Authors: Lora Roberts
But instead of heading back to my home and livelihood, I had to stick around Denver. And a lot of issues that had been swept under the rug in my family years ago might get shaken out. I had always nursed a grievance over the way my parents had severed me from their life. Lately I’d been telling myself that even though they were wrong to act so, they were still my parents and we should communicate with each other. It came from living several years in California, I suppose, where everybody talks like a therapist because everybody’s seeing one—except me, probably the last holdout from counseling in the entire Bay Area. I had seen enough psychologists during my incarceration.
My parents could have used some counseling back then, too. It might not even be possible to communicate after all this time, so encrusted was our relationship with past issues. But they were old, and I felt on some basic level that they deserved a daughter’s duty from me. If they hadn’t been there for me over the past years, the obverse was true.
The streets Barker and I walked down were lined with small, older ranch-style houses interspersed with big, brassy new remodels like Andy’s. I thought about Palo Alto, about my own small house and the sunshine that bathed it this time of year, about my garden, my veggies and flowers, and about Drake.
Once I allowed Drake into my thoughts, he took up way too much space. It wouldn’t be long before he found out about my reunion from hell, given that police departments have fax machines and computer linkups and are prone to checking up on people who get involved in murders. Then he wouldn’t just be in my thoughts anymore. He’d be in my ear, yelling at me on the phone. I could hardly wait.
The trees were starting to turn already; every so often dead leaves floated down to litter the sidewalk. Barker hadn’t experienced fall before; he took personal exception to all the leaves, shying away from them when they drifted near him, then attacking the helpless ones at his feet. I pulled my sweatshirt hood up against the uncompromising nip in the air, so different from the moist coolness of Bay Area September mornings.
Renee’s kitchen light was on when I got back. I slipped the plastic bag holding Barker’s morning deposit into Andy’s garbage can and ushered the dog into Babe’s front passenger door, closing the door behind us with as little noise as possible. I was turning the Z-bed back into a seat when the side door squealed open. “Hi,” Amy said lugubriously. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I pulled up the table and got my cup out of its place in the cupboard. “Just trying to be real quiet and not bother anyone. How are you? Okay after all you went through last night?”
“I had dreams.” Amy shivered and let it go at that. “You went through more than me. Did the police give you the third degree?”
“I don’t think they do that anymore. They were quite polite, actually. Do you want some tea?”
“No, thanks.” I winced when the cupboard door banged, and Amy said, “Daddy’s already gone, and you’d have to be invisible not to bother Mom.” The kitchen curtain twitched. “She’ll be out here pretty soon, waking up the whole neighborhood.”
“She’s just protecting her family.” Barker gazed blissfully at Amy while she combed her fingers through the silky fur of his ruff. “Maybe you should go back in.”
“It’s not fair,” Amy burst out. “You’re part of the family. And they won’t even let you sleep in the house—”
“It was my idea to stay out here. I enjoy living in the bus again.” All except the lack of a bathroom.
The front door opened, and Renee motioned to Amy. I stayed where I was, planning to drive around and find a filling station or a construction site with portable toilets.
Amy pulled on my arm. “You come, too,” she hissed. “I’ll make you some breakfast.”
By my calculations, it was Wednesday—a school day. “Don’t you have school?”
Renee stomped toward us. Amy turned her back on her mother. “I’m thinking of cutting.”
“You will not!” Renee glared at me. “This is all your fault, Liz.”
"Tell the world, why don’t you?” Amy returned her mother’s glare.
I dropped a meek sentence into their verbal battle. “Do you mind if I use the bathroom?”
Renee was taken aback. “Well, I guess it’s okay. I mean, I guess you’ll have to.”
Amy pulled me toward the house, and Barker bounded joyfully in our wake. “Come on, Aunt Liz. You can use my bathroom.”
“Don’t let that dog in the house!”
“He’ll stay in my room.” Amy still wouldn’t look at her mom. Renee trailed us through the front door, arguing.
She was still arguing when Amy and I left, half an hour later. I’d had a very quick shower, and a cup of tea made by Amy, and had offered her a ride to school, which went a short way toward placating Renee. But she still had to wring her hands and wail whenever she thought of the disgrace of having the police come around, and her last words to Amy were not to talk to reporters.
