Arrival time: Nadazero Novanine Nadazero Nadazero
Hotel. Oscar. Mike. Echo. Foxtrot
First Sergeant Klaye Anne Cantle turned right onto the white graveled driveway, ending the two point five hour drive from Fort Leonard Wood that had prompted a self-refresher course as it always did; anything to keep her mind from her destination.
This trip she had concentrated on part of the INTERCO - International Code of Signals - utilizing a set of letter and digital codes created in the 1950's that would work with all military agencies to clarify exact times and locations throughout the World.
Juliett--the local time zone. Zulu--Greenwich Mean Time; universal.
But none of that mattered, as the situation she had been evading suddenly materialized in front of her eyes.
Unable to avoid the inevitable any longer, with trembling fingers, Klaye shifted into park and came to rest in the shade of the stately Black Walnut Tree. A stone's throw beyond rested her grandmother's old trailer house.
She studied that tree each time she arrived as it had been the lone observer of all of the good things. Saw the remains of a tree house. Could hear Nana's laughter through the leaves. Caught the wafting of catfish frying in the black skillet on the outdoor grill made of brick and mortar, by her own grandfather's hands...
The wonder of that tree gave her a brief moment of respite, of hope that things had changed-that the bad memories had somehow vanished into thin air, and she would be free to visit, unmolested.
Swinging long legs from the used compact, her mouth tightened and eyes squinted, exaggerating the lines in the tanned skin of her thirty-nine-year-old face.
As it always happened, Klaye's large, round, almost-black eyes turned first to the small crank-out window midway down the trailer that opened into her old bedroom. She shivered. So much love. So much hate.
And suddenly she was fourteen years old again, racing home from school, trying to out-distance the bully-could hear him matching her panicked strides, the sound of his blue flat-soled tennis shoes smacking the pavement as he edged closer and closer. She could hear him gasp for air through that skinny nose as if he were leaning over her shoulder. She could smell his sour breath-almost feel his long bony fingers! The more she tried to speed up, the slower she ran and the louder he became...
Klaye automatically brought her hand up to her mouth to squelch the scream that started in her heart, clawed its way up her wind pipe and edged closer to her vocal chords.
"Damnit!" The whispered word burst from her throat, below the dense Walnut foliage. She closed her eyes, panting, and shook her head from side to side, dislodging him from her memory, much as a horse would remove a pesky fly.
Shaming herself for allowing that childhood bully to once again pervade her adult life, she reconnoitered and marched forward to examine Nana's yard.
Waiting for the the Second Wave.
Telling herself luck could prevail.
But...she also knew only too well...it always followed the First Barrage.
Delaying; not wanting to enter the mobile home in-between surges.
And more: terrified to enter.
Terrified to discover why her instincts had compelled her to abandon her usual premeditated and well-mapped visitation plans to race willy-nilly to her grandmother's side!
With the outward appearance of calm methodical military patience, she scanned the perimeter.
Before her, grass and clover had choked out the Hibiscus plant, killing the plate-sized blooms.
Virginia Creeper filled the trellis where grapevines had once flourished. The grapes had been a boon back in the day; one of the many things they had enjoyed without needing money.
Four months earlier--Nana's 79th birthday and Easter--she had reclaimed the yard. Had been home for Mother's Day Weekend, and a month later, had witnessed the decline.
Now this; the absolute domination of Mother Nature.
To the east of the mobile home, encumbered by Hollyhocks and Poke Salad rising as tall as the eaves, sat the tar-papered chicken coop, the high windows clouded with dusty remains of yesteryear's scratchings.
To the west, she barely looked at the shop building.
Even as a child, she had avoided that one-room shanty.
And then, the other memory blip assailed her with the force of a jet engine at take-off. Even knowing that it would arrive, she was incapable of barricading herself from the bitter and ever-lasting effects.
She stumbled against the car, physically numb to the sun-heated metal. Blinded by panic. Stunned by fear.
Her mind swirled. Her body quivered. Her breath stuck in her chest.
Then, from a million miles away, she could hear her Nana's voice calling to her through the fog as it had sounded years ago. "Breath slow, young'n. In the nose. Out the mouth. This thing won't kill you, but holding your breath sure as Hell will!"
