Brooke Winslow heard a child’s laughter and looked across the lobby, spotting the little girl cheerfully playing with a set of building blocks. Her blonde hair hung in one long braid down her back and she wore a pretty yellow dress. She had beautiful bright green eyes. “Look, Mommy. I built a tower.”
Her mother glanced up from the magazine she was flipping through. “Oh sweetheart, what a stable tower it is too.”
Feeling a sudden twinge in her chest, Brooke turned away, barely able to catch her breath. Why was she doing this? She stood up, gained her equilibrium, then started for the glass doors that would take her back out to her car—away from the possibility of having a panic attack in front of the people waiting in the lobby. She’d gotten better at staying in control, but on occasion she found herself coming unglued from the demons that still haunted her.
She gripped the cold handle of the door just as she heard her name being called, “Ms. Winslow. The doctor will see you now.”
Her mind raced. Her heart skipped a beat. She could easily scurry out and skip the appointment. Being here didn’t help anyway. She hated opening up and talking about the tragedy that turned her world upside down. Why couldn’t people just understand that not everyone needed to talk about their feelings?
Fingers touched her shoulder and she spun around, coming face to face with the receptionist. “Ms. Winslow, Dr. Forester will see you now.”
Several people had turned to watch her. She wondered if they too wanted to break free?
Oh, phooey. Brooke had no other choice but to let go of the handle to freedom and follow the receptionist. Part way down the hall Brooke heard sniffling coming from a room to the right. She caught a glimpse of a woman with her head bowed and her shoulders shaking. Brooke’s breath hitched and she clenched her hands into fists. Crying happened a lot here. But not for her—not anymore. After three years, the tears had dried up. Too bad the memories were as fresh as newly picked blueberries.
“How are you today, Ms. Winslow?” the receptionist asked as she motioned for them to continue on their way.
The question came more as a distraction than civil conversation. “Peachy.”
If the other woman picked up on any sarcasm in the answer, she didn’t let on.
They stopped at the last doorway, Dr. Forester’s office—a forty-something, attractive blonde who always dressed in impeccable pant suits. She had also recently divorced her husband of ten years. They had no children and a mansion with lots of bedrooms and a tennis court. Brooke only knew this because she’d overheard the receptionist and a nurse discussing the details when they thought they were alone. Usually Brooke passed on eavesdropping, but it did break up the monotony of sitting in the lobby and staring at a watercolor.
On the threshold into the room, she hesitated. It wasn’t that she disliked Dr. Forester or her help, but what could be done? The past was over and the pain had embedded itself deep inside of Brooke’s bone marrow. Not even a therapist could rid her of the heartache, the memories, and the knowledge that she couldn’t save Jessie.
Many times in the last year, Brooke had picked up the phone to cancel her appointments, but then she’d hang up. Dr. Forester had become a crutch for Brooke.
“Brooke, come in.” Dr. Forester stood up from behind her desk and smoothed her black jacket. Brooke couldn’t remember ever seeing the elegant woman unruffled or wrinkled. Her clothes were pressed and spotless. Her makeup had been applied with a detailed hand, hiding any physical flaws that she might have. She had to have at least one, but up until now, Brooke hadn’t found it. Even the desk was tidy and clean.
Brooke crossed the room, aware of her own disheveled appearance. Before leaving the house she’d thrown on a T-shirt and jeans and pulled her hair up into a messy bun. If she cared, she would have gone for the right side of her closet where her nicer things were hung, but the problem was, she didn’t.
Sitting in the comfortable flowered chair next to the window that overlooked downtown Atlanta, she had to admit that she liked the view…and the overstuffed chair that gave her a cushiony hug. It was the highlight of her visits to her therapist. She placed her purse on the table.
Dr. Forester took the chair across from Brooke, her handy notepad and pen sitting on the coffee table between them, probably from her last client who she’d needled through their problems for answers. Brooke reminded herself that she needed to stay open to help, but there came a point when Dr. Forester would have to come to the conclusion, just as Brooke had, that some things just couldn’t be fixed. Instead, they had to be buried instead. She had the shovel and the spot for burial, but it just didn’t seem possible to start digging. Not yet.
“Good morning, Brooke.” Dr. Forester smiled and picked up her notebook, clicking the pen exactly three times, as always. Brooke guessed it was a form of energy release, or maybe a habit.
“Good morning.” Brooke smiled in return.
“How are you? Are you sleeping any better?”
Brooke crossed her legs, gearing herself up for reflecting on her issues and her messy emotions. “I’m now sleeping four hours straight so definitely an improvement.”
“Are you still taking the pills I prescribed?” Her blue eyes seemed to drill straight through Brooke.
