Kiss Me Goodbye
The year is 1975. The flight to her ancestral home costs Luce Warner $140. Living there might cost her her life.
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The Shape of a Heart
I forgot to kiss her goodbye.
Rain pelts my yellow slicker as I hesitate halfway up the steps on the first day of third grade at my new school. Around me, other kids run hand in hand with their mommies or daddies, heading for the front door, trying to escape the downpour. Some of them wear yellow slickers and rubber rain boots just like mine. Some of them are sheltered by the umbrellas their parents hold above their heads.
There’s no one to shelter me, to hold my hand. I’m alone.
And I forgot to kiss her goodbye.
Should I go forward? Back?
I stand frozen.
Mommy’s battered gray car with the rusted rear door and the dented bumper is still parked in front of the school. Through the misted window I see the pale smudge of her face. She’s watching me, waiting to see me safely inside.
I run down the stairs toward the car, hoping she’ll push the door open, step out, come to me. Foolish hope. I know by now that wishes don’t come true.
When I reach the car, I press the tip of my finger to the window and draw the shape of a heart, raindrops clinging to my lashes and running down my cheeks. Then I press my lips to the wet glass and kiss her goodbye. She smiles with her mouth but not with her eyes. For her, even the car is too open a space. I smile back because I made her smile, if only a little.
Then I turn and run up the stairs as the morning bell chimes, loving her and hating her, wishing she could be…normal.
June 29, 1975
The pickup barrels along the narrow highway that clings to the edge of a cliff. On my right, the earth juts skyward, a wall of gray and brown and green. On my left, a single lane separates me from the flimsy barrier and the white churn of the ocean that crashes against the rocks below.
Wind gusts off the water, making the pickup shiver and shake. There’s no grab handle so I curl my fingers over the worn seat and hold on. As if that will save me if we go over the edge. The driver—Rick, according to how he introduced himself when he picked me up at the airport, Richard Parsons, according to the letter my aunt sent—slaps his breast pocket, hauls out a cigarette one-handed, tucks it between his lips, and pushes in the lighter to heat it up. Rick takes a deep lungful of smoke and blows it out, adding new cigarette stink to the old cigarette stink that mixes with the scents of sweat and mildew and sickly sweet rot coming off the red burger boxes on the floor.
Minutes pass and the flame burns the white cylinder to ash. He hacks up a lung, takes a final drag, and stubs out the cigarette in the overflowing ashtray.
“You’re a real chatterbox, huh?” he says, turning on the radio. Sound crackles, half-static, half crooning. Rick hunches forward against the wheel and peers through the windshield, his mop of stringy hair hanging to his shoulders. I don’t like him, don’t like the way he looked at me when he found me at the airport or the sneer in his voice when he said my aunt’s name. Pat, he’d said, like he was horking up a loogie. But he’s my ride north and I have no other way to get where I’m going. If I’d had another option, I’d have taken it. But I didn’t, and I don’t, and it’s a waste of effort to wish otherwise.
The truck skids as we round another curve, number one million and six of the curves we’ve rounded on this endless drive, part of it through forest, part of it hugging the cliff. I slap my hand against the window for balance and say, “We could slow down.”
Rick glances at me then back at the road. “No need.” He thumps a closed fist against the truck’s dash. “She’s been getting me where I need to be for almost twenty years.” He gives a rusty laugh.
I’ve fielded leering looks and groping hands many a time. I’ve wrangled bill collectors, an asshole boss, and the 6’6” guy who moved in next door and stayed nasty-drunk from that moment on. I grew up knowing not to walk down Mermaid Avenue at night, to never trust that the Q or R would be on time, to fade into the background when the situation called for it, and to speak up for myself when there wasn’t anyone else to speak up for me. So, I speak up now, making my voice calm even though my heart trip-hammers as I say, “I’d like you to slow down. I’d like to get there alive.”
Rick’s mouth twists and he turns his head toward me, this man I don’t know, don’t need to know in order to read his expression: anger, and something else, something darker.
He points his right index finger at me, close to my face. “You—”
The wind gusts, catching us on a rare stretch of straight road. The pickup swerves to the right, almost slamming up against the wall of earth that spikes toward the sky. As the truck goes one way, I go the other, digging in my fingers to keep myself from sliding all the way across the bench seat and slamming into Rick. He swears and jerks the wheel to the left, sending the truck in the opposite direction, across the yellow line, closer to the flimsy rail that’s all that holds us back from the jagged rocks and crashing surf.
The back end fishtails, the truck gliding over wet asphalt like skates on ice. With a snarl, he jerks the wheel to the right and we’re back in our lane, speeding along the deserted, rain-slick road.
My breath comes in short gasps.
The needle of the speedometer eases down a couple of notches.
I don’t say anything. He doesn’t say anything. The radio’s still playing and the static’s gotten worse, scratching at my last nerve. With a muttered curse, Rick turns it off.
Rain pounds the windshield, the wipers smearing hazy arcs.
I stare out the side window. It’s the rain that makes me remember that day. I wonder if I made the wrong choice, if Mom would have stepped out of the car had I not run back to her, if she would have lived a different life if I’d only waited on the stairs of the school, waited for her to come to me. But in my heart of hearts, I know I could have stood there for hours, even days, and she would have stayed trapped in her cocoon, tears streaming down her cheeks, eyes darting side to side, seeing things only she could see.
