I’m ready.” Amanda confirmed.

“Me, too.” Max agreed. Lily was silent, sleeping again, no doubt. He smiled again at her “I like Ike” interjection.

Immediately after Exit 7, a rest stop sign appeared. Sophia eased the Buick off the road and followed the signs for cars and picnic facilities.

*

Flies descended on the sandwich lying on a paper towel in front of Lily. Their frenzied attack matched the activity that surrounded the picnic table. Bertha Mae—or was she Bertha Mae’s sister? —Worked to get all the food in the basket out on the table. The man and the girl had gone off somewhere. They were all together Lily thought. They’d been in a car. But who were all these other people? Children played nearby. Cars and trucks came and went. Voices she didn’t recognize descended on her ears like the flies on her sandwich. Lily’s chest tightened, a clammy feeling draped her. Trembling she gasped for breath, but there wasn’t enough air. The voices were closing in, like the flies; she began to shake both her hands over her sandwich until an uncontrollable trembling began to take over her body. A low moan began in her throat
.
“Get them off. Get them off.” She cried shaking her hands and rocking. They were closing in. There was no way to escape. Lily screamed.

*

Sophia dropped what she was doing and tried to calm Lily who batted furiously at the flies as she screamed.

“Lily, Lily, Calm down. I’ll get the flies off.”

Lily struggled away from Sophia, clutching her sweater and sliding off the picnic bench. Purposefully, Lily crumbled to the ground and crawled under the picnic table. She covered her ears with her hands and screwed her eyes shut. Her screaming had stopped but her gasps for air and trembling persisted. Sophia watched helplessly while she drew herself into a tight ball like a trapped animal.

Oh, Sweet Jesus, what am I going to do? Sophia thought. A crowd was gathering though not a single person had yet offered assistance. Taking a deep breath, she dropped as gently to the ground as her substantial frame would allow. If Lily opened her eyes at least they would be eye to eye. Sophia had experience a foretaste of Lily’s anxiety attacks, but none of the episodes prior hinted of the panic this spell produced in Lily and whoever—Sophia being the whoever—happened to be closest. She edged as close to Lily as she could with the concrete bench as a barrier between them. Just as she started to speak, her pocket began vibrating and the William Tell Overture swung into full gear and a voice from above spoke.

“Can I help?” Max asked.

*

Max watched as Sophia dragged the cell phone from her pocket and attempted to rise off the concrete pad surrounding the picnic table and benches, pointing as she did so underneath the table. Before he examined the situation further Max knew who he would find crouched there.

He scanned the curious circle of people who began shifting their eyes nervously and pulling back from the obviously private drama. Good riddance, he thought. He started to offer an arm to Sophia, when the stabbing electrical current rendered him powerless. Sophia kept talking, but he wasn’t paying her any attention nor was she paying him any. She’d tell him later if it was important. He waved her off and she willingly retreated, chatting as she went.
Holding his arm still, the paralyzing effect of the neural activity began to subside. Getting down on the ground proved impossible, so he sat on the bench and began talking to Lily.

“Lily, it’s Max. I’m here to help you.”

No response, her moaning continued.

“Lily, everything’s okay now. Are you okay?”

There was still no response, but the moaning stopped. He couldn’t see her, but her quieting encouraged him.

“Did you have some lunch, Lily? Aren’t you hungry?”

She moaned again. He changed courses.

“Lily, come on out here and I’ll get you someplace to rest.”

“Can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Flies, everywhere, flies, buzzing.”

“There are no flies now, Lily. I scared them off. Come on out.”

“Who are you? Who are the others?’

“I’m Max.”

“My husband’s name is Max. He’s in the army in France.”

Max nodded thoughtfully. The talk of Eisenhower must have prompted this diversion in her mind.

“Well, I know for a fact that your Max wouldn’t want his lovely Lily hiding under a table from a bunch of measly flies, now would he?”

“No.”

Max heard her moving from under the table, crawling out. When she emerged, he saw she had scraped her knees and palms. He helped her off the ground and seated her on the bench facing out toward the surrounding rocks and trees and away from the commotion near the Welcome Center and parking area. He uncovered her sandwich and handed it to her. Lily ate without hesitation; evidently her fear of flies had dissipated.
With a gentle hand he dusted the grit from the scrapes on her knees. Max grimaced for her. Lily’s skin was so thin that it peeled like onionskin with the slightest provocation. She would need them washed and an antibiotic cream applied, but that would have to wait till later. Max shifted his body closer to hers on the bench, taking her hand in his, when she finished eating. Lily did not protest. His intention to speak to her about their journey to the ocean, to calm her fears, was denied.

A canopy of light descended on him; sound swirled around him like a tornado dragging him into its core; and the vacuum created at its vortex sucked his internal organs pulling them up to his swollen head threatening volcanic explosion. The last Max remembered was the rigidity of his body and the sound of screaming.
*

Sophia hurriedly told Millie ‘good-bye’ when she heard Lily screaming and saw a dozen or more folks running toward her. From her vantage point she could not see what was going on, so she snapped the phone shut and started down the hill to the area. Displaying once more her ability to run she covered the distance in seconds. Her attention was directed toward Lily so she had reached the picnic table before she realized that Max had collapsed. Having seen more than one seizure in her life as a hospital chaplain, she recognized in an instant what was happening.

A petite female from the crowd stepped forward. At first, Sophia thought it was Amanda; she shook that perception off when she realized her mistake. She attempted to to stop the woman’s forward progress. Without missing a stride the young woman explained herself.

“Hi, my name is Francine. I’m an EMT. We’re on vacation.”–she motioned toward a man and a toddler, pointing then toward Max—“He’s having a seizure, so I was going to make sure he didn’t hurt himself.” Sophia watched as Francine moved to Max with the self-confidence of a trained emergency technician. Once at his side, Francine looked up at Sophia and said calmly, “Do you have a cell phone?” —Then without waiting for an answer said—“call 911. He is going to need to be transported to a hospital.”

Sophia whipped open the phone and punched in the numbers all the while moving toward Lily who was turning in circles stamping her feet and screaming. The crowd had backed off and given her room after she swatted at a couple of them and called them “Nazi flies”. Sophia tucked her under one of her ample arms while giving what information she could to the dispatcher.

When she clamped the phone shut again she scanned the crowd for Amanda. Where was she? Was she still at the Welcome Center? Sophia squinted and peered toward the Welcome Center. A flock of the curious hovered there also watching the scene unfold below. Surely if Amanda were there she would have heard the ruckus and checked to see what was happening. Sophia expanded her search of the grounds.

Bingo! Sophia spotted her running across the lawn to the truck parking area. A burly man in a sleeveless shirt and baseball cap gestured to Amanda as she ran. Sophia watched with horror as Amanda changed course and headed toward him. He stood on the side of the cab of his tractor-trailer rig with the door open. As Amanda approached he caught her arm and scooped her into the cab then followed her. Swallowing hard Sophia yelled, “Stop that Truck!” but her voice was muted by her own revulsion and the sound of sirens approaching. The writing on the cab was too distant to read and the trailer was devoid of identifying signage. Suddenly, Sophia realized her utter helplessness interceding in the fast forward split screen events that were unfolding. With Max on the ground seizing, Lily in a panic, and Amanda in a truck 200 feet away, her gut gnarled.

Hot tears burned her cheeks as Sophia drew Lily closer and began to soothe her. She prayed silently. The paramedics’ appearance on the scene with Max relieved some the pressure. Their professionalism brought a measure of calm to the whole scene. Max’s seizure had resolved leaving him to all appearance like a floppy doll; she heard one of them speak into his radio, “We have an elderly white male with flexion to pain . . .” His voice trailed off. His partner started toward Sophia as Francine pointed toward her. Sophia watched him approach as the truck with Amanda aboard barreled away and disappeared on Interstate 40 headed east.

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

Haywood Regional Medical Center
Emergency Room
Clyde, North Carolina

The rugged beauty of Haywood County was lost on Sophia who was speeding to keep up with the ambulance. A telephone call to the Carnes’ family would have to wait until they reached the hospital. No way was she going to chance the need for another emergency vehicle. Lily had fallen asleep almost as soon as they had pulled onto Interstate 40. Trucks and cars moved to the shoulder as the ambulance sped by with the Buick tethered to it by invisible chain. Good thing Lily was asleep, Sophia thought, otherwise she’d be screaming her head off. Sophia scanned the trucks that had moved off the roadway to let the emergency vehicle pass, but she wasn’t sure if she’d know what to do providing she even recognized the one Amanda got in. That and the phone call would have to wait until they reached the hospital.

*

“Dave, Sugar, call me Dave. What’s a pretty little lady like you doing hitching rides? Could be dangerous!” The husky truck driver winked and grinned at her, his yellow teeth broadcasting a life of too much coffee and tobacco. The cab of his truck reminded Amanda of an overfull trash dumpster outside a fast food restaurant. The pine tree air freshener hanging from his mirror added just enough pine scent to the fetid smell of fried foods, cigarettes and body odor to stimulate Amanda’s gag reflex. Wadded sacks from a variety of food chains were mixed with emptied coffee containers; used creamers and other remnants of a life lived on the move filled the floor and portions of the seat. She wondered when he’d last shoveled it out. With a wariness learned from her previous experiences with truckers who offered her rides, Amanda scrunched against the far door in the cab and kept her hand near the handle.

The decision to escape transpired when she had rounded the Welcome Center and heard her name. Recognizing Sophia’s voice talking animatedly, she’d paused, easing backwards; she hid in the shadows around the corner and listened. She couldn’t decide who Sophia was talking to, but within seconds she’d heard enough of one side of the conversation to know they were delivering her to someone in Greenville and they knew her name and where she come from. What an idiot she’d been! Amanda had watched as Sophia slapped the cell phone closed and headed down the hill to the car.

Rage propelling her she headed in the opposite direction toward the dozen or so trucking rigs parked at the rest stop. Dave—she glanced to see if he were still watching her—had spotted her before she saw him as she flew toward the trucks. Without a doubt she would have to lose him the first chance she got. The eager truckers, the ones on the look out for female passengers proved to be the most vulgar—at least measured by her limited experience. If the interior of his truck was any indication of his mind, Dave might just be the most disgusting of them all.

As he started the rig, he glanced back at something, causing Amanda to look too. A crowd had gathered down in the picnic area, but she couldn’t see what was happening. Dave shrugged after a second or two and flashed his tarnished smile her way.

“You didn’t say, Sugar. Where are you headed?”

Amanda sputtered, “Uh, uh, Asheville, that’s right, Asheville. I have family there.”

“That right? Asheville, huh? Let’s get some music in here. You like music?” He flipped on the radio without giving her a chance to protest. The cab filled with country and western sounds, something about runway lights in the backyard. The volume jolted her and covered completely the sound of sirens turning into the rest stop. Amanda saw the flashing lights, but only in passing as the rig pulled out onto the interstate. First chance, she thought, and I am out of here.

The mountain climb taxed the tractor trailer rig, so Dave’s hands were busy shifting gears and occasionally talking on his CB which crackled and popped continuously in total disharmonious accompaniment to the Country and Western station.

Although Amanda did not relax she did settle down in the seat trying to decide what on earth she was going to do. Her jaw tightened as her resolve grew. It was good she’d found out now. For some reason her mind drifted back to Greta’s story. The man she loved left her alone; he failed her. So be it! There was no Joel Levin on the horizon for Amanda.

How far could the Atlantic Ocean be from here? A short swim and Amanda Carmichael would dissolve in the salty water. How fitting an end! The pamphlets at the Women’s Health Center in Oklahoma City and the websites she had searched after reading the journal explained that abortion in the first trimester often involved introducing a saline solution into the uterus, which destroyed the embryo prior to dilating and suctioning the offending passenger from the womb. So in the end salt water would be the means of death just as it had been intended before she was born.

The time with Max and Lily—yes, even bossy old Sophia—raised doubts, but now she knew or did she? She was so deep in thought and surrounded by the tightly packed sound in the cab that the sound of the siren coming up fast startled her. It seemed to jar Dave, too. She heard him mutter “whoa!” as he wrestled the rig to the shoulder of the road.

Rising up in the seat for a better view, Amanda saw the ambulance scream past with the all too familiar Buick on its tail. For the first time since she planned her own ending, a shudder of real concern for someone else ran through her.

“Lily,” she whispered.

“Huh?”

“Do you know where that ambulance is going?”

“Huh? No? Why?”

“Never mind,” Amanda shouted over the music and the squawking box, “She pulled on the handle and rammed the door open.

“Hey, get back in here. Where do you think you’re going?” He had released the clutch and the truck lurched forward

“Thanks but no thanks,” Amanda shouted, preparing to dismount, “And, Dave, clean out your garbage pit.”

“Shit! Dave, looks like you’ve captured a little tiger here.”

