Vex and Valor

All Rights Reserved ©


Peeking through a crack in the door, 10-year-old Vanessa witnesses a horrific scene. Following the altercation, a neighbor finds their mother bleeding and unconscious. And her children are missing. What happened to Ella and her kids? Vex and Valor (meaning tormented and fearless) is the story of two families from different sides of the track. Tim and Vee Crawford have a picture-perfect life. They are parents to four children and are lifelong residents of Brookton, PA. Georgia and Zeke Hayes struggle to make ends meet after moving four of their children there from Tennessee. The families become intertwined through the marriage of their two youngest children – Ella Crawford and Ben Hayes. Some believe Ben is responsible for what happened. Others think it was an accident. Throughout we watch the families become even more entangled and continue to search for answers about Ella. We see the Crawford and Hayes grandchildren grow into adults, each with their own stories to tell. The saga comes to a climax when the truth is finally revealed. If you love Vex and Valor, book 2 Verdicts and Vows will soon follow!

Mystery / Drama
Age Rating:

Part 1

Copyright @ February 2021 by Debra Jo Myers

All rights reserved

Published by Debra Jo Myers and Kindle Direct Publishing




Section 1

Part 1

Chapter 1

Curiosity overwhelmed her. It felt like her little heart was beating out of her chest. Up on her tippy toes she quietly peeked out through a crack in the splintered wooden door. The first thing her big brown eyes saw was red…ketchup? No…blood…lots of blood…it was on the kitchen table, on the floor, on the wall. She had to get up higher. She looked around in the dimly lit coat closet for anything she could stand on. A big shoebox holding Daddy’s boots would have to do. From up there…just a little higher, she saw something purple…oh, it’s the jelly from the donuts… running down the wall, coffee spilled on the table, and broken green glass scattered from a coke bottle.

It was so quiet now. Should she go out? He was sleeping at her feet covered by Mama’s coat. She should stay with him, but…where were they? Mama wouldn’t have left them here alone. She climbed up on the shoebox and looked out again. Her heart was racing, thumping, the only sound engulfing the small closet. Stepping back down, she decided to wait and laid down next to her little brother. Her eyes hurt from crying, her head too. Laying down, closing her eyes and the warmth of JJ’s body helped her fall asleep beside him.

Suddenly the noise from a slamming door woke them and they jolted up together when they heard a scream from outside. Vanessa clamped her hand over Jason’s mouth and put her finger to her lips. His blue eyes were filled with fear.

Chapter 2

When Tori Lawson was in her zone, stay out of her way! Tori called down the hall to Keely and Micah. “Let’s go kids! To the car. To school.”

She grabbed her keys and went out her back door toward the garage. She glanced over casually toward the Hayes’ house next door. She saw her neighbor and best friend, Ella. As she started to wave, Tori realized she wasn’t just sitting down. Oh God. Was that…her crumpled body was hanging over the back of the patio lounger?

“Ella, Ella! Ella! Are you alright? What are you doing out here?” Tori bolted through her gate and toward her, calling her name again and again. She didn’t move. Tori screamed “Somebody, help!”

Her 15-year-old daughter Keely heard her from in the kitchen and she looked out through the sliding glass door. “What is it? Mom? Where are you?” Keely ran outside.

“It’s Mom!” Ten-year-old Micah yelled from the garage and pointed. “There she is!”

They ran toward her and saw Ella. Micah ran right up to Ella’s body.

“Micah, no! Don’t touch her!” Tori was frantic.

“What’s wrong with Ella, Mom. She looks like she’s…is she breathing. Is she…?” Keely began to cry. Ella was Mom’s best friend, her second Mom.

Tori moved Ella flat on the lounger and feeling a heartbeat in her wrist, she began to try to sit her up, her children both looking on, crying.

“Mom…I think there’s someone inside. I hear something.”

Keely opened the screen door. She saw the glass, then the blood in the kitchen. She listened for a minute, silence. Then she saw the Hayes’ cat, Midnight, wandering near the closet. Suddenly Mom called out for her to help moving Ella to the car.

“I can’t wait one more minute. Micah grab that side. Let’s take her to the hospital. Was anyone inside, Keely?” Keely shook her head and then Tori saw her at the door. “Oh, it was Midnight. Let’s go kids…NOW! Help me!”

Chapter 3

A car horn startled him from his fog.

“Damn idiots!”

A car-full of teenaged boys were yelling and honking their horn as they drove through the softball park.

The throbbing in his head was getting worse. Blood had already saturated the towel wrapped around his hand. He felt sick. He opened the door of the old Chrysler and stumbled to a grassy area.

As soon as he got there, he threw up, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve before pulling off his work shirt to replace the towel on his hand. Barefoot, in his T shirt and oily jeans, he headed toward the park bathroom. After he’d done his business, he threw the bloody towel in the trash receptable, rinsed the cut on his hand and wrapped it back up in his shirt. Two of those cuts were deep. There were four or five other smaller ones, but blood was pouring out of those two on his knuckles. How did this happen? Oh, yeah…those little windows. They had much thicker glass in them than he had anticipated.

