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John Longbottom

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Ghosts

Lynn was very chatty as they ate their supper and Charlie just listened or made a good pretense of listening, letting her ramble on. He reckoned this was her way. She’d made her decision and was avoiding the inevitable moment when she would have to tell him she was leaving. Charlie could see that half of her was already back in the big city, gearing up for going back to work. He tried to hide his sadness as he watched the gap between them grow wider just when it seemed they were growing closer. A weariness was settling over him until he shoved it aside, realizing how blessed he had been by her appearance in his life. 

All things must pass, he thought. But why so soon, dammit? Then he settled back into listening to her tell of her work, a part of her life that he knew little about. At least he was getting to know her better and more layers were being shoveled away.

Lynn was telling him about her job, about how it was her way of trying to save some of those children whose lives had been battered and abused. Charlie was shocked at some of the things she told him, even though she was careful to leave out many of the gory details.

“How do you deal with all this horror?” asked Charlie. “Doesn’t it affect you?”

“It gets to me sometimes,” Lynn admitted, “but I guess it’s like doctors and nurses, you have to stuff away your personal feelings and concentrate on the task at hand, which is saving those kids. A couple of people helped me when I was struggling growing up and after my mother died. They saved my life or saved me from going down a different and dangerous path, so it’s my way of giving back. And as hard and as horrifying as my work can be, I love my job.”

Lynn was silent for a few minutes as she remembered some of her cases. “I wish you could see some of these kids; the befores and the afters. Some of them don’t make it but those that do…To see the happiness on their faces and the fear disappear from their eyes makes it all worthwhile. I know they’ll live with the emotional scars for the rest of their lives but at least, I know, I’ve given them a step up on the ladder of recovery and a chance for a better life.”

Charlie could only shake his head as he realized how grateful he was for the sheltered life he led on the farm and in this small town. But there was something about that kind of sheltered life that bothered him as well. 

When Charlie had completed his ritualistic clean-up, with Lynn’s help, they went outside on the porch for their “fix.” Lynn saw the rocking chair immediately. “Is this for me?” she asked. When Charlie nodded yes she said, “Oh Charlie,” and sank onto the chair. Charlie started to mumble something about a cushion, but Lynn waved him off by saying, “This is just perfect,” as she started to gently rock.

They sat silently for a while, enjoying their daily cigarettes while Wilbur waited patiently by the door, eyeing the empty place next to Charlie on the couch. He was about to climb up to his favorite spot when Charlie got up and went back into the house. He returned carrying the old photograph album that he had shown to Lynn on her first day.

Patting the place next to him on the couch for Lynn to come and join him he said, “I wanted to tell you who some of these people were before you left.”

“You know I’m going? But I haven’t said anything yet,” said Lynn. Charlie was unsure whether she was pretending to be hurt or teasing, so he gave her what is often described as “an old-fashioned look.”

“This was Ellie’s,” Charlie began, tapping the brown, faux leather cover of the photograph album. “She put it together one winter when the snows were real bad. She was planning on giving it to William, our son, when he had his first born, so he too could pass along the family history. But that never happened.”

Lynn felt a lump in her throat. Charlie began turning the pages explaining that it was all pictures of Ellie and her family before she had even met Charlie and moved to this town. Ellie had grown up out west and was a cowgirl. He showed Lynn pictures of the ranch where Ellie had grown up; pictures of Ellie on horseback, dressed like a real cowgirl, proudly showing off a ribbon she had won barrel racing.

“And this,” said Charlie pointing with his crooked finger, “is your grandmother, Ruth Mills, Ellie’s sister.”

“What?” cried Lynn, leaning forward, almost snatching the album out of Charlie’s hands. “Wow,” was all she said as she examined the photograph for every detail. 

“And these two,” said Charlie leaning over and turning the page, “are your great grandparents; Clarence and Olivia Mills; Ellie and Ruth’s mother and father.”

“No way,” said Lynn scrutinizing the two slightly blurred faces as if she were short-sighted. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” she repeated as the tears began to fall. She picked up the open album, hugging it to her chest and rocked back and forth. She managed to get out, “This is my family,” before the sobbing started.

Even Charlie felt a tear in his eye and Wilbur was moved enough to shuffle over and comfort Lynn. There was a stillness about the space as if even the old ghosts had stopped their nightly hauntings to watch and to listen.

Lynn finally spoke. “Oh, Charlie, you don’t know what this means to me.” 

I think I do, he thought as he sipped the last of his bourbon.

“It’s like I’ve finally found a family, my family, with names and faces I can see and not imagine. I feel like I finally belong. I belong to these people in here,” she said, tapping on the album. “All my life, I’ve felt alone, disconnected. I felt like I was just plopped down in the middle of this teeming mass of strangers. Strangers who all had fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, cousins and aunts and uncles, but I was alone and had nothing, no connections. Sure, I had a mother or the person that brought me into this world. But that was all she did. She did her best to ignore me, so I cut her out of my life. Then she died and I was totally alone, with no family, no history, no stories. Until now. And suddenly, out of nowhere, I belong.” Lynn started crying again and Charlie handed her his clean, red handkerchief.

They sat together for quite a while each following the trails of their own thoughts until Charlie got up with a groan and said he was heading to bed. Lynn got up as well, still clutching the album to her chest.

“It’s been waiting for you all these years. It’s yours now,” said Charlie nodding at the album. “Good night.” As he slowly climbed the stairs to his room, he thought, there is a reason.

The tree frogs started up with their nightly racket and somewhere in the distance Lynn heard a whippoorwill’s lonely call, like a voice calling out to her from the past. She stood staring out into the darkness, clutching the book to her chest, and the tears began to fall.

© John Longbottom 2021


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