“Oh?” she asked, eyes wary.
“He’s not just a friend. I’m in love with him.”
“You can’t be in love with him, he’s your brother, much as it galls me t’say it.”
“I didn’t know that before, and now it’s too late.”
“What do you mean, it’s too late? Now that you know he’s your blood—”
I grabbed her hands, stilling their nervous fluttering. “Granny, I’m going to have his baby.” There wasn’t a kinder way to say it.
She folded in on herself. “And the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children…” She began to weep, her narrow shoulders shook. “Dear Lord, call back your vengeance…not little Chloe…no…”
Another stab of guilt pierced my heart. “Please, Granny, I need your help.”
“Help…yes…” She swiped her face, took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders. “You can’t have that chile, Chloe. There’s no tellin’ what might be wrong with it. I’ll talk to Doc Miller—”
“Are you talking about abortion?” My arms curled around my belly. “I hadn’t even considered that. Ira wants us to go away and get married. He—”
Granny lurched to her feet. “You can’t marry your brother. That’d be an abomination in the sight of the Lord.”
I rose also. “I know in my head I shouldn’t love him, but I do. If I had known before…”
“Chloe, you can’t.”
“I know it’s not right, but I don’t know what to do.”
She wrapped her thin arms around me. “It’ll be all right, gal. We’ll figure something out.”
“I love him, Granny. I don’t want to kill his baby.”
She patted my back. “I know.”
Light washed in the kitchen windows. Gravel crunched under tires.
Daddy had arrived.
Frozen in place, Granny and I clutched each other. When the backdoor screen slammed shut, we came apart and faced the doorway he would come through.
Seconds later, he strode into the front room, looking older and thinner than the last time I had seen him. “What’s going on?” he asked Granny “First you run my ass off, then the next thing I know, you’re calling in the middle of the night saying Chloe’s missing and to come back. She don’t look like she’s missing to me.”
Granny took a step toward him “It’s all your fault. If you hadn’t married that wicked woman, none a’this would’a happened.”
“What in hell are you talking about, Ma?”
“That half-breed, that devil’s spawn, that’s what. I told you that you’d better tell the gal about him, but you didn’t listen. Now look what’s happened.”
I laid my hand on her shoulder. “Don’t tell him, Granny.”
Daddy’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me what?”
Granny shrugged off my hand. “Chloe thinks she’s in love with Melanie’s boy, and that ain’t the worst of it.” Her voice rose. “And you’re to blame, you and that witch you married! If you’d just told her, she wouldn’t be—”
“Pregnant by her own brother!”
For a few ticks of the clock, silence reigned. Then Daddy’s cold blue eyes turned to me. “You’re pregnant—by Ira Jamison?”
My throat constricted with fear, I nodded.
He grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “You little slut, what in the hell you been doing, spreading your legs for anything with a dick like your mama did?” I tried to break free, but his fingers dug into my flesh like talons, holding me in place. “Answer me, goddamn you!” He shook me harder, snapping my head back and forth.
Granny attempted to come between us. “She ain’t like that, David. Don’t hurt her.”
He pushed her away, then backhanded me across the face. And before my mind had a chance to register the blow, he hit me again, this time with his fist. Pain erupted in my face, accompanied by a sickening crunch. He let go of my arm, and I crumpled to the floor, holding my nose, blood pouring between my fingers.
“Stop it, David! Quit hurtin’ her!”
“Goddamn it, Ma, stay out of this!”
I looked up through pain-dazed eyes and saw Daddy shove Granny again. She tripped over one of the rockers, and crashed to the floor, her head hitting the stone hearth. She didn’t move.
Daddy looked down at me, his eyes glittering with anger and hatred. “You goddamn whore. I should’ve known better than to think you was any different from her.”
I clambered backward across the floor.
“All sweetness and innocence on the outside, nothing but a fucking tramp inside.”
I saw it coming. “Daddy, don’t.”