Man, my head hurts, he thought. He remembered the first couple of beers, then a couple of shots of JD that followed. He must have had more after that to cause this doozy of a hangover. Stumbling back to the car holding his head with his good hand, Ben fell into the seat, laid back, and passed out… again.

Chapter 4

She had a hand over Jason’s mouth, and he covered his ears. Who was screaming? That wasn’t Mama. Sunlight began to come through the crack of the door in the coat closet. Vanessa listened.

“Get up, JJ. Be quiet. Shhh…someone’s out there.”

She waited several minutes and they both kept listening at the door. Was it a man’s voice? It sounded like Lance next door yelling for Tori. She didn’t hear anything now. “We should go out now. We should get ready to go to school.”

He looked startled with fear in his eyes. “Can we?”

Vanessa slowly pushed open the door but not all the way. Daylight came dashing in. Still quiet. She pushed through her fear.

“Stay here. I’ll go out first, to see if it’s safe, then come get you.”

She stepped out and closed the door about half-way. The kitchen was a mess. It looked much worse up-close than through the crack in the door. She walked into the living room. The glass windows in the door were broken too. She went back in the kitchen, she needed to clean up before Jason saw this. She grabbed the broom and swept the glass in a pile. Good, she thought, not too much, only half of the Coke bottle broke off and part of a coffee cup. She grabbed a towel off the sink and soaked up the Coke and wiped up a couple of puddles of blood and what like coffee on the table.

“Good. Not as much as I thought…of any of it,” she said out loud. That’s when the closet door opened, and JJ came out.

“Nessie, what’s wrong? What happened? Where’s Mama? Where’s Daddy? Oh no, are those my jelly donuts? They are smashed on the wall! Nessie…see?” He walked over to the wall behind the kitchen table and put some jelly on his finger and licked it off. “Mmm, darnit.”

Here come the tears. Vanessa sat down and pulled five-year old Jason up on her lap cradling his head. She felt him shaking up against her. He was too young for all of this. The clock said 9:00. They were going to be late for school again. He stopped crying and looked up at her.

“Too many questions, JJ. Don’t you remember when we went in the closet?” She put him down deciding not to worry about wiping down the wall. JJ had seen his smashed grape jelly filled donuts and went back to using his finger to salvage their remains.

“Yeah…Daddy was late, and he was a skunk. Mama was really, really mad. I wasn’t though. He brought me these jelly donuts.”

“That’s right. Mama got mad. Daddy threw the donuts. Mama said we should go back to our room. Instead, we came to the closet, so I could hear. I wanted to make sure Mama calmed down, that she was OK. But their voices kept getting louder, then they got quiet again. You sat down and covered your ears. I heard Mama throw the Coke bottle. Or maybe Daddy did. There was a crash then both the doors slammed. You know… it happens sometimes, JJ.”

Chapter 5

Tori paced in the waiting room. She wondered where Ben was. He must have taken the kids with him. No one was there except Ella. She knew something happened in that house. Ella’s hand was cut, she had a bump on the head, and her ankle looked twisted, but nothing seemed to be broken. Ben wouldn’t have hit her, despite their escalating fights. Heck, Ella didn’t even call them fights. Ben went to Birdy’s for a few after work nearly every day before coming home. As usual, Ella would be pissed off. But this? She didn’t ever end up at the hospital. He would leave and they would both cool off. This was different. Maybe she had a stroke or a heart attack. Oh God! Where could Ben be?

She looked over into the waiting room at her kids. They were so fortunate and didn’t even know it. Tori had grown up in a troubled family. When Lance came into her life, he rescued her. She married him as soon as she turned 18. Watching Ella’s struggles with Ben felt familiar. She wanted to help her. She wanted to find those children.

“Be right back, I’ll going to try to call Ella’s dad. Maybe she called him to pick up the kids. She does that sometimes when she’s mad.” she said to Keely.

She didn’t even have time to take her own kids to school. She wanted to be with Ella. Keely and Micah had gone to the vending machines and were having a less than healthy breakfast of Twinkies and a Butterfinger and a Baby Ruth, respectively. Tori picked up the pay phone.

Chapter 6

“Ben! Hey, Ben! Wake up. Time to go.”

Ben squinted and looked up at Jack, beating on the car window. It was almost always Jack that came. He understood. The other cops could be jerks. He rolled down the window.

“I’m awake. I’m going now, Jack.”

“Oh no. Get out of that car. I’m going to drive you home. You know the drill.”

Jack walked back to the squad car. Ben grabbed his hat. He looked down at the shirt wrapped around his hand, blood-soaked. Jack would want to take him to the hospital. And he couldn’t go back home yet.

