Authors: Lucian Bane
Genuine sympathy hit me for the tormented old stranger before me. He had suffered greatly, was still suffering. I made my voice soft.
"Oh, I'm sure, I'm sure she did."
Your… grandmother was a wonderful woman. I'm so grateful for her." His tone and his words said something different, but I wasn't sure what. That wasn't anger, or resentment. More like regret.
How is she?"
Oh fine. Perfect."
Why would he ask? What did he know?
"Feisty as usual. Strong as an ox."
Still stubborn as a mule?"
"Yes, that she is." I nodded, wondering how long I had to do this before it was enough for the audience. At least I didn't have my mother to face. That… Well, I wasn't sure I could have dealt with her so easily.
I looked at the man and braced for whatever brought those tears to his eyes.
"I need you to know something." His voice thickened and trembled as he smoothed the few hairs on his head. "Your mother…died in childbirth." He wiped the tears from his face. "She had cancer and she refused the treatment because it might harm you. And…it killed her. She just wasn't strong enough to fight it off and carry you. And I couldn't…stand to…see you after." He choked on a sob. "I was useless as a father, a parent, a human being. I left you at the step of your Gramma's house like a…" his voice turned to a fragile whisper, "…like some kind of package, just a piece of mail."
I held fast to my therapist façade. Sympathetic but detached.
"I'm sorry that you had to go through that. I didn't know."
He looked at me, once more confused, not caring about the tears that rolled down his face.
"I wanted to be in your life so many times. I wondered about you, dreamed about you. But…I couldn't… every time I tried, I'd get cold feet.
He wrung his hands, then kept going.
"Your grandmother hates me. Rightfully so. She tried for years to get me to be a father. I'm a fucking failure." Sighing, he picked up his coffee cup, but it clattered loudly in his saucer and some of it sloshed over the side. Giving up, he returned it to the table.
I looked at Steve and angled my head at the man. Surely he could say something comforting?
"It's quite understandable Mr… Reese." He looked at me briefly, eyes widened, before going on. "Had to be such a hard time for you. Losing your wife. You must have really loved her. Bless your heart."
His words soothed even me and I relaxed a little. Was our Steve hiding yet another talent? Funeral director?
"I did love her." My father let out a sob and his thin shoulders heaved. "Loved her more than life."
your own child. Don't forget that.
I shushed the aggravated little voice in the back of my mind. Saying it aloud would serve no purpose. I took a careful deep breath, putting my emotions neatly in place.
I looked around, feeling done. What was next? To say that this news didn
't upset me in the least was a clear indication that I was truly free of any demons. I set my coffee down. "Well, we do have a schedule to keep." I stood up. "It has been such a… freedom
to finally meet you."
He stood, wiping his eyes.
"Has it?" The tears gushed again and I couldn't help but think how strange it all looked. And distasteful.
It truly has." I put my arm around Lucian and hugged him. "Like a puzzle piece finally in place. Thank you for that. Sincerely."
He shook his head, looking as pathetic as ever. I hurried us to the front door, ready to leave.
"Lovely house you have too."
Thank you," he mumbled behind us.
't get to the car fast enough and ignored Lucian's imploring gaze. Not now. No doubt he thought I did poorly. Whatever. I wasn't going to
emotions. How would that show domination? I know I probably got low scores at that first one for showing my anger toward that bitch, Rita. Not going to lose control this time.
We rode in silence for several miles and I suddenly remembered my scrap book at home that I had begun when I was five. I never told
Gramma but it was about my real parents. I'd filled it with little pretend items to represent the life I might have had. If.
I knocked on the dark
panel before me it lowered. "Can you go back? I forgot something."
Steve did a quick double take then nodded.
Thank you." I sat back and stared out the window, praying Lucian wouldn't speak.
What are you doing, love?"
I have this scrap book at home." I waved my hand and kept my gaze riveted to the neighborhood we'd just left. "Just want to get a few items for it."
