Monster Behind The Masks

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Chapter 8


How am I going to do this? How can I do this?

My brother’s in town. The idiot checked into The Gables Inn to waste money when his family could stay here. He said they’re jet-lagged and stressed from the horrifying ordeal of the terror charge leveled against him. Understandable, but still. Why waste money after enduring that financially and emotionally draining situation?

I’m convinced it was carried out by white supremacists or foul feds against infrastructure investments. An unseen force wanting to make the dollar bills rain on troops and not trains. What better way than to feign another terror threat at a New York City subway station? Oh no, I’m thinking like Caryssa and Anna. Damn it! I gave myself a firm face-palm.

A call to Jackson asking if he’d like the kids to sleep over landed in his voicemail, unanswered. A romantic night alone at the Inn with his wife would be good therapy. After this testing experience, they needed to strengthen the foundation of their marriage. Not unlike a house that had been shaken by a minor earthquake, you needed to check the plumbing, wiring and so forth. Small problems could turn out disastrous if not taken care of. In their case, festering emotional turmoil.

Between them and the girls coming over for dinner and drinks, I’m attempting to make creative space of my 500-square-foot studio apartment. However small my shoebox apartment may be, I had one thing going for me: the rooftop garden! That made up for the lack of space. I let my access loft ladder unfold, climbed up and looked around. Perfect, we’ll hang out here.

Considering how little I tended the garden, the plants in the border containers were nice. Brimming with ferns, Spanish lavender, sage and what I think are butterfly weeds, there’s a modest rustic charm.

My gaze rested on the small stone-clad outdoor fire pit and at once I knew I’d be lighting it tonight. There is no wind. I’ll run to the store for S’mores and treat my niece and nephew. Oh, this will be fun!

Now back to the quandary of how to sleep the children, if not the four of them. I was relentlessly determined. I won’t be turning on a ‘No Vacancy’ light. I suppose the kids could be strapped to the rooftop?

That’s it! Strap the kids to the rooftop! Bingo!

I flew down the ladder and dashed to my shed. Retrieving the pop-up tent I never used, I struggled to get it back up the ladder, never mind setting it up. “Voila!” I announced aloud to no one, waving my arms in a gesture of my achievement. “A bedroom for the kids!” Wouldn’t an eight and-ten-year old love to camp out in a rooftop garden beneath twinkling stars? I’d have killed to at that age! Heck, it sounds magical at my age.

Down the ladder again. I scavenged for my air mattress, cozy blankets, plump pillows, and a sleeping bag. I wrestled with the items, re-climbing the ladder, and spent the next half hour inflating the mattress and arranging everything. What’s missing? Lights! Once the fire fizzles out the darkness will flood them.

This most certainly warrants a trip to Target: flashlights, chocolate, graham crackers, and marshmallows. I happened across solar string lights and picked up a box of those.

Returning to my rooftop haven, I twined the solar lights around the railings, sat candles and kerosene lamps on bistro tables and stepped back, in awe of my work. Wow! I love this! Needs more chairs though—which is not something I’ll tackle now. Action Jackson to the rescue!

Taking a breath and stretching my back, I soaked in the view. The San Francisco Bay and city lights will be so enchanting while we sit by the crackling fire.

I texted Caryssa and Anna: No heels tonight ladies. You’ll see why!

While prepping dinner, Fiesty chirped from slumber. Just in time for my first guests to arrive. The bird won’t compromise my attention tonight. I’ll focus on my brother and his family.

I had my door open, allowing a fresh breeze to gently whoosh in. Giddy, Hans and Hayley charged into my pad. “Wow Auntie Jules, is this one of those tiny houses? We learned about the Tiny House Movement in school, this is so cool!” Hans turned toward the chirping. “Double cool, a tiny house with a colorful bird!” He commented, eyes as big as dinner plates.

At this, Feisty greeted Hans with “Pretty bird!” Both kid’s eyes popped even wider.

“Wow, a talking bird!” Hans scooted towards the cage, lured by the colorful winged animal.

