The anniversary of Layne’s death wasn’t for another three days, but when “Cochise” came on the radio as I approached that curve, I took it as a sign. Layne’s favorite song. I pressed the gas and shifted gears as Chris Cornell began to wail. The needle on the odometer crept up.
40. 45. 50.
The yellow posted warning sign screamed at me, but still I accelerated. The night Layne died, the cops estimated that his friend Jimmy had tried to take this curve doing 65.
Fucking Jimmy, the weird little stoner kid from down the street. I hated him, hated his faux hippie parents who changed the flowers around the roadside crosses with the seasons, like Jimmy and Layne and those other kids gave a damn if it was Christmas or Easter anymore. But the Hendricks did it anyway. Now the crosses were decorated with bright orange leaves, for fall. I saw them appear just as I entered the curve, doing 67 mph.
The rear of my beat-up Civic began to slip, but I gripped the wheel and held onto it, taking the outside. I kept my gaze focused ahead of the slide, knowing better than to fix on stationary objects. Too late to hit the brakes. Instead, I eased off the gas and turned into the spin at the apex of the turn. My car gave a shimmy and a weird bobble. For one heart-stopping moment, I thought this would be the one that got me. But the Civic held on, even on tires that desperately needed replacing. When I accelerated at the end of the turn and whipped onto the straightaway again, I released the breath I was holding and pulled to the side of the road. I walked back to the place where the four white crosses waited and stared at the name on the first one. Then I ripped the leaves from it.
They hadn’t even spelled his name right. They hadn’t taught him how to spell his name and they hadn’t taught him how to take a curve.
I walked behind the crosses and lay on the ground beside a scarred oak tree, in the same spot that had once soaked up my brother’s blood. I stared up at the September sky and said, “You left me all alone.”
The night of the accident, my mother had called to say she’d be working late. Although I was only fourteen months older than Layne, my mother had always left me in charge.
As soon as I’d told Layne, he’d started pestering me to go to the movies with Jimmy. I usually let him do what he wanted because Layne could talk the birds from the skies. But my mother’s new boyfriend made me uncomfortable. He stood too close, stared too long. I’d cast a nervous glance at the living room.
“Hey,” Layne said. “Go to Sherry’s till nine. I swear I’ll be home by then. I won’t leave you alone with him.”
I had nodded, and he’d grinned. I hadn’t smiled back.
He’d made me look at him. “I promised Dad and I promise you–I’ll always protect you. I swear on my soul, I’ll never leave you and I’ll always have your back. So, nine o’clock … okay?”
But that was a promise he hadn’t been able to keep. When I’d rounded that curve a quarter after nine that night, the EMTs were frantically working to save Layne and one of the other boys. I’d thought maybe they’d known Layne wouldn’t make it to the hospital, because they’d let me have a few precious seconds by his side.
His green eyes had been dazed, unfocused. I’d clutched his bloody hand and screamed his name. He’d made a gurgling sound and turned his face toward me.
“Hold on, hold on,” I’d begged. “Don’t you leave me! You promised you’d never leave me!”
He’d squeezed my hand and then they’d pulled me away. He’d died before they reached the hospital.
If Layne had been driving, would he have made the curve? I thought the handling on the Hendricks’ Accord and my Civic probably wouldn’t have been that much different, and Layne had even more experience than I had on the dirt bike track. Unlike me, he hadn’t quit when our father died. But that was just one more ‘what if’ in a towering pile of ‘what ifs’ that loomed high in the sky and meant nothing at all.
I pulled into my childhood driveway a few minutes later and sighed. Visits with my mother, never pleasant, grew excruciating around the anniversary of Layne’s death. It hurt to see what this place had become, what my mother had become. Flower beds so meticulously tended when my father was alive were strangled out by weeds, framing a sagging, peeling white house with missing shingles. A rusted swing set still lingered beside the house, unused for over a decade. And the outside of this place wasn’t half as desperate as the inside.
I put the car in park, stepped out and adjusted the short skirt that was part of my work uniform before kicking a beer can and scowling at the tall grass.
I barged in without knocking and followed the sound of the blaring television to the living room, where my mother’s boyfriend predictably occupied my father’s old recliner. I kicked a pizza box and flinched when a cockroach skittered away from my gleaming black heels.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked, and Darius turned his bloodshot eyes on me. He leered, his eyes traveling slowly up my body then down again. “Is that any way to greet me?”
“Oh, my bad. Hey, Darius, you fucking pervert. Where is my mother?”
