The House on Pope Lick Road
by: Mike Bramer
Laura and mom
I gave mom one more hug and looked at her happy face one more time. “Mom, it is so good to see you.” I paused and without thinking let her know where I was headed. “Mom, I have to go to the house on Pope Lick Road. Nancy Wilson passed away a few weeks ago.”
Before the last couple of words left my mouth, her smile started to fall from her lips. In fact, all expression seemed to leave her face. I thought I had lost her again. It was an all too familiar look of nothingness. I had spent many hours over the last year talking and reading from my textbooks to the same expressionless face.
I went to hug her one more time saddened by her sudden change in responsiveness. The hug was far less strong as her arms were barely resting against my back. As I pulled away again, I heard another whisper in my ear.
The road to the house
My car climbed a hill out of the valley before I saw the sign for the road I grew up on. My hands were clammy and my knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel too tightly. I traveled another four miles but had only seen two mail boxes. The houses sat far off the road and were not visible even with a good amount of the leaves on the ground. I knew the gravel driveway to 608 Pope Lick Road should be the next one on the right.
And there it was…
The mailbox was tilted and leaning toward the road. Mail was sticking out and several pieces were strewn about the ground. I turned the wheel of the car and the tires began rolling across the pea gravel drive. The rocks underneath moved and grinded together creating a low rumbling sound. The movement over the rocks kicked up dust that engulfed the entire car. The drive seemed to go on forever as the house was set back a good distance from the road. My car was covered in dust when the outline of the small structure began to appear through the cloudy windshield. I took a deep breath and brought the car to a stop. I sat motionless for several minutes staring at the dilapidated house.
I noticed in a few drawings a presence watching the others just like the drawing showed on the fridge. It was hard to make out the shape and identity, but it had eyes and would lurk in the background of the sketches. Drawings like this would usually terrify me but for some reason this image gave me a sense of security. It felt more like an angel looking over me rather than a stalker or someone looking to do harm.
The structure in the woods
I struck the end of the match against the box and the flame fired up instantly. I bent down a little more and leaned into the structure emboldened by the additional light from the flame. It was still hard to see, so I sent my other hand to the ground to feel around. It felt like dirt. I guess it didn’t have a floor of any kind. I shuffled my knees a couple of more times and now everything, but my feet were inside. The match was not helping a whole lot as it flickered, making it difficult for my eyes to see anything clearly. My pupils were also trying to adjust to being inside the dark structure and the light from the match just inches from my eyes. I saw something to my left and I turned to get a better look when the flame got to close to my thumb, causing me to drop it. I shook my hand and impulsively placed my thumb in my mouth to soothe the pain. The match fought for a second longer before leaving me in complete dark. I fumbled with the box of matches sliding the compartment out to reach for a match. No opening. I had dropped them all on the ground. “Damn!” I yelled out. The compartment must have been upside down in my hand. I began to grope around on the ground frantically searching for a match. My heart started racing almost uncontrollably. I knew the whole room was no more than 60 square feet, but I felt like I was floating in space and yet claustrophobic at the same time. I guess I could have backed out, but then I would never find the matches and get to see why this was so important to include on my map. It was probably just seconds, but it felt like minutes when my hands raced around the ground and felt something on the tips of my fingers. My back arched up and I became very still.
I moved my hand closer to the object I had lightly touched. I felt it move under my hand causing me to instinctively jerk my arm away. I turned quickly to get out and I hit my forehead on the wood paneling above the small opening. My body went limp. I dropped to the ground, in the dark, all alone.
I sat up and uncovered myself. I felt around to locate my backpack. I slid it on my back again and started my way to the opening. I pulled the blanket with me. I reached the door and peeked around the corner. I saw nothing, even as my eyes adjusted to the morning sun. I turned to look the other direction and still saw nothing. I went to release the blanket when it caught the incoming light. My body froze as I stared down. The blanket looked the same as the one I saw in my room yesterday. It was the same color and had the same flower designs around the edges. I dropped it from my hand and scurried out into the light. My head was spinning, but I collected myself remembering just moments ago there was something out here. I saw no movement or anything as I circled around and looked in every direction.