“Come over here and hug your Auntie Julie and let’s leave Feisty alone. I planned family time tonight, not bird time.” My high-spirited feathered friend wasn’t stealing my energy tonight; I planned to spend it on myself and my family instead.

Hayley wandered around my apartment. “I love California, I want to move here! Pretty palm trees and hills!” She gleamed with that youthful innocence and magic. I envied her. I wished I had the filter on my eyes that she and all children had. Before adulthood bogs us down and happiness becomes something we consciously strive for.

I reached out for a hug, and the children fell into my embrace. As we enfolded in a circle, I peeked over Haley’s shoulder. My brother and Amy stood at the door throwing a grin our way.

I froze, then attempted to hide my concern. Jackson was gaunt, almost completely void of color, and seemed to have aged ten years in the three months I hadn’t seen him. I raged at what the twisted system did to him.

 “Jackson…” the word came out in a gasp, almost one of disbelief.

“Jules, good to see you.” We greeted with a hug while I helloed Amy. Remembering she’s not the touchy-feely type, I extended my hand for a shake with my sister-in-law instead.

I looked at Jackson while scratching my chin, narrowing my eyes. In his late forties, he’s still handsome, slim yet well built. His face, typically clean-shaven, was a forest of black stubble. His dark hair was unruly, almost greasy. And he had bags under his eyes big enough to pack up and go to Europe.

As if reading my mind, he mumbled, “If you think I look bad, you should see Manhattan. It’s an apocalyptic showdown.” Defeat still leeched onto his tone, faint but evident.

Amy swiftly changed the subject of impending disaster. Who could blame her? “Nice little spot. Classy décor.” She commented languidly, her shoulders rising, voice shallow. There wasn’t much for her eyes to roam. I wanted to say, sorry I don’t have your spacious house.

I wiped my hands on my apron. “It works for me, I love my tiny space. So…can I get you guys anything to drink? I’ve got wine, water, beer, and a mix of non-alcoholic beverages in the cooler outside.”

“The kids have their juice boxes, but we would love some of this red wine. I know you like people to help themselves,” replied Jackson as he poured two glasses and handed one to Amy, the burgundy liquid swishing as he did so.

“Can I help you with anything Julie?” Amy offered while plucking an olive, cheese, and cracker from the appetizer arrangement. She wore jeans paired with an oversized black blazer and sizeable orange scarf. A casual chic look.

“No thanks, it’s a simple dish,” I replied. I secretly thanked Trader Joes for the ready-to-cook entrée. “Actually, Jackson? Could you please fire up the grill? It’s beside the cooler.”

Haley came skipping towards me, lugging her favorite stuffed monkey. “I found the bathroom, but where are your bedrooms, Auntie?”

“Uh,” Amy went to speak but hesitated.

I laughed. This isn’t what they’re accustomed to. “Afraid this is it, missy.” I spread my arms in an arc. “Over there is my kitchen.” I pointed to the itty-bitty kitchenette. “And this room we are standing in serves as my bedroom, living and dining area,” I explained, gesturing emphatically.

“It’s charming,” Amy proclaimed decisively. “An eclectic sophistication without the clutter of our home,” She complimented.

My brother re-entered, “The grill’s fired up!”

I figured this was as good a time as any to show them my garden rooftop. “I’ll toss the kabobs on, but want to show you all something first. Follow me!” I instructed with a mysterious tone to my words.

We marched behind the kitchenette to my rooftop ladder. “I don’t know if you want to carry your wine glasses up—”

“What do you mean, Jules! This ladder is more like stairs. It’s sloped to make the climb easier.” Jackson moved towards the ladder but his son beat him to it.

Hans sprung up like Spiderman, “Come on, Haley, your monkey will love this!” Once on top, he yelled back, “Wow, this tiny house is a tree house, check it out, dude!”

Jackson grabbed our drinks and walked up the ladder carting three wine glasses. I didn’t stop him, after struggling with an abundance of items earlier. Haley followed, and the two children squealed about the tent as if bats were swooping around.