He laughed and stood, lurching on his feet. For a moment, I felt the same panic I had at fifteen, but my fingers fumbled in my pocket and closed around the knife I kept there. I forced myself to remain calm. I wasn’t a helpless teenager anymore.
“She’s at the cemetery,” Darius said, then licked his lips. “We’ve got time to have a nice little visit. Come say hi to Daddy.”
“Stay away from me,” I said. “You got all this time, why don’t you go mow the fucking yard? Seems like the least you could do, since my mother pays all your bills.”
His eyes hardened. “Don’t talk like that to me, you little whore.”
Moving faster than I anticipated he could, he lunged at me. My head cracked against the drywall and he seized my chin, forcing me to look up at him. His breath smelled like beer and garlic and I gagged.
“I hear you put out for everybody that comes through that bar where you work. I’m getting jealous.”
He pressed his filthy, stinking body against mine and tried to push up my skirt, but the knife was already in my hand. His eyes widened when he heard the click of the switchblade. I was sure Darius had been in enough barroom brawls to know what that sound meant. I pressed it against his crotch.
“That’s not big enough to kill me,” he hissed. “And if you ever cut me, you’d better fucking kill me.”
I smiled. “It’s big enough to get rid of some unsightly bulges. I keep her sharp.”
He released my chin and held up his hands. I let him back away.
“Tell your mother if she ain’t back by dark, I’m locking her out.”
“This isn’t your house,” I snapped.
He shot me a baleful look, then slumped back to the recliner.
I gulped a breath of fresh air when I stepped outside. I’d left this place as soon as I’d graduated high school and if not for the obligation I felt for my mother, I would never come back at all. The cemetery was visible from the driveway, just over the hillside, but I chose to drive. I could guess what shape my mother was in.
I found Mama sprawled on the ground between my father’s and Layne’s graves, a half-empty bottle of Jack in her hands. Once Bella had been beautiful, as her name suggested, but those days were long gone. Her face was ravaged by alcohol, drugs and grief. She looked up with bleary red eyes.
“It’s time to go, Mama,” I said, and reached for her arm.
She jerked away. “I’m not ready to go yet.”
“It’s getting dark and I need to get to work.”
“Go then,” she muttered.
“I need to make sure you’re home, and that you have your medicine. You want it, right?”
Of course, she did. Mama liked her medicine almost as much as her alcohol. After a near overdose last month, I had taken her pills and dispensed them to her on a weekly basis. It really needed to be on a daily basis, but I couldn’t stand the thought of making this trip every day. I suspected Mama went through a week’s supply in a couple of days, but was also pretty sure it would take more than that to kill her.
Mama allowed me to help her up. She kissed her fingertips and placed them first on my father’s tombstone, then on Layne’s.
“It was your fault,” she told me.
I wrapped my arm around my mother’s waist, taking on most of the small woman’s weight.
I’d heard comments like that so many times they barely stung anymore. I figured Layne was better off wherever he was, because surely this was hell. I was almost jealous of him. I didn’t put much stock in the afterlife, and the thought of just nothingness sounded pretty damn good to me.
We didn’t talk on the way back to my mother’s house. No use telling her about Darius. Mama hadn’t cared when I told her about him seven years ago, and she wouldn’t care now. Another wound that barely stung anymore. I helped her to the front door, gave her the little box labeled with the days of the week, and left.
All this crap had taken longer than anticipated and I was nearly ten minutes late when I pulled up to Charlie’s Bar. Half the sign had shorted out, so it simply read Char Bar, which was an apt name for anything that came out of that kitchen. That’s what the locals called it. Charlie hated it, so I called it that, too.
I straightened my skirt, flipped and tousled my hair, then undid an extra couple of buttons on my shirt. I was a damn good waitress, but I wasn’t naive enough to think that’s why I got the best tips. When you leave home at seventeen, you learn to play the game to survive.
Brody looked up from the bar when I walked in and gave me one of his perfect, dazzling smiles. He was a college kid making a little extra cash while he finished up the school year. Maybe not as spoiled as most of the ones who came through–he actually worked–but a rich boy just the same. He’d be gone before the ink dried on his diploma.
The bar was a weird mix of college kids, locals and stragglers off Interstate 24. They segregated themselves in odd little clumps. I edged past a rowdy group of bikers and headed toward the bar.
Brody placed a bag of lemons on the bar and said loudly, “Thanks for picking these up. Sorry I made you late.”