He finally broke the silence. “I lost mom and dad four years ago. They went to the diner on Route 42 and on the way back their car left the road and careened down the valley near the train trestle.” He said all of this in a monotone response with no inflexion.
I started to say. “I’m sorry…”
He grabbed my arms and looked me in the eyes. His voice raised, “WHY ARE YOU HERE!”
I was in shock. Why was he so angry and why take it out on me? His fingers were digging into my skin and pushing against the bone in my arm.
“I just… I wanted… “I couldn’t put together enough words to make any sense. I finally managed to say, “Why were you at the structure in the woods this morning?”
With those words his grip relaxed, and he removed his hands. He ingested another inhale of nicotine before letting it release from his lips. This time the wind pulled the smoke around his face and through his dark hair.
“What will happen to the property, Mr. Thompson?” I couldn’t believe the words came out of my mouth. I had re-lived a few fond memories of growing up, but most of the experiences of the past few days were devastating. Even so, the woods found a way to comfort me when I was afraid. The only other person in my life that made me feel the same was my mom and I was slowly losing her.
His voice started again but it cracked and wavered in strength more than at any other time in his recounting of June 14th. “I lifted your sweatshirt and undershirt slowly to visually assess the injuries. It was obvious the wounds on your back were not from the train or the fall. There were hundreds of marks covering every inch of your skin. Some looked to be weeks old, others were newer based on their redness. A few of the new wounds had opened causing the blood and pus to bleed through your sweatshirt. I knew the wounds were caused by lashings of some kind. A thin object was most likely the item used. Someone had repeatedly struck you with this object over an extended period of time. I rolled you carefully onto your back. I vowed then and there to make sure whoever did this would never touch you again. Medical personnel arrived to take over first aid. They had to push me out of the way because I did not want to let you go. They carried you to the other side of the train. Tommy had returned drenched in sweat from running back and forth from the train trestle. He watched as each of you were loaded on the back of an ATV to transport you out of the woods.
Luke saves Laura from the rock ledge
“Laura,” Luke’s voice was lower now. “Reach your hand towards me.” He extended his right arm after securing both his feet.
My left hand wouldn’t move. “I can’t”.
“Yes, you can. You climb the best of all of us. You can do this.” He was doing his best to be calm, but tears were forming in his eyes and his voice cracked with each word.
My fingers on my left hand started to release the grip I had on the rock. The fingers on my right hand were still wrapped tightly around the tree root. I began to reach my hand towards Luke’s outstretched fingers. We were inches apart. I bent my left knee to reach further. The root started to pull away ever so slightly from the earth.
“Luke, Laura – What are you doing?” Tommy shouted. Both Tommy and Kathy had made their way to the rock. This startled me back against the rock and made me even more aware of the dangerous situation I put myself in.
“Shut up Tommy.” Luke responded aggressively. “Reach for me Laura.” His words returned my focus to him and away from Tommy.
Our eyes connected. I felt safe even perilously hanging over the ledge. I reached again for Luke. Our fingers started to interlock. The warmth of Luke’s hand immediately spread through mine. It was an extreme contrast to the cold rock that it had gripped for several minutes. Our hands remained locked to one another for the briefest of seconds.
The root above me separated several inches from the soil around it.
I lost my balance but not my grip. The root ripped away from the surface several more inches causing both of my feet to dislodge from the ledge. The only thing preventing my fall now was what was left of the root and Luke’s grip. It stretched my body further than I thought possible.
“Laura!” Kathy and Tommy screamed in unison. It echoed through the woods causing a few birds to fly out of their perches.
The root seemed to reclaim its hold. My knees were both burning. They had scraped against the rock when I slipped. I could feel something running down my shins. It had to be blood.
Tommy made his way out on the safest part of the ledge to help stabilize Luke. Kathy was crouched down with her knees close to her chest and her face buried in her hands. Luke regained his grip on my hand. “Laura. I got you. Try and put your foot back on the ledge.”
