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by Lisa Criss Griffin
The ever-present call of the beloved mountains of his childhood finally brought Jackson home. Home to the farm he grew up on, loved, and left for a greater opportunity. He had been reasonably successful in his white-collar job in the city. But it was all over now. His job was considered nonessential during the seemingly never-ending pandemic. He not only lost his source of income but his lease to his lavish downtown apartment.
His neighborhood was almost empty now, except for the criminal gangs of looters that roamed the streets and buildings for anything left of value. Other people who inhabited his building were only vague acquaintances except for a couple of tenants on his floor. He had always found the anonymity depressing since he had grown up in a small community where everyone knew everybody else. There were no secrets in his hometown, at least not for long. Here in the city, nobody cared what he did, as long as it wasn’t newsworthy.
That afternoon, Jackson packed up everything he could fit into his large SUV that was truly important to him. He hit the road for home the next morning before the sun came up. He was excited to see his parents. They had always been a close family. His mother usually kept Jackson’s room in the rambling old farmhouse ready for him in case he found an unexpected opportunity to visit. He enjoyed his visits immensely, unless his brother Grant was there.
He and Grant had been close until Grant fell head over heels in love with Andrea. Unfortunately, Andrea was Jackson’s fiancé at the time. Andrea eventually called off the wedding because of the growing turmoil between the two brothers. Jackson left the mountains, his heart crushed and bitter. He decided he would do something entirely different with his life. Only a few months after Jackson began his freshman year at the university, Andrea disappeared. Search parties scoured the mountainous area for Andrea for over a month, but never found any signs of her.
Folks eventually decided she either successfully left the region or had been murdered. Then there were stories of possible alien abductions inevitably spun around campfires at night. Even Bigfoot became a suspect in Andrea’s mysterious disappearance. Jackson had grieved for her deeply, alone in the city. But that had been seven years ago, and it was now a closed chapter in his life.
The road began winding through the familiar wooded mountains. It was late spring and the forests were dotted with splashes of color from the dogwoods, redbuds and other flowering trees. Patches of wild purple phlox sprinkled the rocks bordering the roadway. Jackson lowered his window, enjoying the sweet smell of the fresh mountain air blowing across his face. The air here was different somehow. He always imagined there was a unique healing quality deep in the forests. It was in the air, the dirt, the water and in the whole of God’s natural creation. He suddenly realized he had missed this, way more than he remembered.
Intense orange, maroon and purple striated clouds painted the evening sky as Jackson made the turn onto the freshly graveled drive traversing his family’s land. The 600-acre farmstead was mostly covered with rolling forestland, but there were over 200 tillable acres in the wide valley that housed the barns and the family home place.
Home was a large white farmhouse with dark green shutters and spacious rooms. The ceilings were high and there were working fireplaces in almost every room. His family had taken great care with the upkeep of the entire farm over the years, and the big house was comfortable, yet immaculate. He used to love to curl up in one of the numerous rocking chairs on the wide, covered porch and listen to the sound of the rain drumming loudly on the metal roof overhead.
The SUV angled around a bend in the road and revealed the home Jackson had been picturing in his mind ever since he entered the mountains he loved. A shimmering silver fog was slowly rolling in, swirling gracefully around the house and the colorful landscaping his mother had already planted with welcoming flowers. Buttery yellow lights poured from the numerous windows of the home, beckoning him to return to the warm embrace of his loving family.
Jackson stepped out of his SUV into the cool evening air and was greeted by the sound of hundreds of tiny, croaking peepers. A light breeze played across the yard, bearing the intensely sweet scent of the tiny trumpet-shaped flowers of a nearby autumn olive.
The front door flew open as Jackson stepped onto the front porch.
“Jackson! Oh, honey. We are so glad you decided to come home!”
“It feels good to be home, Mama.”
“Well, come on in, son. Are you hungry? I have some fresh biscuits and stew still on the stove. And there is cold lemonade too.”
“Well Mama, any feller in his right mind wouldn’t mind driving all day long just for the opportunity to enjoy your fine home cooking. I sure have missed your cooking! Hey, where is Pop?”
“He fell asleep in the recliner waiting for you. Here, eat your supper before we wake him. He has never quite bounced back since we all had that horrible virus. Funny how it made some people so much sicker than others. It killed off both Amos and Janie Blount. Poor ole things died within minutes of each other, while holding hands in his hospital room. I think losing him just broke her heart and she didn’t want to live without him. The doctors said she died of a heart attack. I say she died of a broken heart.”
