Alice Cummings awakened early, her maternal instincts calling. “Time to eat, Jimmy Bob.” As she sat up in bed, her head swooned as with a major league hangover. She rolled toward the cradle at the side of her bed. Her baby was gone.
Eight hours earlier, she had laid two-week old James Robert II, named after her maternal grandfather, in the secondhand crib that nestled the side of her old brass bed. She had anticipated a middle-of-the-night feeding, but had either slept through his fussing or been blessed with his sleeping a full night. Now, alert in a flash, she found not only Jimmy Bob AWOL, but also his crib and meager collection of hand-me-down clothes, baby pictures, and assorted accessories.
She jumped from bed, rushed out of the room and ran to the adjacent spare bedroom. Empty. With hesitation, she eased open the door to her pa’s bedroom and peeked in. He, too, was missing and a sense of relief mingled with her anxiety. She cleared the stairs to the first floor in three leaps, almost missing the step on her second jump, and charged into the kitchen. Nothing but the dark and the colicky hum of a refrigerator in its death throes. She flipped on an overhead light bulb that flickered with the threat of failing, and headed toward the front door. She nearly stumbled on her old man’s work boots and that’s when his sonorous breathing identified him as the dark lump on the ragged couch. That’s also when she realized he had made good his threat.
“Wake up, you stinkin’, drunk son of a sow! Where is he?” Alice threw all of her one hundred and sixty pound frame behind the punches she launched into her pa as he slept on the couch.
“Where is my son? Wake up, you drunk bastard! What did you do?” she screamed.
Her initial blows seemed ineffective, but soon her pa emerged from his stupor and growled as he sat up. Scowling, he caught her next punch with an iron grip and her hand froze in mid-air. She winced at the squeezing pain.
As he twisted her wrist, she began to cry in agony. She gave him a fierce kick in the shin, but that only fueled his anger and strength.
She tried to pull away, but he used that as leverage to begin to stand. Fearing her wrist about to break, and even more fearful of what he would do once on his feet, she grabbed the side table lamp with her free hand and smacked it into the side of his head, but refused to put it down.
He released her and sagged back onto the couch.
“Did what I told ya I’d do, ya little slut. Think you could bring shame on this family without consequence? You should be on your knees prayin’ forgiveness.”
He stood to his full six foot, three inch frame holding nearly three hundred pounds and Alice backed off. She’d felt the back of his hand too many times to remain in easy reach. Yet, like a mama bear, she refused to back down.
“Forgiveness? You’re talkin’ about me needin’ forgiveness? You drunken, old fool. Ain’t ever seen you on your knees, or in any church for that matter. Don’t you get preachy to me. Now, where’s Jimmy Bob?”
He smiled a half-toothed smile. “Sold ‘im. Like I told ya I would. I’m not keepin’ no bastard child under my roof.”
“Then why you livin’ here?”
A sudden surge of fear mingled with her anger. He had threatened to take her baby. She hadn’t believed him. She hadn’t believed him capable of “selling” his own grandchild. Now her baby, the only person in the world who would love her without fail, was gone.
“Where is he? Where’d you take him?”
He snarled and moved toward her. Drunk, sober, half in between, the man could move. She’d seen him cover the length of the room in a split second and she wasn’t about to underestimate him now. She threw the lamp as hard as she could at his forehead, and turned to run for the stairs. She heard the heavy ceramic shatter, followed by a sinking groan and a thud as he fell to the floor. She knew better than to go back and check on him. The man had suffered blows from two-by-fours and survived to win the fight. That lamp might daze him, but not for long.
She ran to her room and hastily dressed. She threw a couple of changes of clothes into a nylon backpack; grabbed her wallet, a small purse, an envelope with her “important” papers, and a few toiletries and dumped them into the pack as well. She had planned to leave when Jimmy Bob was a little older to forge out a new life beyond the reach of her pa and his destructive ways. She wanted a better life, a happy life with a husband and family to love properly, and Jimmy Bob was her motivation. With plans to leave, she’d already prepared a small suitcase of clothing and hidden it in the tool shed. She would reclaim it from behind the broken washing machine and flee to town.
More problematic was recovering her papers and the inheritance her grandfather had left her. She would need that money to find Jimmy Bob. She had retrieved the small, locked chest a few days earlier, placed a photo of her and Jimmy in it along with her copy of the papers given to her by the midwife, and rewrapped it in rubberized canvas. She would need those papers to convince the sheriff. She had reburied it next to the foundation of the shed. Ten paces along the western wall, at a spot where she’d be able to locate and dig it up in complete darkness if necessary. She regretted not having simply hid it somewhere nearby. She had no time to dig it up now. She needed to leave. Now. She already heard movement downstairs.