“Will there be any?” Amy bounced on the passenger seat. “Like, TV guys? There’s one on channel four—he’s killer, for an old guy.”
I judged from this that the reporter in question was probably several years younger than me. “I doubt they’ll seek you out, but your mom is right—the less you say, the better you come off on TV.”
“Like, woman of mystery, hmm?” Amy shook back her hair, which was now totally orange, instead of the multicolored hanks it had been a month ago. “I can do that. What will you be doing today, Aunt Liz?”
A sideways glance showed her looking concerned. “I don’t know. Surviving, I guess.”
“I’m worried,” Amy burst out. “I mean—what if someone tries to kill you, or the police arrest you—”
“I’ll be fine.” I projected as much calm certainty as I could. “Even if I’m arrested, which I don’t expect, they’ll have to turn me loose again—lack of evidence. Besides, jail is a pretty safe place.” This was a lie, but Amy accepted it.
She rooted in her backpack and came up with a small tape recorder. “Here,” she said, shoving it into the open top of my knapsack as we pulled up in front of the high school. “It’s voice-activated. I got it for school, but I won’t need it today. You keep it with you, and then if someone tries something, you have a record.”
It didn’t sound that useful to me, but I didn’t mind toting it around if it made her feel better.
Knots of young people in various outlandish outfits stood around in front of the school building; an immense parking lot nearby showed how things had changed. In my day, very few kids drove themselves to school. Now the lot was full of low-rider trucks and rusty-looking sedans and a sprinkling of newer cars.
“Good,” Amy said in relief. “The bell hasn’t rung.” She zipped up her heavy book bag and gave Barker’s head a final pat. “Thanks for the ride, Aunt Liz.”
“Amy!” A loud female shriek sounded nearby. “Is this Babe? Killer!”
“Kimberly!” Amy shrieked back. She jumped down, turning to me. "This is my friend Kimberly. I told her all about you.”
“Hi!” Kimberly peered out from between long strands of improbably pink hair with dark roots. Underneath the Morticia-inspired makeup was a round, cheerful face. “Nice to meet you!”
A sleek white pickup truck screeched to the curb just in front of my bus. Brawny young men swarmed out of its cab. The driver caught sight of Amy and Kimberly and came sauntering over, followed by his passengers.
“Why, it’s my little cousin Amy,” he said in a high, fake-sounding falsetto. “You hanging with the hippie chicks, honey?” His insolent grin flicked over me and the bus. Barker started a low, rumbling growl.
Amy barely glanced at him. “Chill, Biff.” She started to shut the door, but the young man grabbed it.
“No, no. Let’s see who your friend is.” He peered through the door. “Kind of old for you, isn’t she? Or do you little dykettes like older women?”
"This is our aunt, Byron,” Amy said, emphasizing the name. “Aunt Liz, this is one of your nephews, Byron Fahey.”
My sister Molly’s boy—the youngest one, who’d helped my dad chuck Tony out a few weeks ago. I looked at him with interest. He didn’t much resemble my memories of Bill Fahey, the up-and-coming accountant my sister had married when I was thirteen. But I could see the Sullivan in him. In fact, he was like a young version of the father I’d grown up with—big, and simmering with resentments.
His lowered eyebrows made him look as if a two-year-old had taken possession of his burly body. “No way. I don’t have no Deadhead aunt.”
“Not everyone who drives a VW bus is a Deadhead,” I said, trying to be polite. “Nice meeting you, Byron.”
“The name is Biff.” His lip stuck out now. “Oh, yeah. You’re the man-killer aunt, right?”
I didn’t like his tone of voice, nor the way his eyes had lingered on Amy’s all-too-visible cleavage when he’d called her his little cousin. I’m not too fond of macho men at the best of times.
“I did once try to eliminate an obnoxious testosterone-based life form.” I kept my smile pleasant. “So long, Amy. Perhaps we’ll meet again, Byron.”
He slammed the door shut, the noise it made swallowing the uncomplimentary word I saw on his pouting lips. Amy and Kimberly, laughing, were halfway up the steps. Biff started after them, but one of his friends, grabbing his arm, pointed at a man in a suit, obviously some school official, who watched them from the top of the stairs. Somewhere a bell rang, and I drove away.
I would have spent more time worrying about Amy’s situation with her hostile cousin, but instead I chose to worry about my upcoming interview with my father. I just hoped I could get through the encounter without shouting at him.
