That’s all it took to unlock the vault inside Joey Sheffield’s mind that held old, painful memories that she’d struggled for years to put away and keep hidden, finally succeeding after what had seemed an eternity and an endless number of attempts – plus years of therapy. In the few short moments it took to answer the phone and hear her sister’s voice, every single scab from every single wound was picked away, reopening old sores and unleashing a flow of painful memories like raging flood waters crashing through a broken dam, resulting in the recall of deep, dark secrets that she’d rarely spoken of and had willed herself not to dwell on.
As a child, she’d been helpless in fighting against the wrongs imposed upon her, while her own mother stood idly by and allowed it all to happen without so much as lifting a finger to help or protect her because she’d refused to believe what she’d called lies coming out of her daughter’s mouth, dismissing the allegations as made up fairy tales and imaginative fabrications. In a way, Joey supposed that the fairy tale part was certainly true because there was a beast involved, a monster that had robbed her of her childhood and her innocence, never regretting an ounce of the pain that he had caused her.
As a teenager, she’d been stronger and brave enough to speak out against the personal violations against her, but not strong enough to ward off the evil that resided inside her home, an evil that had made her its main target and hardly let a day go by without reminding her of that fact. To avoid having to face her tormentor or be in the same room with him, when not working she’d hung out with friends as late as she possibly could without suffering dire consequences for failing to adhere to a set curfew. Her favorite hangout had been Nat’s Diner, a replica of what Nat referred to as “the old fifties burger joints.” It was the one place where she could go and relax without dwelling on the lecherous activities that took place in her bedroom at night. A temporary safe haven where she could laugh and have fun, but the joy and happiness were always short-lived and diminished the moment she stepped over the threshold and into that ice-cold mausoleum called home.
With money she’d saved up from working nights and weekends at the concession stand in the local movie theater, plus the part-time job Nat had given her after she’d begged him to let her work at the diner, she left home the day she turned eighteen, never looking back or lamenting her decision, vowing that if she ever had to face her tormentor again, she’d kill him.
She’d spent months on the road taking buses from town to town, staying only a few months in each one then moving on to the next. Rat and roach infested motels served as home in each city, but even those conditions weren’t enough to make her rue leaving home. Because for the first time in eight years, she could lay her head on the pillow at night without worrying about Mac invading her privacy or making unwanted and unwelcome visits to her room while she slept. Waitressing jobs came easily wherever she was, thanks to the training she’d received at Nat’s, but serving patrons wasn’t always pleasant. From experience, she had learned that no matter where she was or what size restaurant she worked in, there would always be a certain type of male who thought it was acceptable behavior to slap her on the ass every time she walked past his table, then hear him laugh about it to his friends while she gritted her teeth and fought against the urge to slap their faces in retaliation. Yet, no matter how uncomfortable or vile she found their actions to be, she’d tolerated it because between her small salary and the tips she’d collected, it’d given her the opportunity to save up enough money to get even further away, finally settling down in a small town in southern Indiana, working a full time job during the day and attending college classes at night, determined to make a better life for herself. After nearly four years of hard work and late-night studying, she’d earned her degree in nursing and was now employed in the cardiac care unit of the local hospital, where she was highly regarded and respected by all of her co-workers for her attentiveness and expert care of the patients under her charge.
She no longer had to live in disgusting, filthy motels, eating ramen noodles and crackers because that was all she could afford, or having to take buses or taxis to work and school because that was the only transportation available to her. After years of struggling to land on her feet with a fresh start at life, she was finally comfortable and happy, living in peace in her small, one-bedroom apartment.
All those hardships could have been avoided had she chosen to stay at home and remain in daddy’s will, obeying and bowing to his every demand like a good daughter should. But if remaining an heiress meant continuing to tolerate his abuse and sacrificing her own well-being for his demented pleasure, then she didn’t want a penny of his filthy blood money. No amount he could ever bequeath to her would be enough to make up for the childhood he stole from her and as far as she was concerned, he could take all his money and everything else he owned and shove them all up his ass. Her life, mental and physical health weren’t up for sale, regardless of the amount written on a check.