She must have driven home after she left me at school that day. She never drove again. I walked home alone, using my memory of the landmarks she’d pointed out on the way to school and the map she’d sketched on a piece of pink construction paper. She was waiting for me just inside the door to our building and she grabbed me and pulled me close as soon as I crossed the threshold. I walked alone to school and back the next day and every day after. The car sat untouched for six months and then Mom called someone and a tow truck came and hooked it up and that was the end of that. Mom said it was a good thing, a smart thing, because owning a car when you lived hand to mouth was just a mess of crazy.
Might-have-beens don’t matter, Luce. Don’t look back, baby. Never look back. Just forward, always forward. Mom wasn’t much one for nostalgia. No photo albums. No rogue’s gallery of baby pictures on the wall. We never ordered the class picture I suffered through each year. She never even showed me a picture of my dad but I figure I must look like him since Mom was blond and blue-eyed while I’m brown-haired with hazel eyes.
Straight ahead, the highway’s yellow dividing line unfurls like a ribbon. I stare at it and swallow against the lump in my throat. Choices. That’s what life’s all about. Did I make the wrong one coming here?
I shiver and I know Rick sees it. I don’t want him to think it’s from fear because people like him feed on that.
“There’s a draft,” I say, reaching up to poke at the faulty seal between the doorframe and the window that’s been leaking icy drops since the rain began. Water pools on my fingertip, slides down across my palm, along my wrist, my forearm, my elbow, before dripping off onto my denim-clad thigh.
This morning I’d dressed for what I thought was late June California weather: black t-shirt, faded denim cut-offs, well-worn Adidas, the white stripes still bright against the blue suede. My wavy hair is in a ponytail, the ever present curly-frizzy bits escaping at the sides. Then I’d locked the apartment door for the very last time. It was empty. I’d sold everything I could, and what didn’t find a buyer, I’d donated or dragged to the Dumpster. Everything I own is smooshed into the massive, camping-sized backpack I’d discovered in a second-hand store. It sits now between my feet, the top rising above my knees.
I stare out the window at the rain, not really seeing anything, the fingers of my left hand absently twisting the ring on my right hand. Mom’s ring. The one she never took off. The one she’d slid on my finger while I slept in a chair next to her bed.
I’d left Brooklyn thirteen hours ago.
Bus rides and plane rides and truck rides ago.
A lifetime ago.
I shiver again. It hadn’t take long after we left the airport for me to figure out that I don’t know jack squat about Northern California weather. I unzip the pack, pull out my black sweater, and shrug it on.
In the pocket is the letter my aunt sent, folded in half and in half again. I’d read it twice on the plane, adding to the dozen or so times I’d read it in the days since it arrived. Each subsequent read yielded no more information than the first.
A letter. Not a phone call.
Aunt Patience wrote me a letter in response to the letter I’d sent her because the only contact information I had was a yellowed slip of paper with a hand-written mailing address. I found it in the drawer of Mom’s bedside table. I tried to get a phone number for my aunt so I could call. No luck. Maybe she doesn’t have a phone.
I pretty much wrote: your sister is dead. She pretty much wrote back in her cramped, wobbly, back-slanted cursive: I didn’t know she was sick. Here is a plane ticket. Your uncle poses no objection to you coming. A man, Richard Parsons, will fetch you from the airport.
The abundance of warmth and welcome in that brief paragraph left me all soft and fuzzy inside. The first time I’d read her reply, I’d wondered why my aunt wouldn’t meet me at the airport herself. I’d wondered if Richard Parsons was my uncle, but my aunt’s wording—a man, Richard Parsons—made me think not. There had been no time to write her back to ask the questions churning in my thoughts and then wait for her to mail her reply. Not if I wanted to make that flight. Any answers I’m going to get will have to wait until I see her in person.
I almost decided not to come. I could have stayed in the apartment that had been my home and worked at the diner, taking in a roommate or picking up extra shifts to make ends meet. Or I could have taken the $438.00 I have to my name and gone anywhere.
But I didn’t want to stay in the apartment that had been Mom’s self-imposed prison. I didn’t want to let my life become a pattern of double shifts at the diner. And I didn’t want a stranger living in the place that had belonged to me and Mom. Besides, I was curious about my aunt. I was intrigued by the things she might be able to tell me about my mother; Mom hadn’t been the type to share the stories of her childhood or the secrets of her heart.
But most important of all, I had made a promise, and I keep my promises, even when they make no sense.
“I need to know you’ll go to her,” Mom had said when she told me to contact her sister. She’d still been wearing her ring then and she’d twisted it on her finger much the way I’ve been twisting it during this endless drive. “You’ll be happy with Patience. You were always happy to see her. Remember?”
I haven’t seen Aunt Pat in more than ten years. I have fuzzy memories of a young, pretty, blond woman. At the time, she must have been twenty-three or so, just a couple years older than I am now. I remember big blue eyes like Mom’s, but Aunt Pat’s turned up a little at the corners, especially when she laughed. She laughed a lot. Mom laughed with her, which was so rare both before and after Aunt Pat’s visits that the childhood image stands clear and bold in my thoughts.
I remember that my aunt visited every few weeks for a while, back before Mom stopped going outside altogether. The fading strains of the music at the carousel in Central Park dance at the edges of my memories, Aunt Pat riding the horse next to mine, Mom standing on the side, expression pinched and nervous, arms crossed and pressed tight to her midsection. Months later, after Mom stopped leaving the apartment building, Aunt Pat took me places, just her and me.
I remember that when she told me she was going away, that she wouldn’t see me but that she’d write to me, I cried into my pillow.
After she left, she kept her word, writing us long, colorful letters, happy stories of travel and excitement with a man she called My Prince. Houston, Las Vegas, Reno, San Francisco. Mom read those letters aloud to me like bedtime stories. After a couple of years, they came less and less often, then not at all. I don’t know if Mom and Aunt Pat had a falling out or if distance drifted between them. It’s a long way from Brooklyn to California.
