by Judy Thomas
The old house wore a deserted look. Wind whistled through the ancient oaks, the Spanish moss waving like a ghostly presence. I walked toward the foreboding house and muttered, "If not for my promise to Mama, I wouldn't come within a hundred yards of this place." Being a psychologist, I should be able to deal with this, but it wasn’t easy. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that Grandfather was a sick old man. From what Mama had said, if I wanted to make peace with him, I better do it now.
I put one foot on the rickety step. Before I could move, a banging from around the corner of the house startled me. I veered right and, skirting the edge of the walk, walked to the doorway of the barn. My eyes adjusted to the darkness within and I made out the figure of a man bending over the rusty old jalopy, a large flashlight shining on his work area. I opened my mouth to ask him who he was, but I could say the words, my shoulder hit a pitchfork leaning against the door, sending it clattering to the wooden floor.
He whirled around, took a deep breath and said, "You scared the stew out of me! What are you doing sneaking around here? "
"I wasn't sneaking," I retorted, standing my ground although I was truly nervous when he stalked toward me. "I came to visit my grandfather.”
Wiping his hands on a grease-stained towel, he came further into the light. His dark brown hair tumbling onto his forehead, deep blue eyes and the mischievous grin that lit up his face brought back sudden memories. “Nell?”
"The one and only, Mistress Eleanor," he said, with a deep bow.
My lips twitched at his foolishness, but I would not be swept into flirting with him. Those days were long past. I tightened my mouth.
"Why are you here, in Grandfather's barn? The last I remember, he’d ordered you off his property with a shotgun."
"Well, Nellie," he drawled, using the nickname that I always hated. "That was ten years ago. Things have changed. What are you doing here? You haven't been back to see your granddaddy in a long time."
I felt my face harden into a frown that was all too common these days. "Not since I graduated high school."
I looked away from the eyes that searched my face, unwilling to acknowledge the affection I saw reflected there. Too much time had passed and I was not the impressionable teenager I had been.
Without a word, almost as if we could read each other’s minds, we left the darkness of the barn and headed toward the house. "Your granddaddy isn't in the best of health," he explained. "I've been helping out a little when I can."
"I can't imagine him letting you, as angry as he was with you that night."
"Ah, yes, that magical night," he said, turning toward me at the foot of the steps. "Do you ever think of that night, Nellie?"
I tore my gaze away from his and lied. "No. It was a long time ago. And don't call me Nellie."
"I came back for you, you know.” He put his hand on my cheek and leaned toward me.
His touch brought back memories I thought buried forever, buried where they couldn’t hurt any more but the pain that tore through me proved me wrong. I stepped back and his hand dropped to his side.
He took a deep breath, then continued. “Your grandfather told me you had left right after the graduation ceremony," he said.
"Three months... I left three months after the last time I saw you." I turned away and swiped away the tears that slipped down my cheek. I didn’t want him to see he still had the power to hurt me after all this time.
"Nell." He grasped my arms, turning me toward him. "I called and wrote every day, but your grandfather told me you didn't want to see me. And, when you didn't answer my letters, I began to believe him. Then, I came back for your graduation, but by the time I got here... you were gone."
I looked up at him, remembering the countless days and hours I had spent in my room, watching the winding road out the window, willing him to come and whisk me away. I shook my head, not because I doubted what he said, but because it didn’t change anything.
"I never forgave him for what he did that night," I admitted after a long silence. "I was angry at you for not coming, but I was angrier at him. Mama helped me realize, though, that he thought he was protecting me. And, I wanted to come and tell him I forgive him, before it’s too late."
One side of Stephen’s mouth lifted, in a wry smile. "I realized it as well. He didn't want a loser for his talented granddaughter. If I had a daughter, I would probably have responded the same way. I was hardly a prize back then."
My voice caught in my throat as I said, “So, what made him allow you back on the property?"
We settled ourselves gingerly on the loose bottom step, then Stephen picked up a rock. He tossed it from hand to hand, his gaze focused on it. "After you left, I was mad, hurt, confused. Not so much at your grandfather for running me off. I would probably have done the same thing, but at you, for not wanting to see me. I figured you must not have meant what you said. That it was just an idle dalliance for you."
At my quick intake of breath, he looked at me. I grasped his arm, willing him to believe me.
"Stephen, I never knew about any of the calls or any of the letters. All I knew is you were gone. For three months, I never heard a word. So, after graduation, Mama and I left and went to Atlanta. I couldn't stand to be around here any more."
"I finally figured it might have been something like that," Stephen said, his voice low, "but by then it was too late. Your grandfather had his stroke just before I came back to town and couldn't tell me where you were. So, I've just been coming and helping out here, hoping one day you would come home."
We sat silently for several long minutes. I looked into those blue eyes, thought of a younger pair just like them waiting back at the hotel with her grandmother, and knew I had indeed come home.
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