Harlan County, Kentucky
The changes were subtle. They didn’t happen all at once. It was a process founded in unappreciation, insubordination, and a failure to see beyond what was already established. Where once he found joy, he now found anger. Where he once found meaning, now his labor bore the fruits of regret. Where he once strived to create change, the more he realized this town was comfortable on a scheduled fueled by the same. They did not appreciate his work, his thoughts, even his efforts. They were as empty as the schoolhouse on this lonesome December night. As the snow fell and blanketed the ground, he warmed himself, stoking a fire that burned not only in the stove, but scorched the very harbor of his soul.
He tried so hard to make it work. After forty years of teaching, he began to see that change could only come when change was welcome. This town was not welcoming. This town would remain as backward as the county roads that dipped down the mountains and into the county fields. They didn’t want kids to learn, they wanted kids disciplined. They didn’t want them challenged, they wanted children conformed. Just because his methods were “unconventional” doesn’t mean he was “unethical”. This was his school. He was the schoolmaster. His heart and soul lay in this building as much as the hopes of the farmer planting the crops of his fields. He would not give it up without a fight. If the council wanted him fired in order to bring in someone more “familiar”, they couldn’t make him leave on their terms. This school was his and his alone. Like the limbs of his body, he controlled it, and he would not let some narrow minded fools destroy the fibers of his creation. He looked at the rope above his desk. The noose would be tight, sturdy, and strong. It wouldn’t break, like the dreams he once had when he first became a teacher. He stepped up on his chair and looked out the window at the snow falling onto the ground. The air chilled his skin, as cold as the blade he now held above his wrist. He didn’t even feel it when he moved it quickly across his veins. In fact, he wouldn’t have even noticed except for the contrast of red in the backdrop of painted white snow. The school beams and boards creaked and moaned as if they understood the passing of a friend at a funeral. The schoolmaster closed his eyes and said a silent prayer. He placed the noose around his neck, feeling the bristles of the rope split and crack into his skin. He opened his eyes and looked down at the pool of blood spilling from the desk and vanishing into the floorboards of his school. He watched as the blood seeped through the tarnished cracks of his life long work.
As he took his final step of his life, he knew beyond certainty where his home had been and where his home would remain.
New York, Present Day
She couldn’t keep her hands from shaking. Her emotions wrecked her body. They streamed through her nervous system like sparks of indignation and indifference. She looked around her living room at the boxes she packed so carefully. This was it. In the waking hours before she drifted to sleep alone, she should have seen this coming. It’s not like she hadn’t known. This wasn’t the first time she felt this way. It was a common event. She wasn’t the only woman who would go through this, and she definitely wouldn’t be the last. Still, it didn’t make the pain any less. Her marriage rested like a house of cards, waiting for the wind to hit it in exactly the right place. At the heart of her once happy home; and shatter the routine of her daily life. For Haley, Michael and Scott was the reason she existed. From the moment her eyes opened, until they closed at night, they were her waking thoughts. It was all she knew. Their New York home had been her life for the past twenty years. She didn’t know much about the world. In fact, it would be safe to say she hadn’t started living until the moment she married Michael. An Angel in disguise, he rescued her from the confines of her small Kentucky home and showed her wonders in the world she merely dreamed of exploring. Then, when their love grew into a family, she felt whole and complete. When Scott was born, her life became a storm, in which she found comfort dancing in the rain. Now, she had to say goodbye to the shelter she chained her heart to.
None of this was Scott’s fault; in fact she hated his last year at home being embraced with the bitterness and rage she let build quietly inside the walls of their happy home. She tried to keep it together. She wanted her marriage to work. She loved Michael, but she knew the familiar hand of being in love with someone and the unforgivable pain of them not loving you back. She had seen it coming. Michael had been pulling late nights at the office, working on a “big case”, that kept him gone and out of her bed. All the while he was safe inside the covers with another woman. No less, his secretary, Joy. Haley had to smile; no irony was lost on the adulteress name, Joy. What did she possibly have that Haley could not offer him? Was it the perfect sun-kissed hair, those dancing blue eyes, the way her dresses hugged the curves of her body in the exact right way? Did the reason really matter? As Haley took the family portrait off the wall, she realized she was packing up the fondest memories of her life. Joy could not have those. They were hers. The small gifts of a twenty year marriage were the treasures she deserved.
She didn’t want to remember Michael with hate, but she couldn’t help it. She remembered in great detail the night he told her. It was the same day her son got his acceptance letter to the medical program of the University of Kentucky. She had spent all day cooking a celebration dinner for her family while Scott was at school and Michael at work. The theme of the dinner was family tradition. She cleaned her mother’s china she had given them on their wedding day. She burnt the candle that she kept in Scott’s nursery when he was a baby. She had it all planned out, and it would have been perfect, absolutely perfect. Scott would be leaving this summer, and she and Michael would have the two-story saltbox house to themselves, building their own memories, and writing a new chapter in their lives. Had she had known that Michael was writing their epilogue, she might not have been so anxious throughout the passing hours of the morning.
However, when Scott got home from ball practice, it was the two of them that ate and celebrated. Michael had phoned to say he would be working late again. She shared wonderful memories of her home state with her son. Being a Kentucky native, she was glad that U.K. had accepted her son. It was a good school, and compared to the tuition of colleges in New York, a great bargain. She shared with him stories of her home. Stories, of wading in the creeks on summer mornings, swimming in lakes, and walking in the woods on a crisp October day. Revisiting her early memories made her more than homesick that evening. She knew she would miss Scott, but she had relatives that would make sure he was safe, and he would be home on extended breaks. Michael and she could work on building memories of their own together. This wasn’t an ending but a beginning.
