It was rainy and humid in Little Rock when Perion arrived. It didn’t surprise her. The area was as famous for its summer time humidity and sporadic thunderstorms as it was for its winter time ice storms. She’d been born and raised until the age of eighteen in northeastern Arkansas, about fifty miles away from Jonesboro. The weather there was similar, sometimes cooler, but pretty much the same.
She liberated her suitcases from the luggage conveyor and went to the car rental desk. After a few minutes of filling out this and that form, Perion took the keys and went to find the car. When she climbed inside the car and got behind the wheel, she felt a strange apprehensive feeling in the pit of her stomach. At first she thought it had something to do with being pregnant, but soon realized what it was. The last time she’d been in her home state was during her hospital stay from the accident. She’d been recovering from a slashed up face, and the naughty, naughty thing, the thing she sometimes refused to think about: the miscarriage. It had all made her a junkie. But she knew she mustn’t think of those things, she had to hit the road, chase the ghosts away.
She started the engine after the spell passed and pulled out of the airport’s rental car lot. Perion wanted to drive to Cyprus straight through, but it was over a hundred miles away and it’d be dark by the time she arrived. She decided to drive about half the distance, stop at a hotel, and then finish up the trip early in the morning to be there by daylight. After Cyprus, she’d have to drive another hundred miles or so to get to her hometown.
As Perion made the trip, she found some of the landscape familiar. She avoided the main interstate and took the highways to avoid traffic problems. For miles, both sides of the highway were lined with pine trees and/or railroad tracks. She was definitely in Arkansas; the bland scenery belonged to no other state.
She stopped at a motor court hotel at about what she estimated to be the halfway point. No one recognized her and she was grateful. She took the keys to her room and left the manager’s office. Once inside the room, she opened one of her mammoth suitcases and found something to sleep in. As she dug around in the suitcase’s separate compartment where she’d packed her toothpaste and a travel toothbrush, her hands fell upon a Polaroid photograph. She had no idea who would be in it, the suitcases hadn’t been used much. She pulled the photograph out of the compartment and held it up to the light.
The photograph contained the happy, smiling faces of Lein Blake and Perion Thorn, taken by a child peddling photos for spare change in Greece a million years ago. The little thief had originally asked for an amount equivalent to five American dollars, but when the photo had developed, he had wanted ten more. Lein had paid it, what the hell; they’d been on vacation and were recent newlyweds. [Lein had said, We’ll look at this and laugh when we remember how that little guy bilked us out of fifteen bucks.] They hadn’t looked at it since, nor were they laughing any more.
She looked at the photo for a long time. Where had that carefree couple gone? Where had their hopes and dreams for the future drifted? Why had they ended up exactly how she envisioned they would not? She didn’t have any answers, and the photo made her feel quite ill. It had been taken when the accident, the suicide attempt, and the cocaine addiction were still four years and six months away. If we had known then what we know now, we could’ve been better prepared for it, she thought sadly. She ripped the photograph in half and threw the pieces in the waste can. She didn’t want to look at it ever again. She gave up the search for her toothbrush and fell into bed fully dressed and exhausted.
Perion hit the road again just before dawn. She couldn’t sleep any longer anyway. She had been dreaming about the accident again. If she were awake and driving, she would dream no more. When she saw a sign some hours later proclaiming that Cyprus was only twenty-five miles away, her apprehension increased. She fought the feelings back as hard as she could and drove on. Soon, a sign appeared proclaiming:
YOU ARE ENTERING CYPRUS, ARKANSAS POPULATION 2,346 AND GROWING
EVERY DAY COME JOIN US THIS SUMMER FOR THE CELEBRATION OF OUR
200TH ELK DERBY
She had no idea at all what the hell an Elk Derby was, but it really didn’t matter. All that did matter was that she had arrived in town.
