I leaned back, stared up into the soulless darkness gathered near the ceiling, and began. “They’re always the same. Ira is making love to me on the floor in the front room of Granny’s house. But there’s also another Ira in room. He…he has a knife, and he’s cutting on people. Sometimes it’s his father, or mine, or Bubba Higgins. Sometimes it’s even Granny. He’ll be stabbing that switchblade of his into them, over and over again. Each time that other Ira sticks the knife in, the one on top of me rams inside me. It hurts and…and…blood is gushing out of me down there. I’m lying in a pool of it. And the worst part…” I paused, took a swallow from the bottle. “…the very worst part, is that I’m enjoying it, clawing at him, begging for more, even though I know he’s killing me too.” A shudder racked my body.
Max’s fingers laced with those of my free hand. “It’s okay, baby. Go on.”
“The other Ira just keeps on slashing, the blood bubbling out like a spring from whatever body he’s cutting on, and it rises in the room in a red flood. I can’t move because he’s on top of me, and blood closes over my face and fills my mouth. I can’t breathe. I’m choking on everyone’s blood.” I tipped the bottle up again. “That’s when I wake up.”
For a time, neither of us spoke, the only noise being the slosh of whiskey each time I raised the bottle to my lips.
Finally, Max spoke. “Who’s Ira? An old boyfriend?”
The whiskey dulled the pain and loosened my tongue. “My brother.”
“Brother? You never told me you had a brother.”
“There’s lots of things I never told you. Lots and lots of things. Bad things.”
“Oh, nothing much.” I giggled, ending with a hiccup. “Things like incest and murder, that’s all.”
He took the bottle from my hand. “I think you’ve had enough for one night.”
“Never enough.” I slid down until I was lying on my back, crossed my arms behind my head, and stared at the ceiling.
My mind drifted.
Instead of a bedroom papered in yellow roses, I saw a dark-haired boy and a smaller, blonde girl lying on the bank of Eddy Creek, arms and legs twined together, planning a future they never had.
“Never enough.” A single tear tracked down my cheek.
Max stretched out beside me. “Tell me about him.”
“It only gets worse,” I said. “You sure you want to hear it?”
“I’m sure. I love you, baby and nothing will ever change that.”
I grabbed his hand and closed my eyes. And I told him the unvarnished truth from beginning to end.
At first, the words came out haltingly, then gradually sped up until they were spilling out of me like a summer downpour. I told him of my lonely childhood spent caring for Mama. Then her suicide, and all that happened when I moved to Pineville, even Daddy’s attempted rape. I told him about Ira. Everything. Every single, sordid, horrible detail.
“You’ve never told anyone?” Max asked. “You’ve kept all of this inside you for fifteen years?”
“Yes.” I glanced at the nightstand, looking for my bottle of forgetfulness.
“Why? Were you ashamed because you were in love with your brother and had sex with him? Baby, you didn’t know until it was too late.”
“That was only part of the reason. The murders…” Where was that damn bottle?
“Were you afraid of what Ira might do to you if you said anything?”
“Oh no. He’d never hurt me.”
I spied the fifth of whiskey on Max’s nightstand. “Give me that.”
“Give you what, Chloe?”
I held out my hand. “The whiskey—I need it to talk.”
He frowned, started to say something, then shook his head. He passed me the bottle.
My hand shaking, I brought it to my mouth, guzzling it like water until it was empty. “If I had told when Ira killed Bubba Higgins, the rest would never have happened. I’m to blame for all of it, even Bubba. He killed all of them because of me.”
“You didn’t murder those people, Ira did.”
“But I should have told.”
“You were only a kid, and kids don’t make rational decisions. And because of your early life, you were vulnerable, starved for love. He used that to—”
“No Max, he didn’t use me. He loved me too.” I remembred Ira’s burning eyes, the hypnotic effect they’d had on me. “If only we had known…” And the insanity shimmering in their murky depths. “He’s coming back for me.”
“That’s what he told me before he took me inside the hospital,” I said. “That he’d be back for me.”
“But you’ve had no contact with him since that night,” Max said. “For all you know, he could be dead.”
“No, he’s not dead. If he were, I’d know it. He’ll find me; it’s only a matter of when.”
“It’s been fifteen years, Chloe.” Max took the empty bottle from my hand and dropped it to the floor on his side of the bed. He eased me onto my side facing him. “If he’s still alive, he’s long since forgotten what he said.”
