When it’s quiet, I remember the past. My constant companion, fear, still haunts me in nightmares. Yet, I’ve found peace in Cedar Springs, living with my son. I can now walk out the door. No walls confine me.
One day, I found myself on a tree-lined street and just kept walking. No one tried to stop me. The alarm didn’t emit shrill screams when the locked door opened. The wind blowing through the trees whispered as I walked. I will never leave you, Megan.
“Is that you, Lord?” I looked up as the multicolored leaves fluttered around me lightly brushing my cheek. I held out my hands. They reminded me of snowflakes falling from the sky. Falling leaves. Drifting snowflakes. Freedom.
A sudden shiver ran down my spine and I backed into the shelter of a huge tree. I looked around. My hand tucked thinning gray hair into the red velour hoody. Again I shivered and wished I’d worn a warmer coat. Just the same, I’m grateful I wore heavy red sweat pants.
I strolled aimlessly until I found myself in the midst of a parade. I clapped my hands in delight while the cymbals clashed and drums kept time. How I loved music. I remember Mama playing the old upright piano and the regal glow of Papa’s golden saxophone as he placed it in the velvet lined case.
I turned around and around and a smile broke-forth like the sun rising over the ocean. The memory of this town came back to me. It’s known as the “Red Flannel Town,” and it’s their October celebration.
Oh, my. I chuckled, thinking how Cedar Springs celebrates underwear―red flannel long-johns. I remember seeing Papa’s red flannel long-johns flapping on the clothesline. What a sight.
I watched as the Keystone Cops enforced the law and placed offenders in a portable jail.
“That’s where they all belong,” I muttered. “I won’t go back!” My anger rose to the surface and I turned to see if anyone paid me any mind, ducked my head, and tightened the drawstring under my chin.
“Hi there. I’m Jane.” A young woman in a red parka appeared beside me. She scared the daylights out of me, as Mama used to say. “I don’t believe I know you. New in town?”
Startled, but sensing she meant no harm, I gave my name as Megan . . . Megan Graves. After all, that’s my name and I couldn’t lie, could I? “I’m just enjoying the festivities and looking for the hot dog stand.”
“Over there,” she pointed. “Where’re you from?”
“Nowhere.” I replied curtly.
The woman looked at me in such a strange manner. “Are you lost?”
“No, of course not.” With a frown and a little wave, I left the bewildered woman staring after me. I followed the aroma of plump hot dogs sizzling on the grill.
My open hand held five quarters and a dime. I stared at them. With a shake of my head, I turned to the vendor. “Just take what you need for a hot dog and cola.” He motioned to a nearby picnic table.
“Lord, thank you for this nourishment. I trust you’ll take care of my tomorrow. ” Leaves rustled above me.
I will never leave you.
“I know, Lord,” I whispered.
I later found myself in a pumpkin patch. As I lowered my weary body to the ground and leaned against a bale of straw, I was captivated by a sea of orange. I closed my eyes and saw a simpler time, another place. How long ago was it? My three year old sister, Susie, sat on the tall stool where Mama placed her, out from under foot and safe from our knife wielding brother, who sat at the table with several pumpkins needing faces.
I hugged my arms around my middle, feeling the warmth of yesteryear. As I drifted off, I could see Susie cuddling her rag doll. The aroma of pumpkin seeds roasting in the oven of the cast iron stove made our mouths water.
“Umm, done yet Mama?” Remembering how she’d pulled a handful of the slimy, gooey seeds from the pumpkin, Susie made a face.
“Not yet, my darlin’.” Mama chuckled as she wiped her hands on the old flour sack tied round her waist. She shoved a piece of wood into the stove. Susie watched as Mama washed the stringy slime from the seeds, then smeared a little lard on the pan before spreading out the seeds and sprinkling with salt.
It’s warm in the kitchen. The door to the living room’s shut tightly to hold in the heat. I glanced out the window at the wind softly blowing snowflakes to the already white ground. Smoke gently curled upward from the neighbor’s chimney and vaporized in the sky. Susie divided her attention between Mama cooking and our brother carving the last pumpkin on the old wooden table. Hearing the sound of bubbling water in the black pot, she turned as Mama placed chunks of pumpkin in the pot. They made a plopping noise when they hit the water.
“Wha’ cha doin’, Mama?”
A lock of red hair curled across her cheek and Mama brushed it aside before explaining to her child with the large brown eyes that she was cooking the pumpkin to use in baking pies and cookies.
“Umm, cookies. Mama gunna make cookies,” Susie babbled. She again turned her attention to our brother.
I rested my chin on my arms and watched as he meticulously carved teeth while softly chanting a nursery rhyme: Peter, Peter pumpkin eater, had a wife but couldn’t keep her; He put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well. With each appearance of a tooth in the orange pumpkin, the chant became louder as he teased our baby sister.
Mouth gaping, Susie soon began to whimper. “I dun wanna be in a pumkan.”
“Hush now, child. You’re not gunna be.”