“Not for a long time. I didn’t like how they made me feel.” Honesty was the best policy, but it probably wouldn’t settle well with Dr. Forester.
Although she was always careful not to show her displeasure in her body language, Dr. Forester actually had several wrinkles appear around her eyes. She leaned forward and met Brooke’s gaze. “I understand you don’t want to take medication, but you have to be willing to try. It’s been three years, Brooke. The accident…you must stop feeling guilty that you lived and they didn’t. Remember, the accident was investigated and the driver of the other vehicle ran a red light. You could have easily died too.”
“Dana,” Brooke whispered.
“Dana was the woman’s name, and her daughter was Jessie.”
Dr. Forester looked down at her finely manicured hands for a second. “I can relate to how you must have felt—”
“No, you can’t. I assure you, no one knows until they’ve experienced it firsthand,” she muttered, clasping her hands together in her lap.
The other woman’s features softened slightly. “You know I’m here to help you. If only you’d let me.”
“Medication won’t help.”
“Time will help heal.”
Brooke laughed, but the sound was cold and grating, even to her own ears. “The screams…they were awful. The little girl was only four. She was crying for her mommy…who-who was already gone. I tried everything to reach the backseat—I tried…then I was pulled away.”
“You were saved.”
Brooke’s gaze automatically fell to her scarred hand, barely remembering the time she spent in the hospital while they worked on her. They’d told her she was lucky to have survived the car fire, but she hadn’t considered herself lucky, not when she’d never forget the face of Jessie, the frightened look in her eyes just seconds before the upside down car caught on fire. “This isn’t saved,” she murmured and tugged her sleeve down her wrist. Sometimes it was the only way to hide.
“I understand you feel that living when the mother and child didn’t is an act of punishment, and not fortune, but when you were struck by the vehicle, you suffered severe injuries. It was a miracle that you made it out of your car at all, not to mention having an opportunity to help Jessie and her mother. It’s difficult to see this now, but in time you will find happiness.”
“Happiness? These aren’t the only scars I carry.” Brooke tapped her wrist through the shirt.
“Have you thought about opening another flower shop? You had a lucrative business before…” She must have rethought mentioning the accident again.
“I lost interest. That’s why I sold the shop.”
“Have you started painting again? Painting can actually be very therapeutic.”
Brooke gave her head a quick shake. “No.” Before the accident she had lived and breathed her flower shop along with her painting. It was her livelihood—and her life. She had been coming home from a late night at work preparing arrangements for a wedding when her life had changed. She often wondered if things would have been different if she’d left work just a few minutes earlier or later, would the mother and child have lived?
After months of rehab and therapy on her hand and her mind, she tried to get back to her business, but sales had suffered. Deciding to sell had been one of the hardest decisions she’d ever made, but in the long run, the best choice. Once she was home with nothing to occupy her thoughts, she’d picked up a brush again, but her mind refused to cooperate. Dr. Forester had encouraged Brooke many times to start again, but saying it and doing it were two different things.
Dr. Forester eased back into her chair, one corner of her mouth lowering in discontent. “I worry that if you’re not getting enough sleep—”
“That I’ll try to do this again?” Brooke refused to look at the superficial white scar on her wrist. She wished she could take a scouring pad and scrub the reminders away of how lost she had been after the accident. Once the blade had cut her skin, she’d heard a voice, telling her that she must live. “Don’t worry, Dr. Forester. I’m not in the same place.”
The other woman nodded. “I realize you’re not.”
Although Brooke had heard the words, she doubted how truthful the doctor was being. It seemed that no one looked at her the same, especially her next door neighbor, Janet, who’d walked in and found Brooke in the bath tub bleeding. They’d once been best friends, but there was an iron wall between them now. Maybe Janet didn’t want to be friends with someone who’d be willing to give up living, but no one understood the torment of watching a child, crying for her mother, and not being able to save her. Every waking hour, every dream and nightmare, every second was consumed with the screams…
“I know I must frustrate you, doc. That’s not my intention.”
Dr. Forester smiled—a kind smile that she didn’t offer too often. “You need a change, Brooke. Have you thought about taking a vacation? Visiting relatives? Flying to a remote island and dance like no one’s watching.”
“Is this your way of breaking up with me?” Brooke laughed, but it lacked humor.
“This is my way of saying when the old ways of doing things aren’t working, it’s high time to try something else. New surroundings might be a breath of fresh air.”
“Where would I go that memories can’t find me?”