First Sergeant Cantle sucked in some air. Forced herself to breath. Exhaled through her mouth. Brought back color to the white-barren sheets flapping in her mind.
Saw green...her tree.
Saw blue...her sky.
Wiping tears from her huge dark eyes, she whispered, "God, please... Nana does not need to see me fall apart...again..." and forced herself to focus by snapping to attention.
"Hell!" she whispered at the chicken coop. "Why does it always have to be Hell to come back home, Sir?"
That shimmer of a memory had tormented her for nearly twenty-two years, the one she could not actually grab hold of...could not remember...
The "incident", Nana had told her, was the result of a terrible biking accident!
Nothing brought back the full memory of that white-blinding night.
As her muscles relaxed, she felt it. A drop of perspiration had formed at the nape of her neck. She pulled at the tailored ends of her shoulder-length dark wavy hair, moving it from the back of her head so the breeze could cool the spot where frustration always expressed itself.
And again, like a buzzing cicada close to her ear, the same nagging sensation that had brought her here today-without any groceries, without any mental fortification measures-pushed her past the car and up the grassy path.
She had stalled for precisely eight minutes, long enough to hide her childhood silliness from Nana, but still...she had to tap her reserve to find the strength to enter.
Rusty wrought iron steps complained noisily, even with her trim carriage, as she climbed to the open door of the mobile home.
Inside the structure, Klaye waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Nana blamed her cataracts, saying it did not matter if sunlight came through or not. Obviously, she also did not care if any air moved through the rooms either, since the windows were covered with blankets instead of curtains.
"Nana," she whispered to herself, the single word involuntarily braiding itself around a chuckle; windows covered, door ajar.
As the pinpoints of her pupils opened to the size of pencil erasers, she glimpsed her grandmother's thin form to the left, slumped forward in the tattered easy chair that had been her domain for dozens of years.
Fear tingled in her fingertips; the aged woman was all she had in the world.
Kneeling by the chair, she eyed the tarnished double-picture frame clasped in Nana's grip. Slowly she slid her fingers around the thin wrist to feel for the old woman's pulse; between fragile bone and taut skin there seemed to be no room for blood vessels.
Lizzie Cantle rose out of her perpetual slouch. Blue-veined eyelids quivered open, skin as thin as petals from a Clematis flower. The whites of her eyes had yellowed to the color of old cauliflower, the black irises paled by cataracts and the bleaching power of the sun. Thinning white hair pulled taut into a bun and pinned there unceremoniously, crowned her head in a paltry remnant of the glorious mane she used to possess.
From deep down in the cadaverous chest a sound began climbing the long flight of stairs from her thoughts to her voice box. A rattle eased up the scrawny throat. A brief cough. A coarse arid chuckle.
"I ain't kicked the bucket yet, young'n."
Klaye's eyes widened, the whites emphasizing the dark brown that her grandmother and mother had so generously handed down to her. "Oh, Nana," she said, inhaling sharply, "I was justwanting to wake you gently." She could feel the moisture trickling down the back of her neck and building behind her eyelids.
"Uh huh," Lizzie Cantle said, discounting the ruse over gums that showed no signs of utilizing the modern advantages of man-made teeth.
Klaye smiled brightly, full lips parted from perfectly white teeth, moved as usual by theshe could not put a name to itshe could never think of the right wordto correctly describe the power, or the aura, or the energy that still emanated from the elderly woman.
She kissed the sunken cheeks. "I love you, Nana! Would you like some tea, Nana? You need something to drink!" She watched as the withered body slowly came to life, nearly as if the blood had all settled in her feet and the old woman had to force her heart to pump it to the rest of her body before she could move.
"Water'd be good, Klaye."
The words were weak, breathy. Klaye took note while forcing her facial muscles to remain happy.
"Tea makes me pee too much, and I ain't too keen on traipsing down that hallway none too often."
"Nana" Klaye said as she pulled the bony hand to her lips, smothering the negative testimonial to promoting kidney health, aching from the absence she had self-imposed on the the elderly woman, "Nana, please," even to her own ears, the words were empty, pleading, "Please reconsider moving to my home near Fort Leonard Wood. It has two bedrooms and you could have your own suite. I'd add a bathroom and cook"
White strands of hair floated through the air as Lizzie shook her head. Grizzled fingers silenced the echoed words from the past ten years of irregular, brief visits. "Yer Granddaddy's been waiting here for me a mighty long time and I ain't leaving Him alone now, young'n."
