Healing Grace, a novel
copyright by Lisa J Lickel
Grace Runyon paused in the doorway of the little house. She listened to the real estate agent drive away with a little zip and a crunch of the gravel drive and felt a moment’s panic.
“Not buyer’s remorse at this stage of the game, my good woman.” She marched inside, carrying two overloaded paper bags of supplies from the convenience mart. “And stop talking to yourself.”
The real estate lady had checked the lights to make sure the local electric company in tiny East Bay, Michigan had “turned her on”—her words. Grace’s responding chuckle came out like a zebra snort, one that smelled lion and was trying to warn the herd.
“You’ll be all right,” the plump, business-like woman reassured her before she left. “It’s a ways out of town, but not too far, and the neighbors are good people.” She looked down at the drive and stirred some gravel with her brown patent pump. “In fact, this place used to belong to one of the brothers next door.”
She pressed a card into Grace’s limp hand. “Now, here’s my card. You just call any time.”
One of the brothers? Not information pertinent to the deed, she hoped.
Grace had merely glanced at the place before signing the papers yesterday. “The house hasn’t been opened in a number of months. The last occupant was ill,” the agent said. “I can give you the name of a good cleaning crew.”
“A little dirt doesn’t scare me. I can handle it,” she’d blithely replied.
Today, in the sparse rays of early spring through fly-specked windows, she wondered if she’d been a little hasty. The dusty, braided rug did not look like an inviting place to set down the sacks she toted in from her green Subaru.
Deep, calming breaths read the story of the place: sickness and neglect hovered almost tangibly. Cobwebs, glittering dust motes. Dangerously lopsided drapes.
A lonely pile of toys, a car and some plastic figures she didn’t recognize huddled beneath a cobwebby weight bench in the corner near the open stairway.
Passing through an opening across the long, narrow room, she found herself in the kitchen—a sad, neglected kitchen—and definitely not the heart of this home. She set the bags on the table and dumped her purse on a chair and turning slowly. What made her crazy enough to buy this house?
“Who paints a kitchen ice-green? And what’s up with the grinning daisies? Honestly.”
Her Tennessee kitchen had been painted a cheerful yellow and kept as spotless as her exam room at the clinic.
Something rustled in the cupboards. Hopefully only mice. She sighed and picked up two forks and a bent serving spoon that had been left on the kitchen table. Flotsam, napkin bits, and nut shells of some kind decorated the cracked and scorched ancient linoleum countertops.
She opened one of the packages of cheap paper towels she’d purchased and used one to gingerly swipe away attached spider webs. With a grimace she quickly thrust the wad into a trash bag and cinched it with a zip tie. You wish it was that easy to erase your past, don’t you? Created a web of a mess. Ran—right from the funeral. Who’s left to clean up after you?
Grace blinked and twisted the porcelain handle of the tap. Warm orange gunk gurgled out and spewed thickly around the stained sink bowl. At least it didn’t smell bad. She cheered when it soon cleared up.
“Call me easily pleased. And, seriously, stop talking to yourself.”
She pulled a pad of paper from her leather handbag and toured the one and a half story cottage, making notes of the supplies she needed. Clean first, then patch. Definitely paint. And figure out some furniture. Something to sleep on. “Do I even have a hammer? Talk about starting from scratch.”
Putting together a whole new life after everything she’d been through was risky. She wasn’t exactly hiding, but neither did she care to let anyone know where to find her. Yet. In good time. When the wounds weren’t so fresh and raw; when the wonder of her failure faded from their memories. Jonathan had been a good man. He hadn’t deserved his fate.
Her heart ached for him, for what they’d lost, even though he’d been dying for a long time. Losing him was more of a release.
Still, they blamed her. And rightfully so. So she gave them what they wanted. Her absence.
Time for a normal life, remember?
A good night’s sleep will do wonders.
By the time the sun faded, Grace had exhausted herself. Scrubbing the kitchen and a cubby of a room behind it she’d claim for her own took buckets of hot water and a pair of neon-yellow rubber gloves, but at least she’d have a clean spot to lay her mattress and sleeping bag. Too tired to eat, she’d stretched herself out and groaned. Thirty-five-year-olds should not be this out of shape.
The room seemed to whirl in a nauseating kaleidoscopic frenzy. No! She wasn’t ready to think about it. Not yet. When she focused again, she stood in bright daylight, looking down into the newly dug hole. Without looking up she knew they were there, standing around her and staring, accusing.
