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The Strength Within

"Tomorrow, there would be apologies, tearful regrets and promises that this time would be the last."

Published onFeb 19, 2024
The Strength Within

Photo by Elliot FZ: Pexels.com

Anna perched on the rickety farmhouse porch, her gaze fixed on the dark horizon, and wondered how she had become this person. Trapped and cowered by his anger and moods – she prayed for relief but knew only constant fear and dread. She watched the afternoon sun fall lower in the sky as the bank of soft, innocuous clouds began to turn vicious and threatening.

Faith, family and persistent hope anchored life in their small Oklahoma town. But with her devotion wavering and estranged from her family, Anna found it impossible to dream. At first glance, the surface of Mason’s façade showed no outward cracks or fissures, not even to the most perceptive eyes. But she knew. Bubbles of pain hid underneath an otherwise placid surface, like a silent geyser ready to erupt at the slightest provocation.

In the beginning, Mason charmed her with his protective and attentive manners. But over the years, a slow and insidious march moved them towards the life they now occupied. And still, Anna could not fully fathom the control his demons possessed. However, what she did understand was that his time spent at the local saloon worsened things considerably. Its siren song enticed patrons to escape their tedious lives and drown their fears and doubts - heedless of the anger and violence it might spark. She waited each evening with trepidation, hopeful he would arrive from work with the clean scent of sweat and not the stale remnants of cheap bourbon. Anna knew Mason’s childhood was filled with grief, highlighted by the death of his beloved mother. His father drowned his sorrow in booze and regret, refocusing his anger towards Mason with cruelty and neglect. And unsurprisingly, a bitter well of poison grew in the deepest recesses of Mason’s soul, seeking an outlet to pour its darkness.

#

Anna pulled her gaze from the dark horizon and her thoughts to the present. She glanced back at the doorway, hidden by the eaves of the rickety cottage. She heard the rhythmic sounds of Mason’s slumber, brought on by countless shots of whiskey and the burnt-out fires of adrenaline that soothed him after his anger subsided. Tomorrow, there would be apologies, tearful regrets and promises that this time would be the last. Anna understood it was not just his childhood trauma that fed Mason’s anger. Over the years, continual disappointments nourished the beast that consumed his soul. The economic downturn shuttered the factory doors of their small town and left a swath of unemployed men and women. Many eventually left for the city and better opportunities. Although Mason found a job at a small paper mill, it barely paid the bills. They could only afford to rent a rundown cottage outside of town. Their dreams of a farmhouse and their own land, scattered like dust in the winds of the afternoon storms. And when the disappointments became too difficult to bear, Mason sought the balm of the local saloon until his failures were drowned in a sweet brown haze.

Anna stepped gingerly off the bottom step and cringed as her bruised arm reached out to steady herself. She quietly marveled at how quickly the dark wall of clouds built over the distant wheat fields. The upper levels of the massive thunderhead were glorious, formed by thick layers of white, puffy cotton. Unchecked, the billowing clouds raced to reach the heavens and finally congealed into stiff meringue peaks. Soon, the air around her began to shift, and static electricity made the hairs on her neck tingle. The wind began to stir the leaves in the trees, and a light fragrance drifted toward her from the wild roses twisted around weathered fence posts. Dark midnight blue layers anchored the cloud that shot straight up for miles. Beauty and the beast, light and dark, calm and chaos – forever irreconcilable. As Anna warily watched the storm morph from beautiful to menacing, she knew no shelter existed. What lay within her home or on the horizon were both equally perilous.

As the wind lifted the hem of her skirt, Anna smoothed her hand down the cloth and swore it would be different this time. She would try harder to please, become more patient, accept Mason's faults and forgive him. Were these not the lessons Anna learned each Sunday in the narrow wooden pew as she gazed upon that empty cross? Anna hid his sins with long-sleeved dresses and let her hair cloak a bruised face. After the service, the members of their small congregation avoided talking to Anna. Instead, they focused uncomfortable glances toward the safety of the double doors at the back of the church. All except for Geneviève, Anna’s only friend and owner of the local five-and-dime. She would openly glare at Mason with an undisguised flash of defiant anger at his treatment of her friend. The rest of the congregants simply sighed with resignation and steadfastly defended their decision not to meddle. They all suspected the truth, but to admit it, would acknowledge a mass complicity that could break their small community. Instead, they said silent prayers. Some were thankful this evil had passed their doors, others asked for healing, and likely, a few blamed the devil within her and prayed to cast him out. Only Anna prayed for the strength within.

#

The time she spent at Geneviève’s modest store provided the only peaceful moments in Anna’s otherwise regrettable life. The little shop beckoned to her, a tiny oasis of tranquility with loving touches in the windows that drew customers into its sanctuary. The walls were painted a pale robin-egg blue, and soft piano music played from an ancient turntable. Its melodies drifted around the corners and crevices of the tiny shop and helped soothe her soul. Geneviève’s kind smile and contagious laugh lit up the room and offered Anna a place of serenity. No judgment, no questions, no sideways glances of disapproval.

