“Free, A Novella”
by Felicia Denise
Slowly making her way down the hall, Lennie suddenly was exhausted. Her memories had not only overwhelmed her but reliving them in this house…alone, as she was trying to break from her past consumed her energy.
Glancing into the small sitting room as she walked past, Lennie shook her head thinking of the hundreds of Christmas and birthday gifts this room had stored over the years. She stopped abruptly and looked back at the sitting room door. A sense of nostalgia washed over Lennie and brought something to mind she rarely had – a good memory of Ranard. A small grin graced her face as she reflected on their first Christmas in this house. A frustrated Ranard Porter had already injured himself several times attempting to assemble a tyke bike for little Duncan.
After putting the boys to bed, Lennie, armed with hot cocoa and snacks, joined Ranard. Handing him his cup, Lennie grabbed hers and sat beside him on the floor.
“You know you’re over-complicating this, right?”
Shaking his head vigorously, Ranard disagreed. “Not possible. I didn’t create this nightmare. Who uses seven different types of screws for a toddler bike? This is insane!”
“I’ll swap with you.” She took the instructions from him and handed him the snack tray.
Lennie’s eyes widened as she looked over the paper. “Wow. There are a lot of screws, aren’t there?”
Munching on a turkey wrap, Ranard simply nodded.
Looking over the top of the paper, Lennie noticed the jumbled pile of hardware. “And you dumped them all into one big pile, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t know a Master’s Degree in physics was required to put together a child’s toy, Lenore.”
Covering her mouth with her hand, Lennie tried to hide her smirk…and failed. “Finish your snack. Then we’ll start at square one…again.”
Ranard reached for a handful of sugared almonds while his wife sorted the screws into seven piles. They both sat back and chatted quietly, enjoying the childless silence. After draining their cups, they approached their task as a team.
Less than an hour later, a shiny, red tyke bike sat between them. The floor was empty – with no leftover screws.
“I almost ruined Christmas, but my wife saved the day. If this gets out, I’ll lose my man-card for sure!”
Giggling, Lennie reached out and caressed his cheek. You were not going to ruin Christmas and I did not save the day. It just took a little more patience.” She glanced at the bike. “And there were a lot of screws!”
Taking her hand from his cheek, Ranard held it in both of his, then kissed it. “And you’re always so patient with me.”
“Only because I love you.”
But her love had not been enough, and Lennie’s patience had run out.
Lennie had stopped mourning the end of her marriage long ago…if she ever truly had.
Her heels clicked against the marble tiles. Approaching the living room from the west side, she had traversed nearly the entire first floor. Looking at her watch, Lennie was shocked to see she’d been in the house for over three hours. So much for the “ten-minute walk through” she promised the realtor she would do before leaving town.
Taking a seat on one of the steps leading down into the living room, Lenore Porter buried her face in her hands. She’d had a good life here. She’d made mistakes…the wrong choices, but wasn’t that part of life? Although there had been several intense situations, they were nothing she didn’t rebound from, right? There were no serious and lasting repercussions, right?
A mirthless chuckle escaped her lips.
Yeah, right, Lenore. Keep fooling yourself.
Her marriage had been a train wreck. Her ex-husband had turned against them, and their son had tried to kill his own father.
Not exactly G-rated stuff.
Lennie and Ranard made bad choices and their sons paid the price, losing their family. When she tried to fix her mistake, Ranard’s bad choices almost cost him his life…and their son’s life. Lennie’s fix for that situation led her down yet another rocky path.
Duncan seemed to return to his old self after Lennie filed her divorce papers. Noise and chaos once again ruled the Porter household. But when the district marking period ended and Lennie received the boys’ report cards, her heart sunk. Every one of Duncan’s grades had fallen, and comments like “Incomplete projects”, “Assignments not turned in”, and “No class participation” accompanied every subject.
Lenore Porter became angry. She was angry with herself for not following through and missing any signs that Duncan was not okay. She was angry with the school for not contacting her as Duncan’s grade fell. Six teachers. SIX TEACHERS, and not one had sent an email or picked up a phone.
