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The 23rd Song

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Anger and resentment coursed through Nellie’s body. Teeth, clenched and grinding, sat in a perfectly straight row hidden behind a thin line of tightly pressed lips. Every muscle in Nellie’s body tightened with the passing moments and it was all she could do to keep from lashing out at the woman sitting across the table from her. Nellie refused to look up, knowing without a doubt that those familiar blue eyes would tear through her body and dig into her vulnerable soul if given the slightest indication of weakness from Nellie’s facial expression. Eyes still cast firmly down, Nellie let out an overly audible sigh and pushed her dinner plate away more forcefully than she had intended.

“Nellie Mae! This is unacceptable. I won’t stand for it any longer -- a young adult should know better.” The words were spoken with the forceful authority of a woman in charge -- something Nellie knew her mother was not.

Nellie’s mind reeled with the pent up anger of many years long gone. How dare she! Nellie’s eyes released their firm hold on the table before her and found instead the sharply directed gaze of her mother’s blue pearls. In that moment, time stood still. The stiff air that surrounded the pair froze in place causing a damp, musty feeling to envelope the room. Nellie’s eyes glinted the reflection of the single light bulb overhead. The momentary shine of pale light revealed the many swirling emotions -- contempt and scorn -- that were otherwise hidden so stealthily behind Nellie’s constant façade. If it weren’t for the bitterness that threatened to send Nellie into a childish fit, she might have seen the pain that plagued her mother’s face, or the dark circles under her pale eyes that indicated her many sleepless nights. If it weren’t for her hasty exit, Nellie might have even caught the glimmer of a tear sliding helplessly down her mother’s cheek as she watched her daughter ascend the stairs and disappear into a world further out of reach than ever before. If it weren’t for her selfishness, Nellie might have even realized that her mother, like herself, was only human.


Once safely in her room with the door closed and locked, Nellie found herself sprawled across the bed, sobs echoing through the room. Why doesn’t she understand the pain I’m going through? It was a long time before Nellie could pull herself away from the tear-soaked pillow. When she finally did, she realized how empty she felt. Empty and alone. It struck her as strange, even in the midst of her anguish, that after all of the angry, hurtful words she had exchanged with her mother, she no longer felt the pangs of resentment. Her earlier rage now subsided, revealing a more painful grief that began somewhere deep in her chest and expanded until every inch of her body ached with remorse. It was the grief felt only by those who have lost someone dear to their heart. Someone irreplaceable. A friend. A relative. In this case, a sister.

The thought of Claire startled Nellie. For weeks Nellie had pushed all memories of her older sister to the back of her mind, refusing to remember even the slightest facial detail. Now, it was all Nellie could do to avoid the stunning color that radiated from the image of Claire’s brilliant blue eyes and glossy golden hair. Claire’s smooth complexion and gracious smile tugged at Nellie’s mind, reminding her of the melodic giggle that had once exuded Claire’s rosy lips. Squeezing her eyes shut, Nellie willed herself to shake the picture from her head, fearing that her tears of pain and anguish might resurface.

Rubbing her clammy hands over her jeans in an attempt to sooth her shaking nerves, Nellie stood and paced apprehensively about her room. She didn’t trust herself when moods like this befell her -- there was no telling what she might do or whom she might unintentionally hurt. I have to get away. Somehow she had to escape the pressure she felt closing in around her like the darkness of night that was now chasing away the late evening sun as it sank below the distant mountains, leaving behind only the pale pastels of an early autumn sunset. Oh how she wished she could disappear like the sun, run away and be forgotten. Nellie froze mid-step and considered the option. She had never really thought about running away, but suddenly it seemed to be her only choice. She swallowed hard, forcing away the lump that had lodged itself deep in her throat, and slowly made her way to the large second story window that spanned a fair length of her west wall. Was this the only way to find freedom from the torment that haunted her? Yes.
Nellie used a cardboard box that sat near the window to reach high enough to unlatch the child safety lock that remained from her younger years. It wasn’t until she climbed down from her perch that her head cleared enough to realize that it was a box she had never seen before. Probably something mom wanted to clean out of the garage but had no place to put. The thought brought back the bitterness Nellie had earlier forgotten. Tempted though she was to shove the box aside and continue with her plan to escape, Nellie had a strange feeling that she should open the box. There was an irresistible pull at her heart, and though she couldn’t explain it, Nellie felt the pressing need to explore the box’s content.
Reasoning that there was plenty of time to run away, Nellie knelt beside the tattered cardboard and slowly peeled away the packing tape that sealed it. Upon opening the box, Nellie couldn’t breathe. Her heart must have kept beating, but Nellie was numb to the outside world -- anything that was not contained within the flimsy walls of the box ceased to exist. Straining to see through the fog that clouded her vision, Nellie stared numbly into the box. A photo album, a hair brush, art supplies -- everything that had once decorated Claire’s room now sat in a pile directly in front of Nellie. It was almost too much for her to handle, but instead of turning her head and ignoring the painful memories as she once had done, Nellie reached with shaking hands into the box and removed each item with painstaking care. When she could finally see the bottom of the box, there was only one item left. It looked to Nellie like an important package wrapped delicately in an abundance of tissue paper to keep it safe. Did she dare unwrap it? Yes, she had to.
As the paper fell silently to the floor, Nellie’s head filled with questions. They were the questions she had desperately wanted to ask since the day of Claire’s accident but couldn’t bring herself to ponder. The Bible that lay in Nellie’s hands was Claire’s most prized possession. How can a “loving God” let such a wonderful girl die? Why couldn’t this “all-powerful being” save my sister when she was hit by that drunk driver? The questions poured out of her soul like the pelting rains that often flooded the valley below her house. They swept over her with the unexpected force of a tidal wave. Tears stung Nellie’s eyes, and for the first time in a long time, she didn’t blink them away. This is the God that Claire loved and trusted. I just don’t understand! Running her fingers tenderly along the gold-rimmed pages, Nellie opened to the center of the large book. Without thinking, she focused her watery eyes on a passage and began reading.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.





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