Refuge

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CHAPTER 3 – Failed Sons

OUTER SPACE

Still moving at well above light speed after traversing the vast ort cloud enclosing the star system, the armada swept past the outer gas giant planets a few degrees below the planetary plane, and the navigators adjusted. As it slipped past Jupiter, it dropped below light speed. To an observer, it would seem to have simply burst suddenly into existence, a chain of enormous, closely fitted links, each one nestled tight against the one ahead like carefully aligned fish scales, flashing past and dwarfed by the great, banded giant.

Ahead blazed the sun at the system’s center and circling it nearby as mere specks were the inner rocky planets. The connected links followed in line toward their objective, a small, blue and brown orb that could easily be overlooked in the great ocean of galactic space. The fleet veered toward the third one out, and the navigators prepared to further release their hold on the force, retaining only enough to facilitate local maneuvering.


PETALUMA

WEDNESDAY

An emotional storm seethed through Vince Morgan. But, then, his mind always seethed in turmoil about something. Today it happened to be about Eric.

The Petaluma cemetery lay across two small hills and a secluded glen at the north edge of town, and at a little after 9:30 AM the summer’s heat had already begun to encroach upon the shaded hillside. Vic stopped with Vince just inside the cemetery gate when Vince leaned against the stone pillar and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. Vince nodded toward their father and Ellie ahead on the gradual incline as though to say, “Just look at them.”

“They’re gonna wish they wore something besides black.” Vic mimicked Vince’s nod. “It’s gonna be ninety by noon, I bet.”

“Yeah, and to the big bastard, it’s only right that everyone suffers for the occasion. I wouldn’t mind watching him slow-roast, but he shouldn’t put Ellie through it.”

Vic peered at the Mutt and Jeff pair, their father’s slim six-foot six against Ellie’s pudgy five-foot five and shook his head. “Yeah, but Ellie’d probably pick black on her own, anyway. She’s really tore up about Eric.”

“Yeah, I know. She loved him, just like she does us. Not that the big bastard would ever allow her to say it: lovin’ us.”

“You know, I’m gonna miss him,” Vic said after a pause. “I know you two used to fight, but he was okay with me.”

“Oh, we didn’t really fight. Pushing matches was about all. Hell, Eric was a bully as far back as I can remember. He only picked on me when no one else was handy. But he also made sure no one else did. It was the old story of, ‘I can do it because he’s my brother, but if you pick on him I’ll kick your ass.’ And he did kick ass—all over town.”

“I think he’s kicked more ass in the three years you’ve been moved out than all the time up to then. You must have kept him busy before you went.”

“But he was about the only one around besides you and Ellie that didn’t get all bent out of shape when I’d lose it. In fact, I think he got a kick out of watching me go ape-shit on someone.”

“Yeah, but when you go ape-shit on someone, they’re lucky if they can walk away afterwards, ever.”

“Well, when something gets to me—especially the big bastard—if I don’t pound on someone, I think I’d either burst into flame or melt down to slag. He’s too big and mean to pound on, so I just have to find someone else. Anyway, what’re you going on about? I never went after you, did I? Besides, you’ve done plenty of pounding, yourself.”

Vic elbowed his brother and grinned. “And if you tried it now, I’m big enough to kick your ass.”

Vince leaned away from the pillar and hooked his head to Vic. “Come on, Bad Ass, we don’t want the big bastard to have anything to bitch about us making anyone wait. Looks like the preacher’s already there.”

A soft breeze whispered through the leafy oaks above the forest of ornately carved stones and moved an errant strand of hair to caress Vince’s forehead. Waves of light brown hair cascaded over his ears and collar in a fashion popular a few years earlier.

Vic nodded at Vince’s hair. “You ever going to get that cut?”

Vince peered up at his father before answering. “Hell no! Not as long as it irks him like it does. Why do you think I keep it like this?”

“You could get something else just as radical, like Eric’s. He didn’t say anything to Eric about it because it was Eric. But I’ll bet it’d irk him plenty if you got yours like that. Be a lot more comfortable on a day like today, too.”

“Nah, he’d just think I was trying to get on his good side by copying the good son.”

Up ahead, Ned and Ellie stopped where the path turned to snake up the hillside. When Vince and Vic were twenty feet away, Ned dropped his supporting arm from Ellie’s hand and held it palm outward to his two living sons. “That’s far enough. I allowed you to into the funeral home, but I’ll not have you see Eric into his grave.”