Evi Abraham sighed softly as she poured cold lemonade into a tall glass and placed it on the table for her son. She was terribly glad he had come home. A piece of her heart had left with him seven years ago when he fled the mountains with his life in tatters. He had done very well for himself, and maybe now he could free himself of the emotional misery he hid so well. She could still sense it, whether he could or not. She sensed it in the way he contemplated his biscuit before breaking it open to slather it with fresh butter. Andrea used to come over and cook with Evi for the family after she and Jackson were engaged. Andrea made the best cathead biscuits Evi had ever eaten. She was also one of the most truly kind girls Evi had ever known. Evi had been devastated when the boys had their falling out over Andrea. She still couldn’t understand what possessed Grant to obsess over Andrea, knowing she was engaged to his brother. She knew for a fact Andrea never encouraged Grant’s affection.
She still didn’t understand Grant. He had been in and out of trouble for ages, unable to overcome his ongoing drug addiction. She finally joined Al Anon in a desperate attempt to salvage what was left of her sanity after Jackson left. It had been a godsend and an eye opener. She loved both her sons with every fiber of her being, but she could not fix their lives. Only they could do that. Grant was nearing the end of his latest court-ordered treatment program. She hoped it would help him choose to stay sober this time, but it would surprise her if he did. Evi was truly amazed Grant had survived this long. Addiction was a cruel taskmaster.
Jackson finished his meal and thanked her. He walked to the living room, finding his father sound asleep in his recliner. An old episode of the Andy Griffith Show was playing softly in the background on the old TV. Jackson placed a hand on his father’s arm gently.
“Pop. Hey, Pop.”
Duke Abraham’s eyes fluttered open. A grin spread across his grizzled face as he recognized his eldest son.
“Welcome home, son. I am so glad you are here. Hmmmmm. You look awfully tired, boy. Maybe we both should get some sleep and visit tomorrow.”
“Sure, Pop. I am really tired from the drive. We will visit in the morning.”
Duke nodded and patted Jackson’s hand resting on his arm. Jackson finished unloading his car and parked it beside the house under the carport. He fell exhausted into his comfortable bed, noting his mother had opened the window in his room. The fresh air had cleared out the stuffiness of the closed-off room. Jackson fell asleep listening to the familiar songs of nocturnal frogs and birds from his childhood.
She stood at the foot of his bed, glowing softly in the moonlight. Her light blue eyes were filled with despair. Tears slid down her luminescent cheeks as she called to him softly.
“Jackson. Hear me. Find me. Free me. Come, find me and free me, Jackson….”
Andrea’s familiar voice stirred his soul, and he tossed fitfully in his sleep.
“Jackson, please. Come find me and free me. Help me! I’ve been waiting so long….”
Jackson sat straight up in bed, shocked by the reality of the dream. Was it a dream? A scent of lavender lingered by his bed. Andrea had always spritzed herself lightly with a lavender perfume. He ran his hands through his thick black hair in consternation before he lay back down in his bed. He couldn’t get her lilting voice out of his head. How could he find her after seven years? How could he free her? Free her from what? He hoped he wasn’t losing his mind. No. He was just tired and hadn’t been home for a long time. He turned over and drifted back to sleep.
Morning found the family gathered around the breakfast table, sharing a good, old-fashioned country breakfast and old memories of happier times. It was over too soon, but there were chores to be done. Jackson noticed his father beginning to lose steam by mid-morning and offered to finish up so his Dad could rest. It was obvious Pop had not yet fully recovered from his battle with the COVID-19 virus. Pop thanked him and slowly headed for the house.
Jackson finished caring for the various animals on the farm and found a couple of areas of fencing to repair. He had the repairs done by lunchtime, then headed out to the large garden to see what needed to be done. It was supper time before he finished weeding and watering. He went straight to bed after a shower and supper. A full belly and a productive day’s work had done wonders for his attitude.
Jackson stepped back into his role on the farm with ease, and several weeks passed before he knew it. He decided he would take an afternoon off and hike some of the old trails in the forest he and Grant used to explore together as kids. He had always loved the forest and considered it an old friend.
He packed a small backpack, his knife and his old familiar rifle. Bears were starting to come out of hibernation and were hungry. He wasn’t interested in being dinner for an aggressive predator. He took an old trail that had been forged long before he was born. It went past a lovely lake towards the edge of their farm. The lake was one of his favorite places to visit. The thought that he and Andrea spent many hours there flitted quietly in the back of his mind. He quickly dismissed it. Truth be told, Jackson was still a little freaked out by Andrea’s ethereal visitation his first night back, and he deliberately chose not to focus on it during today’s hike.
The emerald lake was as serene and beautiful as Jackson remembered. He sat on a rock and enjoyed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple. He sipped his bottle of water pensively as he allowed the serenity of the place to soothe his soul. He noticed several trees had fallen around the perimeter of the lake. Storms could be wild up here, and no doubt the trees were casualties of Mother Nature.
