Jolie dug through the stack of unpacked boxes on the porch, searching for anything she could use that would make the little wreck of a house homier.
She found the Betty Boop clock. She had wrapped it in a towel and packed it herself, trying to protect it. She took it inside, found a nail and hung it up in the kitchen. Working inside was definitely going to put Jessie and the demon and her in close proximity, so painting the pigeon poop spotted green walls inside the house would have to wait. Everything outside, however, was fair game.
Without resources, Jolie focused on tasks that required labor rather than materials.
Using a pair of rusty shrub clippers she found in a shed, she cut the salt cedars back so that you could see the driveway. She made a single pile of the trimmings, adding the trash she gathered that had blown into the yard over the years, then covered the pile with old boards so that the trash wouldn’t blow away in the next wind.
While trying to pull the grass clumps grown up around the porch, she found an old sunflower thermometer and hung it up on a pre-existing nail on one of the porch posts.
When Jessie Lynn took her afternoon nap, Jolie scrubbed and painted inside. When Jessie was awake, she hauled and clipped outside. By mid-week, the old place was looking like someone with some self-respect, who was not afraid of hard work, lived there.
Jolie set down a bowl of soup and a peanut butter sandwich for her mom.
“What’s got into you?” Jessie Lynn asked, an accusation half-hidden in the tone. “You’re so domestic.”
Jolie thought she saw a glint of her familiar nemesis there, keeping a wary eye on her.
“When was the last time you unloaded a box when we moved, Mom?” she countered.
Jessie Lynn thought about it. “I’m sure I must have done it sometime.”
“Eat,” Jolie urged. “I’m worried about you. You’re too skinny.”
“There’s no such thing--not at my age,” Jessie muttered absently, biting into the sandwich while she examined her drawing, deciding where to make the next line.
“I mean it.” Jolie took the charcoal pencil out of Jessie Lynn’s hand. “Eat your lunch, all of it, even the crust, and don’t forget the soup. It won’t be good cold.”
“Yes, Mom," Jessie Lynn said, sarcastically. “Jo, what do you feel when you look at this picture?” She held up her latest creation.
What Jolie felt was sick to her stomach with a side of scared shitless; the memories were too vivid. But she couldn’t say that. Her mom was a toddler artist struggling to walk, an alcoholic trying to stay sober, a serial domestic violence victim trying to re-create herself. She needed encouraging half truths, not honest criticism.
“It makes me feel uneasy,” Jolie found an honest answer. “It’s a really dark place.”
“And how about this one?” Jessie Lynn turned her sketch book back a page, revealing a picture that Jolie had not seen before. The materials she had used were the same, it was still formed by dark charcoal lines and smudges, but there was a quality of light, created by the empty space on the page, that none of the other pictures had. A girl sat hunched in a tight ball, looking up at a dark Brillo pad creature. She had the saddest look on her face.
“Is that me? Wow.” Jolie stared at the picture. “That’s different. When did you make that?”
“Last night while you were asleep on the couch. I was looking around at everything you’ve done around here, how you were making this awful place into a home for us, and it just came to me. What does it make you think of?”
“Hope, Mom. It gives me hope.” Jolie kissed the top of her mom’s head.
After lunch, she went out to the old Ford pickup and made a call to Mr. Grolund.
“I’ll take the classes. I need the credits. I need to graduate on time. They have internet at the library, so I can do it there.”
“Okay then. I’ll register you at Utah University Online and e-mail you the setup information,” Mr. Grolund agreed. “You know, a smart girl like you could probably get a GED tomorrow without any trouble?” he added.
“A smart girl like me expects more for herself,” Jolie informed him.
“Just trying to help.”
“I’m having to leave school, because you don’t have the balls to stand up to your asshole boss, Mr. Grolund,” Jolie pointed out the inequity of his help.
“And I’m fixing that,” he said, defensively.
“That’s not a favor to me. It was your problem.”
There was an awkward silence.
“I’ll have the account set up within the hour,” he promised.
“How’s Rebecca?” Jolie asked.
“At you, or at me?”
“I’m not sure she can separate the two, right now.”
“She’s a smart girl. She’ll figure it out.” Jolie did not add that she expected Mr. Grolund would not like the outcome when that happened. Not many conservative fundamentalist beliefs made it through the examination process of science focused college geeks. Jolie expected that Rebecca would be born again in quite a different mindset before she graduated college.
“For the record, Jolie, this has got us talking about making some changes,” Mr. Grolund said. “Dick Reardon’s actions aren’t something Pamela and I want our daughter exposed to. Whatever you think, we are good people.”
“All we can do is try. Say goodbye to Becca for me,” Jolie hung up.
“Who was that?” Jessie Lynn asked when Jolie came back inside the house.
“Mister Grolund. He offered to pay for a semester of classes for me online, and I wanted to thank him.” It was close to the truth.
