On Saturday the next day, Matt stopped by Anna’s house. He didn’t have any Saturday classes, so she had invited him for lunch after hearing his good news about salvation the day before.
He found her at the kitchen table with paper, scissors, and glue spread out in front of her.
“What ’cha workin on?” he asked her casually.
“My scrapbook,” she told him. “My aunt saved newspapers from both New Orleans and Mobile after the train wreck. I was trying to cut them out and paste them in, but it’s not easy with this cast still on my arm. I may end up being left handed before this is all over. I’m ready to get this thing off.”
“How much longer?” Matt asked her.
“The doctor said to give the leg and arm both another week. He put a walking heel on the leg cast, so I’ve been managing to hobble around the house.”
“Yes, it is good to get around on my own without the wheel chair. But getting these casts off can’t come any too soon.”
She closed the scrapbook and pushed it to the side.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt you,” he told her.
“I’ll work on it later. Let me get you some lunch. You must be hungry.”
“I’ll do it,” Matt insisted.
“No, I need a reason to get some circulation going again,” Anna told him, with joy at starting to feel like she was regaining a little independence. “We’ve got some leftover ham. How does a ham sandwich on toast sound, with lettuce and tomatoes?”
“Sounds great,” he said absently, opening the scrapbook a little to peak inside. “Do you mind if I look?” he asked her.
“Go ahead, Matt. All the articles and pictures are public information. I’ve got nothing in there to hide, especially from you.” She went back to the lunch preparations.
Matt pulled the scrapbook closer and started thumbing through it. In the front were pictures of Anna as a child with two adults – her parents, he assumed. Then he found newspaper articles and pictures from the airplane crashing into her house when she was a child.
“You looked different as a child,” he said.
“Yeah, my hair was blonde when I was little, and I was heavier,” she told him absently. “After the plane crash I lost a lot of weight. My hair got darker a few years after that.”
As he turned one more page, he saw the picture that Jackson must have been talking about on the train – of Anna standing in front of her wrecked house, holding her hand up, and looking at someone who wasn’t there. The picture was from the cover of a weekly news magazine. The girl in the picture was looking sideways. It was an amazingly clear picture of her. As Jackson told him, it even showed the burn marks on her arm.
Matt instantly recognized the picture. It can’t be, he told himself. Goose pimples ran up and down his back.
Hardly able to speak, he said, “Jackson told me about this picture of you as a little girl on the cover of the magazine, but at the time I didn’t know he meant this picture exactly. He said it was so clear that it even showed the burn marks on your arm.”
She looked over, “Yeah, that’s the picture that caused all the commotion. My aunt just about became a hermit after that came out. I’m surprised she even saved it for me.”
“Anna, I’m training to be a doctor. Those weren’t burn marks on your arm, were they?” He knew from his medical training that they looked like needle marks.
She came over and looked closer at the picture. She looked at him and said, “No, they weren’t. Why does that matter?”
He looked at the picture again, then back at her. “This really is your picture, isn’t it? You don’t look like that any more. I would never have recognized you from it.”
“Thank you. However, I must admit that it really was me. You can’t possibly know how many times I prayed that it wasn’t me – that I imagined the whole nightmare – that my parents were still alive. I remember the photographer taking the picture. Why do you care so much about the picture, Matt? That was years ago.”
“Because all this time I’ve known you, Anna – all this time you were dating Jackson – I never knew I was in the presence of the ‘Chosen Princess.’ You never mentioned it, and I never put all the pieces of the puzzle together until just now. I’m totally blown away by this picture. Wow!” He was still stunned at the coincidence. “What are the odds?”
Anna looked at Matt. She was speechless – totally shocked. I never told anyone that Samuel called me that. I know for sure I never told Matt because he didn’t even believe Samuel took care of me. What did he see in the picture that made him call me that? she wondered.
“Why did you call me the chosen princess?” she asked him, looking at the picture for clues.
She must have sounded upset to him, because he answered, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you by calling you the chosen princess.”