Amanda startled and hesitated. Though her vacillation was brief, it cost her freedom. A hand from behind took hold of her pony tail and heaved her back into the cab. Pain shot through her head, neck and shoulders as the realization dawned, Dave had a partner and judging from his grip, a strong, mean one. Twisting and kicking she struggled to free herself, but fighting served only to boost the sting that traveled from her scalp down. She was flailing against herself. Commanding calm, Amanda closed her eyes and went limp. The truck stopped and she could hear Dave sputtering and cussing. The monster clasped her hair tighter, laughed and shook her like a rag doll. The door remained open.

“What the hell are you doing, Ray? She’s jail bait for sure.”

“Shut up and shut the damn door!” The monster named Ray ordered.

Ray yanked Amanda out of the open portal as Dave reached to do as he was instructed. The additional pain caused an involuntary shudder, but Amanda bit her tongue to keep from crying out. The ooze of blood tasted salty in her mouth
.
There are some who would say that primal survival instincts have their roots in evolution, that the only creatures that exist today are those who have changed to secure their place in the current mix. Others contend those same instincts are the gift of the Creator and the foundation of life. No rational person would however deny its power. The force that drives a drowning man to surface for air, struggling for one last breath or gives rise to the flight or fight response, impelled Amanda to react. The monster loosened his grip on her hair running his hand down over her neck and shoulder to her breasts. Dave brushed over her thighs reaching to pull the door closed, snickering nervously.

While Dave tugged on the door, Ray continued his exploration. Amanda opened her eyes then with as much strength as she could muster she bit down on the tender under skin of Ray’s wrist and kicked Dave off balance into the filthy floor board. With energy supplied by adrenaline and sources unseen, Amanda flung herself feet first from the truck not turning loose of Ray’s wrist until she cleared the door. The asphalt collided with her bottom and her right leg folded painfully beneath her. Her whole body lurched forward and she tumbled over an incline crashing across rocks and through brush. Briefly, she thought as she fell that she might die from the fall, but mercifully the plunge ceased and she was still alive and conscious. Above her she heard Dave and Ray talking as they peered down the hill. Rats! She hadn’t considered they might come after her.

The slightest movement might betray her position, so in spite of the awkward painful posture in which she had landed, Amanda continued to lie still.

“There she is!” The monster yelled to Dave who had moved a few feet away.

“Where? Oh yeah, I see her. Gahdamit! Ray, she looks dead.”

“Naw! She didn’t fall far enough to be dead. Probably faking!”

“She could be dead.” Dave contradicted cautiously.

“So what do you propose we do? The bitch took a piece of hide out of my arm.”

“We got to get out of here.”

“Tell you what, Davey boy; we’re just a couple of honest truckers with bladders too full of coffee, stopped to take a leak. . .”

Amanda heard Ray unzip his jeans and a moment later Dave followed suit. Burying her face deeper into the prickly foliage, she realized she had something between her teeth. Revulsion sent shivers through her as she spit Ray’s flesh into the dirt and a man-made spray of yellow rain splattered over her.
Unable to bear the thought of what might happen next, her face pressed into the ground, she muttered, “Oh, God, I don’t want to die.” The impact of the truth stunned her. She didn’t want to die. Like the drowning man gasping for breath, she cried silently, “I want to live. Save me.” Exhaustion, pain and shock kicked in and Amanda lapsed into unconsciousness.

*

The Haywood Regional Medical Center’s Emergency Room presented a veneer of composure designed to calm the most turbulent of souls to enter. Max had already been transported to an assessment and treatment area reserved for patients who needed the quickest intervention, when Sophia managed to pull an increasingly befuzzled Lily through the doors. Sophia was no stranger to chaos, but the current multiple situations had her scrambling to prioritize. A pleasant young woman smiled at her from behind a desk rendering Sophia speechless for a moment
.
“May I help you?”

Calm down, Sophie. She could hear Elliot’s voice in her head. Think! Max, Amanda, call Millie and the rest of the Carnes tribe. First, answer this young woman who waited patiently and expectantly for Sophia’s response, evidently well trained for her job and familiar with the confusion of family and friends. Sophia swallowed and tried not to rush her words.

“Yes, my name is Sophia Winchester and this is Lily Carnes.” She drew the trembling Lily closer to her. “We were traveling and Max, Max Carnes, Lily’s husband had a seizure. He arrived by ambulance a few minutes ago.”

The young woman nodded, looking at her computer screen and started to speak when Sophia rushed on
.
“And, a young girl Amanda Carmichael who was traveling with us may have been abducted at the rest stop.” Abducted or running away, she’s a child, Sophia thought. “She’s only 14 and I saw her being lifted into a truck by a man. I am very concerned about her. She’s rather . . .uh, uh . . .unstable.”

With only the briefest hint of confusion the attendant picked up the phone checked a number and dialed. She met Sophia’s eyes.

“I’ll get the State Police here so you can give them the information. Do you have a picture of her?”

“Yes. There are some snapshots in the suitcases.”

“Where is this place? I don’t like it here. I want to go home.” Lily moaned and wrestled against Sophia’s hold. The attendant, MARCY, according to her identification badge, shifted her eyes sympathetically between Sophia and Lily while speaking to the dispatcher. Hanging up, she looked back to the computer screen.

“A trooper will be here shortly, so you may want to go get the photo. Mr. Carnes is in ER room 1B. I’ll call back there and let the staff know you’re here. Someone will be out shortly to talk to you.”

“Thank you, Marcy.” She turned to head for the car then remembered, “Marcy, I need to call Mr. Carnes family. May I use my cell phone in here?”

“Here in the lobby, but not back in the ER rooms.”

“Thanks, you’ve been very helpful.”

“Sure, no problem,” Marcy said, then, “Would you like for me to get Mrs. Carnes settled, while you go to the car? We aren’t very busy right at the moment. I’ll just call back there and check and then I can sit with her for a few minutes.”

Sophia calmed down at the offer. She would write a note to Marcy’s supervisor praising her. The Lord never promised there wouldn’t be turbulence in this life, but he had promised peace in the storm. Right then for Sophia the Lord’s peace had a name and it was Marcy. The girl deserved a gold medal, but a letter to her supervisor would have to do.

“Thank you, Marcy that would be very helpful. You’re a blessing.”

Marcy flashed a smile and took Lily’s arm guiding her gently to a couch in the waiting area.
*

The piercing bleep, bleep, bleep of the emergency broadcast signal blasted through Tim McGraw’s voice from the radio setting off a chain reaction in the cab of Dave’s truck. Dave, who had been balancing a container of coffee in one hand while smoking a cigarette with the other, spilled coffee on one leg. Scrambling to set the cup on the dash and tend to his burning leg, he dropped the cigarette in his lap and screamed obscenities so loud that he nearly failed to negotiate a curve on the mountainous interstate. “What the . . .?” Ray bellowed from the sleeper unit as Dave overcompensated and the large rig rocked violently on the road. In the confusion the emergency announcement passed, but the bleeping started again almost instantly and both men heard it the second time.

“An AMBER ALERT has been issued. At approximately 11:30 AM Eastern Daylight Time today, a fourteen year old female was seen entering a tractor trailer cab at the 1st East bound Rest Stop on Interstate 40 in North Carolina. The name of the victim is Amanda Carmichael. Her potential abductor is described as a white male wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt driving a white tractor-trailer rig traveling east on Interstate 40. The victim is described as 5’2’’ tall, approximately 110 pounds with sandy brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She has blue eyes. At the time of the incident she was wearing blue jeans and blue long sleeved T-shirt top. Please be on the look out for . . .”

Dave snapped off the radio. Sweat beaded on his face. Ray muttered. The crackling of the CB radio momentarily was the only sound inside the confines of the truck. Dave broke the silence first.

“So now what are we going to do?”

“Nothing, Davey, boy, we are going to do nothing except keep on driving.”

“She knows our names, Ray.”

“So, they may not even find her and if they do we’ll be long gone.”

“The cops might pull us over.”

“Do we have a girl in here, Davey?”

“No, but . . .”

“But, what?”

“Like I said before, we are just a couple of honest truckers trying to do a day’s work.”

“I ain’t so sure; we . . .”

“Trust me Davey there’s nothing to connect us to that kid. Like you said, she could be dead.”

“Don’t say that, Ray.”

“Come on, pull over. I’ll take over driving. If we get stopped, just keep your mouth shut.”
*
There was no denying the concern on Millie Carnes’s face when she closed her cell phone and turned to speak to the gathered clan. Motivated by concern for Lily and Max, the brothers, their sister and spouses decided that a reunion had been long overdue. Sophia became a willing accomplice keeping track of the action so that timing would be perfect. With Sharon and Barry opening their home, the whole group had converged on Greenville in the last two days.

Millie had been at the forefront of the idea, but even Ryan, who had rarely attended any family functions since his divorce, had willingly agreed to join them. Sharon had rented a beach house on Ocean Isle Beach for the lot of them. The plan was to surprise Max and Lily and join them for a family vacation. Sophia’s phone call with the grim details about Max and Amanda had hijacked that agenda. The traveling Carnes family was being diverted to Asheville’s St. Joseph’s Hospital. Millie surveyed the faces before she spoke, hoping she could keep her voice from breaking.

“It’s Pops. He had a seizure at a Rest Stop in North Carolina. He’s at Haywood Medical Center, but he’s going to be transported to Asheville. He has a sub dural hematoma, like a bruise on his brain, from the bump he got in Tennessee. He’s stable but he has to have surgery.” Millie finished but the others erupted asking questions to which she could only shake her head and mutter, “I don’t know, but we need to get there. Sophia’s bringing Momma Lily.”

Sharon burst in to the fray waving them back and commanding silence. Millie silently blessed her.

“Ok, everyone, get some stuff together and take our van. I’ll stay here and pick up Amanda’s folks at the airport tonight and bring them to Asheville.”

Millie paled and gasped. In unison every head turned her way. Once again there was silence as they waited. This time her voice broke as she repeated the news about Amanda.

*

“Polly, girl, calm down, sit,” Dean Bell ordered. His wife, Shannon, laughed as the black lab licked Dean’s ears and tried to crawl over the seat into his lap. Polly obeyed temporarily before rooting around in the floorboard and retrieving her leash. With determination she crashed into the front seat and dropped the leash into Dean’s lap. Dean joined his wife in laughter as he held up his hands in defeat.

“Ok, Polly, girl, I get it. We should have stopped at the rest stop and taken you for a walk.” Then to Shannon, “Can you pull over somewhere along here? I’ll walk her up the road so she can take care of business.”

“Looks like there is a place up here; I just want to be able to get completely off the road.”

Dean snapped the leash onto the ring on Polly’s collar. Shannon pulled the Volvo to the side, taking great care to get as far to the right of the roadway as possible without sliding down the mountain. Dean sprung the door open letting an over eager Polly leap from the car, pulling him along with her.

“Hey, slow down.” He struggled to hold on as she stretched and pulled against the leash, looking back over her shoulder as if to say “Hurry up.” He grinned at Shannon while trying to get the door closed and remain on his feet.

“All that money for obedience lessons down the tubes.”

Shannon waved them off, settling back in the driver’s seat watching Dean wrestle the restless Lab along the side of the embankment off the asphalt shoulder. She rolled down her window, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath of air laced with the fragrance of the forest. Opening her lids Shannon saw Polly sniffing every possible blade of grass deciding which ones to squat and pee on. Suddenly, Polly lurched off the path, knocking Dean to his bottom. She heard him yelp with surprise and pain. Grabbing the keys from the ignition, Shannon closed the window, opened the door and headed to where Dean had fallen.

She whistled to Polly as she set out to help. Surely, he hadn’t been hurt, but Polly was still a puppy even at 85 pounds and prone to over exuberance. She might have tangled Dean’s legs in the leash and up ended him. As Shannon approached, she could hear Polly barking. Dean rose up over the edge of the road with Polly in tow. Physically he was ok, but even shaded by the bill of his cap, Shannon saw his eyes were wide. Something was wrong.

“Shannon,” he called, “Come get Polly and get on your cell phone. Call 911. There’s someone down the hill. I’m going to climb down and check on her.”

“Her?” Shannon queried, taking the bouncing Lab’s lease and hauling Polly toward her, “Dean, could it be that kid we heard about on the radio. You know the Amber Alert.”

“Don’t know,” his voice faded as he descended the hill, “Call 911!”
*
I think we’re at a hospital or a doctor’s office, but I don’t feel sick. That girl there she was really nice to me. I wish she had told me her name. I came in a car. Yes, I am pretty sure it was a car. It was really fast. I’m sure glad it wasn’t my yellow roadster; the wind would have blown me plumb out of the seat. I don’t remember holding onto the steering wheel so I don’t think I was driving. Who are all these people? I don’t think I know them, but what if I’m supposed to? How embarrassing! I’ll just sit here and hope no one notices that I . . . Oh, my, there’s a policeman talking to that nice girl over there. What is her name? Maybe this isn’t a hospital. I think it’s a jail.

What on earth have I done? There was a flashing light. I was strapped in my seat. Were there handcuffs? Oh, mercy me, I’ve been arrested. What have I done? I don’t see any blood on my hands. This woman next to me, she was there—in the car. She must have arrested me, but what did I do. I just cannot remember. I need to call Max. Where is this place? What is the phone number? Oh, my, oh my here come more policemen. They are coming over here. The policewoman she’s getting up. Help me, help me, oh, Lord, they’ve come to take me to a cell. No-o-o-o!

