A Time to Remember: a short story by cam
A Time to Remember
Fran walked the last hundred yards from her parked car to the ruins of an old, two story house in order to reconcile what she was seeing with what she remembered about her childhood home. The entire west wall was gone, and on that point at least, reality and memory were in agreement.
She stepped from the tangled overgrowth of the yard into the single, downstairs room which served as both a living and dining room. The wood subfloor beneath the carpet sank with each step.
Couch cushions, black with mold, lay scattered across the floor while decaying gypsum board hung from the walls and ceiling swinging in the gentle breeze.
Broken dishes littered the floor around the dining room table, the only remnants of the family’s unserved, last dinner. The northeast corner of the room was Franny’s corner. That’s what her father called it when he sent her there for being bad, which was often.
She passed through the kitchen and the open back door into the yard where the remnants of an aluminum shed and its contents lay strewn about.
Fran walked around the yard, inspecting bits of junk that had been a part of her life as a child. Lying fully exposed to the elements in a patch of bare dirt, Fran spotted what she had hoped she would find. The broken, porcelain head, dirty lace dress and blue, glass eyes belonged to a doll, Fran’s best, childhood friend.
“Grace, look at you.” She picked up the doll along with the scattered pieces of broken skull, and cradled it in her arms. A layer of dirt coated the doll’s rosy cheeks and the lips that formed a pleasant appearance but not quite a smile.
Why are you here? said the doll.
“I got tired of pretending I didn’t have a childhood, as though I had simply materialized one day as an adult. Maybe there’s some unfinished business here that I need to take care of.”
The voice that had whispered into her consciousness over the years, calling up buried, childhood memories, had been Grace’s voice, one that Fran herself had crafted as a child so she could have someone to talk to.
You left me.
“I didn’t leave you. Grandma and Grandpa came and took me away. I lived with them until I went to college. “I’m sorry Gracie. I should have come back.”
You’re here now. What do you want to do?
“I want to remember what life was like in this house, to see it as an adult. Was I such a bad child? Is that why my father despised me? For all these years that’s the only answer I’ve had for why he treated me so badly.”
Remembering Her Parents
Fran carried Grace into the house. The only place she felt safe was on the floor in her corner. The remains of a wool blanket lay next to her. She crossed her legs just like when she was six years old with the doll in her lap.
I can help you remember.
“I’m counting on that, Gracie. I have to figure out how to leave all of this behind.”
You’re nothing but a worthless dog turd.
That was his favorite name for you.
“I know, but I don’t want to hear it.”
You’re a dog turd. Then in a way Fran could never have done on her own, the doll continued reciting the very words Fran had heard on her last day in the house, carrying her back in time.
“Franny, get me another beer out of the fridge and make it quick,” said her father, Gerald. The rerun on television nearly drowned out all other sounds in the house. Watching TV was what Gerald did every night after work until he either passed out in his chair or stumbled up the stairs to the bedroom. “I said get me another goddam beer.”
Franny’s mother, Maggie, was kneeling in front of her now, eyes pleading.
“Franny, you’ve got to be a good girl and do what your father says. You know he doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
“But I don’t want him to have another beer,” whispered Franny.
“Get out of the way, woman.” Maggie was jerked backward, landing hard on her hip. Franny could hear the television announcer saying something about a weather alert, but her father was in her face, yelling loudly enough to drown out whatever else the man on the TV had to say.
“I told you twice to get me a beer, you worthless little dog turd. Now get up and do it.”
“Daddy, I’m sorry,” she said, sobbing, struggling to get to her feet.
Franny’s father grabbed her by the arm dragging her into the kitchen.
“Open it,” he shouted. She opened the refrigerator door and reached for a brown bottle, but instead knocked it off the shelf, sending it to the tile floor where it smashed into a puddle of foaming yellow liquid and pieces of jagged glass.
She tried to run, but her father caught her by the hair and pulled her into the back yard. He looked around, still grasping her red curls, and picked up a dead tree branch off the ground. Franny jerked her head forward, ripping her hair from her father’s grasp and ran around the house to the front yard. Her father rounded the corner and stopped, staring into the distance.
“Holy shit,” he muttered.