Okay, baby." He stroked my arm and I struggled not to cringe away from the call of weakness.
I got out of the car when it pulled to a stop at my father
's house, went to the door and knocked. When he opened it, I smiled. "I'm sorry to disturb you again."
No, no." He quickly opened the screen door. "What is it?"
Well," I laughed a little. "It's silly but…I started a scrap book and I was wondering if maybe you can give me one item to represent every year of my life? It can be anything. However small."
The odd request left him momentarily at a loss then finally he stepped aside.
"I'm sure we can find whatever you need. Come in."
I watched Tara closely. She was being way,
too controlled. Like a time bomb. The air practically sizzled around her. She went to the kitchen and asked for a trash bag then she followed her father around the house, asking about all the items she encountered, the little personal things hiding behind that shell of impersonal detachment pervading the house. At least I knew where she'd come by her coping tactics.
By the time we
'd covered eighteen years of her life, minus the first year, I was ready to break down for her. Sentimentality wasn't my strong suit, but even I felt the pitifulness of her meager little collection. And it got worse. There was nothing to be found for the
She finally stopped at her eighteenth year, but I think it had more to do with feeling odd about the public show, than any real closure. Standing there in her father
's house, she looked so fragile. The only thing holding her together was sheer determination and that weird detachment she used as a shield. At the first crack in either, she would fall to bits.
I chose my words carefully, but it had to be said. She wouldn
't survive this ordeal again, so this was her last chance. "Are you sure that's all you want, love? We have time. Get whatever you need."
any of it. I just…you know, hate missing puzzle pieces." Judging by the random items in her bag, she'd just added eighteen more puzzle pieces to her collection of life mysteries. And how they stood for any part of the life she should have had was the biggest puzzle of all.
"I agree with your boyfriend," her father said. "We have all the time in the world." He'd given himself entirely over to the task once she made her request, as if that would make up for all being a fucking dead beat coward dad.
Tara glanced at me.
"Oh, he's not my boyfriend. Just a friend." She looked everywhere but at me and just like that, her words gutted me. "So," she said, looking around now. "We have everything except the first year. Darn."
Regret crossed her father
's face again. "I'm sorry. I got rid of everything. It was—"
—too painful, I know," Tara finished for him. She'd grown obviously tired of the litany of excuses for his neglect of her. Good. The near panic flaring in her eyes and body might have gone unnoticed except for the steady rattle of the trash bag clutched to her chest. Shit.
Steve and I headed out again with Tara and her trash bag full of keepsakes between us. His bleak expression said he
'd been as affected by the whole thing as I had. And that he was just as worried about Tara. At the moment, it felt good to have someone else to share the worry.
Again we drove out of the neighborhood with a thick cloud of shit storm between Tara and me. We so fucking failed this assignment. Hands down. She
'd simply refused to confront. And honestly, I really couldn't blame her.
to face it. Sooner or later, it would eat her up. If she was ever going to have any kind of normal life, she had to take care of this.
You know what?" She knocked on the partition again. "Can you please go back
more time? I think I can find something that will work for the first year. I can't
complied and turned the car around. I watched Tara out of the corner of my eye, wary, waiting for a break in that dense wall of
it's all good
she had up, searching for some hint that she was really going to do it this time. Face the truth and pain.
Once again we went up the sidewalk and she knocked on the door. Again her father opened it. Again he looked worried and this time, I didn
't blame him.
's entire body vibrated with tension, signaling impending doom. Not waiting to be invited in, she walked past him. "I was thinking we could
from that first year. It can be anything, really." She went to his bedroom and began digging through his drawers. "An item of clothing even. I'm banking you have some of her clothes? I can take a swatch of fabric, that would work."
She went to his closet next.
"A dead flower, an article from a paper? Birth announcement? Kidding!" She gave a laugh then straightened and turned to him. "What about hospital papers? Funeral papers? I'll take that since it qualifies as first year."
The look of horror on his face didn
't seem to faze her.
Well? Do you have funeral items? Those would count."
