Dark Hunger


Part Three. FINISH TRIM Chapter Twenty-Nine


Crazy. She had to be crazy hosting a party. She didn't have any furniture, or dishes. She didn't own a serving spoon. She was at least three weeks out from delivery on her stove and refrigerator. She didn't own a goddamn rug. Her seating consisted of a single patio set, a couple of cheap plastic chairs and a collection of empty compound buckets. Her cooking tools were limited to a Weber grill, a hot plate and a microwave oven.

She had supplies, God knew. A million festive paper plates, napkins, plastic cups and forks and spoons, and enough food-which she didn't know how to prepare-stuffed into Ford's refrigerator to feed most of the county. But where were people supposed to eat?

"On the picnic tables my father, your father and Matt are bringing over," Ford told her. "Come back to bed."

"What if it rains?"

"Not calling for rain. There is a thirty-percent chance of hail and locusts, and a ten-percent chance of earthquakes. Cilla, it's six in the morning."

"I'm supposed to marinate the chicken."

"Now?"

"No. I don't know. I have to check my list. I wrote everything down. I said I'd make crab dip. I don't know why I said that. I've never made crab dip. Why didn't I just buy it? What am I trying to prove? And there's the pasta salad." She heard the lunacy in the rant, couldn't stop. "I took that, too. Eating pasta salad through the years doesn't mean you can make pasta salad. I've been to the doctor through the years. What's next? Am I going to start doing elective surgery?"

Though it was tempting, he didn't put the pillow over his head. "Are you going to lose your mind like this every time you give a party?"

"Yes. Yes, I am."

"Good to know. Come back to bed."

"I'm not coming back to bed. Can't you see I'm dressed? Dressed, pacing, obsessing and postponing the moment when I go downstairs and face that chicken."

"All right. All right." He pushed himself up in bed, scooped back his hair. "Did you agree to marry me last night?"

"Apparently I did."

"Then we will go down and face the chicken together."

"Really? You'd do that?"

"I'll also face the crab dip and the pasta salad with you. Such is the depth of my love, even at six o'clock in the morning." Spock rose, yawned, stretched. "And apparently his. If we poison people, Cilla, we'll do it together."

"I feel better. I know when I'm being a maniac." She walked to him, leaned down and kissed his sleepy mouth. "And I know when I'm lucky to have someone who'll stick with me through it, right down to the crab dip."

"I don't even like crab dip. Why do people eat stuff like that?" He gave her a tug, pulling her onto the bed. And rolled on top of her. "People are always making dips out of odd things. Spinach dip, artichoke dip. Have you ever asked yourself why?"

"I can't say I have."

"Why can't they be satisfied with some Cheez Whiz on a cracker? It's simple. It's classic."

"You can't distract me with Cheez Whiz." She shoved him off. "I'm going down." She tugged her shirt back into place. "I'm ready."

IT WASN'T ALTOGETHER horrible or intimidating, Cilla discovered. Not with a partner. Especially when the partner was as clueless as she. It was almost fun. She thought, with some repetition, and a bit more skill, boiling pasta or mincing garlic might slip past the almost and become actual fun.

"I had a Janet dream last night," she told him.

"How can the simple tomato come in so many sizes?" He held up a beefsteak and a handful of grape tomatoes. "Is it science? Is it nature? I'll have to do a study on it. What was the dream about?"

"I guess it was about love, at least on one level. And my subconscious poking around about what it means. Or what it meant to her. We were in the living room of the farm. The walls were my walls-I mean the space was mine, the color of the paint, but she was on that bright pink couch. And I had photographs spread on this glossy white coffee table. Photos I've managed to get my hands on, the photos your grandfather took, photos I think I might have just seen in books. Hundreds of them. She was drinking vodka in a short glass. She said it had been a year since Johnnie died, and how she hoped this baby was a boy. She said it was her last chance. Her last love, her last chance.

"It's so odd. She knew she was going to die soon. Because I knew. I asked her why, why did she do it? Why did she turn away from that last chance and end it all?"

"What did she say?"