I slid my right foot up the rock to the tiny ledge and restored a foot hold. My leg felt weak, but still gave me some confidence that I may not fall. I slid my left foot up to the same ledge.
Luke gave more instructions. “Let go of the root and move to me.”
The root was supporting me. The woods were once again providing me safety. I couldn’t let go. I would surely fall. I trusted the root more than Luke’s outstretched and unanchored arm. “I can’t!”
Luke was insistent. “You can do it. Step towards me and reach!”
The root could only hold for so long. Luke knew the root or my strength would fail at some point and cause me to fall. I decided to trust him. I released my grasp on the root to allow my feet to the ability to shuffle to the left. Luke’s hand moved up my wrist to my forearm giving me even a greater sense of support. Tommy moved back pulling on Luke which in turn continued my progress to safety.
We reached the soft soil off of the large rock. The three of us fell to the ground with our arms interwoven. This was the first time I could see my legs. Three or four thin streams of blood were running down my shins from the flesh torn from my knees. It wasn’t anything major, but now that the fear was receding the burning sensation was becoming more and more noticeable.
Luke took his shirt sleeve and wiped my lower legs. He placed his arm against my knees to put pressure on the wounds. He held it there for a long time until the bleeding stopped.
Dr. Willis, the waiting room
I returned to my seat to wait for my name to be called. A clock hanging on the wall reminded me of every second that was passing. It wasn’t ticking but my eyes could see the second hand moving in both a consistent yet herky-jerky motion. As I focused on it even more intently, it seemed to slam into an imaginary force stopping it as each second transpired. In my head, I heard the ticking even though it wasn’t there. It passed the minute hand several times dragging it along with it. It was now more than a few minutes past the top of the hour. Why wasn’t Dr. Willis calling me back? He had been in for a while.
“I believe you created Billy as a way to cope with the conditions in your home. Isolation especially involving an adolescent, triggers elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol is released due to fear or stress. You had so much of this as a young child. Our bodies must deal with the increased levels of cortisol in our blood which can manifest itself in many ways. You can experience memory loss, depression, show aggression just to name a few. Billy was like Lucy. He was a friend you needed at the time. As you spent more time with Luke the references to Billy diminished.”
“But I saw markings in the woods with Billy’s name on it and a small shack where I believed he might have lived.” My voice raised as if I could convince Dr. Willis of his existence.
“Laura, every time you spoke of Billy to me, there was never anyone else around. Not any of your other friends – Luke, Tommy or Kathy. You all spent so much time in the woods. Almost daily and yet they never spoke of Billy, never mentioned Billy, not even once.”
“Does that make me crazy?” I wondered if even asking this makes me crazy.
“You are not crazy. You have overcome so much in your life. Anyone that endured what you went through as a young child would have withered away. It isn’t a weakness in you Laura. It is a strength. When you spoke to me about Billy it was as if he was your protector. He was shielding you from pain and danger. But it wasn’t Billy protecting you, it was you. Don’t you see now why Billy was so important to you? You had the strength to create an idea, an individual, a protector, who saved you until you could be rescued.”
Mom and the Christmas music
O’ Come all Ye Faithful started playing after a brief respite. Mom’s fingers tightened around mine with a grip much stronger than I have felt in years. I could hear her softly beginning to sing the words! Her voice was always so pretty even if her lungs now lacked the capacity to express it fully. Hearing her voice and being held by her was magical. Should I try to talk to her or stay in the moment? I let another verse end before speaking.
“Mom, this is a great Christmas song isn’t it.” On pins and needles I anxiously awaited a response.
Mom stopped singing. My shoulders sank again. Why did I interrupt her moment?
“I do love this song.” It was so soft I could barely hear it over the music. I looked back into mom’s eyes which now moved to look back at me. “He has such a wonderful voice.” A smile extended from her thin lips.
“You have a wonderful voice mom!” I couldn’t believe it, but something with the music triggered mom’s brain to re-engage. “What do you remember most about Christmas mom?”
