(Missed the last chapter? Go to 38: Dorothy Falls)
RAIN, POUNDING THE slate roof like gravel. Wind wailing like a grieving mother. Rattle. Cry. Rattle. Cry. It took me a minute to realize I was in my own bed and that what I heard was just the weather. Through the lace curtains, the rivulets cast shadows like bruised and melting faces on the yellow wall. I sat up, trying to break free of the illusion.
My bedroom was a wreck. The high-top dresser drawers were all open. Clothing covered the floors. The nightstand was akimbo and piled high with papers. Papers also littered the bed. Bank statements, receipts, bills, old letters. I lifted up a receipt for tires I had put on my car before I started the job at Warrick. Why was it in the bed with me?
I dimly remembered searching in the dark at my desk in the hall for something I couldn’t find. Something I desperately needed to remember. I turned away from the wall and looked at the wooden door to my room. Dorothy’s face swam back at me. The creases at the corners of her eyes, greasy and crimped with pain. Her lipstick-smeared mouth shrieking about the baby. What baby? A dead child? A mad invention?
I stumbled downstairs in search of coffee and an update. The events following Dorothy’s breakdown were a sickening blur. She’d been taken away. A taxi home. Chicken noodle soup. I felt like I was moving in a dream: the feel of my fingertips on the smooth cherry banister, the hint of wood smoke from the ashes in fireplace, the draft on my neck as I passed the front door.
As I approached the kitchen, the smell of fresh coffee and waffles washed over me. All of the lights were on, the room painfully bright, but the smell of food was too enticing to resist. Squinting, I navigated to the coffee pot, grabbed a mug from the cabinet and poured, half-blind.
“Good morning,” I heard John’s voice behind me. “How are you?”
I took a gulp of black coffee, not willing to hold off long enough to go after the cream. “Wrecked. You?”
“I made breakfast. Are you hungry?”
I turned to look at John, noting that for the first time in memory, his clothes were rumpled. I wondered if he’d slept in them. I was so out of it last night, I probably hadn’t even thought to see if he needed any help. He gazed at me with a strange expression, which added to my guilt. “Are you okay?” I asked. “I mean, is there anything you need help with?”
“I’m fine, Lacy. I can take care of myself. It’s you I’m worried about.”
I steeled myself for a barrage of questions and comments about my fainting spell the day before, but John just handed me a plate of waffles adorned with a melting pat of butter and a drizzle of maple syrup, exactly the way I liked them. “They’re just toaster waffles, but I thought—”
“No, it’s great. Thanks.” Relieved, I grabbed the cream from the fridge, poured a healthy slosh into my coffee, and sat down with my plate. I inhaled the comforting breakfast aromas. John rolled his chair up to the table and handed me silverware. His plate was heaped with waffles. A pond of syrup lapped at the edge of the plate, nearly overflowing.
I found myself gulping my food in huge bites and washing them down with coffee. I felt like an orphan who didn’t know where her next meal was coming from—greedy and a little embarrassed, but not enough to slow down. In five minutes, I’d polished off the plate.
“That was good,” I said, sighing. “Thanks.”
John looked at me through his thick glasses. “It’s just us now. We have to look out for each other.”
My throat tightened. “When can we see her?”
He shook his head and took another bite of his dripping waffles. “Not until after she completes the first four weeks of the rehab program. Remember? Dr. Rolfe explained it all.”
I got up to pour myself another cup of coffee. “Sorry, I’m a little fuzzy on yesterday.” John shot me a look, and I found myself embellishing. “I might have hit my head when she tackled me.”
John frowned. “I checked you for signs of concussion. You were fine.”
“Maybe the stress, then.” I could feel myself breaking into a light sweat as I lied. “I’m fine now, though. Please, just tell me about Dorothy.”
“Well, it’s standard procedure. Any worthwhile drug treatment program keeps the patients in a controlled environment until they’re stabilized. We can write her letters, of course. And I can speak with her once a week, but that’s it. Dorothy’s going to be gone awhile, I’m afraid.”