Sophia stood when she saw the troopers arrive. Her heart quickened. The security guard who had been talking to Marcy at the desk straightened up and motioned toward her. Her concentration had slivered in so many directions during the last 2 hours that her mental state resembled a shattered glass; consequently, Sophia did not notice Lily’s thumbs rubbing across her fingers in growing agitation nor her trembling even though they had been sitting shoulder to shoulder. For that reason, Lily’s plaintive howling, “NO,” caught her and it seemed everyone in the room off guard. Her whole body jerked in reaction to the cry.

The State Troopers halted in their tracks, allowing Sophia room and some measure of privacy to care for the obviously distraught old woman. Sophia turned to Lily and put an arm around her shoulders, but Lily’s crying did not stop, at least not exactly. The level of her voice dropped significantly and she began pacing in place, like a child who needs to go to the bathroom. Under her breath Sophia could hear Lily talking, so she leaned over and put her ear near Lily’s mouth.

“What is it, Lily? What’s the matter?”

“Phone call, one phone call, can I call? Oh, what’s the number? Oh, mercy me.”

“You want to call someone?

Lily’s head bobbed, but she kept her eyes on her feet, “Max. I need to call Max.”

“Max is here, Lily.”

“Here? Oh, my, has he been arrested too?” It was coming back to Lily now. They’d taken Max in the Paddy Wagon. So that was the truth, they’d both been arrested, but she simply could not remember why.
“Arrested?” Sophia gasped and the two troopers echoed her. “Lily, honey, Max hasn’t been arrested. This is a hospital. He’s, he’s—sick.” Sophia gathered Lily into her embrace and held her until her shaking subsided some.

Lily felt better even though she had some trouble breathing with her face buried in the fabric and flesh of Sophia’s breasts. The hug lasted a few minutes with Sophia silently asking the troopers to give her just a little time for Lily to settle down. Still gripping her shoulders Sophia released Lily and looked her over.

“I need to tinkle.” Lily whispered, looking all around her as if amazed. Sophia waved to Marcy at the desk, who came instantly to walk Lily to the bathroom.

“What’s your name,” Lily asked.

“Marcy.”

“You are very nice. Can you tell me what the name of this place is?”

Sophia sighed and with a mixture of dread and anticipation turned to the two troopers. The older one smiled at her and her heart jumped.

“A couple from Ohio, walking their dog, found Amanda. They are getting her ready to transport but she should be here in the next 30 minutes or so. Looks like she’s going to be okay. We are going to stay around here so we can talk to her as soon as they get her checked out and will let us.”

One of the broken slivers had been recovered. Sophia’s eyes filled with tears and she thanked her Lord and Savior.

*

Lily entered the Ladies room alone, patting Marcy’s hand, but waving her off. The lights came on instantly when the door closed, but Lily could not remember if she pulled a cord. She must have, because the lights came on and they were very bright. The room looked both familiar and foreign. The toilet stood between a large pipe secured to the wall and a smaller one extending out of the back wall forward before dropping off to finally disappear into the tiled floor. Lily checked the one closest to her with the back of her hand.

Max had taught her that so that she would know if a pipe or hose was hot without burning herself. It was cool. She checked the other one finding it cool as well. Oh, my, what had that girl told her? This was a hospital. Lily was sure that was what she had said.

Had she asked her where it was? No, she didn’t think so, but it certainly didn’t look like any hospitals she’d seen, but she’d only visited a couple—the sanatorium where Momma had stayed and the hospital in Savannah where Greta had worked.
It took Lily several minutes to locate the toilet paper. Finally she spotted a piece hanging from a large metal cylinder next to the commode. How odd? Standing at the sink, she kept her eyes down as she washed her hands suddenly realizing this bathroom wasn’t private and an elderly lady was waiting behind her to use the facilities. The appearance of her hands bothered her; obviously she had not taken good care of them since her wedding last year or was it two years now? All this worry about Greta took more of her brain than she had realized.

Lily shook her hands to dry them unable to see a towel nearby. Glancing up into the mirror the old woman’s face appeared; she looked down again quickly and murmured quietly, “I’m through; I’ll just get out of your way now.” She pushed down on the handle and pushed the door open into the hall. The light went out. Had she pulled the cord or had the old woman? Maybe when she got that old she’d want the bathroom dark, too.

The hall offered her few clues and everybody seemed to be in a hurry. A tall blonde man paused next to a door a few feet from where she stood. He was reading something on a clipboard—a stethoscope hung over his shoulders and he was wearing a white lab coat. He glanced up and saw Lily looking at him. Seeing her confusion, he approached her.

“May I help you? Are you looking for someone?”

Lily furrowed her brow, trying to remember. Was she looking for someone? Perhaps this young man could help her if she could only figure out where this was and how she had gotten here. She thought someone had told her it was a hospital.

“Ma’m, are you okay?”

“This doesn’t look like any hospital I’ve ever seen.”

“Well, it has undergone some changes the last few years, so it’s pretty ‘state of the art’.” His eyes roamed the facility and there was a touch of pride in his voice.

“State of the art’? What art?” Lily scanned the walls for any sign of art.

Distantly, Lily distinguished sirens approaching. The young man glanced away from her toward the sound. Moments later a loud pop followed by a whoosh of air and the clatter of feet and wheels invaded the air space. The young man looked between Lily and the noise choosing to move toward the noise. Lily stood fixed between two realities, the merging of the sights, sounds and smells physically surrounding her and a distant time with all its unraveled pieces.

The landscape of Lily’s brain resembled a battle zone; clumps of plaque blocked the main highways while the trunk lines and ancillary circuits lay in tangled webs. Signals reached the end of those nests of wires only to find the receptor tracks dismantled. Given the crumbling ruins of her mind, Lily’s conclusion seemed obvious. Somehow, someway she had gotten to London, to the hospital where Greta worked. God bless Max, he had relented and let her come.

The noises, the blasting sound, the sirens—of course, Greta had written about the awful air raids. She had wanted to come get her and take her home, but Max—he was so against it? But that was the only explanation; he must have seen her despair and let her come. How else would she have gotten to London to this odd hospital where Greta and Dr. Levin worked, unless Max had bought her ticket?

Her confusion well she’d just had too much on her mind lately. The last few days are a blur. Oh, thank you, Lord. Thank you, Max. He let me come get Greta and Olivia so I could bring them home. I was afraid to ask him, but here I am. Now I just have to locate them. Lily’s eyes looked up to find the young man no longer there. She reached out and grabbed the arm of a woman dressed in green with a fine green hair net covering her hair.

“My sister, Greta Stanton, I mean Greta Levin she works here. She’s a nurse. Her husband is Dr. Joel Levin. I must find her. I need to take her home to the United States.”

“To the United States?” The woman tilted her head and looked at her curiously, then with sudden insight gently took her arm. “Why don’t we go down here to the Emergency Room Lobby and check with Marcy?” Lily resisted her prompting at first, sure they were losing time, but resigned to being guided after a moment.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

The distance between Greenville, South Carolina and Asheville, North Carolina stretched the way time and miles so often do when you want to compress it. The first half hour, the occupants of the Carnes van passed in relative silence with the exception of Millie and that confounded cell phone. Amanda, the runaway child, had been found alive. Ryan sighed in unison with the others, but resented the child’s interference into his parents’ lives. He still bristled remembering her attitude and lack of truthful communication during their single phone conversation.

He noticed Millie sniffled a few times when she relayed the good news to Sharon. Ryan watched the road from the passenger side next to Barry, who drove. He felt somewhat more connected to Barry simply because neither of them had been responsible for letting their feeble elderly parents take off on a joy ride across the southeast. The guilty parties rode behind their elder siblings.

Ryan hated symbolism—a major point in the demise of his late but not yet buried marriage—but at the present could not help but relish the fact that the sane Carnes offspring were at the helm. Barry was pilot and he was co-pilot though he wished that those roles were reversed since Barry drove like—what was it his mother had always said when they’d get stuck behind a slow driver—like a little old lady out for a Sunday afternoon drive.
Momma had a bit of a lead foot, Ryan remembered. She hated wasting time getting from one point to the next. The thought brought a half smile to his mouth. Barry obviously hadn’t gotten his driving preferences from Momma. An unplanned chortle escaped.

“What’s funny?” Barry asked. Ryan glanced his way. There he sat perfectly erect, hands at ten and two, eyes straight ahead. Ryan’s chuckle swelled to a hoot, which thanks to years of university classrooms he managed to reel in quickly.

“Momma didn’t teach you to drive, did she?”

“No, I was one of the first students in Driver’s Ed classes, why?”

“Because you drive like a little old lady on a Sunday afternoon and Momma never did.”

Barry started to sputter in his defense but Andrew broke in from the far back.

“That’s for sure and she didn’t slow down as she got older either. She about scared me to death one time about 8 or 9 years ago. She insisted on driving herself into town to a doctor’s appointment, but Millie insisted that one of us needed to go with her, because even then she was having some trouble remembering things.”

“I offered to go,” Millie interjected.

“Well, anyway, I went. I got into the car and before I hardly had my foot inside and the door closed, she hit the accelerator. We bounded backwards so fast that I barely had my seatbelt on when she whipped out of the driveway onto the road and I swear to you never checked over her shoulder or in the rearview mirror.

Soon as we hit the road, she dropped it from reverse to drive and hit the gas again. I remember saying something like ‘Momma, slow down, we’ve got plenty of time.’ She gave me one of her ‘Momma looks’ straight from childhood memories. You all know the one—‘be quiet or you’ll be out walking, young man.’”

The van erupted with laughter and “Momma-isms” from the four siblings, Peggy’s husband, Davis and Millie. The convergence of memories from childhood to the present produced the strongest ambiance of family they had experienced in years. With the atmosphere relaxed, even Ryan sensed a change of his own attitude. His years at Princeton served as a buffer between who he had been as a child and the person he pretended to be on a daily basis.

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

Amanda clung to the warm sheet the paramedics had placed over her in the ambulance. Her head and neck had been stabilized with a contraption akin to a strait jacket. An IV drip worked to rehydrate her system and a fiberglass boot held her ankle firm. The whole experience whirled around in her brain making her a little dizzy. How long had she lain on that patch of earth below the highway? It was still daylight so it couldn’t have been all that long. The greatest physical sensation she had at the time of her rescue was thirst; her throat burned and her lips were parched.

The people who found her allowed her only a few sips of water until the emergency team arrived. She wanted to thank them, but they drifted out of her line of sight and then she was being loaded into the ambulance. Her agitation mushroomed as Amanda realized she hadn’t treated them very well when they found her and now she’d lost the opportunity. Unable to move, Amanda began to wail.

Somehow the fact that she hadn’t said “thank you” to the Bells overlapped her concern about what had happened to Lily. Her lungs and vocal cords worked amazingly well considering the restrictions the rest of her body endured. The paramedic, a woman named Josie, reassured her that the Bells were following them into the hospital but she didn’t know about Lily. They would find out at the hospital, if that was where she’d been transported. With those words she quieted for the rough ride into Clyde, North Carolina.

******************
“Looks like the Weigh Station is open, Ray.”

“Figures! Just what we need, one more delay!” He thumped the stirring wheel with his fist and winced. Blood trickled down his arm. He slung it across the cab splattering everything in sight including Dave.

“Watch it! That looks nasty. Maybe you should…”

“What? See a doctor? Just get the First Aid Kit out of the back, squirt some of that antiseptic stuff on it and bandage it. I should have bashed her head in.”

“Don’t say that.”

Ray guided the truck into line on the long ramp to the scales. Scales always slowed transportation, but these guys must be training new help, he reasoned as he edged the rig along. Maybe they are running only one scale. He craned his head out the window aware that traffic behind him was piling up and he couldn’t really see what was going on up front.

Dave finished bandaging the injured arm, so he jerked it away and turned up the CB radio. In a few minutes he had the scoop from the front. State Police and the Feds were checking every truck looking for that missing teenager. A slide of his eyes right told him Dave’s color resembled a dingy sheet.

“Just don’t mess your jeans, Davey. You see any teenage girls in here? Keep your mouth shut.” The cockiness in Ray’s voice contradicted the worms crawling in his gut.

**********

The afternoon in the emergency lobby passed with stretches of boredom and moments of frenzy. The Carnes family had arrived at the hospital in Asheville a good two hours ahead of the patient. Sophia had managed to get Max’s neurologist in Clyde connected to the family to explain Max’s current status and the surgical plan once he arrived in Asheville. Sophia eavesdropped on the conversation with not the slightest hint of guilt and she talked to Millie later after the neurosurgeon waiting for Max’s arrival located the family at St. Joseph’s.

Max currently was being kept in a drug induced coma to prevent any further swelling on his brain. The surgery would be relatively simple and presented few complications. It involved burring holes in his head or something like that. Sophia wondered if the surgeon would think having holes drilled in his skull was minor. The family would be able to see Max before the surgery, but he would not be conscious. Afterwards he would be in Intensive Care for at least 24 to 36 hours.

