Dark Hunger


Part Three. FINISH TRIM Chapter Twenty-Six


Cilla stood in her bedroom, staring at the freshly painted walls while her father tapped the lid back on the open can of paint. She watched the way the strong midday light flooded the room, and sent those walls to glowing.

"The trim's not even up, and the floors still have to be done, and still, standing here gives me an ecstatic tingle."

He straightened from his crouch, took a long look himself. "It's a damn fine job."

"You could make a living."

"It's always good to have a fallback."

"You've damn near painted the entire house." She turned to him then. She still couldn't quite think what to make of that, or what to say to him. "That's saved me weeks of time. Thanks doesn't cover it."

"It does the job. I've enjoyed it, on a lot of levels. I've liked being part of this. This transformation. We missed a lot of summers, you and I. Spending some of this one with you, well, it's made me happy."

For a moment she could only stand, looking at him, her handsome father. Then she did something she'd never done before. She went to him first. She pressed a kiss to his cheek, then wrapped her arms around him. "Me too."

He held on, hard and tight. She felt his sigh against her. "Do you remember the day we first saw each other here? I came to the back door, and you shared your lunch with me on the sagging front veranda?"

"I remember."

"I didn't see how we'd ever get here. Too much neglect, too much time passed. For the house, and for us." He eased her back, and she saw with some surprise, some alarm, that his eyes were damp. "You gave it a chance. The house, and me. Now I'm standing here with my daughter. I'm so proud of you, Cilla."

When her own eyes flooded, she pressed her face to his shoulder. "You said that to me, that you were proud, after the concert in D.C., and once, earlier, when you came to the set of Our Family and watched me shoot a scene. But this is the first time I believe it."

She gave him a last squeeze, stepped back. "I guess we're getting to know each other, through interior latex, eggshell finish."

"Why stop there? How about we go take a look at the exterior."

"You can't paint the house. The rooms, that's one thing."

Lips pursed, he scanned the room. "I think I passed the audition."

"Interiors. It's a three-story building. A really big, three-story building. Painting it'll require standing on scaffolding and really tall ladders."

"I used to do my own stunts." He laughed as she rolled her eyes in a way he could only describe as daughterly. "Maybe I didn't, and maybe that was a long time ago, but I have excellent balance."

She tried stern. "Standing on scaffolding and really tall ladders in the dog-day heat of August."

"You don't scare me."

Then simple practicality. "It's not a one-man job."

"True. I'll definitely need some help. What color did you have in mind?"

And felt herself being gently steamrolled. "Listen, the old paint needs to be scraped where it's peeled, and-"

"Details, details. Let's take a look. Do you want it painted by Labor Day, or what?"

"Labor Day? It's not even on the schedule until mid-September. When it's, hopefully, a little cooler. The crew who painted the barn-"

"Happy to work with them."

Completely baffled, she set her hands on her hips. "I thought you were kind of-no offense-a pushover."

His expression placid, he patted her cheek. "No offense taken. What about the trim, the verandas?"

She puffed out her cheeks, blew the breath out. She saw it now. Push-over, her ass. He just ignored the arguments and kept going. "Okay, we'll take a look at the samples I'm thinking about. And once I decide, you can work on the verandas, the shutters. But you're not hanging off scaffolding or climbing up extension ladders."

He only smiled at her, then dropped his arm over her shoulders the way she'd seen him do with Angie, and walked her downstairs.

Though it wasn't on her list-and she really wanted to get up to her office and check on the progress of her floors, see if Stan had finished the tile, start running the bedroom trim-she opened the three pints of exterior paint. "Could go deep, with this blue. The gray in it settles it down a few notches, and white trim would set it off." She slapped some on the wood.

"Makes a statement."

"Yeah. Or I could go quiet and traditional with this buff, use a white trim again, or a cream. Cream might be better. Softer."

"Pretty and subdued."

"Or I could go with this more subtle blue, again gray undertones keeping it warm, and probably go with a soft white for the trim."

"Dignified but warm."

She stepped back, cocked her head to one side, then the other. "I thought about yellows, too. Something cheerful, but soft enough it doesn't pop out of the ground like a big daffodil. Maybe it should wait. Maybe it should just wait." She gnawed on her lip. "Until..."

"I've seen you make decisions, over everything that has to do with this house, with the grounds. Why are you having such a hard time with this?"

"It's what everyone will see. Every time they drive by on the road. A lot of them will slow down, point it out. 'That's Janet Hardy's house.'" Setting down the brush, Cilla wiped her hands on her work shorts. "It's just paint, it's just color, but it matters what people see when they drive by on the road, and think of her."

