Secrets and lies of the creek…
When escaping is not enough…
Whip, crack, smack.
You are an embarrassment to our family, Wrenn Cunningham…
I stood at the corner of rock and wood overlooking the first hundred acres of our property. Even in the bitter cold of the early morning, there was something mysterious about our home in the thickets, as the sun began to rise above the trees to the east. I listened as the birds spoke with one another and could only imagine the words of their song. If only they could tell what they saw and repeat the secrets they knew.
Our retreat, our hiding spot, but even in secret, a place we were unable to escape the reality of my father’s sins.
Even in its state of detriment, Forgiveness Creek, as my mom had nicknamed it years ago, was the only home I’d ever known. I thought I would be away from this place long before this moment, and yet, I’m still trapped by the guilt I feel.
Forty years ago, it was a bustling ranch with over a thousand acres, but as time and failed economies passed, things changed. Add to that secrets and lies slowly revealing themselves, and the life my mom and I knew before my father’s death would never be the same. Strange how the past could hold someone hostage.
To me, everything about this place was just broken. Sure, the land, equipment, and ranching possibilities were all broken, but in my mind at the moment, those things were far removed—I was referring to trust. Once trust has been broken, it was difficult to get it back.
We had a private drive if you wanted to call it that. It was a half-mile rock road composed of rough and ragged stones that could blow even a good tire on a bad day. I’d driven the length of that road many times and declared it to be my last. Praying I was leaving for good only to be sucked back in to the web woven long before me and certain to hold me hostage until I’d taken my last breath.
The entrance to the property required passage of a wooden bridge in dire need of repair, welcoming you with rumbled sounds of a distant hello. It was the first sign of something personal, long before the winding dirt road would take you to where life existed.
Where shame was present.
The breathtaking view provided promise, sneaking up on you when you least expected it the moment you came to the wooden post fence outlining the front pasture, now barren.
With the heater roaring at high speed, I crept along the rocks to the main highway and continued my daily drive into work. The same routine, five and sometimes six days a week.
Oh, how I wished I could leave, make like a bird and fly far, far away.
“Good morning, Wrenn. Did you have a good weekend?” Sara Beth asked, while finishing her usual banana for breakfast.
“If you call cleaning out an old fish tank with twenty years of corrosion, fun. Then yes, I did,” I uttered, while tucking my purse in the bottom drawer of my desk.
“Who’s getting fish?” Dr. Palmer asked as he walked into the office I shared with his wife and nurse, Sara Beth.
I swear that man never missed a bit of dialogue in the office because he had radar ears that were surely registered with the government.
“Mom. She found the tank in the barn and thought we should revive it and get fish next week once the water settles.”
“Hmm, maybe we should put one in here. They’re very calming for the patients,” Dr. Palmer suggested. He poured himself a cup of coffee and went to his own office, but I was certain his hearing would keep him as a privileged peeper of the conversation.
I looked at my desk and noticed a stack of charts had been neatly placed on the corner.
“Looks like Dr. P came in to the office again this weekend, huh?” I asked as I picked up the forty or so patient charts and began to file them away.
“When does he not? I think he was here about five o’clock Saturday morning until around noon when he met me for lunch at the diner. That’s when we saw your mom.”
“Hmm. She didn’t mention it, but she rarely talks about who she sees, unless it’s a celebrity or something.”
“A celebrity sighting in middle-of-nothin’, Arkansas?”
I stopped filing and looked at her, nodding my head. “A couple of times. One was filming a movie; another was coming through visiting with Patrick Swayze when he lived up north of here.”
“Star sightings are always fun. Stewart and I sat beside Michael Douglas at a restaurant in Los Angeles several years ago. He’s a handsome man.”
“I’m trying to recall who he is.”
“You’re too young, girl, and you need to get out more.”
We both laughed.
I loved Dr. Palmer, and he had become a father figure to me, since I didn’t have one, but sometimes it was difficult to define the line between employer and family, especially for him. He liked to get into my personal space, especially where Stephan was concerned.
We broke for lunch, and the three of us piled into our very small break room that was really built for two. Dr. Palmer’s large physical presence along with his oversized persona could be overbearing at times, and lunch was usually his favorite time to lecture me.
“Wrenn, you’ve worked for me since community college, and we’ve had the nursing school conversation multiple times.” Dr. Palmer’s face happened to be conveniently hidden behind the newspaper.
I paused for a moment, hoping the conversation would steer to something else, or Sara Beth would bail me out.
“Did you just roll your eyes again?” he asked with a laugh, his face still hidden from my view, but he seemed to have magic vision.
I glanced in Sara Beth’s direction. “No, never,” I lied.
Speaking to the back side of the paper, I said, “Look, I know you mean well, but the answer is still the same. I took all the classes I could at the community college, and I’m proud of my Associates Degree, but I simply can’t afford to go off to school. Besides, with Mom’s history of two heart attacks, my leaving would surely cause a third.” My sigh was more audible than I’d intended.
Dr. P slammed the paper down, jarring the contents of my coffee cup, and stared at me firmly. “You’re as stubborn as my daughters were, but I managed to win those arguments. You’re over twenty and around here that’s almost retirement age. If you don’t get out of this town now, you’re never going to have a life. As hard as it was, I made sure my girls got out and saw the world. I love you like one of my own, and I assure you, Mary will be fine, and we’ll be here for her. Think about it long and hard. I can help you get that scholarship in Dallas, but the clock’s ticking.”
“You never give up, do you? You mean, it would get me away from Stephan.” I paused and raised a hand in defeat. “You’re so frustrating. Give me the information and I’ll give it a look, but I’m not promising anything,” I uttered under a huffy breath.