“No, he hasn’t,” I said. “Ira was many things, but not a liar. He didn’t make promises he didn’t keep.”
Max pulled me close, rested his chin on top of my head. “He sounds like a classic sociopath. If he’s not in prison or a mental institution, most likely he’s dead. But if he has somehow managed to elude the law, that tells me he’s intelligent enough not to put himself at risk by contacting you.”
How could I get him to understand? “He’s not dead, and he won’t rest until he finds me—or I come back to him.”
“He isn’t hunting for you, waiting for you, or anything else. Let it go. Leave him in the past where he belongs. You’ve wasted enough of your life on him as it is.”
Try as I might, I couldn’t convince myself that what Max said was true. The nightmares continued, and no amount of reassurance on his part swayed me from my deep-seated belief that Ira was still out there somewhere. I knew it was only a matter of time until our lives intersected again.
I drank more and slept less, and what little sleep I did get, Ira was there, waiting in blood-soaked dreams. Feeling as if I were balanced on the edge of a precipice, I took a leave from my job. My life had spiraled out of control.
Why couldn’t I get him out of my head?
“That’s it, we’re going back,” Max said one night after coming home from work and finding me lying on the bathroom floor in a drunken stupor, smeared with my own vomit. “I’m going to prove to you, once and for all, that he’s not there.”
“No…don’t want to…”
He stripped off my soiled gown, and holding me upright, stepped into the shower, turned on the water, and washed me. Afterward, while I slumped on the toilet wrapped in a towel, he removed his wet clothes, then carried me through the spinning house to the bed.
We had quite a few heated arguments after that, Max coaxing me to return to Pineville with him, saying it was the only way to purge Ira from my system. I kept refusing, but he was persistent, and eventually, tired of arguing, I gave in.
Giving me no time to back out, Max packed two small suitcases, loaded them and me into his car, and headed north.
“How much farther to the house, Chloe?”
Max’s voice brought me back to the present. I took one last look out over Eddy Creek, the rocky shallows, whispering canes and dense woods crowding its banks, then got in the car.
“We’re almost there,” I said. “Take the left fork on the other side of the bridge.”
Max put the car in gear and eased on across. The road worsened, becoming little more than two rutted, parallel tracks dividing an ocean of green.
“Damn!” Max swore when the car’s underside scraped a rock. “How much farther?”
“Almost there…” My eyes continuously scanned the thick woods, searching for a glint of mad dark eyes.
We rounded the final bend and the sight that greeted my eyes was not what I had expected. Instead of an old farmhouse falling into ruin, I saw nothing other than a pile of rocks where the fireplace had stood.
Granny’s home—and mine for a time—gone.
“We’re here,” I said
“Where’s the house?” Max asked, bringing the car to a halt.
I opened the passenger door, stepped out, and rounded the back of the car. Scanning the hillside, I spied stone steps peeking out of the overgrown grass and weeds.
A car door opened and shut. “Where’s the house?” Max asked again.
“I don’t know. It was…” I motioned toward the hilltop. “Up there.”
“Let’s take a look around.” He laced his finger’s with mine, and together we mounted the steps.
At the top, we stepped over the remains of the yard gate, which was still attached to a collapsed, web-wire fence, and paused to catch our breath in the welcome shade of the huge oak. I pointed out the stone walk marching through the high grass. “That led to the front porch.”
I moved from deep shade into blistering sun. Following the path, I spotted Granny’s flower beds, their borders marked by flat rocks. Only a few hardy perennials remained among the carpet of weeds and crabgrass. I could almost see her down on her knees beside the bright colors which had once flourished there, inhaling their sweet fragrance. Tears welled in my eyes. “She loved the hyacinths best.”
“What?” Max asked.
I hadn’t realized I had spoken aloud. “Nothing.”
The path ended at a stack of cinderblocks that had served as steps to the high porch. Now there was neither porch nor house. All that remained was a few charred timbers, the collapsed fireplace, and foundation stones. The house had been destroyed by fire, and judging from the size of the saplings and the tangle of briars and vines growing in the area where the house had once stood, it had occurred many years ago.
I sat on the steps, emptied the bits of grass and twigs from my red flats, then slipped them back on. The damp heat was suffocating. I shrugged out of the white linen blazer I had worn over a red sleeveless top. Feeling ten degrees cooler, I sighed. “Think I may be overdressed.”
Max was clothed more casually, wearing a light blue polo shirt, jeans, and white sneakers. “Yeah, a little.” He grinned, watching as I used the jacket to blot perspiration from my flushed face.