She pulled the withered hand back down to her lap to regain hold of the picture frame. One side had a black and white photo of a young woman with dark hair, even darker eyes against the background of a large white building.
The singular face in the frame that stared back at Klaye carried a gentle smile from full lips, long straight nose, dark eyebrows, strong jaw and wondrous black, shiny hair.
Two decades ago, while recuperating at Lillian Lamb's cousin's rural home near St. Robert, she had been blessed with little puppy to cuddle and an entire room of poetry to study--both speeding her physical recovery.
One poet in particular caught her attention, an Eastern European National Poet, Mihai Eminescu, as his picture was a breath-taking compliment to Romanian beauty. Klaye had told her Nana how she resembled the man. At that time, Nana had whispered, 'Son of the black-haired person...' but had never made that reference again in over twenty years.
Later, Nana had reminded Klaye that her maiden name had been Brown. Simple. Basic. Very American.
And, for as long as she could remember, the other side of the frame remained vacant, like Nana's eyes became when she stared into the empty space for long spans of time.
Klaye caressed the flimsy skin, once thick with muscle and callus. All that remained of the hands she remembered were the prominent lumps and jagged scars on the knuckles. "I could bring you back hereyou knowlater, whenever you needed me to, Nana. It's just over two hours away. He wouldn't mind that, would he?"
The dim faded eyes turned to the blanketed window. "I would, honey, and He'd know."
As she talked-talked without teeth to check the fall of her jaws-her gums met, compressing her lips, pushing them out past her nose. Sallow wrinkles grew and ebbed like the tide.
"It's nigh on 60 year, and I ain't broke my promise to Him yet." Then the unfettered lips spread wide, the eyes focused on something in the distance. "Guess I ain't gonna stumble none on the last leg of the journey."
Klaye nodded to herself, raked black tresses behind dainty ears and swallowed the remaining plea. "Okay, Nana. I'll get you some water." She arose from the squatting position and headed to the kitchen, hoping she would find a clean glass or two.
As her granddaughter let go, Lizzie tightened her hold on the picture frame. The once-fractured bones below the scarred knuckles creaked in resentment. She smiled at the feeling. It made her think of Him. Despite the presence of death throughout her bones, the Heat was still in her body. Thoughts of Him put it there years ago-and nothing she had been through could take it away.
She rubbed a gnarled finger across one of the scarred knuckles. Suddenly, Rube Johnson poked his ruddy face into her memory. Missing teeth. Eyes filled with rage and hatred. She owed Rube for the knuckles!
He owed her for putting an end to the misery he would have continued to heap onto others if she had not...
"Here, Nana. Here's your water. And I opened a can of tuna and fixed us a sandwich."
Lizzie shook her head, scattering the ancient pieces of history in her mind until the slate was clean like the toy she had bought for Klaye years ago. After the little girl had finished turning the red knobs, drawing pictures and shapes, all she had to do was shake it back and forth to make the figures disappear.
"I could use a bit of nourishment, I s'pose," she said, reaching for the food and drink.
Klaye knelt beside her again to steady the plate on the old woman's lap. Her grandmother's trembling was more pronounced than during her visit on Mother's Day weekend and again in Mid-June.
"Nana," she began slowly, already knowing the request would be denied, "I could get Doctor Lewis to drop by"
"Why?" she asked around a chunk of salty tuna, "He recently come on the need of some income?"
Klaye's dark eyebrows drew closer together. "Excuse me, Ma'am?" She moved her head sideways to see if she could make her grandmother look at her.
Lizzie took a sip of water. "Buying a touring boat? Building a house?" Above her, Lizzie focused on the ceiling. A multitude of right-angled patterns left by the fly swatter decorated the paper-like tiles; some imprinted with dust, some with fly guts.
"Dr. Lewis? I don't know, Nana. I have not kept up with what happens in town. Why do you ask?" She had to look up. Why was the ceiling suddenly so important?
"If not, he don't need my money! I got needs for it a bit longer myself," Nana said, tearing another bite from the sandwich with toothless gums.
