Authors: Sharon Sala
The night breeze blew against Queen Houston's face, shifting her hair and cooling the sweat that had formed on her brow moments earlier. She hefted the shotgun to an easier position against her ribs and pressed closer against the outer wall of the house, confident, for the moment, that darkness hid her presence.
Her mouth thinned, and her eyes narrowed in anger as she watched the man who was standing in the shadows of the alley between their house and Whitelaw's Bar. She wondered how many times in the past he'd done what he was doing and gotten away with it—Queen knew it was her sister Lucky's bedroom that had captured Morton Whitelaw's attention. Lucky was probably undressing. Queen mentally ticked off the garments that her sister must be removing by the way Morton Whitelaw increased the depth of his self-gratification. Her finger twitched on the trigger of the shotgun, knowing that it would take less effort to cock the hammer than it took to zip her blue jeans… And less time. A small, distinct noise dampened Morton's lust. The click was loud and ominous and, to a man born to the Tennessee hills, as familiar as his own face. It was the sound of a hammer being cocked on a shotgun. Morton Whitelaw forgot he was at the point of climax as the woman's voice came drifting through the darkness.
"You sorry sonofabitch. If Johnny were still alive, he'd kill you," Queen said, stepping away from the wall of the house.
Morton paled, although his fear was hidden by the shadows in which he stood. It was Queen Houston! Even in the darkness he recognized her by the tangle of wild red curls surrounding her face. He'd rather have been caught by any one of Johnny Houston's daughters but this one. She had a hate for men the likes of which he'd never seen. He knew it would take some tall talking to get away with what she must have been witnessing.
"Step out into the light," Queen said. "I think you've seen enough of the Houstons for one night."
He started to shake. It was the quiet, emotionless tone of her voice that made him afraid. That and the fact that she had the shotgun pointed at his crotch. He looked down, realizing as he did that he was still touching himself; he started to move his hand away when she hissed a warning.
"Leave it," she ordered. "You like that thing so much, I'd hate for it to get cold."
"Now, Queen, you don't understand," Morton began. "It isn't what you think. I was on my way over to your house to bring you girls your money, and I felt nature call. I was just about to—"
"I know what you were about to do. I could hear your groans from here, you bastard. You want to jerk off, you use someone besides my sister for enticement."
"Damn," Morton muttered, and let his hand fall to his side. "What about the money for your property? You're still gonna sell, aren't you?" he asked.
Queen waved the shotgun toward his pocket. "Hand it over and then get the hell out of this alley before I find myself forced to shoot a prowler. I wouldn't be accused of anything other than a terrible accident and you know it. We just buried Johnny, remember? No one would blame the Houston girls for being nervous or for protecting themselves with their father barely cold in the ground."
"You bitch! When you get this money, that house is no longer your property."
"Maybe not," Queen said. "But you're buying the house and lot, not me and my sister."
He sighed and reached for the envelope he'd stuffed inside his shirt.
"No! Wait!" Queen ordered as Morton's hand dipped toward the pocket containing the checks. He did as he was told, frozen by the tone of her voice as well as by the ominous gleam of light on steel as the shotgun's direction was changed. She was now aiming toward his face.
"I'd rather you used your left hand, Whitelaw," she said, remembering what he'd been doing with his right one moments earlier.
He flushed and swore, but it did no good. Queen Houston didn't give an inch. Cursing soundly, he yanked the envelope from his pocket, flung it onto the ground between them, and turned and stalked away, silently willing her to hell and back.
The back door of Whitelaw's Bar slammed, and it was only then that Queen let out the breath she had been holding and bent down to pick up the envelope that Morton Whitelaw had tossed into the dirt. She walked out of the alley with the gun hanging in the crook of her arm, barrel downward, and paused long enough by the porch to read the names on the three cashier's checks inside the envelope. The glow of the red Christmas lights hanging across the front of Whitelaw's—which hung there all year round, regardless of the season—was bright enough for her to see the amount of each check.
Five thousand dollars! She still couldn't believe it. And it was all her sister Diamond's doing. The thought of Diamond's absence made her want to cry, but tears were not a part of Queen's life. Instead she stuffed the checks into the envelope and looked over her shoulder once more just to make sure that Morton Whitelaw was gone.
Remembering the look on Diamond's face as she'd walked out of their lives two days earlier on the arm of Tesse Eagle, one of Nashville's hottest singing sensations, was vivid. She'd left Cradle Creek with stars in her eyes and a dream in her heart. Queen envied her optimism, as she herself had long since forgotten what it was like to hope or dream. She'd been too busy raising her two younger sisters as well as herself.
