The outliers, p.4
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       The Outliers, p.4

         Part #2 of The Outskirts Duet series by T. M. Frazier
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  beginning. Your beginning. I've got plenty of time.” I looked at my naked wrist like I was checking the time on a watch when I’d never even owned one. I slid to the floor and brought my knees to my chest with my back against the bed and tried not to tap my toe on the carpet although it was practically tingling to do just that.

  My mother looked out the window as she recalled her story. "Well, I was born a rebel, refusing to come out into the world for a full three days." She shook her head. "My poor mother. I grew up in a religious household and when my parents both died I was passed on to the church elders to raise since I was only fifteen when they passed."

  "I'm sorry," I offered, my gut twisting at the news of my grandparents that she'd never spoken about.

  "No worries. It was a long time ago. But it was only then I realized that my parents were unique members of the church. In our house, we didn't have to lower our eyes and we could speak whenever we felt like we had something to say, but that wasn't the standard. Far from it. It was a severe way to grow up and I never embraced it."

  Neither did I.

  "Every day when I woke up I saw the light fading from my eyes as more and more rules were pushed down my throat. By the time they informed me that I was to be married to this man of the church. Richard was his name. She cringed. "I'd all but given up. I didn't know life outside the church and didn't think I could make it on my own. I had hoped that maybe Richard would be more like my parents. It only took meeting him a few times for to realize he was perhaps the worst of them all. He treated me like a dog on the leash and always made sure the collar allowed me to breath but always reminded me that just one pull in the wrong direction and I'd be choking."

  I was crying inside for my mother but tried to remain impassive on the outside.

  It wasn’t easy.

  "One weekend, my guardians brought me along to a tent revival service to help. We stayed in a little motel and I'd go for walks around the town whenever I could sneak away for an hour or so. One day I saw a truck and camper for sale in a junkyard and something came over me. An idea I couldn't shake.” My mother took up her knitting and placed it back down again.

  She continued. “On the day I married Richard, I stole a gold crucifix that belonged to Richard and I brought it to the junkyard. I traded it and my wedding ring for the camper and the truck. I didn't make it far before the truck broke down on the side of the road. I got out and walked to find help and made sure to walk in the opposite direction of the fairgrounds because although the freedom I'd tasted was only a few miles from the fairgrounds I knew I'd never be going back. And that walk in the middle of the night all by myself? It was glorious. My first taste of actual freedom. The sounds of the swamp at night." She closed her eyes like she could still hear it. Then she inhaled deeply through her nose. "The smell of salty water and the Sulphur." She opened her eyes again. "By the time I realized I was lost I didn't care if anyone ever found me ever again. I fell down an embankment and got stuck on this tiny strip of muddy land but it was too steep to climb my way back up to the top. As the water rose I thought for sure that I was going to die there."

  "What did you do?" I asked, leaning forward.

  She shrugged and took up her knitting again. "There was nothing I could do. And there was something so...freeing about the experience that I sat down in the mud and I...I just started to laugh. And that's when Critter found me. Sitting in the mud, the water rising all around me, when he zipped by on his little boat and did a double take. He stopped and pulled me out. I was covered in mosquito bites, mud from head to toe, and soaking wet and do you know what that man did?" she asked with a loving smile.

  "No. What did he do?" I asked, leaning forward.

  She smiled in a way that told me she couldn’t believe it herself. "He started to laugh right along with me. The man had no idea why I was laughing, but joined right on in. He took me back to his bar and while I cleaned me up and changed my clothes he went and towed the truck and camper back to the bar. When I walked out all cleaned and mud free he looked up at me and I'll never forget what he said.”

  "What? What did he say?" I asked.

  "He looked up and said, it's you. Like he'd been waiting for me his entire life." She looked out the window to where Critter was sitting on the porch, rocking in the chair, fiddling with something on his lap. "And then, before the coffee was ready in the morning, we'd fallen madly and deeply in love."

  "That's a beautiful story," I said, and it really was. "What about this Richard guy?” I looked to the walls and to the floor then back again. Anywhere but at my mother. “Was...is he the father of your baby?"

  My mother shook her head. "No, gosh no. I left before our wedding night took place. It luckily never got that far. This big baby girl right here," she patted her belly, "or at least I think she's a she, is one hundred percent Critter."

  One hundred percent...Critter.

  "You said you two are married? You and Critter I mean?”

  "I sure am," she answered, humming and knitting once again. "The marriage to Richard was only a church ceremony. No paperwork so it wasn’t legal in the eyes of the state. Luckily for me, the church abided by god's law, but not man's. Then, I was free to marry Critter.”

  She’s legally married to Critter.

