Stepping Stones

Breaking free from a conversation that was empty words anyway, Jennifer Nile folded her arms and wandered along the side of the hollow home. Let the men talk, she’d look upon the trees bordering the backyard. She might even brave what waited beyond.

The rusted swing set … had it ever held swings? Instead, there were the dangling chains hoping to snare a victim. Best to not even touch the mist settling as teardrops on the tarnished metal.

Memories whispered, but she wouldn’t succumb to the home’s scorn.

She wouldn’t, not when the distasteful deeds were finally done. The childhood home was on the market, the time at the cemetery was in the past, and the past was in the cemetery.

Most of the past. Not all.

Autumn’s first storm tapped on the browning leaves with drizzle. Did each drop shiver in fear before plummeting?

Courtesy: Pixabay

Courtesy: Pixabay

She shivered and twisted around.

No sign of Paul. Talking to the realtor while the man put up his sign, no doubt.

Still in black, but thankfully black flats, she faced the wood. The old path was still there. Often deer used it, but perhaps so too did neighborhood children. Digging in her purse, she extracted a tie and cinched her dark, wavy locks into a ponytail.

It wasn’t far to where she’d encountered him and even the path urged revisiting. It was time. She could do it. It was time to face the stones. Likely he’d long since died, another wanderer buried in another unmarked grave.

She stepped to the spongy mat that was damp maple leaves upon the path.

Long ago, the authorities declared him crazy, a danger to others. A manhunt followed. Officers with dogs. Agitated beams moving through the trees. All visible from her bedroom window.

Yet, he escaped.

Was he still alive? Was he apprehended in a different state and locked away? Too late for worry. At best, he’d be a frail old man in the present.

Running water beckoned.

She shook her head to fling away the memories and stepped closer to the creek’s edge, one foot on the first stepping stone. Four stones total to make the crossing.

He’d fled the tangled woods, yet his presence clung to the thicket on the far side. It’d be nothing to hop across to where he once lived and waited, his soft smile at odds with his craggy face and wild hair.

There’d be no echo if she called out, but might the forest answer for him? No, better to not blunder that far into the past. Better to allow the little girl’s heart so long in healing to remain healed.

At least therapy had taught her that much. More critical was Paul … long nights crying in his arms as each memory returned…

Squawking geese in formation flapped overhead heading south. Autumn in a valley so long removed from childhood. Memories had a way of holding time at bay, but in reality, time moved at its own pace. Only humans measured. Only humans rushed forward. Only humans ran back.

One little girl knew what it was to wish time would hurry to an age she thought she’d never see. Probably, she shouldn’t have reached it.

She sat on the rock and drew her feet close, arms wrapped around her legs. Resting the side of her face on her knees, she let memories walk to the far bank.

There were moments that time spent talking in a therapist’s stale office couldn’t erase. There were intersecting lives that couldn’t be disentangled. Life too often burdened the helpless with those who little valued morality.

Life could also provide the helpless with those vital to keeping a small heart beating.

A single tear escaped, running sideways across her face.

It was warmer when first the child-she-was came upon the stepping stones. A little girl, alone, sobbing, face buried in her hands where she sat atop a large, flat rock.

“This same one…”

She ran adult fingertips over the granite surface. Quartz crystals scratched her skin. The chilled autumn air brushed her neck and curled around to pass the scent of decaying leaves beneath her nose. The water still chattered the same.

Once, the child-she-was happened upon the granite path across the stream. The bent man appeared on the opposite bank and unexpected agility propelled him over the rocky bridge before she could react.

He’d asked her name, yet never shared his own.

Disarming smile. Eyes playful in a way a child understands. He held her. He never explained, but maybe there was a good reason why he understood her tears.

It was as if he knew where the bruises were located so as to avoid touching them.

They said he was crazy, a danger to others. They didn’t know where the real danger was.

From that danger they looked away. That danger wielded a massive hand when it wasn’t visiting her bed at night.

A little girl should be able to trust her father. A little girl shouldn’t have to rely on a bent old man with compassionate eyes to ease her hurt.

When they forced him to flee, they stole the only safety a little girl with a mother in denial had, but they couldn’t steal the cloak of hope he left around her shoulders. She wore it every day until the day she found her voice, until she found a teacher who would listen.

Soft steps on the boggy ground approached from behind. Paul. He was the last stepping stone over the water. One stone each for pain, hope, healing, and love.

She wiped her eyes and found his eyes, found his smile. Found her smile.

It was time to return to a loving home.

 

©January 2018, Christina Anne Hawthorne

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