“Your fault! You let this happen! You let him die when you should have saved him!”
“I wanted to!” God knows she wanted to save Jonathan. “He was the one—he told me not to try again.” At first, she’d tried to help. Of course she did. He was all she had left. Everyone needed him. Everyone loved him. But it had hurt so much when she touched him. She hadn’t complained, but after that second time when they had to revive her in the ER, shocked out of her ability to feel anything, Jonathan made her go home. Alone. She’d been more afraid of that than the pain.
She drifted into the nightmare again. Jonathan’s father had his back to her. As she watched, they all, one by one, turned their backs until only Lena, her best friend, was left. “Please, Lena, not you too!”
Running away over the clipped grass of the cemetery seemed the smartest thing she could do. Run, run! Why couldn’t she get anywhere? Her high heels stuck in the lawn and she couldn’t pull free.
Grace reached automatically for the warmth that was no longer there anchoring the other side of the bed. She forced her eyes open against the sleep-tears that nearly welded them shut. The blackness of the room calmed her frantic breathing. She lay still a moment, stars from smacking her head against the wooden floor buzzing like angry lightning bugs. She pushed the tangled sleeping bag from her legs and got to her knees, willing her legs to hold her, her ankles to be strong. She stood. So much for sleep tonight, the first in her new home. If she had to be alone now, at least it was amongst strangers who didn’t know what she’d done.
By the third day and the fifth trip into town, Grace decided to treat herself to a side trip. She had passed often enough the sweet chalet-style building that housed the local library. Time to stop in.
“So, you’ve taken over the Marshall house? It’s an afterthought—you know—a whad’ya call it, mother-in-law’s cottage? Built on the edge of a big apple orchard,” Marie Richards, the town librarian, told her when she went to apply for a card. “The Marshalls, now, they did real well. Put this town on the map, you know. Keep us alive these days through the co-op.”
Grace nodded and smiled as if she knew what the woman was chatting about. The librarian went on to tell her that the property edged East Bay, and was not actually in the village limits. The apple trees had been torn out and not replanted.
Uh-huh, well, there was something Grace could do on rainy days—dig up local history. Something new to learn, instead of the almost intuitive understanding that came with being raised in Woodside, where their story was almost like an extra rib or a twenty-fifth vertebrae. “Thanks, Marie, bye now.” Next errand.
The local resale shop proved to be a blessing filling in for her missing wardrobe and no one there said a thing when she went back three days in a row, modeling the former day’s purchase. Casual clothes…something she’d found grimly amusing for her new life of leisure. Her beautiful suits and silk dinner dresses would be so out of place here; running away as she had might have been a blessing in disguise, if she wanted to try to fit in. She certainly had no need of her uniforms. She’d missed the nice leather recliner set she and Jonathan had purchased for the family room, though. Could she stomach buying something others had used, touched with their germy hands, mite-infiltrated clothing, infested pets? Maybe slipcovers for a sofa and some chairs would be all right. She could use some dishes instead of paper plates.
Service for one.
On Saturday Grace was so intent on brushing cobwebs down from the high ceilings she didn’t notice company coming until pounding on the front door rattled the pane. She screeched and nearly tumbled off the kitchen chair. A peek through wavy glass revealed her visitors: a delegation of two.
“One and a half,” she amended as she pulled off the threadbare tee shirt covering her hair. She cautiously opened the oak front door to a man and a small boy. “Good afternoon.”
The man was very tall, black-haired, and comic book gaunt. He leaned on one crutch and stared through narrowed eyes, frowning, as though he had not expected to see her. A little boy held a pillowcase with something lumpy inside and the other hand of the man. She thought she recognized them from the day at the bank when she went to sign the closing papers for the house. She had been surprised to find no one besides the real estate agent and the bank’s vice president at the meeting. The former owners had not been able to stay and meet her, but everything was in order, she was told.
The man cleared his throat and spoke at last, breathlessly. “I—we—wanted to see that you were all right,” he said, glancing down at the child and then back at her face.
“Yes, thank you, I’m fine. Last occupants apparently left in a hurry,” she replied.
“Um, right. I guess the place is a mess. If you need help with anything…” His voice fell away. Grace guessed the “you can call me” would be meaningless, and not just to her. His sallow face paled. Perspiration trickled down his temple, even though the air was cool. His left arm and leg started to quiver. Sweat rolled past the startling white rictus of a scar, along the premature age line around his eyes, and dripped down his jaw onto his faded navy shirt labeled “Sleeping Bear Dunes.”