I stood and tossed my jacket on the steps, then waded out through the tall grass. “The garden was over there and—”
In the woods beyond the old garden spot, something rattled the underbrush. My heart slammed against my ribs. I clutched Max’s arm.
Both of us stood stock still, eyes glued to the rustling brush.
I held my breath. Ira…
A familiar form burst from the trees, streaked across the area where the garden had been, and disappeared back into the woods on the other side.
A deer. It was only a deer.
A smaller one emerged from the woods, following in the path of the first. Its white tail raised like a flag, the spotted fawn raced across the clearing to join its mother.
I leaned against Max, limp with relief. He put his arm around my shoulder, giving me a brief hug.
“Well, that gave me quite a start,” he said. “Why don’t we call it a day, go back to town and find something to eat and a place to spend the night. We can drop back by first thing in the morning when it’s a little cooler then head home.”
I nodded my head. “Okay.”
We retraced our steps to the car. Max pulled the Corvette into the old driveway that had run behind the house, backed out, and started down the road toward Pineville. I opened the glove compartment and rummaged around inside, hunting for tissues to wipe the beads of sweat from my face and throat.
“Be careful, Chloe, there’s a—”
“What’s this?” I extracted my find from the glove box: a handgun of some sort. I waved it in front of Max’s face. “What are you doing with a gun? Do you think we may need it?”
He stopped the car and took the pistol from my hand. “I always keep one in here.” He stared at it for a moment, then looked at me. “You ever used a gun?”
“Let me show you…”
“There’s no need for me to know. I—”
“Humor me, Chloe. Okay?”
“All right,” I said. “If that’s what you want, show me.”
In the space between our bodies, Max held the gun in his right hand. He thumbed a button on its side near the top, dropping a rectangular object from the grip into his left hand. “This is the magazine. It holds thirteen bullets.” He slapped it back inside. “This is the slide.” He curled his fingers over the top of the gun. “You pull it all the way back—gotta do it quick—and let go to jack in the first shell.” He pointed to a small disk to the rear of the trigger. “This is the safety; set it like so…” He demonstrated. “…and it’s ready to go. There’s not much to it. Just be sure you don’t point it at anything you don’t intend to shoot. Here, you try it.”
I took the gun and tugged on the clip. Max grasped my hands and turned them, directing the barrel away. “Like I said, be careful where you point it. At this range, you could blow a hole in me big enough to see through.” He released my hands. “Go ahead.”
Barrel pointed toward the windshield, I removed the clip, then shoved it back in. I pointed to the slide. “You pull this thing back to put the first bullet in.” I showed him my knowledge of the safety, saying “on” then “off” at the designated settings.
Max took the pistol from my hand. “When we get settled in for the night, I’ll show you how to clear it, and let you practice a little.”
I didn’t see the need for me to practice but kept it to myself. “Whatever you’d like.”
Since there were no motels or restaurants in Pineville, we drove on down the highway to Madison, checked into a motel, then went out for a late dinner.
Back in our room, Max toed off his shoes and plopped down on the bed with the TV remote, and while he flipped through channels, I showered.
My head felt as if it could explode, pain pulsing with every heartbeat.The hot water felt heavenly, and as the biting spray washed away the day’s sweat from my body, it took with it the tension that knifed between my shoulder blades and slit up my neck into the back of my skull.
But in its place, memories of Ira uncoiled in my brain, the good ones where we lay beneath the summer moon on the grassy bank of Eddy Creek, a tangle of arms and legs. Before we knew the truth. Before I knew his mind was a dark and evil land.
A land I had walked in beside him.
I placed my hands on the shower wall and dropped my head, needles of water stinging my scalp. Rivulets of silent tears spilled down my cheeks.
Why? Why had God allowed it to happen? Why had He put Ira and me together, knowing all the heartache and destruction it would cause? I had asked Him countless times but had received no answer. And now I wondered…
Had I been talking to an empty wind?
I’ll be back, little girl…
Hands cupped my breasts. A hard body pressed against my back.
“Ira…” I whispered, water and salty tears running over my lips.
His hands spanned my waist, bent me over, and he entered me from behind. My teeth clenched, holding in a scream of pleasure/pain. I arched my hips back to meet his. Again. And again. Then fingers slid around my body and plunged between my legs. And I climaxed, the pent-up scream turning into a howl as it ripped out of my throat into the world.
To be continued…