He was the reason she had little trust in men. Over the years she’d dated, but had never formed a lasting relationship with anyone, always ending them before any serious feelings could get involved. She’d been in love once, long ago, and had promised to marry him. But instead of tying herself down to Mason Abernathy and remaining in a town where she’d likely continue to have to see her father, she’d chosen instead to leave and had done so without telling Mason goodbye, breaking his heart, and her own, in the process. Hurting him wasn’t her intention but choosing to leave had been a decision that needed to be made because, the way she saw it, it was the only way she could ever completely rid herself of Macarthur Sheffield!
She had not been back home since leaving but had kept in phone contact with her two sisters. Physical visits with them were few and far between, but when they did get the opportunity to see each other, it was always somewhere several miles away from home and without the knowledge of their parents. As far as she was concerned, never seeing her mother again would be okay with her. It would probably be better for them both if she didn’t because she had nothing to say to her and shuttered at the thought of what she might do should she ever have to face her again. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what her sister was asking her to do.
“Joey, did you hear me?” It was Rosemary, her oldest sister, who had called her with the news.
“I heard you,” Joey answered groggily, glancing at the clock on the bedside table. She’d heard everything her sister had said, but all that followed after her first two words was meaningless. It was only her initial statement that was ringing in her ears, hanging over her head like a thick, black cloud.
“Are you coming?”
Joey hesitated for a moment, then finally spoke. “Rosie, I can’t believe you’d even consider asking me to come back there, especially with all the bad blood between me and Helen. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.”
“He’s your father, Joey,” Rosemary stated flatly.
“I happen to know who he is and that doesn’t change my stance.”
“I really wish you’d reconsider your decision, Joey. Robin and I are staying with mom temporarily to help her get through this, so we’ll both be there, and we need you. Especially Robin. She isn’t handling this very well and I’m afraid that the stress might cause her to digress and pick up her habit again, and I don’t believe either one of us wants to see that happen, do we? We could use the moral support from our sister, but if you have more important things to do, then by all means, do them. Let me know if you change your mind.” And with that, she hung up.
Rosemary VanAllen, always the uppity one with the condescending tone who could make saying good morning sound like kiss my ass. Even her last name sounded snobby. She was her older sister and she loved her, but God knows the woman had always thought her shit didn’t stink.
Joey sat on the side of the bed, the phone still in her hand as she stared into the darkness of the room. Rosemary, like her mother, was aware of the abuse she’d suffered, but also like her mother, refused to believe a single word of it, always citing the fact that daddy was a good man, an excellent provider for his family and would never do something so atrocious. So much for familial support in a time of crisis!
And no, she didn’t want Robin to return to her opioid addiction since it had damn near killed her before she sought professional treatment for her problem. But if she did, it sure as hell wouldn’t be her fault now any more than it was the first time around, and she resented that Rosemary had insinuated that it would be if she failed to go home as she’d requested.
Joey shook her head as she got out of bed, placing her phone on the bedside table before going into the bathroom. Fresh memories flooded her mind once more as she stared at her pale reflection in the mirror, then closed her eyes tightly as she tried to put them all back inside the boxes of her mind where they belonged, swearing to never again allow them to rise to the surface and cause her any more agony than they already had. If only she could be so lucky.
With a single phone call and two spoken words, her normal and routine life was upended and thrown into chaos as she again was forced to face the hateful demons of her past, memories put there by the very man she was being asked to honor. On the bright side, if she did go, she might finally be able to bury the past and put it to rest once and for all, or at least that’s what she told herself as Rosemary’s words played repeatedly in her head.
“I don’t know what surprises me more,” Ellen said, glancing over Joey’s leave request. “The fact that you’re asking for time off or that you have a family.”