Grace slumped against the doorframe, breathing shallowly, trying not to scream or burst into tears. God’s sense of humor escaped her. Why did he insist on making her the butt of a cosmic joke? The last few days had only been a calm moment in the midst of a virtual hurricane. This man, whistled in her inner ear; This is why I brought you here. For your touch.
She willed the voice into silence and shuttered her heart. No.
Grace waited on the porch until the silence became uncomfortable.
“Are you all right, ma’am?”
“Yes.” The word came out more clipped than she’d intended; ice instead of pleasant. “How may I help you?” As she spoke, she blinked away the thought of his eyes echoing the color of the Morning Glory pool at Yellowstone. Jonathan’s eyes had been a mossy brown. Grace looked down at the child. He stood behind the man’s legs, clutching the bag to his chin, and peeked back at her, anxiety creasing his forehead.
Really, God? Is it necessary to punish me this way? Grace bit the inside of her cheek so hard she tasted sweet rust. But she would not, not, not, let anything touch her heart. Ever again.
The man urged the child forward.
“Give Mrs., ah, Mrs. …”
“…Runyon the bread.”
A miniature grubby hand thrust the pillowcase in Grace’s direction.
“Good job, Eds. I’m Ted Marshall,” he said, apparently recalling they had not exchanged names. “And this is my son, Eddy.”
Eddy stuck his head sideways from around the side of his father, eyed her solemnly, and then disappeared again.
Grace took the bundle. “Nice to meet you both. I’m Grace Runyon.” She did not offer to shake hands. Although running away from Woodside more than likely lessened the strength of the gift, she wasn’t taking chances. Besides, it was strictly forbidden to let strangers know what happened there. “Thank you for your thoughtfulness.”
“I—can—work a bread—machine.” He wobbled and reached a hand out to steady himself against the jamb.
She reached out anyway, stopping just short when he held up the same hand to ward her off. “I’m all right. Just give me a second.”
“Um, thank you, Mr. Marshall, and Eddy, for the bread. Would you like to come in and sit for a minute?” The case felt cozy in her hand, warm from the fresh-baked loaf and the child’s hand.
“Ted. Call me Ted. We have to get back.” He straightened using the crutch. “I have an appointment, but thanks anyway. We’re over there”—he indicated a hedge of tall scraggly bushes— “on the other side. At the house.” They turned and clumped across the gray-green, cupped porch boards. Eddy looked back through the open door. Grace followed his gaze to the abandoned toys piled in the middle of the room. He turned and bent to grasp his father’s crutch to help him manipulate down the steps.
Ah. “One of the brothers” now made sense. She watched, her mouth pursed. How old was the child? Maybe four? Too young to have to help a parent.
She looked up at the ceiling of the living room, free of webs but showing cracks in the white paint. “I will not, Lord! No! You brought me here for a reason, but not that. Please, not yet… I want to be free for a while! Away from sickness and everyone else’s hurt. Let me heal myself, first.” Sinking down and slapping the tee shirt against the smooth floorboards, she hunched up her knees. Staring at nothing, she let her forehead rest against her wrists and rocked. No tears. You promised. No feelings. If you don’t feel, you can’t hurt.
A long time later Grace ate dinner, butter melting on the re-warmed slice of bread. She sat at the now shiny chrome kitchen table, occupied with thoughts about her visitors. Ted was obviously the former occupant. Her medical curiosity took over and thrust back the emotion threatening her slim self-control. What was the nature of his illness? He had received some terrible injury, evident in the scar on his head, but was it related to the need for a crutch? Usually a head injury didn’t count as “ill” like the real estate lady said.
Well, her neighbors were none of her business. She took her dishes over to the sink and ran some water. Not that sweet little boy with the poignant eyes. Certainly not his enigmatic father. And no way was she interested in knowing where Eddy’s mother was. If she didn’t get to know them better, it would be easier not to care. If she didn’t care all that much, she wouldn’t feel obligated to help them. If she didn’t try to help them, she wouldn’t fail. If she never had to fail, she couldn’t be hurt by it. If she wasn’t hurt, she’d win. If she beat the emotion game, maybe someday she could blend in here, her new home, and nothing could drive her away.
When she accidentally splashed suds on the wall next to the sink, she picked at a bubbling daisy. Underneath, the walls had once been sunny yellow.