Ira kept me close the remainder of the day. He made love to me twice more, being more gentle than he had been the first time, but still with a touch of desperation.
Watching my every movement, he permitted me to check on Max periodically throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Max remained unconscious, though when I gave him a quick examination he appeared to have no life-threatening injuries.
I wanted to untie him, but Ira wouldn’t allow it. The best I could do was slip a folded, moth-eaten blanket under his head for a pillow. Tears stung my eyes at the sight of his bruised and battered body. You don’t deserve any of this. I’m so sorry I got you into this nightmare.
Sorry didn’t quite cut it. Though Max hadn’t, I had known better than to come back here.
As for Ira, I both loved and feared him. There wasn’t a spark of goodness left in his soul—unless one counted his love for me, a love that walked hand in hand with obsession. He was a sociopath, a monster, and was a danger not only to Max and me but to anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. He had to be stopped.
Yet knowing what he was failed to destroy my love for him. He still took me to heart-stopping heights no man but him ever had. In each other’s arms, I wasn’t an insecure little girl and he an irrational killer; I wasn’t Mama’s light side and he her dark. Together we were better, we were a whole—though a fatally flawed one.
But I knew even if Ira didn’t that it was too late to go back. It could never be the way it had been before we had learned the truth. To be honest, when he murdered Bubba Higgins it had become too late; I just hadn’t realized it at the time.
What little conscience Ira possessed in years past had now completely deserted him. Other people’s lives were of no consequence. He had lived his life doing as he pleased and taking what he wanted, caring for nothing or no one. But me.
I couldn’t exist that way. My guilt and shame were almost intolerable now. My soul could carry no more sins.
But in his arms, I felt no shame, no guilt. In his arms, I was once again losing my heart, my sanity, to a madman.
I had to find a way to save Max. I had to get away from Ira to save myself. How was I going to accomplish both?
A loud crack of thunder woke me.
After the last time we had made love in the sheltered cocoon of crushed Johnson grass, exhausted, I had dozed off pinned beneath Ira’s thigh. Now, I was alone.
A dark wall of churning clouds rolled across the sky; high winds flattened the grass. Large trees swayed and saplings bowed over, brushing their tops to the ground. A deafening boom reverberated and the heavens opened up in a deluge.
I grabbed my clothes from the ground, stepped into my shorts, and pulled the blazer on, buttoning it as I ran for the protection of the house.
Ira stood at the bottom of the steps, arms akimbo, face turned up to the pelting rain. I ran past him and up onto the porch. He gave no sign that he had seen me, and fascinated, I watched as he stood mesmerized by the thunderstorm.
The almost continuous flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder failed to intimidate him. His long, wet hair whipped in the wind; water coursed down his face and body.
I retreated into the house.
Revealed intermittently by spikes of lightning, the trash-littered, moldy interior lay enshrouded in twilight. Soon it would be dark. Night came early from a storm-darkened sky.
A brilliant flash filled the house, spilled into the kitchen and reflected off something shiny. Accompanied by thunder’s reverberation, I crossed the floor for a closer look.
A large motorcycle crouched in the center of the floor like some metallic beast from hell. Ira’s, no doubt.
“Chloe…” Max called weakly.
I turned from the kitchen doorway and went to him, going down on my knees. “I’m here, Max.” I caressed his bruised face.
“Untie me…help you…”
“No, he’ll kill you if I do.”
“No Max. I’ll think of something.”
“The gun…go get the gun.”
“I can’t leave you. He’ll kill you.”
“Got to, Chloe…going to kill me anyway…maybe you too. The gun…”
“What’re you doing in here?” Ira towered over us, water dripping from his half-naked body. “What’d that motherfucker tell you?” He jerked me up by my arm, his mad eyes glittering with rage.
I shook my head, speechless with fear. He snarled and slung me away. I hit the wall hard, slid down, and came to rest with my back against it, leggs sprawled.
“You sonofabitch!” Ira kicked Max in the ribs.
I crawled across the dirty floor and threw myself over Max’s prostrate body, absorbing a few of Ira’s vicious punts before he realized I was there. I felt his hands on my shoulders, pulling me up as I tried unsuccessfully to hold on to Max.
“Oh God, Chloe, are you all right?” He enfolded me in his arms. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Let me go!” I sobbed, pushing against his chest.
“Please, I said I’m sorry.”
“Damn you, let me go!” I didn’t want his comfort or his touch, not after his treatment of Max. I think I could have killed him in that instant if I’d had a—
Ira spread his arms, releasing me. I turned and fled, out of the house, across the porch, and into the coming night.
“Chloe! Come back!”
On reaching the road, I risked a glance behind me. Ira vaulted off the porch and loped after me. I ran faster, trying to ignore the sharp pains stinging my bare feet and the stitch that was beginning to cramp my side.