At that moment, she hated her father more than she ever had since her mother had died and left her to his abuse. His moonshiner friends and alcohol-fueled rages, along with the verbal and emotional abuse, had convinced her years earlier that she would leave home as soon as possible. Having graduated from high school and turned eighteen a few months earlier, she was old enough to pursue her own life, even if she hadn’t become a legal adult yet. She would hate him forever for what he had done this time.
Through the door, she could hear the stairs groan under the weight of her father’s step. Despite his drunken rages and repeated bouts of abuse, he’d never entered her room. As if it was her sanctuary, her home base where she couldn’t be tagged “It,” her room had always been sacrosanct. She realized he had violated that unwritten rule during the night, to take Jimmy Bob. She also realized by her headache that he must have slipped her a Mickey to make sure she didn’t wake up. To exit that door right now tagged her as fair game in an inequitable contest. She had but one option if she wanted to escape to find her son, to give them both the good life she’d never had.
She quietly raised the lower sash of the old wooden window and laid her pack on the roof of the front porch to the side of the window. A mid-April frost on the shingles confirmed the early morning chill that nipped into her flesh, the cold made worse by a relentless wind whipping up the side of the mountain. Spring came late to the Appalachians of western North Carolina. Daylight had yet to display itself on their western side of the mountain, except for a few shafts of light highlighting the fog at the far end of the valley.
She zipped her jacket tight to her neck and followed her backpack. In a moment, the pack was hanging from her shoulders and she eased down the side post of the porch. In the instant when her feet touched ground, she heard the door to her bedroom splinter under the weight of the man and crash onto the floor of her bedroom, the room no longer a safe haven. She heard his growl from the front window, but waited no longer.
With an adrenaline surge fueled by both anger and fear, she ran down the gravel drive to High Mountain Road, turned downhill, and a hundred yards later moved off the pavement onto an old dirt logging road now overgrown to the point of being more of an infrequently traveled path than a passable road. She had played on and walked this trail so many times throughout her childhood that she could traverse it without fear in the dark, blindfolded. She knew when to expect each exposed tree root, every eroded wash, all of the side paths and even how to cross safely the old creek bridge with its rotted, condemned planking.
Fifteen minutes later, she attempted to shimmy up a small tree that led to her perch on the rocky promontory jutting up from the hillside. Her post-partum body didn’t cooperate, but with more effort, she made it and sat down to rest. The lights of Frampton Corner speckled the valley below her.
She had come here often throughout her teens, to think, to cry, and to escape the slow death of living at home with an unloving alcoholic father. She had shared her spot with Jimmy Bob’s father, JT, and suspected she had conceived their baby at that very spot. Why in the world JT had volunteered for Viet Nam, when they had a child on the way, baffled her. He could have had a stateside assignment for a year before going overseas. His death one month into entering that foreign war had devastated her. Yet, many happy memories existed from that very spot overlooking the valley and she tried to focus on those.
The spectacular sunsets, as well as spring and fall foliage vistas here, could be surpassed by only one place, her front porch and front bedroom window. The peacefulness of Nathan’s Rock far outweighed anything resembling quiet at home. After learning “the rabbit had died,” she had sought this spot alone as her refuge to contemplate her future. Yet, none of her deliberations had ever conjured up the future that had now become her present. She would miss these views, the beauty of the valley, and the peacefulness of ‘her spot’, but staying was not an option.
She looked out over the basin and cried. The aching in her breasts did not match that in her heart. Where was Jimmy Bob? How would she ever be able to find him? When she started to show, her pa had taken her to the home of a distant cousin in the middle of the night. She might as well have been a captive in chains with the lack of freedom she had there. The same had been true after she delivered. Dropped off at her home after dark, she’d not been allowed outside with the baby, much less given access to town or to any of her few friends. Her pa was too smart to use that same cousin for the baby. Jimmy Bob could be anywhere. That thought made her heart sink.
The sun’s rays touched the top of the mountain across the valley, illuminating the white dogwoods and pink redbuds that claimed their glory amidst the green mixture of emerging leaves. As the sun rose, its steepening angle would quickly ease the light down that slope. She had but thirty more minutes before the valley saw full light and she needed to reach town unseen. She glanced around and touched the granite thumb, hoping to imprint its feel into her memory. She’d never see it, or its panoramas, again.
Sliding down a side of the rock, she touched down and worked her way toward town. With time to spare, she entered town behind Shorty’s Used Car lot. The 1966 orange Mustang 2+2 she coveted shone under the single floodlight securing the lot. Not yet two years old, only 11,000 miles. With no job or income, all she could afford was to admire it on the lot, but not this morning. No time. She worked her way around the hardware store, passed several old homes and the courthouse, and eased around the corner of the Post Office.