“Hey, hey Jack. I’ve sobered up some. Been sleepin’ for a few hours. Already lost my cookies. I’m good. Got me a Coke.”

Jack approached again. He looked down at Ben.

“I’m following you then. Let’s go.”

“I’m going to my Ma’s. Over on Van Buren, it’s OK, Jack.”

“I’m still following you.”

Chapter 7

“Where is Mama, Nessie? I want to see her.” Vanessa buttoned up his shirt. They had already changed his underwear and pants. She had taken him out of the kitchen and into his room that Mama and Daddy had recently redecorated together. Just before JJ’s fifth birthday, the circus animals came out, and the cars and trucks came in. Even his bed was in the shape of a race car. Jason loved to be in his room and was more willing to go to sleep at bedtime now. Daddy would joke that was the reason they changed it. It wasn’t that long ago. It was one of those times Mama and Daddy weren’t fighting. Vanessa wished it could always be like that.

They would be late to school, but not too late. It wouldn’t be the first time. She told JJ Mama was probably next door at Micah’s house talking to his mom, lost track of time. Or she could have called Grandpa Tim to pick her up, since Daddy was being a skunk. That’s what Mama called it when he was drunk, how she explained it to JJ.

“I don’t want to go to school. I want to see Mama,” Jason said as his eyes again swelled up with tears.

Vanessa knew, in her heart, Mama wouldn’t have just left them there in the closet. She thought something was wrong, but she wasn’t going to tell her little brother that. They were going to go to school. If Mama weren’t there at 3:00 to get them, she would know for sure, and she would call Grandpa Tim.

Vanessa told Jason to go brush his teeth, comb his hair, and go potty. She went back in the kitchen and found their sack lunches in the refrigerator. She picked up the dustpan where she’d swept the glass and took it to the trash can by the back door. That’s when she saw it. That’s when she knew something was wrong. She felt sick.

She went back in Jason’s room, put on his shoes and socks, and finished by tying Jason’s shoelaces.

“You look very handsome, young man. Now grab your lunch bag and let’s go out the side door, just for fun.”

Jason smiled for the first time this morning. She didn’t want him going out the front where there was still broken glass from the little windows. She didn’t want him going out the back because he would see what she had.

Being the oldest at 10 years old, she knew she’d have to console JJ all the way to school. She told him a fib. She told him she found out that Mama and Daddy were both at work. It seemed to appease him. The two started their 8-block walk to school. Vanessa wanted to just forget. She wanted JJ to forget too. By the time school let out, he will have, but not her. Not after what she had seen. A large pool of blood on the patio. Bigger than the ones inside.

Chapter 8

Jillian put the finishing touches on her make up. One of the things she loved most about wealth was being able to look like 100 bucks all the time. She had an entire sitting room dedicated to all her beauty products. She would spend hours sitting at her vanity staring at her reflection knowing that no matter how much time or money she dedicated to it, she couldn’t change what they couldn’t see.

“There you are, beautiful. What’s on the agenda?”

She stood and delivered the customary peck on her husband Ricky’s lips.

“Oh, I need to find a new white lace tank to go under my blazer for the banquet this weekend. I need to pick up Fiona’s fundraiser stuff. Oh, and stop by to try to convince my sister to come with us.”

“Ella won’t do that. All she does is work her little real estate job and go home to sleep alone every night and wake up to that drunk.”

“Ricky! Ben isn’t a drunk! He just…,” she had to think about which excuse to use, “He just enjoys a few after working a 10-hour shift overnight in that musty factory. Can you imagine? I really wish we could help them more.”

“I’m not giving handouts to that drunk!”

Ricky just didn’t understand. Ella loves Ben. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have settled for living in that cracker box in the city. She is strong and committed to her marriage. Besides, Ben isn’t any different from any man in this town. She was the lucky one. She only lived in this place because of her mom’s health. Jillian rather liked being considered a part of the upper class in Brookton and being married to a successful CEO from the large, wealthy Andrews family of nearby Keller.

Richard Andrews III was born to Richard Andrews Jr who had been raised to take over the empire his father had built from the ground up. Andrews Agriculture was an 1800-acre orange tree farm with accounts all over the world. The elder Mr. Andrews purchased a small two-bedroom old country house on 100 acres in Eastern Arizona. Richard took his last $100 to purchase five orange trees and 10 chickens.

He knew it would be many years before the orange trees made any money, but he started earning a living right away selling eggs. Within a few years, he built a large chicken coup and was able to buy 10 more chickens. When Rick’s father was born in 1895, those orange trees had grown to full size and were producing 300-400 oranges a piece every season. It was then that the little farm grew into Andrews Agricultural Empire of Oranges.

Richard had three sons, and he hoped to turn over the empire to them. His oldest and namesake, Rick Jr, wanted no part of it. He wanted to start his own empire. It was his second son, Race, who wanted to raise orange trees. Richard ended up being instrumental in helping his firstborn to develop a business plan and was his first investor in Andrews Alarms, as an umbrella company to Andrews AEO.

