(Missed the last chapter? Go to 36: Last Survivors)
I ROLLED OVER at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, realized I was at home, and went back to sleep. At 8:00 am I woke again, remembered my fight with Branson, pulled the covers over my head and willed the world away. I did the same at 10:00 a.m. and noon. By 1:00, I couldn’t force myself into unconsciousness anymore. I stumbled to the bathroom for a shower, then stumbled to the kitchen for coffee, surprised by a worker carrying light fixtures for the new bathroom. Who could get construction workers to come in on a Sunday morning?
“Only John,” I muttered.
John and Dorothy were out, for which I was grateful. I needed to take stock of my situation. They say alcohol kills brain cells, but since I have a tendency to overthink and second-guess, sometimes the miasma of a hangover imposes a useful simplicity.
Standing there in the kitchen gripping my coffee like a life raft, I felt like I’d been right to worry about almost everything: Warrick was a creep show; Dorothy was beaten down; and having her and John living here was going to strip me of whatever remained of my sanity. But Branson? Shit. That one I had not seen coming.
Tears burned my eyes and I bit my lip hard, distracting myself with pain. I would not cry over this. My dad was dead; Branson had a life, and he wanted to spend it selling designer drugs so he could get in good with Walt? Of all the surrogate fathers he could have chosen!
My mind flashed back to the night I’d tried to intervene in what looked like a rape in the locker room in the InnerPool. Walt and Branson had convinced me I was drunk and had misread the whole situation. But every time I’d seen Walt since then, I felt coated in a film of disgust so tangible I wanted to take a shower.
Last night, Branson’s confession and Walt’s smug condescension had only confirmed what I’d suspected: Walt wanted to get his hooks into Branson. I didn’t fully understand why, but I had a sinking feeling that the Light was only part of it.
DESPITE MY BRAVADO, the next couple of days were miserable. I tried to put Branson out of my mind, with little success. I tried to talk to Dorothy about mixing medications, but each time she brushed me off. She’d been in a cleaning and decorating frenzy since I’d been back. The construction dust was gone, and any new debris was removed almost before it hit the floor.
I eventually resorted to snooping around the kitchen until I found where she’d stashed the weight loss powder, but the ingredients were listed in Chinese. I didn’t want to violate Dorothy’s confidence and tell John, but it seemed likely that she was under the influence of a serious stimulant—weight loss, trouble sleeping, and a flighty, nervous demeanor. What had seemed to be an emotional problem might all stem from a bad supplement or drug interactions.
Nerves on edge, I took refuge in long runs around Byrd Park. On my umpteenth loop, it struck me that there was a time when I used to literally run away from anything that seemed threatening—into the wilderness of city squats to get away from my family, into new jobs when something spooked me, into new relationships when someone got too close to seeing the truth about me or my family. Now I just made circles in the park, like a goldfish in its bowl, flitting away from distorted reflections on all sides.
Tuesday night I came up with a new plan to get through to my aunt. I knew John was going out to play chess the next day, so I asked Dorothy to go out to lunch with me at Strawberry Street Cafe. She wouldn’t be able to wiggle out of the conversation if I had her captive in a booth. And there would be no chance of John gliding into our conversation and forcing Dorothy into that tight, terrified smile that I felt might break her in two.
I WOKE TO the sound of high, keening sobs so regular and repetitive that, at a distance, it sounded like a tile saw or some other tool malfunctioning—not a person. I lay in bed for a good ten minutes trying to figure out what it was.
Eventually, I pulled on my robe and followed the sound downstairs and into John and Dorothy’s living room. At first glance, the room, a bit dark from the gloom of the day, appeared empty. I still felt a slight disconnect every time I walked in and saw all of Dorothy’s things: the heavy floral furniture, the Georgia O’Keefe print, crystal vases, and her collection of egrets and ibis delicately carved in dark woods, arranged along the mantel.
It took me a moment to spot Dorothy, crumpled in the corner behind the armchair, her slight figure almost lost in a baggy, stained violet sweat suit, hair tangled and matted, gray roots stark against the honey-blonde dye job.
I pushed my way between the chair and the couch, and crouched down next to her. “Aunty, what’s wrong?”
She didn’t answer or look at me, just kept keening, rocking back and forth.
I sat on the floor next to her and pulled her into my arms. I wondered if she and John had had another fight, or if lack of sleep had pushed her over the edge.
“Oh, Legacy, thank God.” She threw her arms around my neck. As I stroked her back, I could feel her heartbeat against my chest, fast and fluttery. I felt panic rise in my throat.
“Did something happen? Tell me what you need.”