Franny turned to see what had halted her father’s vicious attack. Black clouds churned in the western sky as the wind picked up, driving the storm in their direction, changing its shape, sending part of itself downward. The swirling extension swung through the sky to the north, to the south, grew in length and finally touched the ground. Father and daughter stood like statues in a park. Fran slipped her hand into her father’s hand, and he squeezed it tight.
“Tornado, Franny. It’s a damn tornado. Get in the house, now.” They both ran in the front door. Her mother was busy in the kitchen cleaning up the broken bottle and beer.
“Forget that, Maggie, there’s a tornado comin’ right for us. Get Franny in her corner with somethin’ to cover her.”
While Maggie settled Franny in the corner with a wool blanket, Gerald was opening windows.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to open windows during a tornado,” said Maggie.
“Of course you are, now shut up and help me carry the couch over to the corner.” Maggie picked up her end and dropped it, crying out in pain, her hand rubbing her lower back. “Pick it up,” Gerald shouted.
“I can’t, I hurt my back when you threw me on the floor.”
“There’ll be more than your back hurtin’ if we don’t get behind this couch in the corner right now.”
Franny huddled under the blanket, amazed that her parents could continue fighting even as a tornado was bearing down on the house. Their voices rose with the raging wind and the roar of the twister.
Her parents were near the west wall, facing each other, arguing about what to do and what not to do during a tornado, and Franny was screaming from under the blanket.
“Stop fighting, stop fighting, stop fighting,” she yelled, peeking out from her hiding place as the house creaked its opposition to the churning wind. Her parents were oblivious to what was going on, facing one another, shaking their fists, mouths open in silent screams as the howling wind overwhelmed everything.
The entire west side of the house disappeared in an instant, and Franny watched her parents shoot out through the gaping hole and up out of sight.
Fran screamed, holding the decayed remnants of a wool blanket over her face as she huddled in her corner. Then there was silence, just as there had been a growing quietness after the tornado had passed years earlier.
“It was horrible,” Fran sobbed, tears falling from her face onto Grace’s dirty cheeks. “Why couldn’t they have stopped fighting long enough to get behind the couch with me? They’d still be alive.”
Is wishing they had lived, more helpful to you than accepting that they died?
“I suppose that’s the difference between living in the past and moving on, huh? Gracie?
Before they were swept up, what did you see?
That was your parents. What about you?
“I disobeyed my father and ran when he tried to discipline me.”
You said you came here to see things as an adult. Is that what you’re doing now?
“You’ve grown wise lying out there in the back yard, haven’t you, Gracie? But to answer your question, no, not as an adult. I’m still seeing it as little Franny.
What does Fran see?
I see a child and mother who were being tossed around like rag dolls by an angry drunk. What I needed was to curl up in my Daddy’s lap and know that I was loved.
What about your mother?
“Mother? What about her?”
What part did she play?
“Mom did everything she could to make ours a home full of love and peace. She did her best to make me behave so my father wouldn’t get angry. What more could a mother do?”
Did she make it a loving home?
“I know you think I’m missing something about Mom, but she did the best she could.”
Did she protect you and keep you safe?
“No, I don’t think she did, though I’m sure that’s what she wanted to do.
And what was Franny’s part?
“I got into a lot of trouble and made my father very angry. It was always my fault. My mother tried to get me to do better.”
Were you really a bad girl?
Fran began to cry again, reality striking her just as the tornado had struck the house. “I was just a little girl, just a six year old child who wanted her Mommy and Daddy to tell her how pretty and special she was, how proud they were of her, not that she was worthless.” The tears broke loose, as she cried out the purest words she had ever uttered. “It wasn’t my fault. That’s why I came back. I needed to live through it all again and show myself that I wasn’t a bad child, that I’m not a bad person.” She and Gracie sat together in the corner as the pain and misunderstandings of so many years began to be washed away.
Fran stood at the edge of the room where it opened onto the front yard, looking back into the house of painful memories, but now from a very different perspective. “Mommy, Daddy. I have a lot of work to do and a lot of healing to experience because of how you treated me, but I’ve gotten a lot done today. I hope I can stand here one day with a different message. That will be the day I can say from my heart that I forgive you.”
She walked along the gravel driveway toward her car, the sun shining down on her red curls.
Fran, I think you’re smiling.
“I am, Gracie, and it feels good.”
I’m smiling too, Fran, on the inside.