Broken Wing – Sample

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Chapter 1

Normally, Bess liked how she could find a dark patch of weeds and scrub just off the side of a forgotten dirt road and look in any direction without seeing a single house, light or even a lone stanchion of tired wooden utility poles with black wires sagging between them.

Sitting in the passenger’s seat of Tony Halk’s matte black 1972 Trans Am gave her a different perspective.  He was a twenty-year-old player and she was a sixteen-year-old girl who should have known better. Men like him didn’t pay attention to girls like her and so she had thought this was something different than the dark secrets the popular girls told each other, swooning with half closed eyes – stories Bess had always thought were more fantasy than anything else. Her fantasy, as it turned out, was far more dangerous.

Her breathing changed when his hand moved.  She stared into his smoldering eyes a moment longer as the exhilaration of attracting his attention deflated and withered away in the swirls of wind just outside the car.  Stubble that seemed to always be three days old peppered his brutally handsome face, framed by straight black hair that hung to his shoulders.  Perpetually dressed in stone-washed jeans and a denim jacket draped over a plain white t-shirt, he always looked the same.  He always looked hungry.

The sweat on her forehead and the exuberance of her panting turned sour and garish as she realized she was no longer a person.  She was a target, a plaything.  She was an anomaly in a parade of girls who understood what it meant to be sitting in Tony Halk’s car while his eyes gleamed and his hands moved towards them to clutch at their bodies.  She was a different kind of trophy and her stomach churned at the thought of being that prize hunters bragged about the most: the one that is hardest to catch.  She really wasn’t that kind of girl.  And he didn’t care.

“No.”  Her voice was a husky whisper, still harsh with the remnants of her own excitement, a hormone induced giddiness that was abating fast as her instincts for survival came to life and bellowed in her mind, Get away.

His lips parted in a lurid smile.  “Come on now,” he said, “Don’t be like that.”  She pulled her shoulder away as he reached for her.  His smile faded.  “We’re here now.  Just go with it.”

“Like hell,” she said, unbuckling her seatbelt.  Her hand was almost to the door latch when his fingers wrapped around her arm like a vice and jerked her body towards his.

“You don’t get it,” he said, almost snarling.  A thin smile stretched beneath narrowing eyes as he moved in for the kill.  “What did you expect?”

Bess’s face felt hot and her muscles ached as her heart hammered blood through her veins.  She wasn’t anywhere close to being that kind of girl.  A hard blush of power surged through her as primal fear took over.  Somewhere deep inside, an ember ignited and she heard herself growl.

Without thinking about it, she lashed out with her free hand and slashed her nails across his face.  Her hand came away from his face with thin coils of skin pressed against the underside of her nails.  Tony shoved her back against the doorframe and she felt an aching burn in her shoulder as he jerked his hands back to protect his face. Bess knew she had just a fleeting moment, no more time than it took to take a single breath.  It gave her just enough time to tug the latch, shove the door open and tumble onto the ground.

Bess leapt to her feet and started running.  It didn’t matter which direction.  Imnmediately, the cold from the desert night cut through her skimpy halter top and started to seep into her skin.  She had never worn anything like it and she felt cheap and exposed as she ran, the wind whipping her long black hair to stream out behind her.  “It’s what he likes,” the other girls had told her, squinting at her sideways, still not believing Tony Halk had actually asked her out.   At least she had the good sense to wear black denim jeans, which kept her legs warm as they stretched out in long loping strides through the sea of weeds and scrub washing out over the desert.

She closed her eyes and silently admonished herself for getting mixed up with somebody like Tony Halk in the first place. She knew better. More importantly, she deserved better. Her father had made sure she understood that. Since she could speak her first words, everything he had said told her she was a girl to be admired, respected – a girl who deserved the best of everything. And God help anybody who didn’t understand that. Tony didn’t understand that.

Tears streamed down her face as she ran into the night.  Then, a laugh rippled out as she thought of her father bearing down on Tony Halk and explaining it to him.

Bess crested a hill where she could see the glimmer of suburban lights in the dust-drenched valley below. She stopped and bent over with her hands on her knees as she gulped for air.  She figured she was about five miles from home.  Surveying her immediate surroundings, she didn’t see or hear any signs of Tony Halk or his Trans Am.  He didn’t seem to want to actually chase her down and force himself on her.  But she didn’t feel like standing around long enough to test that theory.  She gripped her side as a runner’s stitch clawed at her, and started walking towards the lights.

Just beyond the lights lay the darkened glassy surface of the lake where she and her father would go sailing the next day. Bess gritted her teeth and shook her head at the incongruity of being her father’s prim daughter during a boat race the day after playing harlot for a scumbag in a Trans Am.  Except you’re not a harlot.  You’re a girl running for her life.  There’s a difference.

As she walked towards the lights, the tears came back as she thought of her father scowling at her, dismissing her with a wincing glance as just another wayward girl who had forgotten she wasn’t trash.  The thought of losing his trust, his belief in her, even his love, coalesced in a nauseating ache and erupted from her in a plaintive wail.  The wind caught it, tearing it to shreds of silence before anyone could hear.  “I’m sorry daddy.  Oh God, I am so sorry.”  She sucked in a deep breath, fighting for control.

 She couldn’t let him find out.  Hiding something from the only person in her life who actually understood her would be her penance.  Not being able to tell him would be torture, but losing him would be unbearable.  She would throw it into a deep well of shame and confusion until it finally died and drained away, fading into the recesses of memories she never talked about.  This is what it meant to have a terrible secret and she promised herself it would be the first and last time anything like this ever happened.

Her shoulder throbbed with a sickening ache and she chanced a peek.  She sucked in a sharp gasp when she saw the deep purple of a bruise engulfing her entire shoulder from where Tony had slammed her against the doorframe.  How the hell am I going to hide that?

As she closed the distance to the lights, the indomitable comfort of being close to home settled over her as the adrenalin that had made her heart feel like it was going to burst subsided and the dull haze of fatigue ebbed into her muscles.  She took a deep breath.  Her tears stopped.  A distant cousin of normalcy draped itself over her mind.

It would be alright.  In time, the bruise would heal and her dalliance with Tony Halk would be remembered as a foolish mistake – a first clumsy step on her journey to becoming a woman.  She let out a long sigh of relief as she realized that nothing had actually happened.  She could have come away with something far more shameful than a bruise, something permanent and dreadful that would haunt her in the long nights to come.  But it wasn’t like that.  She hadn’t lost anything.  She hadn’t given anything away.  She hadn’t let him take anything away.  An ember of pride dared ignite at that thought and Bess jutted her chin out as she stepped onto the sidewalk bordering her neighborhood and the expanse of desert where she had left Tony Halk behind.

What Bess didn’t know, what she couldn’t know, was that her life had changed that night.  She didn’t understand the nagging voice of a girl cowering in the corner of her mind that kept telling her this.  She didn’t understand, because the voice said just one word, repeating it with every breath she took.  Bess consigned it to the urgency that came from fear and adrenalin, waiting for it to fade away.  It had been necessary at first and she understood the urgency of its mandate.  It had saved her.  But now, the voice was annoying, absurd and over wrought with fear she knew was no longer necessary.  Still, it persisted.  She could not free her mind from the echoing refrain of the girl looking at her, wide-eyed as she said the word over and over.

Run.

***

Bess slowed her pace and let her breathing calm as she ambled along the sidewalk under the yellow wash of light spilling down from tall aluminum lamp posts.  As she approached her house, she tried to think of how she was going to get to her bedroom and cover her bruise without he parents seeing her.

As far as they knew, she was at a friend’s house.  She had ridden her motorcycle there, changed her clothes and ridden off with Tony.  Now, she was coming home without her motorcycle, wearing a halter top and her face encrusted with dried tears.

She still hadn’t figured it out by the time she was traipsing up the cement walkway to her front door.  She would just have to improvise.  Somehow.  She wasn’t used to sneaking around, hiding things and lying.  She wasn’t that kind of girl, either.

Bess stepped through the door and stood at the end of the hallway leading to the living room, where her mother sat in a chair reading a book.  The side hall to Bess’s bedroom was only a few steps away.  As she started to pad her way down the hall, her mother looked up, catching her eye with a withering glare.

Bess stopped cold.  Her mother glanced sideways.  Bess couldn’t see the door to her father’s den on the other side of the living room, but guessed that’s where her mother was looking.  Her mother’s head swiveled back around and she fixed her eyes back on Bess.

Wide-eyed, Bess slowly shook her head.  No. She tilted her head to the side, signalling to her mother as she edged closer to the side hall.  Her mother knit her brow and Bess nudged her head to the side again.  Her mother put down her book and watched the door to the den as she stepped quietly towards the hallway.

Bess slipped into the side hall and winced as she leaned her bruised shoulder against the wall.  She pulled her head back as her mother rounded the corner and flipped on the light.  Her mother stopped dead in her tracks, staring.

Being humiliated in front of her father was something Bess couldn’t bear.  Being humiliated in front of her mother was something she was long used to.  It was a familiar and uncomfortable feeling she had learned to cope with over the years.  She pulled away from the wall and turned her shoulder towards her mother.

Her mother gasped and sucked in a seething breath.  She glanced over her shoulder and then looked back at Bess, glowering with a practiced sternness that had etched its own wrinkles around the corners of her mouth.

Just as her mother started to herd Bess back to her bedroom, her father stepped around the corner.  Bess turned and quickly pressed her shoulder against the wall, wincing as a bolt of pain shot down to her elbow.

A solid man standing six feet even with prematurely graying hair and a kind face that betrayed his physical stature, Mason Kincaid asked, “What’s going on here?”

Her mother closed her eyes and let out a sigh before turning around to face him.  “Nothing,” she said, in a gentle June Cleaver kind of voice that both Bess and her father knew was just her clumsy way of dismissing the obvious tension in the air.

“Mary?” he said.  He tried to peek over her shoulder at Bess, but her mother moved sideways to block his view.  She put her hand on his chest, stroking it gently.

“Mother daughter stuff,” she said, her voice dripping with a soothing tone that caused more alarm than anything else.

Her father spoke sternly.  “Alright, what the hell is this?  Bess?”

Her mother held him back, stiffening her arm to keep him from moving forward.  She wasn’t that strong and Bess wondered absently how she could hold him back like that.

“I’ll handle this,” her mother said firmly.  “This is my department.”  She stroked his chest with slow pawing strokes.

Her father settled back and nodded, his brow still furrowed with the look that only a father of an only daughter can master.  “Alright,” he said, a gentle sigh washing out of him.  “Let me know if -“

“It’s fine, Mason,” her mother said, now using the cooing tone from before.  “It’s fine.”

Her father nodded gently and turned to walk back to his den.

Her mother whipped around and grabbed Bess’s arm just below the bruise.  Bess sucked in a sharp breath as her arm throbbed under her mother’s grip while the woman hustled her down the hall and into her bedroom.

Still holding Bess’s arm, she quietly closed the door and then flung Bess onto the bed.  “What the hell happened to you?” Bess felt like she was staring into the bright beam of an interrogator’s flashlight as her mother’s glare burned through her.

Bess put her face in her hands, fighting to hold back her tears as her chest swelled with a throbbing ache.  “Oh God,” she said.

“Answer me,” her mother said.

Bess rubbed her forehead and then turned to look into her mother’s eyes.  Her skin prickling with the anticipation of her mother’s wrath, she said, “Tony Halk.”

Her mother gasped and took a step backwards.  “For the love of…”  Her hand flashed out towards Bess and then stopped.  “Are you kidding me?”  Her mother closed her eyes and bowed her head, lowering her trembling hand to her side.  “Half the girls at that trashpit you call high school would be pregnant with his progeny if it wasn’t for birth control.”

Bess watched her mother’s face as she stared at Bess’s bruise and she furrowed her brow in a way Bess didn’t expect.  Her tone was, as she had expected, demeaning and angry, but her eyes told a different story.  She was worried.

Bess narrowed her eyes, unable to hide a sudden swell of indignation. “Nothing. Happened.”  She kept her eyes steady as her mother stared at her.  Then her mother’s face softened to reveal a look that seemed forlorn. The fact that something nearly did happen, and against her will, was something Bess decided not to get into.

“I know,” her mother said softly.  “You have too much of your father’s pride to let somebody hurt you like that.”  She sat down next to Bess and studied the bruise.  “But you didn’t get out of it in one piece.”

Bess tilted her head as she saw something in her mother’s eyes she had never seen before.  The woman was scared.  Bess stared, unblinking, unable to believe she was seeing her mother this way.

Her mother took her hand and leaned closer.  Her voice hitched when she spoke next.  “For God’s sake, don’t let your father find out.”

Bess’s mouth fell agape and she leaned back, incredulous.  She hadn’t planned on telling him, but for her mother to hide something like this from him was beyond belief.  She was about to ask why when she could see her mother gathering her thoughts to tell her something more.

“He has … a condition.”

 Bess felt a flush of lightheadedness wash through her as her breathing stiffened in her tightening chest.  Her father had always been a pinnacle of physical prowess.  He went to the gym religiously, ate the most esoteric health foods and was an aggressive and accomplished sailor.  The idea of him being anything less than healthy as a horse was an idea beyond her comprehension.

Except they hadn’t been sailing for six months now.  True, winter always intervened, but it was late Spring now and they still hadn’t taken the boat out.  But the race – there was no way he was going to miss out on that.

“It’s complicated,” her mother said, tapping her chest. She took a shallow breath and looked away, tears brimming in her eyes.  “And he doesn’t have much time.”  Bess blinked, beyond shock at seeing her mother vulnerable like this.  Almost crying, her mother said, “I didn’t want him to go tomorrow.  But I can’t stop him.”  Her voice cracked on the last word and she had to look away so Bess wouldn’t see the tear she wiped from her cheek.

Turning back to Bess, her face was hard again.  She wasn’t angry, but her words were adamant now.  “You absolutely cannot let him find out about that,” she said, pointing at the bruise. “And you need to keep him still tomorrow.  Keep him calm.  Don’t let him exert himself.  You understand?”

Bess blinked hard.  How she could possibly keep her father sitting still during a boat race was beyond her.  The man practically ran as he flitted from one place to the next, skipping over the deck to adjust the rigging, haul sails up and down and tug at the lines to trim the boat.  Dad, sitting still?

But her mother’s eyes were pleading.

“I’ll try,” Bess said.

Her mouth quivering and unable to keep her face from sagging into a look of despair, her mother said, “Promise.”

Bess cupped her hand over her mother’s.  They felt bony and unfamiliar.  She couldn’t remember them ever holding hands.  It was just something they didn’t do.  Still, she said, “I promise.”

“And this is between us,” her mother said.  “He doesn’t want you to know.  Understand?”

Bess nodded slowly, reeling from the thought of her father being ashamed to let her see him being weak. She knew he saw it that way, too, not as an ailment beyond his control. He was a proud man and to be anything less than the father who had watched over her and protected her was something he couldn’t bear for her to see.

Her mother quickly pulled her hand away and stood up, smoothing the front of her dress.  She resumed scowling at Bess and said, “Jesus Chris.  Tony Halk?  What were you thinking?”  Then she turned and left the room, leaving Bess sitting on her bed, dumbfounded as her mind gyrated in a numb fog.

She stood up and stepped to the desk sitting under her window.  She opened a drawer and took out a single piece of paper.  Adorned with the crest of Columbia University, it formally announced her admission for the fall term, pending her early graduation from high school. She watched her own tears tapping gently on the paper, obscuring the words she had dreamed of seeing for over a year now.

She was hoping to surprise him with the news when the time was right.  Now, that moment was gone forever. Now, she had to stay. She had to stay so she could wake up for all the tomorrows left where she could see his eyes, hear his voice, hold his hand and let him be the father of his only daughter for as long as he could.  She had to protect him until he was ready to say goodbye.  And after that?

Bess lay her head on her desk and closed her eyes.  After wasn’t something she was ready to think about.  All she could do was try to push it as far away as it would let her.  Because the world without her father was a dark meaningless void of existence that she wasn’t sure would be worth enduring.

Chapter 2

Bess gripped the varnished tiller, checked her footing and watched her father sitting quietly in the cockpit across from her.

She had done all the rigging after her father had made a show of telling her that she was ready to captain her first race. She smiled at him even as her heart sank, knowing that he was only giving her the boat because his condition was serious enough to scare even him. But he was doing it in a way that he thought would hide the truth from Bess.  She wanted to fawn over him, touch him tenderly as a daughter should when her father is ailing, but she had a secret to keep.  And she had promised.  He still wasn’t ready for her to know.  So she smiled demurely and he beamed proudly as they wove their common web of avoidance so he could feel like a man for at least a little while longer.

They were running with the wind almost directly behind them.  The spinnaker billowed out from the front of the boat, filtering a bright Spring sun through the colored stripes running along its length.

Bess’s breath hitched when she saw the spinnakers puffing out in front of the boats ahead ripple and then collapse as their crews hauled them down. They were making the turn around the first buoy in the racecourse. Bess closed her eyes and let out a faint sigh. She hadn’t thought of that. She couldn’t push the tiller over and haul in the mainsail and hold weather helm as they rounded the buoy. She couldn’t do all that and haul down the spinnaker. Turning that first buoy was a two-man job, plain and simple.

