HO SPRINGS
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72. CORA: The End

eady?” Cora asked Juliette.

The girl hoisted her suitcase and gave a wan smile.

Cora gave up. She would have guessed that Juliette would have been delighted to go back to France, but instead the girl had been sullen, even weepy, all week.

“Is there something wrong?” Cora asked. “Something you’re not telling me?”

Juliette shrugged and blinked harder against the tears that seemed always to be lingering in her eyes.

Cora sighed. She’d been so full of doubts leaving Paris and coming here, so wracked by misgivings through all the weeks of dealing with her brother and her father and George and the family business and especially with Juliette herself. But she never expected she’d feel just as conflicted — more conflicted — about going back.

“It’s time,” said Medhi.

Hugo took Juliette’s hand and led her toward the stairs.

“Did you say goodbye to your grandfather?” Cora asked.

Again, the only answer Cora got from her daughter was a shrug, though this time it was more understandable. Cora’s father, Juliette’s grandfather, sat dim-eyed on the sofa beside his girlfriend, Jimmie Sue.

“Goodbye, Pop,” Cora said, crossing the room to kiss her father’s grizzled cheek.

He looked up at her, confused. “Who are you?” he asked, sounding almost frightened.

Would this be the last time she’d see him? At least with Jimmie Sue here, she could be sure that he’d eat and not drink himself to death. But even without the bottle of bourbon each day, some light had gone out behind his eyes.

“Remember what I told you,” Jimmie Sue said.

Jimmie Sue had told Cora not to go. She’d laid out the cards the night before and advised against the trip, against Cora getting back together with Medhi, against taking Juliette across the ocean.

“Your destiny is here,” Jimmie Sue had said, talking about a man in Juliette’s future who could only be George.

But Cora couldn’t let herself make decisions as big as how to raise her daughter and whether to reunite with her husband of 20 years based on what some old cards said, could she? She might be impulsive, she might be ambivalent, but she wasn’t a complete fool.
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61. JULIETTE: Let’s Play Kidnapper

abysitting was not how she wanted to spend her day. Hugo, who was at this very moment snoring on the couch across the room, was sure to be leaving very soon, and Juliette might never see him again. And after all their efforts to be together last night were foiled — well, she felt she had to spend every single available second with him.

And if not with him, at least with her dear Papa. And if not with Papa, at least in bed, unconscious, trying to sleep away what had happened to her in the woods.

And now here was this spooky little girl, dumped just about literally in her lap, staring up at her with eyes big and blue as robin’s eggs behind those weird thick glasses.

“Wanna play horsies?” the girl, Beth, asked, holding up one of her mangy plastic horses.

“Ummmmmmm…..no,” Juliette said.

The kid blinked.

“How about CandyLand?” she asked, her voice so soft it was almost a whisper.

Juliette examined the child. She might have been cute, if somebody had taken the time to fix her hair and get her some chic little clothes. Plus she definitely needed cooler glasses.

“How about kidnapper?” Juliette asked.

“How do you play that?” Beth asked shyly.

“I hide behind the couch, and you walk by, and then I jump out and kidnap you.”

They both looked over at the couch, where Hugo snorted and flipped over so he was facing away from them.

“I don’t know,” Beth said, sticking her thumb in her mouth.

“Come on,” Juliette said. “It’ll be fun.”

She stood up and, taking Beth’s hand, walked her over near the couch and positioned her in front of it. Maybe Hugo would hear them. Maybe he would wake up and join in the game. Maybe he would see how great Juliette was with Beth and want to marry her for real and have babies with her.

“Okay,” Juliette said. “Just walk like this, like you’re little Red Riding Hood on your way to grandmother’s house.”

“Are you the grandmother?” Beth asked.

The grandmother? This kid really was funky. “No! Can’t you see I’m young and pretty?” Juliette said.

Beth nodded, but then asked, “Are you the wolf?”

Juliette clucked impatiently. “I’m the kidnapper,” she said. “Now walk, back and forth, in front of the couch.”
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44. CORA: French Diplomacy

ora was awake, daylight just beginning to sift through the windows, though she was not sure she had ever fallen asleep.

She could remember sitting alone in the living room, feeling so restless and helpless knowing Juliette was out there somewhere. Finally, she’d lain down on the sofa, her mind alive with images of her little girl in the woods, or on the dark streets: Somewhere beyond Cora’s reach. Or were those dreams?

