The house was dark and tepid. I made a mental note to open some windows. In my hand I held a yellow slip that had been stuck to the door announcing that an attempt had been made to deliver a package. The driver had circled “Recipient not at home” and indicated that a second attempt would be made in the morning. That was odd. Myma said she’d be inside all day. And those drivers usually weren’t shy about their knocking. One of them, delivering our Christmas shopping last year, had actually rattled the windows.
Lordy, it was dark in here! The blinds weren’t even opened. I should probably give them a good dusting soon. I’d want to do a lot of cleaning while I decided what to pack –
My thoughts came to a standstill when I saw her. “Myma!” I gasped, rushing to her, dropping my bag in a heap in the doorway, the little yellow sticky-note fluttering to the floor. Drew was already gone. I had stood on the porch waving to him like a lover at the train station until he was inside Aunt Tippy’s house. Da was still at the bookstore, and probably would be for awhile. I was alone. And my mother was curled up naked on the floor with the big Thanksgiving turkey knife clutched in her trembling hand.
It didn’t occur to me that she might actually harm me. The only thought in my mind was to abscond with the knife before she could hurt herself. What terrified me most was the wild look in her eyes; like a frightened animal. “Myma, what happened?” My voice sounded small and frail in the waning light – as all alone as I was.
I knelt beside her, not sure where to touch her, or if she’d even let me. I wanted to pick her up and carry her to her room, like she used to do for me when I was little and had fallen asleep on the sofa. She needed to be tucked into bed. Then everything would be okay in the morning.
“Myma, you need to give me the knife.” I was steadier now, speaking to her like a parent to a child, a sudden inspiration my recollection had left behind. She was hesitant at first, but I remained calm, at least outwardly. “I know it all looks gray right now, but it’s getting lighter. It’s going to turn blue very soon. See? Right over there, up in that corner, I can see it! Look, Myma! There it is...that little bit of cerulean that you like so much. Here it comes. We can probably catch it ’cause it’s floating really slowly.” Gradually her clutching fingers loosened their grip on the handle and I gently extracted the knife from her hands, sliding it across the floor into the kitchen. I didn’t care where it stopped, or if I scuffed the floor. I wanted to get it as far away from her as possible.
She lifted her wary eyes, looking suspiciously around the room. Although not exactly focused on me, at least I was convinced she knew I was there. “Is he gone?” she asked.
For a moment, I was utterly terrified. Oh my God. There’s someone in the house! As unappetizing as that thought was, there was a part of me that wished, for one fleeting moment, that it was true. I clung to that irrational desire because at least that would mean that my mother wasn’t completely crazy after all. If there had been someone in the house, if she had been attacked, then it would make perfect sense for her to be curled up naked on the floor, terrified out of her mind and threatening every movement with a giant knife. But as she continued, reality came home to roost.
“I burned my clothes so he wouldn’t smell me,” she said. “I put them in the oven, lit a match and threw it in.” In the back of my mind I realized, thankfully, that she must have closed the oven door and put out her own fire by depriving it of oxygen.
She was still speaking and my frazzled brain had to hurry to keep up. “I grabbed the knife on my way back out of the kitchen and crawled along the floor, reaching up to lower the blinds as I went.” She leaned into me, divulging a secret. “So he wouldn’t see me.” It was as though she was seeking my approval. I bit the inside of my bottom lip to keep from crying and managed to nod slightly in encouragement. “I didn’t want to hurt him, but he wouldn’t go away!” Again, a terrifying flash in my mind, Did she kill someone? Then she went on and I realized her imagined stalker was the delivery man, who departed whole enough to leave a yellow sticky on the door. “He kept pounding on the door like he knew I was here and he was going to break it down and I got so...so scared!” She started sobbing and I pulled her to me, rocking her back and forth in my arms, comforting the comforter.