Her father smiled at her and his hand moved up the railing as he peered at the boats bobbing ahead of them. He pressed his fingertips just in front of his ear. It was a gesture she had seen for almost a year now but it wasn’t something she had really noticed until now. Because now she knew what it meant. He was checking his pulse. He probably wasn’t even aware of it. It had become just some notion of habit. She felt a vague sense of relief knowing he was thinking about it, but the aching welled up and she gritted her teeth, forcing it back down into the pit of her stomach. She forced the corners of her mouth up into a smile, her cheek twitching with the unnatural feeling of forcing her expression to reflect a feeling so alien to her at that moment that she couldn’t remember what it meant to feel anything but the gnawing dread in her chest.

Her father eyed the buoy and then looked at her, cocking his brow. “Want me to drive?”

“Negative.” She had spoken quickly, with a commanding voice that neither of them was used to hearing. Her eyes darted towards the spinnaker and then she quickly followed up with an even more serious tone, mocking herself. “I’m the Captain of this boat, mister.” She grinned and flicked a brow, betraying the tightness in her chest that was already pushing up into her throat. He grinned back, but she couldn’t help wonder if she had cracked the surface of his awareness.

He stood up. Bess’s shoulder rattled with a faint shiver as she thought of him working along the deck when the time came for her to pull the boat around. It wasn’t the most arduous thing, but it took some work to keep yourself stable when the boat was pitching into weather helm. It was the sort of thing that got your blood pumping.

She eyed the storm clouds already boiling a mile offshore as lightning skittered along their darkening base. She studied the grey veils of rain falling out of them and sweeping across the surrounding desert. She couldn’t discern the gust front, but she knew it would roll across the lake soon. If it came after the spinnaker was hauled down, it would probably be alright. If it came before then… Her shoulders stiffened and she tried to push the thought away. It would come after. Right?

Her father stooped down in front of the cabin at the front of the cockpit and rummaged through a sail bag to fetch a neatly folded storm jib. He had seen the storm clouds too and she knew what he was thinking. He had taught her to understand this: Respect the wind. Too little sail will slow you down. Too much sail can bring you to a dead stop when the wind pitches the boat over and tosses you in the water.

He grabbed onto a handle bolted to the top of the cabin and looked over his shoulder, catching her eye. “Got this?” His eyes flicked to the storm clouds and back to her.

“Yes.” Her voice was flat and matter-of-fact. Playtime was over. They were sailing now. “Be careful,” she said.

He started to step up onto the deck and stopped short. Looking back over his shoulder, he said, “You worried about something?”

“No. Just… be careful.”

His mouth stretched over his face and the crow’s feet around his eyes crinkled as he showed her what she called his ‘cat smile.’ She didn’t know if he was aware of it, but whenever he showed it, he was saying one thing – that everything was just fine, even if it wasn’t.

Her father pulled himself up onto the deck, took a few steps and stopped. He looked up at the spinnaker and bent his knees as the boat rocked from another swell rolling up behind them. Bess could feel the deck pitching higher this time. The lake was getting choppy. He took a few breaths and shuffled towards the bow, his hand sliding along the top of the cabin as he groped for the next handle.

The boat slid up next to the buoy. Bess eyed the red orb of rusted metal bobbing haplessly in the swells. She bit her lip as she looked up at the spinnaker. It drifted a few degrees to the side as the wind shifted. She squinted at her father sliding his feet along the deck. She wasn’t sure, but his knees seemed to start shaking just the tiniest bit.

“Coming about,” she hollered.

“That’s my girl,” he shouted back. “I’m at the downhaul.”

Bess pushed the tiller over, cranking the boat in a port turn around the buoy.  She winced as a pulse of pain ran through her bruised shoulder when she loosed the mainline from its cleat and hauled it in as the boat swung closer to the wind. She jostled the tiller, threading the thin corridor of wind between a close haul and the angle where the sail would luff and start to swing back at her, forcing a tack. The other boats were still about three lengths ahead of them and she concentrated on squeezing the angle to try and pick up another half-knot of speed to close the distance. She was racing the boat now. It took all of her concentration and she had looked away from her father during the turn.

When she looked back, he was still standing, still holding onto the cabin handle, still holding the storm jib tucked in his other hand. His knees were definitely shaking now. And the spinnaker was still flying from the front of the boat, now tugging off to the side so she had to fight the tiller to stay on course.

Glancing to her left, Bess saw a fresh swell rolling towards them. A whitecap rippled along the top like ragged teeth. She didn’t look away. She didn’t flinch. She squinted, in the way a sailor does, waiting for it.

Her father crouched down, bracing for the swell. Bess pushed herself out of the cockpit and leaned out over the port side deck to shift her weight against the swell as it tucked up under the hull. The boat lurched up, crested the swell and then tilted the other way as it skidded down the back side and slammed into the trough on the other side. Wires and turnbuckles rang out along the aluminum mast like an alarm bell. Water broke over the deck edge, splashed over the top of her head and dripped off her chin.

She knew what was going to happen next. The gust front from the storm ripped into the boat, snapping the mainsail tight and billowing the spinnaker in a ragged arc. The wind rippled her windbreaker and tossed her long black hair around to the front of her face. The hull groaned from the strain of the spinnaker dragging the boat into a wall of water.  Bess wrestled with the tiller and ignored another flash of pain in her shoulder as she let out the mainsail to open the angle to the wind as the boat started to flounder.

Her father slammed to his knees and his arm stretched out as he slid across the deck, clutching at the cabin handle with whitening knuckles. His other arm unfolded. The storm jib fell out of his hand, slid along the deck and hopped into the lake.

Bess glared at the spinnaker and decided she was tired of looking at it. She whipped the hook knife from a leather sheath hanging on her belt and cut the spinnaker guyline in one clean sweep. The corner of the spinnaker rippled out from the boat and tugged the downhaul pole back and forth as it flapped like a broken wing.

Bess glanced at her father. He was still holding onto the cabin handle and sliding along the deck on his knees. She imagined him slipping over the side of the boat and thrashing in the cold water while she threw him the life ring. All the while, his heart would be pounding.

She had promised.

Bess set her mouth in a thin line and pulled back on the tiller, turning the boat away from the racecourse until she had the wind behind her. She spooled out the mainline and let the boom swing out until the mainsail was almost perpendicular to the boat’s course. Now, running with the wind, the boat eased gently over the swells as Bess angled the rudder to keep the water rolling up behind them. She looked over her shoulder at the gaggle of boats bobbing away, taking with them the last race her father would ever have. Her lip quivered and she sucked in a sharp breath. It wasn’t fair. So much had been taken from him already.

“You alright up there?” she called out.

His back was to her and all she could see was his head bobbing up and down. But he didn’t stand up. Bess looped a line around the tiller to hold it in place and pulled it tight. She scrambled out of the cockpit and ran along the deck to her father. Crouching down next to him, she looked into his eyes. “You alright?”

The cat smile stretched across his face. “Don’t ever get old,” he said.

She smiled back at him. “Right.” She wanted to tell him that forty-one wasn’t old. She wanted to tell him she was sorry. She wanted to tell him she loved him. But she knew none of those things were what he needed to hear. He was embarrassed, like a man forced to wear one of those hospital gowns that never closed up all the way.  They both ignored the obvious as he clung to the handle, ashamed that he couldn’t even stand up.

She wrapped her arms around his chest and grunted as she pulled him to his feet. He was nearly dead weight and she stifled a gasp at how weak his legs were. He reset his grip on the cabin handle and took several deep breaths.

“Good to go,” he said, his voice weak from exertion. Bess unwrapped her arms and let him stand on his own. His knees started shaking again and she wrapped one arm around his waist to guide him back to the cockpit.

“Come on,” she said.

She helped him onto the starboard bench of the cockpit and stood over him as he let out a long breath and stretched his arms along the deck behind him. He lifted one foot up and rested it on his knee, trying to look casual as he smiled up at her. Bess smiled wanly, watching him carefully as she settled back into the cockpit across from him.

“Gust front got us,” she said.

He narrowed his eyes and frowned. “Yep. I didn’t get the spinnaker in time for the turn.”

“Sorry about the race,” she said.

He leaned forward and put his hand on her knee. “You did the right thing, Bess. You saved the boat from a broach.” He gave her a single nod – a salute of sorts from a teacher to his prize pupil. “We’ll get it next year.”

Bess felt her face go slack. Next year. The words echoed in her mind, empty and meaningless. “Right,” she said. “Next year.” He patted her knee and leaned back against the side of the cockpit.

Bess took his hand and laid it gently on the tiller as she unlooped the line holding it in place. “Got it?” she asked.

“I have the helm, Captain,” he said. The cat smile.

As the boat slid gently over the swells rolling up behind them, she watched his face as he made small movements with the tiller. This was the kind of sailing that brought peace to a man and draped his heart with a soothing glow.

She turned to look back at the other boats when something on the road lining the lake caught her eye.  She held her hand up to shade her eyes and felt her heart skip a beat when she saw the Trans Am.  It was out of place with the other cars pulling trailers in and out of the water at the landing.  But it was a state park and anyone was allowed to come in.  Even Tony Halk.

She tried to see who was driving, but the sun glinted off the windshield as a glistening yellow spark, blocking her view.  Then the car rolled back, turned onto the road and rolled gently towards the landing.  She watched it roll past the small forest of boats latched to their trailers and through the main gate until it disappeared behind the trees lining the road outside the park.

Bess flinched when she heard her father ask, “Who’s that?”

She turned around and smiled at him, trying to look puzzled.  “Who’s who?” she asked.

Unconvinced, he said, “The Trans Am.”

Bess looked back at the road, swallowing against the lump in her throat and then said, “I don’t know.  It just caught my eye.”  She turned back to him.  “Not the kind of car you usually see around here.  You know?”

He arched his brow.  “Uh-huh.”  He kept his eyes on her for a moment longer as she strained to keep a casual smile pasted on her face.  He let his gaze drift back to the lake and Bess let out a slow sigh as quietly as she could.

The bruise pulsated just beneath the sleeve of her windbreaker and Bess wondered what it was going to take to get Tony Halk to just leave her – and her family – the hell alone.

***

Bess stepped through the door from the garage and into the hallway leading to the living room. She stopped and looked down the side hallway leading to her bedroom. Her father stepped in behind her and put his hand on her shoulder.

Bess winced as a twinge of pain shot down her arm. Reflexively, she shrugged away from his hand.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I guess I pulled a muscle. It’ll be alright.”

After seeing Tony Halk at the lake, he probably wasn’t buying it. Bess had that intuitive grasp of things where the universe seemed to randomly hand her answers to questions by relating obscure points of information to each other. Her father, on the other hand, was a man who could sift through the minutia most people didn’t even notice, discard trivial inconsistencies and reveal the truth for everyone to behold like a gleaming jewel. It was god-awful inconvenient sometimes, especially now.

Bess warily eyed the door to her bedroom at the end of the side hall.  Out of habit, she had put on a short-sleeved shirt to wear under her windbreaker so she would be ready for any type of weather.  She was going to have to pay attention to things like that more closely from now on because now she needed to change into something with long sleeves.  But with his mental radar now running at full power, that would probably make her father even more suspicious. She always headed straight for the kitchen to bake cookies as part of their ritual when they came home from sailing. It would be one of those inconsistencies that showed up in his mind like a big glowing blip that would demand his attention.

She would just have to hide it somehow.

Bess traipsed down to the hall closet and opened the door, shielding herself from view as he walked past her and rounded the corner to the kitchen. She hung up her windbreaker and gingerly pulled back the short sleeve of her shirt to inspect the bruise.  It seemed to have grown even larger, its fringes extending down into her upper arm.

Hanging her head as she clutched her windbreaker in a tight fist, Bess muttered to herself, “Stupid, stupid stupid.” She quietly closed the door and ambled into the kitchen, self-conscious of the hem of her sleeve rustling just below the fringes of her bruise. Her father leaned against the counter with a cup of coffee in his hand while she pulled a cookie sheet of unbaked cookies from the refrigerator and set them on the countertop next to the oven. Keeping her bruised arm at her side, she opened a cabinet to fetch a bottle of vanilla extract that she had marked with a single stroke of a red permanent marker to indicate the bottle actually contained rum. She dabbed a drop on each cookie and slid them into the oven.

Bess leaned against the counter and watched her father blow steam from his cup of decaf coffee. Bess eyed the full carafe her mother had prepared before leaving to go shopping. It was another part of the intricate conspiracy to hide the truth from Bess. The coffee was still kept in a container marked as regular coffee, so she wouldn’t know he had switched to decaf. She knew he hated decaf. As he put it, decaf was like alcohol-free beer. What’s the point? Bess felt a light tug in her chest as she stared at the inert contents of the carafe. He had loved coffee. Now, it was just a prop to hide something that was already in plain view.

“How’s school?” It was one of those questions parents were supposed to ask. It was safe.

“Fine. Boring. You know how it is these days.”  She didn’t really want to have a conversation as long as his radar was running.  It was like being cross-examined by a lawyer.  She could sense him pulling the pins on his arsenal of logic grenades already.

“Looking at any colleges yet?”

Bess stepped up to him and took his hand. “I’m still going to UNM, Dad. Quit asking.”

He shook his head and let out a sigh. “You can do better.”

“I know.” She smiled up at him. “But I like it here.” He still didn’t know about the letter from Columbia. It was easier if he didn’t know – another strand in the web of avoidance they wove together. Here was now the most important thing in her life because it was slipping away. Everything else could wait. Everything else would wait. And she didn’t want to argue about it.

She stepped back to the oven and opened the door just enough to peek in. He pointed at the vanilla extract and his expression darkened as he took another drink of coffee. “Make sure your mother doesn’t find that.”

“I know. I hide it in the back, behind the rest of the evil baking potions you know she’s never going to touch.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, well, we don’t want to take our chances.”

“I’m careful. I promise.”

“So, what about a boyfriend?”

Bess felt her face go flush and her heart race. She turned away to whisk the vanilla extract back into its hiding place in the back of the cupboard.

“Um, nothing to tell there. As usual.” She grimaced as a nervous giggle escaped her lips. Dangerous waters suddenly lapped at her feet. It wasn’t the question so much as its tactical placement. He was trying to catch her off balance.

“Are you still seeing that Tony kid?”

With her back still turned to him, she stared blankly at the cabinet door and stopped breathing.  Does he know? Or is he just guessing? It didn’t matter. Hiding the truth from him was like hiding it from a bulldozer tearing down the building where you thought it was safe.  He would knock it all down until he found the truth simpering in a corner and force it to step out into the light.

Bess clenched her jaw. She wanted to clench her fists, too, but he would see that. She turned around, draping her face with a mask of sincerity. It wasn’t a lie when she said, “No. That’s over.”  She rubbed her thumb against the side of her index finger, then brushed her long black hair behind her shoulder and tilted her head. She gazed into his eyes as casually as she could, even as her breathing sharpened and her chest tightened.  It was the best she could do.  She couldn’t deny the truth.  She could only hope to diminish its impact.  Now, it was about making things appear meaningless.

“That’s good to know.” He took another drink of coffee. “Nerds.”

Bess pursed her lips in mock confusion. “What?”

“When I was your age, guys like me couldn’t get a date. But we’re all the rage now. You should go out with a nerd.”

“What, you mean like some guy with an ASM encoded Arduino Pokemon detection kit? I don’t think so.”

Her father’s eyes sparkled as he smiled, took another sip of coffee and asked, “A what?”

“Dad. Nerds are boring. I’m boring enough on my own. I don’t want to hang out with boring guys.”

“So what’s not boring?”

Relieved that the conversation was going in a different direction, Bess opened the oven door and peeked in. She held up a finger and said, “Hold that thought.” She slid the cookie sheet out and set it on the stovetop. Grabbing a spatula from the canister on the countertop, she slid it under one of the cookies and put it on a paper napkin. Handing it to him, she said, “Here, try this.”

He took a thin bite and sucked in his breath. “Ow, hot.” He sucked in more air, swallowed and took another nibble. “But good.”

Bess leaned back on the stove and watched him work his way through the cookie, taking each bite slowly, as if it might be his last. When he had finished, he threw the napkin in the trash, took another drink of coffee and said, “So… Things that aren’t boring.”

“Sailing. Nice cars. Money.”

“You sound like a guy.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Shoes, puppies and world peace.” She watched his eyes dance as he chuckled, savoring the moment and burning as much of it into her memory as she could. Her breathing eased as their conversation continued to veer away from her misguided dalliance with Tony Halk.

Then, her father held his cup against his lips and peered at her over the rim. His eyes narrowed and she knew she was trapped. He had circled around, like a hunter tracking its prey.

He set his cup on the countertop and said, “Tony has a fast car.” Bess forced herself to keep breathing through her nose as her mind raced, looking for any way out of the conversation.

She rolled her eyes, as if Tony Halk wasn’t worth talking about. “Tony was a mistake. He had facial hair. I misread that.” She peered back at him, trying to look wounded in a way that let him know she was safe now. He didn’t have to bother with Tony Halk. Let it go. Please.

“What was the nicest thing he ever said about you?”

Bess scrunched her face and shook her head. “That’s a Mom question.” This conversation really did have to end.

“Well, pretend I’m Mom for a minute.”

“God no.” She pulled her head back and nervously brushed her hair over her shoulder. “Seriously.”

“Alright. Fine.”

“It’s OK, Dad. Really. I’m not going to wave a scarf at drag races and drink beer. I get it. Tony. And guys like him.” She drew her face into a mock scowl. “Bad.”

“Uh huh.” He took another sip and released her from his gaze. Bess turned around and let out a whisper of a sigh. Please, let that be the end of it.