I felt a wave of desolation. Outside was dark as dusk, the rain pouring down in sheets. “What are we going to do without her?”
“Don’t worry, I promise not to be a burden,” John said dryly.
“That’s not what I meant!” I protested. “It’s just, I can’t believe….” I didn’t finish the sentence. I can’t believe she’s gone. Another one gone. I felt bereft, as if Dorothy had been blotted out from my life. “I don’t like this!” I blurted.
John’s eyebrows shot up. “And you think I do?”
“Of course not. It’s just, I don’t know. I don’t know!” I felt anxiety welling up, so I moved restlessly around the kitchen to burn it off, clearing the dishes and rinsing them in the sink.
“Lacy, stop that. Come over here.”
I stalled by pouring a glass of water from the pitcher in the refrigerator, then turned and went over to sit down. I wanted to sit in the chair furthest from him, but that would have looked strange. Instead, I yanked the chair I’d been sitting in before further away from the table—and him.
John shook his head. “I’m not the ogre you may think I am. I just want to talk.”
“Okay.” I stared at the table instead of looking at John, watching faces form in the worn blue wood—not friendly ones today, but masks of horror. I looked away.
John rolled closer to me. “I can see the toll all of this has taken on you, and I want you to know, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
I looked up at him, surprised. “What do you mean?”
“You know.” As John stared, I felt a thin sheen of sweat breaking out along my chest again. Had he figured out that I’d cracked, like Kat and Dorothy?
“It’s time to face the truth, Lacy. Since Stevie died, you’ve been drinking too much and sleeping too little.”
My eyes widened, but I became aware that I was acting. I couldn’t care less if John thought I was tippling all the livelong day, as long as he didn’t know about my psychotic episodes. I nodded slowly, as if reluctantly conceding a point. “Yeah. I’ve been pretty stressed out, but I know I need to cut down.”
“And it’s affecting your work?”
I sighed deeply, not needing any acting on this one. “I don’t know. The job at Warrick might not be a good fit for me, or maybe the director is a psychopath.” I was half-joking, but John didn’t smile. “Sorry, bad joke. I mean, I don’t always feel comfortable with her methods.”
Something about the measured tone of John’s voice gave me a sickening suspicion. “Do you know Dr. Grey?”
John waved his hand dismissively. “We’ve met, but that’s of no consequence right now. The point is, Lacy, you’ve been through too much. I know you’re strong, but you aren’t unbreakable.” John patted my knee.
He suspects, but he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know. As my tension released, exhaustion descended. I felt like I’d been awake up for twenty-four hours instead of twenty-four minutes. The coffee wasn’t doing a damn thing. “Yeah, I know,” I mumbled.
“I’m worried about you. You’ve got to take care of yourself. Get some more rest. I can’t lose you, too!”
I glanced at John, surprised. It was the closest thing to an admission of need I’d ever heard from him. He took off his glasses and rubbed his forehead. I was struck afresh by how much younger he looked without them.
It always gave me a queasy sense of déjà vu when he took off his glasses, in part because his near blindness made it seem like he was staring through me, and in part because without the glasses he looked like the Uncle John who’d swept Aunt Dorothy off her feet, the most glamorous and charming man I’d ever met as a child.
My mind flashed back to the disastrous party where my mother had made me spill the judge’s drink on my dress, had taken away the necklace of carved roses John gave me, had ruined everything. Lately my subconscious had been replaying that day like a broken record, maybe because it was the first time I became aware that there was something wrong with my mother. The beginning of the end.
“I think you’re right, “ I said. “I need to rest. I’m going to lay down.” I pushed myself to my feet, feeling ancient.
“Why don’t you go lie on the couch in the living room?” John said. “Watch some movies on the big screen TV. It’s still your house, you know. That hasn’t changed.” John put his glasses back on and squinted at me.
“No, thanks. I don’t think I could keep my eyes open for more than five minutes.”