“No problem,” I said, taking his cue.
Charlie came around the corner. He looked at me, the bag of lemons and finally Brody. “Tell Jacobs if he can’t get the order right, I’ll take my business elsewhere.”
Brody tapped a salute off his forehead and Charlie frowned, but he disappeared back to the kitchen without another word.
“Thanks,” I said, and he smiled again. He really was handsome. I liked the way his blue eyes crinkled in the corners when he grinned. But we were so different I wasn’t even sure if we’d count as the same species.
“You’ve got even tables. I already did their drinks. Two and eight have ordered. Six was still looking at the menu.”
He was always helping me. Every shift, he stayed late to help me roll silverware and refill ketchup bottles, though that was not part of his duties. I’d never admit it, but sometimes the most fun I had all day was when we were cleaning up. He’d put some stupid song on the jukebox and sing to me. Sometimes we’d dance. Even though he probably just wanted what every other guy who tried to talk to me wanted, at least he was nice about it. Unlike the biker at table three, who was yelling to get my attention.
“Hey, Blondie!” he shouted. “Get that sweet ass over here and take my order. I’m thirsty.”
Kristy, the other waitress on shift that night, stood helplessly by, trying to take his order, but the biker would have none of it. I motioned her forward.
“Take my six,” I said. “I’ll handle it.”
Looking relieved, Kristy scurried away. I pasted on a smile and sauntered over to the table.
I spoke to the one making all the noise, a muscular dark-haired man with a snake tattoo that started at his neck and ended with rattles down his middle finger. “What can I get you?”
He leaned back in his chair and gave me an appreciative smile. Fishing his wallet from his pocket by the chain attached to his belt loop, he withdrew two one hundred dollar bills and placed them beneath the salt shaker.
“Two buckets of Bud to start. One of these is for the tab, one is for you if you don’t let us run dry till that hundred is gone. Understand, sweet thing?”
“Sure thing, honey,” I drawled, and his grin widened.
As I walked away, I heard him tell his buddies, “Tell me that ain’t the best ass in Tennessee.”
I rolled my eyes and made a face at Brody, who stood tense at the bar, watching the exchange.
“Two buckets of Budweiser,” I said.
“Avery, that’s not your table. You don’t have to serve those guys.”
“I can take care of myself, Brody.”
He frowned, but turned to fix the buckets without another word. Sweet of him to worry, but unnecessary. Plus, that tip would be great, considering rent was due this week. I might actually be able to eat something that didn’t come from the Char Bar.
When I returned to the table, I noticed a cell number scrawled on one of the bills. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes again and instead, engaged in some banter with them. When I walked away, Rattlesnake slapped my ass.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Brody start to come around the bar and I hurried to head him off.
“I said, I can take care of myself,” I hissed. “Do not go over there.”
His blue eyes flashed. “Avery, you’re not a piece of meat. He has no right to touch you.”
“I don’t mind.”
He scowled and threw a dish towel behind the bar. “Maybe you should.”
Yeah, maybe I should. Maybe I should do a lot of things. But these days, it was hard to feel much of anything.
Finally, the bikers left and the crowd thinned. After I took table four their check, I stepped outside to smoke.
When I heard the back door creak open a moment later, I flicked my ashes and said, “If I just fuck you, will you stop following me around like some little damn dog?”
Brody sighed, leaned back against the wall, and squinted at me.
* * * * * *
I clutched the shoulders of the man who labored over me. His snake tattoo looked even more sinister covered in a fine sheen of sweat. But I wasn’t thinking about that, wasn’t even thinking about him. Sex was just a release for me. There were never any feelings attached. Maybe that was why Brody’s words troubled me so much. I closed my eyes, remembering what he’d said.
“Jeez, Avery. Why are you such a hardass? Maybe I just care about you.”
I snorted. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“I want to,” he said. “One chance. Let me take you out on a date.”
A date. I nearly snorted again. I hadn’t been on a real date since high school. One night stands with strangers hardly counted. Brody had no idea.
“Why would you want to date me?’ I demanded.
He gave me that crooked grin and shrugged. “I dunno… because sometimes you forget to be an asshole?”
I laughed in spite of myself.
“I think you’re afraid of me,” he said. “I think you know I’d be good to you, and you don’t know how to handle that.”
“I’m not relationship material,” I said, and took another drag of my cigarette.
“You could be. With me.”