Preoccupied with trying to fend off her father’s inquisition, she reached up to pull down the cookie jar from the top of the cupboard. She knew it was a mistake the moment she felt the sleeve covering her bruise slide back barely an inch. She tugged it back down, but it was too late. She heard his mug slam down on the counter hard enough to splash coffee across its surface. She closed her eyes and held her breath as his heavy footsteps stomped across the kitchen. She turned around to see his face stretched tight as he stared at her shoulder.

“What the hell is that?” he asked, pointing at the bruise.

“It’s nothing. I bumped into -“

“Don’t,” he said, glaring at her.  Game over. He lifted up the sleeve with his fingertips, as gently as if it was a flower petal. His eyes widened as he uncovered the purple blotch that consumed her shoulder and wrapped half way around her upper arm.

His voice was an icy cold rumble. “Did he do this?”

She couldn’t lie to him. She could pretend things. She could cut spinnaker sheets. She was a good man in a storm. But she couldn’t lie to him. She wanted to because she didn’t know any other way to stop him from protecting her now. But she couldn’t. Instead, she looked at her shoes.

“Sonofabitch,” he said under his breath. He whirled around and stomped out of the kitchen. She chased after him and grabbed his arm.

“Dad, no-” He jerked his arm away and she trailed him like a puppy as he stomped down the hall. When he reached the door to the garage, she clutched his arm, digging in her nails. Not knowing what else to do, she clawed at him, trying to pull him away from the door. He whirled around, jerking his arm back from the pain. He glared at her as he pawed at the red marks from her nails. She grabbed his hand and placed it between hers.  She had one option left.

“I know,” she said. She looked into his eyes, imploring him to stop.

His eyes receded and his face grew slack. Wounded, he asked, “Know what?”

She placed her hand on his heart and felt her eyes blurring with tears. “I know.”

He clenched his jaw and looked around the room, then at the ground. He pressed his fingertips in front of his ear and took slow breaths as he counted his pulse.

“Look…” He cleared his throat and looked at the wall. “I’m just going to talk to him.” His eyes drifted back to hers. “Okay?”

On the verge of crying, she said, “It’s over. I promise.” She gently stroked the back of his hand, trying to calm him, trying to hold him back and keep him from running into the night where she couldn’t watch over him. If he left now, like this, there would be no life ring for her to throw to him.

He took her by the shoulders, softening his expression. “And I’m going to make sure he understands exactly what that means.”

She knew he was lying. Even if he meant it now, he would feel differently when the time came. She remembered the night a man had made a snide remark about her mother just outside the theater. Her father had slammed the man against the wall and there was a moment when Bess had wondered if he was going to kill him. It had cost him a night in jail and they added the incident to the list of things they simply didn’t talk about.

“Promise,” she said, rubbing his chest.

The cat smile washed over his face and her heart sank. “I promise.”

He turned around and opened the door to the garage. Before he stepped into the glistening late model sedan parked inside, he paused for a moment and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.” He eased into the driver’s seat, punched the button on the garage door opener and started the engine.

Bess watched him back out of the garage and turn onto the street. As the car receded, she thought of a ship lingering on the horizon. Wandering along the edge of darkness, it was too far away to see the turning beam of a lighthouse reaching out for it.

***

Mason Kincaid glanced at the speedometer glowing in the dashboard as the needle passed 80. The car’s headlights swept over the weeds along the side of the road and flashed against a sign that seemed to glare back at him with its black lettering: 45.

A flash of heat swept across his face as a sheen of sweat seeped out of his skin while images flashed through his mind – images of the man-boy Tony Halk reaching out for Bess and her eyes flinching as she wrenched away from him.  He bared his teeth as he imagined Tony’s fingers tightening around her arm.  The bruise didn’t bother him so much. Bess was a tough girl and you didn’t escape the occasional minor injury when you sailed boats and rode motorcycles.  But that bruise had been wide and deep. He heard the squeak of Bess’s voice and saw her eyes suddenly wide with fear as she rubbed her arm, dumbfounded by the sudden pain.

He pounded the steering wheel, then wrapped his hands around it and squeezed tight enough to turn his knuckles white. He stomped on the accelerator. The needle swept across the backlight of the speedometer and he eased off just before it reached 100.

The smooth asphalt of the shoulder crumbled away, dashed by specks of worn white paint.  Then it disappeared entirely, consumed by weeds and tire tracks through the sand. The road was barely two lanes wide and encrusted with patches that rattled the wheels as he sped over its surface. The only lights were the dim yellow specks marking ramshackle houses scattered along dirt roads etched out in the darkness. A crooked pole next to one of them marked the side road he was looking for.

Mason stomped on the brake, relishing the squeal of tires and the acrid scent of burning rubber as his car fishtailed to a stop. As the smoke swept forward and over the hood, he realized his heart was pounding. He closed his eyes, let out a slow breath and pressed his fingers just in front of his ear. The artery throbbed against his fingertips with a firm cadence that he knew was too fast. He let out another breath and closed his eyes, fighting back the images of what the thug that lived in the trailer park down the road had done to his daughter.  The images floated past him, taunting him.  The impact of Tony’s fist and him snarling with the idiot grin of a man who feels powerful when a girl cries out in pain.  Mason exhaled until his lungs were empty and aching for air.  He opened his eyes and stared at the bent signpost.

 The artery wasn’t bulging as stiffly against his fingertips and the pace of its pulse had waned. He put his hand back on the wheel, let out another slow breath and stared straight ahead, fighting off the images that his mind’s eye would not let fade.  He stared at the yellow pall of the car’s headlights flooding the dirt road and spilling into the weed-infested driveways of houses nestled along its side.  He eased his car onto the road and drove slowly towards the rusted chain-link gate held open by a wedge of sand and weeds.

He killed the lights as he rolled past the gate and counted the trailers squatting along the side of the road. He stopped in front of a green and white single wide with a rusted corrugated awning drooping over the side door. He placed his hands in his lap and took several deep breaths before checking his pulse one last time. Then he opened the door and stepped out.

Just as he stepped around the front of his car, he stopped mid-step. A man stood half way between him and the trailer door, feet set at shoulder’s width and his hands hanging at his side. At first, Mason wondered if the man had a gun strapped to his leg and was getting ready to draw. He couldn’t have been more than five eight, against Mason’s six even. He was lean, but didn’t have Mason’s bulk. Mason knew he was probably stronger, even though he could no longer work out the way he used to. Mason clenched his jaw, choking back the resentment at having to trade in benching plates for morning walks.

He couldn’t make out the man’s face in the darkness, but he looked about right. “Tony Halk?”

The man didn’t respond. Mason took a step forward. The man matched his move and stopped. Mason still couldn’t make out his face and he could feel his pulse kick up with a light thump in his chest. He let out another slow breath.

“I’m Bess Kincaid’s father. I just need to talk to you for a minute.” The man didn’t move and his face was hidden in the shadows, so Mason couldn’t read his expression.  But he didn’t seem all that impressed.  Mason scanned his surroundings, assessing his options in case he had to move somewhere fast.  A faint surge of adrenalin coursed painfully through his chest. “I’ll keep this simple. You get a pass on assaulting my daughter this one time. You come within eyesight of her again and I’ll pull your nuts off with a pair of chopsticks.” The man still didn’t move and Mason couldn’t keep his heart from thumping with the rising cadence of his anger. “Then I’ll have you thrown in county where you can tell the story to your buddies.”

The man remained silent. Unable to sense any reaction, Mason took another step forward. Again, the man matched his move.

Mason let out a sigh, wishing he’d brought the .38 snub nose sitting in his nightstand drawer. “Look, son, you need to give me some indication that I’m getting through here or this is going to have to go a different way.”

The man stood motionless, his hands still hanging at his side as if he were bracing himself for something.  Mason still couldn’t see his eyes.  He squinted and vaguely shook his head as he strained to detect any sign the man was listening.  When it was clear the man had no intention of responding, Mason let out a soft sigh.  “Fine.”

Surprised by the swiftness of his own body, Mason lunged forward, picked the man up by his shoulders and tossed him into the weeds growing around the trailer.  The man grunted as his back hit the ground, then propped himself up on his elbows and stared back at Mason with a face still hidden in darkness. “You hearing any of this?” Mason yelled. His heart surged with the ache of adrenaline and he grimaced as a ripple of pain shot through his chest. His breath came in short burning gasps and he shook his head, reeling from the pain. Wheezing, he took a step back as the world started to rock from side to side.

The man stood back up. His body twisted as he swung something Mason couldn’t see. The side of Mason’s head burned and then he felt a clawing ache seep into his skull. The world tilted hard and he fell to his knees. His throat rattled with a ragged wheezing as he gulped for air. Unable to pull any breath into his lungs, he fell forward at the man’s feet.

With his cheek lying against shards of rock scattered in the dirt, he could see the tip of a black square-toed boot draped with denim just in front of his nose. His heart pounded and he felt another stab of pain rip through his chest, as if somebody were cutting him from the inside.  His body seemed to melt away as he coughed and his breath faded to thin raspy shards of air.

His mind reached out to the face looking back at him in his mind’s eye. She blinked at him, stretching out a hand he couldn’t touch. She had tried to protect him.  She had swung out and cut the guyline to keep him from falling off the boat.  She had hidden secrets to try and keep him from falling to the ground, here, now.  She had tried.  He thought he heard the sound of his own voice, a ragged croak that barely made a sound.  “Bess.”

The man backed away and Mason heard the sound of a cell phone dialing.  “It’s done,” the man said. “What now?”

The last thing Mason heard was the tinny voice on the other end. “Now, call 911.”

Chapter 3

Bess sat in the lobby of a hospital ward, rubbing the shiny wood laminate of her chair’s armrest. They had told her to wait. They wouldn’t let her see her father, but they weren’t doing anything. She stared at a buzzing fluorescent light in the ceiling. There was nowhere else to look that didn’t make her want to run down the bleach-infested hallways of the hospital screaming at them all to do something.

The doctors floated in and out of the rooms, tucking pens and tiny flashlights into their pockets. Where were they going? Why weren’t they in her father’s room, doing everything they could to save him, just as they would tell her they had when he was gone? They would say that and she knew none of them would mean it because they weren’t in his room. They weren’t running to him with equipment and magic potions and decades of minutia pouring out of their brains as they tried every possible thing they could think of to save his life. They weren’t doing any of that. Instead, they were strolling across the glossy white tiled floor, as if her father was just another patient, no more important than the other bed-ridden victims in their care. Most of them probably didn’t even know his name.

Didn’t they know? The world was supposed to stop.

So Bess stared at the light. Staring into its cold white glow, she could imagine that everything around her was a maelstrom of heroics saving the world from the doom that would ensue if her father slipped from their grasp.

But the light offered no solace. Even as the world didn’t stop for him, she knew she had stopped his. From the moment she had said her first word to Tony Halk, an invisible clock had been set in motion, ticking away to the darkness waiting for her down the hall. That truth pushed down from the light, and she felt it crushing her into oblivion.

She looked away from the light and surveyed the lobby.  An army of chairs were lined up neatly under the glowering light, all empty except for one.  A man in a yellow windbreaker sat on the other side of the room perusing a magazine that was probably a year out of date just like the ones on the small table in front of her.

Restless, Bess stood up and ambled to a drinking fountain bolted to the wall.  She turned the faucet and let the cool water run over her lips just so she would have something to do.  When her lips started turning numb from the cold, she took a sip and stood up, wiping her mouth.  Surveying the lobby, she saw the man was gone.  The only people left were the nurses hovering at their station.

She stepped over to them, the click of her heels on the polished floor echoing against the walls.  Leaning on the counter, she said, “Excuse me, but when can I see my father?”

One of the nurses glanced up and said, “It’ll be just a few more minutes.”  Almost before she was done talking, the nurse looked away, consumed by the mundane chore of swiping through pages on her tablet.

Bess closed her eyes and shook her head, then ambled back to an empty chair and resumed her inspection of the light.

“Excuse me, miss?”

It wasn’t a doctor’s voice. It wasn’t a nurse’s voice, either. Bess blinked and looked away from the light. The first thing she really saw was the badge. The rest was just a blur of blue and white. She decided not to look at the rest and focused on the badge, reading the etched number to herself in an endless loop.

“I know this isn’t a good time,” he said. “I just need to ask you a few questions and then you can see your father.”

Bess looked up at the man’s face. He looked bored, as if he had something more important to do.

“Can you tell me about what time your father left the house?” he asked.

Bess’s eyes narrowed. The officer looked at her impassively. Bess wondered just how long he could stand there like that, waiting for her to answer a question that had no meaning.

“I don’t know.”

“Look, miss, it doesn’t have to be an exact time. Was it before or after dark?”

“After,” she said. He pulled a small notebook from his shirt pocket and scribbled something inside.

“Where is Tony Halk?” she asked.

“Why do you ask?”

She slowly turned her head to look him in the eye. She wrestled off her jacket and laid it on the arm of her chair. Tugging at the short sleeve of her cotton blouse, she showed him the bruise.

“Who did that?”

“Tony Halk.”

“Why didn’t you call us when that happened?” he asked.

“Oh, you know, one of those girls who gets herself into trouble and figures she can take care of it on her own.” Because I was stupid and had to hide it from my own father.

The officer glanced at her bruise and scribbled something in his notebook. “Did your father tell you where he was going?”

 She leaned forward, brandishing her shoulder, but he didn’t look at it again. His eyes drooped with disinterest as he waited for her answer. She slowly pulled her sleeve down and leaned back in her chair. She studied his eyes. He wasn’t exactly staring at her. It was more like he was looking through her, to some place behind her. Wherever he was looking, the bruise was already forgotten – a minor detail in a bigger picture that had nothing to do with saving her father.

Bess knit her brow, squinting. “You know, I’m not sure I have to answer that.”

“It would make this go a lot faster if you did.” The officer jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “And then you can go see your dad.”

“Pretty sure you can’t stop me from doing that, either.”

The officer let the hand holding his notebook drift down to rest by his side. He let out a slow sigh, narrowing his eyes. “Nobody’s trying to stop you, miss. This won’t take much longer.”

Bess looked up at the light and all she could hear was the ticking down the hall. Later wasn’t going to wait. She stood up.

Picking up her jacket, she said, “We can finish when I see Tony Halk in handcuffs.”

The officer pinched his nose. “We can’t wait that long.”

Bess’s lips parted and she stared into the man’s eyes. It hit her like a swell surging up from the darkness, knocking her off the boat and into the cold deep of the lake before she could even see it. Tony Halk had not been arrested. He wasn’t going to be arrested.

Her gaze settled on the officer’s sidearm, neatly snapped into a glossy leather holster. Her chest heaved as her breathing deepened and the ember lit deep inside. The anger seemed to be something apart from her, a parasite latching on to her insides and burning away her own will. She was losing control as a vision coalesced in her mind like a photograph. In it, she held the barrel of the weapon against Tony Halk’s forehead. And then she pulled the trigger. She wanted to ask him why Tony Halk wasn’t sitting in jail, but her hand started to tremble and she knew she had to get away from the weapon and the thoughts rampaging through her mind like a wildfire.

“I want to see my father,” she yelled. Now!”

 The nurses bustling behind the counter stopped shuffling papers, held phones to their shoulders and turned to stare at them.

A tired look washed over the officer’s face. He tucked his notebook in his shirt pocket, clicked his pen and slid it in neatly next to the notebook, hooking the clasp on the flap.

The officer nodded, his expression never deviating from the official indifference that he put between himself and the rest of the world. But his eyes were now locked on her trembling hand. “Okay. I’ll wait here,” he said.

Smart man.

She stretched her legs and tugged at the hem of her blouse. Her lip quivered for just a moment, like a petal caught in a passing breeze. She slowly drew in her breath, waiting for the quivering to stop.

She took a step towards her father’s room and the hallway seemed to fade back. She took another and it seemed to move again, matching her movements so that her father’s room would be just down the hall but she would never get there. She desperately wanted to see him. But, just as desperately, she didn’t want to know what was happening to him. The truth loomed inside that room, waiting to engulf her, suffocate her and squeeze the life out of her. After was still not something she was ready to face. But it was the only way to see him one last time. It was the only way she would be allowed to say goodbye. So, she focused on putting one foot in front of the other, self-conscious of the clicking of her heels echoing through the lobby and drifting away behind her into silence.

***

She stopped in front of the open door to her father’s room. Her mother sat in a chair on the far side of the room, her face half hidden in shadow. The only light came from a lamp on the table next to her mother, smearing a dull haze on the floor, as if it were trying not to disturb anything. The ripples in the blanket covering her father cast shadows that chased each other up to his face.

The lines and numbers flickering on a a small monitor next to his bed screamed at her in their silence, reminding her that she had brought him to this place and that he would never come home.

She sidled up to his bed and laid her hand next to his. The blanket rustled as he wrapped his hand around hers and she knew he would hold it there for the rest of his life.

“How are you doing dad?” she whispered. He turned his head to the light so she could see his smile. He looked at her as if they were still in the cockpit of the boat, racing towards the next buoy on a spring day that now seemed a lifetime ago. It was his cat smile, still protecting her from the truth that could wait a while longer.

“Damn doctors,” he said. “What do they know?”

“Right,” she said. She laid her other hand on top of his as he gripped her with what she knew was the last of his strength.

“You have so much to show me still,” she said. She fought back her tears, letting just one trickle down her cheek, knowing that he needed to see it – that he deserved it. There was nothing else she could give him now.