I-I-I do but…"
Perfect, I'll take something from that."
No!" He shook his head and for the first time, I got a glimpse of the crazy possessive man who would abandon his child like a stray animal. "I won't give you dead things to represent life. No."
Why not? I've been using pretend items as placeholders all this time. It's better than that."
He shook his head like a stubborn child.
Tara stared at him. "And you're sure you have
pictures? That's really odd."
Now his tone sounded like there
pictures, but none he was willing to part with. And judging by Tara's
she thought the same thing.
The atmosphere suddenly became the eye of the fucking storm and everybody stood still, waiting for the shit to hit the fan.
But my gaze was on Tara. She was the hurricane about to happen. She looked around, her right foot tapping, her bag of sad treasures clanking against her leg.
She gave a brittle smile.
"Guess that's that." She aimed her gaze toward the door and headed out of the house. I followed close behind Tara, holding my breath, ready and waiting.
We made it over the first hurdle—into the car. Every part of her vibrated with the building explosion. A few deep breaths, an exercise I recognized as another coping strategy, quieted the tremors.
The remarkable transformation scared the fuck out of me. Bit by bit, she stilled her body and forced her face into calm composure.
We drove out of the neighborhood, which I considered the second hurdle. Outside, lightening streaked across a sky gone suddenly dark with massive storm clouds. Glancing out the window as a trash bag blew across a yard, the thought struck me that the violence of her emotions had leached into the atmosphere. She couldn
't show how she felt, so the earth was doing it for her.
I waited in tense silence for her to say something. For her to knock on Steve
's window and tell him to turn around. I mentally prepared myself to protect her father from her. If we went back there again, she would likely tear his throat out.
But she didn
't give the order.
Instead, she sat quietly. No shaking leg. No biting thumb nails. Just staring out the window. Only her eyes betrayed the force of what she felt.
I could feel it rubbing against my skin. Her inner storm had simmered down even while the one outside began to rage in earnest. She'd corralled it in, deep inside herself. She was so fucking strong. Her control rivaled that of a fucking monk. There she sat with an unbelievable amount of pain. Sadness. Fear.
it all. Kept moving forward, over or through any obstacle.
Problem was, this strength would only suffocate her soul. And I could never let that happen.
She needed to have an explosion. Or she
'd become a home for that fucking monster.
I called Steve's phone the second Tara went into the shower. "I might need your help."
Tell me, what can I do? Because you're
going to need help."
His tone shot dread through me.
I saw the scores," he whispered. "She scored a whopping one hundred fifty on the last event."
My heart sank.
"Oh fuck." I started pacing. "I knew it wouldn't be good, but wow. That's…bad. I need to fix this." I searched my memory for some loophole, something I could use and exploit.
I paced around the bed, thinking.
"This isn't over until midnight, right?" I calculated what it would take. The time didn't matter to me, except as an aspect of how our elimination from the contest would affect her. I was over the game at this point. Fuck a million dollars, her soul was the prize I played for.
Yes, that's correct."
Shit, I hoped I was right about this for her.
"I need to break her."
Well, you have six hours."
I ran through different scenarios.
"I might need help securing her. She's strong."
Oh, dear God."
Yeah, she's not one to trifle with in physical violence and I won't risk accidentally hurting her."
I'll fucking drug her if I have to."
Where is she now?"
Showering the day's events away."
Steve sighed long.
"She's in such denial, isn't she?"
Understatement of the year, my friend. Hey." I glanced at the bathroom. "Can you fake a text to me? Requiring I tie her up?"
Sure, sounds easy enough. But won't they…"
I don't know, but I have to try." It was the only way I could think of to get her to submit willingly to being tied. And I needed her tied. Otherwise she'd just leave or try and kick my ass. Neither was an option.
Should we tell her about the scores?"
God, no. Not until I have her bound, she may go ballistic and give up."
Another deep sigh.
"I'll be praying for you, my friend."
I closed my eyes.
"Just send the text."