She had to drive about five or six more miles before she would arrive at the scene of that long ago accident. Before she could drive any further, she stopped at a small convenience store to get something to settle her stomach. Either morning sickness or nervous tension raged at her fiercely. She sat behind the wheel of her rental car and sipped a Coke slowly, thoughtfully. Her stomach was tied in knots. Soon, she’d arrive at the exact place where her life had been turned upside down. She didn’t know if she was prepared to deal with it, but she knew she had to try. She hadn’t made the trip to sit in a parking lot sipping soda. She had made it to rectify her life mistakes and perhaps, start over. If it took going back to Ellington to do it, so be it. She definitely couldn’t raise a child in her present state of mind. When her stomach told her it would accept the soda on a trial basis, she threw the soda can away and started up the car.
Perion drove the distance outside of town and was assaulted at once by a strong flood of tears as she laid her eyes on the bridge her band’s coach had hit. The little bridge had been repaired already, but Perion’s eyes could only see the damage from the past. She stopped the car and pulled over. When she killed the engine, she slowly got out of the car and walked over to the bridge. The ravine was still there, but of course the wreckage had been removed. We can’t have the tourists seeing that, now, can we, she thought meanly. The tourists didn’t need to see what had transpired in that ravine, she had seen it, had been there, and still couldn’t handle it.
Her eyes and mind played tricks on her. At one point in time, she’d see what an area really looked like, then at another, she’d see what it had looked like when the accident had occurred. She saw the coach lying on its side like a slaughtered dinosaur. There had been blood and broken glass everywhere. Perion recalled being pulled from the wreckage, battered and bruised, bleeding profusely from the miscarriage in progress. But no physical pain she’d endured could have shielded what she had seen while two paramedics strapped her to a gurney.
Underneath that hulking dinosaur body of the coach, she had seen an arm protruding, streaked with blood and gore. It had lain lifelessly; seemingly separate from the body it had once belonged. Perion had tried over the months to convince herself it could have been anyone’s arm. After all, Rich and Jack had died in the wreck as well. But no amount of convincing or blocking out Perion had tried to do could have hidden the truth of the arm’s identity.
The arm had belonged to a female; there was no doubt about that. The fingernails were long and finely sculptured, painted a bright shade of purple. There was a huge signet ring on the first finger of the hand. Perion only knew one person who wore purple fingernail polish and such a ring. It had been Randi’s arm. If Perion could’ve gotten closer to it, she would have seen an ‘R’ engraved into the gold of the ring. She had no doubts about that, not then or now. It had been Randi, or what was left of her. Perion had tried desperately to get up and go over to the seemingly severed arm to make sure. At that point, she still couldn’t believe her friends were actually dead, she hadn’t wanted to believe it. The paramedics wouldn’t allow it. Oh, but she had fought with them, no doubt. She had fought with all the strength her battered body could muster. She had been wheeled away into an ambulance while screaming her head off.
Standing there, looking at that long ago scene in her mind, she still wanted to believe she hadn’t really seen the arm, wanted to believe she’d been hallucinating from the pain and had seen an arm-like tree branch. But she couldn’t deny it. What she had seen had been an arm, a human arm belonging to none other than her band’s own drummer. It was something she had never forgotten, and she had never spoken of it. The gore-flecked arm still haunted her in her dreams. It wasn’t something she thought about often [who’d want to?], but it crept up on her occasionally, invading her sleep and making her have nightmares she sometimes couldn’t recall on waking.
She supposed she had experienced more than her share of guilt about the whole thing. It was a kind of guilt that only Debi could understand. Often, when she thought about her dead friends, she wondered why they had been taken while she and Debi had been spared. She had no answers for that, but it produced a sensation of guilt like none other.
Before the coke, she had had a good life. She had a husband who loved her and would do anything for her. Perion had thrived while Randi and Syndi rotted in their graves. They’d no longer be alive, like her; have children, husbands, make music, have sex, fall in love, or anything the living were capable of having. Her friends had died horrible deaths while asleep in their bunks. She and Debi had been sitting up, they should have been the ones to suffer the most damage, to have been thrown out of the windows and crushed by the coach. But they hadn’t, they’d been spared.
