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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.