Conflict, p.17
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       Conflict, p.17

           M. S. Willis
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  He chuckled when he said, “Let’s check in first, Damsel, then we’ll get you your fix.”

  We approached the desk and a silver-haired, elderly woman looked up from her computer monitor. Her face was lined with wrinkles, but the placement of those lines on her face made you realize they were from years of smiling. The skin crinkled around her eyes and her bright grin was infectious. She wore a silk button up coral shirt that tied at the top and her hair was pulled back into a simple bun.

  “Hello. Can I help you three?”

  I couldn’t help but smile back at her. She reminded me of someone’s grandmother, the type that would have milk and cookies waiting for you every time you visit. “Hi, my name is Paige Stone. Dr. Carter called me a little bit ago and told me that my friend, Annie Marks, is waiting to see me.

  “Ah, yes, Dr. Carter called up to let me know we were expecting you.” She picked up the phone on the desk. “I’ll just let her know you are here. You can take a seat over there. You are welcome to coffee or water while you wait.” She smiled again and then was busily dialing a number. She didn’t have to ask me twice about coffee and once again and I was headed in the direction of the machine.

  I grabbed one of the little Styrofoam cups and started putting together my usual mixture of creamer and sugar. I poured in the hot, black liquid and brought it to my lips for my first sip. As soon as the coffee hit my tongue, I was instantly energized from the refreshment. I momentarily pondered if my addiction was a problem. I imagined myself standing before a crowd of people, confessing to my love of all things java. “Hello. My name is Paige and I’m addicted to coffee.” I chuckled at the thought and then took a seat by Daemon and David.

  Within a few minutes, a short, black haired woman came walking out of some double doors by the reception desk. She wore a white lab coat and her heels clicked along the tiled floors as she walked. She turned in our direction and a kind smiled played across her face when she saw us. Assuming she was Dr. Carter, I stood up and met her halfway through the reception area.

  She reached out and shook my hand. “You must be Paige. It’s nice to meet you. Annie has told me a lot about you.”

  I nodded my head in response and it felt awkward not to be able to return the sentiment. I haven’t spoken to Annie since the attack and I knew nothing about the doctors or nurses that cared for her in the facility.

  Dr. Carter started leading me back to the double doors from which she entered and I glanced back over my shoulder. Daemon gave me an encouraging smile and David looked like he was about to pass out from his nervousness. My heart went out to David. I know how anxious he was for Annie to recover.

  The halls of the facility were quiet for the most part and we were only occasionally passed by staff people as they came and went from the patient’s rooms lining the right side of the hall. I looked around the facility as we walked and Dr. Carter surprised me when she suddenly spoke.

  “I’m glad you were able to get here as soon as you did. Due to privacy laws, I can’t give you too much information on Annie’s current condition, but I can tell you that you will be pleasantly surprised by her progress. She’s a strong woman and I think she will be ready to leave here in the next couple of weeks. She mentioned that your parents had a facility in the panhandle that she would like to be transferred to after leaving here and I was hoping you could give me their contact information before you leave today. I’d like to get in touch with them and find out more about their facility to ensure that it will be a good fit for Annie.’

  I cleared my throat and said, “Um, yeah, of course. I’ll give you my mother’s contact information and she can get you all the information you’ll need. They’ve been running the facility for a little over twenty years now and they’ve developed several different programs for their residents. Those programs are tailored to the needs of the resident, obviously, but she can explain all of that to you.”

  Dr. Carter smiled and suddenly stopped in front of one of the doors on the right. “Well, here we are. The room is private, so you and Annie should be able to talk without interruption. I’m going to check on some other patients, but I’ll be back within the hour. If you need anything, Annie is familiar with making requests from the nursing staff. Thank you again for responding as quickly as you have. Annie is in need of a strong support system and I’m pleased to know that she has friends who are willing to jump when she calls.”

  I smiled at her but my smile faltered when I turned to open the door. My hand came down on the handle and I took a deep breath before pushing down on the lever and letting myself inside the room. The walls of the room were painted a light yellow and the general ambiance was happy yet soothing. There was a small bed in the middle of the room with a plain white comforter strewn across it. On the walls were photos of different types of flowers and other nature scenes. Annie was seated in a patterned wingback chair near the large window. Her gaze was trained outside as I entered, but she quickly turned to look at me when I crossed the room. I wasn’t sure what type of reaction to expect from her and I was taken by surprise when she smiled and held out her hands to me.

  I took her hands in mine as soon as I saw her and I pulled her up into a massive bear hug. Tears pricked at my eyes to see that she was doing as well as she was. We broke from our embrace and she sat back down in her chair. I sat in the chair opposite her and couldn’t help but stare at my friend. Her hair was growing back out and life had once again taken residence in her eyes. I was amazed by her progress and wondered if she would even need to go to The Center for additional assistance.

  “Hey Annie. I’m so happy to see you. I was so excited when Dr. Carter called that I rushed over as fast as I could. I’ve missed you and David misses you too.”