Suddenly Mama scooped Susie into her arms and thrust her into our brother’s lap yelling, “Outside. Now.” She ran to the stove. The roar coming from inside the chimney prodded her into action. In one swift motion she closed the damper, pulled the pumpkin seeds from the oven, removed the pot of simmering pumpkin, and grabbed coats; the screen door slammed behind her.
Brother made snowballs while Susie nestled in Mama’s arms and I held onto her skirt. Silent in the light of the snow, we watched the stovepipe that protruded from the roof turn from black to crimson.
The chimney fire soon burnt itself out and we returned to the warmth of the kitchen. Spying the pan of roasted pumpkin seeds, Susie exclaimed, “Umm, done yet, Mama?”
Now, the dream faded. I opened my eyes, my mind muddled. I felt dazed and groggy. “Must’ve dozed off,” I spoke aloud. “Where’s everyone?’ Thunder rumbled in the distance. I rubbed my temples and tried to clear my head of cobwebs that surely took up residence while I napped. Where am I? Where is home? The pumpkin patch was deserted. Black trees outlined a darkening sky. A gust of wind rustled through the trees above me.
I will never leave you.
“I know, Lord.”
I grimaced as I pulled myself up, my bones stiff from sitting on the cold ground. “Now, don’t fret yourself,” I mumbled as I pulled a hankie from my pocket and wiped my nose. I began to walk. A breath-snatching wind pushed me backwards and my instincts cried out for shelter.
The steeple of a small white church appeared in front of me. I reached the door just as God opened up the sky and let the rain come pouring down. Gritting my teeth, I pushed the heavy wooden door, but couldn’t budge it. My knees wobbled and I lowered myself onto the pavers and backed into the bushes for shelter from the torrent of rain and swirling wind. How long I lay beneath the bushes I don’t know. The rain became a steady rhythmic music; it lulled me into a deep sleep mixed with pleasant dreams ― and nightmares.
I can’t go back. I won’t… I won’t.
“Help me. Help me.” Day after day, a woman’s whinny voice called out. “Help me. Help me.” She said nothing else. Just sat in her lonely corner crying for help. One day I no longer heard her. Whoosh! Just like that she’s gone. Where did she go? There are others there ― where I used to live and we all wondered, but no one’s brave enough to ask. We just know she wasn’t the first to disappear. So we squeezed our tears back behind closed eyes and hummed a tune to drown out the thoughts we dare not voice.
The dining room hosted food fights and cries in the night left me cringing beneath my blanket. “I hope they don’t make me bathe tomorrow,” I whispered to myself, remembering the scrubbing that left my thin skin bruised.
I tried to avoid the lady with the claw fingers. If I didn’t, she latched onto my arm and wouldn’t let go. I’m afraid. Who will rescue me?
The workers circled wheelchairs like a wagon train and the people sat, hour after hour, heads drooping onto their chests.
“Once upon a time…” Great-Grandfather told stories of circling the wagon trains and fighting Indians. But these people looked like carved pumpkins with their hollow smiles and empty eyes. Thank God I can still walk! I won’t need to take the wagon train to nowhere.
Sometimes I pushed my friend, Jack, in his wheelchair, and we sat in the courtyard as the sweet perfume of Camellias drifted from behind the block wall. Jack was in the Navy. I pictured him handsome in his uniform. I loved to listen to him tell about growing up on the farm in Alabama. How he used to run home from school and head straight for the garden to pick and eat strawberries. He said he carried two containers of water and because the berries were sandy, he washed and rinsed each one in water before popping it into his mouth. Says they owned 100 acres and grew sugar cane. A man came each year to turn the sugar cane into syrup and he gave him some of the syrup as payment. Jack helped put it in jars to sell in his brother’s general store.
His story always ended with a tear trickling down his leathery face.
The raspy high-pitched sound of a lone frog cried out in the night and stirred me from my slumber. The rain gently fell now and the wind whispered, I will never leave you.
“I know, Lord,” I said as I curled into a fetal position. “I’m tired, Lord.” I shivered, sighed, and again closed my eyes and thought . . . If I owned a red umbrella I could sing and dance, twirling round and round in the rain, yellow galoshes splashing the puddles. Twirling. Twirling.
Once more, my eyelids became heavy . . .
“Help me. Help me.” Who is that? Please make her stop. I can’t see anyone. Oh, no. Is it me crying out? Am I the one sitting in the lonely corner? No, Lord. This can’t happen. You promised you would never leave me. It’s cold in the lonely corner. Dark. Where are the others? Where are Jack and Rose? Where’re Virginia and Flossie? Why am I alone in the corner? Am I bad? I sobbed.
And then it’s as if I was lifted up from the lonely corner and wrapped in the warmth of my Lord. I leaned into a strong chest and heat slowly seeped into my cold, numb body. I heard the soft rustling of leaves in the trees.
I will never leave you.
My eyelids fluttered and I looked into the familiar face of my son.
“It’s okay mother. You’re not going back there. Not ever. You’re safe now. How about we go home?”