“Finally, she turns a corner,” he said to his wife sitting to his left, before he directed his attention to me once more. “Great news, but you’ve only got two weeks to submit your application for consideration. Notifications will mail out in April, and the next nursing class starts in August. I’ve already drafted my recommendation letter.”
I loved working with him, and he’d taught me so much about medicine, but he held the market on being stubborn. Whenever I thought about leaving, I felt guilty I would leave him shorthanded.
But as promised, Dr. Palmer slipped the folder for the nursing program on my desk for me to take home and review, before he and Sara Beth left for the day.
If anything, the man is relentless.
I slid the folder in my purse and locked up the office with a knot in my stomach. Agreeing to do what he wanted was so much more than just going to school.
The home I shared with my mom was my childhood home, the place I was born, since I’d proudly decided to come in the middle of the night before they could get to a hospital. We weren’t overly blessed financially, but our needs were met, and the land had been handed down through my father’s family and had managed to hold its value. My father had worked as a traveling contract salesman for auto parts. Sometimes he’d done well, and some months he didn’t, but it equaled out to a decent living, just not a lot of benefits.
When he died, Mom discovered he’d taken out a mortgage on the property without her permission and had even forged her name on the loan documents. One of his traveling buddies from work came to the funeral and said Dad had done it to pay back gambling debts. We’d never known he gambled—talk about a secret life. The news was staggering and embarrassing. Months passed before Mom felt brave enough to show her face in public—even in church. It was difficult enough just gathering the money to pay for funeral expenses. Every time I mentioned selling the place, she’d stop speaking to me for at least a week.
Because of Dad’s shenanigans, Mom took a twelve-hour a day job at Rudy’s Diner, which nearly had her feet next to the grave. Most of the time, it was six days a week just to pay the bills, and even then, we needed my paycheck to patch the gaps. We’d been living this way for more than five years. But I was raised to take care of family; it was our culture.
To leave my mom for schooling would go against everything I’d been taught…
As I crossed over the bridge covering the large creek that ran on our property, I felt the unevenness of the wood bridge, heard the clanking of the unsettled old boards, and thought about all the work that would need to be done as soon as the weather warmed. The to-do list of perpetual homeowner problems continued to mount and some of them might not wait until the warm weather. Like Mom’s heart, the fix-it list was a time bomb waiting to explode.
What I would give for a genie and three wishes.
Alone most evenings while Mom worked, I used the time to do laundry and housekeeping before she returned. I didn’t watch much television, since cable was a luxury we didn’t budget for, so I spent my spare time reading magazines or books that the patients would leave behind at the office. My life was a modest one, but at least I could say it was for the most part an honest one.
I made myself a peanut butter sandwich and surfed through the paperwork Dr. Palmer had given me.
Two weeks to make a decision…
A week later, I was still carrying around the submission forms for the nursing program in my purse and pondering how to bring the subject up with Mom. Time was running out, so I thought of a good plan for telling her at the creek after church on Sunday.
When the weather was nice, we’d pack a picnic lunch and go down on our property to a small wooden bridge overlying the creek. It was there that Mom said she always felt at peace. It was also the place she called Forgiveness Creek.
She’d sit there on the bench Dad had made for her and talk to him and God and just do a lot of soul searching. She said her answers always came at the creek if she gave her questions time.
I wonder if they ever did for Dad. I knew he’d loved her, but his demons had got the best of him, and there was one she knew nothing about.
At the creek, I picked at my food as nausea roared within me, nervous that my decision was going to destroy her. “Dr. Palmer has presented an opportunity for me to go to nursing school, and I thought we could talk about it,” I blurted out.
“What took you so long?” she said with a smile.
“What?” I paused and searched her eyes. A big smile crept up on her face as though she’d been keeping a secret. “Oh my gosh, you knew and you didn’t say anything?”
“He came in and talked with me about it before he ever gave it to you. Since you’re telling me about it, I’m guessing that means you’ve made a decision?” She reached over my lap and gripped my left hand in hers.
“I still have to apply, and he’s promised to write me a letter of recommendation, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get in.”
“You will, I’m sure of it. So, what’s your bigger worry?”
“Leaving you and taking care of this place.” My eyes connected with hers before I broke the gaze and looked out over the land.
“I’ve already thought about that, and I’ve decided to sell part of the back acres. Blackburn Reality thinks they might have a potential buyer, and I’m going to lease the front pasture to Mr. Clancy for his cattle, which would be enough to pay for the utilities and taxes. Mr. Clancy also said he would do the hay for us and fix the bridge as soon as possible. The rest I can take care of.”
“You’ve obviously thought this through,” I said, giving her a hug.
“And so have you. I want the best for you, and while having you here is nice for the company, it’s not what’s best. You need to move on, Wrenn. There’s a life outside of Hatman and past Stephan. I love him like my own, but I don’t know that you’ll ever forgive him. That means Mr. Right is out there for you, and you deserve to find him.” Her voice trembled in a whisper, and I heard her exhale in a deep sigh.
I was curious if I’d used her health and our home as an excuse because I was afraid of moving on. Chicken to go out into the real world.
We walked back up to the house and spread the numerous forms out on the kitchen table. For the scholarship, financial records were required, and for the first time, my net worth was actually in front of me in black and white, and it was a pitiful sight.
I’d managed to save almost twelve hundred dollars at the ripe old age of twenty-four. But one thing was for sure, Mom had taught me how to be frugal.
There was no guarantee I would be accepted, but a scholarship meant an education and an opportunity to have a real life—one of my own. One away from the place that gave me love and caused me so much hidden pain.
My fantasies took me away, if only my reality would.
Nerves were exploding and twisting inside me as I put the stamps on the envelope and walked it out to the mailbox. I trembled with anxiety and excitement at the same time. If I received the scholarship, my world was going to flip on its axis.
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