Authors: Nenia Campbell
CEASE AND DESIST
by Nenia Campbell
Copyright © 2012 Nenia Campbell
All rights reserved.
To my readers: you are the the match
that strikes the tinder.
Loving mother. Devoted wife. Brilliant artist.
Looking at these words was jarring. Not just because of my grief, although there was that, too — that solid moment of conviction that she really was gone, forever. No, there was something else … and it took me a moment to realize what it was.
My mother's epitaph reminded me of the game “two truths and a lie.” How terrible. It was so, so terrible. They had written lies on her gravestone. My mother had been immortalized as a parlor game.
Irony. That was the word I was looking for.
I had come here to grieve, but staring at these words chiseled into the salt-and-pepper granite was like trying to see a picture through a wall of water. My entire view of my mother was being refracted, bent and reshaped in such a way as to conform to society's unspoken rule of mourning: that one does not ever speak ill of the dead — at least not publicly, and certainly not in stone.
But beneath this falsified overlay was the truth: that my mother had been a vain and cruel and
woman who would think nothing of sacrificing her family for her own means, and that mother — the one I remembered — would have looked at these words and she would have scoffed.
(“Devoted wife? Does your father still think I am sitting around and pining for him while he frolics with the Mouse?”)
Mamá had never had any scruples when it came to insulting my father in front of me. I'm sure she felt entitled, as furious as she was that he had been the first to leave. She hadn't believed him capable of showing that much spine. Not to her.
She went through a crisis, after that, dating an endless series of men, many of them young enough to be my brother. Some were okay, but many weren't; I learned the necessity of keeping my door locked at night whenever I stayed over at her house. I had tried to tell myself that a happy
was better than an angry
, and at least this way she would be too distracted to work on her memoir. If this was how she wanted to occupy her time, with all these boyfriends, then who was I to judge? She wasn't completely without discernment — until she let the wrong one in.
I could imagine her cold laugh, the haughty roll of her eyes as she dismissed my father and his new wife, all in one dramatic sweep of the wrist. She would be wearing bracelets, bangles, because she liked the sound they made, rattling together every time she waved her arms. Which she did a lot. Anything to call attention to herself, anything to claim the spotlight to herself for another fifteen minutes.
It had been her downfall, in the end.
I should have tried harder to stop her — I knew what she was like. I should have convinced her to leave, to change her name and run far and fast, to another country where nobody had ever heard of or would recognize Liliana Parker-de-Silva.
I pressed my fingers to my temples. They were wind-chilled, and stress and lack of sleep rendered the skin embryonic and tissue-thin. I could feel my pulse fluttering against my fingertips, far too fast for someone whose heart was supposedly at rest.
What had my dad been thinking, commissioning these words? Obviously, he hadn't been.
Thinking, that is.
I winced. My mother might say that, too. Another irony. We were nothing alike.
nothing alike. My mother had been exactly the type of woman that others loved to loathe; she validated their hatred with every snide comment, every hair toss, and every casual throw of shade. Oh — and she had been beautiful, and very thin. She had been a model when she met my father, and he had been so taken with her that for years he had been blinded to her terrible personality. For my mother, first impressions were everything: you simply had no value as a person if what lay on the surface did not dazzle and enchant.
That had been the root of the majority of her problems with me. She didn't think I invested enough time and effort into my appearance. She tried to interest me in clothes and expensive salons, but I was more interested in baseball and electronics. My mother found this infuriating. “Men do not want women if they are competitors,” she might have said, the underlying meaning being that women had no value hiding beneath their skin. She had no shortage of sexist adages that sounded as if they were out of an advice column published in the 1950s. “Men want women to look on in admiration.” Or, “Do you want people to think you are a lesbian, Christina? Because that is what they are going to think if they see a women of your size, with your look, hefting around a baseball bat.”
She took my weight as my personal attempt to spite her, and she tried to control what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate. She attempted to make me try juicing, crossfit, yoga. I hated all of it.
Even if I had actually lost the weight, I'm sure she would have found some other flaw to pick at incessantly, chipping away at my confidence grain by grain with the patience of Hercules performing his labors. Hers was an obsessive patience driven by feverish compulsion. She could out-wait anyone. To any outside observer, her obsession with weight and beauty would have suggested that she had her own very real and painful sense of personal inadequacies.
She had, as I later found out. Not that it excused any of her behavior. It didn't. But knowing what I knew now made it easier to understand.
None of that mattered now.
A gentle breeze lifted my hair, ghostly fingers stroking my scalp and sending chills down my spine. I shivered, and rubbed at my arms. The air smelled like flowers. The almond trees surrounding the cemetery were in full bloom, their white petals scattered across the silent graves by the eddying wind like powder snow. It was so serene and beautiful.
Almonds are mentioned ten times in the Bible. In religious art, the branches are often used to symbolize Jesus's immaculate conception. Did the owners know that when they ordered the trees planted? Was it supposed to hint, delicately, at the chance of rebirth and new life? Or had they just liked their look?
How much of life is looking for meaning where there is none? We were all islands of light floating in darkness, always on the verge of sinking into a black, perpetual gloom. All illumination came from within, and we used that to signal desperately at others, looking for sameness, for signs that we weren't alone.
Leaning against the trunk of one of the flowering almond trees was a man in a black coat. He was a tall man, and the coat flapped around him like wings. When the clouds broke, the sun caught in his blonde hair, sparking a blazing halo of golden flame. He looked, I thought, just like his namesake — Michael: the beautiful, but terrifying, archangel of war.