“I’m not offended, I just don’t understand why people keep calling me that, and what does it have to do with this picture?”
“Because you are the chosen princess. As far as I’m concerned you always have been,” he told her, “and this picture has everything to do with it. I don’t know how to explain it, but I can prove it.”
“Prove it? How can you prove it?” she asked him curiously.
He thought for a minute. “Are you up for a road trip? Today’s Saturday, so my schedule is free. What about yours?” he asked.
“Sure, where to?” she answered, curious about this sudden mysterious turn of events.
“We’ll be gone for a couple of hours. We should probably eat lunch first.”
“OK, let me tell my aunt.”
“I’ll tell her,” Matt volunteered. He went into her living room. She heard him say, “Mrs. Thibodeaux, Anna and I are going to my parent’s house, if that’s all right with you. We’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
“No need to hurry,” Anna’s aunt told him. Anna felt her ears turning red when she imagined the smile on her aunt’s face.
They ate their sandwiches, then got into Matt’s car. He drove them onto Interstate 10, heading west toward Baton Rouge. Anna assumed that Matt’s parents must live toward the west side of New Orleans. But he kept going out of New Orleans, following the interstate highway across the edge of Lake Pontchartrain.
“I thought you were from New Orleans, Matt. Where do your parents live?”
“Baton Rouge, baby! Just because you always saw me in New Orleans doesn’t mean I’m from there. I’m in school, remember?”
“I just assumed that since you and Jackson were such good friends that you were also from New Orleans like us, that’s all.”
“I grew up on the New Orleans side of Baton Rouge, but definitely in Baton Rouge,” he explained.
They drove the seventy miles west from New Orleans to Highland Estates, a gated community just inside the east side of Baton Rouge, where Matt’s parents lived. The guard let them into the subdivision. Anna was very impressed with the subdivision. The lawns were huge and all exquisitely manicured. The houses were grand, and looked extremely expensive. She was especially impressed with Matt’s house when they drove into the curved driveway in front of it.
The house was built in a southern plantation style, with a large covered porch and six two-story massive white columns along the front porch. Inside the front door was a wide curved staircase, and a huge hallway leading through the house. She could see a sitting room toward the back, and maybe a swimming pool outside the glass doors in the back yard. Matt was totally oblivious to the grandeur, but Anna was almost speechless.
“I had no idea, Matt,” she explained.
“No idea about what?” he wondered innocently.
“This house – it’s like something out of a movie.”
He carelessly laughed, “More like something out of a magazine. It’s been featured several times in the local advertisement journal. I was always embarrassed when the kids at school teased me about it. I used to tell my mom that the house seemed like it was more important than we are.”
“Matthew, sweetheart, is that you?” his mother called from the back sitting room.
“Yes Mother. I’m here with a friend.” They walked through the hall to the sitting room at the back of the house. He made the introductions. “Mother, this is Anna Thibodeaux. She’s the one I told you about who was hurt in the train wreck last month in Mobile. Anna, this is my mother.”
“I was so sorry to hear of your friend Jackson,” Matt’s mother told her tenderly. “I hope you’re doing better now.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Waters. Yes ma’am, I’m feeling better every day.” Anna held out her left hand for a handshake, since her right arm was still in a cast.
“This is the south, girl, give me a hug,” the older lady told her. “Any friend of Matthew’s is always welcome here. Come right in and make yourself at home. Are you hungry, dears? I’ll have Cook make some snacks.”
“No thanks, Mother. Maybe later,” Matt told her. “I wanted her to meet Dad, is he home?”
“Now son, you should know that your father is out golfing on a beautiful Saturday like today.”
“That’s right. I forgot. Rats. Well, I want to show Anna something. We’ll catch up with you later.”
“That’s fine, dear,” his mother answered. “I’m just writing some letters. Take your time.”
Matt took Anna into his dad’s study on the side of the big hallway. They went inside the room, and Matt started to shut the door.