“So what? Watch a little, sleep a little. It’ll do you good.”
I looked at John, his face so kindly and sincere. His concern was touching and unexpected. I almost said yes just to please him, but I wanted the peace and solitude of my own bed and my darkened room. “That’s okay.”
John’s face fell and he frowned.
“How about we watch a movie together later, okay?” I heard the appeasing tone in my voice. “I’ll be better company after a nap, I promise.”
John shrugged, and he wheeled past me into the hall. “Suit yourself.”
I WOKE AT dusk to the smell of Chinese food. I followed the scent and found John in the living room, watching a slasher movie. As I walked in, a guy in a blood-splattered princess mask was chopping a female torso with a pickax, and John was shoveling sweet and sour pork into his mouth.
I grimaced. “How can you eat and watch this?”
“It’s only a movie, Lacy,” John said, grinning. “The blood is obviously fake.”
“Still.” I shook my head.
“There’s plenty of food in the kitchen. Grab a plate and we’ll watch something else.”
“I don’t want to ruin your fun.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I was just killing time until you woke up. I figured the smell of Chinese might bring you back to life. I got shrimp fried rice and dumplings.” He gestured at a stack of DVDs. “Now, what shall it be: Dial M for Murder, Double Indemnity, Key Largo…”
“Is it my birthday?”
John shrugged. “You’re always taking care of everyone else. Time someone took care of you, for once. Come on, choose a movie.” John patted the couch and I went to sit. Even through the scent of Chinese food, the couch smelled of Dorothy—citrus and sandalwood. I sobered, missing her again. Missing Dad, too. To my horror, I felt tears spill out of my eyes.
“Talk to me.” John set his plate of food down, half-eaten. Another first. He looked at me intently. I didn’t really want to get into it, but he was being so nice … and I didn’t want to offend him.
I took a deep breath and tried to collect my thoughts. “Everything’s changed. Dad gone, Dorothy … and well, I just didn’t know you saw me like that—a caretaker.” He frowned and I hastened to explain. “I’m flattered you see me as responsible, of course. Though I don’t know that I deserve it, lately.”
John held up his hand. “You’re an extraordinary person. Believe me. If I’ve been hard on you, it’s because I know that. You’re destined for greatness.”
I glanced up, about to respond with an old joke. Destined for gritness. Gritty gritness. That’s what Abby and I used to say in the squats, using exaggerated, Scottish accents. But John stared at me with such earnestness that the words died on my lips. I looked away quickly, my eyes landing on one of Dorothy’s bird sculptures on the mantle. A scarlet ibis I’d always particularly liked.
“So what’ll it be?” John asked.
I was relieved to see he was referring to the movies, and not to my purported destiny. “You pick,” I said. “I like them all.”
My hunger came flooding back with a vengeance, and I flew off the couch toward the hall, half-sliding on sock-clad feet across the polished wood floor. In the kitchen, I heaped my plate with fried rice and dumplings, neither of which John had even touched, of course. He only liked the sweet and sour pork with extra sweet sauce. I helped myself to some of that, too.
In the living room, John had queued up The Big Sleep. I settled down on the couch and ate slowly, savoring every bite, enjoying the film. There’s something about old Noir that takes me out of myself. The stark lighting, the improbable way the actors talk, the stylized clothes and interiors—you might as well be watching people from another planet. And that’s what I liked about it. Nothing resembling my reality, whatsoever.
After we ate, about the time that Marlow finds Carmen naked and high on ether, John pulled out a bottle of brandy and poured us a couple of snifters.
“Am I allowed to have this?” I joked.
John waved his hand dismissively. “One or two brandies in the evening is good for the constitution.” He wagged his finger at me, “But no more than two!” His teasing smile took any sting out of the words that, otherwise, might have set me bristling. In fact, I couldn’t remember when I’d felt so calm.
