This short story was originally published at https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/author/amber-prohaska/ for a short story contest. Following this link and liking my story helps me tremendously!
Every time Jenny Bennett smelled the sweet, airy smell of champagne it brought back the magnolia trees of the 1950s; it brought back the childhood that was ripped from her hands at the innocent age of 7; it brought back the little town of Natchez, Mississippi. Magnolia blooms used to be her favorite part of spring; now they were a gentle yet bitter reminder of what she had lost. “Life is nothing without love and forgiveness and the good Lord intended us to practice both ” her daddy used to say. She supposed that eventually, she would find forgiveness for him. Surely the love part was never hard to come by.
She could hear her daddy’s voice even now, after 66 years. Could smell his dirty, sweat-laced skin after an honest day of work. His stubbly chin tickled her neck when he hugged her.
“Come on Jen Jen, I’m gunna beat ya to that magnolia tree! I’m
gunna win and you gon be sad till next year!”
Even from the tender ages she’d lived, she remembered the fun they had. Each spring when the magnolia trees were in bloom, they’d race to see who could pick the first of the beautiful flowers to give to mommy. James Bennett worked hard to give his daughter all the sweet southern comforts of life that he was able. They didn’t have much according to some, but they’d had each other.
Mama was a blond-haired, blue-eyed angel. She and Jenny’s daddy were high-school sweethearts. “Why Miss Cora Thomas, seems like you’ve been my girl all my life and you’d sho make me the happiest man alive if you’d marry me.” With that one question, their family was born.
Mama’s sweet voice and peach pie were Jenny’s favorite things about her. Always the lady, mama loved James and never complained about his long hours spent working the land. She never seemed to care that sometimes he’d walk into town with an honest day’s wage and come back with less, staggering and with red smudges on his neck, his belt undone and a black eye like some stranger. At night she’d still take him into her arms and hold him skin to skin in the soft, sticky heat. They would utter words and sounds that Jenny never could understand until all was silent but the night. In the morning things were always better and her daddy acted like her daddy again.
Life was bliss then.
Jenny didn’t know why, but the spring of 1956 was the last spring the magnolia trees seemed magical. Maybe, like a beautiful villain, they somehow caused the shift in her life, or maybe they were God’s way of giving her something beautiful to hang on to. She didn’t know. Like all blissful times do, her’s ended and Jenny’s life became a living hell on earth.
Little Jenny was on the white porch swing the night the heavens
crashed down around her.
Somewhere in the house that evening, she heard her mama crying. She couldn’t tell what they were saying, only that her daddy was there too, and he was trying to be quiet. He sounded angry though. She was just 7 and she could hear the summer crickets below and cicadas above both singing their melodies in both opposition and perfect harmony in the dark.
Jenny didn’t know a drink besides water and milk. Oh sure, on a special occasion, her daddy would make fresh orange juice from the orange trees that grew on their land. But when mama said to daddy that he had too much to drink, Jenny wondered if he was drinking something else.
“Strength takes a lifetime to grow, Jenny. Now hurt, that can seed and become the size of one of those huge redwoods out in California in a minute” He used to say to her. How lasting his words would unknowingly become.
A glass broke and more angry words were said in hushed but frantic tones that night. Words like: “Why James?” and “how’re we gonna come up with all that money? They’ll take the land and they’ll take you!” and, “I still love you, my darling. Why is that never enough for you?” Words like, “Damnit, Cora! I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. You’re so focused on other things, I’ll be damned if this is all my fault!” Hurtful words they seemed to be, even if Jenny didn’t understand what they meant.
Cora slept on the porch swing that night with her stuffed puppy, Arnie. She hugged him tight as tears spilled out from her dreams in the night. Up until then, she had only seen the love that permeated her world; but that night, in the dark Mississippi heat, she learned about pain. Pain eats away, it devours all that comes after it. It wrecks lives from within; the worst part is that too often no one can see it except the people it haunts. Her parents had caused each other so much pain that they had nothing left to give to their daughter.
The next day Jenny’s daddy was gone like the bullfrogs in winter; he just plain disappeared and she and mama were left in his silence. A note left with a torn magnolia leaf next to Arnie there on the bench said that he loved her and that he was leaving the first blossom that he collected that year for her to take care of. Said that he was sorry.
Jenny grew up in the weeks and months to follow. More phrases that she didn’t fully understand came and went. Snippets of words like, “always did drink too much,” and “he sho is lucky he disappeared or theyd’a come fo’him.” The worst was when Reverend Thompson told the ladies after church, with her mama standing there, that sins like the adultery that Mr. Bennett had committed surely did lead to hell.