Of course, it wasn’t the distance that kept Mom from taking me for a visit…from taking me anywhere…ever.
Maybe my aunt will be able to explain the why of that. I hope so. Because right now my life is one big question and even just one answer would be nice.
Days before she died, Mom had stared hard at me and said, “Pat has answers.”
“To what questions?” I’d asked.
“Questions and secrets and things best left buried.” Mom had closed her eyes, the lids thin and papery. As I’d drawn the sheet higher, she’d grabbed my wrist with surprising strength and whispered, “Think carefully before you dig them up.” Her lids had flipped open and her eyes had locked on mine. “I don’t want you to go, but I do. If you don’t—” Her eyes had welled with tears. She’d clutched at my hand, her fingers more bone than flesh, blue veins stark against gray-white skin. “Promise you’ll go to her. Promise.”
By then I’d stopped pretending that Mom was going to get better. She refused to go to the hospital, refused to leave the apartment.
She was more afraid of going outside than she was of dying.
“You used to call her Patty Cake. Do you remember?” Her words had made my chest tighten. Mom didn’t do nostalgia.
I’d nodded even though I didn’t remember calling my aunt that and Mom had nodded back, happy with my little white lie.
“You’ll be happy with her. With family. And she’ll tell you…” She’d closed her eyes and I’d thought she’d fallen asleep. Then her lips—blue and chapped—had moved and I’d leaned over to catch her words. “You didn’t promise to find her. I need you to promise, Lucian.”
So, I’d promised.
“Lucian.” Rick’s smoke roughened voice jars me from my memories. “That’s a guy’s name, ain’t it? You’re not a guy dressed as a chick, are you?”
I realize that I haven’t paid attention to him or the rain or the road, lost in my own thoughts for who knows how many miles. The highway has veered inland again, away from the ocean. We’re surrounded by trees now, and ahead of me where the road heads north…more trees, thick-trunked and tall, punching the bruised sky.
Rick watches me, waiting for an answer. “Lucian means light,” I say, ignoring his questions.
I don’t tell him it was my brother’s name. Lucian Lafayette Warner. The brother I never met. The one who was born three years before me, still and cold, never taking his first breath. And it was my sister’s name. The sister I never met. The one who was stillborn a year after my brother. At least, that’s the way Mom told it. She said I was lucky number three. The one who lived. She named me Lucian just like she named them Lucian. Because Mom was bat-shit crazy.
“I prefer Luce,” I say.
“Well, Lucian” —Rick bares his teeth— “I need gas and I need to take a shit. You might want to use the facilities yourself. Or you can wait till we get you to your aunt. We’re almost there now.”
He pulls off the road and circles around to the side of a squat brown building with a white sign on top that proclaims: Easy Mart. The rain’s let up, but concrete clouds edged in charcoal hang heavy in the sky, promising that there’s more to come.
Take A Picture
Once the truck is parked, I push open the door, glad for the chance to stretch my legs. I pause, staring at my backpack, uncertainty tugging at me. Everything I own is in that pack. What if Rick drives away? What if he leaves me stranded? I don’t even have a phone number for my aunt. All I have—
I have her letter in my pocket and, on it, her address. I’ll find my way there and if Rick takes off with my backpack, my aunt can help me figure out a way to get it back. I repeat that to myself until my nerves settle.
Panic and fear swallowed my mother’s life whole. I won’t let them do the same to mine. I have goals, dreams, hopes, and I will see them come true. I’ll find a job and keep saving. And then I’ll travel, anywhere and everywhere. I’ll see the mountains and the deserts, the oceans and the rainforests. I won’t be like Mom. I won’t lock myself away within four walls, the radio and television my only way to experience the world. I’ll build myself a life that makes me happy, brick by brick, stone by stone.
I slide my wallet out of the pack, shove it into my pocket, then slam the truck’s rusting door and lift my head to find Rick standing too close. He drags the back of his hand across his nose then wipes it on his jeans. Turning my back on him, I walk around the corner of the building.
The door to the Easy Mart creaks as I push it open. There’s no one at the cash, but I can hear sounds of movement through the open door behind the counter and I figure the cashier is back there. The smell of coffee teases me. I walk over to the pot, wanting something to warm me from the inside out. I squash that thought like a bug. Every penny counts. I need to save each one.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath through my nose, enjoying the aroma. Then I turn and walk back outside to stand beside the bench under the overhang and wait for Rick. The gas pumps are off to my left and he hasn’t pulled up to them yet. I figure he’s still taking care of the other task he mentioned with such delicate manners.
A couple of minutes later, the door of the Easy Mart creaks again as it opens. I glance over to see a man step out, his face weathered and lined, his body greyhound thin. In his hand is a paper cup with steam coming off the top. He offers it to me. “You look like you could use this.” When I make no move to accept his offering, he adds, “No charge.”
“I can pay.” The second the words are out I want to haul them back. If I’d wanted to waste my money on coffee, I would have.
One side of his mouth crooks up. “Didn’t mean to ruffle your feathers. It’s just a cup of coffee. I put in some sugar and cream. You look like the sugar and cream type.”
Actually, I like my coffee hot and strong and black. One out of three is better than none, doubly so when it’s free, so I take the cup as is. “Thank you.”
“Take a load off.” He juts his chin toward the bench.
“I’ve been sitting most of the day. I’d rather stand.”