As I stepped onto the rooftop, the kids were already inside the tent, giggling. “Looks like they might like to sleep here tonight!” I covered my suggestion in a joke, hoping it would loosen his firm stance on staying at a hotel.

Jackson shook his head firmly, expression stiff, “Oh, I don’t think so. We are set up at Gables Inn. But it’s sure quaint up here, Jules.” He sipped wine, glancing at the fire pit. “Want me to fire that up as well? It would be cozy to sit up here.”

“Yes! That’s what I was hoping!” Going nuts to get organized for their visit will not be divulged. I’ll let my brother think it’s always this welcoming here.

I pointed next to the fire pit, “There’s the tinder—those sticks, twigs, and leaves. There’s wood in the corner. My candle lighter is on the bistro table. While you do that, I’ll throw the shish kabobs on the grill.”

Amy had crawled into the tent with the children, using her wriggling fingers to elicit giggles.

“Okay sis, consider it done. When you get back up here it will be a camper’s heaven.”

Which made me stop, and repeat, “Speaking of camping, I meant it about the kids staying the night. They can sleep in my apartment if you think it’s unsafe up here. You two are welcome to stay as well of course. I can make it work—”

“Do you have a poker?” Jackson jumped in, cutting me short as he lit the fire. The flames roared to life, flickering in the gentle breeze.

“You’re ignoring my wish.” I give up! “Yes, behind the pit. Look, I’m going down to cook.”

“Wait! Jules, I’ll come down with you and help.” He scampered to me. “Have you ever grilled the rice for the kabobs?”

“No, but you’ve always been a more creative cook than me.” We descended the ladder, Jackson at my heels remaining silent on the descent.

At the bottom, his hands landed on my shoulders and lightly squeezed. “Jules, did you set up the tent for us?” He asked with a lingering suspicion. I didn’t want him to feel like an imposition or inconvenience, but I didn’t want to flat-out lie either.

I recalled all I went through with the grand delusion my brother and his family might want to stay with me. I wanted my baby brother back. I wanted his innocence back. “Sort of, but I’ll sleep under the stars if none of you want to,” I shrugged, feigning casual.

Jackson inhaled heavily before letting it out. “My dear, big sister. I know we’re twelve years apart, and you once changed my diapers.” He paused to punctuate with a smirk. “But I’m not a baby anymore—”

“I know, say no more.” I stepped in. “I realize you guys just flew in today and are three hours ahead. You must be exhausted.” I slid the kabobs onto the grill.

“Thanks for understanding, do you have some aluminum foil? I want to do the rice on the grill if you don’t mind,” He tossed me a grin, which helped. I know he’s his own man with his own family now, but I still see him as my baby brother. I’ll probably always see him that way to some extent.

“Are you kidding? That would be great.” I replied enthusiastically. “In the left drawer by the fridge.”

As Jackson rummaged around for the foil, he mumbled. “I thought you were having a couple girls over tonight.”

“They should be here soon, I planned it so you and I could chat before they came.” While turning the kabobs over, I glanced at Jackson. He was folding and creasing the aluminum foil. He cut the top, let the stream of rice pour inside, and added a pat of butter with water. He shook it vigorously, his frail body ready to crack with each jiggle. He tossed the packet of rice onto the grill.

“About twenty-five for this, I’ll flip it halfway through.” Jackson stood at the grill with me. Nervousness played on his features. “So it’s Caryssa and Anna stopping by, right?” He asked, no doubt attempting to distract his nerves.

“Is that why you don’t want to stay?”

“No!” Jackson’s hand stopped midway reaching for his wine glass. Instead, he reached out to smooth the crease from my forehead, then brought my wrists to his heart. “Jules, please…this is not about you or your friends. My family is just in desperate need to chill. Amy wants to use the spa in the morning, we all need sleep. We’ve been at each other’s throats since what happened to me.” He confessed, sorrow and guilt gripping my heart.

We stood soundlessly for a moment, staring at the grill as if to will the rice to cook quicker.

He glanced at his watch. “It’s nine pm our time in Manhattan, in an hour the kids will turn into pumpkins.” He joked, lightening the mood.