“Did you think I was hatched from an egg?” Joey asked, sitting across the desk from her supervisor, smiling as she watched her various facial expressions.
She and Ellen Jacobs had been friends practically since she’d settled down in Jeffersonville, having met as they waited in the lobby of the same hospital for job interviews, but for different positions. Ellen, already a nurse, had encouraged her to go into nursing as well, seeing potential in her that she didn’t know she had. Next to leaving Cornish, it had been one of the best decisions she’d ever made because she absolutely loved the career path she’d chosen.
On the job, they remained professional, never letting their relationship interfere with duties or responsibilities. Offsite, however, Ellen was fun to be around and had a comical sense of humor and was excellent at telling corny jokes. Her charming personality and contagious laugh were an excellent duo. Whenever they were together, laughter was always present. Oftentimes, Ellen had told her it was good for the soul and a wonderful cleanser.
“Never really thought about it,” Ellen replied, glancing up. “In all the time that I’ve known you, not once have you ever talked about your family. Guess it was presumptuous of me to think that you didn’t have one.”
“Not much to talk about, really,” Joey said, never having shared any of her past with Ellen, other than trivial things like the popular town diner she’d hung out at with friends, that she’d left home at eighteen but withholding the reasons why because they were too shameful and embarrassing, and about her relationship with Mason. Ellen also wasn’t aware that she’d come from an extremely wealthy family or that she had two sisters. To divulge any of that information would lead to question after question about her home and family life, and even as much as she loved Ellen, there were some things that didn’t need to be discussed; therefore, she had remained silent.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your father,” Ellen said, signing the form and handing it to Joey.
“Don’t be. I’m not.”
Ellen looked puzzled by her comment, her eyebrows questioningly raised. “Care to elaborate?”
“No,” Joey answered, realizing how short and tart her response had been to Ellen’s condolences. “Only that I’ve never been close to my father, that’s all.”
“I get the feeling there’s something you’re not telling me. Am I right?”
Joey hesitated, not wanting to lie to Ellen but also not wanting to tell her why she’d made such a remark.
“Joey, you know you can tell me anything. I’m a good listener and I never judge.”
“I know you are, Ellen.”
“If you ever need to talk, I’m here for you. No matter what.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Where is it you’re going?”
“Alabama?” Ellen asked with surprise. “I thought you were from Georgia with that southern twang of yours. I could have sworn you told me that’s where you were from. Guess I was wrong.”
“No, you weren’t. That’s where I’m originally from. Mac relocated us to Alabama when I was a little girl.”
Obviously, discussing her father was uncomfortable for her so Ellen didn’t press any further. “Are you flying down?”
“No. I’m going to drive. It’ll give me some time to clear my head and prepare myself before I get there.”
“Are you expecting it to be that bad?”
“With my family, who knows? Sometimes the drama gets so bad that it’s like living in a soap opera.”
“Do I detect a note of apprehension about making the trip?”
“Dread, maybe. You’d know why if you knew my family.”
Ellen gave a short laugh. “When do you plan on leaving?”
“Early in the morning. I’m going home now to pack.”
“Other than attending a funeral, what other plans do you have while you’re there?”
“Right now, none. I don’t intend to stay any longer than necessary.”
“Planning on looking up any old friends?” Ellen asked, smiling slyly.
“If you mean Mason, the answer is no. If I happen to run into him, it won’t be intentional,” Joey said, returning the smile.
“Sure it won’t,” Ellen winked. “Okay, come here and give me a hug. You drive safely and let me know the minute you’re back. And don’t forget to drop that leave form off at human resources if you don’t want your paycheck docked.”
“Thanks, Ellen, I will,” she said, hugging her friend goodbye. “Sorry about the short notice.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not as if we can plan death, right?”
“See you when I get back.”
Ellen stood in the doorway of her office watching Joey as she walked away, unable to shake the feeling of unease that suddenly washed over her. It was apparent that Joey wasn’t thrilled about attending her father’s funeral or being around her family, which could explain the reason why she had a nagging feeling that Joey was in danger, but from what or who she couldn’t even begin to guess. Surely her family would watch over her and protect her, keeping her out of harm’s way. They were, afterall, family.