I stubbed my cigarette out and gave him a patient smile. “You think we’re alike. We’re not.” I pointed through the window at a group of roughnecks. “I’m like them. White trash, going nowhere.” Then I pointed at a group of giggling college girls waiting around the bar for Brody’s return. “You’re one of them. You’ll leave here after you graduate, marry a girl like that, named Mallory or Ashley or Tiffany and forget about this little dive bar you worked in during college. You’ll forget about me. I don’t mean anything to anyone.”
“You’re wrong,” he said. “You mean something to me.”
* * * * * *
The biker collapsed on top of me and I sighed, glad he was finally finished. I’d hoped he could take my mind off things, but now I regretted even coming to his motel room.
He rolled onto his back, and I lay there, thinking. Waiting until I thought he’d dozed off. Then I eased away from him and fumbled for my clothes in the dark.
His hand shot out and grabbed me, pulling me back.
“Where you think you’re going?” he asked, slurring.
“I need to get home,” I said, and tried to pull away.
“Aw, no,” he said. “We ain’t finished yet, darlin. Just taking a breather.”
“I’m finished,” I said. “Let me up.”
In the dark, I didn’t see the fist swinging around at me. He clocked me in the side of the face and I fell back, stunned. His hands closed around my throat and I kicked and flailed at him, but he was so strong.
My last thought before I lost consciousness wasn’t of Layne, but of Brody. Of how disappointed he’d be when they found my naked, battered body in some cheap motel tomorrow.
I’d tried to tell him. I was no good. Guess he’d finally see that.
* * * * * *
I woke up on my stomach, my cheek pressed against stiff white sheets. It took me a moment to remember where I was, but I was smart enough not to move until I got my bearings.
I hurt. I hurt all over, especially my throat. What had he done to me? I needed to cough. My throat burned, tickled. My eyes watered and I didn’t know how long I’d be able to suppress it. I heard his labored breathing beside me. Sounded like he was out, but I didn’t dare turn my head. Instead, I strained to see in the dim room, looking for a weapon. He’d left the bathroom light on. I saw the contents of my purse strewn across the worn carpet. My wallet gaped open. Empty.
I gritted my teeth and made a push toward the edge of the bed. I paused, but detected no change in his breathing. I forced myself up on shaky legs and fumbled on my clothes. Stuffing my things back into my purse, I realized my money wasn’t the only thing missing. So was my knife.
The smart thing would’ve been to slip out the door and run. But I needed my money. Not just the $100 tip, but the other $170 he’d taken from my wallet. I crept to his side of the bed and unplugged the lamp. When I tried to lift it, I found it was bolted to the table, so I unplugged the phone instead. Then I searched until I found his wallet. I thought about just taking my part of the money, but I thought, fuck it, and took it all–my money, plus two hundred or so.
He began to stir.
I gripped the phone and crashed it down on his head. He cursed, and I hit him again. Then I ran.
The morning sunlight nearly blinded me, and for one terrifying moment, I couldn’t find my keys.
“Please, please, please,” I gasped, fumbling in my purse.
There they were. I jumped in my car, still watching the motel door, but it never opened.
I didn’t kill him, I thought. Surely I didn’t kill him.
I was nearly a mile away when I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror. Blood spattered my face. I hadn’t even felt it.
“Oh, God!” I said, and fumbled in my glove compartment for napkins.
Twenty minutes later, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, trying to figure out what to do. Ugly red bruises stood out against the pale skin of my throat. Even the whites of my eyes were red.
Maybe I should go to the police. It was self-defense, right?
I decided to drive back to the motel. To my relief, his bike was gone when I got there.
For two days, I never left my apartment. The next night, however, I had to work. I almost called in. This was the anniversary of Layne’s death. I might not make it until tomorrow anyway. But with my luck, I’d probably survive. Again.
I tried to cover up the bruises with makeup, but that somehow made them look worse. I washed it off, then tied a scarf around my neck. It looked dumb, but I couldn’t think of anything else. At least my red eyes had cleared up.
Brody gave me a long look when I walked into the bar. Change of shift was busy and I managed to avoid him until my first smoke break. He followed me outside.
“That biker guy’s been looking for you,” he said.
“Oh?” I said, and he frowned at the rasp in my voice.
“I told him you’d quit. When he came back the next night, I told him you’d still quit. Charlie backed me up. He looked pretty rough. Not as rough as you, though.”
Before I knew it, he pushed me against the wall and reached for the scarf.
“What are you doing?” I asked, trying to force his hands away.
