For visually challenged writers, the image shows a landscape of green moorland and hills, with a pool of water near rocks in the foreground and a heavy bank of white cloud rolling in and masking the horizon.
She sat on the small, raised mound fisting handfuls of the dark rich soil.
Looking out over the clouded horizon of Camden, Lauren Hatcher’s memories came to life.
She saw the picnics with her grandparents, and closing her eyes, she could even smell Nana Meggie’s fresh-baked berry pies and fried chicken. She remembered the rides Pawpaw gave her on his thoroughbred, Preacher, and the glorious moment on her eleventh birthday when she rode the horse alone.
Looking over at the small brook, Lauren’s face heated remembering her first kiss from Dan Denton when they were catching tadpoles.
A loud crack of thunder brought her back to the present. Lauren stood and glanced over the meadow again, regretting the three decades she’d stayed away from this place.
She turned and headed back to the house she’d left in a near run the day she turned eighteen.
Ralph Prince spent all day working at the family livestock business and all night drinking and beating his wife, Louise. When he left for work before dawn the next morning, Louise would vent all her rage and frustration on Lauren, while treating her older sister, Karla, like a queen.
Things got worse when Pawpaw had a stroke the month after she turned eleven, and he and Nana had to move into the city for the constant care he needed.
Despite empty promises from her parents to visit, she never saw her grandparents again.
Ralph’s nightly drinking binges grew more intense as Lauren aged, and when she was thirteen, he punched her for the first time.
But it wasn’t the last.
Though they whispered behind her back, classmates and teachers never asked Lauren about the black eyes and bruises. No one ever asked if she needed help or wanted to talk.
Biology teacher, Patty Reedy knew Lauren’s story. She’d lived it.
Without discussing her home life, Patty encouraged Lauren to keep her grades up and look to the future.
In her junior year, the school passed out financial aid packets for college. Lauren returned to school without her packet and fresh bruises on her face. Frustrated, Patty scrambled for a back-up plan but knew she couldn’t actively interfere until Lauren turned eighteen. She prayed the child would live to see that birthday.
And she did. Five days after graduation, Patty boldly pulled her old Chevy into the Prince’s driveway and waited. Lauren rushed out the side door with a battered blue suitcase while her mother and sister yelled taunts and threats at her back.
Lauren spent the next year working in a small nursing home and saving her money. Her apartment across the street from the facility was small even for being studio-size, but to Lauren, it was a mansion. Patty helped her find counseling and a support group, and Lauren Prince was reborn. Entering the university’s nursing program the following year, Lauren was on fire to excel and live life out loud.
Though she’d never lived farther than a hundred miles from Camden, she never returned. It wasn’t fear that kept her away, but anger.
The rain started as she reached her old dilapidated home. Her parents did no upkeep and the peeling wallpaper and faded paint proved that.
But the foundation was still rock solid.
Pawpaw built the three-bedroom home as a wedding gift for Nana right after they were married. Years later when Pawpaw built their second home, they used the first as a guest home for family, then gifted it to Louise when she married Ralph.
Anger burned in her chest as Lauren thought about the love that created the house and all the violence that it housed.
Not wanting the anger to consume her, she took deep breaths and exhaled in slow, metered fashioned. The coping therapies she’d learned so long ago still worked.
Walking through the house again, Lauren couldn’t keep the questions from forming in her mind even though the answers didn’t matter to her.
Had her family missed her? Were her parents sorry for how they treated her? Did they ever try to find her?
Shaking her head, she smirked, knowing the answer to all the questions was no.
And she was glad.
Patty Reedy risked her job to help a student at risk, and Lauren never forgot her kindness. The bubbly teacher was now retired, raising Corgis with her husband and doting on their twelve grandchildren. They always included Lauren in the Reedy family gatherings, and it gave her the love and wholeness she’d felt back in the meadow with Pawpaw and Nana.
Something she’d never get from her family.
Ralph Prince died thirteen years ago from emphysema. Her sister, Karla, drank herself to death before she was forty, leaving three ex-husbands and five children. Her mom died in September from complications with diabetes and a bad heart. It took the state six months to find Louise’s estranged brother, Dale, who lived across the country, and another two to find Lauren, who lived just eighty-seven miles from the front porch she now stood on.
Though her grandparents “gifted” the house to her newlywed parents, the deed wasn’t turned over until several years later.
And Ralph Prince’s name wasn’t on it.
To ensure the house stayed in the family, Pawpaw and Nana signed over the house to Louise Hart Prince, Karla Beth Prince, and Lauren Holly Prince.
She wondered if that was the cause of her father’s rage—living in a home that wasn’t his. Did he see his in-law’s actions as disapproval and disrespect and take it out on their daughter and granddaughter? He had no say-so over the property and her grandparents included the caveat the house couldn’t be sold until she and Karla reached adulthood and could sign for themselves. They could only use power of attorney or probate documents in the event of one of their deaths.
Now they were all gone and the house belonged to her.
Lauren crossed the porch to the ledge, watching the rain cover her mother’s overgrown garden in sheets.
They were gone and she felt nothing. No pain, sadness, or loss. The unbearable ennui over what could have been no longer clouded her mind. Before today, the only regret Lauren felt was for the things she and husband, Gale, had put off for “the right time.”
That time never came.
Gale blamed his love of spicy foods for his stomach pain. Three days later, as the pain intensified, he blamed a stomach bug picked up from a patient at work. One week after the pains began, the chief radiologist lay on a table in the department he ran for nine years, and five weeks later, he was gone, his body ravaged by inoperable pancreatic cancer.
Memories of her gentle giant and their eighteen years together made Lauren smile even as her chest tightened. Though he’d been gone seven years, her husband’s counsel still filled her mind. She was grateful for all the therapists who helped her on her journey to self-love, but Gale Hatcher was her rock. He was protective without smothering and never missed an opportunity to admire her strength.
Gale also never missed a chance to gently suggest Lauren return to Camden.
“The place didn’t hurt you, Honeybun, the people did, and that will never happen again.”
His faith in her was stronger than her own, and she always found a reason to not make the trip.
Lauren’s face heated with shame even as an abrupt giggle escaped her lips. She could see herself telling Gale he was right, and him, splaying his enormous hands out in front of him, saying, “You doubted me?”
She walked over to the door and made sure it was locked then stood at the top step.
She wouldn’t tell the boys about Camden right away. Kevin and Glenna’s wedding day was two weeks away, and his big brother, Riley, was a part-time paramedic, taking classes and trying to be there for Kevin. She wouldn’t overwhelm them with her drama. A month from now when the kids were back from their honeymoon and everyone had time to exhale, she’d bring them all to Camden and finally share the parts of her childhood she’d kept secret for so long. In the meantime, Lauren could finish sorting things out with the probate court and reach out to the uncle she hadn’t seen in forty years.
A large crack of thunder appeared to split the heavens as rain poured from the sky.
Descending the steps, Lauren strolled to the center of the yard as though it was a bright sunny morning. Stopping at the spot where Nana’s prize yellow rose bush sat so many years ago, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back, her arms outstretched at her sides, welcoming the assault of the downpour. It plastered her dark curls to her head, soaked her clothes… and hid her tears.
Lauren exhaled as the last vestiges of the weight burdening her soul melted away.
She smiled, glad to be home.