He drew back his foot and kicked me in the stomach, the sharp toe of his cowboy boot sinking in, driving the air out of my lungs. I keeled over on my side, drawing up my knees and covering my belly with my hands, trying to protect the baby. He kicked again, the impact snapping several of my fingers. I howled. He kicked again. And again.
Pain ripped through my abdomen, then a moment later I felt the warm stickiness of blood gush from between my thighs. Trying to escape, I rolled over on my stomach. But the blows continued to fall, on my sides, my head, all over my body. Just when I was on the verge of losing consciousness, the beating stopped.
Floating in a gray fog of agony, I heard voices. Using what little strength remained in my battered body, I turned my head in their direction.
Ira had Daddy by the throat.
Light gleamed off a blade, then sank into Daddy’s stomach and slashed upward, gutting him like a fish. He looked down, the ropes of his intestines spilling out into his hands, then toppled face down on the floor beside me.
Ira dropped on Daddy, turned him on his back, then sank the knife over and over into his chest. Daddy’s head lolled over, facing me. I watched as the life faded from his eyes, wondering why I didn’t care.
In a frenzy, Ira continued to gouge his knife into Daddy’s lifeless body. The blood, the sounds, the smells, all combined to bring on a rolling wave of nausea. I forced my bruised and broken body onto hands and knees, and heaved.
Warm arms wrapped around my chest, held me, prevented me from collapsing in my own vomit. And when my stomach was empty, those same arms lifted me, causing me to cry out in pain, and cradled me against a warm body.
“Shh, little girl, he won’t hurt you anymore.”
I opened my eyes—as much as I was able–seeing Ira’s face through misty slits. “You killed my daddy.” My words came out muffled like I had a cold and my nose was stopped up. “You’re a monster.”
I didn’t know if he hadn’t understood what I’d said, or had chosen to ignore it. He had no comment concerning my accusations as he gently placed me on the couch. “The sonofabitch messed you up pretty bad, Chloe. I think…the baby…”
I remembered the pain, the hurtful, wet flow. “I know, I lost it.” And I remembered lifeless, blue eyes. “Oh God, Ira, you killed Daddy.”
“What do you think he was trying to do to you?”
I didn’t know if Daddy intent had been to kill me, but if Ira hadn’t intervened…
“I’d better get you to the hospital, Chloe. You’re bleeding something awful.”
Dark gray clouded my vision, my thoughts. I felt as if I were sinking into a gloomy sea. One thought raised a hand above the surface. “Granny…fell…her head…” I swallowed, tasting blood. “See…she…okay…”
Ira left my darkening field of vision and returned a moment later. “She’s dead, Chloe.” He smoothed back my hair, kissed my wet cheek. “I’m sorry.”
His words were little comfort. A million I’m sorrys wouldn’t bring her back, the one person on this earth who had loved me unselfishly. She was gone because she had tried to protect me, a girl who wasn’t her flesh-and-blood granddaughter.
“This is gonna hurt like hell,” Ira said. “But I’ve gotta get you to a doctor.”
As he picked me up, I wailed in distress. And grief. And for every mistake I had made that now could never be fixed.
He carried me outside, and as gently as possible, lay me on the front seat of Daddy’s car, then circled around and got behind the steering wheel. The engine roared to life. With my head resting on his thigh, he steered the car along the rutted road, each bump sending shock waves through my body.
Mercifully, I passed out.
I regained consciousness as Ira was lifting me from the car.
“We’re here, Chloe. Are you still with me?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh.” Through a red haze, I saw the hospital’s bright lights ahead. “Wait.”
Though my voice was weak, he heard and stopped. “What is it?”
It was hard to keep a coherent thought in my head, or even speak, but I had to tell him, make him understand. “After…after you take me inside, I want you to go. They’ll know.”
“No, I ain’t going without you. I’ll wait—”
“You…can’t.” I coughed, tasted fresh blood. “Got to go…tonight. When Mrs. Higgins comes…morning…finds Daddy and Granny.”
“I’ll take care of them like I did Pa.”