“You, seeing you smile. You hurt so much that first Christmas – it was good to see you smile thereafter.” Her lips barely moved but the words were clear and easy to understand. What did she mean hurt? All I remember from mom’s house were good thoughts. I guess the years do blend together, but I never remember hurting. Why would I hurt in a safe house with mom?
“Why was I hurting mom?”
“You came to be with me several months after the incident. You had been in one other foster home. You were still dealing with so much. Too much for anyone, let alone a ten-year-old.” Mom released my hand and moved her arm around me. It was as if she still wanted to comfort me after all these years. “You didn’t talk much that Christmas. Everything was so new for you. I would hold you as we are now and all you would say was I hurt Luke.”
I hurt Luke! I couldn’t believe what I just heard. I never remember mom talking to me about my time on Pope Lick Road and certainly not the incident. Was Tommy, right? Did I really cause Luke’s death? “Mom, did I say how I hurt Luke? It’s really important for me to know.” Tears started forming in the corner of my eyes.
“No, you never said more. I didn’t know if we would ever have a normal mother daughter relationship. I took you to Dr. Willis the following week. He helped you. You became my daughter that year. The second Christmas was special for both of us. It was now”, she paused before continuing, “your home.” Her voice lifted and strengthened as she uttered home.
“Did I ever mention Luke, Tommy or Billy after the first year?” It was worth asking if nothing else of my peace of mind.
I could tell mom was reflecting on the question. She would often bite down on her bottom lip when thinking. “I don’t recall you talking about Luke or Tommy ever again.”
“Mom, did I talk about Billy?” I hoped the answer was no. I put this poor woman through enough without the crazy talk of a disturbed child.
“Oh, yes. Billy and I used to do this, and Billy and I used to run and play in the woods. You would go on and on even after your sessions with Dr. Willis.” Mom spoke very directly as if nothing was wrong with it.
“But mom, Billy isn’t real. I made him up like when I would talk to Lucy.” I know this now to be true and wondered why mom would even talk about it.
“I believe Billy saved you. If not for Billy, I would never have had the joy of raising you.”
“But he wasn’t real mom.” My voice was getting louder now almost drowning out the Christmas music playing in the background. “He can’t be real. If he is real than I left him after he saved me.” The tears now were running down my face.
“This is upsetting you honey.” Mom was so aware of everything she picked up on my stress. “Let’s talk about nicer memories from Christmas in the past.”
I wanted so much to keep digging but mom looked tired and the thought of just being mother and daughter again was too much to pass up. “Okay mom. I remember the shirt you got me when I was 15! I wore that shirt at least once a week for two straight years!”
“I couldn’t get it off of you long enough to wash it.” Mom laughed.
She laughed! I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t heard her laugh in years. “Hey, I was cool rocking that shirt!” I wanted her laughter to continue and never stop.
We talked for nearly thirty minutes before the comfortable position I was in gave way to short nap. In one another’s arms we held each other close. The music stopped. The click of the cassette tape coming to end brought me out of my slumber.
“Mom? I tugged on her should as she must have fallen asleep as well. “Mom?” No reaction.
The music. I’ll play the music again. I rewound the first side to replay the songs mom sang earlier. I pressed play and rushed back over to her side. Still no reaction.
Her breaths were shallow and rapid as if her body was fighting to keep enough oxygen in her blood stream. I gave her one more tug and her eyes slowly opened.
“Mom. Are you okay?” All I got was a nod and the familiar look that she needed rest. I repositioned her pillow and kissed her forehead. “I love you mom.” I left the music playing as I left her room.
Luke learns Laura’s secret
I went to relax against the tree and let out a soft moan when my back hit the tree harder than I planned. I could tell by Luke’s quick head turn he heard my muted groan. His expression displayed his concerned. “I’m okay. I think I just scraped my back when I was climbing. I’ll be okay.”
“Let me see to make sure.” Luke always acted older than his years. He was very mature for only being ten.