"That if I could do anything for her, it would be to find that answer. That I had it all in front of me, but I wasn't paying attention. So I woke up frustrated because, as she said, it's my dream. If I know something, why don't I know it?"

Ford took up his assignment of slicing the beefsteak. "Is it too much to accept she might've been too sad, too deep in the dark, and saw it as the only way to end the pain?"

"No. But I can't quite make myself believe it. I never fully could, or never fully wanted to. And since I came here, started on the house, I believe it less-and want to believe it less," Cilla admitted. "She found something here. Look at all she took and let go of again. Men, marriages, houses, possessions. She was famous for acquiring and disposing of. But she kept this place, and more, made arrangements so it would remain in the family long after she died. She found something she needed here, something that contented her."

She looked out the window and watched Spock on his morning rounds. "She kept the dog," Cilla murmured. "And an old jeep. A stove and refrigerator that were out of date. I think, in a way, this place was real to her. The rest, it's not. For the smart ones, it's a job. It's good work. Fame can be a by-product, but it's fleeting and fickle and so much of it's an illusion. She didn't need the illusion here."

"And falling in love here made it more real?"

She looked over, grateful he followed the thread of her thoughts. "It follows, doesn't it? The worst thing in her life happened here when Johnnie was killed. An inescapable reality. But she kept coming back, facing it. She didn't close the place up, or sell it. He called her Trudy, and that's who she wanted to believe he loved. I think she wanted that last chance, desperately. I think she wanted the baby, Ford. She'd lost one child. How could she, why would she kill herself and end the chance for another?"

"And if she realized it wasn't Trudy this guy loved, that that was another illusion?"

"Men come and go. They always did for her. And I guess I remembered that, resolved that through the dream last night. Her one true love was Johnnie. Her work, too. She passionately loved the work. But Johnnie was hers. My mother always knew that, always knew she didn't quite hit the same spot. The last love, the last chance? I think it was the child for her. I can't believe, just can't, that she'd have killed herself over a love affair that went south."

"You said she was drinking in the dream. Vodka."

"Her standard." When the timer dinged, Cilla hefted the pot of pasta, carried it to the sink to drain into the waiting colander. "But there weren't any pills in the dream."

She stood, watching the steam rise. "Where were the pills, Ford? I keep circling back to those letters, to the anger in the last few. He didn't want her in this house. She was a threat to him, an unpredictable woman, a desperate one, pregnant with his child. But she wouldn't give it up. Not this place, not the child, not the chance. So he took it from her. I keep circling back to that."

"If you're right, proving it would be the next step. We've already tried to find out who wrote those letters. I don't know how many more avenues there might be to take."

"I feel like... I feel like we've already been down the right one, or close to it. And missed something that was right there. Right there. That I didn't pay attention, and it slipped by."

She turned. "This is my reality now, Ford. You, you and the farm, this life. I found that, I can take that because of her. I owe her. And I owe her more than planting roses and painting and hammering wood. More than bringing this place back as tribute. I owe her the truth."

"What you've found, and what you take may have started with her. And if you need the truth, I'll do whatever I can to help you find that. But the farm, what you've done here, it's more than a tribute to Janet Hardy. It's a tribute to you, Cilla. What you can do, what you'll work for, what you'll give. The walls were yours in the dream."

"And I haven't put anything inside it. I talk about it, but I don't take the step. Not a chair, not a table, beyond what I needed for Steve. I guess I have to fix that."

He'd been waiting for that. Waiting for that step. "I've got a house full of stuff here. It's a good start for picking and choosing."

She walked to him, linked her arms around his neck. "I pick you. I pick the guy who'll slice tomatoes with me at seven in the morning because I'm a lunatic. The guy who not only promises to help me, but does. The one who makes me understand I'm the first Hardy woman in three generations lucky enough to be in love with a man who sees me. Let's pick something, and take it across the road. We'll put it inside the house so it's not hers, it's not mine. So it's ours."

"I vote for the bed."

She grinned. "Sold."

IT WAS RIDICULOUS, of course, for two people who were preparing for a party to leave the work to break down a bed, to haul frame, headboard, footboard, mattress, box spring, bedding downstairs, out to the truck, drive it across the road with a dog in tow. Then reverse the procedure.

