Seventeen Years

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
July/August 2001

By Jessica Libor, Illustrated by the author

As I sipped the sherberty punch, I gazed about the Fitzpatricks’ sprawling farm for a comfortable spot to sit. It was the Fourth of July, and summer heat waves rippled across the cow pastures behind the barns. The Fitzpatricks, our neighbors, were giving a party. I could see my older brother Wesley trying to climb up the knotted rope that hung from a newly constructed tree house. I could do that, I thought. Easily. That is, if I ever got up the nerve to climb fifteen feet above the ground.

I glanced about the party and spied my best friend Tracy, sitting on the porch steps. She waved to me, and I started toward her.

“Holly!” someone shouted. I jumped. Oh, it was only my brother Wesley, calling me from the tree house.

“What?” I shouted back.

“Why don’t you come on up here? You wouldn’t believe the view!”

I said nothing. Suddenly another person popped up beside Wesley, grinning freckledly down. My punch got caught in my throat somehow. It was Henry Fitzpatrick. He was wiry and freckled, maybe one or two years older than my fourteen-year-old brother, with a head of thick red hair. I looked hard at my paper cup. “C’mon, Holly, give it a try,” he urged.

“OK,” I said as nonchalantly as possible, setting down my trembling cup. After all, I didn’t want to look like a sissy. My loose chestnut curls bounced against my shoulders as I crossed the distance between the porch and the giant maple. I was under the rope now, gazing at it. I had to do it now. Oh, how had I gotten myself into this thing?

Seventeen Years having a picnic

I was under the rope now, gazing at it. I had to do it now

I looked up. Both of them were staring down at me. Henry smiled encouragingly. I simply couldn’t mess up in front of him. “Don’t worry,” Wesley yelled. “You’ll make it. Everybody else did.”

I took a deep breath and swung onto the first knot. It wasn’t that hard. Getting up the second one was a bit more difficult. I was on the sixth knot, almost done, when I glanced down to make sure my feet were secure. I didn’t even notice my feet. All I saw was how far away the ground was. Was the rope whirling, or was it just me? “Holl, are you OK?” Henry had asked me something, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. I felt someone grab my hand. I forced myself to look up, and felt my feet giving way. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. I felt for the rope, but it wasn’t there. I felt my hand slipping rapidly out of the hand that was holding mine. I let out a scream as our hands parted. The last thing I remember were two very white faces, one of them with freckles, getting farther and farther away.

I opened my eyes. They felt strangely heavy and hard to open. All I saw was white. Maybe I’m in heaven, I thought vaguely. Slowly my vision was clearing. No, it wasn’t clouds I was seeing. It was a clean, sterile, flat white—one that reminded me of hospitals. Hospital! Of course. That would make sense. I had probably hurt myself falling from the tree house, and had been taken to a hospital. Strange that nothing hurt on me. I felt tired, though—very tired. I wondered how long I had been lying here. Probably since yesterday.

My vision was now sufficiently cleared to take in my surroundings. There was a window, but there was a blind drawn on it. There was a bulletin board, on which there was a very yellowed card that said “Get Well Soon, Holly, with love, Mom, Dad and Wesley.” There was a clock over the door, which read 1:34 PM on its plain face. It was then that I noticed the machines. There were a lot of them, lined up next to each other in complex rows. They were connected to . . . me!

I looked cross-eyed at my nose. There were tubes coming out of it. Eeuw, I instinctively thought. I tried to move my head. It took some energy to do it, and I lay back on the pillows again, exhausted.

There was nothing to do. I wished there was a magazine left on the cot. I slept.

I wakened to the sound of a door creaking open. I glanced at the door. A nurse was coming in with a needleful of clear stuff and a clipboard. She stopped in front of my cot and wrote something down on her clipboard. She looked nice, about twenty years old. She raised her eyes for the first time to mine. I made an effort to smile, though it was difficult and hurt a bit. What followed was very unexpected. The nurse gasped, and she dropped her cargo with a resounding clatter. She backed quickly out of the room, staring at me all the time. I frowned slightly. What was the matter with her?