Lily lay curled like a cat on one of the lobby couches, sleeping. Amanda’s arrival by ambulance managed to topple several emotional apple carts, leaving Sophia feeling like a damp rag that had been sparred over by two Jack Russell terriers. It took all the self-restraint Sophia could muster to keep from swooping down on the gurney when the EMS team rolled Amanda in looking like a fiberglass igloo. Lily, unshackled from mere protocol had shown no such restraint.

Sophia had noticed Lily’s approach on the arm of a nurse immediately after the automatic doors sprang open to allow the paramedics to enter with Amanda, but was as surprised as the others at her reaction to the scene. There was no mistaking the look of terror on Lily’s face at the sight, but nothing prepared her for either the speed with which Lily reached the gurney or the strength or accuracy with which she shoved the attendant’s hand from the rails.

Sitting on the couch now, Sophia eyed the frail woman. Where did that burst of energy come from? Surely the shot of adrenaline alone could have killed her, but instead it shoved her into overdrive. More than anything, Sophia wished she could crawl inside Lily’s brain so she could follow better the divergent paths her cognition took. Sophia couldn’t help but chuckle quietly remembering the stunned expression of the young woman as Lily took charge.

“Greta, oh Greta,” Lily patted Amanda’s hand before staring down the paramedic and demanding, “Did she get caught in the rubble or was she hit by a bomb? Is she ok?”

Ignoring the young paramedic’s silence and gaping mouth Lily turned back to Amanda, who was grasping for her with her free hand.

“Greta, I’ve come to take you home, you and Olivia. Max sent me. I don’t know how, but we are going home away from Hitler and his Nazi thugs. I’m here, Greta.”

“Oh, Lily, I thought you were hurt or dead,” Amanda sobbed, unable to wipe the tears of relief from her face.

It was Lily’s turn to look baffled, “Dead, hurt, why would you think that?”

“The ambulance, the Buick. . .Who was in. . .?” Sophia moved within Amanda’s line of vision. Understanding and the darkness of realization descended in Amanda’s eyes as she locked on Sophia’s face and saw her mouth the word, “Max.”

The exchange between Sophia and Amanda was lost on Lily who still stood firmly fixed in a time long past and addressed the medical team who now moved in to regain the territory Lily had invaded. Lily patted Amanda’s arm and whispered loudly to the paramedic.

“Poor Greta, it must be shell shock. She’s completely out of her head.”

God Bless her. Sophia thought recalling the remark with clarity as she sat watching Lily sleep. It takes one to know one.
*
Telling Amanda about Max fell directly on Sophia’s shoulders. The hospital staff had contacted Amanda’s father in Oklahoma and the delicate business of providing necessary medical care to his minor daughter didn’t present as an issue Sophia had to tackle. The immediate problem wasn’t tied to permission to treat. Amanda refused any treatment until she had some information about Max. She wanted, no demanded to see Sophia. Typical behavior, Sophia thought.
Marcy stepped in again to watch after Lily, promising to stay right with her. Sophia watched as Marcy pulled a chair up to her desk, helping Lily to sit, just like a teacher with a difficult student. Sophia barely had time to meet the Bells, Dean and Shannon, but the officer in charge wanted a few words with them anyway. Nothing stood in the way of her speaking to Amanda, except her own trepidation. Steadying her insides, Sophia walked toward the ER treatment room Marcy indicated, determined to let Amanda set the tone of the conversation.

In a matter of a few hours too much had happened to allow setting the whole mess upright in one conversation. She knew that the team had arrived to transport Max to Asheville, but the outcome of his condition dangled without a predictable conclusion. The troopers had not revealed much information about what had happened to Amanda after she entered the cab of that truck nor had they shared how she ended up on a ledge off the interstate. She did know they were looking for two men for questioning. A sick feeling at the possibilities halted her steps for a moment. With the professionalism of an experienced Chaplain, she realized she had no time for this. The gremlins playing havoc with her insides would have to step aside. She knocked on the door and entered.

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

The murky fog, surrounding him, was like no fog he’d ever experienced. He felt buoyant floating not on top of the vapor, but within it. Occasionally Max heard voices in the distance, but he had no interest in them. The puddle of mist rocked him gently. The presence of his arms and legs lying curiously still, bobbing along with the ebb and flow of the misty cushion failed to alarm him. Max desired nothing more than to drift in this warm sea. A whoosh of noise rose and fell with the movement of his chest. Oxygen flowed through him, but he was not conscious of breathing. Was he dying? Did life here on earth end as it began—in the womb? Would the contractions of labor soon start or had they already begun pushing him through the birth canal into the arms of God?

Thoughts fled his mind as quickly as they formed as he floated along, whirling now and then. The warm sunlight filtered through the leaves dancing like fairies on the water. He watched it flicker on the current that carried him along creek. The sounds of his brothers’ voices scuffling on the bank ended with a sharp splash that rocked him on the old inner tube. Seconds later, he felt a thrust from beneath the water tilting him up, over and into the icy spring. He surfaced furious to encounter the laughter of Ed and Mitch who tussled with each other over the lone tube. Max splashed water on both of them and grabbed at the tube only to be upended again. Max raged to no avail against his brothers while Fred squalled from the bank for them to cut it out or he was going to tell. Hot headedness fueled Max so that making him mad was half the fun. If the tube hadn’t started floating away no telling how long the battle would have lasted.

He tried to reach for it but the hazy cocoon curled her fingers around him drawing him out of ear shot of his brothers. The rhythmic whoosh returned like the melodic beat of milk being hand pressed from a cow’s udder. His hands remembered the rolling motion that coaxed the milk into the bucket. Every morning and evening, but early on Saturday night, the Carnes brothers milked. Saturdays were special especially in the summer. The lot of them would finish up early, pile into the back of the back of Daddy’s old pickup truck and head into Trenton.

“Hey, Thad, Mary Ellen Bryson’s sweet on you. You plan on courting her tonight?”

“Golly, Mitch, I’ve got better things to do in town than hang around with old Mary Ellen.”

“Such as?”

“Such as—Nothing!” Ed made wild kissing noises in the air, while the others hooted with laughter and good natured punches. Henry Robert and Donald sat backwards in the seat of the pickup cab, wedged between Walter and Opal, eyes wide with envy watching every movement their older brothers made.

The gray ocean shifted and moved, but Max’s body and limbs remained suspended. He felt nothing but the mild rocking of the waves, but he sensed the faintest of breezes and a mild fragrance he tried to identify only to have it drift away. The muted voices somewhere beyond the shadows returned. While they were indistinguishable, mere jargon absorbed by the watery haze their message soothed Max’s senses. Yet those hushed voices drifted in and out leaving only the rhythmic whoosh centering his being and those long past—the tires on Daddy’s truck, the spirited voices of his brothers and the community that gathered in front of the General Store in Trenton on Saturday night.
*****
If Sophia had not known the form in the bed was Amanda, she might have excused herself and stepped out of the room. Most of the plastic apparatus had been removed, but the filth covering her face and clothing obscured her features. Sophia noticed a stench of ammonia not unlike what she had encountered in her visits to residents of some long term care facilities.

Amanda’s hair hung in tangled strands full of burrs, twigs and assorted other debris she’d picked up in her roll down the embankment. There were fine streaks on her face from crying, but her eyes were dry at present. Several deep scratches on her face, neck and arms glared as blood mixed with dirt coagulated. The sum of the parts rendered the picture of a battered child, but the totality of Amanda’s physical appearance could not capture the fragility Sophia sensed as their eyes met. She gasped before she even realized she had. Amanda’s lower lip trembled but she didn’t cry. Sophia wished she could take the gasp back, but could not.

“Dear, child, you look pitiful.” Then with hope of lightening the dismal scene, Sophia added, “You have got to stop rolling around in the dirt!”

Amanda tried to smile, but the attempt failed. The possibility of a comeback eluded her, but there was gratefulness in her eyes. Sophia moved quickly to her side and fingered one of her scratched hands avoiding the application of any pressure
.
“I am so sorry, Sophia. I heard you on the phone talking about my Mom and Granny Nan coming to get me. I am such an idiot. . .” Her words dropped as a sob rose from her throat. Tears pooled in her eyes rolling over the rims in sheets rather than drops.

Sophia grabbed a tissue from the night stand and patted gently at Amanda’s face while Amanda tried to catch her breath between sobs. Amanda grimaced with pain. Sophia jerked her hand back
.
“Did I hurt you?”

Amanda shook her head still trying to get her breath, “No, it’s, it’s my left side. They think maybe I have a broken rib or two.”

“Amanda, they need to get you x-rayed and treated. They have permission from your Dad. He’s really worried. Your Mother and Grandmother arrive in Greenville tonight.”

Amanda sniffed deeply, wincing each time.

“Max, what happened to Max?” She grunted in between gasps.

“The accident, when he hit his head—back in Tennessee–he has a brain bruise that’s gotten swollen. He passed out, had a seizure at the Rest Stop.” Sophia knew her words sounded rushed, but Amanda’s need for medical attention superseded any elaboration. “They are taking him to Asheville for surgery—in fact, he may be gone by now. His kids are meeting him there.”

Amanda tried to speak, but fresh tears appeared leaving Sophia to wave off any further questions.

“Later, Child, Lily and I will be here. You let them get you fixed up.” Sophia backed from the room bumping two attendants with a gurney. They obviously had been waiting at the door. A registered nurse followed them into the room.

 

 

Chapter Nineteen
Asheville, North Carolina

Something is definitely wrong with this combine, Max thought. The noise had been growing steadily louder and less intermittent than when Max had first noticed it. The sun glittered on the golden grain ahead of him. He was having some trouble remembering how many acres remained to be harvested, but the noise in the combine signaled a problem that was going to require stopping. There’s too much to do. I can’t stop now, but the noise only grew louder.

When he looked down at the controls to turn off the combine, he was suddenly baffled. Why on earth was he holding his army rifle and wearing fatigues? Without warning, he found himself flat on his back and realized some sort of animal with rubbery skin had him bound. He heard suction and felt it in his throat. The creature was sucking the life out of him. He fought back yanking at the tentacles that held him. He could hear voices. Andrew’s? Did the creature have him, too? Got to help him! Wrestling against the beast, his eyes flew open and he stared into the face of his attacker.

“Mr. Carnes, relax. The doctor’s going to take some of these tubes out.” The small sandy haired girl in green scrubs motioned to a figure near the end of the bed that moved in closer.
“Dad, it’s Andrew. Relax. Everything’s okay.”

Max stared at his son. He looked up and around the room taking in the scenery. No combine, no rifle and no monsters that he could see, but the noise continued. He tried to say something but a large garden hose in his throat stopped him. He raised his hands and noticed the sandy haired girl ready to snatch them back if he bothered anything. He stuck his fingers in his ears and mouthed, “Too Loud.” Andrew and the young nurse chuckled.

“That’s one of the first things that the doctor will turn off. It won’t be long now.” She scooted out of the tiny cubicle. Max’s eyes fell on the clock and calendar on the wall across from the end of the bed. The furrow between his eyes deepened and he pointed to them, mouthing, “How long?”

‘Four days–we’ll talk about it later—after they get you detached. There are a lot of people here to see you, lots praying for you, too, back home, Greenville, here in the hospital.”

“Lily?” His lips formed the words as the impact of his time apart from the world descended.

“Mom’s doing fine, Dad. Millie and Sophia took her on to Greenville to Sharon and Barry’s house.”

Max nodded. His eyelids began to feel heavy. The mattress curled up around him pulling him farther and farther into its billowy depths. The noise grew more distant, fading as he sank into the cushioned banks. Succumbing to the warmth and softness, he felt Andrew pat his hand.
When Max awoke again, the room was silent and dimly lit, the date on the calendar had not changed but the clock indicated 6 hours had passed. Vaguely he could recall waking slightly two or three times, before sinking again into sleep. The machine responsible for the noise was gone as was the garden hose in his throat. The quietness was seductive. Before he realized what was happening, he slept again.

*****

The intensive care family waiting room represented the current trend in hospital décor—providing an atmosphere unlike a hospital. The muted indirect lighting around the edges of the ceiling matched the barely audible classical music that drifted through the filtered air. A kiosk laden with coffee, tea and condiments, and a basket of candies and snacks from a local church group sat in a corner.

Periodically, a pink-coated lady appeared and tended to it, coming and going so quietly that the families and friends of the ICU residents rarely noticed her. Partitions in the room provided areas of privacy, but while family members did chose one area or another, everyone soon knew who they had in one of the cubicles beyond the double doors and could have easily updated anyone who called on any patient.

Sofas and chairs along with end tables on which sat attractive lamps and art work reminiscent of the work of the Impressionists completed the environment, which resembled a lounge in a five-star hotel. The trick failed, no one thought this was a hotel, but at least the furniture was comfortable and the coffee drinkable.