He laid a hand on her shoulder. "What do you want them to see when they drive by here?"

"That she was a real person, not just an image in an old movie, or a voice on a CD or old record. She was a real person, who felt and ate, who laughed and worked. Who lived a life. And she was happy here, at least for a while. Happy enough she didn't let it go. She held on, so I could come here, and have a life here."

She let out an embarrassed laugh. "And that's a hell of a lot to expect from a couple coats of paint. Jesus, I should probably go back into therapy."

"Stop." He gave her shoulder a quick shake. "Of course it matters. People obsess over something as mundane as paint for a lot less important reasons. This house, this place, was hers. More, it was something she chose for herself, and something she valued. Something she needed. It's been passed to you. It should matter."

"It was yours, too, in a way. I don't forget that. That matters more now than it did when I started. You pick."

He dropped his hand, actually stepped back. "Cilla."

"Please. I'd really like this to be your choice. The McGowan choice. People will think of her when they pass on the road. But when I walk the grounds or drive in after a long day, I'll think of her, and of you. I'll think of how you came here as a little boy, and chased chickens. You pick, Dad."

"The second blue. The warm and dignified blue."

She hooked her arm with his, studied the fresh color over the old, peeling paint. "I think it's going to be perfect."

WHEN FORD WALKED over late in the day, he saw Gavin on the veranda, scraping the paint on the front of the house.

"How're you doing, Mr. McGowan?"

"Slow but sure. Cilla's inside somewhere."

"I just bought a house."

"Is that so?" Gavin stopped, frowned. "You're moving?"

"No. No. I bought this, well, this toxic dump that Cilla says she can fix up. To flip. The seller just accepted my offer. I feel a little sick, and can't decide if it's because I'm excited, or because I can see this big, yawning money pit opening up under my feet. I'm going to have two mortgages. I think I should probably sit down."

"Pick up that scraper, give me a hand with this. It'll calm you down."

Ford eyed the scraper dubiously. "Tools and I have a long-standing agreement. We stay away from each other, for the good of mankind."

"It's a scraper, Ford, not a chain saw. You scrape ice off your windshield in the winter, don't you?"

"When I must. I prefer staying home until it thaws." But Ford picked up the spare scraper and tried to apply the process of scraping ice from glass to scraping peeling paint off the side of a house. "I'm going to have two mortgages, and I'm going to be forty."

"Did we just time-travel? You can't be more than thirty."

"Thirty-one. I have less than a decade until I'm forty, and five minutes ago I was studying for the SATs."

Gavin's lips twitched as he continued to scrape. "It gets worse. Every year goes faster."

"Thanks," Ford said bitterly. "That's just what I needed to hear. I was going to take my time, but how can you when there isn't as much as you think there is?" Turning, he waved the scraper, and nearly put it through the window. "But if you're ready, and she's not, what the hell are you supposed to do about that?"

"Keep scraping."

Ford scraped-the paint and his knuckles. "Crap. As a metaphor for life, that sucks."

Cilla came out in time to see Ford sucking his sore knuckles and scowling. "What are you doing?"

"I'm scraping paint and a few layers of skin, and your father's philosophizing. "

"Let me see." She took Ford's hand, studied the knuckles. "You'll live."

"I have to. I'm about to have two mortgages. Ouch!" he said when Cilla gave his sore fingers a quick squeeze.

"Sorry. They accepted your offer?"

"Yeah. I have to go into the bank tomorrow and sign a bunch of papers. I'm going to hyperventilate," he decided. "I need a bag to breathe into."

"November settlement?"

"I followed the company line."

She gave him a poke. "Scared?"

His answering scowl was both sour and weak. "I'm about to go into debt. The kind that has many zeros. I'm having a few moments. Do you know that the olfactory sense is the strongest of the five senses? I keep having flashes of how that place smells."

"Put that down before you really hurt yourself." She took the scraper out of his hand, set it on the window ledge. "And come with me a minute. " She gave her father a quick wink, then drew Ford into the house.

"Do you remember what the kitchen looked like in here when you first saw it?"

"Yeah."

"Ugly, dingy, damaged floors, cracked plaster, bare bulbs. Got that picture in your head?"

"I got it."

"Close your eyes."

"Cilla."

"Seriously, close them, and keep that picture in there."

He shook his head but obliged her, and let her lead him back. "Now I want you to tell me what you see when you open your eyes. No thinking it through, no qualifying. Just open your eyes and tell me what you see."