But Cilla found it not only symbolic, she found it therapeutic.

Still, Ford's suggestion that they try it out in its new place was going too far.

Tonight, she told him. Definitely.

Their room now, she thought, giving the pillows an extra fluff. Their room, their bed, their house. Their life.

Yes, she'd put pictures of Janet in the house, as she'd said in the dream. But there would be other pictures. Pictures of her and Ford, of friends and family. She'd ask her father if he had any of his parents, his grandparents she could copy. She'd repair and refinish the old rocker she'd found in the attic, and she'd buy cheerful, happy dishes, and put Ford's wonderful roomy couch in their living room.

She'd remember what had been, and build toward what could be. Really, hadn't that always been the purpose? And she'd keep looking for that truth. For Janet, for her mother, for herself.

At Ford's she deserted the field, ducking outside to call Dilly in New York.

"Mom."

"Cilla, it's barely nine in the morning. Don't you know I need my sleep? I have a show tonight."

"I know. I read the reviews. 'Mature and polished, Bedelia Hardy comes triumphantly into her own.' Congratulations."

"Well, I could've done without the mature."

"I'm awfully proud of you, and looking forward to seeing you triumphant in D.C. in a couple of weeks."

After a brief pause, Dilly said, "Thank you, Cilla. I don't know what to say."

And when her mother went on a long riff about the hard work, the three encores, the curtain calls, the acres of flowers in her dressing room, Cilla just smiled and listened. Dilly was never at a loss for words for long.

"Of course, I'm completely exhausted. But somehow, the energy's there when I need it most. And Mario's taking very good care of me."

"I'm glad. Mom, Ford and I are getting married."

"Who?"

"Ford, Mom. You met him when you came here."

"I can hardly be expected to remember everyone I meet. The tall one? The neighbor?"

"He's tall, and he lives across the road."

"When did all this happen?" Dilly demanded, with the first notes of petulance in her voice. "Why are you marrying him? When you come back to L.A.-"

"Mom, just listen. Just listen and don't say anything until I'm done. I'm not going back to L.A. I'm not coming back to the business."

"You-"

"Just listen. This is my home now, and I'm building a life here. I'm in love with an amazing man who loves me back. I'm happy. I'm as happy at this moment as you are when you step out into the lights. I want you to do one thing for me. Just this one thing, just this one time. I want you to say, whether you mean it or not, just say, 'I'm happy for you, Cilla.'"

"I'm happy for you, Cilla."

"Thanks."

"I am happy for you. I just don't understand why-"

"It's enough, Mom. Just be happy. You don't have to understand. I'll see you in a couple of weeks."

It's enough, Cilla thought again. Maybe one day there would be more, maybe there wouldn't. So it was enough.

She went back into the house, and to Ford.

REINFORCEMENT ARRIVED with platters and bowls, with tables and pounds of ice. Penny dispatched Ford to help unload at the farm before she bustled into the kitchen with Patty, where Cilla agonized over the pasta salad.

"Someone needs to taste it. Ford and I are too emotionally involved with the pasta. We have no objectivity."

"It's so pretty!" Patty exclaimed. "Isn't that a pretty salad, Pen?"

But Penny, whose eagle eyes spotted Cilla's ring in under three seconds, latched on to Cilla's hand. "When?"

"Last night."

"What? What am I missing? Oh God, oh God! Is that what I think it is? Is that it? Oh, let me see!" Patty crowded in, peered down at the ring. "It's just beautiful. It's just so beautiful. I'm so happy. I'm so happy for both of you."

No prompting needed from the wings here, Cilla thought as Patty threw her arms around Cilla and dipped them both side to side.

"Didn't take you long to come to your senses. Let go, Patty, she's going to be my daughter-in-law." Nudging Patty aside, Penny moved in for a hug. "He's a very, very good man."

"Only the best."

"I'm pretty sure you almost deserve him." Penny leaned back, all smiles and damp eyes. "Aren't they going to make us beautiful grand-babies, Patty?"