Ryan folded the newspaper he had been trying to read and placed it on the cherry wood table in front of him. He removed his reading glasses and out of habit rubbed the bridge of his nose. Leaning back into the cushions of the sofa he focused on the room that had been home to the Carnes siblings for days. Pamela would appreciate the use of therapeutic ambiance to help families during a difficult time. He considered calling her but discarded the thought. She had moved on and he needed to acknowledge the severance. He would too if only the phantom pain that had him seeing and hearing her in his head and even like now as his ears tuned to the subdued music hearing her in poignancy of Mozart.

Movement at the double doors caused him to sit up as Andrew returned from his Dad’s cubicle. Pamela or at least the absence of Pamela vaporized leaving behind only the stump. Ryan had no intention of studying the wound now that the blood had dried. The stitches held and he was almost learning to walk alone without leaning on her.

The music receded to inaudibility as a flutter of Carnes’s plus Davis arose to greet a smiling Andrew. The reports since Max had emerged from surgery had all been good, better in fact than any of them had hope given their father’s age but the smile on his youngest brother’s face bordered on more than relief and good news—Andrew’s face fairly burst with amusement.

“He thinks he’s riding a combine that’s been taken over by aliens.” Andrew laughed. Peggy, always the most serious, Ryan thought—not realizing that was the position assigned to him by the younger three—looked aghast.

“You think that’s funny? Daddy’s talking out of his head and you think that’s funny?” Peggy sputtered giving all of them who joined Andrew in laughter a decidedly dirty look. Only Davis attempted to rein in his laughter, which Ryan noted caused him to look like a blow fish.

“Peggy!” Andrew interjected between chuckles, “He was just dreaming. We had a sensible conversation too. He wanted to know about Momma. They are taking the tubes out and will probably move him to a less critical room in a few hours.”

“Oh, when can we see him again?”

“Couple of hours, but he may move by then.”

“That’s great.” A chorus of Carnes’s chimed.

Others in the room waiting for encouragement about their patients came over to bask in the sunshine of Max’s progress. Ryan took hold of Andrew’s arm and drew him aside.

“Andrew, I’d like to have a few minutes alone with Dad next time he can have visitors.”

If that request baffled Andrew, he didn’t let it show. “Sure, Ryan. I know Dad will like that.” Andrew continued to exhibit grace, Ryan thought, not unbraiding him for the neglect of his parents he’d practiced since their mother’s diagnosis and the amputation of Pamela from his life. In a surge of uncharacteristic affection Ryan hugged Andrew patting him the perfunctory three times on the back before releasing him. Andrew did look baffled at that, as did the others. So what, Ryan said to himself and for the first time since he grudgingly decided to join this mini reunion turned into hospital vigil Ryan was glad to be with them all. Other than with Pamela there was no other place he’d rather be.

 

 
Chapter Twenty
North Carolina State Police

Bob Pritchett of the North Carolina State Police sat across the desk from Amanda and her mother. Amanda’s mother and grandmother had arrived at the hospital in Clyde in the early hours following Amanda’s admission. For three days attempts at any communication beyond strained politeness had proven to be a legion of false starts that intensified the awkwardness for all involved.

As a member of law enforcement, Bob Pritchett had experienced the human failure to communicate on several occasions. The mother-daughter anguish in front of him aroused both sympathy and irritation. The victim, Amanda Carmichael, slumped in the upholstered chair barely making eye contact with him and not at all with her mother. The mother—he looked at his paperwork—Virginia Carmichael sat rod upright with the merest portion of her bottom on the edge of a chair identical to her daughter’s. Their body language spoke volumes.

The mom’s eyes flitted from Amanda to the trooper; several times he noticed she started to speak, but buried the urge as quickly as it emerged. Being a parent, he recognized in Mrs. Carmichael’s behavior the burning desire to tell her daughter to sit up straight and act right—to somehow take control of the situation—but with obvious restraint she sucked them inward and held her silence.

Given the attitudes of the pair and the information he had obtained, he chose to balance his tone on a narrow ledge somewhere between stern law enforcer and compassionate friend. He elected to share first the status of the two truckers. Dave and Ray had been apprehended at a weigh station near Charlotte; currently both were in the custody of the local sheriff’s department. Both men had records; Ray’s ex-wife had a restraining order against him, because of his violent tendencies. Trooper Pritchett lumbered through the information before pausing with his finger on the report. He looked up and waited until Amanda lifted her head and locked eyes with him before continuing. This concerned her and by golly he wasn’t going to deliver another ounce of information to the air above her head.

“The hole we found in Ray’s forearm matches the chunk of flesh we found in your teeth; he’s being treated for a nasty infection. Just for future information the human mouth is packed with bacteria; bites often lead to infection. The two of them will probably be out on bail before you get back to Oklahoma, but that’s one of the things I need to talk to you about. The District Attorney wants to get a deposition from you before you leave and you will need to come back if there is a trial.”

“You mean they’ll just go free? What do you mean if there is a trial? They kidnapped my daughter!” Virginia Carmichael’s voice provided a sharp interjection into the conversation. She reached to take Amanda’s hand as she plunged in. Amanda snatched her hand back without a glance at her mother. She locked eyes with Bob. The reaction was not lost on Bob Pritchett and he made a mental note that the difficulties that had sent this child fleeing would continue to deepen unless resolution happened soon.

He curbed his own reaction tendency. His upbringing—including the occasional peach switch applied to his skinny legs and the department’s rigorous communication training—compelled him to be polite. He moved his head and eyes to the child’s mother.

“No, ma’m they will not just go free, but it might be in everyone’s best interest if they plead out. And, Mrs. Carmichael, technically they did not kidnap your daughter. They have been arraigned on their treatment of her after she entered their truck. Her deposition will help with the process to make them responsible for their actions.” He turned back to Amanda noticing the tint of her face pale while her lower lip quivered.

“Can I do it right now?”

“No, we will set up an appointment for tomorrow. . .”

“No, I want to do it today, now. I have to get to Asheville to check on Max.”

“Amanda!” Ginny Carmichael popped, her voice a good deal sharper than she had intended. Amanda straightened from her slumped sitting position and faced her mother full on for the first time since their arrival. The look bordered on contemptuous, but her voice leveled as she directed her response to Bob Pritchett and her mother.

“Max and Lily have taken care of me for days now. I was hiding out from another scumbag like Ray and Dave when I first ran into them. I have to talk to Max. I know they say he is going to be okay, but I have to talk to him. I want to do the deposition today and go on to Asheville!” Her voice trembled, but she worked to control it. Bob Pritchett made a note, took the phone number at the Holiday Inn Express and Ginny’s cell phone number.

“I will see what I can do.” He shut the folder and stood. Ginny and Amanda followed his example and exited the office in silence. Nancy Mayes met them in the lobby, but the sullen silence that infested the group of three held their tongues to the floor. Bob Pritchett shook his head as the three females exited.

****

With some cajoling the deposition was arranged for 2 pm in a small conference room at the station. All parties arrived on time and an hour later it concluded. Amanda had shared her account of the incident. The court reporter and the legal counselors packed up and left. For all intent and purpose the business was concluded until further notice, but the three sat. An atmosphere of ice prevailed in spite of the bright sunlight that bathed the room. Mrs. Carmichael and Mrs. Mayes dabbed at their eyes, while Amanda sat like a slab of marble next to them.

Bob knew his limitations—family counseling was way over his head—but someone needed to say something to this family. His gut—not always as reliable in situations like these as it was to signal hunger—told him that these ladies and that little girl needed to square off with each other and let the punches fly. Mrs. Pritchett’s baby boy Bob decided with his gut.

“I have two daughters at home myself.” The heads all turned his way with identical expressions of confusion. He continued. “Doreen is 17 and Ellen is 12. I don’t know what I would do if one of them took off over some piddling bit of teenage angst.” He watched Amanda as her expression suggested protest. He raised the palm of his hand to silence her. “I do know if either of them ever did, I would want to get it all out on the table when I found them. Packing stuff up inside—well, it doesn’t solve a thing. Now” Bob Pritchett stood. “I am going to go get a cup of coffee and I am going to close that door behind me and leave you ladies to get the matter settled. ”The three sputtered in protest, but Bob strode to the door pulling it closed behind him leaving the ring. He’d check periodically to see if anyone had drawn blood.

Amanda spoke first after Bob exited reciting the Lord’s Prayer as her mother and Granny Nan gaped at her. At the conclusion, they echoed her “amen”. She pulled two crumpled pieces of paper from her jeans pockets; with care she spread them out on the table, smoothing the creases as best she could with her hands. All eyes studied the objects, the page of a journal and a fifty-dollar bill.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One
Greenville, South Carolina

“Are you hungry? Sharon has some soup and sandwiches fixed. Would you like to come out to the kitchen and eat with us?”

Who were these people? Lily stared at one of her interrogators, the brown haired one. Another woman, the silver haired one, stood in a doorway across the room. Behind their smiling faces evil lurked, Lily was sure of it. A regiment of these despicable terrorists had abducted her and subjected her to cruel punishments without a shred of remorse. They seemed to be enjoying themselves at her expense, teasing her, mocking her She shrunk back as “Brownie” reached out to pull her from the chair.

“No! No! Turn loose of me. Why don’t you leave me be? Who are you people?”

Lily saw “Silver” moving in to assist “Brownie” so she yanked her arm back. As she did the skin on her forearm peeled back and blood sputtered from a hundred different capillaries on the surface of the tear. She looked down at the wound, at the arm and screamed.

“Sharon, get a damp cloth. Her skin is so fragile. We’ll need another large gauze pad and antibiotic cream, too. Sh-h-h, Momma Lily. We’ll get you all fixed up.”

The calming voice might fool some of their captives, but Lily wasn’t fooled. They’d patch her arm, before they drug her to the torture chamber. As hard as she tried to remember all that had taken place since they’d brought her here, only a few of the most terrifying experiences remained clear, and even those were incomplete like pictures torn in half.

In the shadows of her mind other horrors flitted into view only to dissipate before she could see them clearly. She glimpsed herself naked and screaming. Her throat constricted and her mouth dried out remembering vaguely a spoon being forced between her lips. Images drifted in and out of the fog in her brain. One thing was certain they wouldn’t stop until she was dead, but as big and evil as these monsters were, Lily didn’t plan to die without a fight. If she stayed, she’d be dead soon.

Escape was her only chance for survival.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

Ginny Carmichael touched the edge of the journal page Amanda had produced. The evidence against her—she half expected Amanda to announce: Prosecution Exhibit # 1, but she lowered her eyes and stared at her hands now clasped before her on the table. The significance the fifty-dollar bill was a mystery, but there was no doubt about the journal page. She recognized her own handwriting and could clearly remember the entry. Tears pooled in her eyes. She didn’t need to read the words to know what was there.

It took only a certain aroma in the air, a song, a thousand sensory triggers to catapult her back fifteen years. A tentative reach to smooth Amanda’s hair produced a visible flinch as her daughter recoiled. Ginny withdrew her hand and placed it on the torn journal page. She reached with her other hand and pulled out three notebooks. The fronts of each had dates written on them with broad pen strokes; wordlessly she placed them in chronological order. Amanda barely glanced at the books, her eyes down. Ginny felt her mother’s hand caress her shoulder and knew that Nancy was praying, a habit Ginny both dreaded and craved. The journals had been hidden, a chronicle for her own eyes with no thought that anyone else would read them or of the effect the pages might have especially on Amanda.

Ginny took a deep breath and opened one and found near the beginning of the journal the ragged evidence of the page Amanda had ripped from it. She replaced it and closed the book, but not without her own memories catching up with her.

It had been a beautiful fall season. Ginny was a junior at Tulsa University sharing an apartment with Lindsey Meadows and Tiffany Bridges. They were a compatible group. Ginny, especially was happy that fall because during the summer she had become engaged to Robert Buchanan, from Edmund, Oklahoma. He had given her a very impressive engagement ring. Her grades were good; her future looked fabulous. The single negative in Ginny’s life was that Robert was finishing his architectural degree in Stillwater at Oklahoma State University, but even that had a plus side because she wasn’t tempted to spend too much time with him and ignore her classes. Her life could not have been better. She shared this with Amanda although she could not tell if she was listening.

Ginny glanced at her mother, who understood her dilemma. Nancy nodded and Ginny continued, knowing she might turn back unless she forged ahead. She started with the bare facts while her eyes lifted to the windows across from her. The wind ruffled the leaves on the tree outside the window.

The wind had been blowing that October day when she and Tiffany were crossing from the Student Union to the McFarlan Library. Both girls were trying to no avail to keep their excessively teased hair from tangling without dropping their books and papers. Ginny closed her eyes and could feel the wind. Tiff and she lost control of their books simultaneously. Whoosh! The books hit the sidewalk and the loose papers sailed upward better than any paper airplane she’d ever seen. It was during the scramble that she heard male laughter, looking up she saw Tiff talking to a guy who looked slightly familiar but in a distant way, like someone you see frequently but don’t really know. He started grabbing at the papers with them and stayed until they were pretty sure they had captured the majority.

“Hey, Ginny, this is Tom Gentry.”

