Leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees, Lennie stared across the empty living room. The day Duncan ran from her had been one of her most painful. He had always been a high-spirited child. More prone to wander, break a rule, or lead his younger brothers astray. However, he’d never done anything that warranted more than a time-out. Duncan had never been cruel to anyone or deliberately put anyone in harm’s way. Had someone told Lennie the argument in the high school parking lot with her son would take place, she would have thought them crazy.
But it did happen.
Insistent on not entering counseling, Duncan had run from Lennie. The anger building inside her at his disrespectful tone dissipated immediately at her last glimpse of his eyes.
The memory of it all in her son’s face made Lennie even more determined to get him to a therapist. She would not allow this to scar his life… not if she could help. Ranard had received no help for the verbally abusive childhood he had because of his father. Lennie knew his failure as a husband and father were directly related to his relationship with his father.
Duncan deserved a better life.
The memory played on rewind in Lennie’s mind.
Sitting in her Chevy Tahoe, still taking glances in the direction Duncan had gone. She wanted him to come back… but knew he wouldn’t. The despair Lennie knew he felt would now be enhanced by the shame of his behavior with her.
Consumed with the situation with her eldest son, Lenore Porter drove home. Pulling her vehicle into the garage, she exited and went through the garage’s rear entrance to her back door… and found Duncan sitting in the old swing near the Sugar Maple tree.
He shook his head slowly without meeting her gaze.
“I’m sorry, mom.”
“I’m glad you’re safe, sweetheart.”
“I shouldn’t have run away like that.”
“You were feeling overwhelmed. Looks like you still are.”
“I’m not crazy, mama… I’m not.”
Lennie’s chest tightened. He had not called her that since second grade. Sitting her bag at the bag door, Lennie walked over and took the swing next to Duncan.
They both silently rocked for a few minutes.
“Most people who go to counseling aren’t mentally ill, Dunc. Life just has a way of dumping too much on us at once,” she touched his hand, “the drowning feeling you mentioned? That’s where it comes from. It happens to us all at some point during our lives.”
“Have you ever felt like you were drowning, mom?”
“Not drowning so much as helpless.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, don’t take this as clinical or anything, but I knew the problem, and I knew the cause. I just couldn’t fix it.”
“Dad.” It was a statement, not a question.
Lennie’s smile was bittersweet. “Yes.”
“He hasn’t been very nice to you, mom.” Taking a deep breath, Duncan continued. “But you never gave up. You’ve always been… mom.”
“Darlin, the obstacle doesn’t exist that could separate me from my Porter Patrol. Good days or bad, you and your brothers always got the best of me, and you always will. I couldn’t give you the stereotyped version of a good family life, but I tried to make sure you have a good life. I don’t think we’ve done too badly. This is a bump in the road, and-”
“Can you make me another appointment with the shrink?”
Duncan laughed at the smirk on her face.
“Okay, okay. Counselor, therapist… whatever. I still don’t want to go, but I’ve let you down enough.” He stared at his feet.
Lennie didn’t speak again until he looked at her.
“You have never let me down. You’re sixteen years old and going through a bad time because of the actions of adults. You haven’t done anything wrong. But this is something you have to want. You cannot do it for me, baby. You don’t have to want to go to counseling… you have to want to get better and be your old self again.”
“So, you’ll make the appointment?”
“We haven’t missed today’s appointment yet.”
“I was picking you up from school early… to give us time to talk before the appointment.”
Lennie looked at her watch.
“We’ll just make it. Run in and wash up and change your shirt. I’ll wait right here.”
Nodding, the teen stood and headed for the back door, but turned, walked back and kissed his mother’s forehead. Still silent, Duncan entered the house.
The smile on Lenore’s face faded as Duncan walked away. Her son was angry… and afraid.
The past had scarred them all.
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“How long has he known?”
“July?” Thoughts and images raced through Olivia’s mind. She’d spent time with Willis on five or six occasions in the last four months. And never suspected a thing.