When Jillian’s mother had a stroke, Jillian had insisted on staying with her in Brookton during recovery. She, Rick, and Fiona lived in the big house with his parents. Even when Vee was improving, Jillian didn’t want to leave her. She had been out shopping when her father tried to call to alert her. It was hours before she got the message. All she could think about was that her mother could have died without her there.

The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. Even though Brookton was only 25 minutes away from Keller, Jillian rarely went home. Rick missed her terribly.

One Sunday afternoon Rick called her at her parent’s house. He told her he was coming to see her, and he had a surprise. When he arrived, he took her for a ride through Echo Canyon, Brookton’s only wealthy area just five miles outside the city. They pulled into the driveway of a beautiful three-story house with dormers sitting on a large plot of land. Rick got out and came around and opened her car door.

As he helped her out, he said “This is going to be our new home, Jill. You need to be close to your mother and I need to be close to you. I can make the drive. And Brookton is a lot smaller than Keller. A great place to raise kids…like you were raised.”

She threw her arms around him. “I love you Richard Andrews III. Let’s have a baby!”

Jillian smiled thinking about how lucky she was. She’d go see Ella first.

Chapter 9

Tim helped Vee put her last arm in her silky blouse. Seeing her all bathed and dressed up and smiling like this made it all worthwhile. And, of course, 45 years of marriage.

“There we go, my pretty. I’ll grab your chair and it’s the patio for brunch on this lovely day.”

“I’m so glad you built that deck with my ramp. I should say I could sit out there all day.” Vee knew this man would do anything for her as he picked her up and put her in her wheelchair.

Tim wheeled her out to the patio table on the deck, and she watched while he poured them coffee and brought it out to the table.

“You didn’t forget the creamer, did you? It’s going to be a good day. I can feel it in my fingertips,” she said giggling grabbing her limp right hand.

She was so brave, Tim thought. The stroke had caused physical paralysis in her limbs on the right side. He was thankful it hadn’t changed her mentally. Other than the bouts of depression and the constant worry about her four grown children. He tried his best to shield her from that, but she was still smart as a whip with a true motherly instinct…most of the time.

Tim and Vee met at a high school social, a gathering of students from surrounding area schools. Brookton’s high school was small then. Vee had 33 in her senior class. Tim lived on the outskirts of Brookton in the tiny town of Caston. His class was about half the size of hers.

They were never formally introduced. Tim just saw her and immediately couldn’t take his eyes off her. Vee was wearing a bright yellow dress, smiling, and talking with a mixed group of students, both boys and girls. He decided to work himself into the group. Once the two began talking, they didn’t stop as the group around them dwindled. Before they knew it, they were standing alone, and Tim asked her to dance. Their love affair began there.

Tim stepped out onto the patio “When have I ever forgotten the creamer?” he smiled.

Chapter 10

Principal Willamina Tillet had been the head administrator at Brookton Elementary School for 38 years now. This year would be her last. Retirement. She even liked the word. She had seen so many children grow into adults and was now seeing their children. She hoped she made a difference in every little life she touched. Now it was time for her.

Outside of the school, her own life was…well, she didn’t really have one. She met with her Euchre Club every 3rd Wednesday of the month and she had friends at church, but she hadn’t wed or had children of her own. If she had to pick one person to leave her small fortune to, it would be her niece, Willow, named after her. Her sister, Penny (short for Penelope), had nicknamed her Willow when they were kids. So, when her daughter was born, it seemed fitting to name her Willow, after her only sister. Willamina and Willow had grown close as they both grew older.

She had just finished morning announcements and sat down at her desk to look at the attendance list. Catching her eye right away, she saw that Vanessa and Jason Hayes were both absent. Not good. Should she try to call the house, or should she wait for the usual call from Ella?

It was no secret around town that Ben and Ella Hayes had their fair share of problems. Although their daughter, Vanessa, didn’t say much about it at school, their young son didn’t know any better. Jason Hayes was in kindergarten and his teacher had talked to Willamina more than once about what she’d overheard Jason say to his classmates about his Mama and Daddy.

Williamina spent endless hours fretting over the lives of the students. The Hayes children were a particular concern. She knew Ben moved here from out-of-state, and that he worked at the factory, where the poorest in the town worked. He wasn’t the first father she’d dealt with over the years who drank to drown his troubles. She had to admit, she hadn’t noticed any signs of physical abuse to his children. Vanessa often seemed defensive, other times – sad. Ella was always rushing around, nervous. In her years of observation, she felt a lot was being covered up in their home.

Knowing all of this, Ms. Tillett decided it was in everyone’s best interest for now if she mind her own business as long as the children came to school and their Mama saw to it that they did, even if they were late. As long as they showed up.

Chapter 11

Caleb came in the front door and the phone was ringing.