I don’t know how long we stayed that way, curled up together on the cooling floor, the remaining light being siphoned from the room like water through a straw. I could still look out our opened front door and see the sky, so far away. The first stars were beginning to appear, timidly poking their brilliant heads through the canopy of darkness, one by one. They should have been so beautiful, my unchanging nightly companions, but something seemed so wrong about them. I wondered why it looked so unfamiliar, so glaringly obtuse. Then suddenly I realized that the pattern I’d created in the stars that night with Drew, the one hope I had to live by, the one I thought was meant for me, was nowhere to be found. It was gone. And like my quantum of perfection, it was never really mine.
I walked towards him through the sand. The wind was picking up now and it blew my hair into my face. I would have tied it back had I known it would be this blustery. I guess there were a lot of things I could have done differently that night. But it’s all shot to hell now. Might as well remember it just as it was. That’s all I have left of it, anyway.
I took each step seeing nothing but Drew before me, getting closer, becoming clearer. A silhouette before the dark. Then a figure. Then my Drew. The waves rolled up to meet him, rushing in to kiss his toes and then retreating to the depths to start again. He looked so lonely there amongst it all, surrounded by the sand and wind and tide. The water’s edge can be the most solitary place on earth. I only glanced at the thought that night and brushed it aside like a worrisome fly. Truth can be like that – elusive when it first appears, ferocious upon its return.
The moon was high and full, a Harvest Moon, my mother called it. A flurry of thoughts hit me in the stomach and took my breath away. Would I ever feel his arms around me again? Would this be the last time I saw him? What would happen after tonight? How the hell would I ever live without him? I hadn’t really thought that far ahead, and the realization caught me so off guard I nearly stumbled. But the wind blew on. It taunted me and held me back, as though it were pleading with me to turn around now, before it was too late. I was glad for the distraction. In my mind I had pictured nothing more beyond this night. It was as if there was a darkness where tomorrow should have been. An emptiness of nothing. A nothingness of days.
You’re doing the right thing, Devon, I muttered to myself beneath the wind. If you really love him, then you know this is the only way. And you’ll be a better person for it.
Seeing me, he raised his hand and smiled. I felt my heart go numb. I love you, Drew. Enough to let you go. That was my final thought before I reached his side. And once I did, he pulled me to him faster than I could collect my thoughts or form a word. I looked into his endless eyes, knowing he saw my tears and thought they were only from the wind. Then his lips were on mine and for one beautiful moment, there was nothing else at all.
But time can’t hold its breath forever and now is over far too soon. Fresh tears spilled over, salty as the ocean and limpid as my thoughts.
“Drew,” I said, and my voice flew with the wind, a choking sob blown miles away. I watched his radiant smile dissipate as he finally saw me in the crude light of reality. I knew at that moment he realized something was very wrong.
“What is it, Bits?” he said, getting to his feet to take me by the shoulders. I began to tremble and I hoped to God he would think it was only from the cold. He had to believe everything I was about to say. He had to. I have no idea how I said it and I didn’t think I’d have the strength to ever do it again, but somehow I willed myself to look at him and say the last words I ever wanted to say.
“I...I can’t marry you. I won’t.” Once these first words were out, the rest tumbled after them in a rush of fictive explanation. “It’s not that I don’t love you, Drew. I do...very much. It’s just that...well, I really want to live my own life for a while, you know? I still have so much thought to put into my writing and...I wouldn’t be able to study and attend lectures if I’m drifting around somewhere out to sea.”
He was frowning at me and I knew I’d have to do much better if I wanted to convince him that I meant any of this. “I’ve never had my own life, not really. My entire so-called adult existence has been spent solely on taking care of my mother. Not that I minded, of course, but I’ve never had the time to do what I want to do...until now. The past few years, when I haven’t been with my mother, I’ve been with you, or Cass, and I really need to live for myself for a while. To become the person I haven’t had the time to get to know yet. Maybe even get to know some other people, too. Some different people. And besides, if I really want to write from my heart, I think I need to experience all life has to offer.” I paused for a bit of effect, letting my words sink in, hoping they were ringing truer than they felt. I took a breath, tired and impatient. “I was thinking that maybe we should take a break from each other for a while, you know, just so we can be sure...”