“I’ve been standing most of the day. I’d rather sit.” He settles himself at the opposite end of the bench, as far from me as he can get. I figure that’s for my comfort, not his. But you never can tell. People have all sorts of weird quirks. “You hitchhiking?” he asks, glancing first at the empty gas pumps then the empty parking lot.
I blow across the surface of the coffee, watching the steam curl up. “My ride’s parked around the side. He’s…occupied,” I say, for lack of a better description.
“You passing through or staying for a stretch?”
I cut him a sidelong glance.
He holds his hands up, palms forward. “Don’t need to tell me if you don’t want. It’s just that I know pretty much everyone around here. Only two other gas stations in Carnage Bay, and one more outside town limits to the north. At some point, pretty much everyone shows up here for a fill. So, if you’re visiting, I’d like to put your face to a name and tie that name to one I already know.” He waggles his brows and says with unabashed glee, “I’m a busybody.”
“A busybody, huh?” I lift my coffee as if offering a toast. “I’d never have guessed.”
Easy Mart laughs. “So?” he prods. “Staying or going?”
I almost don’t answer because sharing information with strangers has never been a personal goal. Then I remember my aunt lives here. I live here now. Offending the locals on day one might not be my best plan. Besides, I’ll be needing a job and the Easy Mart might have an opening.
“I’m here to visit my aunt,” I say.
“For how long?”
“Tell me your aunt’s name” —Easy Mart’s whole face creases into a smile— “and I’ll tell you some gossip. Give you the skinny…that’s what you kids say these days, isn’t it?” He winks.
The corners of my mouth twitch.
Just then, Rick’s truck eases into view. He parks in front of the pump and ambles over to open the gas cap.
Easy Mart’s eyes follow him, and he isn’t smiling anymore. He pushes to his feet and when he looks at me again, his brows are drawn together, carving deep grooves above the bridge of his nose. “Is that your ride?”
I swallow, the coffee turning bitter on my tongue. “Yes.”
“Your aunt’s name?” he asks, his expression neutral, his tone firm. And suddenly I want to tell him because I want to hear what he has to say about her. Rick hasn’t said much about her during our drive north.
“Patience Davey.” I try for a smile, but my face feels stiff. “I’ll take the gossip you promised now.”
Easy Mart shakes his head, and his eyes slide from mine. “I don’t want to make trouble.”
“Wait,” I say as he steps away. He stops, his back to me, his shoulders bunched and raised. “What sort of trouble?”
He looks back at me over his shoulder and from the tense set of his lips and the clench of his jaw, I can see he’s warring with speaking or staying silent. Silent wins. He reaches for the door handle.
“Wait,” I say again. “Please.”
“You be careful of your aunt’s husband.” I hear the growl of a motorcycle and Easy Mart’s attention jerks to a point behind me, his expression darkening even more. But I don’t turn to see what has him frowning. I feel like this man has something important to share and if I look away even for a second, he’ll decide not to tell me anything. After a long pause, he grunts. “You be careful of anyone with the Davey name. And you be careful in that house. Nothing good happens in that house.”
He pushes open the door. I think he’s had his say, but then he turns back toward me without crossing the threshold and the spring pulls the door shut with a snap. He stares at me, his lips compressed in a thin, pale line. He rubs the lower half of his face, his fingers sliding down off his jaw.
“Why don’t you wait here?” he says. “Let Rick Parsons be on his way and you stay right here. There’s a boy comes by to take the evening shift at seven. I’ll take you home to my wife. Feed you some dinner. Then take you back the way you came. Send you back home.” He nods, and I can see he’s liking this plan more and more as he formulates it. “Yes, I’ll send you home. You’ll be happy I did.”
Can’t say I’m not tempted to head back to Brooklyn, to the known and familiar. I have some good friends there—Nancy and Brenda since freshman year of high school, and Susan who worked with me at the diner. I could find a shitty little room somewhere. Work a shitty little job and save enough to travel for a year. I could grab hold of Easy Mart’s offer with both hands and just go home.
But home is gone. The apartment’s already rented to someone else, everything that made it home buried, sold or tossed.
Besides, I made this cross-country trek because I promised Mom I’d go to Aunt Pat, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.
“My aunt’s expecting me,” I say.
Easy Mart takes a heavy breath. “Well…” He shoots a last look toward the gas pumps and Rick Parsons, and then yanks the door open once more. “That’s a shame. A damn shame.”
This time the door snaps shut only after he’s gone inside and I’m left alone under the overhang.
I slump down on the bench and curl my fingers around the paper cup, absorbing what little heat I can as I study the motorcycle parked in front of the second pump. It’s the kind of bike that looks like it’s full of power, black and chrome, with the words Moto Guzzi sandwiched between double white lines on the gas tank. A heavy spray of mud from the wet road marks the black paint. The rider climbs off, his back to me. He has shaggy, dark hair, wide shoulders, and narrow hips. His black t-shirt is plastered against his back, his jeans dark from the rain. I’m guessing he’s pretty uncomfortable.
Rick says something to him as he puts the nozzle in the tank. I’m too far away to hear what it is, but the guy with the shaggy hair says something back. Rick grins.
The rider replaces the nozzle and saunters to the door of the Easy Mart, passing close enough that I can see the faded letters on his t-shirt: The Gr teful De d. Some of the letters are completely worn away.
“You want to take a picture?” The words aren’t exactly friendly, but there’s a smile in his voice that tempers them.
My gaze jerks up. He keeps walking and yanks open the door.
He pauses and asks over his shoulder, “You with Rick?”
“He’s my ride.”
“You a friend of Amber’s?” He turns his head, and I catch a glimpse of his profile. Straight nose, strong jaw, dark stubble.