Klaye laughed out loud, throwing her head back, black wavy tresses swaying across her shoulder blades. She arose. "The old bait and switch routine, huh. Your body may be tired, Nana, but your mind still works faster than mine."
Lizzie dipped her head in acknowledgement of the compliment, then swallowed. "Sides, Ol' Doc Lewis re-tired to Brownsville, Texas, and some new sawbones is running Doc's office. I ain't letting no stranger put his hands on this here body! And, Klaye, roots shouldn't hold no shame for you. Look where they took you to."
Klaye crossed the room to settle in the lumps of the faded floral couch, knowing it had started, the same critical words, the twenty year argument they had had since she became old enough to have a sweetheart, although none ever materialized-and she wondered at her grandmother's lucidity: from the new doctor in town, the elderly woman had directly switched subjectsto her childhood.
"I waited years, Klaye, but my waiting's about expired."
"NanaI'm really not ready. I have another four months before I receive full retirement, then"
"Your shame is bigger than reason."
Tears welled in the dark eyes across the room. Klaye clinched her fists; nearly twenty years in the United States Army had taught her discipline, pride, how to protect herself from emotional confrontations, how to protect herself from physical attacks, how to defend her country! Suddenly, she felt like laughing: despite two decades of building an armor-sheathed world, she realizedno amount of training could ever make her 'Nana-Proof'.
Her grandmother had her pegged, almost. But it was more than embarrassment. Part of it was fear.
Lizzie bent the thick, scarred knuckle of her right middle finger to flick a fly from her sandwich.
"Nana-you know-the people around here-." Why say that? No one in the area mattered to her in the least except for Lillian and Junior.
Lizzie snorted; she knew better than most! She knew first hand. She knew things that could get people in trouble. Get them divorced. Get them dead. "All churchgoers, Klaye," she finally said, concentrating a narrowed look on the half-eaten sandwich, knowing how that comparison galled both of them like a horse ridden raw.
Klaye's forehead wrinkled. "As if that makes a difference!" she said, releasing the words through a constricted throat. Her childhood tormentors had never missed a Sunday service or prayer meeting.
Nana raised her eyes. A thin smile pushed the pallid wrinkles up toward her eyes and out toward her ears. "Don't be poo-pooing good Christians, Klaye. They go every Sunday...cuzzzz..." she pointed a gnarled finger at the ceiling, "They got the mightiest need to repent!" She smiled wider. Her gums were nearly visible. "You must think you'll be marrying something they're likely to object to."
Despite internal controversy, Klaye felt the muscles across her back tighten enough to square her shoulders and lift her chin. "Nana, I have no plans to marry anyone. I don't even date anybody, but if the perfect man ever falls from the Heavens and lands right here in my lapI..." she hooked a thumb at her heart, "Will be the only one who has to approve of him."
"God's Truth, Klaye. All the rest can rot in Hell." The statement caused her to automatically massage her knuckles.
A smile played across Klaye's lips. The woman sitting across from her had changed very little in all of her years of living. Arguments were nothing more than a means of working the situation around to her point of view, or of making her granddaughter see a different point of view-whether Nana believed in that point or not.
"Good part is, if you pick someone ain't a redneck who don't belong in this here holler, there ain't been a hanging or butchering in these hills of no one for nigh on sixty year."
A vivid chill crossed the stuffy room to pull at the hair on Klaye's arms. She felt an unexplainable pressure on her chest. She sat forward. "What do you mean, Nana? You've never said anything like that before! And youyou say that with conviction! Why did you say that? Did that happen? Could someone have been murdered in in Tucker's Hollow? My God!" She wiped at the nape of her neck, brushed hair out of her eyes, swallowed deeply. "Nanasay you're just messing with me again, aren't you?"
Lizzie's eyelids narrowed down to slits as she concentrated on the last few bites of her sandwich. "People act like they want to know them facts, Klaye, but surely they don't! Once it's in here," she tapped at her temple, "-the pictures-it's something that never leaves a mind, even when everything else gets tired, dries up or falls off."
Her head darted forward. Her jaw dropped. She wanted to yell, 'Then it's true!' ...but she knew she would get no further response. And also knew that her grandmother's health had faltered.
