(Missed the last chapter? Go to 12: Attack. Just starting? Go to Prologue: This is My Knife)
February 8, 2014
IT WAS LIKE one of those dreams where you realize you’re walking around naked in public. I involuntarily glanced at Branson, who was staring at the door to the kitchen. Probably trying to figure out how the hell to get out of there. Me, too.
I pushed my chair back and stood up. “This is inappropriate! Branson is our guest and you’re dragging out the dirty laundry.”
“It’s all right,” Branson gave me a nervous, sideways look, like he wasn’t sure he knew who I was anymore. “If we’re going to be in a serious relationship, I’d kind of like to know what I’m getting into.”
If? I collapsed back into my chair. “When she gets out, she’s going to a half-way house,” I said numbly.
“That’s only for six weeks,” Dad said, looking at John. “After that, Katherine will need a place to live. She can’t stay here; it’s too close to John. You’re a social worker; you live in a house that belongs to the family. It’s really the only solution.”
“Dad, I already have a job.” I shoved my plate away. “Second, you just had a heart attack, for God’s sake. Can we please talk about it later?”
Dad took one of those deep breaths he takes when he is getting ready to tell me, at length and in excruciating detail, why my logic is flawed. I leaned forward and put my head in my hands, waiting for the lecture, but Branson stepped in. “Mr. Keyes, Lacy tells me you’re traveling to Philly these days for your practice. It’s one of my favorite cities.”
Instead of feeling grateful for Branson’s intervention, I felt unreasonably irritated. Were all the men going to sit around directing the conversation and my life? I could manage my own father, thank you very much Mr. If.
Dad looked from Branson to me, as if considering whether to allow the subject to be changed. Then he smiled politely. “It’s a fantastic city, well, parts of it. I’m always a bit surprised that Philly hasn’t turned more of an economic corner. But I don’t really do much in the actual city. We’re working on a conversion project.”
Warming to his subject, Dad’s eyes lit up. “I won’t bore you with the details about zoning and tax-relief, but our client takes dated malls and down-and-out, end-of-the-line suburbs, that kind of thing, and converts them into new towns with work, living and shopping areas all right there. It’s a bit like the development out here in Short Pump.”
“Well,” I grumbled, “there’s your reason why Philly is never going to make it. Let’s just keep demolishing what we’ve already built and trudge out further and further to plunk down more big box stores and crappy, fake villages that we can furnish with junk from China.”
I glared at everyone: Dorothy, still sunk in her chair like a scolded child, eyes downcast; Branson smiling in an overly-bright way; Dad, flushed and frowning at his eggs. And John, with his intense fishbowl stare directed at me.
“While big box stores and fake villages might be tacky,” John said, “they are the way that most Americans would like to live and need to live. Ours is a country of manifest destiny. Plowing down a depressing little neighborhood is of no substantial consequence.” He paused dramatically to let his verdict sink in. “On the other hand, Lacy, the gains to your father and his client is of great consequence to our family.”
“I don’t see how you can just dismiss—” I began, but John cut me off, waving his hand as if to shoo away a fly. His large silver watch flashed in the morning light.
“What is of even greater consequence to this family, though, is the dangerous idea that we should take in a criminally insane women. Legacy has a degree in social work, but this does not equip her to deal with her mother. She lacks the necessary emotional distance, for one thing. For another, Kitty is devious and manipulative and downright dangerous.
“I wish I could share the doctors’ view that her condition is stabilized, and I sincerely hope we don’t find out the hard way that they are mistaken.” John pointed his finger at Dad and waved it in a circle, the way he always did when he wanted to emphasize a point. “Pairing Kitty with Lacy is dangerous and out of the question. Dangerous, Stevie, dangerous!”
Dad blanched and his eyes glazed over. The effect was so sudden I really feared for a moment that he was having another heart attack.
“Dad, are you okay?”
Dad stood from his uneaten breakfast. “Excuse me. I’m feeling rather tired.” With that he left the room.
I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. I glanced at Branson, but he didn’t meet my eyes. Great.
“I’ll wash.” I grabbed my plate and stalked off to the kitchen, leaving Branson to fend for himself with Uncle John.
Dorothy followed me into the kitchen, murmuring that John was right; she was sure the family could figure out something else for Kitty.
“Since nobody else in the family wants to deal with her, how about allowing Kat and me figure out what we need ourselves?” I snapped.
Dorothy gave me a blank stare as if such an idea had never occurred to her. She shuffled out to clear more plates. But I wasn’t done. I stood there fuming until she returned, arms laden with the dirty dishes.
I shut the door between the kitchen and the dining room so I could fuss at her in private. “This family has no sense of boundaries. What were you thinking bringing her up today?”
Dorothy cringed as if I’d slapped her. This made me feel like a jerk for one moment, and then angrier, still. She was more emotionally fragile and neurotic than ever. Another sin we could lay at Kat’s door, I supposed.
Dorothy scraped the plates in silence. I rinsed the dishes and starting jamming them in the dishwasher. When the counter was clear and I had no more dishes to boss around, I wiped my hands and turned to Dorothy. “I need to get out of here before I say something I regret.” I grabbed my coat and Branson’s off the hook by the back door.