Ginny glanced up from where she knelt on the sidewalk reassembling the pages giving Tom a wave and smile. He smiled back and offered her his hand. She gratefully accepted it and stood. Tom continued to hold her hand applying pressure when she pulled away and then more when she attempted to yank it free.

“Ouch! Thanks for your help, but I need those fingers.”

He winked at her, raising his eyebrows before releasing her hand. His eyes drilled into her skull and the smile that had appeared so charming a few minutes earlier looked more like a sneer to Ginny. Tom spoke to Tiffany while still looking at Ginny.

“So, Tiffany, who’s your lovely friend?”

“Oh, Ginny Mayes meet Tom Gentry.”

“Jennie? Is it short for Jennifer?”

“No, Ginny, short for Virginia. Come on, Tiff, we need to get to the library.”

“Virginia.”

The way he said her name gave her the creeps.

“I am going on, Tiffany. I have a paper due next week.”

Tom grabbed her hand again and pulled her closer.

“So, Virginia?”

“Everyone calls me Ginny.” She hoped the ice in her voice would discourage him, but he snorted and squeezed her fingers until it really hurt. She let out a little gasp and he flicked her hand away, still sneering.

“Hey, Tom, Ginny’s taken, engaged.” Tiffany stepped up beside her roommate. Tiff’s voice was light; evidently she hadn’t gotten the same vibes Ginny had.

“That right? Well, I am really sorry.” The charming face returned, “I was just goofing around. I hope I didn’t hurt you. Let me make it up to both of you. A bunch of us are having a bash Friday night, why don’t you all come?” He looked directly at Ginny, “Bring your fiancé. It’s going to be some party.”
“I am sure I am busy.” Ginny said coolly. In retrospect she should have stood by that statement, but in the end she succumbed to Tiffany and Lindsey’s argument that with three of them together they could watch out for each other.

“Only trouble was, we didn’t.” Ginny said, turning her eyes from the conference room window to glance at her daughter.
***

The story that followed led Amanda on a convoluted path in her brain. As her mother’s story unfolded about her conception, she found herself remembering Greta’s story and another baby’s conception more than 60 years before. Her mind bounced from a campus party to a park in Savannah, Georgia. The more Ginny revealed the greater the kinship Amanda felt with Greta’s daughter Olivia. What if Max had never told her Greta’s story?

As Ginny disclosed the secrets and the grief that directed her pen on the pages of her journal, Amanda listened, initially with her eyes riveted forward. Nancy Mayes rubbed her daughter’s shoulders in encouragement but remained silent.

Ginny struggled forward reliving the event, she chose her words carefully because to Ginny Amanda was a still her little girl so even as she re-experienced that night she wanted to shield her from the horror.

When Tiffany, Lindsey and Ginny arrived at the fraternity house, the party had been going on for a while. The music wafted into the street and blasted their ears as soon as the door was open. Getting in required squeezing past pulsating bodies packed so tightly that what masqueraded for dancing was little more that vertical body rubbing. Ginny wanted to leave the second she arrived, but caught in the flow of people like being submerged in a rapidly moving river she finally surfaced near the bar.

In the crush of moving bodies she had been separated from her roommates. The mingling of body odors with booze along with a faint aroma of vomit added its own expression to the blasting music assaulting her senses and increasing her anxiety. Scenes from the nightly news flashed before her, trampling, fire, raids and collapsing structures filled her gut with a strange terror, which grew stronger as she found herself being crowded closer and closer by the crowd. Unable to push back or through the crowd, Ginny drifted with the flow, seeking escape at every pause in the movement.

“The party was in full swing when we arrived,” Ginny told Amanda, “There were people wall to wall. We got separated and I was very nervous, scared there might be a fire or something. I tried to get to an open space and found one on the staircase.”

***

When she reached the stairway, she stepped backward and up one step. For the first time since entering, she felt able to breathe; another backward upward movement increased her feeling of liberty. Unfortunately her flight ended with two more backward steps as two masculine arms embraced her. A look over her shoulder brought her face to face with a very inebriated Tom Gentry. Two other equally soused males moved closer to them. She struggled against his grip to the amusement of the others. The party of revilers less than four steps below her partied on oblivious or apathetic to her plight
.
Ginny shuddered as the clarity of the incident so many years past awakened within her senses an acute feeling of shame. It wasn’t a new feeling, but it never ceased being painful.

“I kept backing up on the stairs to get out of the crowd. I must have backed three or four steps when I bumped into Tom Gentry and two of his fraternity brothers.” Ginny gulped but continued, “They dragged me into a room upstairs. . .”

***

When Amanda was about to enter school, Ginny had a minor breakdown. Irrational fears about Amanda’s safety plagued her day and night. Eventually, she had spent a week in the hospital and then a year in therapy. It was there she had first revealed the whole story of that night to anyone other than Paul. The words she used to describe the actions of Tom Gentry and his fraternity brothers brought an unexpected reaction from her therapist.

Ginny had said, “You might say, those gentlemen had their way with me.”

Dr. Gwen Mallory, sat bolt upright in her chair at that description. Dr. Mallory was not given to emotional outbursts so it made her words stick in Ginny’s brain.

“GENTLEMEN? Three brutes, twice your size, take turns raping you and you call them gentlemen? Call them what they are, Ginny; they are CRIMINALS!”

***

The bile in her throat now reminded her of the horror and though she chose her words carefully, she did not use euphemisms to protect the guilty. With her eyes rigidly fixed on the edge of the table she described being dragged into a bedroom and attacked repeatedly. However, she chose not to say how she felt like a cast off dirty sock nor Tom Gentry’s parting words, “Get dressed, Virginia, and get out. At least you are ready for your wedding night.”

Sometime midway through the recollection, Ginny felt Amanda’s hand reach out and touch her arm. Ginny reached with her other hand, placing it over her daughter’s. Tears welled and spilled.

Her daughter’s touch liberated Ginny. The story tumbled out, with stops and starts, with gaping holes that raised completely new questions, but Ginny thus freed by her daughter’s hand continued. Robert Buchanan didn’t exit when Ginny told him about the attack; he believed her, but when she told him she was pregnant two months later, his solution was “get rid of it. You don’t even know who the father is. I won’t raise some jerk’s child. Abortion’s legal and surely even moral in a case like this.” His parents agreed, but hers balked, “Ginny, this baby is our grandchild”, but in the torment of the moment gave in. Granny Nan, just as the journal entry had said, drove Ginny to Wichita, Kansas to the Women’s Clinic to terminate her pregnancy.

For the first time since the emptying had begun, Ginny Carmichael reached for the torn sheet, preferring to read the words she had written, words that had driven her daughter to run. Her hands shook, but her voice remained level, monotonously level.

“It rained continuously all the way up I 35 this morning. Mom drove. We didn’t speak, not one word. What was there to say? All I could think about was how ashamed she must be of me. And Daddy just looks so sad. Whoever coined the term “love child” to cover the truth? Certainly this piece of tissue in me did not come from “Love”. Poor unloved little mass of cells, got no Daddy to want you, no grandparents to care and a mother wishing you had never implanted in her womb. Better to end your suffering now than to thrust you into arms that would just as soon you had never been born. That’s what I was thinking over and over again on the way to Wichita.

Well, it didn’t happen. Here I am home again and several hours more pregnant than I was before not because of the mass of protestors outside the clinic; I had braced myself for that. Mom walked beside me to the steps, her head down, red faced like a criminal. I almost made it in the front door, when I slipped on the pavement and fell hard on my knee. Mom tried to help, but it was one of the picketers who caught me before I tumbled down the stairs. I expected him to scream “murderer” in my face. I wish he had. He just smiled and pulled me to my feet. Someone was sobbing. I could hear her and then I realized the sobs I was hearing were mine. We drove home after that. I have a nasty bruise on my knee, a fanatic’s face in my brain and I am still carrying this loathsome reminder inside.”

Ginny barely made it through the last of the entry before breaking down.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Max’s progress astonished his surgeon, but once all the tubes and paraphernalia had been removed, they moved him out of ICU and into a regular room with a regular diet. Max thought if he never saw orange jello or chicken broth again, he’d die a happy man—not of course that he had any intention of dying any time soon. They’d bored three holes in his head but evidently they’d left a substantial portion of his brain, because he’d done better than the contestants on “Wheel of Fortune”. He clicked the remote to off when he heard the tap on his door.

Ryan peeked around and asked if he wanted some company. Must be important, Ryan wasn’t one for small talk—frankly Ryan didn’t share big or small things; he kept most things tied up inside. Of all the children, he favored Lily the most, especially his eyes. Max’s eyes moistened as Ryan patted his hand before sitting in a chair and pulling it up close to the bedside.

“How are you feeling?”

“Not too bad. Took a walk from the bed to the chair this afternoon. What’s that two three steps? Not bad for an old man who just had holes strategically placed in his head. How about you? Aren’t you needed on campus?”

“I’m . . . taking the summer off. If it’s alright with you I thought I’d spend some time with you and Mom.”

“Oh?” Max couldn’t keep the quizzical sound out of his voice. He stared at the top of Ryan’s head unable to make eye contact. His eldest son’s focus seemed to be squarely on his shoes. Max wondered if he had heard him correctly; when Ryan raised his head and looked directly into his eyes, Max knew he had heard it right.

“We’d love to have you, son.” He wanted to ask him about Pamela. He really didn’t know if they had just separated or if they had divorced.

“There are some things in my life I need to work out, before I go back to Princeton or anywhere else. Pam filed for divorce last month.”

Well, Max sighed, that answered that question. He considered what to say. The pain in Ryan’s voice didn’t sound at all like the bravado he’d heard over the past several months about divergent paths, still good friends, exploring new possibilities. The tightness of a man’s speech when trying to maintain control and dignity in light of a great loss divulged more than Ryan probably intended, but Max knew. He’d visited that place himself more than once in his life. Words failed to come, but he reached out and put his hand on top of his son’s.

The sudden tap at the door alarmed both men. Peggy stuck her head in; she looked slightly agitated, but with Peggy that was fairly common. She waved at her Dad.

“Hi, Dad, I am going to steal Ryan from you for a few minutes, Ok?”
The furrowing of Ryan’s brow indicated a touch of annoyance but he rose, leaned over and hugged his Dad and said, “I’ll be back shortly.” Before exiting the room behind Peggy.

In the hall, he found Barry, Andrew and Davis waiting also. Something was wrong. It was Andrew who spoke.

“Momma’s missing. She evidently snuck out while Sharon and Millie were busy in the kitchen. She had been napping in the living room. Sophia had gone to pick up some gifts for her family before flying to Nashville tonight and came in commenting about leaving the front door wide open. Apparently, she just wandered off. They have alerted the Greenville Police and the neighbors, but so far no one has seen her.”

*

Aaron Wilkins skidded off of the street and onto the bike path. He should have known staying to play one more game on Eric’s Wii would make him late for his piano lesson. Maybe he wouldn’t be more than 5 or 10 minutes overdue if he cut through on the path. He just hoped he didn’t run into any joggers, but it wasn’t likely this time of the afternoon. Most of them would turn out closer to dusk. Miss Emily would make him do extra finger exercises if he was more than 5 minutes late and she’d probably call his mother.

The path ahead looked clear. Great, he thought, changing gears and sailing along; he might . . .just then a figure stepped out of the bushes directly into his path. Aaron swung his bike to right and hit the ground, the bike flew out from under him and he slid on his side for several feet. The bike continued moving for several more feet coming to rest in an azalea bush. The figure on the path moved toward him and he saw it was an old woman.

She stood studying him. Obviously, she was homeless, Aaron thought, though he’d never really seen a homeless person. It looked like she was wearing three or four dresses and the one on top was inside out.

Aaron scampered up from the ground, but his right ankle protested. She looked pretty feeble but he didn’t want to chance her bashing him in the head. He limped to where his bike had fallen and picked it up. A couple of spokes in the front wheel looked bent but otherwise it seemed ok. Forget piano lessons! At least he had a valid excuse. His right arm stung, a glance told him he’d scraped it. Blood trickled from the wound.

“Oh, Andrew, you’ve hurt yourself.” The bag lady moved closer.

“Hey, Lady, my name is Aaron and you almost got me killed.”

She apparently didn’t hear him.

“Andrew, we need to get you back to the house and get that cleaned up.”

“Stay back, Lady.” Aaron edged away from her and mounted his bike heading off the path back onto the street. Within minutes he was home. He called out for his mother, but with no answer he headed into the bathroom to clean up. Nope, he thought, better call Miss Emily. With an about face he headed to the kitchen and punched out her number. The phone was ringing when he saw his mother’s note.

‘Aaron,
If you get in from your lesson before I get home, there’s a snack in the refrigerator.
I am out helping look for Sharon Carnes’ mother-in-law. She’s old and has wandered off.
Hugs and kisses, Mom’

Aaron hung up the phone just as Miss Emily answered, ripped off the note and set out for the bike path. Who knew, he thought, maybe there’s a reward.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

Bob Pritchett checked periodically on the threesome in the conference room. Whatever possessed him to turn them loose on each other must have worked because the atmosphere in the room was decidedly less icy than it had been. He had deposited a full container of tissues on the table in front of them during his last walk through, glancing back as he pulled the door shut once more. Three female hands reached for a tissue simultaneously.