“Stop being so paranoid,” she whispered, returning to her desk. Joey said she was leaving the following morning, so she’d give her time to arrive at her parents’ house and get settled in, then she’d call and check on her.
Until then, she knew the gnawing feeling she had wouldn’t go away.
Joey slumped down onto the couch, staring at her packed suitcases sitting by the front door. She was having second thoughts about making the trip, not at all eager to face her mother or listen to her bitch about every little thing that didn’t go her way or hear her preach about all the mistakes she’d made over the years and how ungrateful of a child she’d been.
Not once had Helen ever told Joey that she loved her, and certainly not the type of person to express any emotions, Joey had been surprised when she’d started receiving letters from Helen within a year of settling down in Indiana. Every one of them were tossed into the trash bin unopened because she had no interest in anything Helen had to say. By then, she’d started her therapy sessions and was on the road to healing, so the last thing she’d needed was interference from Helen that would surely lead to a relapse.
Pissed after receiving the first letter, she’d called the one she knew was guilty of disclosing her location.
“What the hell, Rosemary! Did you give Helen my address?”
“Hello to you, too, Joey.”
“It was you, wasn’t it? After I specifically instructed you not to.”
“Relax, Joey. It’s not like I started the apocalypse.”
“You went against my wishes, Rosemary. Why?”
Rosemary sighed heavily. “You know how mother is. Extremely insistent and persuasive. I gave it to her to get her off my back about it. What’s the big deal? It’s only your address.”
“The point is that I asked you not to. If I’d wanted her to have it I would have given it to her myself.”
“I don’t understand what you’re so upset about. She’s not planning a trip to come see you.”
“I suppose you gave her my phone number, too.”
“Good. Keep it that way. And tell her to lose my address.”
Apparently she’d kept it because the letters continued to come – until they didn’t. Obviously, Helen had gotten the message.
Against her better judgment and after much consideration, she made the decision to return home, knowing that her sisters would be disappointed if she didn’t show up, and to ignore the death and funeral of her own father would likely drive an unwanted wedge between them. As badly as she didn’t want to go, she also didn’t want to hurt her sisters or destroy their relationship.
Joey exhaled heavily, leaning her head on the back of the couch. “God, give me strength to do this,” she said.
The drive was a little over six hours, but she had her CD’s and audio books that would make the trip bearable and both would help to keep her mind off where she was going and why.
She hadn’t packed much because she didn’t intend on staying long, knowing beforehand that she’d probably be ready to leave within the first few hours of getting there. Hopefully, her sisters would keep her occupied so that her interactions with her mother were limited, because the less she had to deal with her, the less chance there’d be of her lashing out at her for all the years she’d let her suffer without doing anything to help her. If confronted, she’d probably still swear everything was a lie or that she knew nothing about what was going on under her own roof. Six of one, half a dozen of another, the result was still the same. Complete and total denial, something Helen Sheffield was a professional at doing. God forbid any type of scandal should upset her perfect, idealistic world and lifestyle. Pity that her standing and reputation in the community, her afternoon Bridge clubs, her rich, socialite friends had all been more important to her than facing the truth about the horrors taking place inside her cherished mansion.
No matter how many times Joey had tried to forgive her, she couldn’t bring herself to do it – her heart wouldn’t allow it.
With a deep sigh, she rose from the couch and for the third time checked to make sure all the locks were secure and electrical appliances turned off, picked up her suitcases and headed out the door.
She’d forgotten what a beautiful drive it was between Indiana and Alabama since she hadn’t driven it in the fifteen years since leaving her small hometown of Cornish. On the few occasions she’d gotten together with Rosemary and Robin, she’d flown to their chosen location and then rented a car.