“Dad, where are you? Phone’s ringing.”

“We’re out here having coffee,” Tim yelled, “Grab it for me, won’t you son?”

A few minutes later, Caleb called out to his Dad. “Hey, it was wrong number. Just stopped to say hi, need to run. Get to work. Talk to you after. Love you guys.”

No sense in alarming them. Dad was called to Ella’s rescue quite often, but this was the first time it escalated to a trip to the hospital. Mom would be frantic. He wasn’t telling them. No, he’d go first. Find out the score.

Just as Tim came through the sliding glass door, he saw Caleb rush out the front. His youngest son never stopped before work without giving Vee a kiss goodbye. He came by nearly every day. It was part of his routine. Vee looked forward to it each morning. Why was he in a hurry today?

Caleb was a changed man in recent months. Tim felt as though he had made the right decision in filing for divorce. As much as Caleb loved his children, he didn’t love his wife. It wasn’t because of infidelity or money or even fighting. Unlike his marriage to Vee, and despite Caleb’s years of trying, that marriage was doomed. Tim knew it from the beginning, but his youngest son was determined to please his Mom. She wanted him to settle down and have a family.

Caleb rushed into marrying Allison right out of college. Within a few months, she was expecting Calli. The next year was a whirlwind for the couple. Each had a booming career – Allison managing her mother’s successful beauty salon in Keller and Caleb starting his own car dealership. They rarely saw each other throughout the week or baby Calli. All they seemed to find time for was having more children. CJ came 18 months after Calli, and Charlotte only 11 months after CJ.

Allison came up with the idea to purchase empty space next to the salon to open a child-care center. She began taking their kids with her to work, leaving them next door where she could visit between clients. She was spending more time in Keller than she was in Brookton.

A few days before CJ’s second birthday, Allison announced that she was leaving Caleb and moving to Keller. She told him it was the sensible thing to do. However, Allison knew she wasn’t trying to be sensible. She had built her life in Keller, without Caleb. She loved the big city and between her two businesses, she said she was meeting new and exciting people.

Caleb had been almost expecting it. His biggest concern seemed to be his children. He made the conscious decision to be friends with Allison and share custody. He found that he spent more time with them after the divorce than he had while they had been married. His feelings for Allison weren’t ever like the love he’d seen between his parents while growing up. He could have moved to Keller where his children were, but he stayed in Brookton because he wanted to be near his mother.

So, Tim knew Caleb wouldn’t leave without giving his mother a kiss. He knew it. Something’s up. It had to be that phone call.

Chapter 12

“We going to school, Mom?” Keely hated this, hated missing school, but she knew her mom had to look after Ella and find her kids.

“Yes, I called. I need to be here until Caleb gets here. He’s not far away. It will be lunchtime when you go back.”

Truthfully, getting her children to school wasn’t on her mind. She still needed to find Vanessa and Jason. They weren’t at the house and they weren’t in school. Ben wasn’t answering and Caleb didn’t know anything either.

She continued to pace. Dr. Maxwell came toward her. Jared Maxwell grew up with them in Brookton and came back after medical school to work for his hometown’s only hospital. Seeing him was a relief to Tori.

“Tori, we think she’ll be fine. Concussion. Slowly coming out of it but vitals are normal. 14 stitches in her hand. Twisted her ankle in the fall, but nothing’s broken. We’ve moved her to a room and are going to admit her for the night for observation.”

“Why was she laying there unconscious, Jared? I couldn’t even wake her! Are you sure nothing else happened?”

“Yes, I’m sure. She’s waking up. She asked if Ben had Vanessa and Jason.”

“I don’t know. I was hoping she would tell us…oh no, Jared. I already asked the school, and they aren’t there. Caleb is on his way here now and said they weren’t at her parents’ either.” Tori began to pace again, chewing on her fingernails.

“C’mon. Let’s go ask her again. She’s a little confused. She’s the only one who was there, although, she couldn’t tell me what happened. You said Keely saw broken glass in the kitchen. It had to be another scuffle with Ben.”

“I didn’t go inside because of all the commotion outside, I’m sure if the kids had been in the house Keely would have seen them or they would have heard us.”

The pair began walking toward Ella’s room. “I’m certain her loss of memory is temporary from the concussion. Where do you think the children would go if not to school or to your house? Ben has to have them,” Jared said.

That’s what I’m worried about, Tori thought. What if Ben had been drinking and he took off in the car with those kids? She had a feeling this was far from over.

Chapter 13

Ben went through the back hoping to avoid his father. It was almost 10. Ma would be cleaning up breakfast and starting to cook the noon meal. He saw her.

“Hey, Ma. I’m here. Going to crash,” he whispered through the kitchen doorway.

Georgia came barreling toward him, grabbed his arm with the injured hand and out came a large sharp cry.

They heard Pa in his gruffness asking what that noise was.