Now she was awake, itchy to get out there and find her daughter.

She heard voices, male voices, heavy footsteps on the wooden stairs. They seemed to be speaking French. She shook her head, wondering if she was hallucinating. Or hallucinating again.

Then the door banged open.

There stood Medhi, her ex. With him was Hugo, Juliette’s ex. Or current: Cora never could keep that straight, and suspected Juliette couldn’t either.

At any other moment, Cora would have started screaming at Medhi for all his sins, would have pushed him back down the stairs or run out into the street herself.

But now, after only a moment’s hesitation, she walked straight into his arms.

Letting her forehead rest against his shoulder, breathing in the starch of his shirt, the musky scent of his neck, feeling the tickle of his hair against her cheek, feeling herself release all the worry and all the tears, brought back every moment she’d spent like this with him over all the years. Weeping for joy when he asked her to marry him and when she found out she was pregnant with Juliette. Crying in pain when she lost pregnancy after pregnancy and later when her mother died. Medhi’s steady strength, his warm shoulder and his hand on her back had been the constant through all the most important events of her life.

“It’s all right, I’m here, we’ll find her,” he said, and she let herself cry harder, collapse into him more thoroughly.

I was such a fool to ever leave, she told herself. I never should have taken Juliette away, never should have left Paris, should have learned to live with this man, my husband, no matter what.

“What I don’t understand,” Medhi said, gently stepping away from her, “is how our daughter got lost in the first place.”

(more…)

39. GEORGE: Dumping Out the Boxes

eorge was bent over a horse’s hoof, trying to dig out whatever was making the animal limp, when Jamie McAdams collapsed into the mud right in front of him.

He might have heard Jamie stagger into the barn if it weren’t for the general din of the racetrack all around him. But instead his focus had narrowed to a few square inches of equine flesh and bone, the way he needed to keep things these days. He thought of his life as a smooth plain with a series of boxes on it. In the first most important box was Beth, in another box their room at the Barstow, in another his extended family, in another the track and the horses under his care. He stayed calm by dealing with the contents of only one box at a time.

There was a large, torn, dirty, messy, crammed-full box that was Taryn, but that one he’d sealed up with extra-strong tape and put into storage.

If Jamie McAdams fit in any of the boxes, it was deep in one shadowy corner of the Taryn box. Not somewhere George wanted to go.

“God, man, what’s going on?” George said, feeling not all that alarmed, moving not all that quickly.

Jamie was drunk, was his first guess. High, second. Generally messed up, next.

It wasn’t until he bent over Jamie, touched his skin, looked in his eyes, saw the condition of his clothes — in particular, his jeans — that he grew alarmed.

“Jamie,” he said, shaking the man, the doctor in him taking over from the devastated husband, the helping-sick-people box taking precedence over the hating-guys-who-fucked-my-wife box. “Jamie, what happened to you?”

Jamie seemed to rouse. “Annie,” he croaked. He brought one filthy trembling hand slowly to his thigh. “Eating my ball.”

His jeans were ripped there, no torn, no eaten away, it looked like. Suddenly George understood. There’d been some kind of accident involving anhydrous ammonia — Annie, some of the meth makers called it — and it had seared through Jamie’s clothes and was undoubtedly burning into the skin beneath.

“All right,” George said, trying not to panic. The treatment, short of a hospital burn unit, was water, lots of water, but it was supposed to be administered immediately after contact with the highly caustic chemical, one drop of which could melt a man’s testicles, turn his eye to jelly, render him unable to speak. George ran and got the hose, big enough to put out a fire in the barn or to spray down a couple dozen horses. He didn’t want to drown Jamie, just wash away what he could of the poison before he even attempted to do anything else. Then George turned on the water, hard enough to wash off the powerful ammonia, gentle enough not to flush away Jamie’s genitals with it.

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36. JAMIE: The Slave

o.”

Jamie felt the muzzle of the rifle dig into his ribs, but still he hesitated.

“This stuff is dangerous,” he said.

The tattoo artist laughed. “That’s what you’re for. Now git.”

Fog rose from the fields that stretched all around them, newly plowed in preparation for the spring planting. There was a barn, empty except for hay, to his left; the farmhouse lay dark and slumbering in the distance to the right.