The next moment a doctor entered, looking very confused and flustered. Behind him the nurse who acted so oddly followed. “Y- you see, doctor, she is alive and awake and she even smiled a bit at me—see for yourself, doctor! And after all these years!”

The doctor stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. I cleared my throat. Finally, he told the nurse to bring him a folding chair. When she got back he lowered himself into it. He looked at his hands for a long time. Then he spoke. “Holly, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?”

“Sure,” I said. My voice sounded deeper and raspier than usual. “My name is Holly Fullbright and I’m thirteen years old. I have one brother Wesley, who’s fourteen, my mom and dad, three cats and my pet parakeet Phoebe. Can you tell me why I’m here?”

The doctor looked at me weirdly. “This is going to be hard to explain, Holly. You remember when you fell out of the tree in 1949?”

“Yes.” I was beginning to get scared. Wasn’t it 1949 now?

“Well, Holly, when you hit the ground, you went into a coma. Do you know what that is?” I nodded. I had learned about it in health class last year. The doctor shifted in his chair. “Well, some time has passed since you fell out of that tree. I just wanted to let you know that so you won’t be . . . shocked . . . at some of the differences.”

This was getting way too weird. How much time had passed since I had fallen? It couldn’t be much, I assured myself And yet, I had to be sure. But before I could ask, the doctor was at the door whispering something to the curious nurse.

He leaned into the room. “Be sure to get lots of rest,” he said, with a synthetic smile.

Later in the day a different nurse came in with a bowl of gruel. “Don’t you have anything else? I’m hungry!” I complained. And I was. My stomach felt more empty than it had in my entire life.

“Doctor’s orders,” the frowdy nurse replied primly. “Says your stomach can’t handle it yet.”

I looked dubiously into the brown, murky depths of the gruel. Oh, well, I thought. It was better than nothing.

The next day I woke expecting to find myself in my own bed in my cheerful pink room. Instead, the blank hospital walls greeted me. Why hadn’t anyone come to visit me yet? The card on the bulletin board reminded me that at least my family had cared. It was the only object of interest in the room. I heard footsteps and voices in the hall. Maybe . . . yes! Someone was opening the door. I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the visitor.

I caught my breath when I saw him. “Dad?” He looked the same, but somehow different. There were more lines and wrinkles. He looked too old. Someone else followed him. It was . . . my mom! She had streaks of gray in her shoulder-length, bobbed hair, and looked more aged than my father. She had tears running down her cheeks. After all the greetings and emotions that cannot be put into words, they found a seat and began talking.

“How long has it been?” I asked quietly, searching their faces.

My dad cleared his throat and my mother looked at the ground. “The doctor . . . Dr. Diffenbaugh . . . said not to let you know right away.”

“Um . . . where is Wesley?” I asked.

My mother’s face brightened a bit. “He’ll be here tomorrow afternoon,” she said.

“Mr. and Mrs. Fullbright?” A nurse appeared at the door.

“That’s us,” my parents said, standing.

“Visiting hours are now over for this morning, but you may come back tomorrow if you wish.”

“All right. Bye, honey,” said my mom, smiling. I smiled back. It was becoming easier and easier to use my facial muscles, but I could barely move my legs and arms. I wished that I could. It was annoying to have someone else do everything for you.

“It’s time for your exercise,” said the frowdy nurse. I didn’t like her. I wished that I had the twenty-year-old one. She looked nicer. The nurse helped me into my wheelchair, and for the first time, I noticed how skinny I was. I resolved to get fatter right away. I wanted to get well in time for the new school year. Or had I missed a year lying on a cot in a coma? Oh, well. I still wanted to get well.

In the hallway there were other patients being taken for walks in wheelchairs. I smiled at some of them, but only one smiled back. People were not very happy in hospitals, I decided.

We passed a mirror, and out of curiosity I turned to see myself. What I saw I didn’t even recognize. My face was more mature, but gaunt, and with no wrinkles. My usual thick, curly chestnut mane was replaced by thinning wisps of brown. I turned away, not knowing what to think. I was shocked. How long had it taken for me to get like that?

After the walk, the nurse made me do some sort of leg-strengthening exercises before letting me go to sleep. The next morning Wesley visited me. The doctor announced him before letting me see him. I figured that I could guess how many years I’d been in a coma by seeing how he had grown.