The rolling hills of Kentucky and mountains of Tennessee were stunning and picturesque as they proudly displayed row after row of trees; their leaves beginning to change into their Autumn reds, yellows and oranges, a true mountainside inferno basking in its splendor. Pine cabins and houses were visible from the road, appearing to be barely clinging to the sides of the mountain, pinned there to create the ideal optical illusion for spectators. Thin white wisps of clouds covered the mountaintops, reminding her of how the Smokies had gotten their name. Her ears popped as she climbed up one hill and descended down another, continuously faking yawns to clear them.
Traffic on the interstate was moderate but moving along smoothly. Some cars flew past her like speeding bullets, their drivers over-eager to reach their destinations. Others, like her, chose to follow the posted speed limit, also eager to reach their own destinations, but choosing to reach it alive instead of early. Several state troopers had cars pulled over, citation books in hand ready to issue tickets, while others parked off the road and out of sight conducting speed traps.
As a kid, whenever the family took a rare road trip, going no further than Gadsden to visit Helen’s family, she’d always enjoyed reading the roadside billboards, especially the ones with a message that was spread out over multiple boards placed several feet apart. Those kinds no longer existed, replaced by advertisements for attorneys, insurance, or real estate.
For the most part, those had been the good and happy days of her life, when her little girl innocence was still pure and intact. Reminiscing about those times inadvertently caused her to recall other times that weren’t so pleasant, incidents that, up until receiving the call from Rosemary, she’d succeeded in keeping hidden away, not wanting or needing to dwell on them.
With the music off, silence enveloped her as she traveled the road that would inevitably take her back to where it all started.
Listening to the soothing sound of tires against asphalt, all of those long-hidden memories began spilling out, leaving her with no alternative but to remember.
And there was never a better place to start than at the beginning.
“Hey, sweetheart,” she heard daddy say, his deep voice startling her awake. “Can daddy lie down with you for a while?”
“Why?” she asked, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. “Are you scared?”
A quick laugh, then, “Yeah, maybe a little.”
“Is there a monster in your closet?” It was the only thing in her young mind that made any sense. What else could scare a grown man so badly that he would need to ask permission to sleep with his young daughter?
“No,” he answered, crawling under the covers next to her and snuggling up close. “You’re so warm,” he whispered in her ear. “And you feel so good to daddy.”
The middle child of the three daughters, she’d been ten at the time and as innocent and naïve as any other girl her age who saw her daddy as a hero figure, someone she loved and admired, not understanding at the time that daddy crawling into bed with her was wrong, and only the beginning of what was still yet to come. She hadn’t been mature enough, mentally, or physically, to comprehend that his actions were inappropriate, only that daddy wanted to lie in bed with her and she saw nothing wrong with that.
Until a week later, when the occasional middle of the night visits evolved into an every- night ritual, and the hugging and cuddling became more advanced, improper, and uncomfortable.
“Daddy loves you,” he said, kissing her lightly on the head.
“I love you, too, daddy.”
“You know you’re my little angel, right?”
“Lying here with you makes daddy feel so good,” he said, slowly running his hand up and down the side of her thigh. “Don’t tell the others, but you’re my favorite.”
“Um hum,” he said, moving in closer as he put his arm around her waist and slid his hand up under her gown, touching her cotton underwear.
“Stop that, daddy,” she said, pushing his hand away. “That’s not nice and you’re not supposed to touch me on my private parts.”
“It’s okay,” he whispered, slipping his fingers under the elastic band of her panties, and proceeding to rub her. “I would never hurt you.”
“You’re poking me in my back,” she complained, scooting away from him, but he quickly pulled her back.
“Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to. I’ll try not to do it again,” he whispered, gliding his hand slowly inside her panties. “Doesn’t that feel good?” he groaned.
“No, I don’t like it. Please, daddy, stop.”
