“I know how hard this must be, coming back to where it all happened, but I believe it’s the only way to put an end to the nightmares,” Max said. “Once you see he’s not here, your subconscious can lay the past to rest once and for all, and you can move on with your life. From what you’ve told me about him, his anger issues and such, I doubt he’s even still alive.”
I nodded absently, my gaze on the woods and fields speeding by outside the car window, while thoughts of another journey taken down this same highway many years ago filled my mind.
“Once you bring your fears out into the open and deal with them, they’ll lose their power over you.” He reached across the console and squeezed my thigh with a smooth, sun-bronzed hand. “You know I just want what’s best for you, Chloe. I want you to be happy.”
I turned to him, forcing a smile. “I know, Max. You’ve been so good to me, a lot more so than I deserve.”
“Don’t say that, my love, you deserve nothing but the best.” His gentle brown eyes caught mine for a moment before turning back to the road. “When you walked into my office two years ago, I fell head over heels. The sadness in your eyes . . . it broke my heart. I knew right then and there, I wanted nothing more in life than to make you happy.”
I reached up and ran my fingers through the crisp, dark brown curls of his hair. “You do make me happy, Max.”
He captured my hand and brought it to his lips, kissing the palm. “No I don’t, nothing does. Until you can put Ira’s memory to rest, you’ll never be happy. Not only does he disturb your sleep almost every night, but he’s beginning to haunt your days as well. His ghost is eating you alive.” He gave me a reassuring smile. “But I’m sure this trip will prove to be the instrument of his demise, a catharsis of sorts.”
“I hope you’re right. This whole thing feels . . .” I grappled for the right words. “. . . Somehow wrong, like I’m making the biggest mistake of my life.”
Max grinned, his teeth a slash of white beneath his dark-brown mustache. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you your shrink is always right?”
My eyes caught sight of a scattering of dilapidated buildings on both sides of the road in the distance ahead. “Pineville coming up.”
Max steered the black Corvette down the state highway, quickly closing the gap. He slowed as we passed through the almost-nonexistent town. “Not much to see,” he commented.
“No, not much,” I agreed. Pineville looked much the same as it had fifteen years ago, just a little older, a little shabbier. “Here—take the road to the left.”
Tires squealing, Max applied the brakes and turned sharply. The car bounced wildly when it hit the dirt track. Ignoring the ruts, he accelerated, raising a huge, billowing, dust cloud behind us.
“We left interstate quite a distance back,” I said. “Could you please slow down?”
Max slowed to a more sedate pace. “Sorry, I’m not accustomed to driving on cow trails.”
“I can see that.”
Bright shafts of sunlight peeked through the tree tops, dappling the windshield, as the Corvette wallowed down the overgrown dirt road cutting through, thick verdant woods. After about half a mile, the trees began to thin out.
“There it is,” I said, my eyes fixed on the old, one-lane bridge nestled in the hollow below. We dropped off the hill and rolled out onto the bridge. “Stop for a minute.”
Max brought the car to a halt about mid-way across. I opened the door and stepped out, the heat and humidity of late July wrapping me in a wet blanket. Smoothing the wrinkles from my white linen pants, I walked over and grasped the rusty side rails of the bridge and looked out over Eddy Creek. The hot summer wind soughed through the cottonwoods and willows, carrying with it whisperings from the past:
Hey, little girl, better watch out for water moccasins . . .
Quit teasing, I am so a woman . . .
I love you, Chloe . . .
I’ll always be your friend, Ira, and I’ll always love you . . .
I’ll be back, little girl . . .
A cloud passed in front of the sun, blocking its warmth. I shivered with a sudden chill. Are you out there somewhere, Ira?
I was the one who found Mama dead. Her suicide altered the course of my life, putting my feet onto a path of death and despair which I was then doomed to follow. I have heard it said that we are the masters of our own fate; but sometimes, it’s not our actions, but those of others, that determines the course our life will take.
I didn’t realize that day Mama was dead—or dying—and to this day, in a little corner of my mind, I still wonder if maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t quite dead, that if I had called for help all that followed would never have happened. Too late, too late, my mind laments. But still I wonder.