I stretched out on the couch under Dorothy’s soft alpaca throw and sipped my brandy slowly. The room, lighted only by the flickering black and white images, took on a luminous glow. I was warm, and so relaxed I felt like I was melting. John sat in his chair, spine straight, as usual.
“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable on the couch?” I asked. “There’s plenty of room.”
John glanced over. “I don’t want to crowd you.”
“Don’t be silly.” I wiggled my feet. “This couch has to be seven feet long and three feet deep. You could fit a basketball team on here.” I giggled, then wondered at myself. I felt like I’d had half a bottle of brandy, not half a snifter.
“Well, it would be nice to rest my back.” John stretched, pushed over to the sideboard to grab the bottle of brandy, wheeled around and set it on the coffee table within reach. Then he levered himself gracefully onto the other end of the couch.
We watched the rest of the movie like that: him sitting at one end, sipping brandy, me stretched out, floating among the cushions. For the first time in what seemed forever, my worries and grief evaporated. I didn’t even finish my drink. I didn’t need it. I felt blissed-out.
As the movie neared its end, my eyes grew heavy and I drifted into sleep.
IN MY DREAM, John was not the strict, sober man I’d known for the past seventeen years—wheelchair-bound and half blind—but John as I’d first known him. Charming and carefree. We were throwing a party in the Fan house, our house. I saw myself svelte in a peach silk dress and pumps, mingling easily with beautiful, elegant people.
It was a warm night, and the tiny, walled backyard—in real life, little more than a weed patch—had been transformed into a charming herb garden with winding brick paths and a fountain out back. Fairy lights ran along the walls.
Inside, the living room and dining rooms had been opened up to make space for dancing. I drank glass after glass of champagne, laughing over nothing. The only smudge on my happiness was my daughter, a morose, dark-haired girl of about ten. She hovered around the edges of the party, glaring at everyone.
“Come on, honey! Dance with me.” I grabbed her hand and tried to pull her along, but she jerked away and pushed through a clump of chattering people. Evading me, she cast a betrayed, resentful look over her shoulder. It cut deep, and for a moment the room shifted. The dancing people became junkies who smelled of piss, staggering and fighting in a wretched flophouse.
“Kids.” John stood behind me, murmuring in my ear. “Can’t live with them, can’t send them to Alaska to be raised by wolves.” The squalid vision faded, and the beautiful party returned.
I smiled. “Are you sure? Because our daughter loves cold weather.”
As I turned, John gave me a dazzling smile and shrugged. “Nothing to do but wait for her to grow up. At least this one hasn’t tried to kill me.”
I took a step back and averted my eyes, watching one of the dancers float toward the ceiling. “This one?” I said. “How many children do you have?”
“Oh, I’ve had dozens over the years. But never one like you.”
“You mean like her?” As I turned my eyes back to John, the living room became a flophouse again. It was winter, and snow blew in through broken windows. Junkies and alcoholics crouched in corners cradling needles and bottles like babies. As I looked down at myself, I saw that my clothes were covered in grime. I had a pint of five-dollar vodka clutched in my hands. I wanted to fling it away from me, deny everything. But I couldn’t.
I looked at John, elegant in a gray cashmere coat and hound’s-tooth scarf—a demi-god next to the broken creatures all around us. And I was one of them. Tears of fear and self-pity welled in my eyes. “Please, don’t. Please. Please. Please.”
I didn’t know what I was begging for until a movement caught my eyes. I turned and saw my daughter, huddled on the floor at my feet. She looked older, almost a teenager, now. But so thin—her clothes as filthy as mine. My daughter. Her name was on the tip of my tongue….
John held out his hand. The girl took a step toward him, then turned and gave me a look of pure disgust. My heart broke as I realized she hated me. Oh God, what had I done? Why couldn’t I remember?
“It’s okay, Lacy. I’ll take care of her.” John smiled generously. “There’s nothing for you to worry about. You’ve given me everything I ever wanted. The fruit of the sixth. You can rest now.”
They turned and left without a backward glance. As if I was already dead.