And ahead, curved and white as the moon, looking like a giant white capsule — a big metal Tylenol, maybe — elevated on stilts was the tank. The tank that held the anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. The stuff Jamie was charged with stealing so that the tattoo artist and his Nazi girlfriend could brew up a big old batch of crank.

Jamie had never been involved in this part of the process before. He was usually up for the smoking, and maybe a little bit of the distribution, with some light assistance thanks to the family pharmacy on the manufacturing end.

But running across farmland in the middle of the night with an empty propane tank in one hand, a cordless drill in the other, and a length of tubing knotted around his neck: That was not his thing.

He tried to tell them that, but they informed him that he didn’t have a thing anymore. He was a slave now, they said. And if he didn’t do what they told him to do, he’d be dead.

He could feel the rifle trained on his back as he rapped on the tank, as they’d instructed, to locate the exact level of the anhydrous. Once he figured out where that was, he was supposed to drill into the metal, insert the tubing, then tip the whole thing ever so carefully to fill up the smaller tank without spilling anything.

A spill would be disastrous, even if it didn’t eat into his flesh or make him go blind or burn out his vocal chords. The sharp smell, the cloud that would form over the whole property, the potential for a massive explosion: These things could attract unwanted attention. And would result, the Nazis told him, in his imminent demise.

(more…)

33. JULIETTE: Tongues

he church looked even bigger from its wide front steps than it did from the road, its white edifice looming over her, the steeple with its glimmering gold cross seeming to reach all the way to heaven.

It felt as imposing as Notre Dame, or even more so. At least with Notre Dame, you knew what you were going to get: a centuries-old solemnity and a reliable brand of peace. Whereas in this foreign place, Juliette had no idea what was going to happen.

She’d expected to have trouble finding her way to where the Youth Group was meeting, but she just followed the teenagers, white and black, who seemed to be swirling all around her, laughing and talking as if they were normal kids and not complete religious freaks. Most of the boys were wearing some variation of the suit and tie and white shirt that Darrell’s uncle made him wear to school, and the girls looked like they’d stepped out of a rerun of Little House on the Prairie.

Juliette had dressed in one of her grandmother’s printed silk numbers, with a flowered straw hat perched atop her newly black hair and old lady pumps on her feet. Her mother had looked at her oddly, unsure whether this outfit was better or worse than the torn cut-offs and black belly shirts Juliette had taken to wearing.

“You look…..nice?” Cora had said uncertainly. “Where are you going in those clothes?”

“I’m going to church,” Juliette said, her chin in the air, as if that were the most normal thing in the world.

“What’s this all about?” her mother asked, frowning.

“Does it have to be about something?” Juliette said. “Can’t I just want to be close to God?”

That shut Cora up. Jimmie Sue gave her a sharper look. Spooky: It was harder to put anything over on the old fortuneteller than it was to fool her mother, but whether that was because Jimmie Sue had real psychic powers or just a keener nose for trouble, Juliette wasn’t sure.

“Now, boys and girls, we’ll join hands, and rise up! Up, boys and girls, lift your hearts up to God!”

Juliette had to insert herself between two girls, both of whom gave her dirty looks, and grab their sweaty hands. In fact, the whole room smelled like body odor, as if all those fake silk dresses and too-big suit jackets had gone too long between cleanings.

Many of the kids had their eyes closed and were chanting along with the Darrell’s uncle the minister, who Juliette had come to think of as That Asshole Dwayne.
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30. GEORGE: The End

hen it came right down to it, there wasn’t that much to take. His medical bag, of course. A few clothes, his favorite old ones he’d never be able to duplicate. Beth’s toys. Family pictures, the ones that didn’t break his heart. HIs passport.

“Where’s Mommy?” Beth asked, wide-eyed.

“Mommy had to go away again,” George said, packing the little girl’s stuffed animals in a laundry bag. “She’s not going to live with us anymore.”

“She said she was going to live with us now forever and ever,” said Beth, tears pooling in her eyes.

“It’s better if it’s just you and me,” he said. “Mommy’s too sick to stay with us.”

“She’s not sick,” said Beth. “She said she was all better.”

“Just be quiet now and find everything you want to take with you,” snapped George, instantly sorry. He put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder and squeezed by way of apology, but there wasn’t any time to stop and spend time soothing her. Taryn had texted him that she’d be late, her hairdressing appointment, if that had ever existed at all, stretching to fill the whole day. Where had she really been? Up at one of the meth cabins in the hills, smoking her brains out? Selling the pills she’d stolen from him, or fucking some lowlife in exchange for more?