“You’re lying,” Jessie growled, threateningly. Jolie turned and focused on her mother, warily. The demon was lurking there in Jessie Lynn’s eyes.
“I lie to you all the time,” Jolie countered, flippantly. “And you lie to me.” She picked up the lunch dishes and began to clear them away. “It’s how we communicate, that, and a lot of wishful thinking.”
“People are always ‘doing things’ for you, aren’t they?” Jessie accused her daughter. “Poor little Jolie, she’s practically an orphan. With that loser mom, she’d be better off if she were.”
Jolie blanched. “That’s not true.”
“I know what they say about me behind my back, these friends of yours,” Jessie went on. “I’m a slut, and a fool, and an unfit mother.”
“No one’s saying that, Mom. You’re a single parent, people understand that,” Jolie tried to side step the tirade she sensed was coming.
“You think Rebecca’s father is doing this for you because he cares about you? No one cares about you, Jolie. No one cares about either of us, except us.”
Jolie snapped. “That’s not true, Mom. Dad’s family cared. I had people in Las Vegas that cared, but here we are, on the run again. How come every time I start to build a life and get happy, you mess it up so that we have to move?”
“Oh sure, blame it on me. Go ahead,” Jessie fought back.
“I’m sick of starting over, again and again,” Jolie gave voice to her frustration. “I’m sick of always being the new kid and having to figure out what my story is. Who am I supposed to like? Who am I supposed to hate? And who does everyone avoid because they’re social suicide? Those are the kids I go looking for; the oddballs, the losers--because they’re so lonely they’ll accept anybody, even me.”
“Well, you know how it is, Jo: like attracts like.” Jessie smiled, cruelly.
The familiar words, so recently spoken by Yanna Maria made Jolie uneasy. Was there any way the demon could still listen in on her mind? Did it know what she and Yanna were planning?
“God, I hate this,” Jolie shouted. “I can hardly wait until I turn eighteen, because then when you say we’re leaving, I can say: fuck no, goodbye.” Jolie flung herself out of the door, slamming it behind her.
As she was striding down the driveway, she decided she was going to the library. It couldn’t be more than five miles away. She needed to start her online classes and there was no time like the present.
There wasn’t much traffic on the Tecopa road. The first truck that came along slowed down and stopped alongside her.
“Are you Jessie Lynn’s girl?” the man behind the wheel asked. “I’m Ward Colton, your neighbor. Me and my wife, Gemma live on the ranch next door.”
“Oh, hi,” Jolie tried not to sound angry. “Thanks for looking after my mom.”
“It was no trouble. Brett just asked us to check on her in case she needed anything. We’d do that for any neighbor and Brett’s more than that.”
“I didn’t realize that you knew Brett from before?” Jolie couldn’t help being curious.
“Oh sure. We go way back. He and Chase Owens used to babysit my boys when they were young.” Jolie had no idea who Chase Owens was, and it must have shown on her face because Ward Colton added, “Chase Owens is Brett’s friend. He owns the place you’re living in. He grew up there. But that was some time ago.” Ward squinted at Jolie.
“Brett didn’t share the particulars with me,” she explained.
“Everything going okay over there?” Ward asked. “I’ve been hearing a lot of activity.”
“I’m trying to fix things up a little,” Jolie admitted.
“It could use some of that. It’s been vacant more than not since Chase moved to L.A. Look, if you need anything, come over and look around the ranch. Me and the Mrs. have lots of leftover stuff sitting around in sheds and barns just waiting in case somebody needs it. We probably got stuff we don’t even know we’ve got.”
“I could use a hammer. I’ve been using a rock, but you can only do so much with prehistoric tools.”
Ward Colton grinned. “Kind of hard on the walls. Are you headed into town? I’m going that way if you want a ride?”
Jolie studied Ward’s open sun-browned face and easy manner and decided he was okay. Anyway, he was their neighbor, so it wasn’t really like hitchhiking. She climbed in.
“I’m Jolie,” she introduced herself.
“You’re kind of plucky aren’t you, fixing the place up by yourself, and set to walk all the way into town on your own when you could have asked for a ride?”
“I’m used to doing things on my own,” Jolie answered in her brief, curt manner. Ward Colton didn’t seem to mind.
“Then you ought to get along fine around here. Folks out here are a self-sufficient bunch--not much for asking, but real good at offering. Do you ride?”
“A bicycle if I can get the tires pumped up, but I’m guessing that what you mean is do I ride horses?”
“When she’s working, my mom’s a cocktail waitress. We’ve moved around a lot. So, we kind of skipped the pony thing.”
Colton chuckled. “Well come on over. We’ll get you up in a saddle. Nothing like riding out here in the open desert to clear your mind.”
Jolie wondered what it was about her that made him think her mind was cluttered. Maybe Brett had filled Colton in on the dysfunctional lives of his new neighbors since it appeared he was more an old friend to the Montana rancher than a neighborly stranger.