Her grief couldn’t be counted in tears because eventually, tears disappeared just like her daddy. Grief though, it rose like the sun and weakened her with its intensity every single day. If she could have disappeared right where she stood- just melted into the dirt and heat- she would have. Her mama laid in bed most days and didn’t bother to brush her pretty blonde hair anymore. She got up only to boil a potato or two, or throw some okra in a pot when Jenny had hunger pangs.
One day though, her mama realized they had to keep living. Cora got up early from the bed they’d been sharing ever since her husband had gone. She cleaned her face and tried to scrub off the past. She dressed in her best dress and shoes without scuffs and told Jenny to stay there. She walked the couple of miles into town, head held high in the southern heat, and right into the Commercial Bank of Natchez. She came back empty-handed, and soon they lost the farm. Jenny and her mama started slowly disappearing from the life they knew.
Jenny’s mama lived 5 more years after that, working where she could as a waitress, and sometimes at night in places only adults were allowed to go. She often came home with tears and the stink of dirty men; her blue eyes became dull. Jenny begged and cried to God, but he took her mama home to Jesus after she had nothing left to give.
Jenny was twelve now and a ward of the state. She never stopped wishing she could disappear just like her daddy.
Then, after five years of existing without her mama, years of
abuse in her foster home -being raped for the last time – and giving birth to a son she wasn’t ready for, after an eternity of feeling like a dirty waste of time in the eyes of everyone she’d ever trusted, she finally did.
Seattle, 2023- UW Medical Center
“Ok, let’s go over Mrs. Maxwell’s case,” said a young nurse
dressed in pressed scrubs with sleek brown hair neatly pinned up into a messy bun.
“I’m listening,” said a physician, grabbing a full coffee mug
off the nurse station counter as they walked.
“She’s a 53-year-old woman who presents with right upper
quadrant abdominal pain that has gone on for three days. Pain is sharp and worsened with eating, sometimes better with bland type foods. Labs show elevated WBCs but kidney and liver function is normal. Do you want any imaging of the abdomen?”
“Yep, let’s start with an abdominal ultrasound and go from
“OK she’s asking to go home soon, says she’s been waiting for 5
“Well, I’d say she needs to stay he…” The physician
trailed off as the trauma doors burst open inside the ER.
“Code Blue!” Someone yelled as EMTs ran through the doors
shoving a gurney. A nurse kneeled on the moving bed over an old man, rhythmically pumping his chest as the bed rolled.
The scene was frantic. “What happened?” Said the physician
abruptly as blue gloves were thrown to whoever needed them. The team ran alongside the gurney to trauma room 1.
“Car accident, 92-year-old male, head-on with a truck,
unresponsive at the scene, breathing’s erratic, he’s in V-fib.” He’s got a wallet but haven’t had time to check it, he’s kinda circling; been making us work the whole time!” yelled the lead EMT to the physician.
Another physician shined a light into his eyes and yelled, “Let’s get an EKG STAT, then a head and abdominal CT! Grab labs.. troponin, kidney, liver levels, etc!”
“On it!” someone yelled from inside the trauma room.
One drizzly afternoon two weeks later, the smell of the wet evergreens was rich and sweet. It seemed that Washington had already gotten enough rain to last all year. Dr. Mariah Scott stepped out of her car onto the damp asphalt and pulled up the hood on her lightweight gor-tex jacket. She crossed the driveway, crunching on brown, rain-soaked Western Pine needles that had fallen along the way. She felt around in the medical bag slung over her shoulder and made sure her iPad with all her patients’ information was there.
Dr. Scott knocked on the thick cedar door and waited, re-checking the address on file. After a moment she finally heard creaks from within the house. A short, disheveled elderly woman with hair the color of snow opened the door and gestured inside.
“Hello Dr. Scott, thanks so much for coming- seems doctors don’t make house calls anymore; we were so glad to have found your company.”
“Oh you’re very welcome, I’m glad to be here! Mr. Thompson and I actually have some history together, I’ve realized!” Mariah stepped inside the small dark home and noticed her patient lying on a hospital bed in the living room.
“Hello Mr. Thompson, how are you feeling today?” She said a little louder and slower than normal.
He extended his wrinkled hands up toward her, the thinning skin on his arms giving away his age in the bruises and bandaged skin tears. Call me Jack.” His gravelly voice defied his bright green eyes. “You say we have a history together?” He asked nervously. He didn’t dare hope.
Dr. Scott Stepped forward. “Well yes, Jack! I’ve been thinking about and praying for your recovery for the past couple of weeks! Although, I never dreamed I’d be here today in your home!” She went on, “I know you probably don’t remember me but I was the physician on duty the night you came into the ER.”
“You are the doctor that saved my life!?” He said with a smile and the slightest disappointment hidden in his excited but faltering voice; his aging, pink-rimmed eyes glistening.