“What happened to ya, this time, Benny? Who’d ya smack? Look at that bleedin’ all over the place! Git in the commode and clean that crap! I’ll tend to Pa. He’s gonna be insane over ya bein here ’stead of home!” Georgia was hollering in a whisper.

Ben stumbled to the bathroom. The thought of Pa in his face made him nauseous again. He fumbled through the closet that doubled as a medicine cabinet. There were five shelves filled with everything imaginable, including some old tonics and elixirs Ma brought during the move when he was a kid. When he came to his parent’s house, he knew he could undoubtably find drugs to help his pain so he could sleep it off. He swallowed four pills and laid down.

The bed was slowly spinning, and he could feel his heart beating in his temples. He couldn’t understand why Ella was so sore. He had stopped at her Mom’s bakery to get the kids donuts before he went to Birdy’s. He expected she’d be happy about that. He had a drink or two, then headed home. No big deal. Ella made a big deal out of everything.

He closed his eyes, but his mind continued to search. She was yelling when he walked through the door. He was buzzed and it made him laugh. Jason ran up to him. After that, it’s sketchy.

Ma came back “Benny, you got four ‘ours, then I’m a wakin’ yer ass up!”

Chapter 14

After half a dozen stops on the way, Vanessa and Jason approached the steps to Brookton Elementary School holding hands. She knew she needed to cheer JJ up before they arrived. She had let him pick some flowers, walk on a concrete railing and swing at the church. She knew Ms. Tillett would be waiting inside the door. Vanessa turned him around, wiped his face with her shirt and they walked up the rest of the steps to go in.

“Good morning Vanessa Hayes. Jason Hayes. Will you please wait for me in my office?” Ms. Tillet said.

“Why do we have to go to the office, Nessie? Are we in trouble?” Jason said starting to cry again.

“No, JJ. Sit down. Ms. Tillett will ask why we’re late. I have to tell her a little fib. Want to help me?” Vanessa said nodding her head yes, until he started doing the same. “OK, I’ll tell her Mommy’s alarm clock broke and we just woke up a little while ago. Then we came right away. We had to walk because Mommy had work. On the way, you fell and were crying, so we…” Vanessa stopped as Ms. Tillett walked into the office and sat down behind her big oak desk.

“Continue, Miss Hayes. Mommy’s clock and Jason’s fall? Is that why you are tardy today?” Ms. Tillett questioned in her…I don’t believe you…tone.

“Yes, Ms. Tillett. Can we go to our class now? We are really sorry.” Vanessa pleaded wanting the interrogation to stop. Yet she knew there would be more questions. She had been here before. Should she stick to her fib? Had Ms. Tillett heard her say that part? She couldn’t really tell her the truth. She wasn’t sure, herself, about everything. She didn’t know where Mama and Daddy were or everything that happened between them, only that it wasn’t what Ms. Tillett would want her to say. Especially the scariest part.

Ms. Tillett answered, “I’ll tell you what. I will walk Jason to his class. You stay here and when I get back, I will have a couple of more questions, OK?”

Oh no. She couldn’t tell anyone about the fight. She shouldn’t tell anyone about the blood or the jelly donuts. They would know too much if she mentioned the broken coke bottle or the windows in the front door. She definitely couldn’t tell anyone Mama and Daddy had left them there alone. She shouldn’t tell Ms. Tillett. Vanessa would rather forget about it herself. More important she couldn’t tell anyone the rest…ever.

Chapter 15

Oh God, she whispered as she opened the screen door. What the hell had happened here? Ella’s car was still in the garage, so she must be here somewhere. The patio chair was toppled over, and she thought maybe that was spilled ketchup on the concrete. She went through the back-screen door and called her name as she walked through the house, but no one answered. Coming back to the kitchen, she saw glass everywhere and blood on the handle and screen. Looked like Ben’s work.

In the kitchen, she tiptoed through the mess. Jillian Andrews loved her sister profusely. If she were hurt, she would hire a hit man to go after Ben. She had the money. She might have to defend him to the outside world, but inside, she knew the lengths an alcoholic would go to while under the influence. After watching their oldest brother, Rex, crumble into pieces…

There was no one inside, except the cat, who startled her when she opened the closet door. Jillian knew Nessie and JJ went in there when their parents began fighting. It was one of the little tidbits Nessie had shared with her. There had obviously been a fight here today. Inside the closet she found pillows and JJ’s bear. She went back to the kitchen and wiped down the remnants of what looked like jelly on the wall, the coffee on the table, tidied up and phoned Ella’s office. Not there. Didn’t show up or call.

She had to find her sister. Jillian decided to drive to the prep school first. She picked up Fiona’s fundraiser. It was close to their alcove. Their own special place she and Ella created when they were little. The alcove was at the far end of the gardens behind Mom’s bakery. Even as adults, it was still their solitude. If Ben had left after the fight and she got the kids off to school, Ella may have wanted to wind down, walk the seven blocks, and chill at the cove. She had gone there before when she’d needed to get away from problems, from…Ben.

