Chapter One

Harriet stretched a slender arm sideways, grasping the bar underneath her foot.  She touched forehead to knee before whisking the leg from its perch.  Harriet retreated, leaving Bach alone with his music.  Such were the times she was at peace; on the verge of exhaustion, the ballerina ran bath water and added a touch of jasmine to the swirling water.

In the bedroom, Harriet peeled off her leotard.  She returned to the bathroom and quickly immersed herself in the foaming liquid.  Back floated into the room.  Harriet smiled and began scrubbing her skin with the soapy towel.  Now that the ballet tour was over, she would go and see about mom.  Her brother sent the text last night.

Some mothers phoned, hers contracted mysterious illnesses.  Visits from each of her children were the doses necessitated by her “illnesses.”  Harriet and her siblings loathed such visits and went reluctantly.  Guilt forced them there, maintaining its unwavering grasp on the reins of their conscience.  The adult children had been summoned to pay homage to their earthly master; the one mortal who could break their spirits.

An oppressive sense of obligation would take Harriet, Rachel and Richard into custody until they had done their duty.  Then having served their time, they would be released on parole into the world beyond their mother’s front gate.  Poor Joshua never did escape.  He still lived with her.

Harriet sighed over the uneasy, guilt laden days and sleepless nights that lay ahead.  Then she dismissed the burdensome thoughts and summoned up more pleasant ones.  A faint smile spread across her face.  Harriet thought about the previous nights’ performance.  Her mind’s eye traveled across the happy faces in the Parisian audience.

She completed her task and climbed out of the tub, wrapping herself in a bath towel before releasing the water.  Bach had already finished and lay dormant until his presence was again requested.  Harriet gazed at her reflection, attributing grace to the sharp almost gaunt face, overlooking the cloudy eyes and dark circles that had begun to show despite her deep complexion.

“Now that the show is over, I can eat a decent meal.  Not now though, I’ve got a plane to catch tonight and I haven’t even thought about packing!”

Across the ocean in a New York apartment, lay Harriet’s brother Richard listening to the sounds of traffic and pedestrians below his open window.  Darkness was absolute.  His body tensed and relaxed, fighting for control of his consciousness.  All at once, the battle ended.  Richard’s body was overcome with fatigue and he fell into a fitful sleep.

“Richard?  Richard! Where are you boy?”

“Mom, is that you?”

“Who do you think it is boy?  Get in this house.  You haven’t done a single chore!”

Richard started towards the house, staring in disbelief.  With each step, the house seemed to shift and expand, to age.  He reached the front porch and suddenly found himself before a dilapidated building.  Anxiety numbed his faculties, holding him riveted to that spot.  Richard knew that he had seen the building before but where?  Where?

“Richard, if I have to come get you, you’ll be sorry!”

“B-but mom, this isn’t our house.”

“Stop talking foolish and get in here boy!”

He lingered for a moment, stunned by a powerful foreboding brought on by the strange familiarity of the building and the situation before him.

“Get in here now!”

Her angry voice propelled him forward, through a decaying door, into the darkness beyond it.

‘Well, it’s about time!  What in the hell were you doing?  Always running off somewhere…”

Richard followed the sound of his mother’s voice, until it stopped abruptly.  The darkness suddenly contracted; pushing in on all sides like thousands of tiny hands.  Richard gasped stale air.  All at once, the sensation ceased.  He felt a presence behind him and spun around to face a woman’s shadowy figure.  Richard recognized her and the entire situation came back to him.

“Is that?  Oh no, she’s going to…nooooo!”

The memory of the gunshot woke Richard with a jolt.  As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he realized that it was just another nightmare.  Yet one hand unconsciously moved to his heaving chest.  Yes, it had only been a dream.  Richard sat up, further reassured by the shabby room.  Swinging his legs off of the rickety bed, he rose and crossed to the television.  In switching it on, Richard dislodged a stack of envelopes.

On a whim, he knelt and began studying the accumulation of mail.  Richard now made it a point to sift through the stack every few weeks, after unnoticed gas and electric bills left him without gas and electric for several days in the dead of winter.  Magazine subscription offers, contests and organizational literature ran together until something made him stop.  He glared at the all too familiar envelope and discarded it unopened.

“What does mom want now?”

In Chicago at that same moment, Rachel cast one last glance over her shoulder, reassuring herself that no one had followed her.  She quickly slipped through her front door and bolted it.  Something on the floor caught one of her high heels and flung her against the carpet.

“Ouch!  Let me find some light before I break my neck!”