Earlier that week, Anna had quietly crept down the store’s aisles and searched among the shelves. Her nervous eyes remained hidden behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, strangely out of place in the dimly lit store. Furtively, Anna reached out, held her breath and made her selection. As the item sat on the counter, she wondered if it would disguise the evidence blooming under her pale skin? Anna watched as Geneviève reached under the counter and placed the purchase in a brown paper bag. As she handed over her money, she glanced up and saw Geneviève’s face filled with a storm of emotions. Sadness, anger, concern and fear - a mirror of Anna’s own sentiments. Unwilling to discuss her thoughts, she ducked her head, mumbled a brief word of thanks, tucked the package into her handbag and darted away.

In her bathroom at home, Anna unwrapped the item’s plastic cover and hoped the purchase might satisfy Mason. She held her breath, looked into the mirror, and sighed with equal parts satisfaction and wonder as she watched the tiny applicator create flawless, soft blue lines that perfectly matched her periwinkle irises. She crushed the paper bag to toss it into the bin and, unexpectedly, felt an unknown object under her fingers. Anna reopened the bag, tipped it upside down and watched a small piece of paper flutter out. She turned it over with a gasp of recognition and dropped it as though it physically burned – a bus ticket with its destination marked “unknown.” How had such an omen found its way into her bag? Quickly, she looked around and sought a way to destroy it as panic set in, fearful he would find such evidence of betrayal.

The distant rumble of a diesel engine startled her, and Anna swept the detritus of her purchase and the offensive interloper into the back of the cabinet. She quickly washed her face and smoothed her glossy hair. Hours later, after a blessedly uneventful dinner, she reconsidered the offensive item. Anna knew immediately that Geneviève had surreptitiously tucked it into her bag. It was none of her business and a misguided attempt to solve a problem for which she had no understanding.

The next day, Anna considered her current situation. As she fought back her apprehension, she instinctively knew other women would trade places with her in a heartbeat. They would better understand Mason’s stresses, place his emotional needs above theirs, and accept the occasional difficult evening. She should accept that not every day could be perfect and end with a rainbow and soft caresses. Yet, in the brutal reality of her world, Anna knew she would need to find her strength, now more than ever.

As she cleaned the breakfast dishes and swept the interminable dust from the floors and porch, her mind drifted again to the paper bag under her sink. Her irritation grew as she contemplated the offensive scrap of paper. She could not imagine Geneviève’s audacity to add this to her bag. They simply did not know each other well enough. Geneviève should understand such an inclusion was unwanted and unwelcome.

Anna gathered her indignation and growing anger, marched to the bathroom and scrabbled under the sink. With the poisonous item hidden in her pocket, she marched determinedly out the door, yanked her bicycle from the dusty ground and pointed the handlebars toward town. She would not let this drive another wedge into their marriage. Anna knew she must recognize and denounce this evil doing. Each weekend, her minister preached to watch out for the enemy and find the strength to ward him off. Anna would do that today, and maybe God would reward her.

Anna leaned her bicycle against the beam that held up the three rickety wooden stairs in front of the small shop. She clambered up the steps and stomped towards the dusty glass door. Once open, Anna found it hard to ignore the immediate sense of comfort she experienced as she crossed the threshold. But today, her resolve fueled her pace. Quickly with purpose, she sought an outlet to pour out her resentment. She reached the counter and stopped short seeing an unknown face behind the register. Anna halted, deflated like a balloon, her anger gone, emptied. The new clerk looked up, wiped her brow, and muttered a sound of impatience, clearly annoyed at the disturbance. Anna whispered a barely audible apology at the intrusion and quietly left. All afternoon, she wondered whether the contents of the small paper bag offered a solution or another dilemma. And more importantly, could she trust herself to know the difference?

While Mason’s youth was filled with disappointment, Anna enjoyed a joyful and idyllic childhood in a loving family with parents who adored one another. But Anna had not seen her parents for several years, her troubles hidden in letters sprinkled with false anecdotes of a happy and wonderful life. Her empty promises to come home for holiday visits slowly faded and her correspondence finally stopped entirely. The last letter from her father arrived over a year ago with a gentle reminder to never accept a life without love. Feeling trapped, Anna cut herself off from her family, and from any chance they might learn her secret, lest her fear and shame become exposed.

As she approached the gate that defined their modest property, she stopped in front of the rusty mailbox, forever crooked, no matter how many times she attempted to right it. She scooped out a handful of envelopes and quickly scanned the contents. No longer did she hope for a letter from friends or family. She buried that possibility when she resolutely defended her choices, her man, and her life. And shouldn’t she be rewarded for that? Isn’t that what her vows promised? Better or worse, sickness or health, to forsake all others?

Anna turned over the last envelope and scanned the return address. She gasped with surprise and hope as she smiled at the familiar loopy scrawl of her father. He had not written in over a year, and truthfully, she could not blame him. In their last correspondence, Anna told her father that no room existed in her life for anyone other than Mason. It was simply too complicated and humiliating. Now she held her breath, carefully slid a finger under the seal of the folded flap and silently tugged the crisp linen page onto her lap. Anna unfolded the white parchment, and her tearful eyes read the single sentence. “Never doubt your strength.