“I haven’t seen anyone wear an ascot since Fred on Scooby-Doo.”
The scarf came free in his hands.
“Jesus, Avery!” he said, and I felt absurdly near tears at the horror in his eyes.
When I didn’t speak, he said, “That guy said you took his money. What are you into, Avery? Is it drugs?” He looked away. “Prostitution?”
A tear slid down my cheek. “Is that what you think of me?” I shook my head and pushed past him. He tried to grab my arm, but I jerked away.
I walked through that back door, through that restaurant, and out the front. I heard Brody call my name, but I never slowed down. Maybe fate would be kind tonight.
* * * * * *
I wanted to die. More than anything. I kept picturing the look on Brody’s face. He was the only one who’d believed in me, the closest thing I had to a friend. Now he thought I was some sort of crack whore.
By the time I hit the curve, I was doing 70. When the rear end came around and I started to spin, I closed my eyes and pictured Layne’s face. Suddenly, his voice filled my head, shouting instructions, as clear as if he were in the seat beside me. When I opened my eyes again, my car was sitting neatly on the side of the road, just past the white crosses.
I opened my door and nearly fell out onto the shoulder. I half-stumbled, half-crawled over to the memorial and collapsed in front of Layne’s cross, sobbing.
“Avery! Avery, are you okay?”
I rolled onto my back and tried to scramble away. Brody fell to his knees beside me and reached for me. “Hey, it’s me!”
I slapped his hands. “What are you doing here? Why are you following me?”
“What just happened?” He looked at the crosses. His gaze lingered on Layne’s. “What is this place?”
“My brother died here.”
I never talked about my personal life. Ever. But once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. I told Brody everything, about Layne, about Darius, my mother … even about rattlesnake guy. When I finally stopped, I was afraid to look at him. Now he would know I was trash, just like I’d tried to tell him.
He wrapped his arms around me. I froze for a moment, then sagged against him. His arms tightened around me. “What happened to Layne was not your fault. Why would you think that?”
“I was the oldest. I was in charge. We were supposed to stay home.”
“You were kids, Avery. This wasn’t anyone’s fault.” He paused. “What I just saw, with the curve … you do that every year?”
I didn’t answer.
He kissed the top of my head. “You are the strongest person I’ve ever known.”
I gave a strangled laugh. “I’m weak. When I went into that curve tonight, I wanted to die. I’m so alone, Brody.”
He gave me a fierce hug. “You are not alone. Not anymore. Let’s get out of here, okay? We’re going back to my place.”
I wasn’t sure what showed on my face, but he shook his head. “Not for that. I’m not letting you stay alone tonight.”
He stood and reached to help me up. I took his hand. He smiled and hauled me to my feet. I brushed a kiss on my fingertips and pressed it to Layne’s cross, then slid under the arm Brody offered.
His place wasn’t much bigger than mine, though his furniture was better. I’d muddied my clothes, so he found me one of his shirts and a pair of drawstring shorts to put on. We talked for hours, about my family, about his. I learned that money didn’t necessarily buy a happy childhood. Even when there was nothing left to say, I felt comfortable. Safe. I hadn’t felt that in years. I fell asleep with my head on his shoulder.
I woke sometime later, lying on the couch. Brody lay beside me, spooning my back, his arms around me. When I stirred, he mumbled, “Don’t go.”
Lying there, wrapped in the heat of his body, breathing in his scent, I didn’t want to go. I twisted around and kissed him. He kissed me back, rolling on top of me. But when I reached to tug his shirt over his head, he stopped me.
“Please,” I said. “I want this.”
He led me to his bedroom. That night, I broke one of my rules–I didn’t leave.
I woke the next morning and reached for him. His side of the bed was empty. I snagged a t-shirt off the floor and went to search for him.
I found him in front of the stove, singing and dancing in his boxers, making breakfast. I pressed my fingertips to my lips, but failed to suppress my smile.
Apparently, he didn’t hear my approach. I witnessed a rather inspired performance of Prince’s song, “Kiss.”
I laughed, feeling happy for the first time in a long time. He whirled, but didn’t seem embarrassed. He placed a plate of pancakes on the table and seized me, dancing me around his tiny kitchen.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he said.
“Good morning.” I glanced at the plates of food covering the kitchen table and raised an eyebrow. “You having company over?”
“Ha. Ha.” Sunlight streaming through his kitchen window made his eyes look blue and bright as a June sky. “Baby, I am hungry!” He winked at me and said, “And maybe I wanted to impress you a little.”