  Annie’s mouth turned up in a slight smile. Her eyes flicked to the window before returning to mine. “I think I’m doing better, Paige. I’m not anywhere near where I want to be, but I definitely think I’m ready to leave this place. I wanted to see you to talk to you about going to your parents’ place after I leave here.”

  I nodded my head in understanding and replied, “Well, that can definitely be arranged. Momma and Daddy would love to have you and you are already familiar with The Center, so it should be an easy transition for you.”

  She grinned again but then her gaze returned to the window. It was quiet and I waited for her to continue this conversation on her own terms. I didn’t want to bring up the obvious, but wanted to give her the opportunity to tell me anything she needed to say.

  Her eyes never left the window as she asked, “How’s David? I heard he got…” Her voice cracked as moisture began to pool in her eyes. “I heard he was really hurt that night.” A single tear rolled down her cheek and she swiped at it as if it angered her for having escaped.

  “He’s back to his usual self. He’s staying with Daemon and I while the police continue to look for…”

  Her hand came up to stop me from finishing my thought. “Don’t say his name. Please. I can’t hear his name still without…” Her head dropped down into her hands and her small body shook as she resisted crying.

  “Okay, Annie, I won’t say his name. I’m sorry I said anything about him at all.” I suddenly felt like absolute shit for not having been more sensitive. I knew better than to bring him up, but I was so excited to be talking to her, I didn’t think before I spoke.

  Her head shot up and her eyes caught mine. “Can she fix me, Paige?”

  My brows furrowed for a second from the confusing question. “Can who fix you?

  “Your mom.” Her voice was calm and matter of fact while her eyes were filled with a mixture of desperation and hope.

  I shook my head in silent objection before saying, “Momma doesn’t fix you Annie. You fix you. Momma just tells you how.”

  Annie let out a humorless laugh. “I’m too broken to fix myself. You know, like the stupid nursery rhyme with the egg on the wall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Annie back together
again.” Her voice was bitter and distant when she repeated her version of the rhyme.

  My heart fell at her words. “Annie, you’re not broken. You are displaced, but never broken…”

  “Really?! Because that’s what you always called them, the women at The Center. You said they were broken, and now, I’m one of them.” Her fists clenched as her head swung to look back out the window. “Why am I so different that you wouldn’t use that word to describe me?”

  I was stunned by her words. Annie was correct in her accusation, I had always referred to those women as broken; but now, having been exposed to someone close to me in the same condition, I realized the description was unjust and pitiful. I’d never considered my error in my use of that word and it opened my eyes to the bitterness and apathy I’d carried most of my life. The realization was a slap to the face and a wake-up call. I’d always been so closed off, so damn stubborn and protective of myself, in refusal of becoming like those women. But my view of them as broken was a deluded conclusion of finality in their condition. I’d forgotten that all of them would once again be whole; not just whole, but stronger and more alive than they had ever been. It humbled me to realize my error, my judgment of what I’d seen, and the behavior and personality traits that I had adopted as a result. Momma’s words once again rang in my head as I remembered that we are all victims. Every person who has come in contact with abuse or violence, no matter in what way, is affected.

  I shook myself from my disappointment and decided to save the self-reflection for another time. Without speaking, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the small box. Reaching over, I placed it in Annie’s lap. Her eyes looked down and slightly widened at the gesture. Sitting back in my chair, I smiled and said, “I got that for you. It’s handmade. I thought you could use it right now, for strength.”

  Annie opened the box and she pulled out the delicate, dragonfly bracelet. The light streaming in from the window danced off the multiple colors in its metallic wings. A corner of Annie’s mouth quirked up and she looked to me for an explanation.

  I let out a huff of air before admitting my mistake and my reasoning for the gift. “I was wrong, Annie. Those women…you…are not broken. You just became lost momentarily. But you can, and will, come back. I met a woman, a woman like you, like us…” I arched a brow in hopes she would make the connection I was trying to convey. When her eyes widened, I knew that she understood. “…She made the bracelet. When I was looking at it, she told me that dragonflies represent power and victory. She said that she wears one as a necklace and looks to it to remember that she survived.”

  Annie’s eyes looked up from the bracelet and met mine.

  “I bought it, hoping to be able to give it to you as a reminder that you will survive, that you are strong enough to overcome everything that has happened. Momma and I will be there with you every step of the way, Annie, but when we’re not, I want you to have the bracelet to remember that you are stronger than you know.”

  Tears shimmered in Annie’s eyes and she pushed herself up from her chair. She walked the few steps over to where I was sitting and reached down to grab my arms and pull me up into a hug. A feeling of gratitude and relief flooded through me and I couldn’t help chocking up at the contact.

  Annie’s voice was soft as she said, “Thank you, Paige. I promise you that I’ll wear it all the time.”

  I pulled from the hug and held her at arms length to look at her. “Of course you will.” My mouth turned up into a sarcastic smirk. “Because I’ll kick your ass if you don’t.”

  Her head fell back and she laughed. The laughter was beautiful and melodic and I couldn’t help but smile brightly at the sound.

  When she finished, she looked at me with a renewed twinkle in her eye. “Is David here? Can I see him?”