“No.” And now I’m wondering who Amber is and why this guy thinks I might be her friend.
He nods and walks inside.
When he comes out a couple of minutes later, he’s scowling. I guess Easy Mart guy wasn’t too friendly to any friend of Rick’s.
He climbs on his bike and stares my way for a minute before he rides toward the road, the sound of his engine somewhere between a growl and a visceral rumble.
I toss the coffee cup in the trash and make my way toward the truck, my path crossing Rick’s as he heads inside to pay for his gas. He changes direction so he’s within inches of me as we pass. I shift at the waist to avoid brushing shoulders with him.
He stops and leers at me. “Makes the rounds, that boy does, you dig?” he says. “He’s always sniffing around fresh meat.” He makes exaggerated sniffing sounds. “And you sure smell fresh.”
Ignoring him, I head back to the truck. From this angle, I can see the bike’s taillights as they disappear around a bend.
The highway carries us back toward the ocean. Welcome to Carnage Bay—I read the sign as we pass.
“Who named this place?”
Rick squints at me. “Why?”
“Carnage Bay? Carnage means killing. Who’d give a place like this” —I gesture out the truck’s window at the pretty little houses with their white picket fences. Seriously. White picket fences. Even under the heavy press of the bleak sky, this place is too pretty to be real— “a name like that?”
“Dunno. Maybe someone with a sense of humor.” Rick smirks around the cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth. “Kind of like someone who’d give their daughter a son’s name.”
I shoot him a look that conveys my every justifiably denigrating thought, but he’s watching the road instead of me. “You don’t know the history of the name of your town?”
“Not my town,” he says. “I’ve only been living here for just under a year. Came here around the same time your uncle and aunt did.”
My aunt has been here a year? That doesn’t make sense. The paper I found in Mom’s drawer, the one with Aunt Pat’s address, was yellowed with age. “But—” I cut myself off.
“But what?” He watches me, eyes narrowed.
“Forget it.” I turn away from his too sharp gaze and stare out the window. I don’t exactly think of Rick as a reliable source of information. Whatever questions I have will hold until I see my aunt.
Up ahead is a low white building with a packed parking lot. The sign above it reads: Grocery.
Produce. Liquor. Beer. Wine. Pizza. Deli. Hot food. An all-in-one stop shop.
There’s a black motorcycle parked out front, but there’s no sign of the bike’s rider.
A few minutes later Rick says, “Downtown Carnage. Blink and you’ll miss it.”
We pass the town hall, a two-story, red brick building with a flag waving out front.
Then the road we’re on turns into a main street, cars parked on either side, buildings crowded one against the next, some with awnings to offer shade.
I watch the town pass. A snort escapes me. I can’t help it. Between the trees, the picket fences, the Town Hall with its pretty cornice and narrow, arched windows, and the post office that looks like it was built back when these streets were just mud, I feel like I’ve landed on another planet.
We pass a bank, a few clothing stores, a three-story building with signs for a doctor, a dentist, an accountant, and a real estate agent out front. The movie theater marquee has the word JAWS spelled out in huge letters. The whole of downtown extends maybe three or four blocks. Lots of places for me to look for work.
Eventually the road dips down a gentle hill, and the buildings frame a narrow V of ocean. Then we round a corner and we’re out of the main town, passing a couple of auto shops, a bowling alley, and some less than inviting squatty concrete buildings. And still we keep going. There are houses, but the spaces between them grow wider and wider, the houses themselves set further and further back from the road.
In the distance, where the coast juts into the ocean, a house sits at the edge of a cliff. From this angle, it looks like a strong wind would send it tumbling into the waves. We passed a few like it on the drive north, but this one feels different, isolated, cold, its lines stark and harsh.
My skin tingles. The ring on my right hand, Mom’s ring, feels like ice against my skin. I can’t drag my gaze away from the house.
Leaning forward, I press my palm flat against the front window.
“Boo,” Rick yells, then cackles when I gasp.
A long, low rumble of thunder follows.
The road curves. The view changes to trees and scrub and rock.
The house is no longer visible from the road.
I look to the side and see a sign announcing that we’re leaving Carnage Bay. I swivel to watch it disappear behind us as we keep going. My gut tightens, my nerves humming. “I thought my aunt lives in Carnage Bay.”
Rick smiles at me, if pale lips drawn back to reveal tobacco-stained teeth can be called a smile. “Not exactly.”
“Then where exactly does she live?” I’d been in Rick’s truck for hours, since we’d left the airport. I’d felt uncomfortable with him since the second I met him, but now that discomfort swells like a dry sponge dropped in water.
It’s raining again, the drumming on the roof a steady beat, a thin stream of water breaching the faulty seal and snaking down the glass. But despite the weather and my exhaustion, I’m getting the feeling I’d be better off taking my chances out in the downpour than in the truck with Rick.
“I want to know exactly where we’re going.” My fingers curl around the door handle.
He makes a sound somewhere between a grunt and a laugh. “Don’t get your panties in a twist, Lucian. It’s just along here.” He cuts a hard left onto what amounts to little more than a dirt and gravel path flanked by bushes, trees, and unkempt grass as high as the tops of the tires.
My pulse kicks up and my palms go damp. We’re not on a main road anymore. We’re not anywhere near other cars or people.
I reach into the front pouch of my backpack and grab my key ring. Old keys. Useless keys, now. One is for the front door of the apartment building and one is for the back. One is for the storage locker. I don’t know why I even kept them or why I brought them with. But at this moment, I’m glad I did.