He pulled back then, dropping his hands from my shoulders as though I had radiated heat and burned him with my words. “What are you saying, Devon?” He never called me that unless he was very angry with me, and it cut me to hear my own name coming from his lips. “You want to…to date other guys?” I remained silent, casting my eyes away from his. I was completely shocked at his assumption, but managed not to let it show. This hadn’t been part of the plan, but if it was the only way to get him to spend some time apart...
He threw up his hands and took a few steps away from me, shaking his head in disbelief. “You’re really something, you know that? You chase after me all these years, professing your undying love, and then, after I propose and you say yes and I buy us a boat, when we’re ready to sail all the way around the goddamn world, when it comes right down to it, what do you do? You run away. You always run away!”
I started to say so many things. I’ve never been good at standing by and letting someone pummel me with words, especially when I know they aren’t true. There was so much that I could say in my defense, sham though it would be. In actuality, the only thing I had ever run from was reality. I had tried to keep my mother’s mental deterioration a secret, but deep down I knew it wouldn’t be possible for long. I had been strong. I had been faithful, to myself, my family, and most certainly to Drew. And even if I’d had the chance to date someone else, I wouldn’t have wanted to. Drew was my everything. And he should have known it.
How could he accept what I was saying? Why wasn’t he fighting more for us? I could have told him all that I was thinking. I could have at least put up some defense. But I never said a word. I just stood there, silent as a still-life, for that was what I had become; a stark depiction of myself with all the pain locked deep inside. Every word that could redeem me, every admission of deceit left me abandoned in the night. My lies had served their purpose. Now all I had to do was let them live.
Our eyes met and for a moment I thought that he could see that I was lying, feel the pulsing hurt within me that threatened to break free and prove me false. At that very second, looking into his eyes, the eyes I loved and knew so well, I could feel my heart breaking. It shattered, piece by piece, and drifted away somewhere, to a place I knew, but would never find again. I realized he was far too consumed by his own pain to see mine. I couldn’t blame him, really, after all the hurtful things I’d just said to him. And the even more hurtful things I had let him believe. I was the one who had caused this. Why should he go easy on me now?
He walked away from me and stood at the edge of the waves, quiet and pensive, just as he had been when I had met him only a few minutes ago. Just before he’d kissed me. Before I had said the words that had ruined us forever. For a moment I thought maybe I had somehow turned back time and everything would be okay. Then he turned to me and said, “Go on, then. Sink into your own little world and leave me out of it. But remember, Devon Elizabeth Pearse, when you’re a famous, experienced writer, locked all alone within yourself with no one else to care or understand you, just what you gave up to get there. I hope, I really hope that you’ll be happy someday. Because, for once, I won’t be there to pick up the pieces and put it all together for you. Once I leave, I swear I’m never coming back here.”
He waited. I waited. Newly estranged hearts on the brink of the unwelcome unknown. I knew we were each so desperately wanting the other to break down and say we hadn’t meant the things we’d said, somehow make it all okay again. But they had been said, and could not be taken back. I remember thinking how very odd it was to be looking into his eyes then. They were the same, he was the same, yet everything was different. Only yesterday I could have thrown myself into his arms, but now I had to stand there, pain stealing away my breath, holding me prisoner in my own body, and watch him force my love away. Who are we now, Drew? Friends? Lovers? Strangers?
After a moment of internal struggle, he grabbed me to him, kissing me as roughly as the waves had churned the sand. “Goodbye, Bitsy,” he said, releasing me to stand or fall, for that was up to me now. A harsh goodbye, but the last one I might ever get, though I prayed that wasn’t true.
He walked away from me, never knowing how much his words had hurt me and how well he knew exactly what would shake me to the core. I sank to the sand, holding onto the earth as though I was afraid I might slide off. And, at that moment, I actually thought I might as I watched my future walk away into the dark.