  I was pleasantly surprised by her request, but I quickly nodded my head ‘yes’ in response. “He is. I’ll go get him for you.”

  My feet carried me quickly out of the room and I practically ran down the long hall to get back to the waiting area. I burst through the double doors and asked David to join me. His eyes widened at my request and he smiled when he realized Annie wanted to see him. We raced back to Annie’s room and I pushed the door open for him to enter.

  David’s steps were rushed but careful as he approached Annie. I could tell he was nervous, much like I had been when I first saw her. Annie stood up from her chair and he rushed over to embrace her. Tears streamed down her cheeks and I was awash in happiness and relief at the sight of them. I smiled at Annie one more time and waved goodbye as I closed the door to give them privacy.

  My feet carried me back to the waiting room once more, but at a slower pace. I pushed through the doors and Daemon stood as he saw me enter the room. I smiled at him and couldn’t help the tear that escaped my eye to roll down my cheek. He quickly crossed the room and pulled me up into a heartfelt embrace. My feet were completely lifted from the ground and I threw my arms around him to snuggle my face into the side of his neck. We stayed that way for a minute or two and then he placed me back on the ground. Taking my hand, he led me over toward the chairs. As we passed the coffee machine, I pulled back and held my finger up to indicate I needed a second. Daemon smiled when he saw me head over to machine and quickly fix myself a cup. I looked over and smiled a guilty grin and went back over to retake his hand.

  After sitting down, Daemon watched as I lifted the little Styrofoam cup to my lips. “Is it safe to assume that she’s better?” His voice was concerned but carried a hint of hope.

  I sipped the hot liquid before answering. “It is. She’s requested to be transferred to my parents’ place soon. I’m excited for her.”

  He nodded his head in understanding and his mouth turned up into a relieved smile. We sat silently and before long, David came through the doors to join us. He smiled as he approached and I stood up to meet him. His arms came around me in a hug and when we pulled apart he looked at me and said, “She’s going to get through this, Paige. I just know it. Now let’s get out of here and go home.”

  Daemon stood at David’s words and we waved goodbye to the little old lady at the front desk. Our conversation on the ride home was casual and relaxed and we talked and joked about unimportant topics. In the middle of our conversation, Daemon looked like he suddenly remembered something. His eyes looked to me briefly before focusing back on the road.

  “Damsel, I forgot to tell you. I need to meet with several people tomorrow and go to my businesses to deal with some things. I won’t be around for most of the day if you need to go somewhere, so did you want me to stop somewhere now to get you anything you need?”

  I shook my head and answered, “No, I think I’m good. So, you’ll be gone for how long, exactly?”

  “I’ll leave first thing in the morning and probably won’t be back until six or seven in the evening.”

  I kept a straight face while he told me his plans, but inside I was teeming with excitement. I felt guilty as all hell for it, but I knew his absence the following day would be a perfect time to go find Chris. I decided to wait until later in the evening to run my plans past David. I would need to borrow Matt’s car to get to the preserve and hopefully, David would agree to help me out in that department. I smiled at Daemon and then turned to look at David. My expression must have given away the fact that I was up to something, because his eyebrow arched in response. I smiled and shrugged a shoulder and then mouthed the words, “I’ll tell you later.”

  Chapter Twelve

  “You are so fucking insane.” David adamantly shook his head and paced the living room. “There is no way in hell you are doing this. I refuse to call Matt, I refuse to let you do this, and, in fact, I’m calling Daemon right fucking now to tell him that you have completely LOST your damn mind.”

  It was early morning and Daemon had just left for work. I never had a moment alone with David the night before and I was just now getting the opportunity to tell him about my plan to find Chris.

nbsp; I looked up at David as he crossed the room. “Don’t make me tackle you again, David. Just hear me out.” My voice was pleading but still carried menace from my threat at physically restraining him.

  He turned on his heel to look at me. His finger came up and shook in my direction as he said, “There is no fucking way, Paige, none! I cannot sit idly by while you get yourself killed!”

  I stood up and walked over to face him. My hand reached up to push his finger out of my face. “I’m just going to find him and then call the cops when I do. I won’t let him see me and I’ll get the hell out of there as soon as I figure out where he is.”

  David stamped his foot and huffed out an exasperated breath. “Why not just give the cops the information, Paige, and let them go find him? I’m sure they are used to dealing with psychopaths in the woods. In fact, fuck that, I’ll call them.”

  David turned to go for his phone and I jumped up to tackle him to the ground.

  “What the fuck, Paige?! Get off of me!” We rolled around on the floor and I was eventually in a position where I could straddle him and hold him down.

  “No, you won’t, David. I know I can find him and be quiet about it in the process. What if they go out there on ATVs or with dogs and he escapes again? Then what? I would have to start all over again.” I continued holding him down by his shoulders and soon he gave up wrestling me. David could probably easily overpower me if he wanted, but I had a feeling he was afraid of actually hurting me in the process.

  His face went blank as he considered my words. After a few moments of thought, he responded, “Wouldn’t they use that stuff anyway once you call them? He’ll be alerted either way.”

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