(Missed the last chapter? Go to 19: Luxury Berth On The Train To Nowhere)
I WOKE UP from a dream, sweating and panicked. Blood red, death trains, a raptor man with pointed teeth. My head pounded with what I assumed was a massive hangover. What had we done last night? Another blowout at UrgePool? I couldn’t remember.
I felt a surge of panic. Afternoon sun streamed through the side window of my bedroom in the Fan house. Something was coming toward me with the velocity and force of a sand storm in the desert. White out. White noise. Ripping flesh. Don’t look.
“Branson, wake up! I … I’m late for work. I think.” I rolled out of bed, crawled across the floor and dug through a pile of laundry until I found clean underthings and a semi-clean tracksuit. “I can’t get fired. My head is killing me. Why can’t I remember what day it is?” I babbled, scarcely aware of my own words, frantic to stay ahead of the storm inside my head. “Did we take Light, Dark, or some other designer mind-fuck—”
“Lacy, stop.” Branson slid out of bed and came over to me. He looked sad and beautiful, his face pale against the messy mop of dark hair. “Dorothy called me last night. You were asleep when I got here.”
I stared at him, not comprehending. “I don’t understand … How did she even know your phone number? Dorothy’s not ….” I trailed off as Branson pulled me up off the floor and into his arms, handling me like he though I might crumble. And then I understood. Massie Funeral Home. Uncle John. Dad. Not a nightmare. The white noise storm hit me full force, filling my head, drowning out everything.
Branson put me in bed and held me as I wailed. I cried until my face felt salty and raw. Until my throat was so dry that I couldn’t make a sound. Until the tears just stopped.
Branson eased away gently and stroked my hair. “I’m going to run a bath for you. It’ll help.” He got out of bed and pulled on his boxers and tee shirt. “You stay warm.”
As he padded out of the room, I pulled the quilt up to my chin and breathed through my mouth. What was supposed to happen now? Funerals, obituaries, wills. Who was going to do the paper work? Who was going to rake up the yard? Who was going to fix the corroded pipes? Who was going to offer to take me out to dinner no matter how much of a shit I had been? Who was going to be my dad?
I decided I was never going to get up. If I didn’t get out of bed, life wouldn’t have to go forward without Stephen Keyes. But Branson had other ideas and wouldn’t relent. He coddled me out of bed and pushed me down the hall to the bathroom.
Branson sat on the edge as I sank down in the claw-footed tub he had filled with lavender-scented bath salts and steaming water. He lathered my back and washed my arms as if he were my nanny. The whole time, he hummed a song, “Sun Rise, Sun Set” from Fiddler on the Roof.
The tune was sad and beautiful and a little weird, coming out of the mouth of a metal fusion rocker. For a few minutes, my awareness emptied of everything except lavender, steam and song, and the feel of Branson’s hands, gentle on my skin.
AFTER MY BATH I pulled on leggings and a sweatshirt, then stood in my bedroom for I don’t know how long, just staring out the window. The thick brown branches of the oak tree seemed more real than anything going on my life. Not only Dad’s death, but Warrick, UrgePool, even Branson had taken on the hues of unreality. I had the sense again that this was a play. I had a part to play, but it wasn’t me.
But if that was true, who was I?
I went down to the kitchen and looked around the familiar, comforting room—the worn wood of the teal table and chairs, the pale yellow walls, the copper pots hanging above the old fashioned gas range—my refuge, or so I’d thought. Was this real? Or was it a fiction I’d invented to comfort myself?
Branson stood at the counter, cutting up apples. “I thought maybe something light. Fruit and yogurt with a sprinkle of granola?”
I shrugged. I couldn’t imagine eating, but when Branson insisted I take a few bites, I found that my body had other ideas. I ended up eating two bowls.
“I guess I was hungrier than I thought.” I set my bowl in the sink and poured myself a cup of coffee.
“That’s the Lacy I know.” Branson smiled briefly. “Tell me what else I can do to help.”
I grabbed my mug in both hands and stared into the creamy brew. “I don’t know. I try to focus, but it’s like my mind slides away. If I don’t do anything, it’s not real. Plus, I don’t really understand what needs to be done.”
Branson nodded. “When Jeff died, I was seventeen.” He paused. “I don’t think I really had to do anything. He was just my brother. Not my father or my son. People kept saying how sad it was that he had passed.” He shook his head. “Passed. Fuck passed. He was killed by a drunk driver. Not exactly passing. More like smashing. ” His eyes hardened and glittered.
I sucked in a sharp breath, thinking of Dad’s car crashing into a concrete pole—I felt it like a body blow.
“I’m sorry!” Branson looked mortified.
“It’s okay,” I sank into a chair and set my coffee down.
I ran my fingers over the surface patina of chipped blue paint, worn in places to the white paint beneath. I liked to gaze at it because I always saw shapes and faces in there. It tended to be an accurate Roarsach of my feelings—when I was happy I saw natural beauty like waves and clouds. When I was upset, I would see sorrowful or scolding faces. But even those felt like family. This is real.