He tried to speak softly, so that only she could hear, lowering his voice to a haggard croak. “Listen,” he said. “You have to be strong for your mother now.” He glanced at her mother and then looked into Bess’s eyes. “She’s having a real hard time with this.” He arched his brow. “And you know what that means.”

“I know,” Bess whispered, letting another tear streak down her face.

“You need to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.

 Bess nodded, caressing the back of his hand. “I know.”

The cat smile slipped away and his eyes sagged. “I know you think this is your fault.”

“I do.”

“You have to let that go. I know you can’t right now.” A soft cough rattled his throat. “You can feel that way for a little while. But you have to leave it here with me. Understand?”

Bess hung her head and nodded, letting her hair fall over the front of her shoulder and brush against his hand.

He lifted her chin and said, “Look at me.” As an ache starting to swell in her chest, Bess focused on his eyes and tried to keep her face peaceful for him.

“This is what people like you and I do.”

“You and me?”

“That’s right.” He brushed a tear away from her cheek. “Remember when you cut that downhaul?”

“Mm hmm.”

“Why did you do that?”

Bess thought about the moment when she had swung out and sliced through the guyline to let the spinnaker flap in the wind. She sucked in a quivering gasp.

“You were in trouble.”

He smiled and nodded. It wasn’t the cat smile this time. It was the smile of comrades recognizing each other when no one around them knew who they really were.

“People like you and me,” he said, “that’s what we do.”

He laid his hand back on the bed and she felt his grip starting to weaken.

“Dad?”

He closed his eyes and his breathing came in slow shallow gasps. “You and me,” he whispered.

His fingers uncurled from around hers and his face retreated into a waxy stillness. Bess laid her head on his chest, listening to his breathing as it slowed. Somewhere on a distant shore, she felt his heartbeat and she imagined a lighthouse turning its beam to the slowing cadence. When the light stopped turning, she shuddered as the tears broke through and soaked into his hospital gown.

“You and me,” she whispered. “You and me.”

***

Bess stood next to a hole in the ground. It was cut square and deep, as if somebody had dug it on purpose to actually bury her father, even though he didn’t seem to belong there. She stared at the polished coffin glistening in the sun while a priest droned on about ashes and futility. His words echoed through the centuries, spoken for people the world hadn’t even known well enough to forget. They were elegant words, but they weren’t good enough for her father.

They had wrestled him away from someplace sacred and dragged him into the light of day to smother him with their conventions and rituals, as if they had any business deciding how to send him from the world. Bess knew he would have liked being buried at sea, quietly slipping into its depths and embarking on a final voyage through its undulating vibrance. He would have preferred to sail from here to the other side of eternity, not just be plopped into the ground, covered over and forgotten. She could have imagined him travelling somewhere, somehow, still present in some ethereal dimension beyond her own awareness. Instead, there would be a stone marker pointing right at him, declaring that he was just dead. No, this wasn’t nearly good enough for her father.

As she hung her head and looked at the ground with everyone else, Bess glanced at her mother standing a full foot away from her. Her mother had wanted to bury him this way. Bess understood how she wanted the world to know that her own life was inside that coffin. Bess’s life was in there, too, but it seemed like her mother had forbidden that somehow. Everything the future was going to be would soon be buried, leaving nothing behind but the emptiness that Bess could already feel growing between them. Bess wasn’t ready to be alone with the darkness and silence of a life without her father. But the choice had already been made for her.

They would bury a part of themselves with him and Bess knew there was nothing they could do to change that. They would live a different life now and despite the emptiness of it, Bess knew that in time, she would find her way through it. If nothing else, she had to honor everything her father had done for her. There was something sinful about letting that all go to waste, so she would try.  Her mother, on the other hand, was already descending into a void that Bess could see as clearly as if the earth had opened up beneath her mother’s feet and swallowed her up.

Bess sidestepped, trying to ease closer. Her mother quietly adjusted her stance, opening the space between them as she looked into the grave because it gave her an excuse not to look at Bess.

Bess kept her head bowed as she scanned the faces of the others gathered around the grave. They were all looking down at it the same way her mother did. Some would say they were bowing their heads in prayer. Bess knew better. It was the best way for them to look away without her knowing that’s what they were doing. It was more politeness so they wouldn’t have to say it. He is gone because of you.

Bess’s words floated out into the air, as if they had been spoken by somebody else. “You don’t want to be here,” she said.

The priest kept droning. A man standing next to her shifted his weight and coughed into his hand. Her mother’s chin twitched as she took another small step away from Bess.

Bess looked at the priest. She spoke up this time, so everyone could hear. “You don’t want to be here.”

The priest stopped talking and smiled sympathetically to let her know he understood while still making it clear her conduct was something that had to be forgiven. Then he resumed his committal, reciting words that did nothing to help her.

“Stop,” Bess said.

The priest raised his shoulders, took a deep breath and forced a smile.

“Why did he die?” she asked.

The priest half closed his eyes and let his face soften as he looked straight at her. Bess knew she was a distraught family member struggling to cope with a trauma that nobody was equipped to handle, which was why men like him were trained to surround her with the comfort of ancient rituals that were meant to tell her she wasn’t alone. Did he know that wasn’t enough? He blinked at her and raised his eyebrows. Bess waited for him to say something about God’s plan and then realized he was smart enough not to. Instead, he stayed quiet.

Some of the faces were looking at her now, waiting for her to say something. But that’s not what she needed. She needed an answer. She needed him to take the first brick out of the wall of resentment standing between her and her mother, while there was still time.

“Sorry,” Bess said.

The priest let more silence tick away as he smiled at her. For a moment, it was just him and Bess, staring at each other as they stood at opposite ends of a bridge that only they could see. He knew. Bess felt the comfort of his gaze reaching out to her, setting aside everyone else for her so that he could tell her the one thing she and her mother needed to hear – the one thing Bess knew her mother had to understand.

The priest spoke in a soft voice, just for them. “I think he died protecting those he loves.”

Bess looked at her mother. Did she hear that? The truth of why he was gone hung in the air between them. Bess raised her hand and reached out for her mother. She felt her cheeks burn as everyone looked at her. Bess stared at her own hand, waiting for her mother to take it.

Her mother didn’t lift a finger. Staring at the grave, she sidestepped again, opening up more space between them. Bess looked back at the priest. His smile faded and then he nodded almost invisibly before resuming his recital.

Bess pulled her hand back and forced herself to stare at the square walls of her father’s grave, imploring its emptiness to tell her how to keep her mother from falling into another one just like it.

The priest’s drone faded and all she could hear was her own heart beating and the wind ruffling through blades of grass at her feet, whispering to her with the only voice that truly understood what she had lost. But there was no answer. There was only the wall and the void on the other side that was waiting for her mother to walk into and never come back.

Chapter 4

Within a week Mary Kincaid  decided she couldn’t buy any more shoes. Walking through the mall in a half daze, all she really wanted was a drink. She was already running out of finding new ways to spend money and the grating urge to feel the burn of alcohol against the back of her throat was pulsating through her stronger every day.

The string hoops of paper bags filled with clothes, perfume and a footbath pressed against the inside of her fingers. She would shove them all into her closet, adding to the pile of things she had purchased and would never use, and then heave against the door to shove it all back so she could close it.

The void Mason had left behind was always one step behind her, waiting for her to fall in and suffocate in the darkness it offered. Nothing around her gave her any good reason to keep from doing just that.  She reached into her pocket, wrapped her hand around the cool disk of her six-month sobriety coin and squeezed it tight.

A gaggle of girls, about the same age as Bess, giggled as they floated by, oblivious to her or anything beyond the hushed intensity of their own gossip. An old man sat on a bench designed by somebody who never intended anybody to actually sit on it and looked at the floor, his face wrinkled with anxiety as if the floor was going to rise up and smother him. He checked his watch, looked around and sighed.

Mary felt a sense of panic as the sights and sounds seem to close in on her.  She closed her eyes and all she could see was her own body being stuffed into a coffin and the lid slammed shut.

Mary was tired of the aching emptiness of her life without Mason. Nobody understood, except the sobbing prunes in her support group that had nothing left but coping with spending their last years alone. The emptiness seemed to stretched out with no horizon.

She walked along in a daze until she found herself standing in front of a Mexican bar and grill next to the line of glass doors that regulated the flow of humanity in and out of the mall – all blissfully unaware of how hard it was for her to just look through the windows at the bar inside. It beckoned like an oasis to a wayfarer crawling across the desert. She flexed her fingers as they grew numb from the weight of the bags.

She couldn’t buy any more shoes.

She took a breath and stepped inside. A girl about Bess’s age chirped something at her. Mary just grunted and pointed at the bar as she sidestepped the girl. She climbed up onto a bar stool with brass legs and a wide green cushion and dropped her bags on the floor. The stools on either side were clear, so she didn’t have to bother with being social. At the same time, there were a few shoppers spread out around the bar so she didn’t feel completely alone. She waited for the bartender to deliver a platter heaped with a steaming pile of chimichanga to one of the other shoppers and then waved him over.

Wearing a blue polo shirt, he beamed at her and asked, “What can I get for you.”

She shook her head and snickered. He glanced away for a moment and then tilted his head, still smiling.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just that you’re wearing a polo shirt.”

“Um, OK.”

She waved her hand over the bar, sweeping away the moment. “Let me have a Red Bull on ice.”

“You bet.” After he popped open the can and poured it over ice in a Collins glass, she whispered a bet to herself. When he said, “three fifty” before the glass even touched the bar, she smiled and said, “I win.”

She pulled a five out of her purse and slid it towards him. “All yours, tiger.” She twisted the red straw between her thumb and forefinger and let her tongue poke out between her teeth as she flashed a grin. Even though she was sober, a part of her was already six drinks down the road.

Just as her first taste of stinging sweetness reminded her that she was not drinking anything with alcohol, a man sat down next to her and waved his finger in the air at the bartender. Mary glanced sideways to size him up.

He wore white cotton pants, boat shoes and a yellow windbreaker over a button down cream-colored shirt with a collar. His thick black hair was receding just enough to notice, but was deftly styled with a primped wave that made good use of the few streaks of gray running through it. He shifted his gaze to her and smiled, revealing teeth just imperfect enough to preclude any attempts at pretentiousness. He came across as one of those guys where what you saw was pretty much what you got.

He chuckled and asked, “What do you do to get some service around here, anyway?”

“I know, right?” Mary grimaced and looked away. “Wow, that’s something my daughter would say. Um, I think it helps to have pretty hair.”

Still looking at her, he said, “Well, you have the market cornered at the moment.”

Mary snorted and turned to flag down the bartender. “Marco Polo, thirsty man over here.” The bartender turned away from a grumpy shopper trying to decide between the three varieties of beer on tap and ambled towards them.

“What’ll it be, boss?”

The man winked at Mary and said, “Gimlet.”

The bartender looked sideways. “I… um. What’s in that?”

Mary burst out laughing. She put her hand over the bartender’s hand and said, “Just bring him a gin on the rocks with a lime twist.” The bartender shrugged and stepped over to his beverage gun.

“You’re bad,” she said to the man sitting next to her. “It’s a mall bar on a Friday afternoon. Beer. Jack and Coke.” She slapped his arm and giggled.

“Or Red Bull,” he said, pointing at her glass. “Getting off to a slow start?”

Mary’s smile disappeared. “This is as far as I can go.” She turned back to her drink and stared at the ice.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “We kind of had a good thing going there.”

Mary half smiled as she stared at the ice. “Yeah.” She took another drink through the straw. “It’s just a habit I guess. I’ve had barriers for a long time.”

“And now?”

Mary sighed, shaking her head. “Well,” she said, “I recently lost my husband.” She stirred the ice in her drink, marveling at how much easier it was to talk to a stranger than the overwrought widows in her support group.

“Sorry to hear that.”

The bartender returned with the man’s drink.  Just before the glass touched the bar, he said, “Five even boss.”  Mary smirked and shook her head as the man fished a ten dollar bill out of his pocket and handed it to the bartender.

Just being in the bar, Mary felt a reprieve from the maddening suffocation of walking around with nothing but the company of her own thoughts.  But she had worked hard for that coin and an alarm sounded in her mind that it was time to leave.  She patted the bar. “Well, this has been fun.” She started to pick up her bags when the man thrust his hand in front of her and beamed at her with a toothy grin.

“Rickie,” he said.

Mary tilted her head and glanced at him sideways. “Aren’t you supposed to know how long it’s been before you hit on a widow?”

“You’re in a bar talking to strange men. It’s been long enough.” He glanced at his hand. “I make friends fast.”

She set her bags down and studied him.  It was nice to have somebody to talk to.  There was something about the sound of his voice that reminded her life could be casual – that she could do something besides wallow in sorrow.  Listening to him talk was like the wash of air from an oscillating fan on a hot day.  It wasn’t enough to make the heat go away, but it provided enough relief to make it bearable.  It was nice

She reached out and shook his hand. “Mary Kincaid.”

“Rickie Hewitt.”

She smiled and sat back down, taking another drink from her Red Bull. “Now what?”

“I think this is the part where I buy you a real drink.”

As the the bartender ambled back with Rickie’s change, Mary twirled the straw between her fingers and pressed her lips together.  As pleasant as the wash of a fan might be, the cold blast of a good air conditioner was even better.  She closed her eyes and shook her head.  No. Don’t go there. Still, he sounded so nice.  And she wasn’t ready to go back outside where the only thing waiting for her was the gnawing ache of missing her husband.

The bartender laid a five dollar bill on the bar and Rickie said, “Hold on.  My new friend here would like a drink.” Rickie tilted his head down, smiled at her and flicked his brow.

She imagined the last time she had a drink – or at least as much of it as she could remember.  It was right after she had learned about Mason’s condition.  The only other thing she could really remember was Mason scowling at her afterwards and explaining in a soft voice how she had essentially acted like a drunken whore.  Mary winced at the thought of what she must have been like.  Then, a though leapt into her mind. That was just a bad day.

Things were different now. Mary hadn’t brought a single drop into the house since then. She even ducked away when she found Bess discreetly rummaging through the house looking for a hidden bottle after the funeral.  She had a six-month coin in her pocket.  She had learned how to control herself, because there had been plenty of times when she wanted a drink and easily stepped away from the thought.

The bartender stood across from her, waiting. “Ma’am?” he asked. Mary looked up at him and drew a breath. She had said the words so many times and part of her knew they were a lie. But things could always be different this time.

And she couldn’t buy any more damn shoes.

“Maybe I’ll just have one,” she said.

***

A week later, Bess stood in the space between the kitchen and living room they generously called a dining room.  There was just enough room for the table to sit under a cheap brass chandelier, its glass flame-shaped bulbs mocking any attempts at formality.  It wasn’t a place Bess had ever imagined was meant for guests.  Friends maybe – people they knew.  But whoever was coming to dinner could hardly be elevated above the status of ‘guest’.  And that was the rule, wasn’t it?  Guests were supposed to be impressed.  You didn’t have to impress friends.  All she knew was what her mother had told her, that she had invited over a “new friend.”  An old friend would have been better.

She set the table, draping a pale yellow tablecloth over its dull, unpolished surface. She ran her fingertips along a crease, remembering her father’s face the last time he sat at the head of the table, peering out from behind weak eyes that hid away the battle raging inside his body. She remembered his smile, refusing to surrender yet somehow reaching out to her and asking for help that nobody could provide. She hadn’t known at that moment what he was going through.  Instinctively, she had squeezed his shoulder, offering comfort in response to the look in his eyes that she wouldn’t understand until later that night. That had been the night before their sailing trip, the same night she had later run home with a bruise on her shoulder that would cost her more than she could have ever known.  The guilt welled up again, a crushing ache that made her feel like she was drowning.

She pushed the memory away and opened the door to the china hutch huddled against the wall behind the table. The good plates sat on edge, facing out into the room as if they were waiting for somebody to wake them up. Bess pulled four of them down, wiped off the thin film of dust that had collected since that night, and walked around the table, setting each neatly in place.

She gazed at the dingy sheen of the plate laid at the head of the table.  Who was going to take that seat?  Would her mother sit there?  Bess furrowed her brow as she imagined the indecency of their guest trying to take that seat.  No, that wouldn’t do at all.  The best thing would be to leave it empty.

Her mother emerged from the kitchen with a silver platter heaped with steaming meat and vegetables. A grin that was as nervous as it was proud stretched across her face as she set the platter down in the center of the table, splashing drops of greasy juice onto the tablecloth. The steam rolled down from the meat and wafted across the plates, a sedative fog that told them not to bother.

Her mother pressed her hands together, looked at Bess and said, “There.” She pointed her hands at the dish, inviting Bess’s reassurance that it was bold or enticing or welcoming, or any number of things that said it was more than just a pile of meat and steam.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Bess asked.

Mary’s grin disappeared as she wiped her hands on her apron. Her eyelids narrowed to slits and she pursed her lips, creasing her mouth with the thin wrinkles etched by a lifetime of admonishing her daughter. “Something you’ll learn when you get older is that you can’t wait for your life to get better.” She arched a brow and Bess felt her body tense, as if her mother was going to reach out and smack her in the face. She  seemed to always feel that way whenever her mother was nearby, even though the woman had never actually hit her.

“Sometimes you have to make it better, no matter what people have done to ruin it,” her mother said.

Bess bowed her head. “Fine,” she said.

“Finish the table,” her mother said, turning away and sulking back into the kitchen.