“If you have any spare time, maybe we could talk about you helping out a bit on the ranch? We can always use an extra pair of willing hands. When my kids were your age, they were always wanting to earn pocket money.”
Jolie wondered where they spent it, but thought it would be rude to ask.
“Have you got a kid named Hoss over there, too, Mister Colton? I feel like I’ve been dropped into an episode of Bonanza.”
Colton scratched his head. “Nope, but we did have a Henry and a Maverick, so we didn’t completely blow a hole in your theory. What do you know about those old shows? You’re too young to remember that stuff.”
“I was raised by an old TV,” Jolie admitted. “You’d be surprised what you can learn.”
Ward eyed her, speculatively. “Less and less surprised, the more I talk to you.”
“My first priority right now is finishing my school year online at the library, but I might have some extra time once I get the house and yard fixed up a bit. Let me see how hard the classes are. Okay?”
“Okay, and please call me Ward.”
“I’ll keep the mister part silent, Ward.” Jolie smiled. It was nice to think that there might still be a few places in the world where people were nice just because that’s how they were.
Jolie got herself squared away at the library. The sun was beginning to set when she headed home. This time there was no friendly neighbor to help out, but it was a pleasant evening, and the sun on her back had a nice baking quality to it as she walked along the empty road. She was halfway home before the clouds rolled in and the wind started up. There was nothing she could do but press on, squinting against the tooth-rattling wind and gritty dust. When she finally turned into the driveway, only a faint light shone through the sheet she’d hung over the living room window.
Jessie Lynn was sitting on the porch in the dark, a beer bottle in her hand, empty bottles crowded between hers and the open chair beside her.
“What’s going on. Mom?” Jolie asked, eyeing the extra chair, suspiciously.
“Nothing. Just enjoying the evening, Jo,” Jessie replied, slurring her words.
“I thought you decided not to drink anymore.”
“I did. And then I decided not to not drink anymore.”
“Where’d you get the beer?” Jolie asked.
“A friend of Chase Owens stopped by. We had a few drinks and got to know each other. We’re doing better now.” She took another swig. “A real nice guy.”
“They always are in the beginning.” Jolie began to gather up the empty bottles.
“Don’t start with me, Jolie,” Jessie warned. “I’m not a sanctimonious little tease like you. I never was.” She pointed a drunken finger at her daughter. “If I had been, you wouldn’t have been born.” It was a common thread in Jessie’s defense of her promiscuity: Jolie’s existence.
As sudden as a rain squall, Jessie Lynn teared up and began to cry. “I’m sorry, I’m such a mess.”
Jolie scooted the extra chair over, sat, and put an arm around her mom’s sagging shoulders.
“Oh man, Mom. Don’t cry. What am I going to do with you?”
“You should leave me,” Jessie sobbed. “You don’t have to wait. It would be better for you, alone.”
“I’m not going to leave you now,” Jolie protested. “You need me. I’m going to leave someday, yeah, but later--like in a few years, when you’re on your feet and I’m grown up and graduated.”
“I’ll never be on my feet.” Jessie pouted. “No matter what I do, something always pushes me back down.”
“Come on, Mom. You’ll make it, someday,” Jolie reassured her mom. “You’ll get yourself straightened out and off the booze and the drugs. I’m sorry. I know that having a kid hanging around your neck has made it harder on you.”
“You didn’t make it harder on me, Jo. You were what kept me going. You never needed a mom.” Jessie sniffled. “You were always four going on forty. I needed you more than you needed me.”
“The eternal teenager,” Jolie laughed. “And you still don’t look a day over twenty-five.”
“Really?” It wasn’t true. Jessie Lynn Figg could fit into her daughter’s blue jeans, but if you looked close, you could see in her face that she’d been ridden hard and put away wet more than once. Life had taken its toll. But Jolie knew her mom liked to hear that she still had her good looks. It was the only asset she believed she had, and the only one she knew how to use. The trouble was, she’d used it over and over again on the wrong kind of guy, and now, when a decent man came along, all she got was his pity.
“Come on, Mom. Let’s get you to bed.” Jolie helped Jessie get up. When she touched her mom’s skin, she could feel that Jessie Lynn was burning up. She didn’t know what it meant. Was it something strictly physical, like an infection from her injuries, or was it a side effect of the demon’s possession?
She got Jessie into bed, closed down the house, and went back outside, following the little path that she’d made out to the old pickup.
The wind had swept the sky clean, then moved on, like maids dusting the big house until it sparkled--and it did; it sparkled. Jolie turned her face to the sky, turning around and around, caught up in the drama of so many stars.
“It’s not a just a blanket,” she muttered. “It’s a field as deep as the universe.” Calmed by her communion with the universe, she climbed into the pickup. Sitting sideways in the open door, Jolie put her feet on the truck’s running board and called Remy.
“Hey, you,” she greeted him when he answered.
“Hey.” And suddenly no time had passed between them, and no space separated them.