Chapter 16

Tim called Mrs. Hopkins next door and asked her if she could stay with Vee while he ran some errands. He went back to the patio. He wouldn’t lie, just leave out another stop he had to make.

“My love, I’m going to go do a couple of things. Banking, pick out corn for us at the produce stand, post office. I won’t be long. Mrs. Hopkins is going to sit and visit with you while you finish up brunch and your coffee.”

And like usual, Vee smiled and nodded. He kissed her cheek and waved. Mrs. Hopkins arrived quickly, and he went to the garage where they had another phone. He tried Caleb’s pager. No response. He checked the dealership. Not in yet. He called Ella’s house and got the answering machine. He was going there first to check on his daughter.

Tim seemed to struggle with staying out of his children’s lives. He had a strong sense of obligation to steer them on the right path and started when they were very young. When he and Vee first married, they had decided on two children, and hoped for a boy and a girl. Within a few years, they had both with Rex and Jillian.

When Jillian was five, Vee told Tim she was pregnant again. It would be dishonest to say he was happy about the news. They had just moved from a little two-bedroom apartment to the lovely 3-bedroom house they still lived in today. Rex was almost eight and wouldn’t be thrilled to put a baby in his room, so Tim secretly hoped for a girl.

Caleb came seven months later. Seeing his smiling little face with his chubby cheeks, he quickly won over his father. Tim got to work, refinancing their home to add on another bedroom, bathroom, and the deck. The same year Vee’s mother died leaving the bakery to her. Vee had worked for her mother part-time since she was a teenager, but to take it on full-time now with three young children was going to be tough. She decided to ask her sister-in-law, Betty, to be her manager until she’d be able to step in to take over.

The following year in the fall Jillian started first grade, so the two older kids were in school all day. Vee took over at the bakery, taking Caleb in with her. She and Betty had fixed up a room in the back for Caleb and her daughter, Becky, to play and nap. The family was happy, stable…normal, until two years later when Vee was unexpectedly expecting again.

The new child/development caused turmoil before “it” even arrived. Could they afford “it”? Who would care for “it” while they worked? Who would share their bedroom with “it”? How had “it” happened when Vee was on birth control pills? How would they handle “it” when they were having behavior problems with Rex? Was anyone happy about “it’s” pending arrival?

“It” came six months later - Ella Vanessa Crawford. Rex and Jillian loved doing anything for their baby sister. Caleb played with her the most. Vee was especially attentive and protective of her. Tim’s heart was quickly won over. Ella was the definition of a perfect baby girl. Her arrival seemed to cement their family unit. Tim had a vasectomy when she was four months old.

As Tim remembered how his daughter had changed all of their lives, he was beside himself with worry over her whereabouts as he drove toward her house. He was there in 5 minutes. He tried the front door, locked. He didn’t notice the glass from the broken windows inside. Jillian had already been there and cleaned up a lot of the evidence. When Tim got to the back, like Jillian, he called out to Ella, as he entered through the screen door, having missed seeing the toppled furniture or the blood that Jillian took care of too. Ella had said she did have some shopping to do in the afternoon. She should be home. She wasn’t here.

The kitchen did look messier than usual. It looked like one of the children had spilled something and failed to do a good job cleaning it up. Maybe they had been in a rush this morning. Ben should be sleeping, so he walked back through the house and down the hall to their bedroom, only to find it empty too. Where was he?

As he walked back out, he saw the glass from the front door. The small windows in the door had been broken. If there had been a fight here, Ella would have called him. She called him every time to come get the children. Had they already left for school before the fight? Like Jillian he checked the closet where the children hid until he got there. And where had Caleb taken off to like a bat out of hell? Oh well, he was puzzled, but all this just added to his earlier extinct that something was up.

Chapter 17

Just as Tori and Dr. Maxwell headed toward Ella’s room, they ran into Caleb. The doctor filled him in regarding her injuries.

“Tell me what happened. Why is she hurt?” Caleb fired at them, “Did Ben hit her, knock her down? Where are the kids? Did you call Jill?”

“Caleb, Caleb. Take it easy,” Tori said, “OK, I don’t really know what happened. I found her outside, unconscious, with a mess in the kitchen. Keely went inside and said there was broken glass, blood, spilled coffee, and, oddly, jelly all over the wall. We think maybe she fell going out the back door. Micah, Keely, and I put her in the car and brought her here. That’s all I know. I left Jill a message. And one other thing. I don’t know where the kids are. We were going in to ask her.”

“Where is HE?” Caleb whispered. Tori shrugged her shoulders and walked into Ella’s room in front of him.

Caleb took this quick opportunity to ask Jared “Hey, Doc, do you really think this was an accident?” He looked down at his pager. Dad was trying to reach him. He couldn’t call him without any answers.

