Return to Rocky Gap

by Toni Morrow Wyatt

A resident of Briarwood Nursing Home, Amelia Sterns Monroe refuses to accept that the best of her life may be behind her. Defying logic or explanation, she finds a way to travel through time back to the people and the place she once loved. She finds herself returning to Rocky Gap.

The youngest of three, Amelia grows up adoring her oldest sister, Cecilia. When Cecilia marries and leaves home, Amelia finds herself an unwilling conspirator in her sister Lydia's evil schemes. After Lydia's choices result in tragedy, Amelia struggles to find forgiveness for the sister she has never understood. When Elmer Monroe enters Amelia's life, she finds in him an all-encompassing love that can't be denied. As her life takes an impossible turn, she is shocked to discover a newfound understanding for Lydia. But, is it too late?

Spanning from 1921 until present day, Return to Rocky Gap is the epic tale of a family torn apart by tragedy and brought back together by war, only to find that distance is sometimes the hardest obstacle to overcome.


Chapter One


“Whatcha doing sitting in the dark, Mama?” the woman asked. She crossed the room to the window. “I’m gonna open the curtains and let some sunshine in.” She pulled the cord and opened the blinds.

I brought my hand up to shield my eyes. From where I sat in an old stuffed rocking chair, the sun hit me square in the face. I’m confused. I thought it was nighttime.

The woman picked up a piece of paper from the dresser. She traced her finger down it, and then looked up at me and smiled. “Guess what’s for dinner tonight?”

I’m not sure I want to. Surprise me.

“It’s your favorite—chicken,” she said, with entirely too much enthusiasm.

So great, we’re having chicken for dinner. Briarwood Nursing Home should hold the World’s Record for ‘The Most Disgusting Ways to Serve Chicken.’ They serve it baked, fried, broiled, in soups, and in sandwiches. You name it—they serve it that way. The only problem is; they mush it up beyond recognition and it tastes, well, you guessed it—disgusting.

Every time I eat chicken, it reminds me of the night Reuben came to our house wanting to court my sister Cecilia. Twelve years older and more like a mother than a sister, Cecilia looked after my other sister Lydia and me while our parents worked in the cotton fields. Being poor cotton farmers, they picked cotton for someone else.

* * * *

Cecilia was a sweet girl with beautiful, long chestnut hair. I loved to watch her weave it into a long braid and then wrap it around and around the crown of her head until she made a perfect halo. In my eyes, she could do no wrong. I could never measure up to her perfection, but I was hell bent on trying.

        I haven’t decided if living in the past is a gift or a curse. Most people would see it as a sign of a feeble mind and think of me as an old lady reliving her glory days. My mind isn’t feeble; it’s full of a life and a love I never want to forget.

In the times when I’m lucid, I find myself back in this mind numbing old folks’ home. The people here think I’m crazy. They stick me in a room with faded red rose wallpaper and expect me to be good. How would they feel if they were confined to one room and expected to look at the same twin bed with the same quilt, the same window looking out at the same view—day after day?

My travels into the past help me escape. I don’t control it. It just happens. Everyone here wants me to live in the present, but I’d much rather live in the past.

As I sit in front of my dresser, looking in the mirror, I see a sixteen year old with shoulder length, auburn hair pulled back from her face. I’m wearing the same silver hairclips Papa bought me in Carson. A spray of freckles splash across my nose, my eyes twinkle, and my body feels alive.

I close my eyes and feel the hot sunshine of an Arkansas afternoon. The warmth of it flows over me and brings a vision of my mother’s kind, smiling face. I reach out and touch her hands. Some hideous voice in the back of my mind tells me it’s impossible because my mother is dead. She’s been dead for many years. Nevertheless, she isn’t dead in my mind. She’s here with me, whether they can see her or not.

I open my eyes and find an old woman staring back at me. I look in her eyes and see she has a story to tell. It starts in September of 1921. In a small, rural community on the secluded backside of Valentine Mountain, my story begins.

We called the area Rocky Gap. Our simple life included no telephones, electricity, or modern conveniences. We lived in log cabins, drove wagons, and worked in fields. Everyone knew each other, and gossip spread faster in the Gap than in any other place in the world. We were the original grapevine.

Most everyone living around the Gap worked in Old Man Litch's fields. In 1921, I couldn’t do much more than go along for the ride. I would stand up in the back of the wagon and look out over the rows and rows of soft, white, fluffy cotton as far as my eyes could see. All colors of people bent over, picked it off the ugly sticks, and stuffed it into cotton sacks that trailed out behind them as they worked in the unforgiving sun. A lot of them were what they called tenant farmers. They lived in shacks on Old Man Litch’s land and worked his fields. We were lucky; Papa owned our land and the cabin we lived in. It didn’t make us better, but it said a lot about Papa.

At first, I couldn’t figure out why Mama’s little hands bled. The cotton looked as soft as a cloud. The first time I had the chance to grab a handful, the sharp prick against my tender finger came as a nasty surprise, and I knew—things are not always as they might seem.

Old Man Litch owned most of the fields around here. They said the cotton gin was a great invention, but I personally thought he just liked gin. I heard Papa say so. I knew Old Man Litch even drank it on Sundays. I knew because he went to our church.