I grinned and draped my arms around his neck. “Oh, I’m impressed. Mostly that you have this much food in your house, considering we both work at the same place.” I winced. “Well, maybe we used to. I guess maybe we’re fired.”
“I took care of it. I talked to Charlie, told him you had an emergency and it’s all good. We have tonight off, too.”
“What?” I gasped. “Charlie hates me.”
“No, he doesn’t. You never miss work. Besides, how would he replace both of us?”
He smiled. “So… since we have tonight off, how about that date?”
“You know … dinner, dancing? Something besides burned corn dogs and dancing around the jukebox at Char Bar.”
‘’But that’s my favorite.”
“I know. I may have set the bar too high, but I’ll do my best to impress you.”
“You already impress me.”
And he did. Brody was a nice guy. A good man. When I found out I was pregnant six weeks later, he didn’t say, “Are you going to keep it?” or “Is it mine?” He said, “Marry me.”
“Brody, I don’t know if it’s yours. I won’t put this on you if it’s not yours.”
“I don’t care if it is. It will be. We will never know any differently, and the baby won’t either. I love you, Avery. We can be the parents we always needed. Marry me.”
But I couldn’t. Not without knowing. I talked to my doctor and he scheduled an amniocentesis when I was far enough along.
The day we met the doctor to discuss the results, I was a wreck. I’d given up cigarettes the day I learned I was pregnant, and my nerves were shot. I’d been unable to sleep that night and, while staring into Brody’s face in the moonlight, I’d made a decision. If the baby was his, I’d marry him, and I’d do my damnedest to be a good wife and mother. If it wasn’t, I’d leave in the middle of the night and never look back. I was not going to tie him to another man’s child.
Brody tried to make small talk while we waited, but I couldn’t hold up my end. Both me and my baby had so much to lose. I wanted Brody to be the father so badly. Not for his money, or even his support. One day, this child would want to know about its father. I did not want to have to tell it that I didn’t even know his name.
The doctor looked at Brody and held out his hand. “Congratulations, Dad.”
Brody’s grin lit up that office. He pumped the doctor’s hand and then turned to hug me.
So, I agreed to marry him. On our wedding day, Brody punched his best friend in the face for telling him he couldn’t turn a whore into a housewife. Maybe he was right. I didn’t know. All I knew was that I would do my best not to let him down. Not to let either of them down.
I didn’t know if I was capable of love, but the day I looked into Brody’s shining eyes over that surgical mask when he held our son for the first time, I knew I loved them both.
I couldn’t say it, however, but I hoped he knew. He stood by my side when I cut ties with my mother. My son was my priority now. I could no longer try to help someone who wasn’t interested in helping herself. I also would never have my child around Darius.
Lucas was a difficult baby. Brody and I learned how to live on little sleep. A colicky infant stage progressed to night terrors by age three. That was the age he began to talk a lot more, and also when I started to suspect there was something terribly wrong with my son.
One night, as he played with one of his toy cars, he looked at Brody and said, “His name is Dale.”
Brody glanced at the black car with the number three on the door and looked at Lucas in surprise. “Yeah, that’s Dale Earnhardt’s car. How did you know that?”
Lucas shrugged and said, “My other dad told me.”
Brody stared at me. “Other dad?”
I shrugged, but I saw the tension in his face.
“Who’s your other dad, Lucas?” he asked.
Lucas wouldn’t answer.
“Can I see you in the kitchen?” I asked.
“You can’t turn a whore into a housewife, right?” I said, when we were out of Lucas’ earshot.
He reached for me and I jerked away.
“I’ve never cheated on you. I’ve never even considered it. I … care about you.”
Brody sighed. “I know you do. I’m sorry. It just … caught me off-guard, I guess.” He pulled me to him and this time I didn’t fight it. “I love you, Avery. And I know you love me, too. I only wish you could say it.”
I did, too. There was this feeling that, if I did, something horrible would happen. One night, while Brody lay across my lap, I traced the words on his back with my fingertips. I thought he was sleeping, but he kissed my thigh and said, “I love you, too.”
My mother called me a week before the tenth anniversary of Layne’s death, begging to see Lucas. She told me she’d been clean for two years, and that she’d kicked Darius out the same day I had told her goodbye. I told her I’d think about it and disconnected the call. That night, I pulled down an old photo album from the closet. I’d stolen it from my mother’s house before I moved out. Lucas climbed into my lap and Brody looked over my shoulder while I flipped through it.