Ellie gasped and laid a hand on Ned’s arm. “Ned, please, they’re his brothers.”

“No! They’re not. Not full, anyway. They share my blood with him, but through their veins also flows the tainted blood of their mother, a contamination Eric, blessedly, was not cursed with.”

“Still, they loved him, too. They’ve suffered a loss the same as you and me.”

“They haven’t! No! They can’t even conceive of the loss I feel. The only loss to them is an obstruction to my money. Now they think they stand to inherit it all. Well, they’re wrong. I’d sooner give it all to some wino down at the Hole. They’ll not have a penny of what was to be Eric’s. They’ll still get exactly the same as they would have if Eric hadn’t been murdered—and that is nothing. Nothing at all but a sincere wish that I had tied them in a sack and dropped them into the river the day their fornicating mother ran off with her lover.”

The maligning of their long-gone mother was something Vince had heard before, many times—oh, so many times. Their father never passed up an opportunity to point out how vile the woman was that had brought them into this world.

The solemn expression on Vince’s face that had mirrored the rest of the family’s grief contorted into his typical sneering smirk, an expression that found its natural niche there some years ago. “Our fornicating mother? Is that anything like our fucking mother?”

“Don’t you use that language in front of my wife,” Ned’s response sounded like the deep, warning growl of a junkyard dog.

He seldom referred to his present wife, Ellie, who was his third, as being their mother or even their stepmother. Not like he had done with Eric who was also her stepson but was from Ned’s first wife. Nor had he ever acknowledged that Ellie and these two sons from his second wife might have a relationship that involved affection.

“Well, shit, Father, it means the same thing, you know. Why can you say it, but I can’t? It is my mother we’re talking about.”

Such a direct confrontation had not occurred between Vince and his father for some time, mainly because Ned didn’t hesitate to use his fists in applying discipline to his younger sons. Although Vince had developed good, solid muscles, he had not taken his father’s size as Eric had done, or even Vic to an extent, and he had learned long ago that fighting back meant he would be beaten all the more. But, at times, the big bastard just pushed and pushed until it was impossible not to stand up to him—verbally, anyway.

Ned jabbed his finger at Vic, and the hate that ate at his heart spewed from his eyes. “You can get out of my home, too. You turned old enough a month ago for the law to say you’re a man.” With a pause and a sneer, Ned made certain no one misunderstood his opinion of that allusion. “Get your things and be gone before I get home, or I’ll burn it all.”

Ellie gasped in disbelief. “Ned, no.”

“You keep your mouth shut.” In his rant, Ned never took his eyes from his sons. “I should have run him off when Vince went. They’re both the same, bad clear through. Bad seeds, they are. How many have suffered because of the demons that infest those two? How much hurt have they caused to innocent souls? Why, that poor little girl Vince set fire to back in grammar school will have those disfigurements until the day she dies. And Vic, too. He’s almost as bad as the older one. Just look at all those young girls he violated. Three of them raped for certain, and what...another five that he didn’t get quite that far before getting stopped? And, God bless her, that first one when he was only eight years old—and him only ten! God only knows how many more there are that I don’t even know about? They’re animals! They like to just hurt folks. Old men who can’t fight back. Even an old woman that time, and both of them on her.”

Through Ned’s spiel, Ellie covered her face in an unsuccessful attempt to block the tears streaming down her cheeks. When he paused for breath, she lowered her hands and placed one on her husband’s arm to entreat him to calm himself and perhaps even to try to have compassion. But the man was rigid in his fury and abruptly shook her hand off.

“I had one good son, and I’m fixing to bury him. I have no others. I deny them—both of them. They were born of evil, and they’ve lived evil. I could see they were bad from the beginning, but I tolerated them, hoping to make them see to overcome the evil they were born from. But they failed.”

“Failed? No, Father, we didn’t fail,” Vince rebutted. “We soaked up every bit of crap you heaped on us. You know, you can’t bathe us in shit every day for years and expect us to smell like roses. Where do you think we learned to hate? Hell, we had the best teacher around. For all the demons in us, the world can thank you!” He jabbed an accusing finger at his father. “You, you fuckin’ hypocrite! You’re the one that put them all there!”

“Out of my home! I want you both out!”

“No!” Tears streamed from her eyes when she looked at Vic. “Please, not him, too!”

Ned spun on her so fast she flinched as though expecting him to strike her. But he only drew his hand back as though to backhand her and held it.

“But, my baby...” Ellie sobbed.