After several seconds, he grunted, exhaled heavily, and removed his hand from her underwear. “This will be our little secret,” he said, getting out of bed. “You can never tell anyone, you understand? If you do, I’ll swear that you’re lying and you know what happens to little girls who tell fibs, don’t you? They get sent away to live with mean, ugly people that they don’t know in houses where monsters live under the stairs and eat little girls. Remember that, my little angel.”
Speechless, she nodded as tears streamed down her face, confused and ashamed of what had just happened.
“Remember, it’s our secret,” he whispered, putting a finger to his mouth. “I promise to buy you a special present tomorrow, something that will make you feel better.”
As soon as he exited the room, she jumped out of bed and locked the door but hadn’t slept a wink for the remainder of the night. Instead, she’d spent it staring up at the ceiling, watching the stars from her nightlight dance across the walls, wishing she could be as far away as they were.
At the breakfast table, she’d been unable to look anyone in the eye, certain that if she did, they’d be able to see what she’d done the night before. Not having much of an appetite, she picked at her food, barely eating, anxious to get out of the house and to school. When daddy kissed her on the top of the head and said, “Good morning,” she cringed, disgusted by what he’d done to her. But it hadn’t fazed him at all, for he was smiling and happy, whistling tunes and acting as normal as he would have any other day.
If anyone had noticed her behavior toward him that morning, they never mentioned it, which was a relief because she didn’t want to talk about it. All she wanted was to forget and pray that it never happened again.
“What have you girls been told about locking your bedroom doors at night?” daddy asked as he sat down at the table.
“Not to,” Rosemary, who was four years older, answered.
“That’s right. And why is that? Robin, do you know?”
Eight-year-old, know-it-all Robin answered. “So that you don’t have to break our doors down in case of a fire.”
“Right again,” he said, looking at Joey. “So, can you tell me why your door was locked this morning, young lady?”
How did he know she’d locked her door? Had he come back to her room in the middle of the night with the intention of violating her again, only to find he couldn’t get in and would probably have awakened everyone had he tried to force the door open? She was up and downstairs before he exited his own bedroom, so how could he have known?
What she wanted to say and what she knew she should say were two entirely different things. If she told the truth, she’d probably be laughed at, called a liar, and sent away to live with strangers who kept monsters as pets. “I didn’t know it was,” she answered, staring blankly into her cereal bowl. “I must have locked it by accident.”
“Make sure it doesn’t happen again, you understand?”
She knew why he wanted her to keep the door unlocked, and it wasn’t for fear of fire. As badly as she wanted to defy that rule, she knew she couldn’t, because if she did, then daddy would get really mad and start yelling and taking his frustrations out on everyone else and be mean to mom. Not wanting to cause all that unnecessary trouble, she knew she had to abide by the house rules and do as daddy said.
“Yes, sir,” she answered, realizing that what he’d done to her the night before wasn’t going to be a one-time occurrence, but likely only the first of many more to come.
He had promised to never hurt her, so perhaps she shouldn’t be afraid of what might happen.
Unfortunately, he was destined to betray his promise.
True to his word, he’d presented her with a gift that afternoon – a beautiful rag doll with long, blonde braids wearing a blue and white checked dress and blue buttons for eyes. Fondly, she named the doll Molly. She couldn’t hate her. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been given as a gift to justify daddy’s bad behavior. It also wasn’t her fault that she’d caused a major upset in the Sheffield household.
The purchase of the doll resulted in deep ire from Helen. She was furious with Mac because he’d given only Joey a gift and not his other two daughters, accusing him of expressing favoritism and saying as much in Joey’s presence. From that point, it wouldn’t be long before Helen’s anger shifted from Mac to her, inevitably causing her to suffer years of mistreatment, omission from mother/daughter outings, and being the one who spent countless hours in the attic punishment room where she was forced to sit for hours at a time in the dark with no food or water until Helen said she could come out.
Those had been some of the darkest days of her life and Molly became her best friend. One she could talk to for hours and tell all of her secrets to, whose dress had absorbed countless flows of tears.
Molly knew everything, and if dolls could talk, she would have had one hell of a story to tell.
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