Dark Hunger


Part Two. REHAB Chapter Nineteen


On the morning of the Fourth, Ford rolled out of Cilla's bed. It didn't surprise him she was already up, even on a holiday. He considered it his duty as an American to sleep in, but apparently she didn't share his staunch sense of patriotism. He groped his way downstairs, and followed the now familiar sound of whoosh-bang! to the living room.

She stood on a ladder shooting nails into window trim.

"You're working." It was an accusation.

She glanced back. "A little. I wanted to see how this trim looks against the paint since my father finished it. I still can't believe he painted all this, and so well. If he didn't have a job, I'd hire him."

"Is there coffee?"

"Yes, there is. Spock's out back. He fears the nail gun."

"Minute."

He heard more whoosh-banging behind him as he dragged himself into the kitchen. The coffeemaker stood on a small square of counter as yet undemoed. Shielding his eyes from the sunlight blasting through the windows, he found a mug, poured. After the first couple sips, the light seemed more pleasant, and less like an alien weapon designed to blind all humankind.

He drank half the mug standing where he was, and after topping it off felt mostly awake. Carrying it with him, he walked back to the living room and watched her work for a few minutes while the caffeine wove its magic.

She stood on the floor now, fitting the diagonal edges of the bottom piece to the sides she'd already nailed up. In what struck him as wizard-fast time, the dark, wide trim framed the window.

She set the gun down, took several steps back. He heard her whisper, "Yes, exactly."

"It looks good. What did you do with what was there before?"

"This is what was there before, or mostly. I had to build the sill to match because it was damaged."

"I thought it was white."

"Because some idiot along the way slapped white paint on this gorgeous walnut. I stripped it. A little planing, a little stain and a couple coats of poly, and it's back to its original state."

"Huh. Well, it looks good. I didn't get the paint color until now. Thought it looked a little dull. But it looks warmer against the wood. Like, ah, a forest in the fog."

"It's called Shenandoah. It just seemed right. When you look out the windows in this room, it's the mountains, the sky, the trees. It's just right." She walked back, picked up another piece of trim.

"You're still working."

"We don't have to leave for..." She looked at her watch, calculated. "About ninety minutes. I can get some of this trim run before I have to get ready."

"Okay. I'm taking the coffee and my dog and heading across the road. I'll pick you up in an hour and a half."

"Great. But you might want to put some pants on first."

He glanced down at his boxers. "Right. I'm going to put on pants, possibly shoes, take the coffee and so on."

"I'll be ready."

HE DIDN'T EXPECT her to be ready. Not because she was female, but because he knew what often happened when he himself got lost in the work. If he didn't set an alarm, being late, or in fact missing an appointment or event altogether, was the norm.

So it surprised him when she came out of the house even as he stopped in front of it. And her appearance left him momentarily speechless.

She'd left her hair down, as she rarely did, so it spilled dark, aged gold, down her back. She wore a dress of bright red swirled against white, with a kind of thin and floaty skirt and thin straps that set off those strong shoulders.

With his paws planted on the window, Spock leaned out. Ford translated the series of sounds the dog made as the canine version of a wolf whistle.

He got out of the car-he just had to-and said, "Wow."

"You like? Check this." She did a turn, giving him a chance to admire the low dip of the back with the flirt of crisscrossing ties.

"And again, wow. I've never seen you in a dress before, and this one pulls out some stops."

Instant distress ran across her face. "It's too much, too fussy for a backyard cookout. I can change in five minutes."

"First, over my dead body. Second, 'fussy' is the last word I'd use. It's great. You look all summery sexy, ice-cream-sundae cool. Only now I wish I'd thought to take you out where you'd wear dresses. I feel a fancy dinner coming on."

"I prefer backyard picnics."

"They are permanently top of my list."

SHE'D EXPECTED IT to be awkward initially, the introductions, the mixing. But she knew so many of the people there that it was as easy and pleasant as Matt's backyard with its generous deck and smoking grill.

Josie, Matt's pretty and very pregnant wife, snatched Cilla away from Ford almost immediately. "Here." Josie handed Ford a beer. "Go away. Wine, beer, soft?" she asked Cilla.

"Ah, I'll start with soft."

"Try the lemonade, it's great. Then I'm going to steal you for ten minutes over there in the shade. I'd say walk this way, but waddling's unattractive unless you're eight months pregnant. I've been dying to meet you."