“No one knows. Two weeks… two hours. Any answer would be a guess.”
“That’s unacceptable. His condition must tell them something. Who is this doctor? Maybe we should get a-”
“Dad signed a DNR.”
Ian became a blur to Olivia. Dizziness and nausea gripped her, Heat enveloped her body as sudden fatigue caught hold and dragged her toward the floor.
Ian was the only reason Olivia didn’t fall. He held on and propped her against the wall.
Ian spoke to her but Olivia heard no words. Her jumbled thoughts were of Willis Benson, the man in the brown suit she met as a ten-year-old. The only constant in her life since that fateful day when everything changed.
Ben Chandler planned well for his daughter’s future. But it was Willis Benson who fought for Olivia… and her mother. He risked his own job future and status in the firm to carry out Ben’s wishes.
When Olivia turned eighteen and took partial control of her inheritance, Willis was at her side. He answered Olivia’s questions and gave mild guidance, but Willis insisted she make her own decisions.
Years later when Olivia refused to visit her mother ever again, Willis accepted it and continued to stand by her.
Now Olivia needed to accept the fact if… no, when Willis suffered another cardiac episode or seizure, no life-saving measures would be taken.
He would die… and leave her.
With a sense of urgency, Olivia attempted to break Ian’s hold on her.
“I have to see him, Ian! Please let me see him! Let me… say goodbye.”
With a simple nod, Ian took Olivia by the hand and returned to his father’s room.
Malcolm Benson had his chair pulled close to the bed as he clasped one of Willis’ big hands between his own. Not as tall as Ian or their father, Malcolm had more brawn. He rose from his seat and pulled Olivia into a one-arm hug while still holding his father’s hand.
“Hey, pretty lady. He’s been asking for you.”
“I’m sorry. I was in court… it ran long… delays…-”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re here now.”
Olivia smiled and stepped past Malcolm to greet her lifelong protector and surrogate father and was shocked by Willis’ appearance.
She and Willis spoke at least once every week by phone, and several times by text, but six weeks had passed since their last face-face meeting. It was hard for Olivia to reconcile the lively, robust Willis Benson from late summer with the pale, gaunt figure before her. He was twenty-five pounds lighter… at least. Drawn skin over his neck and jawline gave the older attorney a skeletal look.
Olivia’s jaws ached to hold onto the smile which masked her breaking heart. However, when she looked into the dying man’s eyes, her soul calmed. Life was leaving his body, but the piercing blue eyes of Willis Benson reflected all the wisdom and wit Olivia admired and loved for so many years.
She stopped him with a gentle touch to his lips.
“Don’t try to speak, Willie-B. I just want to be here with you.”
He placed his hand over hers and squeezed.
“When have I ever passed up a chance to talk? You do know I’m an attorney, right?”
Olivia laughed even as her tears flowed down her face.
“Why, Willie-B? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“For the same reason I didn’t tell the boys. You all would have put your lives on hold, waiting on me hand and foot, trying to make my last days good ones. My dear, I haven’t had a good day since I lost my Sarah.”
He winced, new pain breaking through, defying the powerful IV drug cocktail started only moments before.
“It’s my time, Livvie. But I go knowing you and the boys will be okay. I’m proud of the men my sons have become. And I’m proud of you… just as proud as your father would be.”
“But there had to be times when-”
Willis cut her off.
“Yes, honey. There were days I was sure I’d be dead before sundown. But with rest and medication, I went on. It wasn’t my time yet. But it is now.”
“Why didn’t you choose to fight it? The Mayo Clinic is a short car ride away, or we could have gone anyplace in the world to help you fight for your life.”
Willis closed his eyes but continued to speak.
“It was not a rash decision, my dear. I gave the matter serious thought.”
He opened his eyes and regarded Olivia warmly.