He shivered at the thought of it. Never again. This was it. The end.

“Come on,” he said to Beth. “Time to go.”

The wind had whipped up outside, which was what gave him the idea. At first, he’d imagined waylaying Taryn outside, telling her it was over, he didn’t want her back in.

But she would fight that, he knew, yell and scream, and Beth would hear, and it would be an even worse nightmare than it already was.

Then he got the idea to pack everything up and take Beth into town, stay at the Barstow or wherever, until he was able to find another place for them to live. Let Taryn have the houseboat. Let her cook meth in its kitchen, blow the whole fucking thing to smithereens. As long as she never tried to be part of his life again, she could have everything he owned, everything he cared about — everything except Beth, that was — and do whatever the hell she wanted with it. He’d built this place after falling in love with her, as a home for their happiness. Now he never wanted to set foot in it again.

But then, when the wind started howling in advance of another spring front moving in from the plains, when he heard the creaking of the ropes straining against the old wooden pillars of the dock and felt the lurch of the boat on the waves, he had another idea.

Outside, a horn sounded. Taryn had taken the car, LaTonya was a work, he hadn’t been sure who to call.

Then he remembered Cora. He should look in on Senior anyway, and George guessed Cora owed him a favor, though he felt much more comfortable on the giving than the receiving end of those. But he knew he had to act now or he’d lose his nerve once again, find himself falling back as he’d done so many times before into Taryn’s arms. Believing her lies, giving her just one more chance, letting himself love her when he knew he’d be safer drinking lighter fluid.

He hoisted his daughter into his arms. “Let’s go, sweetheart,” he said, into her sweet-smelling hair.

(more…)

27. GEORGE: The Sleeping Game

eorge drew the Queen Frostine card, and immediately tried to shove it back in the pile before Beth could see. But too late: The little girl’s eyes caught the vision of the lavender-bedecked fairy queen and her face started to crumple.

“I wanted to get the queen,” she said, a whimper at the edge of her voice.

“I drew this card by mistake!” George cried, trying to put it in her hand. “Look, did you see that? It was supposed to be your card which means you would….”

He swooped her pink playing piece up into the air, bouncing onto the queen’s space and then hopping ahead. “…..jump all the way to the end which means you are the big winner!”

Beth broke down in giggles. “Oh, Daddy,” she said.

“Enough Candy Land? What do you say we go out for a walk? See if we can pick some flowers for Mommy?”

It was his day off and Taryn had taken the opportunity to go into town to get her hair done. He’d offered to drive her, figured that he and Beth could get an ice cream, take a stroll down Bath House Row and see what stores were starting to open up for the season.

But Taryn had said no, she could get there perfectly fine on her own, and she had other things to do besides: buy clothes to replace everything she’d left behind when she’d moved back in, look for something for his upcoming birthday. When he hesitated, she said, “Don’t you trust me, George? How can you be married to me, if you don’t trust me?”

She was right, of course she was right. So he’d smiled and kissed her and let her go.

Now Beth was shaking her head no, she didn’t want to go for a walk.

“How about we feed the fish? I bet they’re hungry after a long winter with no bugs on the water.”

Again, Beth shook her head.

“Well, what do you want to do? Play tea party with Bunny and your dolls?” Please God, he thought: anything but another round of Candy Land.

“Let’s play the sleeping game.”

“The sleeping game? How do you play that?”

“You lie here on the floor,” Beth said, “on your tummy. Then you close your eyes and I play with your hair and tickle your back.”

George did as he was told. It wasn’t until he was fully stretched out, lulled by the rock of the boat, his daughter’s delicate fingers drumming on his shoulders, that it occurred to him to wonder what was happening.
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26. LaTONYA: I Want My Son

ou have been so wonderful, taking your brother in hand,” LaTonya said, sitting across the long shiny black table from her son Dwayne.

She was careful to keep her voice modulated, mindful that, above all else, what Dwayne needed to hear was praise. That’s what Cora McAdams had told her, anyway.

She’d gone to Cora for help getting Darrell back, or advice, or — well, she wasn’t sure what. She just didn’t know where else to turn. George had his hands full now that he was back with his wife. DaShawn, never. She couldn’t reveal herself to the women who worked for her at the spa. And friends — she hadn’t had time for friends in more years that she could remember.