Vic screamed, “You bastard! You touch her and I’ll—”

Ned glared at his youngest son. “You’ll what? Huh? You’ll do what? Well, come on up here if you think you’ve really become a man. Come up here so I can feel your bones crunching in my hands.”

When Vic took a half-step forward in answer to Ned’s challenge, Vince grabbed his arm to pull him back. Even though Vic was an inch taller than Vince and had probably an extra fifteen pounds of good, solid muscle on him, he knew Vic was no match for their father’s towering strength. Today, if they engaged, he had a good chance of dying in the bigger man’s grasp.

“Vic…hey, come on, man. Let’s go.” Vince spoke softly beside his brother, pulling him, leading him back toward the gate.

Vince shared Vic’s rage at their father for dredging up the same old crap on top of Ellie’s apparent shame for loving such bad people. And this added fuel to the fire in Vince’s own belly. He, too, loved Ellie, and would not have spoken the offensive words, but the big bastard just had to push him.

He returned his father’s glare of righteous indignation with one of sneering cockiness. Even though his fury raced through his being like a firestorm, igniting flame within every cell until he felt as though he would explode, he would not let his father see the depth and the extent to which it consumed him. He would maintain an outward appearance of cool tedium and bored scorn; something he had long ago discovered irked the hell out of the old man.

As Vince led Vic to his car, he had to stop his little brother several times from returning to the graveside service to have it out with their father. He knew Vic had tolerated all he could take from the old man; that he had remained under that crushing thumb only to be close to Ellie. But, after today, even if the big bastard did relent and allow it, they both knew he could not continue to live under the same roof with Ned Morgan.

“I’ll kill that son-of-a-bitch one of these days. I swear I will.” Vic’s voice trembled with rage.

“Yeah, I know.” Vince settled into the driver’s seat of his car and started the engine. “Me too.”

The back tires on Vince’s car chirped when he put it in gear and sped away.

“Why does he have to always fall back to bad-mouthing Mother? She wasn’t really so bad, was she?”

Vince’s rage began to subside as soon as they were out of their father’s presence. Soon he was able to speak of their mother with soft tones and kind words that was often the case when he recalled the past for Vic.

“She was only nineteen when she married him, only a year older than you are right now. Just try to imagine if you were a girl, and this big, strong, older, charismatic guy with a cute little son came along. Of course, at the time she didn’t know he was also an asshole. He didn’t reveal that side to her until after they were married.”

Vic shook his head and started to say something but changed his mind.2

“No, Mother got taken in by an asshole bible thumper that also liked to thump his wife if she didn’t behave like he thought she should. Eric was only three at the time, and he was probably a sweet little kid back then. His mother hadn’t even been dead a year, and his father was a thirty-year old charmer that probably came across to Mother as wise and worldly. You’ve seen how he can turn it on when it suits him. If he can’t get what he wants from someone by bullying, he’ll smile and work his charm on ’em. Hell, she didn’t have a chance.”

Vic’s hands clenched and unclenched as if he had them wrapped around his father’s throat. “How the hell could she let him into her bed?”

“Hell, they were married. Can you imagine her—or anyone—telling Ned Morgan he can’t harvest his marriage apples? But, I guess six years of marriage to him and bearing two sons was all she could take. So, according to him, she just up and deserted her husband and children for that week’s lover. No different than a bitch in heat, is how the big bastard puts it.”

“But, if she loved us, how could she just leave us like that?”

Vic didn’t see it, but Vince shot his brother a look that was far from brotherly, and how he then struggled for a bit before he settled on a response. “She probably didn’t have much of a plan—had no idea where she was going or how she’d be able to take care of a couple of small kids. I doubt if she ran off with a lover or anyone else. She just ran.”

“Maybe she planned on coming back for us after she got settled. You think so? I bet she did.”

Vince’s reply was tight, forced through jaws that could grind granite, but with a smile showing to Vic. “Yeah…probably.”

They stopped by the house, and Vic picked up some of his clothes and a couple of things he didn’t want to take a chance on Ned destroying if Ellie couldn’t placate him. Within half an hour, they were cruising southbound on U.S. 101 en route to Vince’s place in Mill Valley, a small, bay-side town just five miles or so north of the Golden Gate. They rode in silence for a couple of miles before Vic again broached the subject of their mother.

