Joshua awoke with a start, then sighed and turned off his alarm clock. He was glad to be back in the realm of consciousness. His nightmare had been so real that it frightened him. In the dream, he and Thomas were children again, walking along a dirt road. An early morning sun was shining and their spirits were high. The boys joked and tussled as they walked, stirring up the warm dirt.
Morning passed and noon came. Now they were teenagers and the conversation was a bit more serious. Tiny stones littered the path before them, cutting their bare feet from time to time. By dusk, Joshua and Thomas were men. There was no longer a clear path. Uprooted trees lay in the way, forcing both to clamber up and down their massive sides. Thomas was the first to reach the last tree. He disappeared down the other side.
“C’mon slow poke, get the lead out,” Thomas called.
Joshua laughed and sprinted towards the last tree. Suddenly, he heard Thomas gasp.
“What? Thomas what’s wrong? Hey fat head, I’m talking to you. Will you quit playing and answer me? Thomas?”
Fear struck Joshua, pounding at his chest as he clambered over the last trunk. He frantically searched about for Thomas. All at once, he came upon a pool of quicksand. There in the center was his friend’s hand clawing at the air.
“Oh my God!”
Joshua got as close to the quicksand as he dared and reached for his friend’s hand. Try as he might, he could not reach him. There were no branches sturdy enough to use as a lifeline. Joshua watched helplessly as his best friend’s hand slowly sank beneath the surface.
Joshua immediately woke up, gasping for air as his heart galloped painfully in his chest. He sat blinking against the blinding sunlight for a few moments before dragging himself out of bed and trudging down the hall to Rachel’s room. Joshua banged on her door.
“Rise and shine,” he called.
Joshua knocked on Harriet’s door next and then went downstairs to find Richard already awake. Joshua went back upstairs to the bathroom to shower and shave. Harriet had already been awake for an hour before Joshua’s knock sounded at her door. She awoke after a restless night and tried unsuccessfully to go back to sleep. Harriet lay in bed staring at the ceiling, dreading the impending hospital visit.
Mama always made visits confrontational. Her domineering personality and tyrannical ways wore Harriet to a frazzle. The woman never let anything go either. Once she figured out what you were sensitive about, she was like a dog with a bone. Well, there was no use in brooding about it. Harriet may as well get moving. At least she could exercise, now that everyone was up. Halfway through her squat thrusts, Rachel burst into the room.
“Turn off that noise,” growled Rachel.
“It is not noise, it’s Mozart.”
“I don’t care what it is. Turn it off right now.”
“Who it is. You don’t care who it is.”
“Look Harriet, I don’t feel like playing with you this morning. Just turn it off! My head is killing me.”
Rachel stalked out of the room. An evening of drinking and dancing had left Rachel sore inside and out. She hadn’t had that much fun in a long time. Rachel crossed into the bathroom, seeking a couple of aspirin and a hot bath. Joshua was standing in front of the mirror shaving with the door open to allow the steam from his shower to dissipate faster.
“Why the hell did you wake me up if you aren’t done using the bathroom? I can’t even run my bath water with you getting hair everywhere!”
“Wait until I finish Attila!”
Downstairs at the kitchen table, Richard sat listening to the commotion in the bathroom. He was glad that he had already showered and shaved. Richard was sipping coffee in his slacks and undershirt. Richard saw his brother’s cigarettes lying on the table. On a whim, he took one and lit it. Sometimes, it was pleasant just to relax and think of nothing in particular. His mind was enjoying the rest.
Something about getting away from home and staying someplace different made him feel as though his troubles had been left behind. He savored the sensation, knowing that soon enough, his mother would remind him of his problems and the weight of them would return to rest on his shoulders.
Richard thought of Harriet. She always seemed to suffer the most when their mother was on the attack. He wondered what she was doing upstairs. Richard thought about the previous night, picturing her sweet face as she needlessly thanked him. A smile broke out on his solemn face.
“Better finish getting dressed.”
Richard snuffed out the cigarette, drained his cup and then moved to his tiny room off of the kitchen. He had to look presentable for their audience with their mother at the hospital.
Twenty miles away at St. Mary’s Hospital, Reverend Mother crossed herself and closed the bible with an earnest “amen.” She enjoyed worshipping in the early morning hours. It helped her put the rest of the day in proper perspective. This morning though, she had scarce time to think about the hours that lay before her. Something was troubling her, crowding out thoughts of her children.
Here in this place of beginnings and endings, thoughts of Gabriel invaded her mind. Unbidden memories always came to her when death was around her. In his youth he was intelligent, ambitious and hopelessly in love with her. Those were the days before she was “saved” and proclaimed Reverend Mother of Sermon on the Mount Baptist Church. Back then, she went by Hester.