Keeping my hand down below my right thigh so Rick can’t see, I form a fist with the longest key poking out beyond my curled baby finger. An improvised weapon.
Nancy and I took a class in self-defense last year at the Women’s Martial Arts Center on Chambers Street. Miss Murdock showed us how to punch, fight, even use rubber knives. And she taught us to yell. She said it would scare the guy and get us in the mood to attack. So, if Rick comes for me, I’ll go for him with a yell.
“This is exactly where your aunt lives,” Rick says, finally answering my earlier demand that he tell me where we were going.
The trees break to an open lawn and a massive house standing against the backdrop of gunmetal sky.
“It’s the house on the cliff,” I say more to myself than him.
“Yup.” Rick slows to a stop.
As I stare at the house, unease uncoils and stretches, coming alive in gradual degrees, climbing through me like a choking vine.
Home. Come home. Come home.
I glance at Rick. He hasn’t said a word, but I could swear I heard–
The stone stairs are awash in stinging rain.
My vision fogs and when it clears, I see the stairs pale and slick beneath a full moon.
I feel them hot beneath my bare feet under a blinding sun.
I see bright white paint on the window frames, then I see it faded and peeling.
I see the house as it is now, decrepit and crumbling.
I see it as it was then, fresh and new.
I twist my ring, my hands trembling.
Images and memories come at me…
I know this place, this house, this cliff.
I’ve been here before, lived here before.
Been afraid here before.
“You’re welcome,” Rick calls through the open window as he pulls a tight turn, spewing gravel in all directions. I jump back, yanked from whatever weird reverie had taken hold of me. He laughs, the sound raking me like nails on a chalkboard.
In a moment, he’s gone and I’m alone. The wind howls in off the ocean, carrying the smell of salt and the chill of the storm, pushing up under the hem of my sweater.
The house looms, creepy and silent before me. The gray clapboard siding is ten steps beyond needing a paint job, and the front garden is a mess of weeds and overgrown shrub. Front and center, rising above the porch, is a queer octagonal turret capped by a roof that’s flat on top and scooped at the sides, the flat part edged by a scrolled iron fence.
I glance at the round window at the top of the turret, expecting to see a curtain move or the shadowy figure of a woman walk past. I don’t know anything about architecture, but looking at the house makes me think of the word gothic. That, and Bates Motel.
The wind moans, the sound creeping down my spine as I lift my pack and start up the stairs.
I watch the front windows for any sign of movement, any hint that there are people inside. The isolation of this place is eerie. I’m used to crowds, noise, lights, and buildings that kiss the clouds, not endless space and vast ashen sky.
On the porch, I set my pack down at my feet as I reach for the knocker—a tarnished bronze demonic-looking face with a hoop through its nose. Before I can lift the hoop to knock, the door swings open.
“What do you want?” a man’s voice asks, rough and harsh.
A massive form fills my vision, dark hair, dark eyes, long, thick fingers curled around the edge of the door.
“I want to see my aunt.” I strive for polite because I’m pretty certain I’ve just met my uncle for the first time. And I couldn’t be less impressed.
“You’re Luce. You don’t look like Patience at all. I guess I thought you would.” He reaches out, grabs my upper arm, and yanks me inside.
I’m dragged across the threshold, struggling to jerk from his grasp, pulling back as he pulls forward. Once I’m inside, he lets go so suddenly I lurch away, my shoulder hitting the wall. He leans down, loops a single finger through the handle of my backpack and lifts it like it weighs no more than a tissue box. Then he slams the door and we stand facing each other in the dim foyer.
I glare at him, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to say or do next. He flicks the switch and the overhead light flares. He towers over me, at least a couple of inches over six feet, his shoulders and arms thick with muscle, his belly surging over his belt. There are pouches under his eyes and a thick scar bisects one brow. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s in his early forties. He’s almost handsome, like a faded celebrity posing for a mug shot.
His teeth flash animal white in his face, his dark eyes boring into me.
It takes everything I have to hold his gaze, to hold my place and not step back, step away. But something tells me that if I cower now, I’ll be lowering my eyes and skittering away from him from now on.
“I should give you a proper welcome,” he says, and opens his arms as if to hug me.
I put my hand on my opposite shoulder, elbow jutting forward. “‘Hi, nice to meet you’ will do just fine.”
One dark brow lifts. “You don’t have a hug for your uncle?”
“I’m not the hugging type.”
He laughs, a booming sound that echoes up the stairs and down the long, narrow hallway behind him. “Come on, Lucian. Don’t be like that. You’ve nothing to fear from me along those lines.” He lowers his voice like he’s letting me in on a secret. “I prefer blondes.”
He takes a step closer. I smell alcohol on his breath.
I cut a glance at the window, trying to decide if the weather is too inclement for me to turn around right now and leave, walk back to town, catch any ride I can, going in any direction, so long as it’s away from here.
He laughs again, and I realize he likes this. He wants me off balance.
My stomach churns, but I refuse to show even a hint of weakness.
“Like I said, not the hugging type. How about you let my aunt know I’m here?” I make it clear that’s a demand, not a question.
“Have it your way.” He finally drops his arms. Then he turns and bellows, “Patience! Your niece has arrived.” We wait in silence and when no one appears, he bellows again, “Patience!” He shoots me an aggrieved look before tromping across the foyer and up the stairs.
I look around while I wait. At the far end of the long foyer are three arched doorways, one facing me, one set at the end of the wall to my left, one set at the end of the wall to my right behind the staircase. The foyer is lit by three small chandeliers, their bulbs cupped in flowers of cloudy glass. The dark wood floor is covered by a threadbare burgundy runner. The wood stairs hug the paneled wall to my right. Wood everywhere. Even the ceiling has a pattern of dark wood beams.