But now she was holding the first chance she'd had for personal happiness in her entire life. Unfortunately it was inevitable that the three sisters would have to part. Diamond was already gone, and Lucky was inside, just waiting for the chance to leave. She'd had her bus ticket since yesterday and had only been waiting for Morton Whitelaw to pay up.
Queen blinked, unaware that the reason her vision was blurred was because of tears. She wouldn't have admitted their presence, even to herself. Queen Houston never cried.
A pack of dogs bayed far off in the hills, and Queen paused in the darkness and listened. Some locals must be running their dogs tonight. She sniffed the air, half expecting to smell the wood smoke from their camp-fires, imagining how they'd huddle around it, laughing and telling jokes as the finest of dogs from their packs struck trail. But there was only the thick pall of smoke from the coal mines and the stench of car fumes and cigarette smoke coming out through the open windows as the patrons came and went next door at Whitelaw's Bar.
A man's loud, raucous laugh intruded, reminding Queen of where she was and of her vulnerability there. She thought of the anger she'd just seen on Morton Whitelaw's face and bolted across the porch. She yanked open the screen door, then ran inside, slamming it and the wooden door shut behind her. She turned the lock with shaky fingers and quickly set the shotgun inside a closet beside the door.
"Queenie… is that you?" Lucky called from the back of the house, unaware of her part in Morton Whitelaw's downfall at the hands of Johnny Houston's daughters.
Queen leaned against the closet door and wiped her hand across her face. But there was no one present to see her moment of weakness, and when she answered, her voice was as strong and confident as ever.
"Yes, Lucky. It's me. And guess what? I got our money!"
The two sisters spent the next morning sorting through their meager belongings. Queen stood in the doorway to Lucky's room and watched as her baby sister flitted from the dresser to the bed and back again, folding and refolding her clothing so that it would fit into a bag that she had purchased at an army surplus store years ago.
"Did you get Diamond's check in the mail?" Lucky asked as she packed the last of her clothes.
"She's going to be so excited," Lucky continued, unaware of the tense expression on her older sister's face. "Shoot, I'll bet by this time next year that five thousand dollars will be chicken feed to her. She's going to be famous. I just know it."
Queen's lack of response made Lucky look up. It was then that she realized how difficult this parting was actually going to be. The tears that sprang to her eyes were as inevitable as the sun that came up each morning. Her face crumpled and she started to cry.
"Be happy for me, Queenie," she sobbed, and threw her arms around her older sister's neck. "I won't be able to leave if you aren't."
Queen's arms tightened in reflex as she clutched her sister's body tightly against her. She closed her eyes and willed herself not to think of the coming loneliness. For so many years she'd been the only one who'd cared, the only one responsible for her two younger sisters, and now in the space of a week she was losing them just as they'd lost their father, Johnny Houston, days earlier. The heart attack that had claimed him had been unexpected, just as everything else in his life.
"I'm happy," she said, and hugged Lucky even tighter. "I'm just having a hard time letting go. You know how parents are."
Lucky's tears pooled up again. "That's what's so awful, Queenie," she said. "You're not my parent. You're my sister." She turned away and wiped her face with the towel Queen had handed her. "You never even got to be a child. You were too busy taking care of Johnny and of us. Sometimes I forget you're only four years older than me. You've been the only mother Di or I ever knew." She threw her arms around Queen one more time and pressed a quick, desperate kiss on her cheek before turning away and busying herself with her one piece of luggage.
Queen inhaled sharply. This was what was so scary. These feelings between her and her sisters had always been there, but until now they'd never been voiced. It was the finality of the entire situation that frightened her. What if she never saw either of them again?
"You'll write as soon as you get to Las Vegas," she said.
Lucky stopped and looked up. "And mail it where? You're leaving too, remember?"
Queen paled. She shoved her hands through her auburn curls and paced, trying to figure out a way for the three of them to keep in touch. Finally she remembered. "We'll both communicate through Diamond. Jesse Eagle gave me his card. I used it when I mailed Diamond her check. There's an address as well as a phone number. We'll mail everything to her, and she can relay the information back to us."
Lucky smiled. It was an answer to the fear. She should have known that her Queenie would think of something. She always had before.
Queen suddenly bolted from the room. Moments later Lucky followed and found her digging frantically through her closet for the shirt she'd worn yesterday. "I can't find it," she said in a panicked voice.
"You can't find what?"
"The card! Jesse Eagle's card. I had it," she muttered, flinging her meager
wardrobe onto her bed. "I used the address at the post office. I distinctly
remember… Oh, God! Lucky! I think I left it on the desk. I've got to get to the
post office. Maybe it's still there. Mayrene never cleans. Surely this once
it'll still be—"