But Cora’s daughter, she was friendly somehow with Darrell. Cora was a single mother, dealing with difficult circumstances. Of all people in the world, Cora, LaTonya hoped, could help.

“I certainly feel it’s my duty under the Lord to help,” said Dwayne now, nodding his big head, accepting his due.

He wouldn’t think any of it was bullshit, Cora had said. He’d lap it all up.

“The boy needs a strong role model,” LaTonya said.

“Of course,” Dwayne said, nodding again. His father’s head had been huge like that. They were both bull-headed, in every sense of the word.

LaTonya gazed at her hands, laid flat out in front of her on the table. Give me my son, she thought. Give me my fucking son.

“I’m so glad I was able to rely on you to vouch for him with the police,” LaTonya said.

“I was happy to do it,” said Dwayne, “since you could not be found.”

“I was at work, and then at class, and then I was studying for my medical school tests with George Forrest….”

“Pursuing your own ambitions when you should have been home with the boy.”

LaTonya breathed in deeply through her nose. “I am that child’s sole support, just as I was your sole support. I am trying to make a better life for him, to send him to college, as I sent you and your brother to college….”

“A child needs a parent at home.”

“And what would you have me do then, go on welfare? I’ve heard you rail against that, from the pulpit….”

“The boy is out of control!” cried Dwayne, waving his finger in the air.

“He is not out of control,” LaTonya said, her voice rising. “He’s a good boy, Dwayne. Maybe not as almighty perfect as you, but….”

Oh no, she was losing it now. Don’t get angry, Cora had said. This man will not be bullied…..

LaTonya took a deep breath. “I just want to see my son, Dwayne.”

(more…)

25: JAMIE: Inked

e blew an extra $2 on gas to drive all the way out beyond the lake, to a roadside tattoo parlor where he’d never been before and he didn’t know anybody. He owed the three shops closer to town money, and all he had was a 20, which he hoped would be just enough to buy him a teeny tiny toad on the inside of his wrist, or hopping right on top of his bicep, somewhere he’d be able to see it and remember that little guy from the woods.

He couldn’t believe there was somebody there already, and not just anybody, but a bodacious babe, and a showcase too, with ink over much of the visible surface of her body, which was to say much of her body. Spring had sprung outside, but it was not what anyone would call hot. However, this honey was wearing cutoffs as brief as a bikini bottom and a torn-up tee shirt that barely covered her impressive though not thoroughly genuine-looking tits. She was half-reclining in the chair, her long slim legs propped up on the footrests, wiggling her knees: apart, together, apart, together.

“I still think it’s going to look hotter on the back,” said the tattoo artist, who had a long scraggly graying beard like Brad Pitt’s and was wearing a camouflage print cap, like at any minute he might drop his irons and snatch up a gun instead, run out into the woods behind the shop and shoot him some hajis.

“I want it on the front,” the girl said in a flat voice. “When someone looks at it, I want to see what’s in their eyes.”

The artist shrugged and lifted the white paper stencil onto the woman’s chest, smoothing it out. Neither of them looked up at Jamie, who wondered, for a moment, whether something with the frog had rendered him invisible. The woman had a teardrop inked on one cheek, a rose with the name Terry on her shoulder, and a swastika arrayed around her belly button. Then the tattoo guy lifted up the stencil and held up a mirror for the woman to see.

The woman, who had straight black hair, nearly Asian looking, lifted her chin and arched her back, twisting her head this way and that as if admiring a new piece of jewelry.

“Bingo,” she said.

The tattoo was of the top half of a woman’s torso: cartoonish breasts even bigger than the woman’s own, seductive shoulders, neck ending in a raggedy edge, right at the hollow at the base of the woman’s own throat.

“All right,” the tattoo guy said, revving his gun. “Lie back.”

Jamie should go. Maybe he wasn’t even here. Maybe they were so high they hadn’t noticed him. Very slowly, very carefully, he began walking backwards, feeling as if he was rewinding time.

“You want something?” the tattoo guy said, at the same moment he inked the curved line of the bottom of one of the figure’s breasts.

“Uh, it’s okay,” Jamie said.

“Sit down. I’ll be done in a while.”

Jamie gestured toward the door. “I’ll be back….”

The guy laughed, looked at the woman. “A B-back,” he said.

“Let him go.”

“Sit down,” the guy said.

(more…)