When the session was over, Brooke drove to her apartment and stopped at her post office box. Shuffling through endless junk mail, she finally came to a formal looking envelope. And strangely, it was addressed from an attorney in Kerrville, Texas. The only person she knew in Texas was her grandmother who she hadn’t seen in more than twenty years. She used to visit when she was young until her mom and dad divorced. Her mom had gotten custody of her and Brooke never visited Kerrville again. Her grandmother wasn’t the only absent family though. She hadn’t seen her father in so long that she wasn’t sure what he would look like now. They just seemed to drift apart. As far as she knew, he worked on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean and was gone for months at a time. He never remarried or had any other children. Brooke’s mom, Rita, never spoke his name. In fact, she was so busy with her millionaire husband traveling to exotic locations that Brooke could easily forget that her mother wasn’t gone too. After the accident, Rita had visited for a short time, but she had planned an Italy vacation that couldn’t be canceled. So she’d written Brooke a sizable check, that she’d refused but no one says no to Rita, to help with medical bills and left on a midnight plane.
Inside her apartment, she tossed the junk mail into the trash and threw the letter from the attorney onto the table. Grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge, she uncapped it and drank thirstily. Her gaze naturally fell to the envelope again and she started for it when her cell phone rang. She hit ‘talk’.
“Ms. Brooke Winslow?” an unfamiliar male voice asked from the other end of the line.
Now she regretted not checking caller ID first. “Yes.”
“This is Hubert Monroe. You don’t know me. In fact, it took me a while to track you down. I was your grandmother’s attorney here in Kerrville, Texas.”
Her eyes automatically shifted to the unopened letter. His name was printed on the return address. “I just received a letter from you today. I haven’t had an opportunity to read it.”
“It’s best we talk anyway. Let me explain why I’m calling. It is with great sorrow that I have to be the one to tell you that your grandmother passed away several days ago. She’d been ill for some time.”
Brooke squeezed the phone until her fingers ached. She didn’t know her grandmother very well, but it didn’t mean she wasn’t saddened to hear that she’d passed. “I’m sorry to hear this. I-I didn’t know…”
“Yes, Beatrice explained that she hadn’t seen or spoken with you in a while, which I’m sure makes this call even more awkward. She asked that upon her passing I call and inform you of the funeral arrangements. I’ve included the time and date in the letter, and the address to the cemetery.”
“This is all so sudden.”
“I know it must be, Ms. Winslow. I’m just carrying out my late client’s wishes. There are finer details we need to discuss. Beatrice owned a farm in Kerrville and she had a little savings stashed which she has left to you. If you can attend the funeral services, I’d like to sit down with you before or after. I’ll also need your signature on a few documents, but all in all, she had everything in order when she passed. Beatrice didn’t like loose ends and knew her time was coming fast.”
Brooke had a loss for words. “But she had a son, my father…”
There was a short hesitation. “Yes, unfortunately there was a falling out between your grandmother and Ronald. I’m not aware of the circumstances, but it was clearly written in her will who should inherit her assets, and that’s you, Ms. Winslow.”
Acid washed up her throat. “Forgive me, I’m a little stunned. I wasn’t even sure she remembered who I was.”
His sigh vibrated the line. “She remembered you. Kerrville’s a long way from Atlanta, but I know your grandmother was adamant on having you come here. And we do need to tie up the details. Although your grandmother had been living in a nursing home the last few months, she had hired caretakers for the farmhouse and her hands stayed on taking care of the property, the livestock, and dwellings. The house will be available for you to stay in, so no worries on finding accommodations while you’re here. She also had renters in the guesthouse…but we can discuss all of those things when you get here, after you’ve had some time to absorb the delicate news. I look forward to meeting you, Ms. Winslow. Your grandmother was a lovely woman. The community will miss her greatly.”
Not sure what answer to give him, she took his offering to let things ‘absorb’ and they hung up. She pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and sat as sadness crawled through her.
Once upon a time, Brooke had cared that her father had disappeared, not calling, visiting or making any attempt to show that he cared. She’d also wanted to visit her grandmother, remembering how she’d made delicious fluffy pancakes every morning for breakfast and how her long, silver hair hung down her back. She’d spend thirty minutes brushing her locks into a satin sheen. Then she’d braid them. Brooke used to sit and watch, mesmerized by the length and color. She couldn’t remember much more than just those few, simple things.
A soft knock on the door interrupted Brooke’s thoughts.
When she opened the door to find Janet standing in the hall, shock spiraled through her.
“I hope I’m not bothering you at a bad time?” Janet’s hands were clasped tightly at her waist.
For the first time in a long time, Brooke was grateful to see her friend. “Would you like to come in?” She took a step back.
“I would love to.”
“Can I get you anything? Maybe a glass of wine?” Brooke closed the door.
“Sure.” Janet thrummed her fingers on the table as Brooke poured white wine into two glasses. “You must be wondering why I’m here.”