Looking back, I now see that Mama was a terribly unhappy woman. Strange and childlike, and most of the time drunk, she had an air of desolation clinging to her in much the same way as the rose perfume she always wore. For as far back as I can remember, I had taken care of her, not the other way around, the normal way. Daddy said she was “delicate” and “fragile”, and needed to be looked after. But when she went into one of her towering rages, she didn’t seem so delicate or fragile then. Thankfully, the wild tantrums didn’t occur very often.
With all my time when I wasn’t in school spent looking after Mama, and being painfully shy on top of that, I had no friends. Mama would hug me, and with drink in hand tell me not to worry, she was my friend, all the friend I needed. Yet even though I loved her and knew she loved me, (in her own way) I didn’t feel like her friend; I felt like her keeper. Mama’s love for me was absentminded and left over. Daddy’s even less than that. They were so wrapped up in each other there was no room in their charmed circle for me. I grew up in that lonely house a timid, love-starved waif.
Daddy was expected back from a cross country run before noon that day, but was delayed because of a blowout on his rig. I, on the other hand, was sent home early from school after I threw up my lunch. Knowing Daddy would soon be back, my stomach had been upset all day. I knew the arguments he and Mama had been having with increasing frequency would start up once again. Their fighting made me sick, especially when Daddy hit Mama.
Not in the least anxious to reach home, I strolled the few, tree-lined blocks from school to our small, yellow frame house. The day was warm and sunny, a perfect day for late May except for the sticky humidity, which was common for that time of year in Arkansas. Hoping to catch a little of the tepid breeze, I held my long, curly blonde hair off my neck. It would be so nice to have short hair, particularly in the summer. But Daddy wouldn’t let me get it cut. He said it made me look like an angel, like Mama.
When I reached home, I turned in the empty driveway with a sigh of relief. Daddy’s truck wasn’t there; he wasn’t home yet. Maybe I would be blessed with a short respite, a bit of calm before the storm I anticipated would arrive with him.
I passed through the open garage and up the steps to the back door. It was locked. Not a good sign. A locked door usually meant Mama was pretty much out of it.
I let myself in using the key I kept on a chain around my neck. The inside of the house lay in shadows, the heavy drapes shut tight against the mid-day sun. Nothing but the steady hum of the refrigerator broke the tomb-like silence.
I passed through the kitchen and turned down the hall to the bedrooms. When I reached Mama’s partially closed door, I pushed it the rest of the way open and peeked inside. She lay sprawled flat of her back on the rumpled bed, still dressed in the silky red gown she’d had on that morning when I left for school.
“Mama, are you awake?” I asked softly. Not getting a response, I walked over to the king-sized bed, grasped her frail, cool arm, and gently shook. “Mama, are you awake?” Her white-blond hair fanned out around her head in wild disarray. The expressive brown eyes, so like my own, remained closed. No wonder she feels cold, I thought, seeing her gown bunched up to the tops of her legs. Even though she was much too thin—from drinking most of her meals, I suppose—my mama was still a beautiful woman.
A glass containing a small amount of amber liquid was clutched in her outstretched hand. Part of its contents had spilled on the white sheets, forming a dark stain beneath her scarlet-tipped fingers. I took the glass and placed it on the bedside table.
At the time, I thought nothing of the scattered prescription bottles there beside the whiskey decanter. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for Mama to mix pills with her liquor.
I spread the castoff covers over her and left the room, pulling the door closed behind me. Thinking she was sleeping, or more likely passed out, I thought it best to leave her alone. Mama often drank herself into a stupor. Sleeping it off was the only remedy.
On the way to the kitchen, I turned up the thermostat in the hall a few degrees. I got a Coke out of the refrigerator, went into the living room, and turned on the TV. Snagging the fuzzy coral afghan slung over the back of the couch, I wrapped it around me and settled into the large, overstuffed chair closest to the TV to watch As The World Turns.
They fascinated me, those television families. Did people really live that way, surrounded by brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends? How I envied the Hughes and Stewarts. Even with their never-ending problems, their lives seemed far happier than mine.
I dozed off, and some time later the rattling of the back door opening woke me. My belly drew up in a hard knot. Daddy was home. From my chair, tucked in the gray shadows of the living room, I watched as he placed a six-pack of beer and two from another in the Frigidaire. Reconsidering, he took one back out, pulled the tab, and raised it to his lips. After a long swallow, he stepped into the living room.
He spotted me sitting in the dim corner. My stomach gave a sickening lurch. “What’re you doing home from school at this time of day, girl?” The corners of his mouth turned down in a scowl.