  My mother looked as if she was about to say something but she stopped before the words came out. She turned her head from one side to the other like she was seeing me for the first time. There was a clarity in her eyes that wasn't there earlier, along with something else.

  Recognition.

  My stomach flipped. My heart hammered in my ears.

  "Sawyer?" she asked in a whisper, blinking rapidly. “Is that you?”

  "Yes, mother. It's me," I said as gently as I could, keeping my expression as even as possible. I hadn't even realized I was crawling across the carpet toward her until I was kneeling before her, staring up into familiar loving eyes.

  "My baby girl. It really is you," she said, dropping from the chair to her knees in front of me. She pulled me in for a hug and I couldn't stop the tears once they started and neither could my mother. We sat there, hugging and crying into each other's arms. "You're alive. He told me you were but I didn’t believe him. I needed to see you. You made it out. I'm sorry," she said into my hair, peppering kisses along my frizzy head. "I'm sorry for everything."

  "I made it out mom. Because of you. Because of your letter and the box and your instructions. You sent me here. You got me out," I told her. As I spoke I felt some of the resentment I had been feeling toward her start to dissipate.

  "I'm sorry I didn't tell you,” she cried. “I couldn't. I needed to keep you safe. Forgive me sweet girl. I did what I thought was best but I made a mess of everything. I have so much to tell you," I said, sobbing against her. “There is more you need to know.”

  "You don’t have to tell me all of it now," I replied against her shoulder as she squeezed me repeatedly as if she needed a constant reminder that I was really there as much as I needed one.

  After a few moments, mother's arms stiffened and before she pulled back I knew our time together had passed. When she looked me over again the glassiness in her eyes was back. "I better get off the floor. Critter doesn't want me to strain myself in my condition. Says it's not good for the baby." She stood up and sat back down on her chair, picking up her knitting once again. The half-dried tear stains on her cheeks were the only evidence of our stolen reunion.

  I stood up to leave when Maddy came into the room and gave me a stern nod. "I should go. Thanks for having me, and thanks for telling me the story of how you met your husband.”

  She smiled at me sweetly. "That’s no bother at all. I love telling that story. Half the people in this town are tired of it already. Thanks for coming to visit. Make sure to come by again," she said. "Maybe Sunday? On Sundays, I make my famous peach pie. It's Critter's favorite."

  I wiped my wet face with the heel of my hand. "I'd like that very much, if you're sure it's alright wi
th you."

  "Of course. I'd love that. See you Sunday," she said cheerily. "And don't worry about that adorable little boy of yours. Finn is welcome to come take sunflowers whenever he would like. We’ve got plenty."

  Finn.

  I gave her a small farewell wave then waited until I was down the hall almost to the front door before I whispered. "Bye, Mom." I didn't know how I'd feel seeing her that way, but as I watched her slip back into a place where I never existed I never expected for it to feel as if she had died all over again.

  I ran into Finn's arms the second I was back on the porch. I buried my face into the soft cotton of his t-shirt and didn't pull away until I heard Critter's voice.

  "Sawyer?"

  I turned around to face Critter who stood from his rocking chair with a knowing look etched in the lines of his face.

  The face of my father.

  We stood there, staring at one another for what felt like an eternity.

  "Critter?" I asked, as if I were seeing him for the first time.

  He rocked forward slightly on the balls of his feet, he folded his hands behind his back. For such a tall strong man my heart lurched at how vulnerable he appeared. "We heard you in there with her," Finn said from behind me.

  Critter nodded. "You did good, kid. But if you don't mind, I'd...why is this so fucking hard," he grumbled. He took a deep breath. "I'd like for you to call me, Dad." his voice cracked on the last word.

  My heart burst open, unleashing a powerful flood of emotions along with uncontrollable tears. I fell to my knees. Before I knew it, Critter had closed the distance between us and lifted me up off my knees, pulling me into his strong arms against his chest. He smelled like cigar smoke and cologne. That's what my dad smelled like and I'd remember it forever.

  I was sobbing so hard it prevented me from speaking, but Critter watched me as I looked up and mouthed the words, "Hi, Dad."

  He lifted me up, swaying me back and forth as my feet dangled off the porch. "Hey, kid." My tears soaked through his shirt as we squeezed each other tightly and he peppered kisses on the top of my head. "Welcome home, kiddo." He said on a choked sob. "Finally. Welcome fucking home."

  We stayed that way for a long time, stuck together, reunited. Father and daughter.

  And we cried.

  We cried because we both finally knew the truth. We cried for the time lost between us. And although neither one of us said it out loud, I knew that somewhere in the time between those first tears falling and the sun sinking deep into the horizon, we were both crying for her.