My Papa owned the little parcel of land the church sat on, but he didn’t own the religion. Everyone in Rocky Gap went to the same church. Well, that’s not true. The colored folks didn’t go to our church. They had their own. I could hear them singing when the wind was just right on Sunday mornings. They sounded like angels. They sang better than we did. Some of the women in our congregation wore their girdles too tight. It’s a wonder some of the high notes they hit didn’t shatter the windows.

We sang a lot at our church, regardless of how it may have sounded, ate plenty of food, usually had a few squabbles, and listened to a whole heap of repenting. What we didn't know someone had done during the week, we generally found out on Sunday once the Holy Spirit took hold.

I think those folks made up half the stuff they carried on about to put on a good show. But, Old Man Litch wasn’t showing off—he really was drunk.

My mama, Beth Ann Sterns, never had any dirty laundry to air on Sundays. Everyone considered her the sweetest, most generous woman around. They knew they could ask a favor of her, and she would do her level best to help them. Their only obstacle was getting past Papa.

I loved my Papa. No one would ever describe him as being nice, but I looked up to him and thought the world of him. My only complaint came with the way he dealt with Lydia. If she threatened to hold her breath, Papa became putty in her hands.

My worst nightmare come to life, Lydia was three years older than me. In my opinion, she held her breath more than she actually breathed when we were young. I considered it one of God’s miracles her complexion wasn’t a pale shade of blue all the time. If Cecilia was an angel, Lydia was the devil incarnate.

I guess you could say Reuben Carter was also a part of our family. Folks referred to him as a looker. His eyes were a beautiful sky blue, and they captured the attention of the girls in the Gap. Whenever he tried to talk to one of them, they lost all power of speech. I found it strange. I never said much around him, but it wasn’t because of his blue eyes. It was because Mama always said, “If you can’t say something pleasant, then be seen and not heard.” I never had anything pleasant to say to Reuben.

Mama, having a way about her that drew strangers and friends alike, became friends with Reuben long before he ever took a second look at Cecilia. She always invited him to Sunday dinner, and he walked home with our family from church. It came as no surprise to Papa when Reuben first asked his permission to pick up Cecilia in his wagon for church. Papa had seen how his oldest daughter had caught the boy’s eye. He was skeptical at first. His daughters were his gold, and there was no way he was going to let just anybody into his mine.

Reuben earned Papa’s respect with his skills in hunting and with the way he raised his hounds. People in these parts admired his hunting reputation. It was a big deal to folks because it proved a man could provide for his family.

It did come as a shock to Cecilia. Never the type of girl to fawn over boys, she’d been too shy to look at Reuben in those blue eyes. She had no clue the reason he continued to come to Sunday dinner was to see her.

On a warm, summer, Saturday evening, Papa sat whittling by the fire in an oversized rocking chair. He’d been proud of the way he’d finally been able to put it together and sit in it without it collapsing. He would have enjoyed it even more if Mama would have allowed him to light up one of his cigars, but she told him the house was off limits to his smoking. He had to make his way to the outdoors if he wanted to light up.

Our cabin consisted of one big room, which included a sitting area around the fireplace, a kitchen, and our beds. It was tight quarters, but to us, it was cozy and comfortable.

On this night, Cecilia sat on the long plank seat plucking the chicken for Sunday’s dinner. Off in some kind of daydream with her eyes glazed over, her mind in some distance place, she paid no attention to her surroundings.

Looking over his shoulder, Papa said, “Reuben Carter asked if he might take you to church tomorrow in his wagon, Cecilia. What do you think about that?”

She hesitated for a moment and then kept on plucking.

“Cecilia, I said Reuben Carter would like to pick you up tomorrow for church.”

“Yes, Papa, I heard you. I guess it’d be alright.” 

She went back to plucking the chicken, feathers flying, to hide the flush I saw come to her cheeks.

“Well, I guess you don’t have to give me your answer. I took the liberty of inviting him to supper tonight. He’ll be along any minute now. You can tell him yourself,” he said, turning his concentration to the small canoe he whittled.

The wild flying of chicken feathers came to a dead halt, and a bald chicken hit the floor.

“Papa, you mean to tell me, he’s on his way?” she asked.

        “Jeremiah,” Mama said. “You could’ve at least given us a little warning. In the middle of plucking a chicken is not the time to tell your daughter a boy wants to court her, and oh, by the way, he’s coming to dinner.” She turned to Cecilia and said, “I’ll finish up for you. Run along to the creek and wash up. Supper’s almost ready, and I expect we’ll hear Reuben’s horses coming down the Gap any minute.”

Cecilia picked up the chicken and put it in a pot on the table. She grabbed a small hand towel and bucket and flew out the door toward the creek, which ran by our cabin just out of sight in the woods.

“You’ve scared the mud out of her, Jeremiah,” Mama said.

“Who cares?” Lydia asked as she batted invisible chicken feathers away from her face. “All this blame chicken fuzz is making me sneeze.”

“Lydia, if you can’t tolerate it, then I don’t expect you’ll be able to tolerate the fried chicken tomorrow afternoon, either. Tonight’s very important to your sister, and I don’t wanna hear any more complaints out of you. It’s hard enough without your constant smart aleck remarks. Do I make myself clear?” Mama asked as she cleaned up feathers.

"Return to Rocky Gap" by Toni Morrow Wyatt


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Women's Fiction

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