I ducked my head, unable to meet his frigid blue glare. “I g—got sick at lunch. They sent m—me home.”
“Daddy’s poor little angel,” he said, voice all syrupy sweet. Surprised by the complete turnaround, I glanced up to see the angry expression had drained from his face. I lowered my gaze as he strolled into the dark living room to where I sat, and squatted down beside me. His hand not holding the beer smoothed the hair from my face, then slowly slid down my cheek, coming to rest circling my throat. My pulse beat wildly. “You act like you’re scared, honey. Are you?” I shook my head, keeping my eyes downcast. “Good. You shouldn’t ever be scared of your daddy.”
He cupped my jaw, tilting my head back. Eyes gleaming with a strange light, he studied my features. He rubbed his thumb under my chin. After a time that seemed to stretch into eternity, he shook his head, then jerked his hand away as if my skin had burned it.
He stood up and ran a hand through his buzz-cut, blond hair. “Where’s your mama?”
“S—she’s in bed asleep. I couldn’t w—wake her up.” I shivered. God, Daddy scared me. He wasn’t mean to me; he didn’t hit me like he did Mama. But lately, when he drank he watched me, a strange light in his eyes.
“She’s like that again, huh?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
He returned to the kitchen. I heard the refrigerator door open and close, and the top pop on another beer can. “Goddamn bitch,” he muttered.
Tears sprang to my eyes. I batted them back, keeping my face impassive as he returned to the living room. I pulled myself into an even tighter ball; I didn’t want him to notice me. I breathed a little easier when he sat down on the sofa without a glance in my direction.
“Fucking soap operas.” He sprang up and flipped through the channels until he found a game show, then turned up the volume and sat back down.
The afternoon slipped by. Daddy didn’t move from the sofa except to fetch another beer from the kitchen, or make an occasional trip to the bathroom. We stared at the television, neither one of us speaking, but not watching what was on either.
Daddy hadn’t always been like he was now, but the change had taken place so gradually that at first I hadn’t noticed. Though Mama had always been unpredictable and hard to live with, Daddy used to be a cheerful man, ever quick to laugh and smile—at least with Mama. But the past few months, he had become withdrawn and sullen. His altered behavior coincided with Mama’s deepening depression.
The trouble had begun to escalate about a year ago. Lying in bed at night, I had heard Mama crying softly and Daddy’s low murmurings of comfort. Over time, Daddy began to lose patience. Their voices grew louder. Sometimes, I understood some of their words, Mama saying she had made a mistake, and Daddy telling her to forget the bastard.
One night about six months ago, I had gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and had heard Mama crying again. But this time instead of comforting her, Daddy was shouting. I padded on down the hallway to their bedroom door, eased it open a crack, and peeped inside.
I gasped, my hand going to my mouth to cover the sound. There was no need. They were oblivious to everything outside their own little drama being played out in the bedroom.
The muted lamplight illuminated their bodies on the bed. Mama lay spread-eagle, her slender body naked. Her sleek, silver hair hung over the side, along with one arm, the hand of which clutched a half-empty fifth of whiskey. Tears streamed from her tightly closed eyes. Dressed only in a pair of jeans, Daddy crouched above her, a knee to either side of her hips. His hands were curled around her head. Squeezing.
“Goddamn it, Melanie, forget him!” he snarled. “Cut this shit out or I’ll squeeze the bastard out of your fucking brain!”
Mama’s tear-filled eyes gazed up at him. “Go ahead, I don’t give a damn anymore. Kill me. You’d be doing both of us a favor.” The whiskey bottle rolled from her fingers, its contents spilling onto the carpet. Using both hands, she circled Daddy’s, bore down.
He shoved her hands away, laced his fingers through hers, and slammed them on the bed to either side of her head. “You’re in my blood, woman, worse than any poison. I don’t know how much longer I can share you with him. Someday, I just might have to kill you.”
Mama smiled up at him “What’s wrong with right now?”
“Goddamn you, you witch!” Daddy lowered himself between her open thighs. His mouth claimed hers in a brutal kiss, then nibbled its way down the side of her neck to her full breasts. His lips encircled a rosy nipple. Mama lay there unmoving, tears streaming down her face.
I didn’t want to see any more, couldn’t stand to see any more. I slipped back to bed.
It was a long time before sleep came. I kept wondering who Mama couldn’t forget.
To be continued . . .