Hester was the only daughter of older parents and quite accustomed to getting her way. As a beautiful young woman, Hester was also habituated to having whomever she desired. Unfortunately for Gabriel, this desire did not include him. She craved excitement and found it in another. His name was Derrick. He was Hester’s first taste of love.
During those days, her only mission was to escape from beneath her parent’s thumbs. So intent was she that her naïve eyes mistook his immaturity for spontaneity, insensitivity for confidence and idleness for free spiritednesss. Hester’s obsession kept her wholly unfazed by his sporadic behavior; it was a welcome change from the safe, predictable actions of her friends and family which bored her immensely.
Derrick brought a much desired change to her uneventful, puritanistic world. Soon his life became Hester’s. When he was happy she was ecstatic. Likewise, Derrick’s bouts of depression plunged her into the depths of despair. If his mood swung cruel, Hester was patient. She had to be. Without Derrick, Hester had no motivation, hopes, or dreams.
A year later, Rachel began growing in her belly. As soon as Hester found out, she beelined for Derrick’s house and rapturously delivered the news. There sat the new mother on the edge of his bed. Her eyes were riveted to Derrick’s face. Three silent minutes passed. She pacified her nerves by chewing on a hangnail.
Hester was almost certain that her doubts about how the news would be received were silly. She couldn’t even count the number of nights that they had lain in each other’s arms and dreamt of this day. It had happened sooner than expected, but that couldn’t be helped.
Sure things would be tight at first but they would be fine. Oh, she just knew that at any moment that sour expression on Derrick’s face would be sweetened by the smile she had come to love so much. Joy would fill those empty eyes and overflow. Then he would throw his arms about her and they would celebrate.
“Why are you telling me,” the sharpness of his tone hurt her ears.
Derrick got up and moved to the window, turning his back on her.
“What do you mean? I thought you might like to know that you’re going to be a father.”
“How do I know that?”
“How do In know you’re carrying my baby?”
“Just because you say it’s mine doesn’t make it so. For all I know, that could be some other dude’s baby.”
Hester could not see his face but the anger in his voice was palpable. She took in the defensiveness in his stance and knew that at any moment, his hand might sting her face. This could not be happening! She had imagined exactly how things would be so many times that she had it memorized. Her vision had been nothing like this. Hester closed her eyes and tried again.
“Derrick, you know I haven’t been with any other man. You were my first. I haven’t slept with anybody else.”
“I don’t know what you do when I’m not around.”
“Derrick, please don’t do this to me!”
“Shouldn’t I be the one saying that huh? Just what the hell am I doing to you? I’m not the one who was careless and got pregnant!”
“B-but what about our dreams? You said you wanted me to have your child.”
“Someday! Don’t you know the difference between dreams and reality? Dammit girl, even I know we’re not ready for any children!”
“Well here’s a dose of reality for you, our baby is coming now not someday! What am I supposed to do, tell the child to wait until it’s convenient for you? Well, I’m sorry. That isn’t an option.”
“Yes it is.”
“What are you talking about?”
Derrick spun around and his glare burned the answer into her horrified eyes. Hester’s hands flew to her stomach, as though the cruel look might kill her baby. No, she could never do away with their child! How could Derrick even think she might even entertain such a vile thought? The baby was as much a part of him as it was a part of her.
Hester closed her eyes against a flood of tears and tried to awaken from what was surely a nightmare. Derrick’s protests grew deafening but she was too stunned to decipher his words. She had to get out of there. Hester’s feet carried her unsteadily towards the door but Derrick’s vice-like grip cut her escape short.
“Where do you think you’re going? We haven’t settled this!”
“I…I’m finished. Goodbye Derrick.”
Somehow, she found the strength to yank her trembling arm free. Pride gave Hester the courage to leave, never to return. In her mind it was simple; their relationship was over. Derrick’s wish to abort his child made that abundantly clear. He obviously wasn’t the man she thought he was.
So why wouldn’t her heart allow her to believe it? In the back of Hester’s mind, she continued to believe that somehow, their dreams and plans would come to pass. Derrick would miss her so much that he would come to her on bended knee and propose.
Even as Hester told her mother about her predicament, the dreams danced in her mind’s eye. Only after she listened to the disappointment in her mother’s voice did the delusion begin to waver. Later that evening, papa came home from work. Hester listened at the top of the stairs as her mama quietly repeated the story. He never said a word. That was his way.
At the dinner table, papa’s eyes carefully avoided the space Hester occupied. She looked in his face and saw the funeral going on in his brain. As far as he was concerned, his baby girl was dead. The daughter that papa loved would never even consider brining such disgrace upon his family.
No, he didn’t know the whore sitting across from him at the table. Papa stole one last look at Hester. The gaze lingered, seemingly searching for traces of the little girl that he adored. Hester saw all of this and was contrite. She realized that she had snuffed out the light in his life.
Categories: Valley of Shadows (Novel)