For a few minutes Amanda, her mother and her grandmother dabbed at their tears in silence. Some of the holes had to be plugged. Amanda had read the journal entry and a couple more, so some of her assumptions had been true, but one assumption was that her Daddy, Paul Carmichael was her natural father. She wasn’t sure how to ask the question that burned inside. As it turned out she didn’t have to, Granny Nan answered the unasked question.

“You must be wondering about your Dad, Amanda?” She went on without waiting for a reply, “The man who helped your Mom up followed us home from the Women’s Reproductive Center in Wichita. He didn’t come to the door that day so it was only later that he told us that was how he contacted us. By the time he did, we had all decided that Ginny would carry you to term and then give you up for adoption. Of course, the Buchanan’s couldn’t deal with that, so Ginny gave Robert his ring back. After much discussion your Mom went back to the University of Tulsa to finish the semester.

Amanda looked at her mother and saw a familiar gentleness wash over her expression while Granny Nan talked. She had seen it so often when her mother looked at her or at her Dad. She had not realized how loved it had made her feel nor how much she had missed it. Granny caught it too and patted her daughter’s hand continuing to tie up a vital loose end.

One weekend afternoon about a month after the trip to Wichita, Paul Carmichael showed up at our front door asking to speak to our daughter. He didn’t even know her name. Your Granddad answered the door, but Ginny was right behind him. She gasped when she saw who it was and your Granddad almost threw him off the property.” Granny Nan paused, but her twinkling eyes told Amanda more than her words, “Fortunately, he didn’t.”

“Who, What, I don’t understand,” Amanda babbled.

“Your Dad was the man who scraped me off the wet pavement in Wichita, Amanda. He said he loved me at first sight.” Ginny laughed slightly. Bob Pritchett stuck his head in the door at the sound removing it quickly but not before smiling and muttering, “Darn, Mom Pritchett didn’t raise any dummies!”

“I was more than skeptical, but over the next several months, he proved his point. We married two weeks before you were born and he adopted you.”

Over the next hour three generations moved closer together than they had ever been as questions were raised and answers given in a free flowing conversation that spanned Amanda’s life to the present. Some areas were tougher to cover including Amanda’s running away and yet even that offered some light even funny discussion. They all agreed that someone had always been watching over Amanda. The sun was going down when they gathered their belongings to leave. Bob Pritchett joined them and they all thanked him. He grinned almost sheepishly.

“Where are you going from here? Are you heading back to Oklahoma today?”

“In a couple of days,” Ginny responded, “Amanda wants to stop and spend some time with Max Carnes at the hospital in Asheville and see his wife Lily in Greenville. We have tickets out of Greenville-Spartanburg on Friday.”

Amanda nodded, scooping up the fifty-dollar bill from the table and stuffing it into a pocket.

“I need to return something to him and see if he’s okay,” She acknowledged. “And I want to see Lily, too.”

“Well, I hear he’s doing pretty well. I am sure he will be glad to see you.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five
Ashville, North Carolina

Andrew poked his head in at the door of his Dad’s room. Max was sitting in a chair next to the bed his head tilted onto his shoulder napping. Ryan sprawled out on the only other chair in the small room, his head hanging backwards and his mouth slightly open, snoring. Andrew’s grin preceded him into the room but the sight of his brother and father widened it. They looked like bookends. He tapped Ryan gently on his shoulder, shushing him with his forefinger to his lips when he started at the touch. He waited while Ryan shook off his drowsiness before whispering.

“They found Mom. She’s okay, but very confused.

The brothers regarded each other for a moment then slapped hands at the shared good news. Ryan pulled himself to a standing position, motioning Andrew toward the hall. Max stirred, but continued to nap.

“Let’s get a cup of coffee.” Ryan said once the door closed. Andrew nodded. Turning together, Ryan reached across put his arm across Andrew’s shoulders and gave him a squeeze. The action flustered Andrew. He looked quizzically at his older brother.

“Remember when we used to call you Andrew the Kangaroo?”

“Do I? And I’d come flying into you or Barry only to wind up with a bloody nose. You know I can’t figure out why on earth that made me so mad.”

“Me, either. It made Momma so mad at the lot of us that she would spank us all. You should have seen your face. Did you ever get hot! After you got to be about ten, we could not make you mad with it anymore. Ruined our fun.”

“That’s after Daddy had his little talk with me.”

Ryan raised his eyebrows, his interest peaked.

“According to him, he was a real hot head growing up.”

“DAD? You have to be kidding! Momma, maybe, but not Dad. I don’t remember him ever raising his voice, not that he spared the paddling, but anger, couldn’t be so.”

“That’s what I thought, but he shared the secret Grandma Carnes shared with him.” Andrew paused and let Ryan’s curiosity crest.

“Which was . . .?”

“The Lord’s Prayer. That’s the secret formula to cooling off before reacting.”

“You mean, ‘Our Father who art in heaven. . .’ that Lord’s Prayer?”

“The same—you say it before blowing your cool and usually you don’t”

Ryan hooted.

“Barry and I worked overtime trying to get you riled up. We decided you’d had some kind of “religious experience”. He paused mid stride and grinned at Andrew before chortling, “I guess you had—in a way.”

The brothers laughed and exchanged the traditional male shoulder slaps before continuing down the hall.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six
Asheville, North Carolina

“Lying out there by the highway, I thought I might die. Those men, Ray and Dave, especially Ray, treated me like, like, well, you know.”

Max watched as Amanda’s eyes now filled with moisture briefly locked with his before returning to her lap. They had been sitting in a lounge area talking about little more than the weather and social trivia for several moments, before Amanda or Max dared to venture deeper. Occasionally a hospital staffer, visitor, or another patient wandered into the area giving the unlikely pair a questioning expression, but no one disturbed them. Neither Max nor Amanda noticed. The horror of her experience in the company of Dave and Ray tumbled out like a basket that had been upended, the contents dispersing in all directions and the retrieval without order or sequence.

“Did they tell you, the police or Sophia, did they tell you, those guys even peed on me?” Amanda shuddered, her voice broke with a sob and she took a couple of breaths trying to regain control. The vulgarity of the men’s actions and hearing a fourteen year old child speak them grated on Max’s sensibilities. He wanted to tell her to stop, wait a bit, but he wasn’t sure whether that would be for his sake or hers, so Max held his tongue and offered her a Kleenex from the cardboard container on the table. She took it, wiped her eyes and managed a wee smile which Max received as a token of gratitude.

“You thought you might die?”

He heard all she said and concealed his aversion to the graphic images brought up by her bluntness, but he focused on her first statement. The time Amanda had been a part of Lily and his journey had been short, Max sensed the child had self-destructive notions. That knowledge demanded he prompt her to elaborate. She did not pull back as he feared.

“Yes, I panicked when Dean, Mr. Bell, got to me. He and his wife—oh, and their dog found me. I thought Dave and Ray had come back to make sure I wasn’t going to tell anyone what happened.” Amanda paused.

“So, you didn’t want to die after all?” The probe seemed cruel to Max even as the words exited his mouth, but there they were and it was too late to retract them. It was Amanda’s turn to grimace.

“You knew?”

“Not at first, but after a while. Of course, after I talked to your grandmother, all the little clues became even more obvious. Truth is, Amanda, I didn’t know what to do to help you except get you home and let them deal with you. I hoped you’d open up, but, well, you literally slam doors and lock them.”

He tried to make the last of his words lighter, less forlorn, and she humored him with a little laugh, a smile and an Amanda style retort.

“If you’d been traveling at regular speeds on regular roads, I might be dead right now.” The bantering felt good to Amanda and made her dark words easier on the emotional palate.

“But no, we kept stopping every few miles right up to right now. Every one of those stops reminded me of the “time outs” my mom used to discipline me when I was a kid.”

Max smirked to himself at the words “a kid”, but decided an interjection would be untimely. He savored the gentleness of the words, “my Mom” evidence that healing was taking place. Without words, within minutes of her arrival even, Max sensed a difference in Amanda’s attitude about herself and her family.

“I hated all the stops. They blocked my plan, and not only that but they also were painful. Every stop fractured me in one way or another. Lily thinking I was Greta and then finding out what happened to Greta. I liked Lily thinking I was her brave sister but I hated it too. When I saw the ambulance speed by the truck on the interstate, I thought something happened to Lily. It’s crazy, but I thought, oh, no it’s my sister.”

Max sensed the tears in his own eyes now. He turned his head upward to stare at the ceiling. If Amanda noticed she didn’t say. At least she wasn’t offended. Perhaps she understood, maybe better than anyone else. Amanda kept talking.

“Sophia made me so mad, but darn it she could be so much fun, too. I would get mad at myself that there were times when I actually was having a good time. Greta’s story hurt me but it caused me to question a lot of my choices and after I heard my own story it helped me understand how hard choices can be. Without Greta’s story I might have closed my ears to what my Mom shared. Somehow Greta’s life showed me how little I knew about the people I . . . love. It all confused me, but it wasn’t until I tried to get away from Ray and Dave that I realized how much I wanted to live. ”

“All those stops annoyed me, too, Amanda.”

“They did?”

“Yes, I had planned to take our time, but I hadn’t planned that at three weeks out we’d only make Asheville, unless we were on our way back home. I also didn’t plan to be traveling with a runaway and a hospital chaplain. Pretty soon the interruptions got to be as important to a journey as the miles we covered. I realized that I have resented intrusions into my plans all my life. Lily’s illness interrupted these last years of our life together, I resented that one most of all, but I’m not angry about that anymore.”

“You were angry—?”

Max leveled his face with hers considering his words before speaking.
“I have been angry with God, I suppose. Couldn’t admit it even to myself, but that’s the truth of it. This trip taught a stubborn old man how important it is to let others into Lily’s life and not keep her shielded from people. I thought I was doing right by her, but I was keeping her home more to prevent me from being embarrassed in public. I got to thinking I was the only one who could possibly care for my demented old wife. Little by little on this trip, you, Sophia, and now my kids have watched over and cared for Lily. In the last week or so—I’m losing track of time—I haven’t done a thing for her and she’s fine. I was like an old gander all puffed up with self-importance and honking at any one who got close.”

“You wouldn’t have read the letters either. You wouldn’t have known what really happened.”

“What?”
“The letters between Lily and Greta—you wouldn’t have read them if Lily’s mind had stayed on track. You wouldn’t have known the whole story and . . .”

“I would never have known how much I had failed Lily.”

Amanda wanted to respond. She wanted to tell him how much those letters, Greta’s story, had meant to her, how close her own story was to Olivia’s. The two seemed almost parallel. Late yesterday after the revelation in the State Police conference room, Amanda had talked for a long time with her Dad on the phone. That conversation left no doubt in her mind that she was his daughter and he would move heaven and earth to protect and care for her. If anything happened to her Mom, Paul Carmichael’s love for Amanda would not be disturbed. She wanted to reassure Max. In her heart she knew that Joel Levin had felt the same depth of fatherhood for Olivia, but she remained silent allowing Max to complete his thoughts.

“I spent a lot of time praying after I read those letters, but I couldn’t forgive myself. I wanted to talk to Lily about them. Telling you was selfish on my part. You became my confessor.”

“You mean like a priest?”

“Yes, just like that.”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

She thought for a moment before answering.

“First, for telling me the story, I know it was hard to do, but as it turned out it was just what I needed to hear. Granny Nan said she had told you a little about my Mom’s story and all that . . .” Amanda hesitated unable to tell the story herself just yet. “ And for trusting me.”
Amanda diverted her eyes and drew a deep breath, “I don’t deserve your trust.” From her jeans’ pocket she pulled the crumpled fifty, handing it to him. Max straightened it out, cocked his head sideways and waited. Amanda took another breath.

“I wasn’t trustworthy. I lifted that fifty from the money you gave me to pay for the clothes—back in Cookeville.” With her head lowered she motioned in a generally westward direction. “Obviously, I didn’t trust you at all back then and every time I started to something else would happen. I wanted money for a getaway.” Her head popped up and she met his eyes, half expecting to see disappointment, but finding instead bewilderment.

“You stole this fifty in Cookeville?”

“Yes, and I am returning it now. I’m sorry.”

Max shook his head.

“Well, I didn’t miss it at all, but stealing is just plain wrong. Didn’t your folks teach you that?” The sternness in his voice reminded her of her first encounter with Max.

“Yes.” Her voice trembled. She had hoped he wouldn’t be mad, but she deserved it. Swinging her head away Amanda stared out the window hoping Max wouldn’t see the new tears forming in her eyes. He reached out and took her hand in his and held it tenderly until she turned back toward him.

“Truth is, Amanda, we’ve all done things that are just plain wrong. I wouldn’t be much of a Christian if I failed to forgive you. I need forgiveness everyday myself.”