"You're welcome to come by the house, anytime."

"I nearly have a couple times, but with this." She patted her belly as they walked. "And that." And pointed toward a pack of kids on a swing set. "The little guy in the blue shorts and red shirt squeezing Spock in mutual adoration is mine. So between this and that, and a part-time job, I haven't made it by. Either to welcome you to the area, or to poke my nose in to see what's going on. Which Matt claims is pretty great."

"He's terrific to work with. He's very talented."

"I know. I met him when my family moved here. I was seventeen and very resentful that my father's work dragged me away from Charlotte and my friends. My life was over, of course. Until the following summer when my parents hired a local contractor to put an addition on the house, and there was a young, handsome carpenter on the crew. It took me four years," she said with a wink, "but I landed him."

She sat with a long, heartfelt sigh.

"I'll get this out of the way. I adored Katie. I had a Katie doll. In fact, I still do. It's stored away for this one." She ran a gentle circle over her belly. "We're having a girl this time. I've seen most if not all of your grandmother's movies and have Barn Dance on DVD. I hope we come to like each other because you're seeing Ford and I love him. In fact, Matt knows if I ever get tired of him and decide to ditch him, I'm going after Ford."

Cilla sipped her lemonade. "I think I already like you."

IN THE HEAVY, drowsing heat, people sought out the shade of deck umbrellas or gathered at tables under the spread of trees. Seemingly unaffected by spiraling temperatures and thickening humidity, kids clambered over the swing set or raced around the yard like puppies with inexhaustible energy. Cilla calculated that Matt's big yard, sturdy deck and pretty two-story Colonial held nearly a hundred people spanning about five generations.

She sat with Ford, Brian and a clutch of others at one of the picnic tables, plates loaded with burgers, hot dogs, a wide variety of summer salads. From where she sat, she could see her father, Patty and Ford's parents talking and eating together on the deck. As she watched, Patty laughed, laid a hand on Gavin's cheek and rubbed. He took his wife's hand, kissed her knuckles lightly as the conversation continued.

It struck, a dull blade of envy and its keener edge of understanding. They loved each other. She'd known it, of course, on some level. But she saw it now, in the absent gestures she imagined neither of them would remember, the steady and simple love. Not just habit or contentment or duty, not even the bonds of-how long had they been together? she wondered. Twenty-three, twenty-four years? No, not even the bonds of half a lifetime.

They'd beaten the odds, won the prize.

Angie walked by-so young, fresh, pretty-with the gangly guy in baggy shorts she'd introduced to Cilla as Zach. Angie stopped, and for a moment Cilla was stunned to realize how much she wished she was close enough to hear the quick, animated conversation. Then with her hand resting on her mother's shoulder, Angie leaned down to kiss her father's head before moving on.

That said it all, Cilla decided. They were a unit. Angie would go back to college in the fall. She might move a thousand miles away at any point in her life. And still, they would always be a unit.

Deliberately, she looked away.

"I think I'll get a beer," she said to Ford. "Do you want one?"

"No, I'm good. I'll get it for you."

She nudged him back as he started to rise. "I can get it."

She wandered off to the huge galvanized bucket filled with ice and bottles and cans. She didn't particularly want a beer, but figured she was stuck now. She fished one out and, thinking of it as a prop, crossed over to where Matt manned the grill.

"Do you ever get a break?" she asked him.

"Had a couple. People come and go all day, that's how it is at these things. Gotta keep it smoking."

His little boy raced up, wrapped his arms around Matt's leg, chattering in a toddlerese Cilla was incapable of interpreting. Matt, however, appeared to be fluent. "Let's see the proof."

Eyes wide, the boy pulled up his shirt to expose his belly. Matt poked at it, nodding. "Okay then, go tell Grandma."

When the boy raced off again, Matt caught Cilla's puzzled expression. "He said he finished his hot dog and could he have a big, giant piece of Grandma's cake."

"I didn't realize you were bilingual."

"I have many skills." As if to prove it, he flipped a trio of burgers expertly. "Speaking of skills, Ford told me you ran some of the living room trim this morning."

"Yeah. It looks, if I must say-and I do-freaking awesome. Is that your shop?" She gestured with the beer to the cedar building at the rear of the property.