Bess shuffled to the china cabinet and hung four stem glasses in between her fingers.  She didn’t bother to wipe off the dust clinging to them and placed a glass behind each plate, wondering if her mother was going to protest the placement, the dust, or both.

The doorbell rang.

Her mother poked her head out of the kitchen like a startled bird peeking out from a nest. “Get that while I make myself presentable.” She dashed down the hall and into her bedroom, leaving Bess standing next to the table.

The doorbell rang again.

Bess traipsed down the hall, peeked through the peephole and saw a man dressed in white pants, boat shoes, white shirt and a wrinkled yellow windbreaker. He held a small paper bag in his hand as he surveyed the doorframe. Bess let out a sigh and opened the door. Before the man had one foot inside the door, she asked, “What’s in the bag?”

The man squinted for just a moment before attempting a disarming smile. “Hi, I’m Rickie.”

“The bag,” Bess said, staring at his hand.

The man reached in the bag and pulled the neck of a wine bottle up just far enough for her to see. “Le Petít Cheval,” he said, arching his brow.

Bess didn’t know if she was supposed to be impressed. “She can’t have that,” she said, pushing the bottle away.

The drew a breath and held it, squinting again. He looked puzzled. Maybe he didn’t know?

Her mother stepped into the hall and Rickie sidestepped Bess, taking long strides to get close to her mother as quickly as possible. Her mother took his arm and escorted him down the hall. In a cooing voice, she said, “Thanks for coming.” The man glanced over his shoulder at Bess, then leaned in close to her mother and said something Bess couldn’t hear. Her mother shot her a withering glance as she and Rickie rounded the corner and disappeared into the living room.

Bess’s feet shuffled forward before she even realized they were moving. She felt a twinge ripple through her neck as she turned into the dining area.  The man had pulled her father’s chair out and and settled into it as if he had taken that particular chair for countless nights, just as her own father had, and set the paper bag with its vile contents on the table.  A grimace flashed across her mother’s face when Rickie’s chair creaked as he sat down. Her gaze flitted around the room and then she glanced at him with a nervous smile.   Bess winced at the presumption of his gesture.  The man hadn’t even taken off his jacket.

Bess glared at him, but his eyes were fixed on her mother, as if Bess wasn’t even there. Bess pulled her shoulders up, brushed the long silk of her black hair behind her shoulders and tilted her head back so she was actually looking down her nose at him.  Standing at the edge of the table across from him, she pressed her fingertips on the tablecloth and leaned forward almost imperceptibly, narrowing her gaze to a needlepoint incision of glowering.

He feigned not noticing, and he did it well.  She knew that he was feigning because her stature, her glare and the dull seething of breath through her nose in an unnatural cadence all demanded notice of some kind, even if it was just the flick of a lash or the twitch of a brow.  Perhaps, the gentle tap of a finger.  He demonstrated none of these.  Instead, he smiled insipidly, keeping his eyes fixed on her mother as he leaned forward to listen for words that had yet to come.

Her mother had noticed it.  Her fingers crept inward, dragging with them minute wrinkles in the tablecloth.  She placed her other hand over her chest with her fingers splayed as her face flushed with a dull pink.  Whether this came from the attention of a man sitting in her father’s chair, her unspoken aggravation with Bess, or both – Bess did not know.  All she knew was that they were both ignoring her, deliberately, efficiently, resolutely.

Rickie pulled the bottle out of the bag and turned it in the cold yellow light spilling off the chandelier so her mother could inspect the label and see the glistening contents encased in thick glass, a facade of elegance that hid away the darkened hours of stupor it would convey.  Her mother stared at the bottle, mesmerised. Bess stifled a scoff as her mother tried to look like she understood the prim sophistication of what he had presented her when Bess knew all she saw was the sourness of inebriation waiting to be poured into her glass.

“Thank you. It’s lovely,” her mother said.

Bess shifted her gaze from Rickie to the bottle.  He held it in his palm, presenting the intent of his visit plainly and without pretense.  He smiled, in case her mother looked at him, but she did not.  He didn’t seem to mind that her mother looked at the bottle as if he had presented her with a diamond necklace, and that she was no longer aware of the bearer of such bounty.  Still, he smiled, just in case.

Bess felt the corners of her mouth curl up in a smile of premature victory.  For a moment, it was as if neither Rickie nor her mother realized the bottle itself had conspired against them.  Red foil pressed down smoothly over a cork welded tightly in the neck of the bottle.  Even if her mother had decided to descend to the rugged incivility of picking at them, she would not be able to remove them.  Ensconced beneath the cork, the wine lay trapped, gurgling innocuously, unable to unleash the wrath of its seduction.

Her boldness, unrestrained by the better judgement of somebody more mature than herself, got the better of her.  “We don’t have a wine bottle opener,” Bess blurted, her mouth now curled in a smile that bordered on smugness.  She reached for the bottle, now useless as nothing more than a decoration in a setting that did not merit its presence.  Her hand floated out over the table, but the bottle remained firmly in Rickie’s grasp as he  jabbed his free hand in the bag and pulled out a plastic corkscrew. “Got one,” he said, holding it up as if he were brandishing a knife.

For the first time since he had sat down, he looked away from her mother and leveled his gaze on Bess.  He narrowed his eyes just enough for her to notice, while he maintained the eerily disarming grin that had been affixed to his face since she had opened the door.  Her smile collapsed and she felt her shoulders slump just enough for him to sense her deflation as he said, “Just in case.”

Turning back to her mother, he asked, “May I?”

“Well, of course,” her mother said.  Her eyes danced as she stared at the bottle, entranced.  Bess scowled as he stabbed the foil with the cheap curl of garish metal, piercing its noble pretense with a gesture that seemed vulgar to Bess.  Rickie twisted the cork viciously, skewering its fine posturing to get at the bare essence of the wine’s true purpose.  Bess let out an almost inaudible whimper as he yanked the cork free to remove the last barrier between the wine and her mother’s ravaging thirst for its glowing sedation.  Her mother saw only the elixir and nothing of the polite restraint one would exercise in the savoring of its taste, its body, its transmutation by patient aging into something to be shared and remembered.  It was the transient blush of intoxication she saw.  Nothing more.  The bottle might as well have been filled with malt liquor.

Oblivious to the silent battle raging between Bess and their guest, her mother tucked her chin down and eyed her with a thin smile. “Bess, honey, why don’t you serve?”

Transfixed by the man as he wrestled the cork from the bottle, Bess studied his hand, firmly gripping the bottle.  His wrists and the portion of his forearm protruding from underneath his windbreaker were firm and steady.  He was about the same age her father had been, but his vitality emanated with a casual resolve that she couldn’t overcome.

She groaned softly as he poured a glistening red stream into the dust-ridden glass next to her mother’s plate, its vengeance lurking in the stupor of the hours to come.

“Bess?” her mother said, prodding her with an edge in her voice.

“Right,” Bess said, her voice floating over the table. Trapped in the trance of watching the man pour wine into her mother’s glass, she couldn’t look away as the wine swirled higher, smothering the dust clinging to the side.

“Bess.”  Her mother’s voice sounded like a small dog barking. Startled, Bess winced. Looking away from the glass and into her mother’s smoldering eyes, Bess’s shoulders slumped as she sat down, defeated.  She lifted a large fork with a molded plastic handle and stabbed the pot roast to hold it in place as she carved away a slice with the matching knife.

Her mother took a sip of wine and closed her eyes, a wave of pleasure washing over her face. Eyeing the man, she said, “Wow, that’s really good.” She tipped the glass back and gulped the wine away, making no pretense at giving it even a cursory opportunity to fill her senses with any notion of palette, body or bouquet.  All of that was wasted on her except for the fact that she could make the excuse that she was drinking fine wine and somehow that was different than just drinking.

As Rickie poured enough wine to take the bottle to less than half full, he stared at Bess and curled his mouth into a thin sneering grin.  She felt a shiver run down her spine. His eyes stayed on her as he set the bottle back down and slouched comfortably over the table, letting her mother run her hand over his arm as she drained her glass.

Bess could hear the words forming in his mind as his gaze bore into her, relentless and overwhelming in its heralding of his victory. She could hear the words as clearly as if he had leaned over and whispered them in her ear.

There is nothing you can do to stop this.

***

Just over twenty-four hours later, Bess leaned against the stove, biting her nails.  He mother had left hours earlier, wearing a smooth dress that hugged her curves too tightly and several layers of makeup that she thought made her look ten years younger.  It had been a long time since she had seen her mother wear her face like that, and all she could remember was the sharp barking of her parents fighting in the waning hours beyond midnight while Bess cowered in her room and cried as she rocked nervously on her bed.

The front door opened and thudded against the wall little too hard, but Bess knew this was from clumsiness, not anger.  She squeezed her eyes shut as she heard her mother’s footsteps padding down the hall.  Her mother turned the corner and stopped in the entryway to the kitchen.

When she opened her eyes, Bess squeaked in a sharp gasp at the sight of her mother standing quietly in the doorway, glaring. She had been crying and the dried tears left streaks of mascara that hung down from her eyeliner. Her dress hung perfectly still on her slender frame. The woman stood so still, Bess couldn’t even tell if she was breathing. A plain paper bag folded at the top hung from her curled fingers.

Bess felt the air fall out of her lungs. “Mom. No.”

Her mother’s heels clicked on the tile floor as she stepped to the sink. She set the bag on the counter, uncurled the flap and pulled out a new bottle of Jack Daniels. Bess grabbed her mother’s wrist when she reached up to open the cabinet for a glass. Her mother tried to jerk away but Bess held on, digging her nails into her mother’s wrist.

“No.”

Her mother turned her head and looked at Bass sideways, sneering. In a single flurry of movement, she jerked her hand free and shoved Bess against the oven. Bess grimaced as her lungs deflated from the impact and the control knobs jabbed her in the back. Bess slumped down to the floor as her mother pulled the bottle out of its bag, set it on the counter and picked up a glass.

Her mother turned the glass in her hand, staring at its facets in the scant light that filtered in from the living room. She set the glass on the counter top hard enough to fill the room with a ringing clatter and glared at Bess. Keeping her eyes on her daughter, she ran her thumbnail around the neck of the bottle and twisted the cap just enough to break the paper seal.

“What was it you wanted to know?” she asked. She twisted the cap off and placed it on the countertop without a sound. “Why did my husband die? Isn’t that what you asked at his funeral?”

“Mom -” Bess gritted her teeth from the jabs of pain in her back as she struggled back to her feet. She started to reach out to her mother when her mother slammed her hand down on the counter top and yelled, “No!”

She picked up the bottle and tilted it just enough to form a thin trickle splashing into the glass. She didn’t take her eyes off Bess for what seemed a lifetime as the amber liquid filled the glass. Just as it was about to spill over, she stopped pouring and set the bottle next to the cap, then picked up the glass and rolled it between her palms as she turned towards Bess. She scoffed and tipped the glass to her mouth, closing her eyes as she savored the burn.

Her mother set the glass down and licked her lips. Opening her eyes, she said, “You can’t help it.”

“Help what?” Bess asked. She stared at the glass, her mind racing to find a way to distract her mother from drinking the rest. She latched onto her mother’s anger, turning into it. While her mother was venting, maybe Bess could slip over to the bottle somehow. If nothing else, her mother couldn’t yell and drink at the same time. It was a start.

“Girls your age do stupid things. Even if they’re smart like you.” She picked up the glass and took a long drink, draining the glass by half. “You can’t help it.”

Bess stared at the glass forlornly. Keep her talking. “That’s not fair.”

“Fair?” Her mother finished the drink and set her glass next to the bottle. Bess felt a sickening ache inside her chest and squinted at the bottle, forcing herself to keep her eyes open. She slowly shook her head, as if she was watching somebody fall from a cliff to plunge to their death. She cringed at seeing something inevitable, yet something she desperately wanted to stop from happening.

Her mother crouched down and looked straight into Bess’s eyes. “Tony is not a good man.” She raised her brow and tilted her head. “Hmm?”

“No. He’s not,” Bess said, noticing that her mother had left the bottle on the counter. That’s right. Look at me. Pour it all into me. I’m right here.

“Your father, well -” Her mother swept her hand through the air. “There was a good man.” She pursed her lips, waiting for Bess to say something.

“Yes. He was.”

“Men like Tony, they’re easy to find. They grow like weeds along the highway and keep springing up even if you run them over.”

“Mom -“

Before Bess could tell her mother that she understood all that, her mother cupped her hand around Bess’s chin and squeezed. “Do you know why everybody preaches to you about being careful with boys?”

Bess started to answer, and then realized her mother couldn’t accept any answer she might have. It was better to let her keep doing the talking. The bottle was still on the counter. If Bess could get just a little closer…

Her mother squeezed harder, sending a twinge of pain along Bess’s jawbone. “It’s because it’s so easy to get pregnant and find yourself shackled to a man who will make your life stop. It’s just that simple. It’s just that stupid. But for you, that wasn’t enough.” Her mother squeezed harder and Bess let out a whimper as a spike of pain sizzled along her temple.

“It’s easier to replace you than it is to buy a new houseplant. But men like your father – ” She let out a sigh and whipped her hand away from Bess’s chin. “Men like my husband – men like that are near impossible to find.”

Bess squeezed her eyes shut, refusing to give in to the tears welling up from the pain. Her mother leaned in. When Bess opened her eyes, she jerked back from the sight of her mother’s mascara-encrusted face just inches from her own. Her mother hissed her next words.

“Don’t you dare. Not one tear.”

Bess glared back, struggling to focus through the blur of water lining the rims of her eyelids. Her mother stood up and clicked back to the counter, where she picked up the bottle and clumsily poured her next drink, letting the glass overflow before she set the bottle back down.

Bess wiped the backs of her hands across her eyes to clear her vision and focused on the bottle. There was no other way. She had to risk direct, deliberate intervention and endure whatever wrath may come in its aftermath. She could to that. She had to. Because her father wasn’t here anymore and he had told her she had to take care of it now. So take care of it. Bess sucked in a sharp breath through her teeth and held it, steeling herself for what came next.

As her mother picked up her glass, Bess lunged forward and grabbed the bottle. Her hand started shaking as she held the bottle up and looked into her mother’s eyes. A flash of surprise raced across her mother’s drooping eyes and then her mouth opened as she reached out for the bottle.

Bess dropped the bottle on the floor.

Her mother jumped as the bottle shattered, sending glistening shards tumbling across the tiles and rivulets of whiskey flowing along their grooves. Her hand started to tremble and she spilled some of her drink as the muscles in her forearm tensed.

Bess saw it coming. She braced for it, as she did for the swells on the lake just before they broke against the hull of the boat. Her mother lashed out and threw her drink in Bess’s face. Bess’s eyes fluttered from the burn, but she kept them open and stared back at her mother as the whiskey flowed down her cheeks and dripped of her chin. Anything else?

Her mother tossed the glass in the sink and let it shatter as she turned and stormed out of the kitchen, her heels clicking against the tile with the swaying rhythm of her unsteady gait.

Bess wiped her face and flicked whiskey from her fingertips. She bent down to pick up one of the shards and held it in the light from the living room. A smile crept across her quivering mouth when she realized that her mother only had one drink.

She dropped the shard on the floor, imagining a glass brick had been shattered so she could peek through the wall. From somewhere in the wind, she imagined a whisper. Closing her eyes, she let it drape over her, soothing everything away for just a moment.

That’s my girl.

Chapter 5

Bess trudged through the front door with her backpack slung over her shoulder and her blouse sticking to her back with sweat. The heat of early June pressing down on her washed away as she stepped into the air-conditioned interior of the house. She stretched her neck and let out a long sigh as she unslung her pack. She dragged it on the floor as she slogged down the hallway towards the living room, letting the cold soak into her skin. She shivered as the air sucked away the sweat on her back.

When she entered the living room, she saw the door to her father’s adjoining den was open with the light on. She stopped in front of the sofa when she heard a man’s voice float out from the den.  At first, her heart jumped as some part of her mind thought she had heard her father.  She knit her brow, annoyed with the intrusion of such a childish fantasy and unstrapped her pack, laying it on the sofa.  She heard the voice again.  It was a stranger’s voice.  Whoever was talking didn’t belong in her father’s den and her chest tightened at the thought of an invader treading on what she considered sacred ground.  She heard the voice again and this time, she recognized who it was. She picked up her pack and threw it back on the sofa, fuming.

Pulling a book from her backpack, she walked up to the door and leaned in so she could see his desk. A shiver rattled her shoulders when she saw the yellow windbreaker. Rickie was facing away from her, hunched over the desk with the phone to his ear.

He cleared his throat and hunched lower while Bess heard the indistinct buzz of somebody yelling on the other end of the line. Rickie pulled the phone away from his ear and cradled it in his hand for a moment before hanging up. He blew out a quick breath and leaned back in her father’s chair.

He started to turn around. Bess tried to step to the side before he saw her, but she couldn’t move her foot. Her entire body went numb as he swung around and she saw his eyes. His face was slack, as if he had removed a mask so she could see the stone cold eyes of a man who spent most of his time thinking about things that had nothing to do with what people saw him doing. It was gone in a flash as his face contorted into the disarming grin she had seen the night he had come to dinner.

He laced his hands behind his head and asked, “How are you doing, Bess?”

She blinked at him, unable to figure out exactly who she was talking to. “This was my father’s den.”