A man and a woman walked in. Something was vaguely familiar about both of them, as if I’d seen them in a dream or something. When the woman saw me, she ran up to the bed and threw her arms around me. I didn’t know what to do. Who was she? When she finally released me, she looked into my eyes and saw no recognition. “Oh, Holly, don’t you remember me? I’m Tracy Whitman, your best friend. Or Tracy Fullbright, now.” She smiled at the man. Wait a minute! I had seen that man’s face so many times before, but where?

Involuntarily my jaw dropped and left me staring at the pair rather rudely. “Wesley!” I managed to choke out. Yes, it was him, every bit. The same straight nose, dimpled chin and green-brown eyes. A lot older, more weathered and with a taller stature, but it was Wesley. I did my absolute best to keep from crying. So many years had passed since that accident in the tree. But how many?

And this, too, was Tracy. I could believe that very easily. The same long, straight, blond hair, turquoise eyes and nice face. “Are you married?” I asked for the sake of breaking the silence that ensued. That seemed to clear the air.

“Yes, and very happy about it. I hope you don’t mind, Holl!” said Wesley in his straightforward manner.

“Oh, definitely not,” I assured them both. “Congrats!”

“Oh. Holly, you should’ve seen the wedding! It was a dream. My theme was blue, of course. Baby blue. You know it’s my favorite color . . .” Tracy told me all the details, but I was only half listening.

“Whatever happened to Henry?” I asked. I was genuinely curious.

“Henry who?” blundered Tracy, looking confused.

“Henry Fitzpatrick, of course.”

“Oh, him. Well, right after he finished college, he went out west somewhere. Everyone says it’s because he felt guilty about letting you fall. But he’s been gone sooo long. Everyone’s just about forgotten about him. The last news I heard was a couple years ago. He’s doing really well in his business.”

“Oh,” I said. A pause. “How long has it been—I mean, since I fell?”

“You mean they didn’t tell you?” said Wesley. “Seventeen years.”

It hit me like a brick wall. Seventeen years! What year was it now? Let’s see . . . it would be 1967. That was scary. I needed some time to think. What would happen to me? I had missed my whole life. Tracy elbowed Wesley and hissed, “She wasn’t ready for it yet!”

“Ooops,” Wesley apologized sheepishly.

“It’s OK, Holly,” he said, putting his hand over mine. “You can catch up on school at home, and become a painter like you always wanted to. You can still do it.” I took a shaky breath. This was going to be hard, catching up on seventeen years.

“I really appreciate you guys coming, but . . . could you leave now? I need to think things through.”

“OK, Holly, no problem. Get well soon.” Tracy left softly, and Wesley, too. I was alone. Why had this happened to me? When the door closed, I had a good cry. It felt wonderful. I hadn’t cried in a long, long time.

After a while the nurses began to give me real food to eat, for which I was grateful. I was getting awfully tired of brown gruel. Every day the nurse made me walk at least ten to twenty steps. It was good for me, and my legs were strengthening rapidly.

Seventeen Years under the tree at night

I shivered, and drew my shawl around me closer

And then it was spring. I was glad it wasn’t winter. Spring gave me hope, as did the image in the mirror I passed each day on a walk. My hair was growing back into short curls, and I was starting to notice that I was not the skinny skeleton I had been when I first woke up.

In the dull hours with nothing to do, the nurse brought me magazines. The styles had changed dramatically from the 1940s. Instead of quaint, delicate dresses, I saw tie-dyed shirts, bell-bottoms, long, unkempt hair and the weirdest makeup I had ever seen.

I prayed a lot, asking God to help me through these times and pursue the dreams I had had before I fell. I had wanted to be a veterinarian, have a big stone house in the country with lots of animals, and paint country scenes to sell in art shows. Wesley had told me it was still possible. I believed him and tried my best to get well.

I had many sleepless nights, lying still in that cot with the silver moon shining serenely on me. Many times I wondered about Henry—where he was, what he was doing. Would he have gone out west if I hadn’t fallen? Tracy said it was because of guilt . . . for letting me fall. I was troubled by that.

