Chapter 14 - 1918
“It’s getting too cold to be taking these walks every day,” Helen remarked the next morning.
As usual, Matilda had met her in town.
“My parents think I should have returned to school,” Matilda said.
“Yes, I know.”
“How could you know? I don’t recall mentioning it.”
Damn it. Helen held her tongue as a visit to Matilda’s body from several weeks ago surfaced. Matilda had continued to stay in Hurston, so with each passing day, Helen’s concerns about her departure lessened.
“I mean, I figured that might be the case. When summer ended and you stayed, I was happy. Very happy.” Helen tried to smile, but her muscles didn’t cooperate. The gesture felt more like a grimace.
“They accepted me staying because my mother wishes for me to marry soon. Call it crazy, but I always imagined myself finishing high school and then attending college. Maybe I could pursue a career, you understand? There have been a few women--”
Helen snorted. “A few, indeed. From a place like this? What are our prospects, Matilda?”
Matilda frowned. “You seem in an odd mood today, dear. I hope it wasn’t on account of what I said yesterday.”
“You said your mother wished for you to marry. Is there a young man on the horizon, perhaps someone you haven’t told me about?”
They reached a bench at the end of Main Street, where, in summer, flowers bloomed around paths as part of a small garden. They sat.
Matilda was slow to meet Helen’s eyes. “Actually, yes. What I mean to say is that there is a young man whom my mother wishes for me to become acquainted with. His family is coming over for dinner this evening. I have only seen him on a few occasions while growing up, times when Father, because of his connections, brought the family along to dinners and such.”
“You don’t sound happy.”
“Should I?” Helen flung the words like an accusation.
Matilda leaned away from Helen, her eyes large, her hands out in front of her as if in surrender. “I stayed because of you, Helen.”
The words, if spoken any day before yesterday, would have been a warm fire on a winter day. Today, they were a fire that consumed Helen, burned her hopes and dreams away.
“I never asked it of you.”
“What are you saying?” asked Matilda in a tremulous voice.
“It’s clear now. I was a fool to think otherwise, but this will never work. You’re ashamed of us, of me. You would rather be like every other person in town and do what’s expected.”
Matilda gazed at a flock of birds overhead. She spoke after several moments. “I had another fainting spell last night. This one lasted longer than any I’ve experienced in quite some time, but the odd thing was...I thought I remembered lying in someone else’s bed.”
Helen’s stomach lurched. “Why are you telling me this?” If she finds out...
“I don’t know, but something about it was too real to be a dream. I have this connection with you, Helen. You know that, and I cherish it...but I’m also starting to fear it.”
Helen saw the way her friend edged away. The physical distance between them paled next to the distance Helen felt between their hearts. The bridge they had built to cross that canyon and reach each other snapped, and now Helen held on for life. She stood, tried to keep her face impassive as she turned away.
“Why are you so mad?” asked Matilda in a broken voice. “You said it would never work. I thought this was what you wanted.”
Helen kept her back to the other woman, hating how her shoulders slumped. Her eyes stung, but she refused to allow Matilda to see her tears. “I didn’t want to be right.”
She walked away from Matilda Forkins.
* * *
Helen returned home. She had nowhere else to go, or did she? She considered her options, but her mind wouldn’t work right. Hurston was the only home she knew, this old farmhouse and its walls suffocating her for sixteen years her only prison and refuge.
She paced the living room in the same manner as her father when he was agitated. She embraced the anger bubbling over inside. Anger she could manage. It was sadness, loneliness, rejection she was weary of dragging through the valleys of her life, those emotions yoked to her like she was an ox forced to labor. She huffed and strode to the liquor cabinet, flinging open the doors with such force that one nearly flew off its hinges. She grabbed the decanter and poured a generous glass of whiskey. She threw back a gulp, made a face at the strong flavor, and swallowed. She knocked more back, but after three gulps, she returned the glass to the cupboard. She wasn’t a drinker. The warmth was pleasant, but the taste made her want to vomit. She dropped onto the sofa and buried her hands in her hair, resting her elbows on her thighs. Despite her desire to be strong, she caved to the tears and hated herself more.
“I’m weak, pathetic… It’s no wonder nobody ever loved me. Who would want me?”
She shook her head as tears flowed. When her eyes ran dry, she sighed and leaned back into the cushions, staring at the ceiling.
