Prologue: Jerry & Valerie
“I don’t understand why you had to write it in the first place, Jerry.”
He felt his face melt into a frown, his brow crease. What the -?
“I mean, the story is so… I don’t know… But still, there’s really no reason to rehash it all again. Right?” she added with a flippant twirl of her wrist, a thing she did when she was trying to make a point. A typical gesture expressed when she herself didn’t trust what she was saying.
You haven’t changed a bit. You’re still as easy to read as one of my stories.
“What’da’ya mean by that?” He was getting defensive, because up until this lunch date with his sister, he’d only heard words of encouragement and support. Shit, wasn’t family supposed to be there no matter what?
She tucked an errant strand of her auburn hair behind an ear with the same hand.
Inadvertently, he watched. To him, she was the most graceful person he’d ever met. Despite the fact he was more than a little perturbed with her at the moment, he still couldn’t disregard her elegance or her commanding presence. It had always been this way.
She was petite for a woman, long, lithe and sharp. Everything about her was built in the same fashion. Her face was narrow, but angular. Her cheek bones were prominent, but severe. Her eyes were set close together, but could skin the hide off a hippopotamus if she deemed it necessary. She was beautiful in a stark sort of manner. The sort of woman one would say was gorgeous one moment and then watch as she turned into a demon incarnate in the next, especially when she was angry.
She wore simple clothes, practical for a mother of three – a loose-fitting, cotton blouse (white) and a pair of sensible slacks, ending with a pair of two-inch heels. She might’ve appeared as your prototypical, run-of-the-mill Soccer Mom, but she was far from it. Upon a closer inspection, one would see everything she wore was of designer make. Her make-up was professionally applied, and her taste in cuisine was flawless. Valerie Favor-Gene was what he’d call, a grown-up.
He, on the other hand, was not.
“Really, Jerry?” she pleaded as if he were a ten-year-old.
“Yeah, Val, apparently I mean, really,” he replied sarcastically. He decided he was pissed off, staring back at his sibling with eyes made cold, defensive. This was supposed to be a good thing! Doesn’t she realize what it means to have a fifty-thousand-copy first printing?
He smoothed out his over-sized shirt, hiding his ample beer-belly, finding a reason to inspect the crease on his trousers, making sure he was as fastidious as his sister when it came to his appearance. He couldn’t afford any more avenues of weakness. He had to be as impeccable as her. This is my book, Val. Not yours!
“Tell me you’re not as naïve as I think you are?” she implored.
“I haven’t the slightest idea how I’m going to answer a question as ridiculous as that.”
She huffed. “Look in the fucking mirror!”
He’d had enough. “Ok, ok, Gunga Din. Pull it back a few notches and attempt at a degree of rationality.”
It was her turn to snigger. “You can’t be serious.”
“Umm, yeah, I’m deadly serious…” He tried to sound ominous, but with his sister such endeavors always seemed to fall flat.
“You have absolutely no idea what you’re getting the family into.” Her light-brown eyes became chilly. “I don’t want to deal with this shit a second time, Jer.”
He pounded either arm-rest, standing, though they were having lunch in one of the swankiest restaurants in Los Angeles. He could’ve cared less. For a moment, he contemplated leaving.
She stared up at him, her face a mask of composed anger. “Jerry, sit down! Do not make a scene!” she said through clenched teeth, at a volume only he could hear.
She was so frustratingly prime and proper. At times, her mannerisms rankled Jerry Favor’s marrow to its’ very marrow.
He was still standing when she spoke again, softer, the edge to her tone absent. “Look, Jer, I know it’s a big deal this time around.” She motioned for him to sit, her acrimony reduced to a simmer.
Whether or not it was ruse, Jerry couldn’t tell. She was good at masking her emotions.
“I know you’re excited. I know, ok?”
He had half-turned from her, and now he swung about to face her more directly, staring directly into her eyes.
“And, I have to admit, it looks like the selling of this book will put you in the upper echelons with some of your favorite authors. I can see all of this. I understand.”
“Then, what’s the big deal?” he implored, sitting at the front of his chair, so that he leaned forward, elbows balanced upon his knees. Being as far from the table as he was, he’d given himself the space to get up and walk out if she stoked his displeasure a second time around. He knew his posture wasn’t lost on her.
She peered back at him through the throng of coffee cups and glasses of water. The table had been set for four, so there was more tableware abound than they were going to use.