I realized how selfish I was behaving, thinking only of my needs. Basically, my need to hold onto the only blood I’ve got left. I showed my palm to him, dismissing any further explanations. “Jackson, you don’t need to explain further.”

“And you wouldn’t want the kids sleeping on your rooftop anyway, they’d be hanging off the railings, running around burning your place down.” He chuckled, though I sensed the laugh was more for my benefit.

“Well, I’d have the sense to put the candles and fire out—”

“Hello!” Caryssa sang from the street. I realized I was relieved not to be stuck with family hospitality duty. I love my brother, but now I can just kick back, and enjoy the company of girlfriends. Perhaps I’ll sleep under the stars myself. After all, I did go through a lot of effort turning it into a teeny paradise, someone ought to prosper.

Caryssa and Anna stepped from the darkness, into the creamy light of my doorway. They were radiant, carrying wine and nibbles. I placed the wine, shrimp cocktail, and baked brie on the table before we leaped into a three-person hug, our various fragrances intermingling.

Stepping back, I stared at the two women. “What, did you call each other and plan to dress like twins?” I asked, commenting on their attire. They were decked out in fitted casual black sweater-dresses paired with knee-high black boots.

“Ha, nope! Total coincidence. Great minds think alike.” Anna responded matter-of-factly, throwing a wink Caryssa’s way.

Caryssa countered, “Or fools never differ?” She chortled.

“You must be Jackson,” Anna extended her hand for a shake, and Caryssa followed suit. Jackson, historically the most blithely untroubled man in the world, did not smile at first. But as he registered the warm charm of the beauties before him, his smile surfaced. First, with his mouth, moving lazily up his face but never quite finding the light switch to his eyes.

It pained me to see my brother this way—the boy who always had a smile for everyone and saved every animal from impending doom. The boy who has never laid fingers on a gun in his life, wouldn’t even go to the shooting range during Boy Scouts because he was too full of life and love to ever use a weapon. And now, wanted as a “terrorist” threat by self-indulgent law enforcement.

As introductions were made, a loud thump, thump, thump came from above us. The two others stared towards the roof, with perplexed faces. Jackson laughed, “My kids, sounding like a herd of elephants. Guess they’re letting off steam.”

Caryssa looked at me with alarm widening her eyes somewhat. “The kids are playing on your roof?”

“Get yourselves a glass of wine, and after I finish cooking I’ll show you my rooftop garden!” I instructed, enticing them to the magic of my rooftop haven.

Anna’s brows raised. “Rooftop garden? When did you have that installed?”

Jackson was keeping an eye on the grill, and cut in: “Jules go ahead and show them, I’ve got this.”

“You da man, Jackson! Gotta love a guy who rules the grill.” Caryssa complimented, giving my brother a high-five, the slap resounding for a second or two.

“I’ve always said the barbeque is a man’s domain. I only wish I bought a couple of steaks to add.” Jackson smirked.

“What? My kebobs and rice aren’t enough?” I teased.

“Plenty enough. Just realizing we came empty-handed.”

“I asked you to!” Caryssa and Anna had already gone ahead and were strolling through my apartment. As I followed behind, I noticed Feisty asleep on his perch. That bird gets ten hours of sleep a day, tough life.

“Where’s the roof access? Asked Anna.

“Behind the kitchen area.” As we neared the ladder, we heard Amy and the kids belting out the song It’s A Small World.

We waited at the base of the ladder, listening. We didn’t move, as if ascending to the top would disturb the peace.

“Kind of bittersweet, after what my brother’s family just went through.” I shrouded my voice in discretion, “I didn’t tell you, somebody called me recently to ask me about Jackson. An FBI Agent.”

“What? That’s preposterous! They’re like leeches!” Anna spat.

“Seriously…I have all respect for law and order, except when they bring a lawless chaos,” Caryssa added as she admired Julie’s family wall photos.

“Don’t worry, I told them I had nothing to say. They’re the ones terrorizing people, including us! What about you Anna, have you spoken to anyone again about your art gallery horror?”