A month after Wesley’s visit, the nurse came in and told me I was going to be moved. The machines were taken off me permanently, and I was moved to a more crowded section of the hospital. As we left, I passed the sign “Intensive Care” and knew that I was making progress. Now that I was out of intensive care, I would get to go home soon!

A week later I was released, and given directions to exercise every day, eat heartily and not strain myself too much. They were rather loose guidelines, so I didn’t worry about them too much.

At eleven AM my mom drove up. I got in the unfamiliar car with her, and she drove along the familiar roads to where our house stood. Aside from a change in the color of the siding, the house still looked pretty much the same. The trees were much bigger, and my favorite crab apple tree had been cut down. Too bad. I had liked that tree.

Beyond our house I could see the Fitzpatricks’ deserted farm. I saw it all right, but I wished I hadn’t. It gave me a weird sensation—like I had just stepped out of a time machine.

“Well, here we are,” said my mom, opening the door for me.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, and stepped out. It was a crisp, spring day and the warming air felt good.

“I’ll show you in,” she smiled, and we went in the house together. The furniture was the same, but in different positions. A new painting. A new desk. Those were the only new things in the room. I went straight upstairs. New carpeting. Hmm.

“I’ll fix you something to eat,” my mother called from below. Somehow, I didn’t feel exactly hungry.

The last door on the left was my room. On the opposite side was Wesley’s. I peeked into his room first. It had been converted into an office. Nothing surprising about that; I had expected some sort of change now that he was out and married. Next I turned to my own room. The door swung open under my gentle push . . . everything was the same. I mean everything! Two navy-blue socks were still crumpled by my bed where I had left them the morning I had fallen. The invitation to the Fitzpatricks’ party was still on my dresser, the red and blue flag softly faded. I opened my dresser drawer . . . oh, thank heavens! My family had thought enough to buy me a whole new wardrobe in the size I was now. They were certainly different enough. How could I bring myself to wear pants? Ladies always wore dresses. At least, I thought they did. I slid open my closet, thumbing my way delightedly through new dresses. I came to the last one and held it at arm’s length. It was light blue, sleeveless and faded so the blue hardly showed at all in spots, with a grass stain or two smudged on the back. I remembered that dress all too well. I had carefully chosen it for that fateful Fourth of July party seventeen years ago. Tears sprang to my eyes.

Suddenly contempt for the past welled up in me. What was I doing? I couldn’t weep over dresses and socks on the floor just because they happened to be seventeen years old! I was dwelling too much on the past. With a savage impulse I ripped the fragile ghost-dress from top to bottom. Stuffing it in the trash bin, I snatched the haunting invitation from my dresser; into the trash that went, too. Over the next ten minutes, everything connected to my past went. I was starting over, a new person. I was no longer thirteen, but a woman.

The rest of the day I spent rearranging furniture and getting settled into a new life. I was grateful to sink into my bed when the sky darkened.

I slept. Around one AM I wakened. The moonlight was shining over my pillow like a laser beam. I couldn’t sleep. Everything was so deathly quiet. The air was stuffy. I had to get a breath of fresh air. I slipped out of bed and into my slippers. Careful not to wake my parents, I treaded softly downstairs to the back door. When I was outside, I leaned against the glass door, taking grateful breaths of fresh, living air.

I looked across the field to the Fitzgeralds. How beautiful the deserted farm looked in the moonlight. I felt drawn to it, and found myself moving toward it. The fields were silvery and rippling in the gentle May breeze, and the barns like ancient temples now in ruins. I felt hopeless. I had wasted my life. What was I to do with it now? “God, show me what to do,” I whispered. I was underneath a huge maple tree. In its branches, farther up than I remembered, were pieces of old boards and timbers. I shivered, and drew my shawl around me closer. I was tired. I crossed the fields slowly and slipped back into my bed.

I dreamed. When the sun finally rose to greet the coming day, I yawned and stretched. “Blessed sun, hello!” I said, thinking how ridiculous I sounded. But it was a blessed sun, so much more cheerful than the pale, eternal moon from last night. Last night! I remembered my night walk with a jolt.

Downstairs Mom was still having breakfast. “Dad’s already gone to work,” she explained. “Said he wanted to see you. He waited as long as he could, but you got up too late,” she smiled.