He looked around the room and said, “Um, yeah.” He leaned forward and folded his hands on his lap. “Your mom said it was OK.”

Bess squinted as she stepped through the door. Eyeing the man, she slid the book onto the bookshelf lining the den wall. Turning to face him, she said, “Nothing about this is okay.”

“It’s a rough time, I know.”

Bess scowled. “Who were you talking to?”

Rickie opened his mouth and looked to the side. It was only a moment, but she knew he didn’t know what to say. His face went blank, his mind racing to find something.  Then the smile came back and he looked up at her.

“Actually, it was about you.”

Bess’s eyes stretched open and her breath came in shallow gasps as she felt a faint glow radiate out along her arms and her chest tighten.

“Who are you to talk to anybody about me?”

Rickie’s eyes narrowed and fluttered with a vague twitch before he answered, “I think it would be good for your Mom.”

“What?”

He unfolded his hands and leaned back with a disarming smile. “Just a weekend with you out of the house so she can get her bearings.”

Get her bearings?

 “That’s not what she needs.”

“How do you know?”

Bess blinked hard, letting her mouth fall agape. He was a phantom with no shadow, a man she could barely see. But he knew exactly how to stay in her mother’s blind spots. Bess felt her eyes watering and latched onto her anger, holding it like a shield between them.

“She’s an alcoholic. My father spent their entire marriage drying her out, just to see her fall off the wagon when something knocked her off balance so he could start all over again. I was there for the last sixteen years of that.” She clenched her jaw and took another step forward. “And now it’s up to me.”  She leaned in closer.  “And you’re in my way.”

A sly grin crept across his face, as if he were turning the key to unlock a hidden treasure.

“She was right about you,” he said.

“Yeah, I’m volatile. Where do you think I got that?” She folded her arms across her chest as if she were scolding a child. “You know, you could have given her somebody to hold on to, to help her keep it steady. Instead you threw her in an ocean of booze. And now I have to clean up your mess.  The last thing she needs is for me to go away.”

Bess shuddered as he widened his grin and stood up, unfolding his body to its full stature.

“I’m not so sure about that, Bess,” he said. “Maybe that’s exactly what she needs.”

He took a step towards her. The grin vanished and she saw a man she had never met. His gaze burned through her, ready to ignite the ember gnawing at her insides.

“She was right about you.”

Bess gulped, shuddering at the thought of leaving her mother.  Did she know about this?  Had they already made a decision?  “Right about what?” she asked.

“She blames you for your father’s death,” he said.

Bess stopped breathing. He knew too much. He had drowned her mother with inebriation and let all her secrets pour out so he could soak them up like a sponge. And now he slung them at Bess like a spear thrust straight through her chest.

He arched a brow and tilted his head back. Looking down his nose, he said, “She was right about that.”

Bess wanted to lunge at him, wrap her hands around his neck and squeeze her thumbs against his throat until his eyes popped out.

She couldn’t do that, of course. But she had to do something.

Bess forced herself to suck in a breath through her nose and glared at him for a moment longer before she turned around and ran down the hallway to the garage door.

She knew that moment and everything that was to follow that night would determine her fate.  It was like the toss of a coin.  Each side was as different as night and day, as light and dark, as freedom and capitulation. And when she was done, this man who had come into their lives would know.  He would know that it was time to leave and never look back.  Because, by God, when this night was over, he wouldn’t want to contend with the likes of her.  That, she could promise.

She listened for a voice that she expected to hear for reasons that would take a lifetime to truly understand.  She listened for her father’s voice, whether it came thundering from the sky or whispered to her from the depths of her own mind.  She expected it to say something.  But it did not.  Her only guide was the ember that flared deep in her soul, impetuous in the face of an accusation whose truth she already acknowledged but whose sanctity was incomplete.  Injustice had remained in its wake and, like all truths which demanded rightful blame, it would not be complete and untarnished until it rested on the mantle of her own penance.

To Bess, the imperative of her anger was simple enough.  She understood now – the rage her father had felt the night he had gone to find Tony Halk. She realized, too, that he wasn’t just protecting her. A crime had been committed. The crime had been a simple trespass against the vaulted treasure of who she was.  In the attempt alone, there had been impudence and savagery which could not be allowed to pass unpunished.

And now, there would be a reckoning.

***

Bess clutched the throttle grip of her motorcycle as its lone headlight swept over the gravel and dust of a dirt road winding into dry rolling hills. The Friday night party rotated between the isolated homes of kids whose parents were modestly wealthy and could afford to live in the remote corners of the desert. They could drink beer and be loud without anybody ever finding out as long as everyone understood it was something you didn’t talk about too much. Bess had never actually attended one, but she knew the circuit and she heard things that others thought they whispered in confidence to each other.

She checked her rear view mirror and saw only a boiling cloud of dust churning through the red haze of the motorcycle’s tail light. Ahead, the road rolled up as little more than a jagged etching of ruts that seemed to go on forever to no place in particular.

Sweat from the palms of her hands seeped onto the rubber grips as she thought about the encounter that lay at the end of that road. Rickie’s words kept turning in her mind like a song she couldn’t forget. She couldn’t turn it off. Your mother was right about that. It played over and over, floating out to her from a face hidden in the shadows with relentless eyes that wouldn’t look away. She couldn’t run from them. She could only run towards them.

She twisted the throttle and the motorcycle gyrated in swells of near weightlessness as it careened over the desert’s rises and gullies.

When she saw the lights encased in black framed lanterns hanging on the adobe stucco walls of the house, she eased off the throttle. She took her hand off the grip and shook it, trying to fling away the trembling that had set in. She thought to turn around, but she knew that no matter what direction she turned, the face still would be there, dripping the words into her mind in a relentless cascade of condemnation. Even if she went through with it, the words might still be there, but at least there would be something pushing back against them. She could drape the cloak of justice over them. Or maybe it was just the shroud of revenge. She decided it didn’t matter which and put her hand back on the throttle.

Parked cars sprawled out along the side of the road. Most were like her father’s – late model sedans that none of their teenage drivers deserved. She cast her gaze from one to the next, looking for one that was different, almost hoping it wasn’t there. But she knew it would be. She eased to a stop when she saw the matte black 1972 Trans Am. It was sleek, powerful and simple, rebuilt by its owner to do one thing: move things and people swiftly from one place to another without being caught. The appeal of both the car and its purpose drew young girls to him like moths to a flame. Bess wanted to condemn them all because they were too ignorant to know any better. But she had been one of them.

She cut the engine and pulled off her helmet. She peered at the Trans Am and twisted her hand against her motorcycle’s throttle grip, listening to the rubber grind beneath her palms. The words hammered in her head. She blames you for your father’s death. She was right about that.  Staring at Tony’s car, she knew the words were wrong and that Rickie had attacked her mind for reasons she didn’t yet understand. She would get to that later. Tonight was about one thing: laying blame on its rightful hearth and letting it burn away.

She pushed down the kickstand with the heel of her boot and stepped into the dirt and weeds that surrounded the house. A classmate, whose job it was to collect ten dollars to cover the expense of hosting the party, stood next to the gate leading into the small courtyard behind adobe walls. Bess smoothed her hands over her pant leg, trying to wick away the sweat beading in her palms. She pulled her denim jacket tight over her blouse as a gust of wind blew through her hair.

The sentry smiled at her, almost sneering. People like her didn’t come to parties like this. But she knew where it was and she had ten dollars. That was enough for him to open the black wrought iron gate. He placed his finger over his lips, reminding her of the one rule that couldn’t ever be broken: Don’t tell anybody. She nodded and stepped into the courtyard.

The ground shook vaguely from the music inside while some of the kids standing in small groups in the courtyard eyed her from behind beer bottles tilted against their lips. She nodded at one girl she thought she recognized who only shook her head and glanced away. Bess tugged at one of the bottles of beer nestled in a trough of ice in the middle of the courtyard and headed for the open double doors that led into the house.

Inside, kids lounged on expensive furniture or stood in gaggles on the sprawling stone tile floor. The only light came from a few dim lamps nestled in the corners. Music thumped out from black speakers flanking a huge flat screen T.V. slung over a fireplace large enough to roast a small animal.

She scanned their faces as she paced slowly towards a hallway on the other side of the room. The hallway was dark and the doors were closed. She heard a nervous giggle from behind one of them and tested the doorknob. Finding it locked, she moved on. She put her ear against the next door and heard the rumble of his timbre. She couldn’t make out the words, but she knew it was him. Placing her hand on the doorknob, she saw the door was already open. The flicker of candlelight seeped through the slit between the door and its frame. She smiled, recognizing the scene. There was no such thing as too many girls and he would always welcome any who wanted to enter. There would be a choice of what they found on the other side, but it was always something that came from him and something they would wish they had never found.

She swung the door open. Tony Halk lounged casually on a sofa in the corner of the room. The light from an army of candles flickered against his stone-washed jeans and black denim jacket over a plain white T-shirt. His straight black hair hung to his shoulders and smoldering eyes were set in a brutally handsome face garnished with stubble that always seemed to be three days old. He didn’t recognize Bess right away as she stood staring at three girls huddled around him with fawn-like eyes and lips glistening with fruit-flavored gloss. Two of them were her age, but the third couldn’t have been a day over fourteen.

His face changed, like an electronic billboard changing its display. His eyes widened slightly and he smiled, revealing teeth that glowed eerily white in the flickering candlelight. The girls looked at her sideways and huddled closer to him, mistaking her for competition. Bess could see the cup of a bra peeking out from the thin veil of a halter top blouse. Its owner peered at her with a mix of brash contempt and confusion. Bess stood with the bottle hanging in one hand as she pressed her other hand against her shoulder, suddenly aching even though the bruise he had given her was long gone.

He started to stand up and put his hand out in a disarming gesture. “Hey,” he said, trying to look contrite without really meaning it. “I really am sorry about -“

Bess reeled back, swung the bottle as hard as she could and bashed it against the side of his head. The bottle shattered, spewing a mixture of beer and blood against the wall behind him. Ragged glass scraped across his cheek and his hands flew up to cover the wound. He screamed like a wounded animal and fell forward, slamming his face against the stone tile floor.

The girls leapt to their feet. The oldest one shook his shoulder. “Tony!” The girl glared while Bess stood over them, surveying his crumpled body. A wicked grin stretched Bess’s mouth as she watched blood trickling from his face and splash in quiet drops on the floor. The ember inside her flared as Rickie’s blank face and piercing eyes fell back into the shadows of her mind and his words faded to silence.

Overwhelmed with panic, the youngest girl shrieked and backed into the wall, covering her face. Bess tilted her head, studying the girl as she wailed absurdly. Still trying to revive Tony, the oldest girl screamed, “Get help!” The third girl stood with her hands over her mouth as she stared at the heap of Tony’s body with eyes wide in shock. “Go!” the oldest girl screamed. The girl with her hands over her mouth bolted from the room, her voice rushing down the hall as she yelled “Call 911! Call 911!” Footsteps echoed in the hallway as some of the others trotted in from the living room to see what was going on.

“Oh my God,” someone whispered. The music cut off and a clamor rose up as more came in from the living room to watch the spectacle. They crowded the hallway, blocking the door as they peeked in while a few pushed their way in and knelt next to Tony, pawing at his body as if there was something they could do to help him. Bess glanced around the room and realized she was trapped. She dropped the ragged neck of the beer bottle and the room fell silent as it clattered against the tile.

A hand grabbed her shoulder. “What have you done?”

Bess knelt next to Tony’s body and studied the blood oozing from the side of his head and dripping into his mouth. “Such a stupid question,” she said. “You know exactly what I’ve done.” She shifted her gaze to the girl still pawing at his body. “I’ve saved you.”

The next half hour froze in time for Bess. The room slowly emptied as curiosity waned and a sulking despair filled the room. The oldest girl dabbed at Tony’s wounds and kept asking when help would arrive. Bess didn’t move and by the time she felt the cold steel of handcuffs on her wrists, her knees had grown numb and the police had to help her stand up. They said something about remaining silent and asked her if she knew where her parents were as they dragged her out of the room.

Bess studied the gauntlet of faces staring at her as the police escorted her through the living room. The ember had subsided to a flicker as she realized they all stepped back from her with the same look of fear in their eyes.

As the police walked her past the ambulance just outside the adobe walls of the courtyard, Bess studied the EMT technicians fussing over Tony Halk, now laid prone on a gurney supported by metal yellow tubes. He wore some kind of mask and his head was in a thick plastic brace. She realized he was still breathing. His heart was still beating.

Justice, she realized, was not only blind, but cold and unseen. She felt incomplete somehow, and shivered at the thought of ever seeing Tony Halk again.

***

It was still dark when Bess and her mother stood outside their front door. Her mother threw the door open so hard, it shuddered as the doorknob slammed into the wall, gouging a hole in the drywall. Bess waited on the cement slab of the front porch for her mother to stomp half way down the hallway before she stepped inside. She eased the door closed and waited until her mother was in the living room before she traipsed down the hallway, bracing herself for the torrent of her mother’s anger.

She stopped mid-step when her mother whirled around and glared at her. The thick folds of her pleated shirt dress whipped around and fluttered as she crossed her arms and scowled. She flicked a brow and Bess’s heart surged as she forced herself to start walking again and close the distance between them, walking along the hall as if she were approaching an execution chamber.

She stopped a few feet away from her mother and looked at her shoes.

Her mother spoke in a low growl, barely containing a rage that Bess could smell oozing from her pores. “What are you doing to me?”

“This isn’t about you,” Bess said quietly, still looking at her shoes.

“The hell it isn’t. God. If you had done something like this earlier, your father would still be here.”

Bess raised her head and looked into her mother’s eyes. “How do you know?”

Seething, her mother narrowed her eyes. “What would he say now, Bess? What would he say about having to bail you out of jail like a common criminal because you almost killed a man tonight?”

“It was Tony Halk. You should be glad he’s in the hospital.”

“Glad?” Bess bowed her head down, but kept her eyes on her mother, refusing to give up her ground. Her mother’s eyes narrowed to slits as she took another step forward. “Why should I be glad that my daughter is running around the country side maiming people?”

“Because he killed Dad!” Bess shouted. Her mother’s eyes flew open wide with shock, but Bess knew that was only the beginning. Her mother’s chest heaved as she took a deep breath, set her jaw and cocked her brow with a look that sent a shiver through Bess’s entire body.

Her mother spoke in a voice whose calmness revealed the well of fury that lay just behind her words. “Because of you.”

Her mother’s eyes flared. The muscles in her forearm rippled and Bess braced herself as her mother started to raise her hand.

“Get to your room,” her mother growled.

Bess backed away, still watching her mother’s hand. When she reached the short hall leading to her room, she felt her way around the corner and backed up until she bumped into her door. She reached down without looking to open the door and backed through until she was safely inside and could close it.

Bess crawled up on her bed and sat with her back against the wall. She stared at the door, waiting for it to burst open.

She was alone and the silence fell over her like a blanket, but she couldn’t stop the trembling that ran through her body. She felt trapped inside her room and there was nowhere left to retreat. She tried to think of her father, but he would only come to her mind as a pale ghost, gasping for his last breath.

Her ears started ringing and numbness flowed along her arms as she realized there was nobody left to protect her. She was the only one left standing between her and the world beyond that door. For the first time in her life, Bess felt the pang of loneliness in her heart as she realized there was nobody left who could understand. There was nobody left willing to fight for her.

She was on her own.

Chapter 6

Rickie Hewitt jerked the steering wheel and headed for the freeway exit. He didn’t use his turn signal and grumbled at the blast of a horn from the driver he cut off as he raced up the exit ramp. Pausing at the stop sign just long enough to make sure there was no oncoming traffic, he gunned the engine and veered into the parking lot of a truck stop and parked in a far corner.

He turned off the lights but left the engine running as he closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead while he tried to think of what he was going to say. He ran his hand down his face and picked up the prepaid cell phone sitting next to its ripped open packaging in the passenger seat. He dialed the number and let out a sigh as the other end rang.

The phone clicked and he heard a voice on the other end. “Los Rojos.”

“It’s me. I need to talk to Jefe.”

“Watch yourself, gringo. He’s in a mood.”

“I’m sure he is.”

“Hold.”

Rickie took several deep breaths and held it when he heard Jefe’s voice. He could almost hear him sharpening the blade that was destined for his own throat. Jefe’s voice was reserved and solemn, as if a decision had already been made and all that was left was the formality of making it happen.

“You know what I don’t need right now?” Jefe asked, the barest hint of a Mexican accent lacing his words.

“Jefe -“

“What I don’t need right now is more bad news. I hate bad news. It makes me do stupid things that I’ll regret in the morning. Or maybe I won’t. It’s hard to say how bad news affects me.”

“You’ve heard then?”

“Yes. I heard. My carrier is in the hospital and your little girl is out of control.”

“If you hadn’t killed her father -“

“Are you saying this is my fault?”

Rickie grimaced, squeezing his eyes shut. Ramón Montoya didn’t like being blamed for anything, especially if it was his fault. He squinted at the traffic on the freeway and imagined himself pulling back out on the road and heading to the nearest state border. He was good at disappearing and now might have been a good time.

“No Jefe.”

“See, this is why I don’t like to go to Beverly Hills for my Teresitas. You don’t have these problems when you pick them off the street.”

“You came to me when your carrier couldn’t figure it out, remember?”

Jefe’s voice was smooth and mocking, clearly laced with dissatisfaction at being reminded of the truth. “Oh.”