Buoyed by the letter and hopeful that her dinner preparations would satisfy Mason, she ducked into the bathroom after the meal and decided to unveil the results of her recent purchase. She looked in the mirror and smiled, confident she portrayed the epitome of womanhood. Anna believed that tonight he would see her and the feminine blush that now rode her cheekbones and twirl her around the cottage, delighted and proud.

Except he did none of these things. Mason quietly watched Anna, softly moved towards her, and cupped her cheek in his hand. He caressed her lips with his thumb before he withdrew the gentle touch. She slowly watched his eyes turn to black pools and his lip curl into a grotesque sneer. His hand shot out with such speed she could not dodge the first blow or the merciless ones that followed. Anna dropped to the floor in a ball and hopelessly attempted to shield her core from the onslaught of pain. Her ears rang and her mouth filled with the coppery tang of blood. From deep inside the storm, she heard him roar with fury before a final crack of pain allowed her to descend into a blissful darkness.

Awakening, she lay still, eyes closed, as she slowly took inventory of her injuries. Her head throbbed, and Anna did not need to touch her temple to know a lump rose under her skin. The worst pain radiated from her arms as she instinctively sought to protect herself. Crumpled on the floor, Anna opened her eyes and surveyed her surroundings. She struggled to determine how long she had been out. An empty bottle sat on the coffee table beside Mason’s still form. His breathing remained shallow, quiet, almost peaceful. A stark juxtaposition to the scene laid out around the room.

She sat up and waited until the cobwebs cleared before she stood and timidly crept out the door to the covered porch. That evening, the storm on the horizon bypassed her front door, but the tempest inside her home finally severed her last thread of safety. Anna watched as the clouds eventually dissipated, the last rays of daylight shrouded by the night sky. Involuntarily, she smoothed her wrinkled and blood-spattered dress over her petite figure as her hand trembled. Suddenly, overcome with utter calm and clarity, she knew the only decision she could make to forever end the pain.

The pungent smell of coffee drifted in from the kitchen as morning dawned clear and crisp. Anna recognized Mason's small attempt in the kitchen as an apology, hopeful for her acceptance and forgiveness. Anna feigned sleep until the front door closed, and his truck roared to life down the gravel drive. She dressed quickly, despite her painful bruises. Anna now understood with absolute certainty, that no other option existed. Her life was irrevocably changed. Mason demanded complete obedience and control, and yesterday, as Anna awoke from under a blanket of unconsciousness, she finally understood. Today, she would take the only way out. People would call her decision cowardly and selfish, but they would never know that ultimately, her sacrifice would be her redemption.

Mercifully, Anna met no one on her ride into town. She cut a lonesome figure as she pedaled through the mists, her handbag in the basket alongside the remnants of the rumpled brown paper bag. Anna entered the store and wandered the aisles until no other customers remained. Geneviève watched her closely like a tiny kitten who might get spooked if one moved too quickly. Slowly, Anna walked to the front of the shop and placed what remained of her last purchase silently on the counter. Geneviève looked cautiously at the object and glanced up at Anna with questions in her eyes. Anna pushed the item towards her and implored her to destroy it. Mason could never know - that was imperative. Geneviève suddenly understood and, with tears in her eyes, nodded her comprehension and realization. She reached across the counter and gently squeezed Anna’s hand, compassion in her touch before she stepped back and readjusted her expression into a mask of neutrality.

Geneviève watched Anna from the window as she stood on the sidewalk across the street, small and forlorn. She tossed the small object Anna entrusted to her into the wood-burning stove that warmed the small shop. No one would ever know the existence of the plastic wand with its two tiny blue lines etched in the center frame. The fire quickly consumed the item, hissing and popping with angry flames until it finally conceded the battle, reduced to smoldering embers. She shifted her focus away from Anna’s slight figure, distracted by the appearance of a large vehicle that lumbered down the street directly toward the girl. Suddenly, Anna raised her head and glanced at Geneviève in the shop window. Anna reflexively placed her hand over her stomach, offered a sad smile of resignation, and stepped off the curb. In seconds, the vehicle came upon her in a cloud of dust. Its brakes squealed to a violent and unexpected halt as the driver registered her at the last minute. Geneviève remained at the window and watched the final scene, her throat thick with a stifled cry of loss. Her pang of sorrow mixed with an odd sense of gentle satisfaction as the dust settled. And before turning away, Geneviève softly smiled as she watched Anna step forward and offer the wrinkled bus ticket in her outstretched hand.

THE END


Bio: Laura is an emerging writer who lives, works and plays in the beautiful state of Colorado and appreciates the beauty of cultivating friendships, the honesty of a hard day’s work and the joy of living each day in wonder of the next.

Comments
1
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Craig Hellier:

A++

*****

Enthralling. A quick, enjoyable read that paints the settings with life-like colors.

Sometimes the choices which with we’re faced demand impossible decisions; sometimes we’re simply left with none.