"Oh, well..."

"We won't start nagging you about that yet. Much," Patty put in. "First we get to nag you about the wedding. Did you set the date?"

"No, not really. We just-"

"It's too late to take advantage of the fall season. The foliage will peak in about six weeks. And there's so much to do."

"We thought an outdoor wedding, at the farm. Simple," Cilla began.

"Perfect." Patty counted off on her fingers. "May, early May, don't you think? May's so pretty, and that gives us a comfortable time for all the details. The dress comes first. Everything builds around the dress. We have to go shopping. I can't wait!" Patty threw her arms around Cilla again.

"Captain Morrow reporting to the staging area," Cathy said as she came in, loaded with bags. "What's all this? Has everyone been slicing onions?"

"No." Patty dashed at tears. "Cilla and Ford. They're getting married."

"Oh!" Cathy jumbled bags onto the counter, righted one before its contents spilled. She turned, beaming smiles. "Congratulations! What happy news. When's the big day?"

"May, we think," Patty told her. "Don't we think May? Oh my God, isn't she going to be the most beautiful bride? An outdoor wedding at the farm. Isn't that perfect? Imagine the gardens next May."

"It's going to be the event of the year. Simple," Penny added with a light in her eyes that told Cilla they might have different definitions of the word. "We'll say simply the event of the year."

"You two are scaring the girl." With a laugh, Cathy put an arm around Cilla's shoulder. "She'll be running for the hills any minute."

"No. I'm staying right here. It's nice," Cilla decided. "We'll make it the event of the year. In a simple way."

"There you go." Cathy gave Cilla's shoulder a squeeze. "Now, ladies, if we don't get this particular show on the road, we're going to have a lot of hungry people, and the disaster of this year on our hands."

IT WAS so much easier than she'd imagined, and amazingly satisfying. Under the afternoon sun dozens and dozens of people spread around the grounds. They crowded at borrowed picnic tables, perched on the steps, sat at folding card tables on the veranda. They ate and drank, admired the house, the gardens. No one seemed concerned about the lack of furniture and formality.

She watched Dobby sitting in a lawn chair he'd brought himself, eating her pasta salad, and felt a ridiculous surge of pride. Her home, she thought, might not be finished, but it was more than ready to welcome people.

She joined Gavin while he flipped burgers on the grill. "How'd you earn the KP?"

"I gave Ford a break." He smiled down at Cilla. "Practicing being a father-in-law. It's a good party, Cilla. It's good to have one here again."

"I'm thinking of it as the first annual Labor Day at the farm. Next year, even better."

"I like hearing you say that. Next year."

"I'm exactly where I want to be. There's still a lot to do. Still a lot I need to know." She drew a breath. "I talked to Mom this morning."

"How is she?"

"Mature, polished and triumphant, according to the reviews. It's going to be difficult for her to come here, to the farm, for the wedding. She will, but it'll be difficult for her. Will it for you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Having her here, going through that ritual, the wedding, with her here?"

"Absolutely not." The surprise in his voice brought her comfort. "It wasn't all bad times between us, Cilla. It had to end for me to be exactly where I want to be, and, I suspect, for your mother to be mature, polished and triumphant."

"Then that's something to cross off my should-I-worry-about-this list. I want to get married here. It's our place now, Ford's and mine. And I like knowing my parents had their first kiss over there. And that my grandmother walked the gardens. That your grandfather plowed those fields. It all trickles down. I've wanted that all my life. Look at the house," she murmured.

"It's never looked more right, more real than it does now."

"That's what I want, too. The right, and the real. Did you come here after Johnnie died?"

"A few times. She seemed to like seeing me. The last was a couple of months before she died. I was doing some summer stock in Richmond. My father was ill, so I came to see him. When I learned she was here, I came by. She seemed better, or she was trying very hard to be. We talked about him, of course. I don't think he was ever out of her mind. She hadn't brought anyone with her, not like before when the house always seemed full of people. It was just the two of us for about an hour, in the living room."

"On the pink couch with the white satin pillows," Cilla added.

"Yes." He laughed a little. "How did you know about that?"

