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This short story won the Gold Medal for August, 2010.

A Case Study: You will be graded on your observations concerning this escaped and recovered patient.

I paddled silently down the river of my childhood dreams.The Homosassa River was the only friend I had left now.Alone in the darkness,I tried to visualize the landmarks of a happy past.The tall oak with the rope swing,the natural bridge of rock that crossed the river,places I had to see one last time.My reverie was interrupted by a gentle voice beside me, "Don't be afraid Honey , it's Mother, but I'm not really here .You know you have lost your mind again dear."A sickly smell rose up around me from the bottom of the boat and I fainted.The distant sound of a barking dog woke me. My boat had drifted and caught under an overhanging palm.The moon wanted to warn me of some impending disaster but I refused to listen. I had to get back home to take my pills.

In the starry light I could see the dark coil of the river winding away around the bend.  I had floated a long way from the cabin that once was ours. Hidden under the palm fronds, I scanned the banks for danger before easing out into the current. My being here was a secret and I wanted to keep it that way. Someone tapped me on the shoulder in the dark but I would not turn around. I shuddered and grabbed my paddle. My teeth chattered in fear but I dug deep down into the cold water and sped away."I'm not really here."she whispered hoarsely in my ear.You've lost your mind again."I knew she was right.We were just alike, Mother and I. Though I tried my best to overcome the past, I could not win. I could not escape the shadowy grasp of  insanity. Facing straight ahead, I soon caught sight of the fish cleaning bench where my father spent many happy hours. Angling the boat up to the rickety dock, I climbed out and headed for the cabin. Breaking the screen door, I sat on the porch in the dark. Rain began to fall on the tin roof and frogs along the river came to life. I smiled and remembered. I closed my eyes and saw my mother roasting oysters on a grating over a glowing fire.The darkness clothed her in a silence broken only by the crackle of the embers.An oyster sizzled and popped open.She grabbed it with a gloved hand and took the halves apart.Throwing away the top,she dripped a fiery hot sauce on the morsel within. With great gusto she slurped it down and waited for another.She raised her pale eyes and stared across the fire at me."I have something for you Marty,"she whispered. She extended one arm across the grating to hand me an object wrapped in a small towel."Is it a shell Mama?" I asked as I unrolled the towel."In a way you could say so,"she answered.Dark shadows flickered across her features and the towel fell away to reveal eye sockets in a white skull. I screamed and ran off into the darkness. A bolt of lightning flashed across the river and jolted me out of my vision of the past. Father sat down beside me and put his big arm around my shoulders."I love you ."he said."Don't be afraid." "You never said that when you were alive Daddy.""Sure I did ,you just forgot."he smiled and tousled my hair and I remembered."You shouldn't be here honey.It's not our place anymore."he said , I could see the river right through him."It will always be our place ."I sobbed ."It's where we were happy.'"Daddy's got your Hershey bar right here in my shirt pocket like always ."He sighed and drifted off into the shadows."Go back now before they come to get you."

I pushed open the door to the main part of the house and listened to the rain. The long wooden table was just as we left it. Mama's last painting still hung on the wall above it. Why did these people want it back if they weren't even going to use the place? Nothing had changed. It was as if we could be driving up outside any minute to spend the summer as usual. Laughing and full of anticipation we would pile out of the old station wagon with the dog yipping  for joy.Now I felt along the shelves for the oil lamp and lit it with matches from my knapsack. I remembered to keep the curtains tight so as not to be seen from the river. As I pulled the drapes closed there came a tap at the window. I jumped and nearly dropped the lamp. I was about to blow it out when I saw my brother's face outside in the rain. I didn't open the door but he came in anyway.

"Sister,why didn't you let me in?Look what I caught before the rain ." In his little hand he held a mason jar full of fireflies. I wanted to hug him, but he laughed and ran into the bedroom we used to share.I called out,"Charlie."and he turned around holding a BB gun."Tomorrow we will get them snakes down in the hyacinths,"he said in cracking adolescent tones."Then you can pick all the purple flowers you want."In the lamp light I watched the youthful joy melt away into the scornful anger of middle age.Tears ran down into his beard."I just wanted to do one good thing before I died."he cried."I just wanted to get our place back but I couldn't do it sister. I'm sorry.I just never could do it."I felt the old grief engulf us and I reached out to touch him . He was like layered fog but I still tried to hold  him."It's alright now Charlie. It wasn't anybody's fault. It was just a change in times. Our turn was over. We were stars that burned out . I love you Charlie,I'll always love you."I set the lamp on the floor and looked under Charlie's bed.There back against the wall was the mason jar we always used to hold our fireflies before we let them go. Outside the storm swirled around the cabin.In the kitchen Mama and Daddy were dancing to a song I was singing."Around the world I searched for you."My sing song child's voice had a sweet lilting sound and they smiled as they waltzed around the big room.Oyster stew bubbled over on the stove and Mama screamed and hurried over to take it off the burner. Little Marty ran to me and lifted her face to stare into my eyes."It's all your fault."she said and ran out into the rainy night.

I tried to remember why I came here.  I had to find something,something important. I rummaged around in my bag and found my pills. I hadn't taken them since I ran away. I saw my reflection in a framed picture and screamed. That wild eyed woman with matted hair could not be me. Perhaps she was another apparition.I knew I wasn't always like this and then I remembered why I had returned to our place. It was the journal,my diary! It was a record of our world,our time.Without it there was no proof left. No way to prove what a wonderful life we had here.They were all dead and I ,well my memories were in question even to myself. I had to have that diary. I forgot about my pills and began the search for the journal. I knew I left it somewhere in my mother's room When the place was repossessed .I was in the hospital and did not get to come back for it. I heard myself sobbing in the bathroom then and went to investigate."Father is gone forever." little Marty said and wrote that down in a pink book with purple roses on the cover. She put the pencil and the little book behind the old fashioned medicine chest on the wall and disappeared.I went over and fearfully stuck my hand in the slot .Sure enough there it was! I pulled out the  little diary and laughed out loud. I was elated. I picked up the lamp to go back to get my pills when a hand touched me on the shoulder again. "You aren't really here either you know."my mother whispered in my ear.

I cried out and dropped the lamp. Oil spread quickly over the hardwood floor carrying the liquid flame with it. I panicked and ran out with nothing but my diary.Behind me the fire roared into life eating everything in its path. There was nothing I could have done even if I had been in my right mind.I ran out the door into the ra storm and collapsed. Despite the rain the old house burned from the inside out ,casting its last fiery breath across the glowing river. I watched my memories go up in smoke.I passed out and when I woke up I was back in my room at the sanitarium. It was as it had always been with its high ceilings and floors that echoed with the nurse's steps. I lay still and looked around. Sunshine sent shadows skittering through the leaves outside my window and a pale yellow butterfly wafted away over a patch of dandelions. I sat up and listened."You were never really there." a voice said smugly in my ear.I looked over at my bedside table devoid of all save a glass of water and a little singed journal with purple roses on the cover. "Yes,I was,Mother."I whispered so no one would think I was crazy,"Yes,I was!"

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