Everything disappeared: The house, the cops outside, her nerves. All that existed were Jason and the delicious icy fire racing through my blood. He pulled back, leaving me panting and feeling quite bereft. I raised my arms and almost wrapped them around his neck, wanting to be closer to him, wanting even more. But then I remembered my heartache and let them fall. That would only lead to more pain.
“I’m sorry,” he rasped, still catching his breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I managed to whisper and turned away so he wouldn’t be able to read the doubt on my face. How was I going to stand this? How could I spend three hours teetering on the very edge of insanity? It would take so little to push me right over. I had to find a way to keep my mind busy.
“Tell me about your family,” I said, not really sure why I was asking, but knowing anything was better than the terrible silence.
“My family?” he asked, brow furrowed. “Why?”
“I just want to know,” I answered. “Humor me.”
He shifted back onto the cushions of the sofa, fiddled with the collar of his jacket.
“Not really much to tell,” he said.
“Of course there is,” I insisted. “You came from somewhere. You didn’t just drop, fully grown, out of the sky.”
“No,” he said with a smile, “but I’m sure my mother wished I had from time to time.”
“So, tell me about her?” I found I really did want to know about the woman who had birthed and raised this man, and that made me very uncomfortable. I didn’t want to want to know more.
His smile turned wistful and his green eyes lost focus, as if he were staring at something in the distance.
“She’s a powerhouse,” he said, his voice holding a hint of a chuckle. “You don’t get in her way ’cause she’ll mow you right down. When I was growing up, I learned to never let Mama know if I had any problems at school. If I did, she marched right down there and bulled her way into the principal’s office to find out what was going on. If the blame lay with the school, she’d threaten lawsuits, mass destruction, and Grammy Lou.”
Now he laughed out loud. “My grandmother Lou was a full-fledged Voodoo priestess.”
“You mean with dolls and pins and everything.”
“There’s more to it than that,” he said, “but, yeah, she was a mighty threat around my neck of the woods.”
“That’s . . .” I began, but didn’t really know where to go from there, so I changed the subject. “What if you were to blame?”
“If it were my fault, she’d jerk a knot in my tail right then and there.”
“But she loved you,” I said, hearing affection in his tone.
“Yeah, she did. There were three of us boys. She wouldn’t take sass from any of us, but she loved us. Brought us up on her own, our daddy was never in the picture. Cleaned offices at night so she could be there when we needed her.”
“Where is she now?” I asked.
“Florida. She retired about five years ago and moved to a senior community where she plays bingo and takes trips to Disneyworld.”
“Do you see her often?”
“Every Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said.
“And your brothers?”
“One’s in Texas and the other’s in Ohio, but they and their families are all there during the holidays.”
I could imagine what such a gathering would be like. I pictured Mama Anders, a great big bear of a woman in a shapeless housedress and slippers, at the head of a huge table. I saw Jason and a pint-sized female version of himself seated, along with two additional Jasons with various wives and children, all gathered around. It was rowdy and messy, and my heart ached to be a part of it.
“What was your home like growing up?” I asked, wanting more images of Jason and his family to hold in my mind.
“Small, shabby, full of love,” he answered.
“Care to elaborate?”
“Not right now,” he said. “Let’s talk about you.”
“Me?” We had already talked about me and he had found me sorely lacking. I wanted to hang on to the happy childhood Jason had put in my head. I wanted to experience, vicariously, life through him. I didn’t want to look back on my own misery. “I don’t know what’s left for me to say,” I said. “I was an unwed mother who gave up her child. Apparently, that’s all that matters to you.”
I took a mean bit of pleasure in seeing the shame color his face.
“Jessie, you can’t begin to imagine how sorry I am for the way I acted. Please . . .”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” I interrupted. “Not now.”
“Hey, guys,” a scratchy disembodied voice said into my ear, startling me. It took a few seconds for me to remember that we weren’t exactly alone, and that I wasn’t having auditory hallucinations.
“Damn! I forgot they were listening,” Jason muttered.
“You’ve got company coming,” the voice continued, barely controlled excitement vibrating through the static.
My heart rate jacked into overdrive and every part of my body felt like it had been hit with an electric charge.
“Showtime,” I said on an exhale.
This was it! I was ready for Elroy. He had murdered my father and killed any chance I had to really get to know the man I had shut out of my life for sixteen years. I was going to look him in the eye and I was going to take him down.
“Hide!” I hissed, making shooing motions at Jason with my hands.
“I love you, Jessie,” he whispered before disappearing into the shadows.
His words left me so breathless it was several seconds before I could think clearly. However, I did manage to recover enough to flatten myself against the wall to the left of the door, pistol drawn. I searched the darkness for Jason, but he was completely hidden in the inky recesses of the room. It made my heart quicken, being alone. I had to remind myself that he was there, even though I couldn’t see him.
“He’s coming up the steps,” the voice in my ear said in a rushed, excited voice.