"I heard about it. Very Doris Day."

"I suppose it was. I must have commented on it, because I remember her saying she wanted bright in the house again. It was time for the new and the bright, so she'd had it shipped all the way from L.A."

He poked at the grilling chicken, flipped a burger. "She went back the next day, and I went back to Richmond for the rest of the summer. So that would've been the last time I saw her. It's a good image, really. Janet sitting on that pink, Hollywood couch with her dog snoring under the coffee table."

"I wonder if I have a picture of her on it. Ford's grandfather gave me so many pictures. I need to go through them again. If I can find one, I'll give you a copy. Here, let me have that platter." She took the dish Gavin had loaded with burgers, hot dogs, grilled chicken. "I'll deliver this to Station Meat, then go find Ford."

She wended her way through the backyard crowd, around the veranda dwellers and into the kitchen. She saw that Patty or Penny had been through by the stack of empty and freshly washed plates and bowls. Since that brought on some mild guilt, she prepared to wash the pair of serving plates she'd brought in with her instead of just putting them in the sink.

It felt good, watching through the kitchen window while she washed up, having this quick moment alone. She saw her father still at the grill, with Ford's father now, and Brian. Buddy and his wife at a picnic table with Tom and Cathy, and Patty stopping by to chat. There was Matt tossing a ball to his little boy while Josie looked on, the baby tucked in her arm.

Penny was right, Cilla realized with a quick laugh. She and Ford would make gorgeous babies. Something to think about.

When the phone she had charging on the counter rang, she picked it up with the smile still curving her lips. "This is Cilla. Why aren't you here?"

"Ms. McGowan?"

"Yes. Sorry."

"It's Detective Wilson. I have some information."

WHEN FORD CAME IN through the front he saw her standing at the sink, looking out. "Look at us, being hosts. You washing up, me taking out the trash. I loaded a couple of bags in your truck. One of us needs to hit the dump tomorrow."

He slipped his arms around her, started to draw her back against him, and felt it immediately. "What is it?" He turned her, scanned her face. "What happened?"

"Hennessy's dead. He killed himself. He made a noose out of his own shirt, and-"

He drew her against him now, hard. She trembled first, then held on. "Oh God, Ford. Oh God."

"Some people can't be saved, Cilla. Can't be helped."

"He never got over it, got past it. What happened to his son. All these years, he had a purpose, and he had his bitterness. But when his son died, all he had was the bitterness."

"And it killed him." He pulled her back, looking into her eyes to be sure she understood just that. "It's the hate that ended him, Cilla."

"I'm not blaming myself. I have to keep saying it, keep thinking it, so I won't. And I'm not. But there's no denying I was part of it. He made me part of it. I guess that's another kind of revenge. His poor wife, Ford. She's lost everything. And horribly, there's a part of me that's relieved."

"He hurt you, and he tried to do worse. Do you want some time? I can go out, try to wrap things up."

"No. No. He did enough." She looked back out the window, at the people on her lawn. "He's not going to ruin this."

"FORD, JUST THE MAN I wanted to see." Gavin handed over the spatula and tongs, then picked up the platter. "Your turn." With his free hand, he hefted a beer. "And mine."

"You sure this younger generation knows how to handle the grill?" Tom asked.

"We can put you guys down," Brian responded. "Anytime, anywhere."

"I feel a grill-off coming on. But before we get to that, I need to exploit my future son-in-law. I'd like you to come in and talk to my creative writing students."

"Oh. Well. Um."

"Actually, we'd like to do a three-part, possibly five-part, program on storytelling through words and art. Our art teacher is very excited by the idea."

"Oh," Ford repeated, and had Brian laughing.

"He's getting a flashback of high school, where he was president of the Nerd Club."

"Three years of being pantsed and recovering from wedgies."

"Matt, Shanna and I saved you when we could."

"Not often enough."

"I give you my word, your ass will not be exposed or abused on my watch."

Ford gave Gavin a sour look. "Can I have an armed escort?"