Branson sat down and took my hand. “I’m sorry. I made you feel worse.”
I looked up from my table meditation. “Yes, for a second, but it helps—not that I’m glad you lost your brother—but this feels very lonely, like I’m the only one … and I keep wondering if this is real. It doesn’t feel like it.
“That’s normal. You’re in shock.”
I nodded. “I have flashes of outrage, betrayal, then it fades. I can’t believe people go through this every day. But if it wasn’t your friend or family, it’s almost invisible.”
Branson nodded slowly. “Yeah. You figured that out this fast?”
“When Kat went to jail, the therapist said it was like a death. Now I see what she meant. Your world ends while everyone else’s goes on without a ripple. Work, school, shopping, making dinner plans and fighting with each other over petty things. Not only have you lost someone you love, you’ve lost the ability to relate.”
“Tell me about it. I tried to be perfect. Like I needed to be more, to make up for Jeff’s absence. Mom got all crumbly and superstitious, trying to contact Jeff through mediums. Dad lacquered himself up with every formidable formality. It just rippled out from there.
“Eventually, I stopped trying to be perfect. Mom stopped trying to function in the real world. Dad stopped trying to feel anything. Now, he’s an impenetrable prick. My world changed, and it never changed back. It’s like I don’t really have a mom or dad anymore.”
I put my hands over my face, pressing my fingers into my eyes until I saw sparks of light.
“Shit, I said the wrong thing again, didn’t I?”
“No!” I took my hands away from my face and grabbed his arm so hard my fingertips went numb. “Don’t ever stop telling me what you really think. Even if it hurts. That’s real. You’re real. Maybe the only person. Everyone was so creepy yesterday, except Dorothy, but even she was different. Suddenly taking charge, like I haven’t seen her do in … ever. I felt like I was having a psychotic break.”
“Shock, like I said.”
“I just can’t understand how this happened. Dad was a careful driver. He didn’t speed. He didn’t run red lights.”
“We don’t know for sure. And nobody else seems to think it matters.”
Branson nodded. “I get it. You want to know.”
“Yeah. No. What I really want is someone to tell me that he’s not dead. That it was a mistake. Some other man driving a car like his.”
Branson pulled me into his arms. I breathed in the clean musky smell of him: ivory soap and wool. For a moment I felt a glimmer of hope that somehow I would get through this. Then the phone rang.
I shook my head against his chest. “I’m not answering it.”
“No.” Then I thought of my father’s dismembered body being sewn back together like Frankenstein by Edmund Massie and his vultures. I jumped toward the counter and snatched the phone. A landline that Dad had insisted on—for safety.
As I suspected, it was John. “I want my father cremated!” I said, skipping the pleasantries.
“It’s already been taken care of, Lacy. It turns out to be for the best.”
I heard an edge in John’s voice that caused my anxiety to flare. “What do you mean?”
“Never mind. The memorial service will be day after tomorrow. Dorothy and I are taking care of everything.”
I felt a wave of relief and regret so intense I slumped against the counter. “I’m sorry. This is just so hard.”
“It’s all right, Lacy. That’s what family is for. I will always be here for you. No matter what. Forever, Lacy Rose.”
Lacy Rose. I hadn’t heard John use that term of endearment since I was a girl. It brought back memories of my family, version 1.0: Dorothy vibrant and happy in a red dress tending her orchids, my mother at her drafting table, humming as she worked, my father digging in his herb garden, wearing a straw hat that had begun to unravel to the point where it looked he had a crazy mop of hair sticking up in every direction.
I dropped the phone on the counter and slid to the floor, putting my head between my knees. Dimly, I heard Branson talking to John, and then he was on his knees next to me, rubbing my back.
“Lacy breathe, slow and deep. Just breathe.”
In a few moments the dizziness and feeling of suffocation passed. I looked at Branson: his kind, worried face, that endearing shock of dark hair that always flopped over his left eye. “How did you get through it when your brother, when Jeff died?”
He shrugged. “Stay busy when you can, feel like shit when you have to. Just don’t expect things to be the same. The world has changed and your maps have got to change, too.”
“I’ve never had a map, or if I did, it was torn in half a long time ago. Kat ….” I couldn’t finish. Easy to say she was crazy, but she was also my mother—the North Star of my childhood. She’d imprinted her maps in my brain, and I could feel them lurking there still, part of the code that made me who I was. Without Dad’s calm, rational love, would I veer back to the course she’d set for me all of those years ago?
If I had a map, it was one of the old ones, with vast uncharted territories and danger zones marked ‘here be dragons.’ I was going to have to sail off the edge without Stephen Keyes and face my own personal dragon—scheduled to be freed from the Goochland Virginia Correctional Center for Women in two short months.
Continue to Chapter 21: Face The Dragon