Lucas pointed at a picture of a 10-year-old Layne and said, “That’s me.”
“No … honey, that’s your Uncle Layne. He’s in heaven now.”
Lucas ignored me, poring over the pictures with an intensity rarely seen in the rambunctious toddler.
He pointed at another picture. “That’s my old dad.”
“That’s my dad,” I said.
He looked at me with his bright blue eyes and said, “I know, Mommy.”
That week, Brody called me from a restaurant parking lot. I heard Lucas in the background, having a meltdown. They’d been fishing and stopped to get lunch.
“Hey, honey,” Brody said. “Do you want us to bring you something?”
“I’m good. Why’s he crying?”
“You’ll never believe it. He’s crying because the waitress took away his corn cob.”
“A corn cob. He started screaming that he wanted me to make him a pizza pie or something, like his old dad did.”
Lucas screamed in the background. “Piece pie! Piece pie!”
“Do you have any idea what he’s talking about, babe?”
“No, none.” But something was there. Some memory tugged at the back of my mind.
Brody sighed. “Okay, well … we’ll be home in about an hour. I love you.” He hung up instead of waiting on the reply he knew wasn’t coming.
I stared at my phone, then impulsively called my mother.
“Mom, I have a weird question. About Layne.”
“Okay,” my mother said slowly.
“Did Dad ever make something for him, out of corn cobs?”
“Yeah. He made these pipes, out of dried out corn cobs and sticks. Layne thought he was big stuff, clamping it between his teeth and walking around like Popeye.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Well, you were a girl. Your father didn’t believe in little girls even pretend smoking.”
“Did he call them something?”
“He called them peace pipes. He’d grab his cigarettes, hand Layne his pipe and say, ‘Come on, son, let’s go smoke our peace pipes.’ Why do you ask?”
This was not something I wanted to run by my mother. “An old memory, I guess.”
They made small talk. My mother told me about the latest sobriety coin she’d earned and said, “Avery, I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you about Darius. I–”
“Mom, I have to go,” I said. “I’ll call you later.”
Some things I wasn’t ready to forgive, or even talk about.
Rummaging through the freezer, I took an ear of corn from a freezer bag and boiled it. Then I shaved the corn from it with a knife and placed the cob on the back porch to dry. I made a pipe and sat it on the entertainment center.
Lucas didn’t notice it until that afternoon, after supper. He yelled, “Piece pie! Piece pie!” until Brody followed his gaze and got it down. He shot me a questioning look, then handed it to Lucas. Lucas stuck the end of it in his mouth and beamed at them.
That night after I put him to bed, Brody and I discussed it.
“What are you saying?” he asked. “I know it’s odd, but you don’t really think–”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But he says such strange things sometimes.”
Even Brody had no explanation for what happened later that week.
They were talking, laughing, on the way to the zoo. I was driving. In the backseat, Lucas said, “Mama!”
Brody was in the middle of the story he was telling, so I glanced in the rearview mirror at Lucas, but didn’t reply.
“Mama!” he cried again, then, “Dammit, Timmy, I said stop!”
I slammed on the brakes, and was nearly rear-ended by the car behind us. It swerved around us. Brody and I looked at each other, then at Lucas.
The blare of a horn jerked my attention back to the front. I looked up just in time to see the car that passed us sail through a green light and get T-boned by a semi. Metal screamed. The semi carried the little red car through the stoplight and crashed into a pickup on the other side.
“Call 911!” Brody shouted and bailed out of the car.
Shaking, I did as instructed. When I disconnected the call, I twisted to look at Lucas and said, “What did you call me?”
He looked out the window.
“Lucas, answer me! Why did you call me Timmy?”
“That’s your name.”
Nearly an hour passed before they could leave the scene. Brody climbed back in the car, shaken. I asked him about the people in the car and he shook his head. Lucas lay slumped in his car seat, asleep.
“What just happened, Avery?” he asked. “Do you realize if you hadn’t stopped–if Lucas hadn’t screamed–that would’ve been us. That light was green.”
I burst into tears, and he grabbed me. I buried my face against his neck and sobbed.
I waited until we were home, until Lucas was watching cartoons in another room, to pour myself a drink and sit at the kitchen table with Brody.
“Did you hear what he called me?” I asked.
Brody gave a puzzled laugh. “Uh, Timmy? Jimmy? To be honest, I was more concerned about the other word he said.”