Anna did a backward hand flip, “Are you kidding me, Jules? No way. I don’t want to draw attention to my gallery, tarnishing its reputation. Why let the media drag my business through the mud because of murder?”

With a hand to her heart, Caryssa answered, “Oh my, I agree. They would bat your business around like kittens in a box with a ball of string.”

“Ha, more like a tiger attacking a child at the zoo.” Anna shook her head. She had enough media frenzy with her daughter’s tragic case. “But enough of me, how’s your brother? He looks…” she searched for the right words. The polite words.

“Like crap,” I finished Anna’s sentence with half a smile. “He is drained, emotionally and physically.”

Jackson called from the kitchenette, interrupting the chatter, “dinner’s ready!” Speak of the devil!

I hoped the family singing drowned out my harsh analysis of his appearance. “Going up to get the others, Jack, thanks!”

At the rooftop garden, Amy and the kids sat by the fire pit cozy and happy. But their conversation stopped me in my tracks. It made me realize how parents have to worry about the America their kids will grow up in. We eavesdropped…

“The kids at school are bullying me too, Mommy. They say my Daddy’s a terrorist and should be suicide-bombed.” This from eight-year-old Haley, squeezing her stuffed monkey, pressing it close to her heart as if the stuffed animal would shield her from the cruel comments.

“Has anyone hurt you like they have Hans?” Amy’s voice was tender, as she kissed her daughter’s forehead, choking down emotion. It’s times like these when parents have to be their child’s strength. They can’t break down crying. They have to be a symbol of hope and resilience to endow those qualities to surge in their offspring.

“No, but it makes me sad what they say. And they don’t let me play with them at recess.” She stroked her monkey, sadness resounding in her tone.

“Dad’s not a terrorist! He was just doing his job taking photos of the train. I think some cops have become the bad guys!” My nephew Hans wept. In that instant, I thought of the bruises on his face. I assumed they were sports-related injuries—Hans is forever getting lumpy and purple playing soccer or falling out of trees. Was he beat up in school?

My chest was caught in an emotional vice, tightening as the conversation progressed. Dinner would get cold, yet I couldn’t move. Guilt and a fear for my nephew’s safety glued me to the ground. Caryssa put an arm around me, stilling me with a maternal instinct I lacked.

“Why are they calling? Daddy’s out of jail. Why won’t those men go away?” Haley shook her stuffed “Funky Monkey,” as if trying to shake sense into the men that haunt her dreams. Her face crumpled and her mouth wailed, tears spilling down pink cheeks. Those tears may as well have been mine.

I watched the words, the ones Amy was no doubt trying to avoid, find their way to her lips. They rolled over and under her tongue dropping out of her. The words weighed a ton. “It’s not over yet, sweeties. Daddy has to go to trial. Even though he did nothing, that’s…that’s just the way it is. It’s a small world. It’s a beautiful world.” Amy gathered both children close, ruffling their hair. “But it’s not a perfect world.”

I whispered, “God, this makes me glad I didn’t bring children into this fucked up world.” The moment I uttered those words I winced. Anna! Anna brought children into the world—and they left it too soon. I hoped Anna didn’t hear, otherwise, I’d have put my foot so far in my mouth it’d be splashing in my stomach acid.

The cogs were turning in my brain as I wondered if my sister-in-law sensed our presence. I realized it’s not just my brother’s innocence being robbed. My niece and nephew’s childhood is being ravaged by this ridiculousness.

Anna turned to Caryssa, “Let’s head down for dinner, and give the family privacy.”

With a renewed promise to connect with Amy, I strode with intent to the fire pit. “Hey guys, time for dinner!” When Amy stood, I flung my arm around her. “Let’s have girl time, just you and me before heading back to New York City.”

Amy uncrossed her arms and stared at me, bewildered, too shocked to speak. But gradually the words came. “I always felt you were kind of standoffish like you never cared to know me.”

Now it was my turn to be shocked. This woman standing in front of me is the love of my brother’s life, and it occurred to me that I had closed her off. “Amy, I’ve always been protective of my brother. I admit I was wrong. I guess I saw you as a threat.” I confessed.