“Why me? If You even exist, God, You’re a bastard. It’s no wonder my father claims to love and serve You. If he’s a reflection of the type of deity You are, then I’d rather You be dead. I never asked for any of this...this supposed gift of mine. It’s an absurdity, an impossibility. People would think me mad, throw me into the asylum if they knew.”
She went silent for a while, her thoughts whirling through her mind in a messy torrent, like Lake Erie during a storm. The waters could be placid and blue one moment, but a gust of wind from the north and the lake transformed into a grey, unsettled monster.
“Maybe I would be better locked away… Maybe I am crazy.”
The back door opened. Helen jumped as it creaked, the sound echoing through the empty house. She tiptoed toward the dining room, peering around the corner into the kitchen. Her father stood just beyond the threshold. His impassive face gazed around the kitchen. Helen shrunk back, hoping he didn’t see her.
What’s he doing here? Her heart raced. I’m not afraid, I’m not, damn it!
Her mental state told her otherwise. Her trembling body expressed a different story.
Her father’s heavy boot thudded on the floorboards. Then another step. Helen couldn’t understand why he returned home after all these months.
Helen edged toward the stairs. She took them slowly, deliberately. When she was halfway up, where they turned ninety degrees, she avoided the floor where it creaked. Like a mouse, she crept the rest of the way up the stairs.
She went to his room and crouched between the bed and the wall, a space wide enough to accommodate her. She held her breath. Something under the bed glinted, the light catching it just right. Her heart leapt. It was the knife from the time she nearly finished her father!
Her mixed emotions and muddled thoughts snapped to clarity. She reached for the knife and readied herself.
Her father entered the room. Helen held her breath, closed her eyes, and returned the knife to where she’d found it. She focused all her energy on her loathing of the man who was the bane of her existence, the reason for her unhappiness. She remembered the disgusting thrill that she experienced when she was inside him. She almost reveled in it. To have that kind of power…
She opened her eyes and saw the room from a new set of eyes. She heard her body thump behind the bed. Her grin widened. She crossed the room, knelt beside the bed as if to pray, but grabbed the knife. Her own face lifted from behind the side of the bed and didn’t have a chance to scream as Helen came at her old form.
She threw herself across the bed and landed on the small body. Her size and strength, plus the confined space, forced her father to the floor. She pinned him to the floor with her knee to the chest and covered his mouth with her hand--her hairy, manly hand--before he could cry out. Then she leaned down until she was six inches from his face and whispered, her breath hot, “Goodbye, Father.”
She brought the knife to his throat and slashed. The blood ran down the collar of Helen’s blouse, much in the manner Helen had always imagined the red staining her father’s clerical collar. Her old body convulsed. Her old mouth moved as if to speak, but blood gurgled, spluttered, and choked the words. Then the body went still.
“I always finish what I start,” Helen murmured in her father’s voice.
As if a force moved her beyond her control, Helen stood, pulled by the puppeteer tugging on the marionette’s strings. The knife clattered to the floor as she stared at her old body. She brought up what were now her hands up and gazed at the blood covering them. Her new heart thudded, compounding the headache that was forming. She shook her head and took a step back, then another, and another, until she reached the door. She went to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and washed her blood away. No matter how hard she scrubbed, the grime of the sin she’d committed wouldn’t come clean. She turned off the water and removed the overcoat and shirt, the edges of the sleeves stained and splatters of blood across the front and up the arms of the coat. The pants and boots went as well. Helen stopped long enough to catch her father’s reflection in the mirror over the sink. Clad only in his undergarments, he wasn’t so menacing.
She grabbed the boots, checking them for any blood spots. They were clean. She left the clothes on the floor and returned to her father’s room. She avoided looking at the body in the corner as she rifled through his clothes and pulled on his usual attire. Almost his entire wardrobe consisted of white collared shirts and black trousers.
She went to her room and gathered all the money she had stashed in her hiding spot under the floorboards under her bed. She stuffed the money into her father’s deep pockets. As she made to close the secret spot one last time, a bitter taste rose in her mouth as she remembered hiding the animal crackers there all those years ago. It was one of the few kindnesses her mother had given her, and she wondered what it had cost. Shaking her head, she snapped the space shut and stood. There was no time for dwelling on feeble memories.
She went downstairs to the wardrobe by the front door. Her father had a thinner overcoat he wore in warmer weather. She pulled it on, as well as the boots. Then she was out the back door and to the barn. She glanced around, but she was alone. The closest neighbors on either side were far enough away that even if they had been outside, they would have been in the distance. She withdrew a jug of kerosene from the barn, returned to the house, and went upstairs. She doused her old body and stepped back, staring one last time at herself.