The house is quiet. I don’t hear my uncle or my aunt. No footsteps. No voices.
Wrapping my arms around myself, I rub my palms along my upper arms. It’s freezing in here. Was it this cold when I first came in? I exhale, half expecting to be able to see my breath.
The sound of footsteps carries through the house, light and quick, followed by a heavier, slower tread. I glance up and catch a flutter of movement at the top of the stairs. A woman descends, shoulders stooped, head down, like she’s trying to make herself so small that she’s beneath notice. When she reaches me, she lifts her chin, but only enough to glance at my face before dropping her gaze to the floor once more. She’s about my height, but she seems much smaller, like a fragile bird with an injured wing.
I swallow a gasp. This is not the laughing aunt I remember. Her skin is sallow, loose on the fine bones of her cheeks and chin. Her slacks and button down shirt hang on her skeletal frame. For a second I just stand there staring, feeling like I’m looking at Mom near the end when she was barely eating anymore, barely able to rise from her bed, a living skeleton.
“Lucian. You’re here,” Aunt Pat says, her voice wobbling a little on the last word.
“I am.” I force a smile, reach for her hand and squeeze it lightly. “Call me Luce, Aunt Pat.”
“Oh. Oh, of course,” she says with an awkward laugh. “I see you’ve met your Uncle Prince.”
I glance at him, remembering her letters, the ones Mom used to read to me. My Prince.
“Princeton Josiah Davey,” he says with a little bow and an inflection to the words that suggests he’s laughing at himself. “Ma had great expectations for my education.”
“And were they fulfilled? Did you go to Princeton?” I try to imagine this man sitting through classes, obeying rules.
“Prince is the smartest man I know,” Aunt Pat says. “Just the smartest. He doesn’t need a piece of paper with an official seal to prove that.”
“Shut up,” Prince says, and I regret poking him. He’ll take it out on the weakest member of the pack, and that isn’t me.
Pat stares at the floor, her hands first fluttering at her sides then clasping and unclasping before fluttering once more.
I’ve landed in the middle of a cliché. Frail woman, hulking man. What the hell?
In the absolute silence, I hear the buzz of a fly. It lands on my aunt’s cheek and stays there, lifting two legs to rub them together. She doesn’t make a move to shoo it away.
With the speed of a snake, Prince’s hand snaps out. My aunt cowers.
I jerk forward. “Hey—”
But he doesn’t hit her. Instead, he plucks the fly out of the air as it buzzes off her cheek, and crushes it in his fist.
My aunt leads me up the stairs.
“There are four bedrooms on this side of the house and three on the other. We don’t use that side of the house much. Well, not at all, really. We just leave those other bedrooms the way they are.” She flutters her hand in the direction of a narrow, dark hallway that leads to the left.”
“You’ll have your choice of bedrooms,” Aunt Pat says, flinging open a door and flipping the light switch. “The blue room,” she says and motions me inside with nervous flicks of her wrist. My pack hangs heavy on my shoulders. My aunt’s bright, chipper tone, so brittle it would crack under the slightest strain, hangs heavier still. “We call it the blue room because it’s blue.”
“Very blue,” I agree. The walls are papered in enormous blue roses. A massive wardrobe stands in one corner, a wooden desk with scrolled legs in the other. The narrow bed is neatly made, flanked by a straight-back chair on one side, a night table on the other. Heavy, blue velvet curtains, patterned with more roses, are pulled across the window. The room is from another time, decades past.
It strikes me that the walls are bare of pictures.
I hear a skittering sound to my right and I spin, expecting an animal—a cat, a mouse, a small dog.
There’s nothing there.
When I turn back, I notice a painting above the bed. I swear it wasn’t there just a second ago.
It’s a painting of…the house. This house…dark windows and cloudy sky…
I blink, and the painting is gone, the spot blank and bare. Cold air swirls around my ankles, up my shins to my thighs then higher, drenching my torso with an icy chill. The faint scent of pine cleaner grows strong, unpleasantly so.
“Luce?” my aunt says again.
I realize she’s waiting for me to say something about the décor. “The room is the bomb.” At her frown, I clarify. “It’s nice. Really nice.”
“I’ll show you the others and let you choose which you like best,” she says, her expression pleased and eager. “Come see the brown room.”
She shoos me out the door and into the next room, which proves to be exactly that: brown. Brown walls devoid of decoration. Brown rug. Brown sheets. Brown bed with a heavy dark wood frame. The room is very similar to the blue room in all but color, and it carries the same pine scent.
Aunt Pat looks at me expectantly. “The bomb?”
“The bomb,” I say.
She claps her hands lightly, like a child. “Your uncle will be so pleased to hear that.”
“He’s not my uncle,” I say.
Aunt Pat gasps. “Now, Luce…” She presses her lips together. “He won’t like you saying that. He won’t.” She shakes her head.
I take her hand and choose my words with care. “Aunt Pat, I’m really glad to see you. It’s been too long. And I’ll always call you Aunt because you are my mother’s sister. You were part of my childhood and even though I’m not a child anymore, I still think of you as my Auntie. You’re my family. But I don’t know your husband and I don’t think of him as my family.”
She looks down at our joined hands then back at my face. “You grew up,” she whispers.
I smile a little. “I did. I turned twenty-two last month.”
“Twenty-two…” She shakes her head and keeps her hand in mine as she leads me from that room to the next. The red room, which is more of a dark burgundy. Then the green room, complete with faded green walls, threadbare green bedspread, and a goldish green rug. Aunt Pat chatters non-stop, her words crashing against each other until they’re all just a blur of nervous sound.