I smiled back. I felt so wonderfully normal as I scrounged the cabinet for cereal. I poured myself a bowlful of Cheerios and sat down to read the morning paper. “Oh, look, Holly, here’s an advertisement for Henry’s business. Henry Fitzgerald, custom contractor and architect. Come to Arizona: we help make your dreams come true. Or call us at . . . why Holly, what’s wrong?” I suppose I did look rather shocked at that moment. The dream I had had last night had just come rushing back. It was about Henry. He was in terrible danger. I didn’t know how or why, but I knew I had to help him right away.

“Mom,” I said tremulously, rising. “Can you drive me to the post office? I need to get there right away.”

“Sure, honey, but can you wait till we get dressed for the day?” she laughed, and I followed her upstairs. I threw on a sweater and some jeans, then ripped the advertisement out of the paper. I had been waiting in the car for five minutes before my mom came out.

“Why do you have to go this early? This is ridiculous!” she muttered.

“Can you drive a little faster?” I urged. When we pulled into the parking lot, I ran out and into the square, blue building.

“Hello, ma’am, may I help you?” asked the nondescript worker.

“Yes, please,” I said breathlessly. “I need to send a telegram.”

“Why not just call?” he suggested.

“Oh, no! I ripped the telephone number off. Only half of the numbers are here!” I cried after searching in vain for them on the advertisement. Panic gripped me. What if I couldn’t reach him in time? Then something caught my eye. “But the address is!”

“Well, then, you’ll just have to go with the telegram,” the worker said, digging in a drawer under the counter. He came out with a slip of paper. I took it greedily and snatched a pen from its holder. What to say? Something short, since these were expensive. I put my pen to the paper. When I was finished, it read:

Henry, I’m alive. I woke up.
Somehow you are in danger. Take care.

Holly

The worker took the telegram to write down the address. He glanced at the message and looked at me like I was crazy. “Thank, you, ma’am,” he said as I paid for it.

Seventeen Years getting off the train

“Henry, wait!” I called

I rushed back to the car with a smile on my face. How good it would be if he came back! The next day I applied for a job in a flower shop, and got it. I was happy there, and since it wasn’t too busy, I could paint when there was no one to serve.

At the end of the week a letter came for me. It was written in strange handwriting. Could I even dare to hope? I tore it open. The contents were short:

Dear Holly,

When I received your telegram, I could hardly believe my eyes. I received it on the day you had been scheduled to be taken off all lifelines! I hope you are not still angry with me for letting you go, though I will always hold it against myself, and won’t blame you a bit if you never forgive me. This is also a thank you. Though you probably do not know it, you saved my life when you sent the telegram. I stopped and picked up the telegram right before I was about to get on a train to a business conference. While I was reading it, the train left. I was angry. The next day it was all over the newspapers. That train crashed, killing all the passengers. I don’t know how you did it. Thanks, Holly. I’m coming on the Friday evening train, if you don’t stop me again. I’ll be staying at a motel. Hope to see you soon.

Henry

I let the letter drift to the floor. “Thank you, God,” I said breathlessly. Henry was coming! I could hardly believe it. I wanted to shout my joy to the skies. Oh, life was good again!

Seventeen Years man and a woman

When had he said he was coming? Friday. Why, today was Friday! The evening train would be coming in fifteen minutes! Mom wasn’t home to drive me. I would walk.

I arrived out of breath at the train station at one minute to five. The train was right on time. As the passengers filed out, I searched the stream of people for one familiar face. Several redhaired people got off, but I knew that none of them were him. I was beginning to lose hope, when the last person stepped off the train. He turned his face my way. It was Henry, all right! His freckles were faded, and his hair was salt-and-pepper now. He had grown a little goatee. I let myself laugh for the first time in seventeen years. How funny it looked on him. He was going the opposite direction now. “Henry, wait!” I called. He turned around, and our eyes met. I knew everything was going to be all right.

Seventeen Years Jessica Libor

Jessica Libor, 13
Collegeville, Pennsylvania

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One Comment
 
  1. TNTGirl February 8, 2017 at 3:05 pm Reply

    I will always remember this story! It is beautifully written and illustrated! Forevered cherished!

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