"Yeah. Want to see?"

"You know I do, but we'll take the tour another time."

"Where are you going to put yours?"

"Can't decide. I'm debating between putting up something from scratch or refitting part of the existing barn. The barn option's more practical."

"But it sure is fun to build from the ground up."

"I never have, so it's tempting. How many square feet do you figure?" she continued, and fell into the comfortable, familiar rhythm of shoptalk.

As evening drifted in, people began the short pilgrimage to the park. They crowded the quiet side street, carting lawn chairs, coolers, blankets, babies and toddlers. As they approached, the bright, brassy sound of horns welcomed them.

"Sousa marches," Ford said, "as advertised." He shifted the pair of folding chairs he had under his arm while Cilla led Spock on a leash. "You having fun?"

"Yes. Matt and Josie put on quite a cookout."

"You looked a little lost back there, just for a couple minutes."

"Did I?"

"When we were chowing down. Before you got up to get a beer, and I lost you to Matt and Tool Time Talk."

"Probably too much pasta salad. I'm having a really good time. It's my first annual Shenandoah Valley backyard July Fourth extravaganza. So far, it's great."

The park spread beneath the mountains, and the mountains were hazed with heat so the air seemed to ripple over them like water. Hundreds of people scattered through the park, sprawling over its greens. Concession stands did a bustling business under the shade of their awnings, in offerings of country ham sandwiches, sloppy joes, funnel cakes, soft drinks. Cilla caught the scents of grease and sugar, grass and sunscreen.

Over loudspeakers came a whine of static, then the echoey announcement that the pie-eating contest would begin in thirty minutes in front of the north pavilion.

"I mentioned the pie-eating contest, right?"

"Yes, and four-time champ Big John Porter."

"Disgusting. We don't want to miss it. Let's grab a square of grass, stake our claim." Stopping, Ford began to scan. "We need to spread out some, save room for Matt and Josie and Sam. Oh hey, Brian's already homesteaded. The girl he's with is Missy."

"Yes, I met her."

"You met half the county this afternoon." He slanted Cilla a look. "Nobody expects you to remember names."

"Missy Burke, insurance adjuster, divorced, no kids. Right now she's talking to Tom and Dana Anderson, who own a small art gallery in the Village. And Shanna's strolling over with Bill-nobody mentioned his last name-a photographer."

"I stand corrected."

"Schmoozing used to be a way of life."

They'd barely set up, exchanged more than a few words with their companions, before Ford dragged her off to the pie-eating contest.

A field of twenty-five contestants sat at the ready, white plastic bibs tied around their necks. They ranged from kids to grandpas, with the smart money on Big-an easy two-fifty big-John Porter.

At the signal, twenty-five faces dropped forward into crust and blueberry filling. A laugh burst straight out of her, drowned away in the shouts and cheers.

"Well, God! That is disgusting."

"Yet entertaining. Man, he's going to do it again! Big John!" Ford shouted, and began to chant it. The crowd picked up the rhythm, erupting with applause as Big John lifted his wide, purple-smeared face.

"Undefeated," Ford said when Porter was pronounced the winner. "The guy can't be beat. He's the Superman of pie-eaters. Okay, there's the raffle in the south pavilion. Let's go buy some chances on the ugliest, most useless prize."

They settled, after considerable debate, on a plastic rooster wall clock in vibrant red. Target selected, Ford moved to ticket sales. "Hi, Mrs. Morrow. Raking it in?"

"We're doing well this year. I smell record breaker. Hello, Cilla. Don't you look gorgeous? Enjoying yourself?"

"Very much."

"I'm glad to hear it. I imagine it's a little tame and countrified compared to the way you usually spend your holiday, but I think we put on a nice event. Now, how much can I squeeze you for? I mean..." Cathy gave an exaggerated flutter of lashes. "How many tickets would you like?"

"Going for twenty."

"Each," Cilla said and pulled out a bill of her own.

"That's what I like to hear!" Cathy counted them off, tore off their stubs. "Good luck. And just in time. We'll start announcing prizewinners over the loudspeaker starting in about twenty minutes. Ford, if you see your mama, tell her to hunt me up. I want to talk to her about..."

Cilla tuned out the conversation when she saw Hennessy staring at her from the other side of the pavilion. The bitter points of his hate scraped over her skin. Beside him stood a small woman, with tired eyes in a tired face. She tugged at his arm, but he remained rigid.