One of the fallen trees caught his eye. It was hollow, and at least ten feet in circumference. Moss had covered the outer bark, so it must have fallen years ago. Jackson was intrigued. He packed up his gear and made his way around the edge of the lake to the huge fallen giant. The opening smelled seductively of lavender. A subtle breeze seemed to caress his cheek momentarily as he peered into the dark opening.
He pulled a bright flashlight out of his pack and flicked it on. He stepped inside the log, amazed that at 6’2”, he still had plenty of headroom. Wary of predators, he explored the interior with his light before proceeding farther into the interior of the fallen tree. Each step brought him closer to a subtle glow towards the back of the ancient hollow log. His breathing accelerated and he felt his heart begin to race as he drew closer. He was quite surprised he wasn’t afraid. He was more excited than anything. Whatever was about to happen felt like destiny. He stopped dead in his tracks and gasped out loud as the glow suddenly rose up from behind a large knot in the tree. It slowly transformed into a vision of the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in his life!
“Andrea…” he whispered in awe.
“Yes. You finally came! I knew you would if you ever came home.”
“I don’t understand. What has happened to you? How can I help you?”
“I need you to free me, Jackson.”
“How can I free you, Andrea?”
“There is only one way. You must forgive your brother. And forgive me.”
“Well, that is a tall order where Grant is concerned. But you, I don’t resent you, Andrea.”
“Don’t you, Jackson? I tried not to hurt your family by stepping out of an impossible situation. By doing so, I hurt your heart most of all. I am so sorry, Jackson. My actions broke both our hearts. And I made a fateful decision when I realized you were never coming back. Please forgive me, Jackson. Please.”
The ice encasing Jackson’s heart began to melt. He loved Andrea. From the first moment he saw her, he wanted her for his own. Nothing had changed. He still loved her, and was willing to forgive her anything if it would help her somehow.
“Yes, I choose to forgive you, Andrea. But I don’t understand. What could you have possibly done to disappear without a trace for seven years? You don’t even look any older. Tell me what is going on!”
Andrea sighed. Her troubled blue eyes captured his full attention as she shared her fateful secret with him.
“After you left, I was devastated. A few weeks later, in desperation, I paid a visit to old Granny Moffet up on Witch Mountain. To make a long story short, she cast a spell to heal us all. So far, it has not worked out well for any of us.”
Andrea wiped an errant tear from her pale cheek.
“The only way you can free me, Jackson, is to forgive me. And you have to be willing to forgive Grant for all his shortcomings too. If you choose not to do these things, I will never be free. And honestly, my beloved, neither will you.”
Andrea began to fade before Jackson’s eyes. He grabbed for her, but only came up with a handful of lavender scented mist. He backed out of the gigantic, overturned tree, with a mission he wasn’t sure he could complete. He made his way home, relieved when he reached the edge of the farmhouse yard. A storm was rumbling in the distance as he stepped onto the porch. Pop was sitting on the porch with somebody. Jackson locked eyes with the unexpected visitor.
“Well, hello there, Grant. Long time, no see.”
Grant looked much older than his actual age, and his body slumped with regret.
“Hi, Jackson. You look well, brother.”
“Pull up a chair, Jackson. Grant has something he wants to say to you.”
Jackson sighed and mentally rolled his eyes as he pulled up a rocker next to his brother. Grant looked at Jackson with a sincerity Jackson had not seen in his eyes since they were young.
“I’d like to try to make amends for all the horrible things I’ve put you through over the years. And especially for my foolishness over Andrea. I had no right to pursue her, and believe me, she had no interest in an addict like me. I am so sorry for what I did. I have no excuses other than I was not in my right mind at the time. But I am still responsible for my bad behavior. I would treasure your forgiveness Jackson, if you can ever choose to forgive me. I have one year of sobriety now, and I am doing what I have to do to stay sober every day. I hope you will forgive your foolish little brother.”
Rain began to thump on the metal roof of the porch, triggering memories of the two brothers huddled in a rocker under a quilt to watch the storms over the years. Jackson stood up and gazed into the fading light.
“I forgive you, Grant. You are my brother. You were lost to us all, and now you are back.”
Jackson turned and met Grant’s surprised gaze.
“I forgive you.”
A blinding crack of lightning accompanied a booming roll of thunder that shook the old farmhouse. Andrea stepped out of the shadows and ran into Jackson’s waiting arms. The spell was broken. Forgiveness had freed them from their shackles of despair. Life was beginning anew, for all of them.
Copyright © 2020 Lisa Criss Griffin
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