“I asked him why he called me Timmy and he said that was my name. Brody, no one’s called me that since my dad died.”
He reached for my glass and took a long swallow. “Your dad called you Timmy?”
Tears stung my eyes. “I was that kid, you know … the kid who was always getting into trouble, always getting hurt, or stuck, or something. Layne would always run for help. My dad would look at my mom, sigh, and say, ‘Look, honey, here comes Lassie. Guess Timmy’s fallen into the well again.’ How would Lucas know that?”
Brody looked at me for a long moment, then at his lookalike son playing in the living room. He shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe he said something else. Maybe we misunderstood.”
“He said Timmy. I know he said Timmy. But even if he didn’t, why was he screaming at me to stop? He couldn’t have seen that truck.”
“Did you ask him?”
“I did, but he wouldn’t answer me.”
Brody called their son into the kitchen. “Lucas, why did you call your mom that name in the car?”
The boy dropped his head. “It’s her name.”
“Who said that was her name?”
“My old dad.”
I felt Brody’s eyes on me, but I was watching Lucas. “Why did you yell at me to stop?”
Lucas looked at his shoes. “Cause I’m supposed to protect you.”
I closed my eyes. In my head, I heard Layne say, “I’ll always protect you.”
I began to cry.
“Mommy, don’t,” Lucas pleaded, tugging at my sleeve.
I found I was afraid to look at him.
“Why don’t you go play, Bud?” Brody said.
I opened my eyes and stared at my husband. He looked as scared and confused as I felt.
After that day, Lucas didn’t speak of his old dad, and after a couple of months, I almost forgot. He was just Lucas again, a handsome little boy with eyes as blue as a June sky and a cowlick in the crown of his head, like his father.
That fall, I decided I wanted to visit my mother and put flowers on Layne’s grave. Brody wanted to go with me, but I told him it was something I needed to do alone–at least the first time.
Lucas was asleep when we passed the curve going in. Yellow leaves decorated the white crosses. This time, I didn’t mind.
When I pulled up at my childhood home, I was surprised to see the yard neatly kept and the flowerbeds exploding with color. my mother sat in a chair on the front porch. She walked out to greet us and stood by the car while I roused my sleeping son.
“Oh, my!” my mother said, placing a trembling hand to his cheek. “Avery, he’s beautiful.”
Lucas blinked at the older woman and his small face creased in a frown. “You look … different.”
“Different from what?” my mother asked with a laugh. “Did you show him pictures?”
I looked at Lucas and thought of Layne. Of how different he’d think our mother looked. The past eleven years had not been kind.
“Come in,” my mother said. “I made lunch.”
“Mommy, no,” Lucas whispered. “The bad man–”
My blood ran cold, but I patted my son’s back and whispered, “The bad man is gone.”
The rest of the visit passed uneventfully, though Lucas was unusually quiet and clung to my side. At least until we walked to the cemetery. He ran ahead of us, chasing a butterfly. But he stopped and ran his fingers over the etching of one tombstone. I realized it belonged to Jimmy Hendricks. He paused and gave it a thoughtful look, then he ran ahead.
He stopped at Layne’s grave.
My mother shot me a surprised look, but I ignored her. Lucas played around the tombstones for a while, but he grew increasingly agitated and whiny.
“Mom, I need to go,” I said finally.
On the way out, Lucas began to cry as they approached the curve.
“Timmy, stop!” he said softly.
Without hesitation, I pulled over. I unbuckled my seatbelt, then extracted Lucas from his car seat. Hand in hand, we walked over to the row of crosses.
Lucas sat on the ground, in the spot where I had watched my brother take his last breath. my son looked up at me tearfully.
“I’m sorry, Mommy. I fell asleep and I couldn’t find you when I woke up. I got lost.”
“It’s okay,” I whispered, feeling the tears slip down my cheeks.
“It’s not,” he insisted. “I promised to protect you.”
I folded the small boy in my arms. “You did more than that. You saved me.”
“You forgive me?”
“Of course,” I said, squeezing him tight. “You saved me.”
And he wasn’t the only one. Brody worked late that night. Lucas had been in bed for hours when I saw his headlights turn into the drive. I ran out to meet him.
“Is everything okay?” he asked.
“I love you!” I blurted.
He stared at me for a long moment, then he gave me one of those dazzling smiles. “Say it again.”
I did, then I kissed him.
Lucas’s night terrors stopped after that night, and he never mentioned his old life again. I hoped Layne had somehow found peace, because at last I had.
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