He obeyed. "A big room, empty. A lot of light. Walls the color of lightly toasted bread. And floors, big squares of tile-a lot of honey tones on cream with pipes poking up through them. Big, unframed- untrimmed-windows that open it up to a patio with a blue umbrella, and gardens with roses blooming like maniacs, and green gone lush. And the mountains against the sky. I see Cilla's vision."

He started to step forward, but she tugged him back. "No, don't walk on the tiles yet. Stan only finished the grout an hour ago."

"We can do this."

"We absolutely can. It takes planning, effort, a willingness to find a way around unexpected problems, and a real commitment to the end goal. We'll turn that place around, Ford, and when we do, we'll have something we can both be proud of."

He turned to her, kissed her forehead. "Okay. Okay. I've got some scraping to do."

She walked out with him, baffled when he signaled so long to her father and kept walking.

"Well, where's he going? He said he was going to do more scraping."

Gavin smiled to himself as Cilla shook her head and went back inside. It was good to know his daughter had found her place, her purpose, had found a man who loved her.

It was good to know she was out of reach of the man who'd wished her harm.

THE NEXT MORNING, Cilla walked over from Ford's to find her tires slashed. On the ground by the left front tire, another doll lay facedown, a short-handled paring knife stabbed into its back.

"You should've come back for me. Damn it, Cilla." Ford paced down the drive, then back to where she sat on the steps of the veranda. "What if he-she-whoever-had still been here?"

"They weren't. The cops were here within fifteen minutes. They're pretty used to the run by now. I didn't see the point in-"

"Because I can't run a skill saw or a damn drill I'm no use?"

"I didn't mean that, and you know I didn't mean that."

"Simmer down, Ford." Matt stepped between them.

"No way. It's the second time somebody killed one of those damn dolls to scare her, and she sits over here alone waiting for the cops and lets me sleep. It's goddamn stupid."

"You're right. Simmer down anyway. He's right," Matt said to Cilla. "It was goddamn stupid. You're a hell of a job boss, Cilla, and one of the best carpenters I've worked with, but the fact is someone's dogging you and threatening you, and standing around here alone after you come across something like this doesn't show much sense."

"It was a cowardly bully tactic, and nobody asked you to go running across the road dragging Ford out of bed so the pair of you can gang up on me. I'm not stupid. If I was afraid, I'd have run across the road and dragged Ford out of bed. I was mad, damn it."

She shoved to her feet as sitting and looking up at two annoyed males made her feel weak and small. "I'm still mad. I'm pissed and I'm tired of being dogged and threatened, as you put it. Of being run off the road and having good work destroyed, and the whole rest of it. Believe me, if whoever did that had still been here, I'd have probably yanked that knife out of that idiot doll and stabbed him in the throat with it. And still been pissed."

"If you're so smart," Ford said, very coolly, "then you know it was stupid."

She opened her mouth, shut it and gave up. Then she sat back down. "I'll give you rash. I won't give you stupid."

"Hardheaded and rash," Ford countered. "That's my final offer."

"Have it your way. Now if you'd go back to bed, and you'd go get to work, I could sit here and wallow in my brood."

Saying nothing, Matt walked up, patted Cilla on the head and continued inside. Ford came over, sat beside her.

"Like I care if you can run a skill saw."

"Thank God you don't."

"I didn't think about coming to get you. I was too mad. I don't get it, I just don't get it." Shifting, she indulged herself-and him-by pressing her face to his shoulder a moment. "Hennessy's in psych. If his wife's doing this, why? I know he's doing two years, but how is that my fault? Maybe she's as crazy as he is."

"And maybe Hennessy didn't do it. Ran you off the road, no question. Is crazy, no argument. But maybe he didn't do any of the rest. He wouldn't admit to it."

"That would be just great, meaning I have at least two people out there who'd like to make my life hell." She leaned forward, propped her elbows on her thighs. "It could be about the letters. Someone else knows about them, knows I found them, that they still exist. If Andrew wrote them, someone might know about them, about the affair, the pregnancy... His name's still prominent around here. To protect his reputation..."

"Who, Brian's father? Brian? Besides, it doesn't look like Andrew Morrow wrote them. I sent copies to a graphologist."

"What?" She jerked straight again. "When?"

"A couple days after Brian brought the card over. Yes, taking that on myself without telling or consulting you was... rash. We'll call it even."