"We'll need to work out the details, the dates, and anything you might want or need. I can talk to you about my end of it. You should contact Sharon, the art teacher. She loves your work, by the way. Let me give you her contact information. Ah..." He looked at his full hands. "Got anything to write on, with?"

"No. Gee, I guess we'll have to forget the whole thing."

"I happen to have something." Grinning, Tom pulled a small leather-bound notebook and short pen out of his pocket. "Sharon, you said?"

Gavin relayed the information, cocked an eye at Ford when he passed him the sheet. "You do want to marry my daughter, don't you?"

"Yeah." Trapped, Ford stuffed the paper in his pocket.

"I'm going to deliver this, then I'll come back and give you the basic overview of what I have in mind."

"I should've known there'd be strings," Ford muttered when Gavin strolled away.

"Get used to it." Tom clamped a hand on Ford's shoulder. "And now that you're engaged, and there's Matt with his lovely family, how long before the last of the Musketeers settles down?"

"Your turn," Ford said gleefully.

Brian shook his head. "You bastard. Under the circumstances, I don't know why I'm telling you we're continuing this holiday with poker- guys only-at my place tonight. We're tapping you for leftover beer and food, Rembrandt."

"I suck at poker."

"Which is why, even under the circumstances."

"I don't know if-"

"See?" Brian pointed at his father. "She's already got him by the balls. And you ask me why I'm single."

"She doesn't have me-"

"Still getting pantsed. Only now by a woman."

"Jesus. Remind me why I'm friends with you."

"Nine o'clock. Bring beer."

WITH CONSIDERABLE HELP from friends, cleanup went quickly. Trash was bagged, leftovers tubbed, recyclables binned. A small convoy of the faithful hauled what needed to be hauled back to Ford's.

"Two households," Angie commented, "and still not quite enough room. What should I do with this pie?"

"Ford can take it to Brian's."

"I don't think I'm-"

Cilla cut him off with a look. "Go, be a man. Get out of my two households for a few hours. I'm fine."

"Of course she's fine." Patty sealed a small bowl of leftover three-bean salad. "Why wouldn't she be fine? Has something else happened?" she said when she saw the way Ford glanced at Cilla. "Is something wrong?"

"Hennessy killed himself last night. Ford's worried I've taken it too much to heart."

"Oh, honey!"

"It's that, plus I don't like leaving you alone."

"We'll stay," Patty said immediately.

"We'll all stay," Penny put in. "We'll have our own-all women- party."

"You will not stay. I don't need babysitters. I'm going to work on the photos your father gave me," she said as she handed a bowl to Ford's mother. "A couple of hours of quiet is just what I need. No offense."

"But-"

"And I want to draw up some ideas for the gym and studio addition without you hanging over my shoulder. Go away. I'll stay here until you get back," she added when she saw more arguments in his eyes. "Brid, Warrior Goddess, requires no bodyguards. Now leave."

"Fine. It won't take me more than a couple hours to lose anyway."

"That's the spirit."

"All right, girls, let's claim our dishes and load it up. I'll give everyone a ride home since the men have deserted us." Penny put her hands on Cilla's shoulders. "I'm going to call you tomorrow, and we're going to set the time and place for you, Patty and me to hold our first Wedding of the Year strategy session."

"Should I be afraid?"

"Very." Penny kissed her cheek. "You're a good girl."

Watching the way Penny herded everyone out the door told Cilla she would have a very interesting, and very compatible, mother-in-law.

"Now you," she told Ford.

"I can probably lose in an hour."

"Stop. I'm tucked in here. No one's going to bother me. No one has bothered me for some time now. The fact is, Hennessy's dead, and the media is going to pick up on that. Some of it will start again. I could use a quiet, normal evening before the circus comes to town. And I'm not going to have either of us live worrying about me spending a quiet, normal evening alone. Besides..." She bent down to scratch Spock. "I have a bodyguard."

"Keep the door locked anyway."

"I'll keep the door locked anyway." She gave him a last kiss, then a shove out the door. "Don't bet on an inside straight." Then shut it, locked it at his back.

She turned around, let out a long sigh, then grinned at Spock. "I thought they'd never leave."

Content, she walked upstairs for the box of photos.

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