She looked both ways down Main Street. No traffic. No sign of Pa’s truck. Had he followed her? She suspected he probably downed another beer to assuage his anger and then reclaimed his spot on the couch, working his body back into the permanent indentations in the deteriorating cushions. He’d stopped caring about her or her whereabouts long ago. That realization made her recognize that he would care even less about a grandchild. Both were simply burdens to him. Both were commodities eligible for sale, just like his precious moonshine.
With no sign of the old drunk, she walked past the Post Office headed for the Sheriff’s sub-station. Outside the building, she saw Sheriff Connelly’s sedan and immediately began to have reservations about being there. She could talk with the deputy, Jake Fischer. She trusted him. The Sheriff, on the other hand, had let her old man and his “activities” slide so many times that she suspected he was a regular customer of her pa’s. Upon entering the office, she found him sitting at the desk, conferring with Jake. They turned in unison to acknowledge her as the door squealed closed.
“Alice, it’s good to see you up and about,” Sheriff Connelly said as he stood to greet her. “Your pa said you’d been having a rough time of it.”
“Yeah,” added Jake. “We’re real sorry about the baby.”
Klaxons of alarm blared in her brain. Her pa? Jimmy Bob?
“So, what can we –”
“Y-you know about my baby?”
“Look, Alice, we’re not here to pass judgment. Mistakes like that happen to young girls all the time. Most folks ‘round here knew you were pregnant. Can’t hide it very well in a small place like this. We’re real sorry he was stillborn. That’s gotta be tough to deal with. Your dad –”
“Wait a m-minute. He wasn’t stillborn. I brought him home just a week ago. I breastfed him just last night. M-my pa took him. Sold him. I-I came here to ask you to help me find him.” Tears burst from her eyes.
The two men looked at each other, concern etched on both faces. The deputy slid a chair in her direction and motioned for her to sit.
“Alice, again, we’re sorry about the baby. Why don’t you sit down and rest?” said Jake.
“Alice,” said Sheriff Connelly, “your pa showed us the birth certificate that said stillbirth on it. I’m so sorry.”
Alice’s legs turned to putty and she grabbed hold of the chair. What sort of nightmare was this? She hadn’t imagined it. Her engorged breasts were proof, weren’t they? But then, she wasn’t sure if a woman’s breasts filled with milk after a stillbirth. Maybe they weren’t proof. How could she convince these men when her father had already played his hand and won that round? She heard the two men whispering and heard her father’s name.
“What about my pa?” she cried.
The Sheriff turned back to her. “Look, your old man said you’d been taking this hard, imagining things, not taking the medicines the doctors prescribed for you. We just want to help. Let me call Amos and have him come get you.”
“No!” She tried to think. She had underestimated him once again. No wonder he had insisted she and the baby stay home until he was a little older. No one in town could ever claim to have seen Jimmy. No one could support her claims. He had staged his revenge well. Who would believe her against him? “No. He stole my baby. Told me he sold him. I got …”
She’d started to say she had proof that Jimmy wasn’t stillborn, but she had buried the photo and papers with her inheritance. At that moment, she realized the papers given to her by the midwife held no legal birth certificate. What exactly were those papers? What good were they against the legal certificate held by her father? She needed the photo. Unless she could get that photo, no one would believe her.
As the deputy dialed the black rotary phone and handed the receiver to the Sheriff, her adrenaline took charge yet again. Alice bolted from the chair and charged out the door. She was near to a block away before she looked back and saw the deputy standing on the sidewalk outside the office, watching her. The Sheriff joined him and Jake moved toward the patrol car parked nearby, but the Sheriff put a hand on the younger man’s arm and stopped him. She could only imagine what they were saying.
Alice ducked behind the hardware store and made a beeline for the trailhead back to Nathan’s Rock. Where should she go? How? What? When? Her mind flooded with questions. She mentally considered and tossed aside a dozen action plans. One concern overrode all of her thoughts, what her father would do to her if he ever again caught up to her. Only one plan could save her. She needed to get her suitcase and her inheritance, and leave. Once safe, she could send the Sheriff a letter and copy of her proof, and then hope he believed her enough to act on her accusations. In the meantime, she would find some way to begin her own search. Somehow.
The trek uphill took a lot longer, but a little over an hour later, she positioned herself at a point in the woods uphill from her house where she could observe the buildings and driveway. She had arrived in time to watch the Sheriff shake her pa’s hand, climb into his car, and drive off. Her old man, now forewarned, would be on the lookout. Her hope of success dwindled.
A sense of despair pushed her deeper into the soft forest floor. If only it would engulf her and she could emerge in late spring as a new person, unaffected by the past eight years of abuse. Instead, the emotional fatigue swallowed her up and she drifted off to sleep.
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