“I’m… not a young man. My cancer is one of… the most aggressive. In the end, my dear, I may have gotten what? An extra two? Three years? And the treatments would have taken their toll making me an invalid needing constant care.”
Olivia clutched the dying man’s frail hand.
“Don’t be afraid, Livvie. I’m not. It hasn’t been easy… these last few months, but for me, it was the best decision. To go on my own terms… not surrendering. Pain has been the worst part of this journey. But, I knew that’s how it would end for me. Please… try not to judge me too harshly.”
Olivia shook her head, almost in a frantic state. “No, Willie-B. I would never do that. You’re the last person on the planet I would judge.”
She tried to calm herself. Reaching out, she caressed his sunken cheek, his skin cool to the touch. “Just rest now. Save your strength. We can talk more in a little while.”
With effort, Willis raised his hand and covered hers.
“This is our time to talk, Livvie. This… is what my strength is for.”
Willis went on before Olivia could speak.
“You must make a decision about… your mother, Livvie.”
When I began writing Free, a Novella in early spring of 2016, it was supposed to be a 3-4 installment short story with Lenore Porter remembering the breakdown of her marriage as she finalizes the sale of her home.
Honestly, it was writing practice.
I was working on my debut novel, In the Best Interest of the Child and kept stalling out and hitting walls. So, Free was supposed to be a little pseudo-flash fiction to keep me writing.
I posted the second installment and had already began the ending of Lenore’s story, when on April 8, 2016, my mister went into renal failure. His kidneys could not be saved and everything changed from that day forward… the addition of hemodialysis, his employment status, his diet, his daily medication regimen… and my stress level.
As I sat in hospital rooms, dialysis units, and doctor’s offices over the next few weeks, Lenore Porter’s story changed too. Best Interest was still my focus, but Lenore would not be ignored.
I continued to post installments of varying lengths on my author page, but the once-a-week postings died a quick death. I moved the release date of Best Interest twice and attempted to push Lenore’s story to the back burner.
The mister’s fistula implant was a problem from the beginning, making dialysis difficult. By the time we’d made all the rounds for MRIs, ultrasounds and vascular procedures and found some semblance of normalcy, it was Halloween. Best Interest was published and I was exhausted. And… Lennie Porter was standing in the corner giving me the duckface.
I didn’t have much of a current word count for Free, but what I did have was sixty-one pages of notes!
As I organized and typed up the notes, the story continued to change.
It was clear by the time I had a working MS, oldest son Duncan Porter would need counseling to get past his issues with his absent father to avoid lasting emotional trauma.
As a character-driven writer, I generally sketch out characters before adding them to any story.
That wasn’t necessary this time.
While Free, a Novella is a work of fiction, the characters of psychologist James Richie and his wife/receptionist, Alice, are not fictional characters.
James ‘Pas’ Richie was my mentor, father-confessor, co-conspirator in epic pranks, and at one time, my boss. He and Alice were like family and can be seen as often in my family photo albums as my mother.
In Free, Pas, is a retired minister with a successful practice in clinical psychology specializing in treating men and boys.
In real life, Pas was a minister for the West Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church. However, he didn’t receive the call to the ministry until well after his fiftieth birthday and put aside his career and degree in chemistry to enter the seminary.
It wasn’t long after Pas received his appointment to a Battle Creek church the community considered him “the city’s pastor.” (This was about the same time I gave him the nickname ‘Pas.’)
You didn’t have to attend his church… or any church… for Pas to lend a helping hand. Many who regularly attended other churches would find their way to his office when needing to talk.
And he would listen.
I don’t know if Pas solved any of their problems.
But I do know they left with a smile and a, “Thank you, pastor.”
He’d always respond with a hug and his trademark, “Peace & Blessings!”
Like Lenore Porter’s parents, Burt and Linda Kelimore, Pas and Alice were together over fifty years.
And the banter was epic!
In addition to his pastoral duties, Pas was the executive director of a local community outreach ministry, and Alice was a regular volunteer.