That sparing of their lives produced such overwhelming guilt, it should have been all of them who died. But it hadn’t worked out that way. She knew it wasn’t really her fault she’d lived, but she felt guilty all the same. After all, the Parkers and Dunn’s had lost their daughters. They’d never see them again. What had Marilinn Thorn and the Sigler’s lost? Nothing. Their children had survived.
“Ma’am, could you be havin’ a spot of car trouble,” a voice suddenly asked.
Perion jumped, ever cautious, and spun around. The asker of the question was an older man, approximately sixty years of age. He drove an old, battered pickup truck. “No, I’m not, thanks,” she said nervously. She hadn’t realized she’d been in such a dream world.
“I figured you was. Nobody stops here less’n they do. The last time I seed anybody pull over an’ stop without trouble was when some rockin’ roller band had a bang-up out here. Gorry, I never heared tell of the folks pullin’ over and gawkin’ at them poor souls. But gosh, that’s done gone over a year.”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“Was you here then, miss?”
She nodded again. “Yeah.”
“You know, you do kinda look like one of ’em pulled out’n that mess. Was you?”
Once more, she nodded. “Yes.”
“Well, miss, I’m glad you’re still kickin.′ Did anybody else make it out?”
“One other girl and a few others from the coach that slid into the ravine.”
“That’s sure better than none, is what I always say. Well, missy, it was nice jawin’ with ya and I’m glad you survived such a turrible thing.”
Perion found tears just behind her eyes. The man reminded her of her grandfather. “Thanks for stopping and your kind words.”
“And you’re shore welcome, bye now.”
She managed a smile. “Goodbye.”
He put the truck in gear and pulled away, driving toward the city limits of Cyprus.
Perion lingered for a few minutes. The whole scene was beginning to depress her immensely. She was homesick, lonely, and terribly sad. The scene was only making it worse, just like she had thought. She walked over to the rental car, got in, started it up, and drove straight past the accident scene. She hoped she’d never have to look back at it again.
Perion drove for another hour and a half before the territory surrounding her looked like home, with its endless flat lands and rice fields. She was getting very close to Ellington. After a few more miles, she began to recognize the ‘boonies’ atmosphere where her mother’s house was located.
She pulled the car into the long driveway that was actually more of a road. She could see the house in the distance. Perion noticed that the house had been recently painted a brilliant white. The shutters over the windows were black and the lawn was clipped short. The car Perion had bought her mother two years previously was parked under a covered carport. Obviously, Marilinn was home. She got out of the car slowly, swallowing a huge lump in her throat. How would she explain everything that had happened?
Before she approached the house, the front door opened and Marilinn came out to see who her visitor was. She was very happy to see her only child, but wasn’t so thrilled with her daughter’s appearance. Perion was at least fifteen to twenty pounds underweight. Her platinum hair, once so lustrous and beautiful, was dry and stringy. Dark circles underneath her eyes made her look deathly ill, weak. The person before her eyes was not the girl Marilinn had last seen; she was simply a mere shell of the former Perion Thorn-Blake.
“Don’t just stand there, come on in where it’s cool,” Marilinn told Perion after a few minutes.
The two of them entered the house and seated themselves at the kitchen table. “What’s going on,” Marilinn asked her daughter quietly.
“Momma, I need help, please help me,” she wailed and buried her face into her hands.
Marilinn approached her daughter where she sat and wrapped her arms around her. “It’s okay, hon, Momma’s here. Momma’s here,” she whispered.
After a long time, Perion finally calmed herself, and Marilinn moved away and sat back down. She then gave Marilinn the whole story of what had happened.
When she finished speaking, Marilinn looked at her daughter and asked, “What do you want me to do if Lein calls here looking for you?”
“I know you don’t like to lie for me, but would you just tell him you haven’t heard from me? I’m not ready to deal with him, especially not after all that’s happened. I don’t want him to come out here and see me like this, he just doesn’t need to.”
“Okay, I’ll do that, but I want you to go somewhere and get some therapy and treatment for this addiction of yours. I also want you to go to the family doc the first thing in the morning and get all checked out. You’re so sick and skinny, I don’t know about this baby...”