Dr. Scott lowered her eyes and blushed, “I was just doing my job, Jack; but I’m so glad that you are doing better than the last time I saw you! Actually, as odd as it is, you were the last patient I took care of at the ER- I changed jobs right after that and joined a home healthcare company that helps patients facing the end of life, or patients simply recovering at home. Doctors who do house calls, can you imagine!? It’s just like the 1950s again!” She laughed.”
She began taking her stethoscope out of her bag.
Dr. Scott glanced at his bedside table which had been moved into the living room for the time being. There were picture frames that, when put together, held the collective portrait of a beautiful life lived; kids and grandkids, mothers and fathers, vacations, and hugs.
“What a beautiful family you have!” she said, gesturing to the photos while getting ready to put the stethoscope earpieces in her ears to listen to her patient’s still-recovering heart.
He surprised her when he began speaking in a low voice that betrayed his emotions and she waited. “Oh Dr. Scott, cherish your life while you have it,” he said slowly. He took a long slow breath in as if to steady himself. “I’ve surely made a mess of mine.” She thought she’d heard a twinge of southern drawl in his voice. It wasn’t too common up here in Washington.
He cast his eyes down at the bedsheets and went on. “I’ve been looking for the past 20-some-odd years for my baby girl, Jenny Bennett, but it seems she disappeared in 1967. There’s no trace of her after she left foster care in Mississippi.” Mariah listened quietly, sensing the importance of this moment. “I left her an’ her mama ‘cause I thought that with me gone life would be easier after all the wrong I’d done to ‘em. Oh, I was in a heap a’trouble with money; ‘nd the law; I thought my disappearin would set ‘em free. Maybe it did. At my age, I probably never will know. I… well I thought for a minute you were my jenny- you look so much like her- but you’re much too young.” She watched the light leave his eyes.
He was so very right and agonizingly wrong at the same time. His little Jenny had disappeared right along with her green-eyed baby boy who looked more like her daddy than she could stand. Truly, she had wanted to stop treading on this earth, to merely cease existing forevermore, but once that baby was in her arms she knew she’d never be the same person. Her old identity simply melted away like summer sweat into the fertile Mississippi dirt and she became who she needed to be- someone else.
“I’m so sorry Mr. Thomp… Jack…”
“Bennett” he interrupted. “It… um, it’s actually James Bennett.”
Not fully understanding, she placed her stethoscope back into her bag for a moment and instead uncovered his feet from the warm blankets at the bottom of the bed to check his circulation. “OK then, James- a saying that my father always taught me- one that his mom taught him- goes something like this: life is nothing without love and forgiveness and the good Lord intended us to practice both. I’m sure that wherever your daughter is now, she knows that you did what you did out of love.”
James stared at her like he’d seen a ghost, eyes glassy and unbelieving; tears as beautiful as magnolias in spring began to fall on his deeply ridged and leathery face. Mariah, still looking down, began charting notes on the iPad in her lap.
Before she looked up at him, a photo that had fallen down between the bed and the side table caught her eye. She reached to pick it up and suddenly she found that she couldn’t breathe. The old, yellowed photo showed a picture of a huge magnolia tree with pink and white blossoms; there was a small white farmhouse with a porch swing in the background. But what really caught her eye was something else. There, behind the photo glass was half of a cracked and faded, pressed and preserved, magnolia petal.
She took a couple of deep breaths but wasn’t sure she was getting any air at all. Suddenly words were leaving her lips, dry and unsure at first,- stumbling words- but then, gaining strength like they were flying on eagle’s wings over a great expanse.
“James, I think the love of magnolias runs in the blood,” She said, slowly looking up at him, taking in his face, all screwed up with emotion. “I know someone who loves them too and has half a magnolia petal just like this one in your frame. It’s a treasure from her childhood” She held the photo out to him. “I never really understood why she kept a torn flower, but she always said the magnolia is the only part of her past self that she has left. I think she believes there’s some kind of magic in those flowers; it’s like she has always been looking for something that the flower would bring into her life. She quietly added, “She’s from Mississippi too.”
Mariah’s imagination defied logic, this is crazy, she thought. But just like she knew that the ocean waves meet the sand eventually, she knew that she couldn’t let this go. She kept pressing forward.
“May… maybe you’d like to meet her after you recover? Her thoughts racing, she went on, “I realize this is very forward, but I think you and my grandma Mary would really find a lot to talk about.”
As soon as she spoke the words, James Bennett finally saw for the very first time the great-granddaughter that the good Lord allowed him to meet despite the appalling road he had chosen for his life, and a smile as big as the Mississippi River Delta overtook his face.