As I entered the dining room, I saw John polishing off the last sweet roll. “Where’s Branson?”
“Said he needed to use the bathroom.” John wiped his hands fastidiously on the cloth napkin.
“Probably jumped out the window and made a break for it,” I said. “I would have.” Coats in hand, I headed toward the hall.
“Lacy, wait. I need to speak to you.”
Reluctantly, I turned. John gave me an appraising look. “Your mother is dangerous. I hope you understand that.”
“If her doctors and the parole board think she’s better, maybe she is. It’s been seventeen years.”
“They may think she’s better, but I know differently.” John pushed back from the table and wheeled over to me. “What’s more, I think you do, too.” He took my hand. “You’ve spent the last seventeen years trying to rise above what Kitty did. Not only to me, but to this whole family. You’ve made a lot of progress, Lacy. Don’t throw it all away.”
I felt tears spring to my eyes again. I was turning into a regular cry-baby. But then again, John had always been able to find the cracks in my defenses. I pulled my hand away from his and steeled myself. “I can’t talk about this right now.”
“Think about what I’ve said, Lacy! She could turn on you, or someone else you love. She’s tricky. You’ll never see it coming.”
I turned and walked into the hallway as Branson came out of the bathroom. I thrust his coat at him. “We’re leaving.”
AS BRANSON AND I pulled out of the driveway, I cranked up the heater, but it was going to take more than hot air to thaw the emotional temperature in that car. I snuck a glance at Branson, who was staring out the passenger window, head turned so far away that I couldn’t see his face.
After we rode several miles, I couldn’t take the ominous silence anymore. “Go ahead,” I said. “Get it over with.”
“Get what over with?” His voice was a dull monotone, barely audible above the sound of the heater.
“Whatever it is you want to say. Whatever you want to ask. That was brutal, I know. I’m so sorry.”
“Really?” Branson’s head snapped around, startling me. “Because you might have prepared me, instead of letting me walk into that … creep show and get blindsided! No pun intended!”
His sarcasm hit me with the force of a slap. “I am sorry,” I said slowly. “But I told you my mother attacked John. You knew she went to jail.”
“You didn’t tell me she blinded him! How did that happen?”
“They aren’t sure. They think it was due to traumatic head injury.” I tried to keep my voice level and calm. He’s upset. Any normal person would be. But I could feel the hot, flushed tightness in my head that meant my temper was rising.
“And is that why he can’t walk?” Branson’s fingers drummed on the armrest.
“How did she paralyze him, then?”
I was starting to get pissed off at the way Branson was grilling me. Like a cop trying to catch me in a lie. “She stabbed him and hit him with a chair. I told you that before!”
“You didn’t tell me she stabbed him multiple times, aiming for every major organ, and then when he collapsed, beat him with an oak chair rendering him half-blind and paralyzed from the waist down. No, I had to hear that from the man, himself.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Prep School! When exactly is the socially acceptable time to broach this subject in gory detail with a new lover? Before tea or after? And when did you hear all that ‘from the man himself?’”
Branson frowned. “John told me the whole gory thing while you were bitching at your sweet, frail aunt, and your father was off hiding. He said I should know if I was going to have a relationship with you. And he’s right!”
Branson’s knee was jiggling a mile a minute, but the rest of him was dangerously still. “By the way, Ms. Keyes, I’m hardly a new lover. We’ve been going out over three months!”
“So our relationship is nothing?” Branson’s voice had gone icy cold.
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it!”
“I don’t know anything right now.” Branson glared out the window again at the dull afternoon sky. A scummy layer of clouds filtered the sunlight, bleaching the sky a dull, flat white.
I felt a chill in my body, but my face was flushed hot. My vision started to blur and I swerved over to the curb, screeched to a stop and put the car in park. “I know where this is going. You want to break up with me because my family is fucked up, you go right ahead.”
“I didn’t say that.” Branson’s voice was sullen and he didn’t look at me.
“I didn’t want to take you today, but you insisted. First you said you wanted us to get serious, then you insert yourself into my family’s problems, and now you’re tucking tail and running because you can’t handle it?”
Branson turned to look at me, hurt in his eyes. “I love you, Lacy. I do. Can’t you understand that this is a shock? And on top of it all, I find out your mother is getting out of jail and maybe coming to live with you.”
“She’s not!” I hit the steering wheel in frustration.
“But your father owns the house. If he insists…” Branson’s eyes lit with comprehension. “Is that why you’ve been acting so weird lately?”
“What?” I glared at him.
“The migraines, the paranoia, like last night at UrgePool ….” Branson had a look on his face: half-pitying, half-judging. Like he knew a fucking thing about me or my life. It was the last straw.
Gripping the steering wheel so hard my fingers went numb, I carefully drove the rest of the way to Branson’s Tobacco Row loft. When we got there, neither one of us said a word. We didn’t look at each other. Branson got out and closed the car door behind him, not angrily, but with a firm click that had the ring of finality.
Continue to Chapter 14: Stab & Twist