The heat went out of the day, the light, the color. Hate, Cilla thought, strips away joy. But she wouldn't turn away from it, refused to allow herself to turn away.

So it was he who turned, who finally bent to his wife's pleas to stride away from the pavilion across the summer green grass.

She said nothing to Ford. The day would not be spoiled. She soothed the throat the silent encounter had dried to burning with lemonade, wandered through the crowd as the sun began to dip toward the western peaks.

She talked, laughed. She won the rooster wall clock. And the tension drained away. As the sky darkened, Sam climbed up into Ford's lap to hold a strange, excited conversation.

"How do you know what he's saying?" Cilla demanded.

"It's similar to Klingon."

They announced "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the crowd rose. Beside her, Ford hitched the boy on his hip. Around her, under an indigo sky, with the flicker of glow tubes and fireflies in the dark, mixed voices swelled. On impulse, out of sudden need, she took Ford's hand, holding on until the last note died away.

Moments after they took their seats again, the first boom exploded. On the sound Sam leaped out of Ford's lap and into his father's. And Spock leaped off the ground and into Ford's.

Safe, Cilla thought, while lights shattered indigo. Where they knew they'd always be safe.

"GOOD?" Ford asked as they drove down the quiet roads toward home.

"Very good." Amazingly good, she realized. "Beginning, middle and end."

"What are you going to do with that thing?" He glanced down at the clock.

"Thing?" Cilla cradled the rooster in her arms. "Is that any way to speak about our child?" She patted it gently. "I'm thinking the barn. I could use a clock out there, and this is pretty appropriate. And I like having a memento from my first annual Fourth. It'll be way too late in the year for a cookout when my place is done. But after today, I think I'm going to plan a party. A big, sprawling, open-house-type thing. Fire in the hearth, platters of food, flowers and candles. I'd like to see what it's like to have the house filled with people who aren't working on it."

She stretched out her legs. "But tonight, I'm partied and festived out. It'll be nice to get home to the quiet."

"Almost there."

"Want to share the quiet with me?"

"I had that in mind."

They glanced at each other as he turned into her drive. When he looked back, the headlights flashed over the red maple. "What's that hanging-"

"My truck!" She reared forward, gripping the dash. "Oh, goddamn it, son of a bitch. Stop! Stop!"

She was already yanking off her seat belt, shoving at the door before he'd come to a complete stop behind her truck.

Loose clumps of broken safety glass hung in the back window. More sparkled in the gravel, crunching under her feet as she ran.

Ford had his phone out, punching in nine-one-one. "Wait. Cilla, just wait."

"Every window. He smashed every window."

Cannonball holes gaped in the windshield, erupted into mad spiderwebs of shattered glass. As the cold rage choked her, she saw her headlights had been smashed, her grille battered.

"A lot of good the alarm did me." She could have wept. She could have screamed. "A lot of damn good."

"We're going to go in, check the alarm. I'm going to check the house, then you're going to stay inside."

"It's too much, Ford. It's just too damn much. Vicious, vindictive, insane. The crazy old bastard needs to be locked up."

"Hennessy? He's out of town."

"He's not. I saw him tonight, at the park. He's back. And I swear to God if he could've used the bat or pipe or whatever he used here on me then and there, he would have."

She whirled around, riding on the fury. And saw in the car's headlights what Ford had seen hanging from a branch of her pretty red maple.

Ford grabbed her arm when she started forward. "Let's go in. We'll wait for the cops."

"No." She shook off his hand, crossed from gravel to grass.

She'd been six, Cilla recalled, when they marketed that particular doll. She wore her hair-a sunny blond that hadn't yet darkened-in a pair of ponytails tied with pink ribbons above her ears. The ribbon sashing the pink-and-white gingham dress matched. Lace frothed at the white anklets above the glossy patent leather of her Mary Janes.

Her smile was as sunny as her hair, as sweet as the pink ribbons.

He'd fashioned the noose out of clothesline, she noted. A careful and precise job, so that the doll hung in horrible effigy. Just above the ribbon sash, the cardboard placard read: WHORE.

"Optional accessories-sold separately-for this one included a scale model tea set. It was one of my favorites." She turned away, picked up a whining, quivering Spock to hug. "You're right. We should go inside, check the house just in case."