My pulse was thrumming, my breath coming in short gasps. In only minutes, I would be getting my life back.
“His hand is on the knob,” the same voice said.
“I’m right here with you, Jessie,” a whisper came, close in the darkness.
I had never thought of myself as a coward, and now was certainly not the time to start acting like one. My heart continued to race and my breathing was still too fast, but my hands were steady. I was ready to face the man who had forced me to live in fear.
I watched the knob begin to turn, pressed my back harder against the wall, gripped the pistol so tightly my knuckles glowed white in the dark. Time seemed to stop as the door began to ooze inward mere millimeters at a time. I could feel sweat trickle down my back. I could hear the monotonal “tick-tick-tick” of a clock somewhere in the living room. I could smell the dust motes that must be floating around in the still air.
Then things began moving too fast. The door was open and a shadow, only a shade lighter than those surrounding it, stood in the room. Before I had a chance to take a step toward Elroy, I was blinded by a sudden flood of light.
“Freeze!” Jason shouted. He was on his way to putting himself between Elroy and me when the man struck with the speed of a snake. My gun clattered to the floor and the cold hard barrel of a pistol was pressed against my temple.
“No, you freeze. Or I’m going to blow her brains all over your pretty face.”
Something was wrong – okay, that was clearly an understatement – but something besides the obvious was very, very wrong. Fear may have paralyzed my body and a good deal of my brain, but I could still hear, and the voice shrilling at Jason did not belong to Bronson Elroy. In fact, it was a woman’s voice, high-pitched and keen; a voice I hadn’t heard in years, but recognized instinctively. This had to be a fear-induced hallucination. Or maybe Elroy had already shot me and I was being greeted in Hell.
“Surprise,” she hissed into my ear.
“No,” I gasped as I struggled to make sense of what was happening. “You can’t be here. You’re dead.”
“I am here and I’m not dead,” the woman said. “You never were smart enough to figure anything out on your own. You always needed someone to spell it out for you.”
Shock had numbed the fear as I stood there trying to comprehend the fact that a dead woman was standing behind me and holding a gun to my head. It wasn’t possible!
An inner voice began clawing its way through the buzzing in my brain. Not only was this possible, it was dangerously real, and if I didn’t do something, I was going to die.
“What the hell is going on?” I demanded.
My racing heart froze as I saw Jason materialize out of the shadows and step into the dim wash of moonlight coming through the windows.
“Drop it!” he said.
“I don’t think so,” she snarled, wrapping her free arm around my neck and twisting me so that I was between the two of them. Ten years of self-defense training and my traitorous body refused to do anything. Shock was a bitch!
“Let her go,” Jason said, his voice as cold and hard as the lump in my throat.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked.
“How soon the world forgets,” she said.
“Jason,” I whispered in a voice little more than a croak, “it’s Gloria.”
His face didn’t change. If I hadn’t known him, I would have missed the slight lifting of his eyebrows, the tiny flare of his nostrils that gave away his surprise.
“I’m giving you one more chance,” he said with surreal calm. “Let her go or I’ll shoot you right between the eyes.”
She laughed, and it was a sound so full of glee I shuddered. She was insane, and this mad woman was going to kill both of us. I had to do something. I couldn’t continue to stand here helpless while she shot us in cold blood. I had too much to live for. I had to use the only weapon at my disposal, my tongue.
“Why?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from pitching into hysteria. “Why are you here? Why aren’t you rotting in your grave?”
“What a lovely thing to say to your mother.”
She gripped my hair in her fist so tightly I couldn’t believe it was still attached to my head. Her breath was hot against my cheek and the steel of the gun barrel was icy against my temple. I felt it slide in the slick sweat that coated my skin.
“You shot me! What a lovely thing to do to your daughter.” I hated that it bothered me that the woman who gave me life had tried to take it back, but the rage gave me courage.
She snorted against my ear. “I wasn’t trying to kill you. I was aiming for that little worm Milston.”
“Yeah? Well, your aim sucks!”
“If you had kept your nose out of everything like I asked, you wouldn’t have gotten hurt.”
Jason must have caught on, because he joined the conversation.
“So, you were the one who planted the note in Jessie’s car,” he said.
“Of course,” she replied. “I may not be overly maternal, but I certainly didn’t want to kill my daughter unless I had to.”
“Real mother-of-the-year material,” he said.
Anger flared in her eyes and she yanked harder, making my scalp throb.
“I never wanted to be a mother,” she said. “That was all Adam’s idea. I gave in because he promised me I wouldn’t have to take care of it – no dirty diapers, no snotty noses. Nannies would do it all.”
“And you hated me for it,” I said.
“Hated you?” Gloria asked, sounding truly surprised. “I never hated you. I didn’t care enough to hate you. Sometimes, when your father was out banging Candy, I actually liked having you around. No matter what he did, I would always be the mother of his child. He could never be rid of me.”