“No. I’m fine.” I knew the scars under my shirt would give away my secret. No one knew my mom hit me. I was too embarrassed and ashamed to tell even my closest friends.
I guess my facial expression did not match my words because Luke persisted. “Laura. It’s okay. Just lean forward a little and let me look already.” He placed his hand on my shoulder and gently applied pressure to get me to shift my shoulders around.
I attempted to push back but part of me also wanted to share this secret with Luke. I trusted him. I liked him. I rotated my hips turning my back to him. A few seconds went by and my shirt was still covering my back. I looked over my shoulder at Luke. His face was a ghostly white color. “What is it Luke? What?”
I regained his attention with the second what. His eyes continued to stare at my lower back. “You are bleeding through your shirt.” He paused, swallowed and continued, “in several places.”
I looked down at the ground and nodded in acknowledgment. I wanted him to continue. I reached around behind me and began to lift my shirt ever so slightly as my arms would allow. “Go ahead Luke.”
His two hands reached out to my back. His left hand brushed against mine as it replaced the hold on my shirt. He gently began to lift the shirt. I winced each time the cotton material pulled loose from the scabs. He stopped, and I could feel cool air against the lower half of my exposed back. He had seen enough. “Laura?” He softly said.
I turned my head back over my shoulder with tears forming in my eyes. “Yes, Luke.”
“Who did this to you?” He lifted his head reconnecting with my eyes. I am sure it was difficult for him to look at the countless scars on my back.
I don’t know why but I tried one more time to protect my mom. “The tree. I remember my back sliding several feet against the bark. My shirt even moved up exposing my skin to the rough edges.” It was as convincing a lie as I could muster.
“Laura.” He said just my name again. It was all he needed to say. The way he said it conveyed he knew and there was no reason for me to hide the truth any longer.
I fell back into his chest which brought his arms around me. His chin was resting on the top of my head. I knew I couldn’t face him if I was going to tell my secret.
“My mom.” A few more tears began flowing down my face before landing on Luke’s arms. “My mom hits me every few days. She hits me with a wire hanger when I make mistakes. She hits me when she is drinking.” I barely got the last part out before my head dropped and more tears found their way down my face. It was now a steady stream of water falling from my eyes.
Luke said nothing, but his embrace continued for several minutes. I am sure he was in shock. What mom beats their child so violently that it leaves hundreds of scars? I wondered if he blamed me.
“Laura. This isn’t right. She has no right to treat you this way. Why didn’t you say something? I am your friend. I would have helped you.” I felt one of his own tears land on my neck and the sound of him fighting to stop more from coming.
His embrace loosened, and his hands made their way to my back once again. I felt his fingers pulling at the bottom of my shirt again. He lifted it back up to expose the scars again. He lightly touched a couple of the newer wounds. “Does it hurt?” he asked.
I was in a daze. My head was spinning. His touch triggered something inside me. I barely heard the words he had said. I collected myself and responded. “Not so much anymore.” I stopped crying.
I turned causing my shirt to fall back down and cover my back. I wrapped my arms around his neck. He gently placed his hands on my back and held me for as long as I needed.
He kept repeating, “I’m so sorry Laura. I promise this will never happen again. I’m so sorry Laura. I promise this will never happen again.”
I wanted to believe him but at the moment all I cared about is how good I felt. I was numb to the pain after so many years. I liked this new feeling. It felt good to have someone that cares about me holding me. It seemed like we held each other for hours.
There before me stood a unique looking creature. He was almost a foot shorter than me causing my eyes to lower. He had scraggly hair over his face with a thicker patch extending several inches off of his chin. His scalp was misshapen. There were two protrusions jetting out from just above his forehead on each side of his head. They looked like exposed bones that had penetrated through his skin. He was wiry in build and his legs shuffled when he moved. His eyes were separated by more distance than anyone I had ever seen. It was as if they were almost on the sides of his narrow face. He had on tattered clothes covered in dirt. His hairy feet were exposed. Both were severely deformed. I looked back up quickly so as not to stare too long. It seemed like minutes, but I am sure it was only a few seconds.