“I wish I was older before Mother left. I can’t remember much about her except a face floating in a cloud of golden hair. But I don’t know if I really remember it, or if it’s just all the times you’ve told me about her. And I sure as hell never got anything from the old bastard except how we’re the—how’s he put it?—the whelps of a tramp no better than sewer-filth. Nice way for a father to talk to his kids about their mother, ain’t it?”

Vince had quashed his sudden rage at Vic’s earlier probing question, and was, once again, the young man’s loving big brother. “Yeah, I know, Bro, and if Ellie hadn’t come along when she did, either he or I would probably be dead by now.”

Vic said, “But she was pretty, wasn’t she?”

When Vince glanced over at his brother, Vic’s eyes seemed to be trying to focus on something so far away he was unable to see it clearly, or even to be certain he was really seeing it. Tension drained from Vince’s body. As tight as his father could wind him, recalling memories of their mother for Vic could almost always calm the raging beast that clawed to burst forth to maim and destroy.

They had had this discussion, or some variation of it, uncounted times. When they were small, it would often occur after bedtime when they were alone in their shared bedroom with the light out and no one else to hear or interrupt or to steal the visions Vince created of a mother he, alone, could remember.

“She was beautiful.”

“She had long, blond hair, didn’t she?”

“Like spun gold. Like a waterfall of pure, sunlit honey. It was as bright as a field of wild mustard in full bloom, and as soft as moonlight. And she had eyes so blue you had to wonder if they were real. They were like the deepest, clearest, summer sky you’ve ever seen.”

“She could sing, too, huh?”

“Like an angel.”

Vic allowed his eyes to close. He slouched down in the seat with his head against the base of the headrest.

With a smile, Vince continued, “Her voice was a high, pure soprano, sweet and soft. She didn’t sing loud, not like she was performing or anything. As shy as she was, she would probably have been embarrassed to sing for anyone else.”

His memories of her had evolved over the years, colored and adjusted, tinted and, after a while, tainted by visions of other women from books and movies and real life and even a small boy’s wishes, and Vic had never questioned how a four or five-year-old boy would have made note of some of the things he claimed to remember.

“She’d sing just to us, and only when no one else was around. She didn’t know a lot of songs. But the ones she did know have never been sung better. Not by anyone.”

“I’ll bet we asked her to sing a lot, didn’t we?”

Vince chuckled at Vic’s juvenile enthusiasm, but he was as guilty, himself. During these sessions, they were kids again. “We bugged the hell out of her, but she loved to sing for us. She really did—especially when one of us was sick or upset or something. When she would start to sing, her voice seemed to just float out like misty clouds on a summer breeze—like it took no effort at all. She just opened her mouth and it came out ’cause she had so much love for us. And it was so soft and pure you’d start to shiver and tingle inside and you’d almost want to cry, but you couldn’t cry because it made you feel so good, even if you’d just scraped every bit of skin off your knee like you did that time. Remember that?”

“Yeah,” he replied with a wince. Vince had told it to him so many times he believed he remembered the incident even if he didn’t.

“You were running across the driveway chasing that old gray cat that liked to have his butt scratched. When you tripped and made a one-point landing, you must have hit the roughest spot in the whole driveway. Your knee looked like someone had taken a power sander to it.”

Vic scrunched up his face and puckered his mouth; certain he could once again feel the excruciating pain.

“You howled and screamed, and Mother came running out.” Vince always called her Mother rather than Mom. He had probably called her Mommy before she went away, and he really couldn’t remember when or why he had changed it to Mother. Maybe it was because he had started calling Ellie Mom shortly after she moved in. Besides, somehow the name, Mom, just didn’t fit the memories, the impressions he had of her—of Mother. It just wasn’t angelic enough.

“She got you inside and cleaned it up and sprayed some junk on it to numb it or something, but you still wouldn’t stop crying. So, she started to sing to you. It was soft and quiet, and I couldn’t hardly hear her at first, and I know you didn’t. Not at first. You just kept wailing, and she kept smiling and singing and kissing you. I guess you started hearing her when you would stop to catch your breath between howls. Well, it wasn’t long ’til I guess you decided she sounded better’n you, so you hushed-up so you could listen to her.”

“I bet I was a little shit, wasn’t I?” Vic said with a big grin, nodding all the while as though his brother’s narration had vividly brought to the fore a fond memory of his own.

“Yeah,” Vince smiled. “You were a little shit. But Mother could always get you to stop crying.”

“Did she ever sing just for you?” Vic asked his brother, like he had never heard any of these stories before.