Blind man’s bluff ended with her switching on an end table lamp.  The weak bulb gashed a dim hole in the middle of the room, forcing darkness against the walls.  Rachel did not need light to know that Billie Holiday was waiting in the CD player.  She strolled over and gingerly switched on friend, soul sister and emotional mediator.  Remembering her package, she stooped to retrieve it with her purse and met the sinister gaze of a rag doll.

“I could have mauled myself on that stupid thing!  How many times have I told that little imp to keep her…”

Pain tore at Rachel’s insides as rage and sorrow welled up in a violent tug-of-war.

“That no good bastard!  It’s just like that coward to snatch my baby and run off with his tail between his legs!”

Anger gave way and sorrow forced Rachel to her knees.  She knelt in silence, watching tears shower the carpet at her knees.  As the pain subsided, Rachel became aware that Billie was still with her.  She moaned, “I’m getting too old for this.  Yes, it’s time to go and see momma again.  She’ll fix everything.”

Rachel picked herself up and carried her packages to the bedroom.  She unwrapped the dress, taking a moment to caress the silky fabric.  Yes, time would stop when Rachel slipped into this little number.  Just imagining all of the jealous faces lifted her spirits.  After a train ticket and a present for her mother, this dress had taken her last dollar, but she couldn’t go home looking like something the cat dragged in could she?  Besides, those hicks in her hometown looked up to her; lived to see what they could never have or be.  Come Sunday morning, she wanted… no she had to give her mother’s congregation something to remember until the next visit.  Oh yeah, she’d knock those old hags flat!  Rachel opened her closet door, gazing lovingly at her many hats, shoes, furs, suits, dresses and slacks like Nefertiti surveying her royal treasures.  She started to pack, tossing her costly selections into an equally exorbitant suitcase.

A mirror caught Rachel’s eye and she stopped to admire her beauty.  A visit back home was just what she needed.  She would go home and let those losers feast their eyes on her.  Let them put her back up on a pedestal where she belonged.  Her smile faded as each step towards the mirror highlighted the weariness, bringing into focus the bags that hung from her tired eyes.  Once again, reality butchered her high spirits and Rachel mourned the passing.   How could he?  That bastard!  She hadn’t even wanted to marry him.  Her mother had chosen this one, arguing that he could take care of her and provide a comfortable life.  For a while, it really seemed as though it would work.  He adored her and gave her everything she asked for.

Rachel stumbled out of the room, possessed by a need to stifle pain before it consumed her.  How was she going to explain her predicament to her mother?  How could she go slinking back home with her hand out again?  She dreaded it, but she had nowhere else to go.  She had no job and no prospects.  Without her husband to pay the bills, she would lose the house.  Rachel sank onto the couch and tore open her purse.  Unsteady hands filled a needle and emptied back into a speckled arm.  Rachel closed her eyes and lay back:

Soon, Billie’s voice rose and swirled around the room, twirling about her limp body.  Rachel opened deluded eyes to gaze at the sleek couples crouched behind their tables, silently devouring each note captured by their hungry ears.  She looked up and there was Lady Day herself, bejeweled, austere, framed by the magic that poured from her shimmering lips.  The spell faded as the recording made from a record ended.  Rachel watched the audience dissipate, curling towards the ceiling like so much cigarette smoke.  Ms. Holiday gave a royal curtsey and exited through the living room wall. 

Rachel her heavy lids, listening to the recorded phonograph arm bump along empty record grooves.  Then grooves became tracks and rhythm was motion.  She was a passenger on a locomotive.  Once more, Rachel opened her watery eyes and was amazed at what she saw.  She was in a train, seated by a window, surrounded by daisies that sprung up out of the seat cushions.  A conductor strolled down the aisle, smiling genially at her.

“Ticket please.”

She looked up at him and smiled.

“Daddy?”

“Yes baby, I came back for you.  I just need your ticket.”

“But daddy, I don’t have a ticket.”

“Then you have to go back home.”

“No, take me with you daddy.”

It was already hot down in Arkansas where Joshua stood staring absent-mindedly staring at his full coffee mug.  His tired eyes sought answers which surely lie within and dissipated with the steam that rose from the scalding brew as phantoms fleeing purgatory.  Joshua surrendered with a weary sigh, after taking a vindictive sip.

“Needs more sugar.”

He reached across the counter and began transferring huge sums to his coffee, stopping just short of syrup.  This having failed to inspire, Joshua wandered back over to the kitchen table and sat in front of his laptop, glowering at the screen.  He was having a serious case of writer’s block.

“Aw hell,” he muttered.

Joshua switched off his laptop and reached consolingly for his pack of cigarettes.  A coughing jag tormented his lean body, interrupting his lack of concentration.

“These things are gonna kill me.”