Brooke lifted a shoulder and let it drop. “Yes, I guess I am.”
The other woman seemed uncomfortable. “I’m moving. Dennis and I are getting married. You remember him?”
“The dog groomer?”
“Yes, that’s him. We bought a house in the suburbs. Imagine me living in the suburbs.” She laughed, but it quickly fizzled. “Anyway, I thought saying goodbye in person would be a good idea.”
Brooke rolled the tip of her finger along the rim of her glass. “I’m happy for you. I really am.”
“I…well, I shouldn’t…” Janet blinked.
“Go ahead. If you have something to say, please do.”
Several long seconds passed. “I was packing yesterday and I came across a picture of us taken while we were on that trip to Hawaii.” She sipped her wine. “Those days, the happier times, seem so long ago. I always envied how you could light up a room when you walked in. You were always happy and your smile was contagious.”
“Before the accident,” Brooke whispered.
“You can be that woman again. I know you can be.” Janet patted her hand.
They spoke a while longer, laughing over the fun times, yet dancing around the true issue that ended their friendship.
“I’m glad you came.” Brooke meant it. “And thank you for allowing me to vent about my grandmother passing.”
“Thank you for the wine. I should be going. I’m so behind in getting boxes packed.” Janet stood and started for the door.
“Yes?” Her friend looked over her shoulder.
“Why did you stop speaking to me?” What did she have to lose by asking?
Another moment of silence, then Janet responded, “There’s nothing more hurtful than seeing your best friend in hell, and there’s nothing you can do to save her. You weren’t the only one who suffered, Brooke,” she said quietly. “I lost my friend. I know I have no right to give you advice, but go to Kerrville. Find yourself.” Then she left.
Alone in her turmoil, Brooke dropped her forehead to the table and wept, something she hadn’t done in a very long time. The tears finally dried and she got up. In her bedroom, she removed her T-shirt and jeans, exchanging them for a comfortable pair of pajama bottoms and tank top. Out of habit, she ended up inside of her studio where unfinished paintings lined one wall. She stared at them blankly, wishing colorful patterns and images would fill her mind like they used to. There was a time when she couldn’t contain all of the ideas and paint fast enough. Now she was lucky to finish one painting.
She ambled back into the kitchen and took out sliced turkey, cheese, and mayo from the fridge and lined them up on the counter with a loaf of bread. She wasn’t hungry, but she hadn’t eaten all day. Starving herself was a thing of the past. She guessed she had come that far.
Sitting down in her favorite chair and munching on the sandwich, she flipped through her planner. She skipped several blank pages and closed the cover. No dates for parties. No socializing evenings ahead. Nothing but emptiness.
Everything was before the accident. Her life was divided into halves. ‘Before the accident’ when she was how her friends remembered her. And then ‘after the accident’, a time that has become a dreary, lonely existence.
A meow sounded. Brooke bent over and met a pair of yellow eyes. “Macy, where have you been hiding?”
The fluffy, black cat jumped onto her lap and purred loudly.
Brooke gave her a scratch behind the ear. “Are you being this friendly just so I’ll share?” She picked off a bit of turkey and laid it down for the cat. Brooke had gotten her five years ago when she was a kitten and she’d been a loyal friend.
“Do you think Dr. Forester is right, Macy? Do I need a change?” Brooke rolled her eyes. “I’m talking to a cat as if she’ll answer me. That has to be a sign.”
As much as she hated to admit it, Dr. Forester had a point. Unless Brooke started helping herself, nothing else would matter. If only she knew how to help herself. Even her friends were moving on.
She automatically shifted her gaze to the letter on the table. It beckoned her like a spotlight.
She stood, which sent the cat jumping to the floor with a meow of complaint. “I don’t want to become the loner ‘cat lady’. I love you, Macy, but you’re not much for conversation.”
Leaving her plate of the half eaten sandwich on the counter, she opened the letter and read it.
She dropped the paper to the table.
There was no way she could go to Kerrville. She was just too busy doing nothing.
She didn’t want the property, the house, or anything else. Her grandmother could have made an effort to see Brooke. Why hadn’t she? The road traveled both directions.
Turning on her heel, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror hanging on the wall. Her long, blonde hair was piled high on top of her head and misbehaving strands had found their way around her cheeks. Her skin was dull. Her eyes were lined with dark circles. And her clothes hung off her body. She was a mess—a hot mess. Her left hand seemed to draw her in like a magnet. The burn scars had faded a lot with the help of a specialist, but people always asked questions—questions she wasn’t prepared to answer. Although she’d come a long way, she was still dealing with demons. Internal and external scars had kept her from living life. Beyond what some people thought, she did want to live. If only she could get beyond that little girl’s cries…