He watched her swallow her first reply, then her second. His right eyebrow rose with curiosity. What’s gotten into her?
She breathed heavily. “Like I said earlier, it’s the topic. That’s what bothers me.”
He frowned anew, about to speak.
“And, I know, Jer, you’re gonna say, ‘not to worry’ or ‘it’s no big deal’,” she said over him, quickly, wanting to be heard. “I know you. But, you have to listen to me, because it is a big deal.”
He sat back, scooting his chair closer to the table. He’d decided he was going to stay after all. He reached for his water, taking a sip to moisten his mouth. He was going to let her talk. If it meant this much to her, he owed it to her to at least listen to her concerns. After all, it was her past as much as it was his.
She brought the Jamaican Blend to her dainty lips, pursing them prettily.
When she placed the thin coffee cup back in its’ saucer, it rattled. “I realize that’s been many years since we were kids living in that house,” she began tentatively. “I really don’t like to think about those memories all that much, because, though some were good, most of them were bad, Jer. A few of them were damaging, in fact.” She wiped the corners of her mouth with the cloth napkin in her lap. She shook herself, as if to ward off some of the very thoughts she was sketching internally. “So much happened in such a short amount of time, even now, it’s hard to reconcile. I stopped going to therapy, because my shrink was having a hard time understanding the scope of my past…” She glanced at him. “…our past.” It was more like a whisper. “He never understood how deep these feelings go.”
“How could he? He was never told the whole truth?” Jerry spoke it as he would a question, but it was rhetorical.
“That’s my point.”
He bit the inside of his cheek as he considered what she had said.
“Now, Jer, you’re gonna tell the whole world the truth after we decided, as a group – you, me, Eli and mom - to never tell anyone. How does that sound in your ears? Does that sound right to you?”
He chuckled falsely. There was no mirth in him. “It’s written in a fictional manner,” he supplied, hoping the technicality would make her understand his point of view, at least a little.
“Come one, Jer, what difference does that make? You’re still putting it out there.” She leaned back in her chair.
Anyone watching would’ve known they were related. Her body spoke the same language as his. They sat there like bookends.
“Have you even read the book?”
Her thin brow furled. “Why would I need to? I lived it, remember?”
He huffed a derisive chortle. “You can’t have an opinion on something you don’t know shit about, Valerie.” He gulped some coffee, though his eyes never left his sister. “It’s a work of fiction. There are aspects of the story that are real and some that aren’t.” He swilled more java, eyes narrowing over the brim of his cup. “How can you have a definitive assessment of the novel if it’s based on speculation?”
She remained silent.
He couldn’t tell if she as thinking or if she was merely restraining her annoyance of him. Sometimes her expressions for either one were identical.
Still, she said nothing.
He exhaled loudly and reached into the satchel he had leaning up against one of the legs of the table. Despite the angst and anxiety between them, he smiled when he realized he would’ve walked out of the restaurant without it, if he had storm out earlier. He rummaged about for a few moments, until he felt his fingers close over what he was searching for. He pulled it forth and set it on the table as close to Valerie as he could manage and not spill their drinks all over its’ surface.
It was a publisher’s copy. Everything about it was finished, except the cover. Splashed across the cover in 56-point, Book Antigua was scrawled, The Birth of Bane.
One glance at it was enough for Valerie. Just Her name was enough to send a relentless series of chills up her spine. Bane. She’d never been comfortable with the word - or what it implied - for more years than she cared to remember. It was the reason why she steered clear of the “B’s” in the dictionary. Its’ very definition was truth personified when measured against the memories in her head.
Bane [ bayn ] 1. something that causes misery: something that continually causes problems or misery. 2. something that causes ruin: something that causes death, destruction, or ruin. 3. deadly poison: a fatal poison.
Even the way it was written in Webster’s tomb seemed like a vengeful explanation of what had gone before. In her mind, those events had followed the exact procession of the definition itself.
One. Two. Three. In that exact order.
She had been harmless at first. She had been fun and loving, though she’d been mischievous and tricky just as much.
She hadn’t remained that way… had She?
Valerie jerked at the thought, forcibly breaking free of the constraints of the past.
From across the table, Jerry didn’t seem to notice. “You should read it, and then tell me what you think.”
Valerie shook her head in the negative.
Jerry’s lips formed a line across his face, a thin gash letting her know she’d disappointed him. “Read it, Val.”