Rickie counted the beats of his heart as the man smothered him with several seconds of silence.

“Yes, I did call you,” Jefe said. Rickie tried to control his breathing as he waited for the man to finish. “Maybe that was a mistake.”

“Jefe, this could still work out for the best.”

“How does my carrier in the hospital work out for the best?”

“They won’t know where to start looking.” He waited through several more seconds of silence, not knowing if the man was considering his words or simply toying with him and had already condemned him to death.

“They always look,” Jefe said.

“True, but where? With Tony in a coma, they don’t have anywhere to look.”

“And what about you?”

“I’ll be long gone before they even think of looking at me.”

Rickie counted cars as they sped under the overpass, once again considering his option to disappear – now, while he still could.

“Alright, gringo. If you bring her in, then we’re square. But remember one thing. There is nowhere you can hide that I won’t find you. You understand this?”

“Yes Jefe.”

The line went dead.

Rickie turned the lights back on and pulled out of the parking lot. As he drove across the overpass, he tossed the phone onto the freeway below where it would be run over and ground to oblivion. Entering the ramp to the freeway, he ran over his plan one more time. After that, he worked out at least ten different ways to escape in case it didn’t work.

His contract with Ramón was lucrative, but the man was dangerous. He was unpredictable and didn’t understand what it meant to be flexible when things didn’t go as planned – which they rarely did. He would gladly forego the balance of his payment if it meant never seeing Ramón again. But then, he would have to track down the mutual friend who had introduced them and kill him just for getting Rickie mixed up with the guy in the first place.

He laughed out loud at his own musings. He was a professional and sometimes that meant working with men like Ramón. It was just a contract and, like all contracts, this one would end when he had completed his assignment.

Squinting at the headlights snaking towards him on the other side of the interstate, he wondered – did Ramón understand that?

***

Two days later, her mother was still in her housecoat, drifting between her bedroom and the kitchen in a constant drunken stupor. Bess stood in the living room, gazing through the entryway to the kitchen as her mother poured another glass of Jack Daniels in the dark. She left the bottle on the counter with the top off and drifted back to the entryway. Bess leaned forward, trying to let her mother know that she wanted to talk. Her mother stopped in the entryway and stared past her with eyes drooping from inebriation. Her face was slack, devoid of all emotion.

Bess had reeled at the tempest of her mother screaming at her when she had brought her home from the police station. As much as it had terrified her, she now longed for it. Now, all she had was a wall of inscrutable silence because her mother was buried in a deep void that shut out the world. She hadn’t said a word in two days and even Rickie had retreated to her father’s den after trying to get her mother to say something – anything. The only response was when she tugged at his sleeve and handed him the keys to go to the liquor store for more whiskey.

Her mother blinked, glanced away and then turned to traipse down the hall, sliding her hand along the wall to keep her balance. She disappeared into the master bedroom and shut the door. The latch clicked, leaving Bess alone in the living room in dead silence.

Bess hung her head and absently rubbed her index finger against her thumb. Yellow light from the lamps on the end tables flanking the couch washed anonymously over the living room. Everything in the room seemed to be looking at her, unwilling to explain the gnawing contempt she felt in everything around her. She no longer felt like she was in a home but in a waiting room with no exit and no clue as to what she was supposed to be waiting for.

She eyed the closed door of her father’s den and found herself shuffling towards it. She stood in front of the door and raised her hand. She let it float just short of touching the door for a moment, formed a fist and then let it go. She laid her palm against the door and tried to think of her father, but her mind was a void of uncertainty. Nothing more.

She curled her fingers back in and knocked. She held her breath, suddenly regretting knocking on the door. She stood still as a statue, unable to move. There was nowhere to go and nothing else to do. She dreaded the thought of him looking at her, reminding her of everything she had done to destroy her own world, but she couldn’t stand another minute without hearing somebody else’s voice. It wouldn’t matter what he said, as long as they were words spoken by another human being. She was drowning in silence.

She was surprised at what she saw when Rickie opened the door. His eyes were soft. His face was impassive. He was entirely without expression, a blank canvass of human presence that was neither threatening nor comforting. He simply reminded her that she wasn’t entirely alone.

His voice was gentle, careful, as if he were reaching out to touch a hungry animal huddled in the cold. “How’s she doing?” he asked.

Bess let her eyes settle on his, drinking in the comfort of his blank stare. “Is she ever coming back?” she asked.

Rickie opened the door the rest of the way and stepped back, giving her room to step inside. “I don’t know.”

Bess stepped through the door and stopped just inside. She let her eyes wander, taking in the thick wooden shelves lined with books. Here, she had learned about everything from the elusive mysteries of black holes to the subtle intonations of Aristotle’s Poetics and how the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides touched the human soul. She eyed the book she had put on the shelf the day of the party. It was a copy of Oedipus the King, printed in the original Greek for an advanced placement class she was taking on Greek tragedy. She would take it down again in the morning before school, but for now found a dim comfort in following her father’s rule that books must rest on their shelves overnight, so that they would always find their way home.

Her mother had grounded her with the sole exception of being allowed to attend school. After a weekend of her mother’s drunken silence, Bess longed for morning to arrive, a time that seemed a universe away as she floated from one moment to the next adrift on an endless ocean of emptiness. Sophocles spoke of such things and she began to understand what he meant by all pain and earthly strife. She looked forward to being able to explain it in the morning, even though nobody, not even the presumptuous master of literary criticism that taught the class, would understand. It was more aloneness, seen only by her own bloodied eyes.

She let her gaze settle on the desk against the far wall. The brass and green plastic lamp sitting on one corner cast a dull yellow haze over a closed laptop. She tried to imagine her father sitting there, engrossed in the academic minutia of his latest curiosity. But the image wouldn’t come. The memory of her father had withdrawn to someplace she couldn’t find.

“Why are you here?” Bess asked.

His voice was slow and gentle in a way she hadn’t heard before. “Because she asked me to stay.”

“You enjoy the company of drunken self pity?”

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth and he kept his eyes on her, still soft and neutral. But he didn’t respond.

“You know,” she said, “it might be best if you just left.”

Rickie idly bit his lip and took a breath, then looked away. She had pushed him away. Bess silently rebuked herself for pushing back the only person who had actually spoken to her in two days.

His eyes returned to her and his face softened even more. “We all fall into the grasp of things beyond our control from time to time.” Bess narrowed her eyes as she realized he was talking about something else. He was telling the truth. For the first time since she had met him, he wasn’t calculating his words for effect. He was simply telling her something. “And I do think I can help her.”  He tilted his head and inched closer.  “If you’ll let me.”

“Oh, really?  Like you’ve done a bang-up job so far.  You gave her the one thing -“

“I know,” Rickie said, putting his hand up.  He closed his eyes for a moment and nodded his head, surrendering the point.  “I know I made a mistake there.  I didn’t know she had a problem.”

“Which is why you should leave.”  Bess felt her skin growing warm as a dull anger churned throug her blood.  It wasn’t what she really wanted, but anything was better than the stifling silence she had endured since coming home from the police station.

He let out a sigh and pulled back, letting his face go slack.  “How are you doing these days, Bess?”

The question caught her by surprise. Nobody had asked her that in a long time. She didn’t want to talk to him about this.  She just wanted him gone.  But there was nobody else to talk to and now everything she had been feeling came bursting to the surface.  She could either sulk in her room or she could talk to this intruder.  Bess pinched her nose and scoffed at the absurdity of her choices.

“I don’t know,” she said. She gazed into his eyes as she tried to sort out her own thoughts. “It’s like no matter what I do, all I do is make things worse. There is so much wrong about what’s happening and it seems like it’s all my fault somehow.” Bess furrowed her brow as she listened to her own words, betraying a truth she had hidden from even herself.

He held his hands up, palms out, and arched a brow.  “It’s more complicated than that, but if it really does seem that way to you, then maybe a few days away isn’t such a bad idea.  Just so you guys can take a break from each other.”  He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker.  “It’s not just for her.  I really think it would do you some good, too.”

Bess rubbed her forehead and bowed her head, staring at the carpet.  This again?

“Look,” she said, “even if you mean well…”  She looked up at him and felt a wave of tiredness wash through her.  She felt heavy now, and the fight was starting to ebb away.  “She may be a staggering drunk and a shrew, but she’s my mother and I can’t leave her alone right now.  I can’t.”

“It’s a nice resort, Bess.  Room service.  Big pool.  Hiking.  I don’t know what you’re into, but you can get away from all this and let yourself recover a little bit while I talk to your mom.  I think I can get her into a program.”  He shook his head and looked to the side, as if he were hiding behind something before saying his next words.  “It would be a lot easier if you weren’t here. I’m not trying to be mean.”

Bess watched his face and the wrinkles in his brow, as if he really were trying to sort out a way to start unwinding everything that had happened.  And a cozy room with a respite from her mother did sound enticing in an odd way she didn’t want to think about too much.

He turned back to her with a disarming look and shrugged.  “Well?”

Bess took a deep breath and winced as she conceded that he might have a point.  “I’ll think about it,” she said.

He closed his eyes and took a long breath through his nose.  Opening his eyes with a resigned look of disappointment, he said, “You look exhausted.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small prescription bottle. Bess knit her brow and took a step back. He held the bottle in the palm of his hand. “It’s alright. It’s just Valium. Two milligrams, the smallest dose there is. It’ll help take the edge off so you can get some sleep.” He held the bottle out to her, raising a brow in a disarming show of sympathy.

She stared at the bottle and then took it from his hand.  She recognized the name of her father’s doctor on the prescription label.  It made all the sense in the world, although she was sure he took more than just Valium.  She unscrewed the cap and reached in with her fingertips to fetch one of the white pellets inside. She screwed the cap back on and handed the bottle back to him as she stared at the pill lying in her palm.

Looking up at him, she said, “Um. OK, I guess.” His eyes were still soft. It was up to her. She could take it or not. Resigned to the notion that it couldn’t make things any worse, she said, “Thank you.”

Rickie nodded gently and said, “Go get some rest. Things will be better in the morning.”

“How do you know?” she asked, letting a twitch of a smile flash across her face.

“They always are.”

Rickie watched her turn away and traipse across the living room and into the kitchen. When he heard the sound of water running from the tap, he eased the door closed and let out a deep sigh.

It wasn’t enough.  He needed her to tell her mother that she wanted to leave so he could get her in the car with everybody agreeing to let it happen.  ‘I’ll think about it’ wasn’t going to cut it.

He couldn’t wait any longer.  Bess was a smart girl and she was overwhelmed with emotional exhaustion.  But that wasn’t going to last.  She was the kind of smart that was deadly to men like him.  He knew it was a matter of days now before she figured out what he was doing.  Maybe he didn’t even have that long.

That meant it was time for plan B.

He eyed the book she had been staring at and pulled it off the shelf. It was the same one she had put there Friday afternoon after school. Flipping through the pages, he saw they were, in fact, written in Greek.

He grunted and reached into the other pocked of his windbreaker to pull out a small vial of white powder. He popped off the cap and sprinkled a small amount on one of the pages. It was enough to be noticed, but probably wouldn’t get her arrested.

He carefully closed the book and slid it back on the shelf. He thought of Ramón’s words, about how it was better to take them from the street. He nodded silently as he thought of that and found himself agreeing for reasons he never thought possible. Girls that had found their way to the street were already damaged merchandise that just needed to be cleaned up but could never be anything more. At least that’s the way he had always seen it.

Bess wasn’t there yet.  The real truth was that he was starting to like Bess and that was the deadliest thing of all to a man like himself.

***

The next morning, Bess walked briskly across her high school’s parking lot, anxious to immerse herself in the week’s academic routine. After being trapped in the house since her arrest the previous Friday night, the mundane drone of high school felt like a release from prison.

Even though it was the last week of school for the year, she was tired of the slide towards mediocrity reflected in her declining grades. She would be excellent, even if it was for just a week. And then she would get a job. She had meted out her clumsy dose of justice and she had resigned to the reality that her mother was awash in sea of drunken despair. It was too easy to lament it all and let her life spool out in endless days that didn’t mean anything. Bess had to move away from that now, while she could still remember how.

Determined to make this her first day on the road back to her own life, Bess adjusted the backpack slung over one shoulder, jutted out her chin and took long, deliberate strides towards the glass doors of the school’s main entrance.

As she swung one of them open, she unslung her backpack and placed it on the table next to the metal detector.  She suppressed her habitual urge to grumble about the state making a poor substitute for good parents and then almost laughed out loud as she thought of her mother’s behavior over the past few months.

The luring comfort of the street and the notion of carrying firearms as a member of a gang began to make sense in a vague way she hadn’t understood until that moment. With it came a new disdain for those who couldn’t resist that lure. She had seen girls just like those hanging on Tony Halk flirt with the fringes of that world. Bored more than anything else, they were drawn to the illusion of rebellion providing a surrogate for the simple act of a father explaining why they were better than that. Bess knew better. Her father had given his life explaining that she was better than that. Her shoulders slumped as she realized that she had flirted with that world for just a moment – a moment that came at a price she could never repay. No. She rolled her shoulders back. That was enough. Living a good life – living her life – that was how she would repay it.

After stepping through the metal detector, she reached for her backpack, only to find it being handed to somebody else who marched it to another table further down from the metal detector. So caught up in her reverie, Bess hadn’t noticed the dogs sitting calmly next to their handlers as they took turns sniffing the backpacks, smart phones, coffee cups and other items brought in by her fellow students. She wanted to roll her eyes and scoff as she usually did during the monthly sniff downs, but she caught herself and reminded herself that these things had actually become necessary.

A sophomore girl had been caught during the last one trying to sneak in through a side entrance opened by one of her friends. Moments later, she had been detained when the dogs found a teenth of crystal methamphetamine in her pocket. At the time, Bess had only thought of how stupid the girl must have been. But now, a sense of suffocation set in. The corrupt temptations of a world that had lost its way had taken the most important person in her life away from her. The ember flickered and she took a breath, trying to ease back her anger.

Somebody in a uniform led one of the dogs to the table and patted Bess’s bag. The dog prodded it with his nose and sniffed. He pushed his nose harder at the pack, pawed at it, and whined as he pulled it off the table and onto the floor.  The dog poked again with his nose and let out a loud bark. The uniformed handler knelt down next to the dog and unzipped the pack with hands covered by thin blue Latex gloves.

Bess’s heart froze.

The dog ignored the binder the handler took out to hold in front of its muzzle and continued to paw at Bess’s bag. The handler next took out the brushed steel travel cup her father had bought for her during a sailing trip to Lake Michigan. Again, the dog turned away and whimpered as he pawed the bag. The handler pulled out Oedipus the King and the dog barked, knocking it out of the handler’s hand and scooting the book across the floor with his nose.

The handler picked up the book and held it out to somebody else in a different uniform. Bess studied him closely as he put on his own blue Latex gloves. He wore a belt adorned with a variety of implements for subduing a citizen: hand cuffs, a Tazer, pepper spray and a tightly holstered semi-automatic pistol. He wore a badge on his chest with a number and his name. Bess swallowed hard when he glanced at her as he took the book from the handler.

“Miss, would you come this way please,” he said, gesturing towards the door leading to the administrative offices. Her thumping heart let her know it was a command she couldn’t refuse. Still, she felt a pang of resentment at his being so cordial about it.

The officer knocked on the principal’s door and then opened it without waiting for a response. He gestured again, waiting for Bess to walk through before walking in after her and closing the door.

Cold fluorescent light reflected off the principal’s balding head as he glanced over the rim of his glasses. He stopped shuffling papers on his desk and raised his head to look directly at her.

“Bess?” the principal asked.

Bess’s eyes flared in bewilderment and she held her hands out as she shrugged. She gently shook her head, but said nothing. Her heart sank when his eyes narrowed and then turned away from her, dismissing her as just another disappointment in a career filled with too many broken promises.

The principal tugged at the lapel of his tweed sports coat and turned his attention to the officer. “What did you find?”

The policeman held up the book by its edges, but kept it close to his body, making it clear he didn’t want the principal to touch it.

The principal glanced at Bess and stepped out from behind his desk. “So, what do you have there, a compartment cut out of the pages?” He cocked a brow, as the officer opened the book and carefully leafed through its pages, turning each one back slightly by the corner.

Looking up from the book, the officer said, “Probably just contaminated.”

“So trace amounts,” the principal said.

“I still need to take her in for questioning.”

“Later. Let me handle this for now.”

The officer glanced at Bess and sweat broke out on her forehead as she felt his gaze boring through her.

“Sir, we really need to take her in for questioning,” the officer said.

“And in cases not involving arrest, I have the option to have her parents come pick her up first.”

“Yeah,” the officer said with a sigh, “you do.”

“Show me the cover please,” the principal said.

The officer held up the book. The principal shifted his gaze to Bess, looking at her over the tops of his glasses.

“Oedipus,” he said. “For your AP class?”

“Yes sir,” Bess said.

“Well, a printing of Oedipus in the original Greek for a star student in an AP class doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as a hiding place for drugs, does it?” the principal asked.

“No sir, it does not,” Bess said.

The principal curled his mouth into a comforting smile. “Since when do you call anybody sir?”

“Since men with guns and badges take my stuff and usher me through doors.”

The principal pursed his lips and nodded at the officer. “I’ll take it from here,” he said.

The officer narrowed his eyes, waiting for something more. When the principal didn’t say anything, he let out a sigh and said, “Alright then. But if she doesn’t come in within the next 24 hours, it’s on you.”