Amanda wiped her face with the back of her free hand, managing a smile, “Thanks, Max,” Fresh tears formed, her lip trembled, and without another thought she reached out and hugged him. Blubbering into his shoulder, she could not see nor feel his tears falling on her head. “I’m going to miss you and Miss Lily . . . “then a giggle emerged through the sobs as she added, “And even bossy old Sophia.”

Max laughed deeply.

“You know whenever I need a laugh, I will just remember Sophia chasing you down in the church parking lot. You, running in those crazy shoes, and Sophia right on your heels. I hope you learned something from that.”

“Yeah, giants can run fast!” Her giggling stopped and she released Max to sit back. “Sophia stayed with me in Clyde until my Mom and grandmother got there. She was great.”

A nurse peeked around the corner.

“Mr. Carnes, do you feel like walking back to your room now? We don’t want to disappoint your doctor or delay your discharge, do we?”
“Just a couple more minutes, please.”

“Yeah,” Amanda responded, “I have to leave anyway.”

“Okay, I will be right back.” The nurse disappeared.

“Keep in touch,” Max said to her retreating form.

“What are you going to do from here?” Amanda asked.

“Same as when I started. I haven’t changed the plan; this is just another one of those minor delays. I am taking Lily to the ocean.” The tears were gone replaced by his familiar twinkle.

“Send me a picture and make sure Lily wears that great outfit we got in Cookeville.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek as she rose to leave.

“You can count on it.” Max said.

Amanda clutched at his hand, squeezing it as they made eye contact, hers were bright, his rheumy, but both sets were resolute. He clasped his free hand over hers as she held on tightly. They shook to seal the pact. At the door Amanda turned, smiled and gave a little wave before exiting. It stretched his recall to see the grungy smart mouthed girl with cotton candy hair in the young woman at the door.

“Promise?” she mouthed.

“Promise!” he responded, raising his right hand.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven
Greenville, South Carolina

The promise to Amanda haunted Max as he leaned on the walking stick his children had purchased him. They had settled him on a bench in a shopping mall in Greenville, while Barry circled the parking lot looking for a place to park. Ryan, Andrew, Millie and Sharon stood several paces away from him feigning interest in the display at Belk’s. Peggy and Davis had opted to stay with Lily while the remaining siblings with their spouses took Dad to the mall for exercise and lunch. So far the only exercise he’d had involved a few steps on the sidewalk and few more to the bench.

Since his discharge from the hospital in Asheville and his arrival in Greenville, his children’s treatment of him reminded him of when they were toddlers and he was boss. At first the solicitous management had affirmed a long held opinion of his that Lily had raised them well. That opinion faded quickly when he noticed their tendency to huddle together in quiet serious conversations, giving him quick nervous glances, faking quick smiles when he caught them, but not including him in the discussions.

The behavior heightened his alertness, prompted an extravagant stream of “Our Father’s”, and left his tongue sore from biting it. Lily had raised them to be kind, to be sure; so to the contrary their conspiratorial tendencies had the Carnes’ stamp all over them. Acting as if he were dumb to all the scheming strained his natural inclination to butt heads with them, figuratively at least. Max decided he’d force them to speak and make them sweat when they did. So he sat on the bench, waiting them out with the promise he’d made to Lily, Amanda and himself turning uncomfortably in his head. In his gut, he knew whatever his kids were plotting threatened that vow.

*

Lily’s escape attempt prompted better security measures, but Peggy agreed with both Millie and Sharon that Lily’s current state did not seem to warrant the enhanced safe guards. Lily, in a matter of a few days, had slipped further away. Atrophy diminished her physically so she could not walk without assistance. Mentally, well, Peggy thought ‘at least she no longer confuses me with Grandmother Stanton.’ Lily’s eyes when not closed registered only the barest of responses, the majority defensive. When spoken to, she would search all directions, but no recognition crossed her face; localization of sound existed no longer though she still startled to loud sounds and to touch.

Millie confided to Andrew on the phone on the day their Dad was being released from the hospital her concern that Lily might have had a stroke. She explained that since Lily’s return from her brief disappearance, the only sounds she made resembled gibberish, lacking even the inflection of speech; they were mere guttural murmurings, primitive, animalistic vocalizations.

The mornings took both Millie and Sharon and now that she had arrived Peggy to dress Lily and get her moving. Once in the chair, she sat. In her hand she clutched the aged photograph which had been the impetus for the journey to the ocean. Her fingers curled around it. Efforts to take it from her created such agitation that no one tried anymore. Not one of them had seen her look at it, but like a security blanket it calmed her.

Once in the chair, she seldom moved except for the periodic attempts to take her to the bathroom or to feed her. She showed little interest in food and even less with feeding herself. Trying to coax her into opening her mouth reminded Millie, to whom the job fell most of the time, of her children as babies. Somehow “open the garage door, here comes another truck” didn’t seem appropriate and frankly didn’t work, because Millie had resorted to trying it with no success. Peggy along with the others noticed that the food Lily did allow past her lips stayed in her mouth until someone prodded her to chew and swallow. Drinks of water frequently dribbled down her chin and onto her clothing, leaving her soaked and in need of a change of clothes. The towel they had resorted to tying around her neck like a bib provided some protection, but magnified her infirmity.

Peggy chose the couch directly across from her mother who slept again, Lily’s head awkwardly dangled on her towel draped chest and her toothless mouth wide open—attempts to insert her dentures had proved how strong an emaciated but determined person could be. Drool seeped from the corner of her gaping mouth, caking on her cheek before reaching the towel. Peggy had dabbed at it a couple of times before retreating to the couch in surrender to the perpetual drip. She could hear the baseball game, Davis was watching on TV in the adjacent den. Her own eyes closed but not in sleep.

At a mall somewhere in Greenville, her brothers were determined to explain to Max the importance of getting back to Kentucky as soon as possible. Max hadn’t fooled her at all; his grim face as they prepared to leave convinced Peggy that he was aware of their planning behind his back. What didn’t make sense to her was his silence about it. That pattern of behavior might suit some men of 87 years, but her Dad was not one to hold his tongue or allow others to set his course. Rising from the couch she wiped Lily’s mouth and chin once more, noticing the dampness was chapping her mother’s face. She headed to the bathroom to prepare a warm washcloth and get some moisturizer for repair, sighing as she went. I’d rather be cleaning up drool than telling Dad his driving days and his road trip to the beach are finished.

After cleaning her Mom’s face, Peggy stared down at the photograph. The edges were barely visible from her vantage point and the vise like grip her mother maintained on the photo unabated. She knew the scene by heart but only from the photograph. She remembered not one whit of the trip. There she was in her Daddy’s arms. Her little face beamed and was so like her daughter Kaitlyn’s at about the same age that it made her heart lurch—would Kaitlyn and Rob one day be yanking Davis or her car keys and shutting down privileges that she thought of as rights.

She must have been somewhere near 18 months old in that photo. Her Dad thought it was around 1960, but that was unlikely since she was born in 1957—most likely it was 1959. Her two older brothers remembered the trip; Ryan was a teenager and Barry around nine. Even Andrew only 4 years her senior recalled snatches of the sand and the waves, but Peggy remembered nothing. Dad seemed to think they’d made several trips to the same beach, but Peggy honestly could not remember a one. There had been trips to the mountains and one to Florida, but not to the particular spot in the picture—Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina.

Peggy rubbed her Mother’s shoulders gently still looking at her clutched hand with the tattered picture. How much farther could it be? A few hours at most and even if they took a couple of days what would it matter? Of course, convincing her stubborn brothers would take some doing.
*
The drive back from the mall after lunch reminded Ryan of the night his Dad had been rousted from his bed in sub-freezing weather to rescue Ryan and two of his buddies after a near miss with a neighbor’s cow—the cow had no business being in the middle of the road—the boys slid down an embankment burying Ryan’s car in fresh snow. With no cell phones available back then, the three had done what most folks did when stranded; they’d walked to the nearest house and called for help.

When Max arrived to pick them up, he’d thanked the neighbors and motioned the boys toward the car. He didn’t utter a word to any of them. Even Ryan’s normally rowdy pals had the good sense to make the ride in silence departing with meek falsetto whispers “thank you, Mr. Carnes”. Ryan saw from the corner of his eye the set of the mouth and jaw he’d seen that night, his Dad’s face had aged but the expression was timeless.

That night—must have been 1961—his Dad didn’t speak until they reached the sight of the accident, there the path of Ryan’s tire tracks, his attempt to stop, the swerve and finally his car’s resting place with the nose buried in the snow provided a glaring indictment in his Dad’s headlights. They’d been goofing off. Ryan had prayed it wouldn’t be so obvious, a prayer that went unanswered.

For a long moment, Max just sat with his head against the steering wheel, then he said, “Son, you got your car keys?”

Ryan remembered the humiliation he felt digging in his jacket and pants pockets for the keys, before realizing he had failed to pull them from the ignition.

“I, I must have left them in the car.”

His Dad had opened the door and moving sideways like a crab on ice inched down the embankment to the car, struggled with the already frozen door until it opened, reached in and yanked out the keys, depositing them in his pocket. They used a tractor to pull the car out the next day but it had been three weeks before Ryan saw the keys again.

His Dad’s Buick keys now rested in his pocket. Ryan tried comforting himself with the purpose; they were protecting their parents not punishing them, but the dismal silence in the van, marked especially by the absence of Millie’s lively voice, and the set of his father’s jaw argued the latter. For the first time in his whole life, he grasped the meaning of ‘this is going to hurt me more that it is you’. The greatest pain stemmed from the acknowledgement that his strong forceful father no longer was invincible. Ryan grimly conceded time had caught up with his Dad and was winning.

The other realization built on that foundation was that not a one of them could halt that stern measure; the relentless march of seconds, minutes, and hours became years then decades. Ryan’s ruminations joined a chorus in the stillness; he sensed a strange cacophony of thought that screamed in the silence. He caught Andrew’s eye in the rear view mirror and held it for a long moment; it took only a heartbeat to recognize the unity of their thoughts, the natural harmony of blood. Andrew averted his eyes first, but there was no denying the understanding that had passed between the brothers. Barry sitting opposite Andrew caught the exchange and nodded in affirmation.

In unison the Carnes brothers chuckled out loud. Max turned and looked at each of them, his brow furrowed in reproach and them smiled. Millie and Sharon giggled nervously from the back, baffled.

Ryan spoke, “Dad, how about we make one more stop on this trip—as a family?”

Max couldn’t speak; tears welled up in his eyes.

“That would be real nice, Son,” he paused before adding ruefully, “It’s going to be interesting watching you three sell this to your sister.”

The van erupted with laughter.

*
Amanda took off her shoes and dumped them and the contents of her canvas bag into the plastic container at airport security. Her mother and Granny Nan cleared and were retrieving their purses and shoes. She waved at them before crossing the metal detector portal.

The sound of the alarm startled her and the security officer asked her to empty her pockets. What in the world? Reaching into the pockets of her jacket, her fingers touched a familiar object. Rats! Sophia had asked her to return Max’s cell phone when she saw him and she had forgotten. Pulling it out, she handed it to the official and stepped back through the door to try again.

Stepping through a second time she heard a familiar signal of another kind, but it was no less startling than the alarm. It was the William Tell Overture.

 

Epilogue

Early winter in southwestern Kentucky comes in fits and starts with alternating icy winds and snow showers mixed with warming trends of various lengths. Sun, one day, might be followed by steel gray skies the next. Max found the warm days a respite for his bones and joints. He found if he dressed appropriately—his granddaughter Allison called it layering—he could sit outside in his rocker in the afternoons. Most days he’d carry his Bible outside with him. After the trip to the ocean he’d started going to church again. Ryan had stayed through the summer and then Millie and Andrew began taking turns picking him up and carrying him in to town church on Sundays. The other stayed at the house with Lily. Now he supposed they’d all be going together.

He’d been foolish to have stayed away so long. Worship in the presence of other believers reinforced the foundations of his life. He’d learned that as a boy, practiced it as best he could with his own family, succeeded at times, failed at others but even now there it was like the benediction, “May the Grace of God, the Love of Christ Jesus our Lord and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit go with you.”

With reluctance he glanced at the empty rocker next to him and then down at the two envelopes in his lap. Millie would be by shortly to take them to the post office. Peggy and Millie had taken care of the majority of the thank you notes, but he’d wanted to write these two, one to Sophia Winchester and the other to Amanda Carmichael. Both wrote often—Amanda suggested he get a computer so they could e-mail; He chuckled—that wasn’t going to happen—and Sophia called Millie frequently. Sophia plowed along like always, clearing the path for others. Amanda’s letters delighted him; they were mixtures of youth and maturity. She had started attending church with her parents. But was quick to add, “Now don’t go praying for me or anything”, as if she could stop him.

The envelopes were unsealed. Max reached into his jacket pocket and extracted two color photos, one for each envelope. The faces in the snapshot smiled up at him, the Carnes family—all grown up—framed by sea grass with the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop. In the center sat Lily a half smile on her face wearing the blue outfit with white flowers, hat and all and next to Lily sat “Greta” her hand over Lily’s.image