The summer squall had faded away to the north, but another was fast approaching on its heels. The wind rose, rattling the tree leaves, and the pattering drops of rain started falling harder. Daylight was all but gone. If not for the frequent strikes of lightning, the old road would have been almost impossible to see.
Something caught my foot. I fell, sprawling on my stomach, knocking the breath from my lungs.
“Goddamn it, Chloe, come back!”
I clawed at the twisting vine trapping my foot. Tearing it loose, I scrambled up and raced on down the road.
The rain fell in torrents; the lightning cracked louder and more frequent. A dazzling flash illuminated the downed maple. I clambered over it, the spiky twigs poking and scratching my skin. Another glaring bolt lit up the heavens, revealing Max’s black Corvette parked where we had left it this morning.
This morning…that was all? It seemed a lifetime ago.
I jerked open the passenger door, leaned in, and pulled open the glove box. With shaking, hands I pawed through the contents, knocking most onto the floorboard. My fingers touched the cold steel of the pistol.
“Chloe!” Almost here.
Where was the clip? I felt through the glove compartment. It wasn’t there! Dropping down, I groped around on the floor. My fingers closed over the metal clip. I shoved it in the gun, released the safety, jumped up and whirled around.
Revealed by sporadic streaks of lightning, Ira stood the length of the car hood from me, water running in rivulets down his body. I jerked back the slide and pointed the gun at him. “D—don’t come any closer, or I’ll shoot!”
He took a step toward me. “You won’t shoot me.”
“Yes, I will!”
“What do you want, Chloe?”
“I want you to let Max and me go. I’m going back to the house and get him, and we’re going to leave.”
He took a step closer. “No, you’re not.”
“Yes, we are! You stop right there, or I swear to God I’ll shoot you!” The gun shook in my hand.
“Then do it.” He ambled slowly toward me.
My finger found the trigger.
The gun grew heavier. “Don’t…please…” My aim wavered.
He reached out, took the pistol from my nerveless fingers, and tucked it in the back waistband of his jeans.
I put my face in my hands and sobbed. I had failed Max and myself.
Ira swept me up in his arms and cradled me like a child. “Shh, little girl, he crooned. “It’s okay, don’t cry.”
He stepped across the fallen tree and started up the road, back toward the house—my prison. While walking, he made low, soothing sounds as if he were comforting a baby, occasionally dropping a light kiss on my face or hair.
The rain slacked off, now falling in a soft drizzle. But in the distance, faint sounds of thunder rumbled again. Yet another squall was building to the south.
I became aware of the strong, steady beat of Ira’s heart. The sound soothed my spirit. The memory of the night we met, when he had carried me up the steep creek bank, worked its way into my mind. I remembered how safe I had felt in his powerful arms, how at peace.
My hands came up and locked behind his neck. Feeling like one condemned, I turned my head and pressed my lips to his wet skin. “Oh, Ira…”
His arms tightened, pulling me closer. He carried me inside the house.
“Max…” My hand reached out toward the pitch black corner where I knew he lay.
“Forget him,” Ira growled. He kicked the door of what once was his bedroom shut behind us. “It’s just you and me, little girl, the way it was meant to be.”
His saturated hair brushed my face as his mouth trapped mine in a searing kiss. Whimpering in the back of my throat, I clutched at his shoulders, my head bent back from his onslaught. After a time of frenzied wet tasting, Ira broke contact and set me on my feet.
In the unlit room, I saw him as only a dark silhouette on a slightly lighter background. I pressed up against him, wrapping my arms around his middle, and laying my head on his chest. He stroked my sodden, tangled hair. I caressed the broad expanse of his back, loving the hard feel of him. Circling lower, my hand hit the gun tucked in the top of his jeans, knocking it to the floor.
“Shit,” Ira muttered. Using a boot, he sent it spinning away.
One of my hands slid leisurely around his side, down his stomach, and over the bulge in his jeans. My fingers curled around his hardness.
“Love me, Chloe…” Hands on my shoulders, he exerted a gentle pressure downward, showing me what he wanted. I kneeled on the floor before him and with trembling hands released the buttons of his fly, freeing him for my worship. “God yes…” he groaned.
Announcing its coming with faint flickers of light and low rumbles of thunder, the storm steadily approached.
Ira pulled me to my feet. “Take off your clothes.”
I removed my soggy jacket and shorts while he kicked off his boots and peeled his wet jeans over his hips. The intensifying lightning flashes revealed his naked body. God, he was a beautiful man! My love and desire for him overwhelmed me, possessed me. This insane monster owned my soul.
He pulled me down to the floor, onto a musty decomposing mattress, and covered me. His hot mouth slanted across mine while his hands explored my body. His lips descended, raining scalding kisses over my breasts, ribs, stomach, down until he reached the nest of hair between my legs. I felt his warm breath on me as he spoke. “I’ve never tasted you, Chloe,” he murmured. “I want the smell of you on my tongue.”
At the touch of his mouth, I buckled beneath him and cried out. My hands tangled in his wet hair, holding him to me.