Instead, she utilized her breathing technique. In the nose. Out the mouth. In all the years, she had never won! Why should today be any different than the rest? She shook off the chill and slid back, seeking comfort within the familiar cushions of her childhood couch.
Her gaze traveled over the brown paneling and down to the compacted carpet. "You're right, Nana. My heart would break, so I don't really want to know because I'd probably have to call in the Special Forces, sign up, and be their head vigilante."
Lizzie took plenty of time keeping her eyes diverted as she set the empty plate on the spot where the orange shag carpeting had thinned and faded to spotted tangerine. No need for any vigilantes; she had taken care of things herself. "You ever done any talking to a head-doc about your momma?"
Klaye flinched, drawing one cheek up tight enough to squint one eye. She stared at the dark paneling, began measuring the distance between the vertical lines. Shook her head. Lied. Did not confess how her personal life had recently complicated her professional life; a black out at work...and hospital stay...and the shrinks.
They had her.
She could no longer hide or escape.
Gently, they had assured her that in time, there would be answers. Something mentioned about dissociative amnesia, traumatic event.
Klaye rubbed at her forehead. She had followed their rules as closely as possible--to garner the fastest escape from the hospital.
To escape once again to what?
She pulled herself back to the only reason she ever bothered to return to Tucker's Hollow. "Where...did that come from, Nana? And what would I gain? Would it bring her back?" Klaye dabbed at the nape of her neck; hanged affliction! She would have preferred the hives.
Lizzie Cantle wiped her knuckles across her lips. "She don't need to come back, Klaye. You do. My little Sandy is happy where she be."
All of the same lines, same thoughts, same pointless comments; when would it end? "I have a good life, Nana. My mother's...suicide had nothing to do with me, as you've told me many times over the years, so I would gain nothing by discussing my personal life with an absolute stranger. See? I'm just like you. The new doctor in town-you don't want to see him either because he's a stranger."
"I ain't trailer trash, Klaye."
Klaye put her fingertips to her forehead. One more reason why I don't visit more often? "No, Ma'am! I never thought of you in that way," she said, wondering how the conversation could switch from early 19th Century lynchings to psychiatrists to mobile home dwellers.
"Good, cuz it don't wear on me none, young'n. I know who I am, where I been and where I'm a-going. The transportation never did make no difference to me. He'll see I'm old and not wanting much more'n I got. And he'll see you come from resolve and determination, to make it from this tin can to a fancy military job. And if he turns up his nose and walks away, then the Good Lord opened his eyes before it was too late for my Klaye-gal."
Klaye folded her hands around her nose and mouth, concerned about her grandmother's ramblings, wondering if dementia created voids where lucidity once had reigned. Instead of confusing the old woman's brain any further, she simply nodded. "Yes, dear Nana."
The sun-faded irises warmed as they moved around the darkly defined features of her granddaughter's face. She could see parts of Him in her, two generations later. "You're as good a thinker as I am, Klaye, you're just young yet and gotta wait till all the rocks fall into the basket to see which side out-weighs the other. No harm come to me on your account, but"
Klaye tried to be patient, wanting Nana to finish although it took a very long time for the woman to quit staring at the sun-bleached blanket on the window. "Yes, Nana?"
Elizabeth Cantle rubbed at her misshapen knuckles. "Don't wait too long, young'n. Your granddaddy's whispering's been getting louder in my ear. He's calling my name sweet and low just like He used to in the day, and one of these times He'll put out his hand." Her head moved from side to side although her eyes remained fastened on the window blanket. "And I won't turn my back, honey. I'll be so happy to grab a-hold and continue my journey beside Him."
Klaye Cantle-middle-aged First Sergeant in the United States Army-jumped from the couch to kneel at Nana's feet. Without shame, she cried like a baby against the scarred knuckles of her ailing grandmother's hand.
Brief Synopsis: After years of avoiding the haunting shadows of her childhood, Klaye Anne Cantle is forced to return to her Ozark home to oversee the health problems of her grandmother, Lizzie, who raised her from the age of six months old.
Slowly the layers of deception and heartache peel away, exposing situations and a history that she could never have imagined, where she finds for the first time in her life what it is like to be supported by friends, family and community.