I parked on the street, behind a nondescript sedan. Barker sat up expectantly in the passenger seat, but I told him to stay.
After knocking, I turned the knob and went right in, without waiting to be invited. My dad sat in his chair in the living room. The man I’d seen the night before at the police station, O’Malley, sat across from him on the couch.
O’Malley raised an eyebrow at my entrance. “Missus Sullivan? Or is it Naylor?”
“Sullivan.” I looked at my dad. His face was slowly turning red—a familiar sign from my childhood. He was much more lined than I remembered; his scalp, also flushing with anger, showed clearly through thinning white hair. His eyes were filmy behind thick-lensed glasses with heavy, dark frames.
“So. Your mother said you were back.” His voice was the same—gravelly, with an incipient snarl that went with the angry red tide washing over his face. “Who invited you? Look at the trouble you bring.” He turned to O’Malley, who wore an expression of courteous boredom. “Always too smart for her own good, that one.”
O’Malley’s glance flicked to me. “Do you think your daughter arranged this crime—had her ex-husband killed and dumped on your doorstep?”
My dad drew back in his chair. “I didn’t say that. She wouldn’t do that anyway. Girl has nothing—that’s what my daughter-in-law said. Lives in a little tumbledown place somewhere in San Francisco with all those hippies and all.” He shook a knobby forefinger at O’Malley. “How could she afford to hire anybody killed? Tell me that! She’s poor as a church mouse!”
“Is that true, Missus Sullivan?” O’Malley’s bright, observant eyes gave nothing away. “You too poor to hire a hit?”
“I’m poor, and I don’t kill people, in person or by proxy.” I gave both the men a disgusted look. “I’m here to see my mom."
“You’re not welcome in this house. That hasn’t changed.” My dad clutched the arms of his chair, ready to rise to his unsteady feet and throw me out.
“Right. When I’ve seen Mom, I’ll leave.”
He sank back in his chair again, looking exhausted and old even beyond his eighty-three years. Suppressing a qualm, I left them in the living room.
Mom was propped up on her pillows, her mouth slightly open, the
lying on her lap between limp hands. A breathy snore rent the air, relieving my alarm at seeing her looking so unconscious. I moved slowly around the room, tidying up some of my dad’s clothes on the floor.
Renee had mentioned, sniffing, that she had cleaned the old people’s house a couple of days before; that she and my sister Molly took turns doing this, although Molly occasionally sent her housekeeper over instead of doing the work herself. I didn’t want to like Renee, but I had to admit she did her part looking after her in-laws. Again I felt guilt for being such a bad daughter.
When I came in from straightening the towels in the bathroom, my mother was looking at me. “Lizzie.” She sounded better. “Did you—did your father—”
“I’m here to check on you, then I’ll go.”
“You don’t need to check on me.” She coughed a little into her fist. “Molly and Renee and Andy help me all I need. Dan and his wife would, too, but they’re in Montana right now.”
“So you don’t want me to come again.”
“I didn’t say that.” She coughed once more.
“Look, Mom.” I sat in the chair that I’d cleared of dirty clothes. “I came all the way out here because I thought we might be able to forgive each other and keep the lines open in the future. So if you still feel I’m unworthy or whatever, just say so now, and I’ll save myself the trouble of trying to talk to you.”
She looked at me for a moment, and then tears began to leak out of her eyes. “You never used to want the trouble of talking to me—to your father either.”
“You didn’t want to hear what I had to say.” I handed her the box of tissues, but she ignored it.
“I had such hopes for you—you were such a bright little flung.” Washed by tears, she looked at me sadly. “And look at you—no family, messing around with that writing stuff—and Renee told us about how you live in some little old chicken coop. Your brothers and sister have all done better for themselves—why, Molly’s house is like a palace, almost. Even Andy’s done fine, in spite of—”
“In spite of knocking up his girlfriend and having to get married?” It was spiteful, but I said it anyway. Perhaps my siblings had surpassed me in material goods, but if Biff was a symbol of how much better Molly had done than I, I was glad to have been spared the pleasures of motherhood.
My mother gave me a look I recognized although I hadn’t seen it in years. “You should talk, Lizzie. I just want you to know that we can’t afford to support you if you move back here.”