“I’m going to have it, Mother. I’m not getting rid of it.”
“But can you, Perion? Are you healthy and strong enough to do it?”
“I’m damn sure going to try. I’ll do whatever I need to do to get healthy enough.”
“I’m not trying to nag you to death, hon, but you’re going to have to tell Lein. He has the right to know.”
Perion nodded. “Yes, he does. But I think when I tell him; things are going to get much worse. I lied to him because of an addiction-” Her voice wavered off and she began to cry.
The phone rang suddenly, startling both women. “Lordy,” Marilinn sighed. She picked up the receiver and said pleasantly, “Hello.”
“Marilinn, it’s Lein.”
“Oh, hello there, Lein,” she said carefully. Perion never looked up. “What’s going on?”
Lein sighed. “God, I wish I knew. The main thing is that Perion has left me. You know what’s been going on with her, but there are a few things you don’t know. She got mixed up with Blaine again. He’s been shoving cocaine up her nose, and now she’s pregnant. I think the baby is Blaine’s. The coke, grief, and stress are slowly destroying her, and I’m afraid she’s going to die. I think I’ve already lost her, but I don’t want her to die, I’d die. Do you have any idea where she is?”
Lein’s pleading tone worked on Marilinn’s heart. She didn’t know how much she’d like herself in the morning after the bull she was about to sling at her son in-law. “No, Lein, I’m afraid not.”
“I hoped, too hard I guess, that she’d be with you. If you hear from her, please let me know. I don’t think I’m ever going to rest until I know she’s okay.”
Marilinn sighed sadly. “Perion’s a sensible girl, Lein, I’m sure she’s okay. I’m also sure she’ll contact you when she’s better. I don’t think you have to worry about her hurting herself, especially if she’s pregnant as you say. I don’t think she’d ever intentionally hurt her own child.”
She looked up at Perion, her daughter sat drawn up in the chair, staring off into space. Her arms were wrapped around her too thin body, and she rocked slowly. The one-sided conversation she heard ripped her apart as well.
“Maybe you’re right. Again, if you see her or if she contacts you, I want to know about it, no matter how brief the exchange is. I love her so damn much, if she could just forgive herself…if if if, I hate that word.”
“I know, hon,” she said.
“Marilinn, before I hang up, there is something I want to ask you. All you have to do is say yes or no, but please tell me either way. I know you said Perion isn’t there, but you’re the only other person she would turn to at this time. Is she with you?”
She didn’t want to betray her daughter, but she also wanted to help. “Yes. Lein, call me any time you need to, okay,” she said.
“Okay, thank you,” Lein said, then hung up the phone.
Marilinn replaced the receiver into its cradle. “He’s really worried about you.”
She was crying again. ”Everybody’s worried about me,” she said, almost bitterly, “they’re all worried, but no one really understands why I’m like this. What am I going to do with myself? What am I going to do with this baby? I just want to go to sleep and never wake up again. I went back to Cyprus, to that place,” she said.
“Oh, Perion, no. That couldn’t have been a wise thing to do.”
She sighed. “It wasn’t, but I did it. I had to go back and see it, for me, for my sanity. I’m scared, Mother, scared to death. I am really itching for cocaine, Momma. How could I have gotten mixed up with Blaine again? He’s done nothing but hurt me. If I had just stayed away from him...”
“Perion, you’re already carrying enough guilt for the deaths of Randi and Syndi, you shouldn’t be dwelling on things that bring on even more guilt.”
She nodded. “I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t, I wish I’d died, too.”
“Stop it, Perion, just stop it.”
“And Lein! What have I done to him?”
Marilinn moved away from the table and approached her daughter again. She took Perion by the shoulders and shook her lightly. “Perion, stop it now! If you keep this up, you’re going to go over the edge and be right back where you started. You can’t do that; you have a baby to think about. If you can’t think of anything else, think of your baby.”
Perion nodded. “Yes, I’ll think of the baby, that’s the only way I’ll ever get through this.”