But Lennie was not angry with her son. Despite his size and demeanor, Duncan Porter was still a child. He was still dependent on adults for leadership. He was still dependent on adults for guidance or solutions to problems. She was his mother, and he was still dependent on her. And Lennie felt she had let him down. Duncan was holding in painful emotions he should never have had to deal with. If his grades were so negatively impacted without her sensing anything was wrong, what else had she missed?
After a quick call to Bea, her staff team manager, Lennie rushed out her front door, walking the short block to her destination.
Doug Henry was a psychiatrist who specialized in mental health issues in men. Though he usually consulted with veterans’ and first responder support groups, He did take on the occasional private patient and worked from home. His four children were close in age to Lennie’s boys leading them to work on many school projects and sporting events together over the years.
Anxiously ringing the doorbell, Lennie tried to steady herself.
Kay Henry opened the door wearing a warm, welcoming smile. One look at Lenore Porter, though, and her smile faded. Kay grabbed her neighbor’s arm and quickly pulled her inside.
Lennie opened her mouth to respond, but froze. How much should she tell her friends? Should she tell them about Ranard showing up after Duncan’s birthday party? The fight? Duncan’s depression? Deciding to tell them only about the divorce for now, Lennie opened her mouth to speak, but could only utter one word. “Duncan.”
Without taking her eyes on Lennie, Kay Henry took a couple of steps backward and called out to her husband.
“Doug! Lennie’s here…something’s wrong! Doug!”
Only second later, Doug Henry rushed into the foyer. “I heard you the first time, honey. What’s all the yelling for and wha-” He stopped mid-sentence seeing a troubled Lennie Porter fidgeting near his front door.
“Lennie, what’s wrong? What happened?”
Near tears, Lennie could still only utter one word. “Duncan.” Shrugging slightly, her arms fell limply at her sides.
With a quick nod to his wife, Doug slowly approached Lennie, gently taking her by the arm. “C’mon, Lennie. Let’s go to my office.
Without a word, Lenore Porter allowed the psychiatrist to lead her down the short hallway to his office. Just as he seated her on an overstuffed love seat, Kay came through the office door with a tray of coffee. Setting the tray on the coffee table in front of Lennie, Kay turned to leave when Lennie spoke.
“Please…stay.” She glanced at Doug. “Can she stay? I’d like a mother’s input on this.”
“Of course, she can, Lennie.” Before Doug could go any further, Kay Henry was already seated next to Lennie, pouring her a cup of coffee.
“You like it sweet, right Lennie?”
“Yes. Thank you for remembering, Kay.” Lennie accepted the coffee mug with both hands. Holding the mug close to her face, she didn’t sip from it, but instead simply stared into its dark, steamy depths.
Doug allowed a few minutes of silence to pass before pulling his neighbor out of her reverie.
“What’s going on with you, Lennie?”
Lennie didn’t take her eyes from the mug as she spoke.
“A few weeks ago, Ranard showed up unannounced. We had a horrible, ugly argument. So ugly, in fact, I called my attorney the next morning to start the proceedings to change our legal separation…to a divorce.”
A barely audible gasp escaped from Kay’s lips.
Lennie regarded her kindly. “It’s all right, Kay. Removing Ranard from our lives was the best thing for us. I should have done it long ago. I thought by having a legal separation, the boys would still have an opportunity to build a positive relationship with their father…without the stigma of divorce. I was wrong.” She turned to Doug. “The argument affected us all, but I think I got off the easiest because I had already closed that chapter of my life. If we had no children, I would have divorced him from the start.
But the boys…they each dealt with it in their own way. Myron was angry and RJ was fearful. After a few days…as the argument slipped into the past, those two seemed to settle down and move past it. But not Duncan. He was so intense and full of rage, guilt…and I think a bit of self-loathing…he couldn’t even look his brothers or me in the face.”
“Lennie, wait.” Doug sat his mug on the table. “Rage is understandable, but why would Duncan feel guilt…and self-loathing? Did something else happen?”
Sitting her own cup on the coffee table, Lenore scrubbed her hands, then folded them in her lap. “The argument was between Ranard and me…but it was…physical between him and the boys.”
“Son of a bitch!” Doug leapt to his feet, his face hard-set in anger. “The bastard walks awa-”
“Honey!” The pleading look in Kay’s eyes and slight head tilt in Lennie’s direction caused the psychiatrist’s face to redden.