"God, Ford, if the press gets ahold of this-"

"They won't. Why would they? I found a guy in New York, one who doesn't know Andrew Morrow from Bruce Wayne. And the copy of the page of one of the letters I sent him had nothing in it that referred to Janet or the location, even the time frame. I was careful."

"Okay. Okay." He would have been, she admitted.

"The conclusion was, not the same hand. Guy wouldn't stake his reputation on it because they were copies, and because I told him they were written about four years apart. But he wouldn't document them as the same hand. He did say they were of similar style, and both might have been taught to write by the same person."

"Like a teacher?"

"Possibly."

A whole new avenue, Cilla realized. "So it might have been someone who went to school with Andrew. A friend. A close friend. Or someone who went to the same school, with the same teacher later. And that really narrows the field."

"I could look into that, or try. Talk to my grandfather. He and Andrew would be about the same age. He might remember something."

Cilla studied her four flat tires. "I think that's a good idea. If you want answers, you have to ask questions. I have to go to work. And you have to go to the bank." She bumped his shoulder with hers. "Have we made up?"

"Not until we have sex."

"I'll put it on my list."

FORD PULLED UP in front of the little suburban house. He heard the purr of a lawn mower as he stepped out of the car, so with Spock he walked around to the side of the house and through the gate of the chain-link fence.

His grandfather, dressed in a polo shirt, Bermuda shorts and Hush Puppies, pushed the power mower across the short square of lawn between and around the hydrangeas, the rosebushes and the maple tree.

From the gate, Ford could see the sweat trickling down his grandfather's temples under his Washington Redskins cap. Ford shouted, made wide arm signals as he started over, and saw the smile spread on his grandfather's sweaty face when Ford caught his eye.

Charlie shut off the lawn mower. "Well, hi there. Hi there, Spock," he added, patting his thigh in invitation for the dog to plant his hind legs for a head rub. "What're you doing out this way today?"

"Mowing the rest of your lawn. Granddad, it's too hot out here for you to be doing this."

"Meant to get to it earlier."

"I thought you hired a neighborhood kid to do this. That's what you told me when I said I'd come by and do it."

"I was going to." Charlie's face moved into what Ford thought of as Quint stubborn. "I like cutting my own grass. Not on my last legs yet."

"You've got plenty of legs left, but you don't have to use them working out here when it's already ninety and humid enough to drown in your own breath. I'll finish it up. Maybe you could get us a couple of cold drinks. And Spock could use some water," Ford added, knowing that would do the trick.

"All right then, all right. But you be sure you put the mower back in the shed when you're done. And don't bump into those rosebushes. Come on, Spock."

It took less than twenty minutes to finish it off-with his grandfather watching him like a hawk through the back screen door. Which meant, Ford thought, they didn't have the AC turned on inside.

By the time Ford stowed the mower, crossed over the tiny cement patio and walked through the screen door, he was dripping. "It's August, Granddad."

"I know what month it is. Think I'm senile?"

"No, just crazy. Let me assure you, air-conditioning is not a tool of Satan."

"Not hot enough for air-conditioning."

"It's hot enough to boil internal organs."

"We got a nice cross breeze coming through."

"Yeah, from hell." Ford dropped down at the kitchen table and gulped the iced tea Charlie set out while Spock lay snoring. Probably in a heat-induced coma, Ford thought. "Where's Grandma?"

"Your aunt Ceecee picked her up, for the book club gab session at your mother's bookstore."

"Oh. If she was here, she'd give me cookies. I know damn well you gave Spock some before he passed out."

Charlie snorted out a laugh, but rose to get a box of thin lemon snaps off the counter where he'd left them after treating Spock. He shook some onto a plate, set it in front of Ford.

"Thanks. I bought a house."

"You've got a house already."

"Yeah, but this one's an investment. Cilla's going to fix it up, perform major miracles, then I'll sell it and be a rich man. Or I'll lose my shirt and have to move in with you and Grandma, and suffer from heat prostration. I'm banking on the miracle after seeing what she's done with her place."

"I hear she's done some fancy work over there. Changed a lot."

"For the better, I think."

"Guess I'll see for myself at the Labor Day shindig she's having. Your grandmother's already been out shopping for a new outfit. It'll be strange going to a party there, after all these years."

"I guess a lot of people who'll go would have been to parties there when Janet Hardy was alive." Perfect opening, Ford thought. "Mom and Dad, Brian's parents. You knew Bri's grandfather, right?"

"Everybody around here knew Andrew Morrow."

"Were you friendly?"