The pine smell is stronger in the green room, blending with something else. I inhale through my nose, trying to figure out what it is. It smells like…old leaves and garbage and something metallic and tangy. Rotting meat. I don’t just smell it; I taste it on the back of my tongue.
I step deeper into the room. The smell grows stronger. “What is that?”
My aunt stops talking mid-chatter and looks at me, bewildered.
“The smell,” I say. “What is it?”
She shakes her head, frowning. “The pine cleaner? I washed the floor this morning. Is it still so strong?”
I glance around, looking for the source of the reek, and as I do, I realize I don’t smell it anymore. No wet leaves. No rancid garbage. No rotting meat. Just the very faint scent of pine cleaner.
“No. It’s fine.” I back out of the room and my aunt follows. “I think I’m just tired.”
“Oh, travel will do that,” Aunt Pat says. “The time difference and jet lag and such. I remember it well.”
I nod. I worked at the diner for almost five years. I’ve done lots of double shifts, on my feet for a dozen hours or more. The fatigue I feel right now is different than anything I’ve experienced at the end of a double. Maybe it is jet lag.
“Of course you’re tired. You look exhausted. I should have known…” Aunt Pat stands at the base of a second flight of stairs, her eyes darting from right to left, hands clasped and rolling over each other again and again. “I didn’t think. I never think. Your uncle says I have the brain of a goldfish, that if I swim past the castle in my tank I’ll look at it each time like it’s the first time I’ve seen it.”
I spin to find Princeton Davey standing at my back. He came upon us silently, as if he planned to startle us. Or spy on us.
“I’m taking her up right now. Right now,” Aunt Pat says, her words rushing together in a high-pitched frenzy. “Then she can choose.”
“In a minute.” He turns his attention to me. “Your aunt will have told you I had no objection to your coming. It’s the truth. But you’ll earn your keep. You’ll help with the cleaning and cooking and such. Your aunt’s been doing it till now, but she’s barely up to the task.” He runs his index finger along the top of the small credenza that rests against the wall. It comes away clean. “You see the filth she misses,” he says, holding out his hand, rubbing his thumb against the tips of his fingers.
“I’m happy to help.” I smile tightly.
“I may have other jobs for you, errands and such. It’ll be different to have an assistant about.”
“Your assistant, huh?” I’d rather muck out a pig pen. “How much will you be paying me?”
Prince’s lips thin. “Your room and board. You’ll live here only as long as I allow it, Luce.”
I open my mouth to argue when I feel a sharp pinch on the back of my arm. I glance at my aunt to find her standing close against me, trembling, eyes wide, pupils dilated. Her fear worms inside me, pitiable. I fight the urge to haul back and punch Prince in the face.
I ought to leave. Right now. Walk out into the rain and disappear from their lives. I can see exactly what kind of man my aunt’s husband is. I can feel her fear thick in the air.
Mom was afraid of things no one else could see, while the source of Aunt Pat’s terror is standing right in front of me. And in her terror, she looks so much like Mom that it hurts.
So, I can’t leave her.
After all the years of taking care of Mom, the instinct to care for Aunt Pat is too deeply ingrained to deny. Walking away from her, leaving her here with him, isn’t an option.
I turn back to Prince. “I’m more than happy to help with chores. And if my room and board are an issue, we can discuss a fair payment. But I think you could find a far better assistant than me.”
His eyes narrow. He lifts one hand and casually clenches and unclenches his fingers, like he’s working a stiff joint. But the corners of his mouth curve faintly. For the moment, he finds me amusing.
Maybe—probably—it would be wiser to let it go, to shut my mouth and let him think he’s won. But I don’t dare back down, not if I plan to live in this house without finding myself trapped under the crush of his thumb.
My aunt makes a series of choked little gasping sounds. She’s shaking so hard her shoulder bumps mine again and again.
I keep my eyes locked on Princeton Davey. If I look away, he’ll strike. If I look away, he’ll win. And my life in this house will be hell.
After a long moment, he throws back his head and laughs, the sound rising, filling the house.
“You have balls, Luce, talking to me like that. Alright, then. Alright. I’ll let you win. Shake on it.” He takes my hand in his and squeezes just hard enough that the pressure edges into uncomfortable but not true pain. “You do what I tell you and we’ll get along just fine. You do your work. You mind your manners and your own business. Don’t cross me, do you understand?” The pressure on my hand increases.
“We’ll get along just fine,” I say, refusing to let even a hint of pain creep into my tone. We’ll get along for as long as I stay, just long enough to convince my aunt to leave here, I don’t say.
His grip doesn’t ease. I shift my thumb so my nail digs into the base of his index finger. The harder he squeezes, the harder I press.
He snorts, releases my hand, and turns to my aunt. “Take her on up.” He tips his head toward the narrow stairs that lead up into what I assume must be the turret I saw from outside. “Go on.”
Aunt Pat skitters toward the stairs. I turn to follow but stop when a heavy hand lands on my shoulder. I glance back.
“You said you could pay… You got money, little Luce?” Prince offers predatory smile.
“Not a dime,” I lie. “But I’ll be looking for a job in town as soon as possible.”
I dip and slide away from Prince’s hand, freeing my shoulder.
“Go on, then,” he says.
Aunt Pat plucks at my sleeve and shoos me up the narrow stairs. I can feel Princeton Davey watching us, watching me. I keep my spine straight, my steps measured, and I don’t look back.
Check back in a week or so for Chapter Four!
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