Then, Michael came home. The hour was late. Well after midnight. She had called his law office several times, but received no answer. She also tried his cell phone, but the warm sound of Michael’s voice on the voicemail, was all she got.
“It’s late, Mike. How’s the case coming? I tried the office, but you didn’t answer. I know how important this case has been to you. I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if someone had kidnapped Scott. That poor girl.”
Michael set down beside her. She knew there was something he wanted to say. She read it in the drawn lines of his face. He took his hands and rubbed his face, looking as exhausted as if he was the only lawyer in the state of New York.
“I made dinner. Scott was accepted into Medical School at U.K., so I fixed a big dinner to celebrate. I saved a plate for you in the microwave, all you have to do is heat it up”.
“I’m not hungry. I have something I have to tell you, and you’re not going to like it. Don’t look at me that way. This isn’t easy for me, either. Let’s build a fire and talk”.
As they set in front of the glowing ambers of the dancing flames, he told her about his excursions and infidelities. He told her about Joy, and the only kidnapping case he was working on was how she had stolen his heart. He had been seeing her for two months, and although he didn’t mean for it to happen, he had fallen desperately in love with Joy.
“I tried so hard to tell you, but I didn’t want to hurt you. I do love you, Hales. I do! But I’m not ‘in love’ with you. I know, somewhere inside, you knew. I hate this. I hate that I love her and I’m hurting you, but it’s tearing me apart.
Haley pushed herself to her feet, and as the tears ran down her cheek, she spat on his face.
“Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare make yourself out to be the victim. You did this. I gave up my life for you. I had a job, and I was happy. I was a reporter, and I gave that up because you wanted me to be home for you and Scott. I cooked you dinners. I held your hand through school, and I did your homework. I even washed your underwear and pressed your ties! I did whatever you wanted! I’m a good woman, and an even better wife! So don’t you sit there, in our house, telling me how sorry, how torn you are! I gave up everything for you, Michael! Whatever you asked of me I answered. Whatever I could give, you took, and not once did I ask for anything back. I only wanted you to love me in all the ways I loved you. Instead, you go behind my back, violating my trust, come home, and tell me how torn I’ve made you. You don’t have to be torn, anymore Michael; in fact, I’ll pick up the pieces. Tomorrow, I’m filing for divorce, and I’m leaving”.
“Hales, you’re not listening…”
“I hear you perfectly. You’re a lawyer; I’ll even let you type the divorce up. You can have it all. All I ask is that you continue to be a father to your son. You are good at that, far better than you were at being a husband”.
“That’s not fair”.
“No Michael, you don’t get to tell me about what’s fair. I’ll go with Scott, surely you can find the decency to allot some money for us a decent home, and you can have your New York house with your office. You can sleep knowing your conscience is clear. You can have it all Michael, the house, the car, your degree, your whore! It’s yours for the taking, but not me! You don’t get to have me anymore, and I was good to you. Sweet dreams, Michael, maybe you can rest easy now knowing there’s nothing holding you back!”
Haley went off to the bed they once shared, and cried herself to sleep.
She was through crying. In fact as she packed the last of her boxes, she was excited. As Scott helped her load them in the moving van, she knew she was ready. She had to be, for his sake. She had to be there for him, just like he had to be there for her.
“Mom, I put in your books in the front seat. Seriously Mom, you need some new bathroom material. “Practical Candle Magic…Embracing your inner Goddess…you have spent way to long with those new agers at the country club”.
She tussled her hand in Scott’s hair. New York had been an experience. The state had opened doorways into a world she never knew; but always wondered about. Michael had introduced her to an enclitic bunch of people, and while she would miss them, she would not miss New York. However, she wasn’t leaving New York empty handed. Michael’s friend’s taste had opened her mind to positive thinking, new age philosophies and Eastern traditions that were not embraced in the backwoods hills and hollers of Kentucky. She had begun studying paganism two months ago, and unlike the religions she grew up with, these concepts embraced the role and powers of the human mind. They didn’t teach that women were seen as objects, like the churches back home, instead they taught her that women had power and could use that energy to make a better quality of life for the female practitioners. They had opened up her mind to the possibility of other worlds and offered promises that there was more to living than what we could ever experience in this one lifetime.
They offered the possibilities of exploring other worlds around this one, and during this rough time, these books offered a refuge to her in her time of uncertainty.
On her personal trail of spiritual growth, Haley didn’t forget about her upbringing in her family’s Southern Baptist church. She remembered that all quite well. Even during her quiet times of reflection, Haley could still hear Brother Elyiah’s warnings of fire and brimstone. About the tempting pull of lust and fornication that would draw a sinner closer to the bowels of Hell like metal to a magnet. Still, God hadn’t listened to her silent prayers, or cradled her from the salty tears that fell from the windows of her eyes on lonely, sleepless nights. God had offered her no heavenly shelter from a falling marriage.
Throughout her spiritual quest, Haley began to explore the Wiccan Faith, the more she read, the more she studied. The more she studied the less helpless she felt. She could control her future, and build a better destiny. Her comfort in her new found religion gave her strength to move on.
As she loaded up the last of her belongings, she knew that she was turning a key into a whole new world. As she shut the door to what was her home, she looked back on it as if it were a distant memory.
“Let’s roll, old woman…I haven’t got till August”.
She smiled at her son. If nothing else came from this marriage she had the blessing of a son, which was more than some people had. She drew comfort from his strength and his smile. Michael hadn’t been all bad after all. He had given her Scott. As she drove down the driveway, she didn’t look back; she had everything she wanted from the marriage sitting in the passenger seat of their moving van.
Copyright 2009 by John Braxton Sparks
Copyright 2009 Xlibris Publications
“Lost: A Haunting in Appalachia” is available now at your favorite bookseller and online retailer. Please remember to support your independant booksellers!!
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