Amy’s mouth opened and her eyes narrowed, “A threat?” The kids had raced down the ladder and were out of earshot. Not a bad thing since their biggest hero—Daddy—has already been deemed a threat to society, crushing their lens of the world.

“I thought you might deprive Jackson of his happiness. Now I realize, you are his happiness. His biggest joy, you and the kids. You’re his family, his life.” I paused, instilling genuineness in my following words. “I’m sorry.”

The fire in Amy’s eyes glistened with a cocktail of relief, anger, love, and sorrow. “Tomorrow’s a rest day, we won’t be playing tourist. Let’s do lunch at Gables Inn at noon,” she suggested.

My to-do list can wait, this can’t. Getting closer to Amy would be the best way to support my brother. “Sounds great, I’ll be there,” I replied enthusiastically.

“Splendid! And Jules? Let’s talk about us. Not the man in the middle. Your brother brought us together, but let’s connect over what makes each of us tick.” She suggested.

I felt a fight, and in response, my spiny old shell emerged. That spiny shell protecting my brother’s image; my dad’s image—my blood. As quickly as my defensive armor rose to the surface, I softened my hardened heart.

What was I protecting? Seriously? In a desperate attempt to preserve the privileged bubble of my childhood memories, I’d forgotten what’s important to my brother. Never having married, it’s like I married Sausalito, holding onto the money and social status my family once had. I’d looked at my sister-in-law as the interloper that’s crushing my dad’s honor or my brother’s spirit.

Settling into Amy’s gentle eyes, it dawned on me that she is no interloper. I’d made a horrible mistake. She is the mother of my brother’s kids. My blood. I now know what she means to him.

Seeing my brother’s life spin out of control with the disintegration of America’s politics opened my eyes. She’d been a part of my family for years and I’ve stubbornly refused to give her a chance. No more. Fresh starts. “I’d love to hear more of your life in New York City.”

The group had dispersed between the garden rooftop and my kitchenette area for dinner, and now everyone slumped around the fire pit. Jackson yawned “We need to get you two little rascals off to bed soon, it’s nearly midnight east coast time. Look! Haley has turned into an orange gourd!”

The girl, indeed, resembled a pumpkin in her oversized orange sweatshirt. Half asleep she sprang up with a wired energy, “And look! Before I become a carriage, I’ll lose my glass slipper!” With that, she kicked off a shoe. The shoe somersaulted into the air before gravity yanked it straight into the fire pit.

Hans laughed, taunting his sister, “Cinderella, you did lose your slipper. But now it’s burned up and you won’t get your Prince Charming.” His face crumpled as he burst into a fit of laughter.

“That’s not funny!” Hayley stomped petulantly, starting towards the pit. Luckily, her father blocked her path.

“I’ll get it,” he nudged her away from the pit. “Looks like it didn’t land directly in the fire.” Jackson plucked out the shoe, piping hot and powdered in ash, but salvageable. “Okay, that’s enough baking over the fire pit for one night. Give Auntie Jules a kiss goodbye, we’ll see her again this week.”

“No, we can’t be back by the stroke of midnight. My Cinderella sister has to turn to rags and the mice will pull her home.” Hans announced humorously.

“You’re a meanie, and would make a horrible prince!” Hayley wailed, giving him the tongue.

“No, I’d be a great prince,” he puffed out his chest. “Because I’m a hero about to save the night! We haven’t had s’mores yet! S’mores to the rescue!”

The kids were beyond overtired, acting sillier than ever and ready for a bickering boot camp. Jackson rolled his eyes, famished. I offered, “Let them roast a quicky bro, it takes minutes.” I grabbed two marshmallows, stuck them on the whittled sticks and passed them on to the children.

Once their marshmallows had a toasted tint, knowing from experience their insides would be gooey and warm, I laid out graham crackers and layered them with chocolate. “Here kiddos, squash the marshmallows into these crackers, you have s’mores to go.”

“Mine’s not done, it needs to be burnt!” Hans objected in a high-pitched voice.