Vince delved deeper into his treasure chest of memories, not necessarily farther back in time, just deeper into what some might see as a morass of false memories. Some were based on actual incidents or impressions in the mind of a young child, bits that had been twisted and altered and colored over the years to satisfy a deep yearning. Others were pure fiction, borne of long held wishes and unfulfilled needs. Features or qualities that may have been insignificant at the time had been magnified over the years to proportions suited to the gods. But these were the memories that Vince fostered and nurtured and accepted as true and accurate.

“Back before you were born, she used to come into my room at bedtime. She’d tell me stories about heroes and princesses and dragons and trolls. She’d sing the stories sometimes. Even when she spoke or sang in a whisper, her voice would go right inside me, into my heart and make it vibrate. And, I swear I could hear angels’ voices who were coming down from heaven, just so they could sing with her.”

While Vic settled back in the seat with his eyes closed and basking in the refreshed memories of Mother, Vince’s cycloning memories settled, inevitably, on that night so many years ago that was the last time he had seen her. This memory he kept for himself like a last, treasured piece of irreplaceable candy, never sharing it with Vic. But, more than that, it was his anchor.

It had been late, well after midnight, he was sure. He was in his bed when something, some noise, stirred him from sleep. By the ghostly light of a full moon flooding through the window he could see her hovering like a pale wraith over Vic’s bed. As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and propped himself up on his elbows, she seemed to glow in the moonlight like she was sprinkled with fairy dust.

She was speaking to Vic’s tiny figure, whispering something only her still sleeping child could have heard, all the while caressing his cherubic face with its lock of hair fallen across his forehead. As she turned to look at Vince, he could see tears making dark streaks down her cheeks, and he heard her sob.

She put a finger to her lips to hush his frightened inquiry. With a last, lingering touch to Vic’s mop of hair, she stepped across to sit on the edge of Vince’s bed.

When she came closer, Vince could see that she did, indeed, have a coating of some kind of powder or dust all over her but mostly over her head and face. He put out a hand to touch her strangely gray face with its dark tear tracks and pulled it back, rubbing the fine ash between his small fingers. To still his fears, she explained that it was merely cold ashes from the fireplace that Vince’s father had thrown onto her during his admonition for what he had considered some unacceptable behavior, an act Vince had witnessed more than once.

His father would yell at her about how she was a bad wife and should wear ashes and sack cloth in penance, and then he would reach into the cold fireplace for a handful of ashes. She’d just stand there and allow her towering husband to pour the ashes over her head and face and shoulders.

This last night, it appeared, he had used more than one handful; the powdery ash covered her from the waist up.

She reassured him that she was not hurt and that everything would be okay. She then said something to him that disturbed and confused him. “Vincent, I am so glad you are such a good boy, and I know you will always take care of Victor.” Then she kissed him goodnight…but it was really good-bye. She was gone in the morning.

Vince’s father told him she had run off with her lover, a term he didn’t even understand at the time. His father overwhelmed his sobbing denials during those first few days without her and buried him and Vic with claims of her infidelity and godless ways. From that time on, he and Vic were fed a constant diet of how their mother had deserted not only her God-sanctioned husband, but her own children, as well.

More and more, to Vince’s growing shame, he began to accept the possibility of his father’s charges and to question the sincerity of her love. In his swirling mind, he would ask himself until the words thundered in his head. If she really loved me and Vic like she said, how could she have left us? It was at this end of the pendulum’s swing that his rage became so uncontrollable he had to pound on someone—with fists, boards, bricks or bats, whatever was at hand. Not at Vic or Ellie, though—never at Vic or Ellie.

And then, for a moment or an hour and more, his hatred for Mother eclipsed even that he had for his father.

That’s when he would grasp for his anchor, for his memories of her angelic face with its dusting of stardust that she tried to tell him was ash from the fireplace—but, he knew. He knew she told him that only because he was so young and would have a hard time with the concept that his mother was not what other mothers were, that she had been merely on loan to him and Vic, and that she was called back to heaven for other, perhaps, more needful tasks. Only these thoughts could hold him safe, could anchor his feet to the ground away from the edge of the abyss, a pit toward which a growing tempest blew him to where he would fall over the rim and to plummet to its darkest depths. It was then that the pendulum would swing back to the other extreme where his thoughts of her were of love. When he was younger and tried to reconcile conflicting visions of the same woman, it created such turmoil in his mind he had to give up trying to understand any of it and to just let it be. He had not tried in recent years. And, as with his memory of the night she had said good-bye, he never shared his doubts with Vic.

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