“I can’t draw any conclusions yet, Caleb. Soon you can ask her. Let’s go in. She’ll be glad to see you.”

“Go ahead. I need to make a quick call.”

If this was anything but an accident, Ella better say so. Maybe this time, his sister would come to her senses. After twelve years of this life, he wanted more for her. He wanted more for her children. More…it wasn’t going to be with an alcoholic, not after what they grew up with. Not like with Rex.

He decided rather than call his Dad, he needed to call a client. Wayne Leonard was the only client he had with big bucks, who could get him in with the right people in Jasper to make a name for himself there. Caleb felt almost stuck. His parents were near, and they were aging needing his help more and more often. His three children were close, of course, living in Keller in the house that he broke his back to pay for so they would have a place to stay after the divorce. He’d open Jasper and keep Mexicali to double his profit.

“Wayne. Glad I caught you in. Listen, I wanted to let you know that my sister was in an accident this morning. She’s in the hospital.” Wayne asked how she was. “She took a fall. We don’t believe it’s terribly serious, but I wanted you to know why I won’t be working today. I can’t do our walk through today, but my associate can show you around. I’ll be there for our appointment tomorrow at 9 am sharp.”

Caleb hung up and went into Ella’s room. Here was another reason he was in Brookton. Ella.

Chapter 18

Georgia lied to her other half again. She told Pa, “Benny’s house is bein’ fumigated, so he was sleepin’ here today. She’d get him up by 1pm so he’s back at the house when the kiddos get home from school.” Pa seemed appeased by that.

She walked back, went over to her youngest son snoring, and checked his hand. It looked like it was his knuckles that had been bleeding. He’d still be able to go to work and he had it bandaged. She backed away and just stood and gazed at Benny, her baby boy. What had happened to him? Six other kids, half of them successful and living good lives…the other half of them had problems. For Albert it was laziness, for Sammi it was men, but for Benny it was that liquid.

Ella tried hard to help him. Those first few times he’d been arrested, she forgave him easily. The next few times she went with him to court, to therapy, helped him get to his AA meetings, and even took him to worship. Georgia felt the love between them whenever they came around there. She wanted them to come more often, but Ella spent most of her time with her own family.

As hard as they both seemed to try, the booze beat them time and time again. Georgia knew she’d become too much of an enabler to Benny. She was all he had outside of Ella. The men he worked with, his so-called friends, were even worse than he was. For her it was a way to be there for them kids of hers in every way she could. She said out loud, “That’s what Mama’s are ’posed to do.”

Ben was a good man. Georgia believed that. He had been an average student, but a tremendous athlete. He wasn’t bright enough and they were too poor for him to consider college. He could have attended a small community college on a basketball scholarship, but even at 6’5”, he couldn’t compete in the ranks as a center, and he couldn’t handle the ball well enough for any other position. Benny went to work at 18 in that factory and made a decent living. When he met Ella, he was awestruck. Ella Crawford was the other side of the tracks for a Hayes’ boy. She was so pretty and sweet, and a whole foot shorter than Benny, making him adore her even more. She was his “doll.”

Surprising Georgia, soon they were hitched and having their kids. Benny was a great daddy to Vanessa Ella Georgia, named for her two grandmothers and her mother. He would sit in her room when she was sleeping in her crib and stare at her. As she grew older, he played a tea server for her, read her books giving all the characters different voices, and even let her dress him up. He was like a big kid, himself. She felt like that was his happiest time.

Benny was bumped to third shift just before Vanessa’s first birthday. It caused all kinds of scheduling conflicts for them. Ella had been working the bake shift, going in at 2:30 am to start the baking production line at her mother’s bakery. She would work until 6:30, then be home before Ben left at 7 am for his 7:30am-4pm first shift. Ella would nap when Vanessa did. When Ben got home, they prepared dinner together, ate, and spent a few hours with Vanessa before they all went to bed around 9 pm. It had been working out so well.

Working in a factory, the shift you are assigned is not set-in stone. Ben began leaving for work at 10 pm for his 10:30 pm-7 am third shift. The problems began immediately. Ella would have to change her shift and employ a sitter to cover a packing shift at the bakery from 7am-11am. It was what seemed like a slight change that brought on Ben’s spiral.

He didn’t want to come home from work with no one there. He couldn’t go right to sleep, because he was wound up and wide awake when he was just leaving work. Ben started going to Birdy’s with the other third shift guys. He was rarely home before Ella, and when he got there, he was plastered. When he finally passed out, he would sleep until it was time for him to get up again to go to work. He and Ella communicated less and less. They fought more and more.

Until he met Ella, he was in a poor family of seven. There are many things you sacrifice growing up that way. Their relationship progressed quickly. Marrying into a new family with high expectations created pressure. He suddenly had increased responsibilities of a job and a child, when to this point in his life, Benny hadn’t had any. Georgia knew all the excuses, but she knew there was no one to blame but Benny. Why did it have to go so terribly wrong?

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