“Hans just do it! Your marshmallow’s almost falling off the stick,” Amy seized the stick from her son and snatched it off, her patience clearly dwindling.

“But it needs to be brown!” Hans picked up the bag of marshmallows as if to start another.

“We need peanut butter to make them yummier,” Hayley added to the whining session.

“Listen to your mother Hans, put the bag down now. We are not having your Aunt lug a jar of peanut butter up here at this time of night Hayley.” Jackson turned to me with a smile forming beneath exhaustion-filled eyes, “Hey sis thanks for the hospitality, we’ll be in touch. Gotta get these kids to sleep.”

Caryssa and Anna were enjoying the fire, working on their wine in-between conversing. They either weren’t bothered by the kid’s annoying antics or ignored it.

Amy approached me, arms spread wide. We embraced, for the first time in the decade she’s been married to my brother. Too long to go without having much of a relationship, but at least we’d formed a bond now. “See you tomorrow for lunch, I’m looking forward to it!” I whispered into her ear before releasing from the hug.

And with that, they were off. The jet-lagged sugar-hyped kids vanished. What a great Aunt I am! Although, I am not so sure my brother and his wife would think so, giving kids sugar so late at night. Oh well, at least my ‘cool aunt’ status is still intact.

Over the next few hours, the clock ticked past midnight while we sat by the fire henpecking, turning to pumpkins ourselves. The rooftop glimmered in candles and starlight. A soft breeze perfumed the air with fire and the floral scent of roses.

“Good to see your brother and his family tonight, Jules. He’s stressed, but his wit’s still there.” Caryssa handed me a piece of chocolate which paired well with the Merlot. Much needed comfort food. I nodded, “Yes.” I didn’t know what else to say in the moment.

“Our broken justice system continues dragging innocents through kangaroo courts.” Anna laid another log on the fire, taming it with the poker. The fire was a calming balm adding tranquility to a chaotic world.

I didn’t want my brother’s horrendous ordeal to drag the conversation down. I needed to forget his troubles for a while, so I navigated towards Anna’s heartbreaking past. “You certainly didn’t drag Brandon Garth through the courts after his car fatally struck your daughter. I still don’t know if I agree he was innocent.”

Anna balled a fist, bringing it to her lips. “He sends a Christmas card every year—how sweet. He’s now twenty-seven, still a med student studying to be a Pediatric Neurological Surgeon. He hopes to practice at UCSF. I like to think Pierre and I did the right thing.” She explained, honorably.

Caryssa added, “I think what you did was commendable Anna, finding it in your heart to drop the case against him—defying our culture of irrelevant revenge. I mean, come on! He’s studying to be a doctor to help save children! A warrior of our planet. Just shows if we give people the benefit of the doubt, they’d do better for society than rot in a prison cell because we were unable to settle our festering hate and show forgiveness.”

I wasn’t buying it. “But if we just let everyone mow people down in the streets excusing it as a ‘tragic accident,’ we’d have vehicular homicides outnumbering gun deaths.” I proclaimed.

“As if that could ever happen,” Caryssa poured herself more wine while shaking her head. The burgundy liquid filled her glass as our vocals took a quick break.

Anna steered the topic back to Julie’s brother, to my dismay. “Anyhow, we can’t deny there’s suspicious stuff going down in this nation with an authoritarian flair, shady characters watching and arresting upright citizens,” Anna mumbled while watching the fire, as it gently flickered and mesmerized with every movement.

I thought about the men haunting my brother and his family. The man that called me lurking in the shadows. The CIA dropping into Anna’s place exploiting information regarding the murders at her gallery and the prison. Hasn’t the woman been dragged through enough drama and trauma? Give her a break already!

“Fuck’em all,” I declared. I picked up another log and tossed it into the fire pit, sending a stream of hot sparks to fit the sentiment.

We wrapped up the night and the girls said farewell. I met with slumber under the stars, snuggled inside the tent. I’d struggled with the set up for myself apparently. As I drifted off, a mysterious man in an obsidian trench coat and gangster hat plagued my dreams, haunting my unconsciousness. It was the man sitting on my street today—stalking.

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