"Give me the keys. I want you to wait on the veranda. Please."

A polite word, Cilla thought. How odd to hear the absolute authority under the courtesy. "We know he's not in there."

"Then it's no problem for you to wait out on the veranda." To close the issue, he simply opened her purse, pulled out the keys.

"Ford-"

"Wait out here."

The fact that he left the door open told Cilla he had no doubt she'd do what he ordered. With a shrug, she stepped over to the rail, nuzzling Spock before she set him down. No one had been in the house, so there was no harm in waiting. And no point in arguing about it.

Besides, from here she could stare at her truck, brood over the state of it. Wallow in the brooding. She'd felt so damn good the day she bought that truck, so full of anticipation when she loaded it up for her trip east.

The first steps toward her dream.

"Everything's okay," Ford said from behind her.

"It's really not, is it?" Some part of her, some bitchy, miserable part of her, wanted to shrug off the comforting hands he laid on her shoulders. But she stopped herself.

"Do you know how it felt to me today? Like I was in a movie. I don't mean that in a bad way, just the opposite. Little slices and scenes of a movie I actually wanted to be part of. Not quite there yet, still pretty new on the set. But starting to feel... really feel comfortable in my skin."

She drew in a long breath, let it out slowly. "And now, this is reality. Broken glass. But the odd thing, the really odd thing. That was me today. It was me. And this? Whatever this is directed at? That's the image, that's the mirage. The smoke and mirrors."

FOREST LAWN CEMETERY

1972

The air sat hot and still while the smog lay over it like a smudge from a sweaty finger. Graves, housing stars and mortals alike, spread, cold slices in the green. And all the flowers, blooming tears shed by the living for the dead.

Janet wore black, the frame within the dress shrunk from grief. A willow stem gone brittle. A wide black hat and dark glasses shaded her face, but that grief poured through the shields.

"They can't put the stone up yet. The ground settles first. But you can see it, can't you? His name carved into white marble, the short years I had him. I tried to think of a poem, a few lines to have carved, but how could I think? How could I? So I had them carve 'Angels Wept.' Just that. They must have, I think. They must have wept for my Johnnie. Do you see the angels that look down on him, weeping?"

"Yes. I've come here before."

"So you know how it will look. How it will always look. He was the love of my life. All the men, husbands, lovers, they came and went. But he? Johnnie. He came from me." Every word she spoke was saturated with grief. "I should have... so many things. Can you imagine what it is for a mother to stand over the grave of her child and think, 'I should have'?"

"No. I'm sorry."

"So many are. They pour out their sorry to me, and it touches nothing. Later, it helps a little. But these first days, first weeks, nothing touches it. I'll be there." She gestured to the ground beside the grave. "I know that even now because I've arranged it. Me and Johnnie."

"And your daughter. My mother."

"On the other side of me, if she wants it. But she's young, and she'll go her own way. She wants... everything. You know that, and I have nothing for her now, not in these first days, first weeks. Nothing to give. But I'll be there soon enough, in the ground with Johnnie. I don't know when yet, I don't know how soon it comes. But I think of making it now. I think of it every day. How can I live when my baby can't? I think about how. Pills? A razor? Walking into the sea? I can never decide. Grief blurs the mind."

"What about love?"

"It opens, when it's real. That's why it can hurt so much. You wonder if I could have stopped this. If I hadn't let him run wild. People said I did."

"I don't know. Another boy died that night, and the third was paralyzed."

"Was that my fault?" Janet demanded as bitterness coated the grief. "Was it Johnnie's? They all got into the car that night, didn't they? Drunk, stoned. Any one of them could've gotten behind the wheel, and it wouldn't have changed. Yes, yes, I indulged him, and I thank God for it now. Thank God I gave him all I could in the short time he lived. I would do it all again." She covered her face with her hands, shoulders shaking. "All again."

"I don't blame you. How can I? I don't know. Hennessy blames you."

"What more does he want? Blood?" She dropped her hands, threw out her arms. And the tears slid down the pale cheeks. "At least he has his son. I have a name carved into white marble." She dropped to her knees on the ground.

"I think he does want blood. I think he wants mine."

"He can't have any more. Tell him that." Janet lay down beside the grave, ran her hands over it. "There's been enough blood."

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