Dorothy heaved a sob against my chest. “He said … he said …. Oh, I can’t repeat it!” She pulled back and gazed at me, wild-eyed. “He’s leaving me, and I don’t blame him. I’m going crazy! The things he said!” She interlaced her fingers together and twisted them so hard I winced, feeling like her delicate bones might crack. “But he couldn’t have, Lacy. He couldn’t have said those things. I’m hallucinating. Just like Katherine. Oh God,” she breathed, “our family is cursed.”
“I don’t believe in curses,” I said. But the toxic fear I felt at Warrick, Kat’s paranoia, and the voices were working their way into my certainty, questing like tree roots into rock. “You’ve been mixing pain medication and sleeping pills and some kind of supplement that acts like amphetamines. I’ve been trying to tell you all week how dangerous that is!”
Dorothy’s eyes searched my face. “But the pain pills were prescribed by Dr. Walker, and John suggested the herbal supplement. He said it was perfectly safe and I needed it because I was getting chubby, so I—”
“He what?” I felt sick at the thought, but I could no longer fully trust Dorothy. She was acting like an addict, and addicts will say anything to justify their drug use. “Where’s John now?”
“He called me a wilting flower. Drop my petals and fertilize the blooming rose. The fruit of six generations. Mulch!” Dorothy grasped the sides of her head, her fingers like claws.
“Honey, you’re not making any sense.” I tried to keep my voice calm, though Dorothy’s delusions were echoing the voices in my head.
Dorothy, still gripping the sides of her head as if that would keep things in place, said, “John is a doctor. He plays chess with the head of pediatric surgery at Retreat Hospital. He knows senators. It’s me. I’m going crazy.”
“Do you want me to talk to him?
“Oh, would you? I just can’t bear—”
“I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding. You want to sit on the couch and wait? You’ll be more comfortable there. Come on.”
I helped Dorothy to her feet, surprised again by how light she felt. I got her settled with a blanket over her legs and a box of tissues. “Take deep breaths, and try to relax. Promise?”
She sniffled and nodded.
I found John in the kitchen, preparing hot chocolate at the low table we’d set up as a counter for him. He hated to be dependent on other people for every little thing, so we kept his station stocked with cups and dishes, a coffee maker, the packets of the instant hot chocolate and cans of orange soda he favored, plus an assortment of candy, snack cakes and chips to rival any vending machine.
“Good morning, beautiful!” John smiled like he didn’t have a care in the world.
I stared at him in bafflement, then my anger flared. “Are you aware that your wife was crumpled like a Kleenex in the corner of the living room?”
John’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“She said you two had a fight. She thinks she’s fat, and that you’re leaving her. Does any of this sound familiar?”
John set down his mug and gazed at me intently through his thick glasses. “I’m very sorry you had to see this, Lacy. But yes. It’s all too familiar.”
“Don’t apologize to me! Why are you fixing a snack while your wife is having a nervous breakdown in the next room? What is going on?”
“Lacy, I warned you a week ago that she was falling apart, and as you can see, she’s gotten worse. I’ll take care of it.” John started to wheel toward the door.
“Did you know she’s mixing pain pills, sleeping pills and diet powder?”
John stopped his forward momentum, but didn’t turn around. “No.”
“She said your friend Dr. Walker prescribed the pain pills. The sleeping pills are because she’s in too much pain, and that you told her to use the weight-loss powder because she was chubby.”
John pivoted his chair around and gave me a warning look. “Dr. Walker prescribed pain pills for her six months ago, after she strained her back. She was only supposed to take them for a month. If she’s still taking them now, she got a refill from someone else. As far as the weight loss goes, that’s Dottie’s own neurosis. Any sane person could see she’s wasting away. If you think for one minute that I—”
“Okay.” I held up my hands. “All I know is she needs help. Now.”
John stared at the ceiling. “If you think it’s come to that, I’ll call my friend Dr. Rolfe. He’s an excellent psychiatrist with a private practice on Monument, near Retreat Hospital. We’ll have her evaluated today.”
“Good,” I said. But it didn’t feel good at all. It felt horribly wrong. Mulch for the seeds. A gift to be planted.
As the words floated through my head, I felt a wave nausea. I ran for the stairs, completely forgetting the newly installed toilet John and Dorothy’s bathroom. I made it as far as the top stair before I retched, but my stomach was empty. In the bathroom, I heaved again and again, producing only painful, acid bile.
Squatting on the cold tile, I felt the sensation of electricity. The had voices stopped but I could still feel them inside me, as if they were trapped behind thick walls. The pressure was building in my head again, as if the silence might erupt in screams.