“I-I am so sorry, Lennie. It’s just…just…”. Defeated, he shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’m sorry, Lennie. That was unprofess-”
“I didn’t come here just because you’re a psychiatrist, Doug, but also a friend – someone I trust. You have nothing to apologize for. I was angry too.” Taking a deep breath, Lennie continued.
“Ranard and I argued…and Myron and Duncan were right there. Things were getting heated when RJ appeared. It was all upsetting to him, naturally, so I took him back to his room. When I…came back…Myron was sitting on the floor…motionless…watching Duncan…watching Duncan…”
“It’s okay, Lennie.” Kay patted her arm lightly.
Tears fell from her eyes as she looked first at Kay, then Doug. “Duncan had his father in a…chokehold.”
Husband and wife stared at each other…their expressions incredulous.
“I tried everything I could to get Duncan to release his father…but he was just too strong. I screamed at him, pleaded with him…but in the end, it was RJ-”
“RJ? But I thought you took-”
“I did take him to his room, but he heard my screams and came back. I’m grateful he did. His screaming out his brother’s name was the only thing that saved Ranard’s life that night.”
Kay rose and grabbed a box of tissues from the bookshelf. She held the box out to Lennie, then took a couple for herself. Still standing, Doug leaned against his desk.
“Do you know what happened after you left the room?”
Lenore shook her head. “I didn’t at first. But after releasing his father, Duncan ran to RJ. That’s when I turned and took a good look at Myron. His lip was split and an eye was swelling. Wasn’t hard to figure out Duncan was defending his brother.”
Doug Henry absently shook his head, swearing under his breath. “I’d like to choke him myself.”
“Doug!” Kay Henry stopped wiping her eyes to glare at her husband. “You’re not helping things.”
“I know, honey…I know. I’m sorry, Lennie…again. It’s just for most of the years we’ve known each other, it’s always been you carpooling, and you volunteering at the games, and you hosting the family potlucks. Ranard’s never done a damn thing. And when you finally do what you have to do for peace of mind, he shows up years later out of the blue, and gets violent with your children. No real parent does that. No real father who loves his children does that. I’d give anything to be able to knock him on his ass right now.”
“Nope, not sorry this time, Kay. A man who will put his hands on his child to inflict harm or injury deserves the same treatment!” He walked over and retook his seat. “What do you need from me, Lennie? Do you want me to talk to Duncan?” Kill Ranard?”
Kay smirked, nodding in approval this time, and Lennie couldn’t help but grin.
“No, Doug. I think someone from outside of our lives would work better. For whatever reason, Duncan is wearing masks around his family and friends, but those same masks didn’t save his grades. Every single one fell.”
“Damn! This just won’t do! What do you need, Lennie…a referral?”
“Yes…please, Doug? I don’t want to waste time hunting down and researching therapists, trying to find one who’s a good fit. I need to get Duncan in to see someone who can help from the first visit. Is that possible?”
“Any other time, I’d say no, Lennie. Counseling can be a very tricky tool to use properly. Patients who have spent months…even years with psychiatrists or therapists with no measurable progress switch to someone new for whatever reason…and seem to be greatly improved after one visit. That means they were paired with the wrong person from the beginning, and either the counselor…or the patient refused to speak up.”
“Wow. I know the relationship is important, but I never realized it could be detrimental.”
“Unfortunately, yes. But I got this. I know Duncan and know he’s an exceptional kid. I have just the person in mind.” He stood and went to his desk. “Would you ladies give me a few moments to make a couple of phone calls?”
“Of course, honey. C’mon, Lennie. My cinnamon rolls aren’t works of art like yours but come let me know how I measure up.”
With a grateful look at Doug, Lennie Porter followed Kay from the room. “Oh, stop it, Kay. I’ll bet they’re amazing.”
She turned hearing Doug call her name. “Yes?”
“How soon do you want an appointment?”
They both smiled.
“Today, tomorrow…just tell me when, Doug, and I’ll get him there.”
Less than an hour later, Lennie was on her way to the high school. Doug had referred Duncan to James Richie, a licensed clinical psychologist with one of the highest success rates in the city for counseling teens and young adults. Also a retired pastor, Doug assured her that James Richie wasn’t one of those who used scripture to shame or mock. Like Doug, James also preferred counseling males. Admitting to mental issues was a usual roadblock for most men and boys, and could jeopardize their therapy and recovery. The stigma was a focus of both Doug and James in their therapies.