“What the hell you think you doin’ here, bitch?!” His anger was directed at Monique and she quickly stepped forward to head him off. For obvious reasons, no one else wanted to.
“Calm down, Marcus,” she said, approaching him. “I told you we were coming to my mother’s to celebrate Janette’s birthday. Remember, Baby?” She tried to put her arms around him, but he brushed her off. Olivia quickly rounded up the boys and ushered them inside. I saw Delinda look around for Dwayne. He had gone to Conner’s on King Street to pick up some more drinks. We always ran out early.
Marcus grabbed Monique’s arm and twisted it behind her back. With the other hand, he took hold of her hair. Pain distorted her face, but she didn’t make a sound. Dinah stepped forward, holding the barbecue prongs in one hand and clenching the other into a fist by her side. “You get your filthy hands off my daughter and get outta here, Marcus Jamieson. Nobody invited you. Why do you always have to show up causing trouble?” Her accent had become more pronounced, a sign that she was very angry.
He smiled malignantly. “Sure, head bitch, I’ll go. But I’m takin’ this bitch wit me,” he said, dragging Monique toward the gate. I couldn’t help but notice how willingly she gave in. This was not the Monique I remembered from my youth. Where was the tough and confident older sister who was unafraid to take on Cass at her worst? We were all intimidated by her then. Now I felt only sympathy...and regret for the person she had somehow lost – or given up – for him.
Feeling like Nancy Drew, I crept to Libby’s side of the room and began to snoop. She had a framed picture on her tiny desk. I recognized the dark-haired girl as Shanti, Libby’s seemingly only friend from school. I stared hard at the photo, trying to determine if Libby had looked any different then, before she’d killed her stepfather, searching for the soul behind the eyes. Even though she’d never be my favorite person, with everything she’d gone through, I couldn’t help but have compassion for her on some level. I couldn’t even imagine all the awful things she’d suffered at the hands of a man who was supposed to care for her. And I truly couldn’t imagine ever being put in the position to have to take someone else’s life, no matter what they’d done to me.
Carefully opening the desk drawer, I found a torn piece of notebook paper folded into quarters. I unfolded it to find a scribbled verse.
To a place you’d never find
For fear you’d take her wings from her
And leave her here to die
I re-read it several times, letting it sink into my soul. I’ve always felt the only way to truly read a poem, any poem, is to handle it the way you would a costly wine. It must be savored and adored to be fully appreciated.
Poor Libby. There was a frightened girl locked inside the creepy imp who liked to mock and taunt me. Someone who needed to be reached, somehow, just like Myma.
I heard a little noise, like a scurrying mouse, and turned toward the sound. Libby was in the doorway, scratching her fingernails down the frame. Caught red-handed, I offered no excuse.
“Hello, Libby,” I said, never taking my eyes from hers. “I was hoping to...get to know you better.” She cocked her head to one side, studying me. “I read this poem you wrote. It’s beautiful.” That got her attention. I was sure no one had ever thought to describe it that way before. Surprise flitted across her face, but she hid it quickly, replacing it with a hateful frown. She crossed the room in a second, snatching the paper from my hand.
“That’s mine! No one else can have it!”
“Well, seeing as how you’d like to steal my mother away from me, I thought it only fair that I should get to take something of yours. I’m willing to share if you are.” She looked daggers at me, but there was a hint of intrigue in her eyes. “You don’t want me to have your poem, and I can understand that. Poems are very private things, even if the whole world gets to read them. They still belong to the soul of the poet, and nothing can ever take that away.” I sat carefully on Myma’s bed and Libby watched my every move. She kept her back to the wall, as though she were hiding something from me. Probably her therapy journal. Considering how she’d just caught me snooping through her things, I really couldn’t blame her for being secretive. “So, how about you give me some information? What is it that you know about my friend Cassandra that you think I don’t know?”
She smiled very slowly. “I know something you don’t know.”
