I feel like we’ve been walking for hours. When in reality, it’s been five minutes. I’m starting to feel worked up and impatient. Jen hasn’t spoken since we’ve entered the woods. It’s clear by her reaction, Betty’s anger is not normal. But Betty has every right to be upset, and like a mother should, she’s not going to fight with the father of her children in front of them. I get it. My mom did the same thing. She’d wait until I was in bed, and her and my dad would talk. Well….argue. Unbeknownst to Mom, I was hardly ever asleep.
Walking along the small dirt trail, the trees provide enough shade to make you feel a chill in the air. The area is beautiful. You can see the plant life preparing for the change of season as some of the leaves slowly start turning colors of fall. The ground is covered in purple wildflowers, and in some areas, the growth is so thick they’re the only thing growing.
“Ryann and Grandma threw wildflower seeds down here,” Jen randomly says as we continue forward. “Dad didn’t want them growing on the property, but Grandma overruled him. Ryann was close to our grandma. They had this special unbreakable bond. Grandma never wanted Ryann to stay in this small town. She always believed she was destined for bigger and better things. And she was right. Actually, because of Grandma and Grandpa, Ryann stayed away from Jamie. But Grandma passed her freshman year, and Grandpa passed her sophomore year.”
And I know losing her grandparents devasted Ryann and Jamie swooped right in.
“Ryann is at the pond. That is where Mom came from.”
“The pond was her sacred place.” The words come out from a memory of a conversation that feels like a lifetime ago.
Jen nods her head slowly, “She never told Max about it, and neither did I. When Ryann would disappear for hours after a fight with our father and Max or Jamie couldn’t find her, I’d never tell them where she went. Even in the dead of winter. They’d follow her footprints only to have them disappear in the tree line.”
Ryann isn’t a ghost. There is no way her footprints magically disappeared. I tried covering my snow tracks when I ran into the woods as a child, but it’s nearly impossible to do when the snow is so deep.
Without warning, Jen starts laughing, “You should have seen their faces. They were so confused. Max physically dragged me outside once to show me her tracks just disappeared.” Looking over her shoulder, I can see the secret Jen kept for her sister that she’s now sharing with me. “She climbed the trees. I came back out after Jamie and Max left. Ry was still out, and I followed the snow-covered trail. Her footprints started back up about thirty yards in. You couldn’t see them from the opening, and they never ventured into the woods to find them.”
“Why did you keep her secret? At a time you hated her, why?”
Jen stops without warning and turns to face me, and I can see regret in her eyes, “Because she’s my sister. The pond is her spot. It will always be her spot. And there was no way I wasn’t going to take away someplace she felt safe. A place she escaped to to get away from Jamie.” Jen turns around and continues to walk down the trail.
“Have you talked to Max since New York?” I find myself asking. I know he’s sitting in a jail cell waiting for his initial hearing and to determine bond. I’m praying he isn’t granted bond, or if he is, he and his family are unable to afford it.
The air between us becomes a frigid, icy cold as Jen’s shoulders tense up. “Only when I had to.”
I get this is a tender subject with her, but I also need to know. “And when do you have to?” I should be a little more sensitive, but I also don’t really care about dancing around the bush with this subject.
“When I had him signed the divorced papers. He refused to sign them in New York. I lawyered up and practically gave him no option. Told him to either sign them and I’d take nothing, or we could go to court, and I would take everything from him. Including his land. Which is about to be auctioned off anyways. Wanna by some land?”
What a way to rub salt in a wound even further, and I’m half-tempted, but I also don’t want any fucking connection to this hick town. On second thought, maybe I should buy the land, tear it up and build a facility for addicts, sexual assault victims, and domestic violence victims. It would be one way to turn this town around.
Coming up to a small clearing, there is a wooden plank-style pathway with tall grass and overgrowth around it. Jen comes to a stop at the entrance and steps off to the side, “She’s on the dock.” Trying to steal a peek through the growth, I only see the faded grey wooden planks. “I promise, she’s sitting on the edge of the dock.”
Looking around, I feel like I’ve stepped in on one of Ryann’s nightmares. I can see how this place could be her sanctuary and yet a nightmare all at the same time. In the proper lighting, you very much get a horror vibe. Taking my first step onto the pathway, the dock rocks slightly from my weight. Tallgrass spilling over onto the path brush against my arms as I step onto the dock. And like Jen said, Ryann is sitting on the edge of the dock, and Travis is sitting beside her.
Feeling the swaying of the dock, Travis turns his head and immediately gets to his feet, allowing me to take his place. Taking a seat next to Ryann, she instantly melts into me. Her hand wrapped around her necklace as she holds tightly onto Sloane.
Placing a kiss to the side of Ryann’s head, I wrap my arm around her as we stare at the calm murky water in front of us. The banks of the pond are lined with tall grass, and purple and blue wildflowers crowd around the base of the grass. The sight makes you feel like you’re looking at a painting. And with the small ripples of the water, you think you’ve traveled to some far-off place.
“You were right,” Ryann suddenly says. “We should have just stayed in Tennessee.”
But I wasn’t right. I was far from right. Ryann reclaimed the last little hold her father had on her life today. She cut that damn chord. And I know her heart is aching because mine is too, but Ryann needed to do this. We needed to do this.