She glanced down at unfinished book, unbidden tears forming at the edges of each eye. Why is this so hard? It’s been more than twenty-five years and still… still…
The thought was never realized. Her eyes met Jerry’s. Fear and apprehension met supplication and hope. The bonds they’d forged over the years proved stronger. There was no way she could deny him what he’d worked so many years to accomplish. He’d wanted to be a writer since he was nine years old. Though she’d never known why exactly, she was the first person he told nonetheless. Because of that, she couldn’t refuse him now. Even a story about Bane wouldn’t deter her.
She sighed, wary, nodding imperceptively, but knew Jerry had seen it all the same.
Bane… Why won’t you go away? Why can’t you leave me be? Why, after all this time, have my thoughts of you not grown old, stale and less intense? Why do they still frighten me to death?
Their waiter came up to them, inquiring if they were ready to order.
Valerie snatched up her brother’s novel as though the title alone was enough to spread a plague. The cover was slate-gray and otherwise unobtrusive. No one would’ve known what it contained. But, Valerie didn’t care. She flipped the book in her grasp and deftly placed it in her over-sized Prada carryall.
Out of sight, out of mind, she mused as she replied to the perfectly manicured man taking their order, her former veneer back in place, implacable, solid.
She wasn’t the Rock, though. That was her mother, not her. All of this was just a façade.
It came from the edge of things. Where things aren’t quite real, and yet, aren’t quite the stuff of dreams. That’s where She lurked, forever upon the verge.
It wasn’t until the following evening, after her children – Alicia, Francine and little Johnny - had been tucked in for the night, her husband, Martin, snoring at her side that Valerie gazed over her left shoulder toward her nightstand. It was there, where she’d placed it the afternoon before. The Birth of Bane, her brother’s forbidden tale. It was sitting, waiting for her to open it and relive the horror she’d been suppressing since she was teenager, living in an upscale corner of Highland Park, that wee bit of paradise amongst the hills and ferns and magnolias. It was supposed to have been a new start for the Favor family, for her family. The opportunity, the potential had both been there. It could’ve been the beginning of something great. They had moved from their tiny rental into something truly grand, though initially it had needed a lot of fixing. There’d been ample room, a spacious yard and all the promise her and her family could ever had dreamed was possible.
Well, except for him, of course. He had never liked the house or the yard, or all the work it entailed. Though he’d relented in the end, the idea of manual labor had never appealed to him.
I guess that’s why they – he and Her – were always at odds.
Bane. Why won’t you go away?
After their Sunday lunch together, Valerie had gone home with absolutely no intent of reading the book that night. No way! She needed at least a night to distance herself from the unease her and Jerry had unleashed. She needed time, and space. It was too much. Like it had been all those years ago, it was pure concentrate. Time away seemed to dilute it enough, so she could get a grip on it, “handle it”, as the saying went. She’d pulled the book from her gigantic purse and left it on the nightstand on her side of the bed.
She had gone to work, teaching her sometimes adorable, but oftimes aggravating, first graders, losing herself in the randomness of their flighty behavior as she guided them through the lessons of the day. She’d come home tired, unrested from the night before, to her three kids and the domestic portion of her day began in earnest. She’d been somewhat grateful for it, because it too was a welcomed distraction. The rigorous routine of her family was soothing to her, because it was something she was used too, something she could control. It was real. Somehow doling out chores for the afternoon and getting about making dinner kept her feet rooted to the ground, held fast in the firmament of her personal condition. This was her domain. She was its’ fearless leader. There nothing unexplained or unnatural here. No, here she was safe. There was where reality dwelt.
Right before dinner was served, Martin had come home and the house was once more a flurry of activity as their children guided their father to the table, explaining their day with animated voices like so many gnats. She’d smiled and served. Again, reality – it was a good thing. She was the farthest thing from her mind.
Now, everyone was asleep, but her.
And Jerry’s book was calling her.
Not in a tell-tale sort of way. There was no ominous beating of a heart, no sweat-drenched, strenuous pull she just had to resist. There was none of that. It was more her own doing. No matter how much she tried to push those thoughts aside, regardless of the amount of diversion she mandated in her life, there was no escape. Her brain kept going there.
After a half an hour, it hit her. Though her restraint had been masterful, this latest notion couldn’t be denied and maybe, just maybe, it would help. After all, if it had helped Jerry, why wouldn’t it help her just the same?
You can’t run from your fears, because their legs never tire…