"With Drew Morrow?" Charlie shook his head. "Wasn't unfriendly, but I can't say we ran in the same circles. He was older, maybe six, eight years."

"So you didn't go to school with him?"

"We went to the same school. Back then, there was only the one. Andrew Morrow, he had the golden touch. Golden tongue, too," Charlie said and wet his throat. "He sure could talk anybody into fronting him money, but by God, he lined the pockets of the ones who did. Buying up land, putting up houses, buying up more, putting up the stores, the office buildings. Built the whole damn village, served as mayor. Talk was he'd be governor of Virginia. Never did run though. Talk was maybe he had some dealings that weren't up-and-up."

"Who did he hang with, when you were boys?"

"Oh, let's see." Charlie rattled off some names that meant nothing to Ford. "Some of them didn't come back from the war. He ran some with Hennessy, the one's in the loony bin now."

"Really?"

"Went around with Hennessy's sister Margie for a time, then broke it off when he met Jane Drake, the one he married. She came from money." With a smirk, Charlie rubbed his thumb and fingers together. "Old money. Man needs money to buy up land and build houses. She was a looker, too. Snooty with it."

"I remember her. She always looked pissed off. I guess money can't buy happiness if you shop in the wrong places. Maybe Morrow looked for more pleasant companionship."

"Might could've done."

"And that might be why he didn't run for governor," Ford speculated. "Sticky affair, threat of exposure, bad press. Wouldn't be the first or last time a woman killed a political career."

Charlie flicked the back of his fingers up the side of his neck. "Politicians, " he said in a tone that expressed contempt for the entire breed. "Still, he was a popular man around here, with most. He gave Buddy's daddy a leg up in the plumbing business. Brought a lot of work to the valley. Buddy's doing the work over there at the farm, isn't he?"

"That's right."

"He did some back in Janet's day, he and his daddy. Buddy had more hair and less gut in those days, and about ran the business by then, I guess. Been about your age, a little more, maybe."

Ford filed that away, tried to wend his way back. "I guess back when there was only one school, all of you shared a lot of teachers. Like Brian, Matt, Shanna and I did. Mr. McGowan taught us all, and Matt's little brother, Brian's older sister. Back in elementary school, Mrs. Yates taught us to write. She always crabbed by my penmanship. I bet she'd be surprised by what I do today. Who taught you to write, Granddad?"

"God, that takes me back." He smiled now, eyes going blurry with memory. "My mama started me off. We'd sit at the table and she'd have me trace over letters she made. I was right proud when I could write my own name. We all had Mrs. Macey for penmanship, and she'd mark me down for writing the way my mama taught me. Made me stay after school to write the alphabet on the board."

"How long did she teach there?"

"Years before, years after. I thought she was old as the hills when I was six. I guess she wasn't more than forty. Sure was a hard case."

"Did you ever write her way?"

"Never did." Charlie smiled, bit into a cookie. "My mama taught me just fine."

Ford reported to Cilla under the blue umbrella, over a cold beer. "It's not much. Shared teacher in the person of the persnickety Mrs. Macey. A lot of Morrow's generation, and those coming up behind him, would've been taught to write by her. He was friendly with Hennessy, at least until he threw over Hennessy's sister for the rich and snooty Jane. He put Keystone Plumbing on the map, along with other businesses. He may or may not have had some shady dealings and/or extramarital affairs that prevented him from running for governor. He had friends in high places and you could say boosted friends into high places. Through the connection to him, some of them could have met your grandmother, and an affair could have followed."

"The who you know and how you connect doesn't run that different here than it does in Hollywood." Or probably anywhere else, Cilla mused. "Buddy worked here when he was in his thirties? It's a little hard to see Janet tumbling madly in love with a plumber, especially Buddy. Still, he'd have only been a few years younger than she was."

"Can you picture Buddy writing phrases like 'I place my heart, my soul, in your lovely hands'?"

"Really can't. There are more connections between the then and the now than I realized, or appreciated. I may never know if there's more to then than just the continuity of the place. The way it's going, I may never know how, even if, what's been happening here connects."

"The Hennessy house is up for sale." Ford laid a hand over hers. "I drove by after I saw my grandfather. Curtains are drawn, no car in the drive. Spanking-new Century 21 sign in the front yard."

"Where is she?"

"I don't know, Cilla."

"Maybe if she's responsible for this morning, it was a final fuck-you."

It didn't play that way for Ford. The panels didn't fit, and the images in them didn't form true. He'd keep shifting them, he thought, changing, resizing, until he had not only the picture, but the whole story.

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