While signing Duncan out of school, Lennie decided to save the issue of his falling grades and her not being notified sooner for another day. Getting her son the help he needed was her priority.
Lennie stood at the exit near the parking lot only a few minutes before Duncan walked down the hallway.
“Mom? What’s going on? What are you doing here? They said you signed me out for the rest of the day.”
Lennie had to stretch up on her tiptoes to kiss her growing son’s cheek. “Whoa! Slow down, kid. One question at a time.” She smiled and linked her arm in his and started towards the door.
“Let’s get outside first, sweetie.”
Duncan held the door for his mother, then followed her down the ramp to the parking lot. As they approached her SUV, Duncan stopped.
“Mom? I’m starting to freak out a little here. What’s going on? Are Myron and RJ okay?”
She turned and faced him. “Your brothers are fine, Duncan. This is about you.”
The oldest Porter son frowned, confused. “Me? What about me?”
“Your report card came this morning.”
Duncan’s entire body seemed to sag and he hung his head.
“I-I’m sorry, mom…I messed up. I thought I could fix it before grades came out.” Duncan raised his head. “But I promise, mom…I swear, I’ll get back on track before the school year ends. I’ll work harder…stay after school for-”
“Duncan, stop!” Lenore shook her head slowly. “Honey, your grades are important. But this isn’t about your grades falling, it’s why they did, Duncan.”
Before her eyes, Duncan’s face began a slow morph…from ashamed, humiliated teenager to angry young man.
“What do you mean, ‘why’, mom? Kids get into trouble all the time with their grades. Not studying enough, distracted with games and music…even friends.”
“But that’s not the case with you, is it, son?”
“I guess you have all the answers, mom.”
Momentarily taken aback at his tone, Lennie took a step towards him, her own face setting in anger. “What did you say to me? Since when do you speak to me that way?”
His shoulders fell in defeat. “I’m sorry, mom…I was wrong to do that. I just…just feel like I’m drowning lately…or the walls are closing in on me, and-”
“Huh? Mom? Why what?”
“Why do you feel that way?”
“Gee, I don’t know mom. Growing pains, teen angst…Malcolm in the Middle was canceled…pick one.” His defiant tone was back.
She let the disrespect go…this time.
“C’mon, mom! You can’t-”
“You haven’t been yourself since that night. I knew you were having a hard time right after it happened, but I thought you got better after I filed for divorce. I was wrong. And I bear the brunt of the blame for this. I let you down, sweetie.”
Side stepping his mother and heading for the car, Duncan waved his hands. “Mom, stop. You’re not to blame. No one is to blame. There is nothing wrong. I screwed up, Mom…simple as that.” He reached for the door handle. “And where are we going in the middle of the day, mom?”
Swallowing her anger, Lennie slowly approached the SUV. “I made an appointment for you to…talk with someone.”
Confused only for a few seconds, Duncan suddenly realized what his mother meant. “Talk to someone? You mean like a shrink? You’re taking me to see a shrink? I’m not crazy, mom.”
“No, baby, you’re not. But there is a problem?”
“Why? Why? Just because I had trouble in my classes and didn’t tell you? I’m not crazy, mom.”
“Duncan, you are not crazy…we both know that. But you yourself just said how you felt like you were drowning…that the walls were closing in on you. Your mind is overwhelmed with something, baby. We need to find out what.”
“It’s not up for discussion, Duncan.”
“I said no shrink! I’m not going!”
Lennie had had enough. “Boy, I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, but you’d better get your butt in that seat, now!”
He looked away, staring across the parking lot. When he faced her again, a lone tear slid down his cheek. “I’m sorry, mom…no.”
“Duncan Mitchell Porter…enough! In the car, now!”
Backing away from the car slowly, Duncan shook his head.” I’m sorry, mom. I’m so, so sorry.” Then Duncan Porter turned and ran towards the street. When he reached the corner, he turned right and disappeared from his mother’s sight.
Lennie just stood there…stunned.
Part VII Part IV
©Felicia Denise, 2016, 2017