“Yes, Libby, you do. You win, okay? But can you please tell me what it is now? I’d really like to know.” She was quiet, considering my request. “You don’t have to tell me all of it. Just tell me something...anything.”
Lithely she crossed the room, kneeling down in front of me. She extended a finger and beckoned me closer. I held my breath and obeyed. Speaking in a whisper, she said, “You want to know what I know, Lillibet? I know that you’re afraid. I know that when you look into the mirror, you’re scared you’ll see the other side. You’re frightened of what’s waiting there for you. In your dreams you’ve fallen through and landed here, where everyone’s the same. And one day, if that ever happens,” she leaned in, her lips touching my ear, “then you’ll be just like me.”
I jumped up, pushing her away, and ran from the room. Her laughter followed me. It was like being haunted by a living ghost – the ghost of me. I couldn’t breathe and I raced down the stairs, my feet moving far faster than they should have. I tripped and fell the last two steps onto the landing, colliding with something solid. It had arms and they supported me and sat me down on the steps I had missed. Catching my breath, I lifted my gaze. My eyes focused on the face of Detective Jim Lake.
“Wh...what are you doing here?”
“The same thing you are. Looking for answers.”
I said nothing for a while, trying to clear my mind. My thought processes were reeling, but I had presence of mind enough to realize it probably wasn’t a good idea to talk to this very observant man until I had my wits about me.
“Thank you,” I said, when my breathing had returned to normal.
“Don’t mention it.”
Nurse Betty scuttled past with a pleasant, “Excuse me, please!” carefully avoiding my fingers which, I noticed, were still clutching the carpet on the bottom stair.
“Maybe we should find a better place to sit and chat,” said Lake. Sensing my resistance, he added, “Off the record, for now.”
I reluctantly followed him out of the house to a bench under one of the stately oaks that graced the front lawn. He didn’t speak for several minutes, a reprieve for which I was exceedingly thankful.
“I’m better now. Thanks for waiting.”
“Sure,” he said.
“So, um, if you don’t mind me inquisiting the inquisitor, exactly what questions did you hope to have answered here?” I studied his well-disciplined face, hoping to gain some insight into his psyche.
“You make up your own words a lot, don’t you?”
“No fair answering a question with a question, but yes, I do. Your turn.”
He rubbed his bearded jaw before replying, “All right. Truth be told, I followed you here.”
I laughed, surprising him. “You can’t imagine what a relief it is to hear that!” I said. “I have a tendency to feel Big Brother watching me on occasion. Good to know he actually exists, at least this time.”
“That wasn’t the reaction I was expecting, but I’ll take it.”
“You’re a little out of your jurisdiction, aren’t you? Why did you follow me here? As you can see, I’m really not that interesting.”
“I beg to differ. The way you came flying down those stairs...”
“Yeah, well, you happened to catch me on a good day.”
“Somehow I doubt that.” He looked out over the grounds of Glen Harbor, selecting his words, weeding out the wheat from the chaff. “I followed you because I had reason to believe you might lead me to something that could possibly...come in handy regarding the Marcus Jamieson case.”
“Really?” I was truly surprised. “I’m not a suspect, am I?”
“No. And I have no inkling that you will be. The only thing I think you’re guilty of, besides blatant use of sarcasm, is being a concerned friend. Which, in this case, could get you into trouble.” I frowned and shook my head, not wanting to listen to his jaded opinions regarding Cass. He continued,
“Yesterday at Monique Sloane’s I noticed a distinctive orangey mud caked in the tires of your car. I observed the same deposits, if you will, on the tires of the car that Cassandra had been driving. I’ve lived in the St. Augustine area for years, driven through every field, ditch, pothole, alley, and street you can think of and have never come across it before. I found it odd that both cars would have the same foreign matter on their tires, so I decided to follow you and see if you would lead me to the source. Turns out you did.” He waved a hand across the drive in front of us, indicating his findings. “Georgia clay.”