The storm outside flashed, boomed, and banged, rising in crescendo, matching the wild excitement racing through my veins.
And he took me over the edge.
Throughout the seemingly endless night, Ira made love to me repeatedly. And even though I soon became exhausted and sore, I welcomed him every time, wanting him as much as he wanted me. He was tireless, needing little time to recover before voraciously attacking me again, his hands and lips caressing me everywhere, urging me to do the same to him. It was as though he was attempting to cram a lifetime of loving me into a single night.
Finally, as the first pale hint of dawn touched the sky, we fell asleep, twined in each other’s arms.
I came awake by degrees, my conscious first stirring at the sound of a bird’s song. Then I became aware of warm, sweaty skin sticking to mine. My eyes opened to the sight of Ira’s broad chest. I was nestled in the crook of his arm, his shoulder my pillow, one of my legs draped over his.
His deep, even breathing told me he still slept. I eased away and sat up, my movement scaring the red-breasted robin from its perch on the windowsill.
The storms had departed with the night. Bright sunshine spilled in the broken window; dust motes danced in the beams.
My gaze swept the squalid room that had borne silent witness to my sins committed both last night and fifteen years ago, to Ira’s and my incestuous love. Discarded cans, cigarette butts, empty shotgun casings, old newspapers, and our soggy clothing littered the floor, along with the filthy, disintegrating mattress on which Ira lay and I sat. Ancient faded wallpaper peeled from the crumbling walls. From the water spotted ceiling, an empty light socket dangled on a frayed cord.
An appropriate setting one would think. This room is as loathsome as I am.
There’s an old saying, something like, if you wallow with pigs, you’re bound to come up dirty. I felt as if there wasn’t a speck of clean left on my soul.
I stared at Ira, my brother, my lover, my possessor.
Naked, he lays sprawled on his back, his long dark hair fanned out around his head. In sleep, his face appeared peaceful, the cruel, hard features relaxed. With his eyes closed, he looked like the tormented boy I had fallen in love with so many, many years ago.
Something glinted beyond him, on the floor, on the far side of the mattress. I rose on my knees for a closer look. It was the gun.
I glanced at Ira’s still form, then back at the gun.
Slowly, carefully, I eased off the mattress and crawled around to the other side, frequently peeking Ira’s way to make sure he didn’t wake. I picked up the pistol and turned back. He slept on, unaware of my inner turmoil.
Could I do it? Did I have the courage to release us both from this hellish love? I knew I would never be free as long as he lived, and he would never be free—under any circumstances—of his murderous insanity. Mama’s legacy. Only his death would put it all to rest.
I sat on the mattress close to his head. I softly stroked his bristled cheek with a trembling hand. He stirred but didn’t wake
“Chloe…” I heard the faint moan of my name beyond the door. Max. Sweet, gentle Max.
But first things first. It was long past time for me to take care of my brother.
I clicked off the safety and put the barrel against his temple. Tears poured from my eyes, ran down my cheeks, but I refused to give in to them as I had so many times before in my life.
I leaned over and brushed his lips with mine. As I straightened up, his eyes fluttered open. His love for me shown like a beacon in their haunting depths.
He smiled up at me. “Good morning, little girl.”
“I love you, Ira,” I said, trying to communicate all that I felt for him in those four words.
“What?” His eyes shifted over to the gun, then back to my face. “Chloe?”
I screamed and pulled the trigger.
And screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
It has been almost six years since Ira’s death. He still continues to visit me in dreams—sometimes in nightmares—but more often in bittersweet images of what could have been…if only…
But the world is full of “if onlys”, mine merely one more drop in mankind’s enormous bucket.
And I think of the gun in the bedroom closet.
So I swallow a couple of pills and have a few drinks, and things are better.
For a while.
Max has been my tower of strength. I don’t think I could have survived without him. We married shortly after Ira’s death—murder?—and he has taken care of me since. I know he once loved me, but I think guilt is the major reason he stays with me now.
He blames himself for all that happened because he was the one who insisted we return to Pineville. I tell him that Ira would have found me sooner or later anyway, it was just a question of when, but my words don’t lessen his feelings of guilt.
And then there’s his son. No, not Max’s. Ira’s son. Our son.
Already big for his age, with dark hair and flashing eyes, he is a miniature version of his father. And in his raging temper tantrums and sullen silences, I see his father—and his grandmother as well.
But the eyes…
I have heard it said they are the mirrors of the soul. Our son’s eyes are flat and expressionless. Snake eyes. Ira lives in those eyes.
Was this son a replacement for the child Daddy had beat out of me so many years ago? Was he meant to be? If so, he’s not a gift from heaven, but a curse from the darkest pits of hell.
So when torment’s teeth gnaw especially bad, I take a couple of pills and have a few drinks, then things are better.
For a while.
But increasingly of late, my mind keeps returning to the gun in the bedroom closet. I think about taking our son and the pistol into my bed.