  Sawyer

  The sun had just settled down for the night. The star littered black sky had officially taken its turn guarding the earth.

  Finn, Critter and I were still sitting on Critter’s front porch. Critter and Finn were sipping beers. I settled for an iced tea after deciding that beer was an acquired taste, and I hadn't yet had the time to acquire it.

  "Do you...do you need me to help take care of her?" I asked Critter. “My mother. It isn’t fair for you have to do it all alone.”

  He shook his head and took a sip of his beer. "Listen, kiddo, you've spent your entire life looking after your mother. You've done a good job. You did more than most would in your situation. Hell, you stayed when most would've cut bait and got out." He leaned forward on his elbows. "How about you step aside and let me do it for once? Besides, I've missed out on taking care of that woman for two decades. I've got a lot to make up for."

  "I haven't asked you how you're holding up during all of this. So, how are you holding up?"

  "I'm hanging in there. She's back but she's not completely back. It's going to take a little while to set her to rights again but I won't stop until my sunflower is back to one hundred percent."

  "Are you the one who gave her this pendent?" I asked, holding up the sunflower hanging from the chain on my neck.

  "Yeah," he said, looking wistfully over to the sunflower field where the sun had just started to set below the tops of the tall flower, backlighting them and giving them a beautiful haunting glow. "I proposed to your mama in that field. We fell in love in that field. We...well, some things are better left unsaid."

  I laughed and sipped my tea.

  "There are things about my past you should know," Critter said. Things I don't talk about openly. But you're my daughter and you should know these kinds of things about your old man. About who I am and what I've done in my past."

  "Like what?" I asked hesitantly, chewing nervously on the inside of my cheek.

  "I haven't always been the best model citizen of this town. I've done things. A lot of things. Some of them bad, really bad. Spent a few years in state prison back in my twenties."

  "So, you fell into the bad crowd in your youth?" I suggested.

  Critter shook his head and looked at me from over his beer bottle. "No, I was the person people fell into. I was the bad crowd or at least, I ran the bad crowd."

  "Does my mother know?" I asked.

  "Your mother knows everything about me." Critter chuckled. "Every ugly and dirty detail. And she loves me despite of it and sometimes because of it."

  "If it didn't matter to her then it didn't matter to me."

  "I don't understand why she's like this now when she wasn't this way before," Finn chimed in.

  Critter shook his head. "The shrink here thinks she's been holding so much above her head and over the years the weight of it grew heavier and heavier. When we got her back here and she knew you were okay it was like her knees buckled and it finally all came crashing down around her."

  "Do you think she'll ever be back to...normal? Whatever that might be?"

  "Normal," Critter chuckled at the word. "And as for your mother, she's a force stronger than any damn hurricane I've ever encountered. She just needs a little rest. A little time. There is only so much one body and mind can process. She'll come back to us eventually. I'm certain of it."

  "Can I ask you something?"

  Critter nodded.

  "She was gone for two decades. Why didn't you ever remarry or have kids?"

  Critter sighed and looked to his hands for a moment before answering. "Because the kind of love your mother and I have is not the kind you can recover from. It's not a cold. It's not temporary. It's the kind that becomes a part of yourself. Like the blood in your veins. Getting over your mother just wasn't possible.

  "You really do love her," I lamented.

  "Yes, with everything I have and more. And you," Critter added, with watery eyes. "I can't make up for years of not being your dad, but I'd sure like to try, kiddo."

  Kiddo. I loved every endearment Critter swung my way. They made me feel special.

  Safe.

  LOVED.

  Richard had never called me anything other than Sawyer. Or girl. Like it was a bad word.

  "I think I'd like that."

  "You need to know that I never believed she left me willingly. Not once. You just don't up and walk away from what we had. Not possible. I looked for you two every damned day after she left me that note. Every fucking day. And, when I couldn't find you I thought you were dead."

  "Why?"

  "Because I never thought he'd let your mother or you live when he found out she was pregnant with you,” Critter said, tightening his grip around his beer bottle.

  "He probably would have,” I agreed. “But as it turns out, I was the perfect leverage to hold over her head."

  "I didn't know you were alive until a few months ago when this arrived," Critter reached into his back pocket and handed me an envelope with no return address. "I'll let her tell you what happened."

  I took the letter from the envelope and although I knew she was inside the house I heard her voice in my head reading the letter to me as if she were still a ghost.

  C-

  I'm risking everything by sending this, but I have to because I don't have much time left. It's too late for me, but it's not too late to save our daughter.

  Help her before it's too late
for her as well.

  I love you. Always have. Always will.

  Forever your sunflower,

  -Caroline

  Tears were streaming down my face. I looked from the letter
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