“And if I told you I was wrong?” Ryann pulls out of my hold slightly, her head cocked to the side as she studies me for a second. “You were right, Ryann. This was something you needed to do. You reclaimed a piece of your life back. Your dad no longer has any type of hold over you.” A small tight smile graces her face. Cupping her cheek with my hand, my fingers brush over the softness of Ryann’s skin as she leans into my touch. “I’m so proud of you. For taking a stand and standing up for yourself.”
“I did it for us. For our family.” She whispers.
“And you. You did it for you too. Babydoll, today may be painful, but I’m glad I’m here with you. You know I’ll always support you in your endeavors.”
“And I you,” She whispers, placing a kiss against my lips.
I can feel the ache in our hearts melting away, and as the kiss deepens, a warm breeze surrounds us. Almost like it’s shielding us from the world and protecting us. Pulling away, Ryann rests her forehead against mine, and my fingers brush against her cheek before tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Are you okay?” I finally ask.
“Are you okay?” She asks back. “I know my dad’s words hurt you too.”
Taking a deep breath in, I focus my sights on the water in front of us and count the small ripples created by insects. “Is that what your dad always does during a fight? Go for the lowest possible blow imaginable?” Leaning into me, she doesn’t answer right away. Instead, she laces her fingers with mine, my eyes catching the reflection of the diamond resting on her beautiful finger. “Ya, his words hurt. I knew your dad liked to fight dirty, but I never imagined…..”
“I know,” Ryann utters, cutting me off. “Do you think I did the right thing?”
It doesn’t matter what I think, but what she thinks. I’ve told her from the beginning that she needed to stop trying to please her family. To cut the chord, and maybe one day they’ll realize their mistake. It worked with Jen. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for Raymond.
“I really thought he was coming around,” Ryann continues before I can answer. “Coming out to New York. Trying to get on a plane. But it was all an act. A show to keep a hold on some aspect of my life. Do you have any idea…..argh!” She screams out, her voice echoing across the water and through the trees and back to us. “I was played. By my own father. I was fucking played.”
“I’m actually not sure who is worst. Chad or Raymond.” I can see Ryann out of my peripheral leaning forward slightly, her hair falling over her shoulder. “Have I told you the time I caught Dad forging checks?” Ryann shakes her head. “Any money I made, Mom had a private bank account set up for me that the checks got deposited into. She had complete control because she didn’t trust my dad or Pearl.”
Mom wanted to make sure the money I made stayed mine. Dad swore he’d set up the account himself, but I think Mom had an inkling something was amiss because she was somehow able to have all checks and points of pay directed to her. I’m not sure if Dad and Pearl ever figured out how Mom was able to make that happen. I’m not even a hundred percent sure, but she did, and it pissed them the fuck off.
“I ditched school one day. My parents weren’t supposed to be home. Mom was out with friends and my dad….well, I have no clue what the hell he was supposed to be doing, but he wasn’t supposed to be home. But he was. I found him in the kitchen with Mom’s checkbook.” I stood in the kitchen entryway and watched him. He had the checkbook to my account, and I remembered thinking there was no way he could touch my money because he needed Mom’s signature too. But I stood there watching him practice forging her signature on a scrap piece of paper. Over and over again. “He was trying to take money from the account she set aside from me. I watched him attempt to forge her signature until I finally called him out.”
“What did he say?”
Shrugging a shoulder, “That he grabbed the wrong checkbook and that I shouldn’t mention this to Mom.”
I locked myself in my room until Mom was home and Dad left for a meeting. I wasn’t going to keep it a secret. Or at least, that was the plan. But when I walked downstairs, I overheard Mom crying. She was on the phone sobbing and talking with her parents. Apparently, that day she wasn’t meeting with her friends but meeting with her attorney. She was building a case to get full custody of me. She was afraid once she filed for divorce, she’d lose me to my father. That he’d somehow manipulate the system into believing him, and she’d be deemed the bad guy. Or her worst fears, he’d manipulate me. She was pleading with my grandfather, asking him for advice. Wanting to come out to Tennessee until she could serve my dad the divorce papers.
I don’t know what my grandpa told my mom, but we did end up going out to Tennessee once school let out, but we also flew back home to California right before the school year started. My mom didn’t serve my dad the divorce papers that year. She wouldn’t demand a divorce for another three years. And by that time, my dad had lost all sense of reasoning and tried to kill us all.
Shaking my head, “No, but I wished I would have. I overheard her on the phone that evening. Talking with my grandpa about divorcing my dad. I think if I had told her what happened that day, she wouldn’t have waited the three years to go through with the divorce, and she’d still be alive.”
If I had been braver for just a nanosecond, everything would have been different.
“My dad knew how to handle and control me too. He used it to his adventure because he knew the last thing I wanted was to upset Mom. So, he used that to his advantage. Always telling me if I told her, I’d break her heart, make her cry, or my biggest fear, make her leave.” Dad and Pearl made sure to engrain in my little naïve head that Mom could easily leave me behind if she divorced Dad. If only I knew then what I know now.
“Thomas, it’s not your fault.”
There is about an eighty percent of me that knows that. But sometimes, that twenty percent is loud enough to drown out every reasoning.
“I know. But you did the one thing I could never do.” Ryann’s wide hazel eyes turn inquisitive. “You had the courage I didn’t.”
Swinging her legs over my lap, Ryann straddles me and really places her trust in me to not let her fall into the murky water below. Holding onto her tightly, she rests her forehead to mine, “Thomas, you gave me the courage I didn’t have. Without you, I’m not who I am today.”
Her words fill my soul to the fucking core, and I can’t help but only fall more in love with this astounding, strong, magnificent woman. And I’m one lucky man.