The days when Alice came in were the best days!
Staff would all suddenly find reasons to be near Pas’ office for another episode of what I dubbed “The Pas and Alice Show!”
Their banter was amazing, rocket fast… and hilarious.
Of course, Alice always won, but Pas wasn’t about let her have the last word and would always end with something like, “You’re adorable! I’m taking you to lunch!”
Over the years, through trials and tribulations in both our families, the Richie banter was an anchor for us all—as long as we could still laugh, everything would be okay–and their marriage was the model for couples newly married or married for decades.
After almost ten years, life broke up our small family circle, taking us in different directions, but the Richies and I stayed in regular—my children would say constant—contact.
Plans were put in motion for them to visit Arizona after Pas retired, which he did in January 2015. After a short search, Pas and Alice relocated to a small town in central Georgia which put them close to their three children and grandchildren.
Pas became ill while he and Alice were getting settled with what was first believed to be an upper respiratory infection.
The next year would see Pas hospitalized… and in a coma for several months.
But being the incredible man he was, James Richie came out of the coma, moved to a rehab center and learned to walk and talk again. He was discharged and went home to regain his driving privileges. He even went back to swimming three times a week.
Pas and Alice took a vacation to visit their children, and attended several social events, including one held by my family in Georgia.
I was encouraged. Alice said he still had a long road ahead of him to regain his strength, but they would get to Arizona.
Things in Arizona weren’t going as well.
Dialysis was still difficult for the mister and his blood pressure stayed at stroke levels despite several daily medications.
Alice called one evening and knew by my tone of voice something was wrong. We talked quite a while. I ended the call with a promise to call her in a couple of days after the mister saw a vascular surgeon.
Of course, she told Pas.
He called early the next morning.
Though the mass found at the base of his throat was benign, he still wasn’t strong enough for surgery to remove it. And it caused other problems. His voice was raw raspy and it hurt me to hear him speak. I tried to rush him off the phone. But Pas wasn’t having it.
He called to pray with me and the mister… and he did.
It was the last time I talked to him. Ten days later, he was gone… June 14, 2016.
Loss is a part of life and we all experience it. I’d already lost my father and a brother, but when Alice called me with the news, something inside me broke.
Suffice it to say, I managed to keep it together enough to take care of the mister, but I lost the fight with depression and spiraled for over three months.
This is why the release date for Best Interest was delayed… twice.
This is also why (and how) Pas and Alice became part of Free.
It took another four months to complete Free. Not because it’s long, in-depth or complicated. It was simply very emotional.
And it was cathartic.
I didn’t tell my family I’d added a bit of real life to Free until it was completed, and I still didn’t allow them to read it. I published it on May 30th and immediately began the formatting for print.
I received the proofs a week later. I signed a copy, stuck a note inside and sent it to Alice Richie.
I hadn’t told her what I’d done either. I was a little nervous with it being the first anniversary of Pas’ passing, but pushed it to the back of my mind and tried to concentrate on writing.
I was caught off guard a couple of weeks later when I answered my phone without looking at the caller ID… something I never do.
It was Alice…laughing… and crying, and screaming, “Girl, you nailed us!”
I laughed with her, and did some crying of my own when she said, “Richie would love it. And he would be so proud of you.”
It wasn’t an instant cure-all, but for the first time in a year, thinking of my dear friend didn’t cause me pain. Alice’s words were the best review I’ll ever receive for Free… and that’s enough for me.
So, if by chance you read Free, just remember James and Alice Richie aren’t fictional characters and their dialogue isn’t scripted or contrived. Their words were real, spoken in another time when life was a little easier and less burdensome.
Peace & Blessings.
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Lennie closed her eyes, hearing the voices of a thousand conversations over the years. But one conversation stood out, louder and angrier than all the rest. Remembering the pain the voice also held, Lennie felt the sting of tears.
It was the one conversation she knew could happen but hoped never would.
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