I fought back the blackness closing in. “No…too many. Can’t cover it…all up…got to go.”
His voice an anguished whisper, he said, “I can’t leave you.”
“Haven’t got…choice” A dark veil obscured his face. “For me…please…go.”
“All right, but I’ll come back for you. I promise.”
He pressed a feather-light kiss to my swollen lips. “I love you.” The world turned completely black, but before my mind spiraled down into the darkness, I heard: “I’ll be back, little girl.”
That was the last time I saw Ira.
When I regained consciousness three days later, Luther Thomas, the proverbial big-bellied, cigar-smoking, county sheriff, had everything tied up in a neat little package, the only loose end being me.
He knew from the hospital staff that Ira had brought me in, beaten and unconscious. No mention was made of my miscarriage, so I figured it had been overlooked since it had happened so early in my pregnancy. When questioned, I pretended I had no memory of what had transpired that night, letting the sheriff draw his own conclusions. And his conclusion was that Ira or his father—or possibly both—had beaten me and killed Granny and Daddy. But he didn’t understand why I had escaped with my life, and that Ira had gone so far as to bring me to the hospital.
And while the manhunt went on for Ira and Mr. Jamison, I continued to feign amnesia.
The two were nowhere to be found. Ira must have covered up the blood trail and hidden his father’s body well, and was now far, far away.
By the time I had recovered from the removal of my ruptured spleen, a concussion, broken ribs, fingers, and nose, the sheriff’s department had located a relative who agreed to take me in. So I was put on a bus to Brownsville, Texas.
Alice Burroughs, Mama’s elderly second cousin, was in her mid-seventies, had never had children, and like me, thought she had no living relatives. She took me under her ample wing, and like a hen with only one chick, lavished me with love and attention. Her patience and caring brought me out of my shell, and soon I was behaving like any normal sixteen-year-old-girl.
I hid it well, even from Aunt Alice—what she had asked me to call her—but thoughts of Ira and all that had happened continued to haunt me. But, as the years passed by, he plagued my mind less often. At least when I was awake.
The nights were a different matter; then, his visits were more frequent and frightening, particularly during the long, hot summers. The sultry breeze blowing up out of the Gulf across Texas carried with it dreams of Ira.
I never told Aunt Alice about him. As far as she knew, my memory of the night Granny and Daddy had been killed remained locked away in my mind, inaccessible.
She paid my way through college, and when I majored in the field of social services, her former career, she was as proud of me as if I were her own daughter. I was grateful that she lived long enough to see me graduate and begin work for the state of Texas in the child services department. She died peacefully in her sleep less than a year after I started working, leaving me everything she owned, which proved to be a small fortune.
The next several years, I immersed myself in work, gaining satisfaction helping the lost and forgotten children of uncaring parents, doing for others what had not been done for me.
I dated quite a few men and even went to bed with some. But I always ran scared when the relationship started to turn serious. I didn’t have anything to offer a man. After Ira, I wanted nothing to do with love.
Then I met Max Taylor.
I had been assigned to the case of an eleven-year-old girl who had been sexually molested by her stepfather, and it was my job to place her with a good psychiatrist. That’s when Max appeared in the picture. Though I had never met him, he had worked for Texas Social Services on previous occasions and was highly regarded.
When I approached him at the hospital where he was on staff, concerning the girl’s case, he listened attentively, then made his own proposal. “I’d be happy to help her, Ms. Walker,” he said, then softened his next words with an engaging smile. “On one condition.”
“And what might that be?” I asked, an answering smile flitting about the corners of my lips.
“I’d like to take you out to dinner tonight, if it isn’t too short notice.”
I looked Doctor Max Taylor over. Medium height, well built, lots of curly brown hair, drooping mustache a shade darker than his hair. In all, very attractive.
“Well, do I pass?” he asked, amusement sparkling in his brown eyes.
“That’s yet to be seen, but I’ll have dinner with you anyway.”
Already, with only a few words exchanged, I liked him. Something in his eyes that spoke of genuine goodness and caring.