“I understand,” the principal said.

As the officer turned to leave, Bess blurted out, “My book?”

The officer stopped mid-step and said, “I’m sorry, Miss, we need to hold this for evidence.” Bess wanted to ask him, evidence of what? But she thought better of it and kept her tongue.

After the officer left and the door closed behind him, the principal returned to his desk, sat down and leaned forward. “I know it’s been difficult for you – losing your father and all. I’d like to help if you’ll let me.”

Bess threw her hands in the air. Her eyes flaring, she yelled, “I didn’t do anything!”

His expression faded into obscurity and he leaned back, looking away. His voice went flat, as if he were talking to just one more troublesome student who had given him another administrative hassle he didn’t have time for.

“Let me call your mother so she can come pick you up,” he said. Bess stared at him, waiting for him to look at her. Instead, he casually motioned towards the door. “You can wait outside,” he said.

Bess’s shoulders slumped forward and she couldn’t find the strength to roll them back this time. She shuffled through the door and sat down in the orange plastic chair outside as the door clicked closed behind her.

Closing her eyes, she shook her head and tried to remember everywhere she had taken the book since the last sniff down. All she could see was the chaotic blur of her life since her father had died. Her mother’s drinking, Rickie coming into their lives and now her entanglement with law for her revenge on Tony Halk – it all swirled in a maelstrom she just wanted to leave behind.

Chapter 7

Rickie watched Mary Kincaid hang up the phone in the living room and stomp back into the kitchen. Grabbing her Jack Daniels from the counter top, she upended the bottle and drained the last of its contents over the half-melted ice in her glass. She shook the bottle, cursing under her breath as a few drops spilled onto the floor instead of the glass. Grunting, she dropped the bottle into the sink and stomped back out to the living room, drinking down half the glass before her feet even found the carpet.

Rickie clenched his right fist, resisting the urge to reach out and steady her as she wobbled across the floor, drained the rest of her drink and turned around to wobble in the opposite direction.

“I… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here,” she said, staring at the floor as she paced in front of him. “I thought she was a good girl.” She put the glass to her lips and growled when she realized the only thing left were the rounded pellets of ice cubes. “I need a drink,” she said.

She stomped back into the kitchen and flung cabinet doors open, banging them against each other as she shuffled through their contents looking for a bottle that wasn’t there.

Rickie let out a sigh, disgusted at how deeply he had been able to put her in the bottle. The thought that Bess might actually deserve better drifted through his mind and he clenched his fist tighter, forcing himself to focus on the task at hand.

“She’s in trouble again,” Mary said. “Somebody needs to pick her up.” She banged around in the kitchen some more and then said, “Oh hell, maybe I should just let them take her to jail.”

Rickie stretched his eyes wide open and glanced around the room. The thought of Bess Kincaid talking to police officers about drug-contaminated books found in her backpack made him shiver. It wouldn’t be long before they started asking her where she had last seen the book. That would be followed by questions about who she had seen last and that would bring their questions right to the front door. He had to make sure it never got to that point.

“We don’t have all the facts, Mary. Whatever they found wasn’t enough to bother with or else she would already be in jail.” She was still banging around in the kitchen and he wasn’t sure if she was even listening at this point. “Who knows what happened? It could have been one of her friends.”

He clenched his teeth as he realized he was talking about details she hadn’t even told him yet and took a step towards the kitchen to peek in. “Are you hearing me, Mary?”

She whipped around to face him. A strand of curled hair flopped over her face, which was beaded with sweat nearly to the point of dripping. “I need a drink,” she said.

“What about Bess?” he asked.

Mary stared at him, her chest heaving with the strain of breathing. Whether or not it was from her craving for alcohol or anger at her daughter, he couldn’t tell. If she had noticed that he was getting ahead of himself, she wasn’t letting on. But he knew she probably only heard half of what he was saying anyway.

“What the hell are you talking about?” She swept the strand of hair behind her head. “Friends? Seriously? This is the second time the police have come into my life in three days because of her.”

She hadn’t caught it. Rickie held out his hands in a disarming gesture. “Still, we don’t know -“

“You don’t have kids, do you Rickie?” She jutted her chin out, challenging him.

“Well, no, but I was a kid once,” he said. Her eyes narrowed. “And so were you,” he continued. “You remember what it was like.” He tried a disarming smile, but she only scowled harder.

“I didn’t get arrested for nearly killing people with beer bottles and hauling drugs around in my purse.”

“Mary -“

“No. This is how it is. If she wants to act like a criminal, then she can learn what it means to face the consequences of acting like a criminal.”

“Mary -“

She waved her hands and started to turn away. He grabbed her shoulders and forced her to look at him. He couldn’t give her time to think and he sure as hell couldn’t let her decide what to do next.

“Mary,” he said in a low voice, “listen to me.”

She tried to jerk away, but she was weak from drinking and no food. He tightened his grip and saw the crease of fear creeping onto her face.

“It’s not that serious,” he said. “She’s been through a lot and, as I recall, you told me this Tony character was bad news. Maybe he deserved it?”

“Maybe,” Mary said. “But that’s no excuse -“

“I know. But letting her rot in jail will just make it worse.”

He thought about that for a moment. In all likelihood, she would wind up in the custody of the Children, Youth and Families Department if they didn’t pick her up. He knew for a fact that they didn’t have any reason to actually arrest her. He considered telling Mary that, but that didn’t solve his problem. And he had to solve his problem, he reminded himself. His mind raced, trying to find a way to corner her before she started thinking too much.

“What about rehab?” he asked, lifting a brow. “Hmm? Yeah?” He nodded, trying to induce her to agree.

A wicked grin spread across her face. “Jail is free. I’m not paying for her to join a country club.”

“I’ll pay for it.” He blurted it out before he even realized what he was saying.

She tilted her head and wrestled free from his grip. Easing away from him, she asked, “Why would you do that?” She squinted at him. “She’s not yours.”

Sensing she was starting to figure it out, he turned to a skill that had taken him far in his chosen profession. He sprinkled a dash of truth on top of a heaping pile of lies.

“Bess is going to face the rest of her life without her father-“

“And I’m going to spend the rest of it without my husband.”

Rickie eased closer, staring her into submission.

“Husbands can be replaced,” he said quietly.

He let that sink in for a few moments and continued. “Bess is going through a tough time and she probably hasn’t thought about the fact that when she gets to our age, she will still be living a life where she doesn’t have a father.” He held her gaze, looking for any sign that his words were sinking in. “I know what that’s like.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. He couldn’t tell where her suspicion stopped and her drunken haze began, but at least she wasn’t fighting him now.

“Have you ever heard me talk about my father?” he asked.

“No. Or a wife, for that matter. Do you know what it’s like to lose one of those, too?”

“Well, that’s a different matter altogether.” He ventured a smile, but she just stared back at him, revealing nothing. “Just let me take her to rehab.”

Mary’s face grew still. Whatever clues he had about her thoughts were gone.

“Fine,” she said. “But if the police go round her up for something else, I’m done.” She gazed at him with hollow eyes. “Understand?”

He nodded, a pang of sympathy for her daughter washing over him. “Yes. I understand.”

She turned away and plodded back into the kitchen. “I need a damn drink,” she said, pawing at the cupboards again.

Rickie backed away, wondering if he would remember the image of this woman drowning in the daze he had put her in as her only daughter languished in a world where she no longer had a home to come back to or a family to be with. It was the last time he would see her and he realized he wouldn’t mind forgetting who she was.

He wasn’t sure it would be so easy to forget about Bess. He really did need to find a new line of work.

***

Still sitting in the orange plastic chair, Bess looked at the ground, trying to ignore the glances and whispers that scuttled around the counter of the administration area in front of her. Most of the staff members were quiet, but every student that walked in seemed to have something to say. She couldn’t hear the words, but the tone in their hissing voices was unmistakable. Without consideration of facts or even real information, she had already been consigned to the ranks of delinquents who helped create a world where metal detectors and police dogs assumed nobody was safe anymore. She understood that, but sometimes it really was a mistake. She knew better than to expect them to think of that, even in her case. It was easier to point and whisper than it was to do anything useful.

Bess thumped her leg, forcing her mind to settle down. She didn’t know what was coming next except that she wasn’t in handcuffs again. Beyond that, she was vaguely aware that bitterness wasn’t the right frame of mind for her predicament.

Somebody spoke loudly enough for her to actually hear words this time. “Over there.” She looked up to see a young officious looking woman pointing at her. Her pulse quickened when she saw Rickie’s yellow windbreaker. He smiled at her, as if he were an actual friend and knew that she didn’t deserve what was happening. She couldn’t help shaking her head, realizing that the reason he had come to pick her up was because her mother was too drunk. There were more things wrong here than she could count, but he was the best she could do. For right now, he was all she had.

The administrator followed behind him and knocked on the principal’s door. Rickie winked at her and stepped through, closing the door behind him. The administrator stood and looked down at Bess with a frown on her face.

Bess glared back and asked, “Seriously, what are you looking at?” The woman huffed and turned away.

Bess stood up as the principal’s door opened. She waited for the principal to come out, but only caught a glimpse of his balding head as he shuffled more papers on his desk. Rickie stepped out and closed the door. “Let’s go,” he said.

She studied him for a moment, wondering what was behind the smile that seemed pasted to his face. “Is that it?” she asked.

“That’s it. We can go.” He opened the door for her and waited for her to step into the main lobby.

Bess eyed the metal detectors, still flanked by the same guards from earlier that morning. The dogs were gone, but the table remained. It had only been a matter of hours, but watching students and faculty drift through the lobby, she felt as if it had been a lifetime ago. Rickie stepped briskly to the main doors and opened one for her. She slowly padded across the lobby, looking for a friendly or even familiar face. She stopped next to Rickie and took it all in one more time, wondering if she would be able to face it all again the next day.

***

Bess followed him across the parking lot to a sparkling silver-gray late model sedan. He thumbed a key fob and the car chirped with flashing lights and then the engine rumbled to life.

“Fancy,” she said.

“I do a lot of driving in my business,” he said.

They had never talked much and Bess realized that he really was a stranger about whom she knew very little. “What business is that?” she asked.

He opened the door and waited for her to get in before settling in behind the wheel. She closed her door. The vehicle smelled brand new and the quiet stifled her, as if she was inside a giant blanket. She eyed him as she buckled her seatbelt, waiting for his answer.

He still hadn’t answered when he started backing the car out of its parking space. “Well?” she asked.

“Oh,” he said, shifting again and easing the car across the parking lot. “I do deliveries.”

“Like delivering me to my mother because she’s too drunk to come get me herself.” She cringed as the words escaped her, but she couldn’t think of any reason to pretend to ignore the obvious any longer.

“Something like that,” he said, turning out of the parking lot. Bess looked around, realizing they were going the wrong direction to get home.

“Um, where are we going?” she asked, idly rubbing her damp palms on her denim skirt.

She felt the back of her seat press against her as he eased the accelerator down. The purring of the engine spooled up as he pulled onto a two-lane highway leading across the scrub desert, taking them out of town and further away from home. Bess hunkered down in her seat as the road came up at them faster and faster.

“OK Speed Racer, I’d like to live to see the end of this trip,” she said with a nervous chuckle. Rickie didn’t respond as he adjusted his hands on the wheel and pressed down the accelerator even further. She leaned over to see the speedometer passing 85. The rumble of the road was growing loud enough that she had to raise her voice when she spoke next.

“Where are we going Rickie?”

She had never heard him speak too seriously, but she felt the nerves in her face twinge when he spoke next. His voice was low and somber, as if a curtain had been pulled back and he could finally say what he was really thinking.

“Your mother doesn’t want you, Bess.”

She blinked at him, waiting for more. Another nervous chuckle rose up in her throat, but she kept it inside.

“That’s not what I asked you,” she said.

“You’re right. It isn’t.” He took a quick glance at her and continued. “I’m taking you some place where you’ll be taken care of while your mother sorts herself out.”

“Does she know about this?” Bess tugged at her seatbelt, making sure it was tight as the speedometer arced past 90.

“She knows I’m taking you somewhere, yes.”

Bess gritted her teeth as the speedometer swept past 95. She looked away, deciding she didn’t want to see how far it would finally go. Bess’s chest tightened. She looked nervously around the car as her mind reached into the universe and found the answer to a question she hadn’t even known to ask.  She felt the blood drain from her face as she remembered the hospital lobby and the one thing that could have saved her.  The man in the yellow windbreaker reading a magazine.  How did she forget about that?

She squeezed out her words in between tight breaths. “It was you.”

She stared at Rickie, waiting for him to deny it at first. When he didn’t say anything and all she heard was the purr of the motor rise to a strained roar, she then waited for him to admit it.

Rickie didn’t say a word.

Bess lost count of time. Hours passed by as the day turned to night, but it was all one long moment of waiting for him to stop or even slow down so she could rip open the door, tumble out of the car and run. But he never did.

The road rose up as a shimmering ribbon while the headlight beams stretched out in front of them just far enough to keep the car from catching up to them. She strained to keep her eyes open as the car sped along endlessly, as if it ran on air and could keep going down the highway forever. Hanging in the sky in front of them, she could see the summer triangle. She gazed at the constellations, thinking of when her father had first shown them to her when she was a little girl. She latched onto them, a reminder of a world where her father would never let men like Rickie Hewitt carry her off into the night. She couldn’t look at them anymore because they also reminded her that he was gone – because of her.

Metal signposts with thin white markers flew by in a blur every few miles, but she couldn’t read them. To keep her mind from running rampant with panic, she started counting them. When she had counted several dozen, something changed. The engine spooled down and Bess could make out a dirt road spilling out from the side of the highway. She caught a glimpse of the next signpost as it flashed by, finally able to read it as the car slowed down. Its thin white metal tab was marked with just the number 62.

She wrapped her hand around the seatbelt buckle, waiting for him to turn onto the road. Just as he started to brake, she heard the electronic clunk of the locks latching closed. She whipped her head around to look at Rickie, but he just kept staring through the windshield as he worked the wheel to turn onto the dirt road.

She grabbed his arm and before she knew what she was doing, heard herself scream, “Let me out of this car!” She pounded on his arm and the car fishtailed as he struggled to keep his hands on the wheel. Once he had regained control, he clutched Bess’s shirt and slammed her against the door, knocking the wind out of her. She gasped, struggling to suck in her breath.

“This is an easy way or hard way situation Bess. The easy way is you just sit quietly and quit trying to figure it all out.”

Bess drew a raspy breath and wheezed out her words. “And what’s the hard way?”

He shot her a glance and shook his head. “You don’t want to hear about the hard way.”

Bess slumped in her seat as she felt her eyes welling up. She looked up, trying to hold back the tears, fearing that any sign of weakness would only make things worse.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked.

Rickie let off the accelerator. Bess heard gravel crunching underneath the tires as he braked the car to a stop and killed the lights. When he pulled a semi-automatic pistol from underneath his windbreaker, Bess couldn’t hold back any longer and felt her chest heave as she started quietly sobbing.

“That’s one of those hard way questions, Bess.” He leaned back against his door and watched her cry. Bess felt his eyes burrowing into her. She took a deep breath and held it, forcing her sobs to subside. “That’s better,” he said. “Just take it easy and everything will be fine.”

She swiped the backs of her hands against her eyes, quickly and just once, to clear away the blur of tears she refused to let spill. She took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. She didn’t have any more answers, but she clung to the fact that he didn’t seem to want to actually kill her. For the moment, breathing was enough.

She stared through the windshield, just able to make out the edge of the dirt road. There was no moon and the fact that starlight was enough to illuminate the edges of the road told her they were truly in the middle of nowhere. She looked around, scanning the horizon and couldn’t find a single source of artificial light. Turning back to the front, she saw a flash in the distance, blinking in and out so fast she wasn’t certain she had actually seen it.

Rickie muttered under his breath, “About damn time.” He flicked the headlights on and then back off. Bess’s heartbeat surged when she saw the wisps of dust trailing behind a vehicle driving towards them. It veered across the road and she wondered if it was going to run into them. It wasn’t until it pulled up and stopped next to her door that she could see it was a black van.

She whipped her head around to look at Rickie as the van door slid open and two tan-skinned men hopped out. Rickie’s eyes were glass. They revealed nothing but a man who was never there in the first place. He was a phantom tucked away behind the impassive mask of a total stranger who held a gun pointed at her as he flicked a switch to unlock the door.

Their hands were on her shoulders before she could scream, dragging her out of the car and onto the road. Losing all control, she kicked against the ground and screamed as loud as she could. She beat her fists against the gruff hands holding her arms like a vice. She heard a spatter of Spanish and then the men laughed. White hot anger bloomed inside her chest and she twisted her head around, gnashing at one of the hands latched onto her arm. She strained her neck trying to sink her teeth into it, but couldn’t reach it. Instead, she bit at thin air, her teeth clicking against each other and simmering with a dull ache.

She felt her feet leave the ground as they threw her into the van. She grunted as the air left her lungs when her back hit the floor. She felt something bite her neck and then a warmth spread over her. Her arms went limp and she stopped kicking.

As the warmth turned into a glow that seemed to swallow her up, her anger bled away and all she had left was the curious thought that she should be frightened. The world settled over her like a blanket and she stopped caring about any of it. Then she didn’t even know where she was or what was happening, vaguely aware of a dull darkness that smoldered on the edge of consciousness.

Then the darkness took her completely and everything was gone.


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©2017 Michael J Lawrence