“This is it,” she whispered. “I can’t return. I’ve made my choice.”
The words hung hollow in the stagnant air, as if wishing for a reply to a question she couldn’t ask. She reached for the matches on her father’s dresser and struck one. The flame burst to life. She dropped it onto the body and fled. She retreated into the woods, deep into her sacred spot. Every movement continued like she was an automaton. The one thing she tried to control was her emotions. If she allowed just one ounce of regret, sadness, or anger to drop into her mental well of thoughts, she would falter.
“It’s too late,” she said when she reached her destination and stopped to stare in the direction of the house. The flames grew, consuming the wooden structure. Helen watched, detached from the event like it was a story in one of her books.
She turned and continued through the woods, long until she wound her way around to the other side of town. She crossed through a field of wildflowers and came to the road. She walked until she arrived at her father’s church. People ambled down the streets about their usual business, horse-drawn carts trundling down the gravel road. The occasional car passed. She opened the back door to the church and entered. Even though she had been inside her father’s office on the rare occasion, flashes of his memories directed her there, where he had set up his cot. Helen sat at his desk and opened the bottom drawer, where all his important papers were kept, including his bank account number.
She gazed around the sparse office, wondering if this would be her new life. She squirmed in the seat, the new body taking some getting used to. It was like an ill-fitting dress, very unlike the feeling of occupying Matilda. And yet...when Helen was her father, she wielded authority. What did she want? Love or power?
“I’m done with love,” she whispered. Love. The word pecked at her father’s heart, at her heart. He had actually loved his wife, for all his shortcomings. The thought made Helen hate him more. “You were capable of love, Father, but apparently not for your daughter.”
The moment the words fled her lips, his office door banged open. Mr. Horner, the general store owner, stood there, sweat beading on his forehead. “Excuse the intrusion, Pastor, but your house is on fire!”
A jolt shot through Helen as she stood. Knowing the house was on fire was one thing, but someone else announcing it was another.
“What?” she asked, her father’s deep voice reverberating through her chest and out her mouth. I need to act the part.
“Come at once, Pastor. Please.” The man beckoned Helen.
She gave a firm nod and followed outside. Sweat covered Helen’s hairline against the chill of the October air. Almost suffocating from her body heat, she shrugged out of the thin coat and left it on the front steps of the church. She’d only occupied this body for a little over an hour, and already she hated the way it behaved. All the bulk and hair, the manly smell emanating off of her father’s body...she shuddered.
“Excuse me...Pastor?” The other man looked at her.
Helen snapped out of her thoughts. “I apologize, sir. I was...overcome with… You understand, I’m sure.”
The shop owner nodded. “The firehouse has already been alerted. If you come with me, you can ride one of my horses.”
“Of course. Thank you.” Helen tried to keep her voice even, to speak with the collected authority of her father. Her father’s memories showed a man who kept his composure together when in public, and from her own observations of him over the years, that had been the case.
She followed in silence at a brisk pace to the other man’s home above his store. They went around the back, where a small barn housed two horses. Helen mounted one and took off at a run. When they arrived, the firemen were working to put out the fire. Several people had gathered on the street. When some of them noticed their pastor, they gave cries of relief.
“But where’s your daughter, Pastor?”
“Was she in the house?”
Helen dismounted the horse and joined the crowd. “I-I don’t know.” Her words faltered as she stared at the destruction she had created. It should have been so easy to walk away from it all. Then why were tears coursing down her rough cheeks?
As if to punish her for her sin, a memory of Helen’s father holding her as a baby surfaced. He was tender, smiling, singing a hymn in a low voice. She shook her head. She wouldn’t believe it was true. Couldn’t.
“Pastor Hawkins?” asked an elderly lady who Helen recognized as the Widow Daniels.
She turned toward the old woman but didn’t speak.
The old woman took her head. Helen allowed it and closed her eyes, wondering what kind of monster she had become. She wore a monster’s clothes in the form of her abuser’s body, but deeper still, her mind had twisted into something as demonic as her father said she was.
The fire was put out a couple of hours later, but only a charred skeleton of the house remained. The old lady invited Helen to say with her that night, but Helen shook her head and said she would sleep at the church. Lying in the house of God, Helen didn’t sleep much that night. Whenever she managed to drift into slumber, nightmares plagued her. She saw her own face staring at her, betrayed and full of hatred. Her eyes burned red with the flames of the house, where she rose like some creature of the night to claim its revenge.