“Why shut the door, Matt? Is it a secret?” she asked. It felt a little strange being in this person’s office that she had never met.
Instead of answering, Matt pointed to the wall which the door had covered. Behind the door, hanging on the wall, was that same magazine cover picture of Anna that was in her scrapbook. It was framed in an elaborate frame, and matted professionally.
At first Anna stared. Then she asked, “Why do you have my picture hanging in your parent’s house? That’s kind of creepy, don’t you think?”
“This picture has been here for years. Until this morning I didn’t know it was you,” Matt answered. “Besides, I don’t have it here, my dad does. This is his home office.”
“That’s a little weird, don’t you think, Matt?”
“Weird – maybe, but there’s your proof. Look at the words written along the bottom.”
She looked closely at the framed magazine cover. Written along the bottom of the mat in pencil she saw the words, “The Chosen Princess - P. Brand.”
“Who wrote that?” she asked, with chills running down her spine.
“According to my dad, a Dr. Paul Brand gave him the picture, I think back around 1986, before the man retired. Anna, have you ever been to Carville, Louisiana?”
She continued to look at the picture, and the haunting words across the bottom. “Yeah, my grandpa lived there for a long time before he died. I remember meeting a Doctor Paul, an old man. I really liked him. He was special. Does he have something to do with the picture?”
“Again, according to my dad,” Matt explained, “my dad worked as a surgeon with Dr. Brand at the Leprosy Clinic in Carville for several years. The old doctor retired seven years ago, in 1986, and moved to Washington State. The clinic was moved to the Ocshner Clinic in Baton Rouge after that. My dad works at Ocshner now.”
Anna shivered, as the memories came flooding back. “I didn’t like going there. They hurt me. Doctor Paul always told me to be glad it hurt – but I didn’t like it.”
Matt continued talking, without acknowledging Anna’s comment, “I remember asking my dad about this picture one time. It seems like he told me that through all the changes and moves and retirements, they totally lost contact with the little girl in the picture and her family. He said he’s been hoping to track down the ‘chosen princess’ for years, but has never heard from her again. Now, here you are, the Chosen Princess in his own office, and he’s not even home to meet you.”
Anna started for the door as fast as she could hobble. “Get me out of here, Matt. You should have told me what was going on before bringing me here. That’s why my aunt and uncle insisted that my name be changed when they adopted me. Those people hurt me at the clinic, and I never wanted to go there again after my grandpa died. Soon after he died my parents were killed in the plane crash. My aunt promised me that she would cut off all contact with the clinic. She’s kept her promise all these years. Then today, when I’m least expecting it, you go and try to throw me right back into the lion’s den.”
“I’m sorry Anna. I didn’t know it would bring back painful memories.”
“You should have told me,” she shot back at him. She was furious that he would go and do a thing like this without telling her what was going on.
“I said I’m sorry,” he pleaded.
“Sorry’s not good enough. Get me home.” She was almost out the front door.
“Mother, we’ll see you later,” he called into the house as he shut the door.
Anna was standing outside the locked car door, trying to open it. Once inside and buckled into the passenger seat, she stared out the window all the way back to New Orleans. At first Matt tried to make conversation with her, but when he got no response from her he eventually gave up and turned the radio on.
Anna was so mad and so hurt that she couldn’t talk to him. What right did Matt have in dredging up the past like that? she kept wondering to herself. She just couldn’t get it out of her mind, but she also refused to ask.
When they arrived at her house, Matt opened her car door for her. She hobbled to the house, and went inside without even saying goodbye.
“I’ll call you tomorrow. I’m sorry Anna,” he called.
Anna didn’t answer him.
“What happened?” her aunt asked.
Again Anna didn’t answer. All she could do was get to her room. Once inside, she lay on her bed, and the tears began pouring out. She heard Matt’s car drive away. She cried until she fell asleep, clutching her stuffed dog pillow with her good arm. Later she heard the bedroom door open and her aunt look in to check on her. Anna kept her eyes closed, so her aunt wisely closed the door again without talking.