He was too far away to see clearly but I knew he would be frowning, lips compressed into a thin line that hid their surprising fullness. The muscles in his jaw would be rigid, pulling his skin taut, and making the scar on his cheek stand out in stark relief.
Petals were falling in his hair. He lifted a hand to brush them away with the same air of inconvenienced annoyance as a cat experiencing an unwanted touch. The movement pulled his coat tightly across his broad chest, and as I watched him I felt something within me catch and tighten in response.
I looked back at my mother's grave, and blinked. Someone had left her flowers. Whoever it was, they hadn't known her well. They had left her roses, which my mother had considered gaudy and uninspired. “The insipid woman's bouquet,” she had once called them, probably to my face, and probably after I had admitted to liking them myself. She preferred tiger lilies. I laid the ones I had brought with me down gently on the grave. In their crackly plastic wrapping, the orange star-shaped flowers were the brightest objects here. I almost felt embarrassed for them.
I planted my hands into the soil to push myself up. Small tufts of grass as soft as baby hair were growing out of the mulch. I tried not to think about what was causing these plants to flourish here, in this maudlin soil. Tried, but did not entirely succeed. My flats barely made a sound as I headed back towards the grove of trees where Michael was waiting.
He straightened as I approached. Straight, rigid posture that betrayed his training. Most people would assume that he was ex-military, and it was safer to let them think that. Safer for us, safer for them. Because if someone figured out who he was, and what he'd done, it meant they were earmarked for death.
He asked, “Did you do what you needed to?”
“I think so.” I pushed my hands into my coat pockets, feeling around for the reassuring smoothness of my eos chapstick. I curled my fingers around it like a worry stone. “Someone left her roses.”
“She hated roses.”
Michael gave a Gallic shrug he might have picked up from growing up in the French Quarter. “Maybe they hated your mother. A last 'fuck you.'”
I abandoned the chapstick for my car keys. Those had been my thoughts as well, but hearing him giving my paranoia credence wasn't reassuring.
The air hummed with bees circling in lazy arcs, and with the distant roar of traffic. I tracked one of the bees with my eyes until it disappeared from sight.
“People are petty. They sink their teeth into their grudges like pit bulls and hold on for dear life.”
“What's in it for the pit bull?”
“Nothing,” said Michael. “It's instinct.”
“Instinct.” I kicked at a rock with the toe of my flat, sending it skidding through the grass, startling a bee from the clover. “I guess you'd have been out of a job if it weren't.”
He didn't smile. “Fucking A, sweetheart.”
, I thought, testing it out.
We made our way back to the navy blue Honda Civic parked in the visitors' lot. The car was a rental, procured with fraudulent IDs which would now have to be destroyed. That was pretty much routine for me now. My identity had become as fluid as water; it was no longer the stable foundation I used to build my existence upon. There were no paper trails to follow back like breadcrumbs to the real, waiting me.
I was, as far as the government was concerned, a ghost. Missing, intangible. Possibly dead.
But not being corporeal — at least on paper — has its perks: I could go anywhere, be anyone, as long as nobody looked too closely.
Michael held out his hand. I stared at him, and realized I had no idea what he wanted.
“Give me the keys,” he said. “I'm driving.”
Oh. I dropped them into his upturned palm. “Don't trust me to drive?”
That hurt. “Why?”
“Because you're not an experienced driver. You've never practiced stunts on a closed course.”
“And you have?”
He pressed the button on the fob and the doors unlocked. The smell of new car hit me like a chemical punch to the nose as I swung into the passenger seat, making my eyes water and my sinuses sting.
“Do you think we're going to run into something that's going to make that necessary?”
I buckled my seat belt. “Do you think that
left the roses?”
Michael paused, his hand hovering over the keys. Then he started the engine with a rough jerk. “No.”
The engine spurted to life as though disagreeing.
“Are you sure?”
“As much as that bastard loves rubbing salt in the wounds he's inflicted, he's got his hands full at the moment. He wouldn't have time to order someone to drive all the way to Oregon to leave a bouquet of fuck-you roses on your mother's grave. It's just not expedient.”
“But it is petty.”
He drummed his fingers on the wheel, once. Like a nervous tic. “One of her fans could have left them.”
I hadn't thought about that. She definitely catered to the “red roses” kind of girl. Rich girls with money to burn who probably called themselves princesses unironically.
The kind of girl she wanted me to be.
“The simplest explanation is often the right one.”
“I know what Occam's Razor is. I also know that that's not really what you believe.”
I watched his face, looking for those small tells I had gradually come to know and recognize as the cracks in his stoicism that they were.
But there were none.
I suddenly felt less sure. “Is it?”
No response. Ignoring me? No, just thinking. There was a line between his tawny eyebrows. He was weighing out his answers with the reluctance of a miser parting with his gold, and I imagined that he'd be just as stingy with the response.
“I'm trained to examine all possible explanations including worst-case scenarios.”
“You're a professional pessimist.”
“A realist,” he corrected. “The worst-case scenario isn't always the right one.”
“You should call that Boutilier's Posit.”
He looked away from the road to give me a look. The one that said he wasn't impressed. But his mouth was turned up a little at the corner, spoiling the effect.
“No,” he said.
“So what are some of the possible explanations?”