“Is eight all right with you?” he asked.
“It’s fine. I live at—”
“I already know. I’ll pick you up there.”
“You know where I live? How’s that?” Another woman might have felt ill at ease to learn that a stranger knew where she lived. But I didn’t think I had read him wrong
“I’d like to say ESP, but the truth is, I’ve asked around about you.”
“I’ve seen you in the hospital a few times, so I asked some people…”
“Did you get my life history?”
“For the most part.” He wagged a finger in my face. “You know, I’ve heard a lot of things about you, Chloe Walker.”
I grinned. “All good, I hope.”
One thing led to another, and it wasn’t long until Max and I were sleeping together. Then slowly, quietly, something surprising happened: I began to fall in love with him. It wasn’t the wild, fiery love I had felt for Ira—I never wanted to be possessed by that kind of madness again—but a gentle, warm love that soothed the fractured parts of me.
The following months, Max spent more and more time at my home, until in a natural course of events, he moved in.
That’s when the trouble started.
Summer arrived with a vengeance in Brownsville, and as had been the case for the last fifteen years, the frequency of the nightmares increased. But this go-round, the dreams were worse than in the past, occurring on an almost nightly basis.
My moaning and thrashing always woke Max, and in the early morning hours he held me, whispering soft words of comfort until the trembling stopped and I drifted off to sleep once more. He asked about my dreams, but I refused to tell him what they were about, and he never pressed me until the night I came out of a nightmare screaming Ira’s name.
“Who’s Ira?” he asked after I had calmed down.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” I nuzzling my face in the crook of his shoulder.
His hands rubbed a soothing path up and down my back. “Something’s eating at you, Chloe, and the dreams are a part of it. Tell me about them. Tell me about Ira.”
I stiffened and pulled away. “I said I don’t want to.”
He turned on the lamp, then sat cross-legged on the rumpled bed facing me.
Giving him my most come-hither smile, I slid my hand beneath the sheet and wrapped my fingers around his maleness.
He pushed my hand away. “You’re not going to distract me this time. Tell me what’s bothering you.”
“Nothing’s bothering me.” I moved closer and ran my tongue over his bare stomach. “Except I’m horny.” I dipped a little lower. “You want to do something about it?”
He ignored my invitation. “Nothing’s wrong? That’s bullshit and we both know it. Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately, really looked? You’ve lost weight, you look like you haven’t slept in days, you’re drinking all the time. And the nightmares, good God, you’ve been having them every night for weeks.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Don’t tell me that nothing’s bothering you. I know better.” His voice softened. “Tell me, Chloe. Maybe I can help.”
I rolled over, presenting my back. “You can’t help me. No one can.”
“Please let me at least try.” He stroked my hair. “I hate seeing you this way. I love you.”
“You say you love me now…”
“And I do.”
“But would you if you knew all my deep dark secrets?” I turned on my back, met his eyes. “They’re not very pretty, you know.”
“There’s nothing you could tell me that would change how I feel about you.”
I sat up and reached for the glass and bottle on the nightstand—like mother, like daughter—and poured a generous amount of whiskey. Leaning back against the headboard, I downed it in one gulp.
“You won’t find any answers in there.”
“So you’ve told me before.” I splashed another shot into the glass and sipped, regarding him over the rim. “And you’re probably right. I know Mama never did.” I emptied the glass, then replenished it.
“You can’t go on this way. Talk to me, honey. Hell, I’ve heard it all. There’s nothing you could say that would shock me.”
“I want you to remember: you asked for it,” I said. “If it turns out to be more than you wanted to hear, don’t say I didn’t give you fair warning.”
“Okay, you warned me. Now talk to me.”
“I guess we’ll see, won’t we?” I set the empty glass on the nightstand, but kept the bottle. “Turn off the lights, Max. I want it dark.” The lamp clicked off. I took a swig of courage. “God, I don’t know where to begin.”
“Start with the nightmares.”
To be continued . . .