As if death were as inconsequential as the stubbing of one’s toe, Joshua shrugged.  He picked up a pencil and doodled on a crumpled napkin.  His mother wouldn’t be home from the hospital for a few days and he hardly knew what to do with himself.  A knock at the door temporarily resolved his dilemma.  He went and glanced through the screen.  A smile bloomed on Joshua’s face.

“Hey man, what are you doing up this early on a Saturday morning?  I thought you’d be under somebody’s porch sleeping off last night!”

“Nah dude, when you’re in love, you don’t need sleep!”

“I know what that means.  Your old lady must want you to do something,” Joshua laughed.

“Well now that you mention it, I do need to borrow your lawn mower.”

“Knew it!  She sure keeps you jumping.”

“Can I come in or are you gonna leave me standing out here?”

“Well, if you’re waiting for an engraved invitation then you’re gonna grow old standing out there on the porch!”

Thomas lumbered past Richard grinning and sprawled on the couch.

“What you got to eat in this joint?”

“Nothing for you!”

“Aw come on dude, I’m starving.  What did you have for breakfast?”

“Coffee, cold collard greens and a hot dog.”

Thomas’ masculine face twisted in distaste.

“Now why would anyone willingly eat garbage for breakfast?  You don’t have an ulcer, you’ve got heartburn Einstein!”

Joshua laughed appreciatively, more at Thomas than the joke.  What was it about this lazy, mischievous, beautifully ugly dude that pleased him so?  Thomas was the only person on earth who could make Joshua laugh at himself and the world.  But then it had always been that way.  Whenever Joshua started taking things too seriously, felt the tide of his emotions carrying him away, Thomas was there to drag him back to shore sometimes kicking and screaming but always laughing.

“I thought you came by to borrow my lawn mower.”

“I did but I’m still hungry.  What you got sweet to eat?  Any of your mom’s pie left?”

Thomas followed Joshua into the kitchen, peering over his shoulder when he opened the refrigerator.

“Listen, how’s your mom Joshua?”

“Fine, she’ll be home in a few days.”

“What was wrong with her.”

“They’re not sure.  They want to run a few more tests and keep her under observation for a while.”

“Oh…hey, isn’t that a slice of pie over behind the peas?”

“It sure is.  Here you go.”

Joshua retrieved the dish and handed it to his friend.

“Grab that milk Josh.  I can’t eat pie without milk.  Hey, tell your mom I hope she’s back on her feet soon.”

Joshua leaned against the kitchen counter, watching Thomas finish off the pie quickly with big bites.  He gulped down the rest of the milk and put his dishes in the sink.

“Nine o’clock already!  I’ve gotta get going.  Is the mower still out in the garage?”

Joshua nodded and watched Thomas move to the back door.

“So why does her highness want you to mow her lawn?  Where are her brothers?”

“Otherwise occupied and she’s having a dinner party tonight.”

“It’s at night?  Nobody’s gonna notice her lawn in the dark!”

“I know, but you know how she is; gotta have everything just so.”

Joshua shook his head over the invisible leash which seemed to grow shorter every day.  It was times like this which made him thankful that he wasn’t in a “serious” relationship.  Joshua sat on the back porch and waited for Thomas to emerge from the garage.  Come to think of it, he had never been in a steady relationship.  Joshua was always much to shy to approach girls in high school and college.  Even now, he only went on dates as favors to friends whose girlfriends had homely friends.   Besides, the few times he started dating, his mother ran the women off with fire and brimstone lectures about sinful flesh.  No one was ever morally wholesome enough for her son.  Joshua was lost in thought and did not see Thomas emerge from the garage.  His friend’s voice startled him.

“Well, I’m gonna take off.  I’ll bring your mower back tomorrow.”

“Huh?  Oh, alright man.  I’ll catch you later.”

Thomas waved and pushed the mower to his car.  Joshua watched his friend’s lopsided grin disappear around the side of the house.  The sun fell from his mental horizon and an all too familiar pang returned to nudge at his stomach.  Joshua knew it would be weeks before he saw or heard from Thomas again.  Since meeting Nicole, two years ago, she had wormed her way into more and more of his life; consuming his time like a tapeworm.  It wouldn’t be long before that woman figured out how to sever all his old ties.

Nicole was a highfalutin’ wannabe who worked hard at forgetting where she had come from.  She also didn’t seem to recall scheming her way into the good life by charming and manipulating the terminal patients she provided care to as a nurse and somehow getting many of them to sign over their assets to her.  Of course, she and her crowd told a different story.  Joshua rubbed his eyes, retrieved a cigarette from behind his left ear and lit it with the lighter he always kept in his pocket.  He sighed, thinking about an imminent deadline for his latest article.  Time to get busy.