TAKE ME HOME
Excerpt from Chapter Six...
Injured in a car accident, Florida Jones is annoyed to find her fiance, Daniel, impatient, but more annoyed at her brother, Dak, who has manipulated things so that she's now dependent on Tamara, the mother who abandoned her when she was a child.
Meanwhile, her ex-lover, Stan, visiting their daughter Missouri, in the home Missouri shares with her mother and her substitute grandfather, Julius, now confined to a wheelchair, finds himself highly amused...
“But I did call,” Daniel said, his face a mask of patient reason that made her itch to smack him. “I called Dak and Alcea, who told me you were resting. I didn’t call you because I didn’t want to disturb you. And haven’t I phoned every day since then? Two, three times a day.”
Several evenings later, Florida lay marooned on her king-sized bed amid a nest of pillows and plush comforter, squares of olive brocade and scarlet silk and high thread counts, watching Daniel as he paced around her bedroom. To accommodate her aching head, the wood blinds were closed against the rays of sunset. Even with the bedside lamps on low, bronzing the teak furniture, the room was shadowed; Daniel’s pale hair was the brightest spot against the Chinese Red walls.
Following him was like watching Pac-Man bounce across a computer screen. If he didn’t sit down soon, she’d have another doozy of a headache, and the last one had just subsided. Since she’d returned home, intermittent dizziness and nausea had kept her close to her bed while the headaches came and went. Mostly went, but they stirred back up at the slightest little thing.
Like the thought that Tamara was inhabiting the room down the hall.
Even if she hadn’t been confined to her bed for the longest stretch of time she could remember since a bout of pneumonia when she was ten, just that alone was enough to lend a surreal cast to life since the accident. She hadn’t had the energy to fight Tamara’s presence.
But she had enough brain capacity to resent it like hell, no matter the arguments Alcea put forth: Julius wasn’t spry enough; her sister-in-law needed to be at the restaurant; Missouri was too young; and Dak—her treacherous sage of a brother and the root of all her evils—was racing to meet a deadline before he ran off to hide himself in a month-long publicity tour which would include pit stops on Oprah and Regis and the Today Show—la di da—before starting his annual research trip for his next book. In effect, in typical Dak fashion, he’d leave everyone else to deal with the mess (in the form of Tamara) that had started with him.
She watched Daniel continue to pace and explain and wondered if there was a man alive who didn’t forever dish up excuses. She sighed and plucked at a piece of brocade. Probably not.
And maybe, she thought grudgingly, some of their reasoning was valid. While she’d like to throw all the blame for her accident on Dak—as well as demand he replace her poor baby of a BMW that would shortly turn into a chopped-up hunk of rusting metal—she knew it was her own lead foot that had landed her here. Choices—it was all about choices. And Dak’s was to have a relationship with their mother. Just as hers was not.
So having Tamara foisted upon her was maddening.
Even though she understood the necessity. That rusting hunk of metal had eaten up any savings she might have spent on an aide to help her and Julius. Still, if Alcea ever mentioned Tamara’s name in the same sentence as she uttered godsend, Florida would bean her but good.
“Besides,” Daniel said, “You had a whole crew of people dying to help you. Addams practically moved in here.”
Suddenly she understood Daniel’s behavior. If he couldn’t be quarterback, he didn’t want to play at all. Especially if he’d been relegated to second string. But this time.. this time, he should have thought of her first and been a good little linebacker. In fact, knowing how she felt about Tamara—surely that had registered since she’d groused at every phone call—he might have suggested footing the bill for home health care. But he hadn’t. And she wouldn’t suggest it, knowing his ever-present suspicion that anyone who came close was mining for gold. His gold. She’d always been careful not to ask for more than he wanted to give, and she planned to sign the pre-nup his lawyers were preparing without a murmur.
Sometimes she wondered if she was proving to him—or to herself—that her attachment to him was about more than just money. God. She’d never been a bride before. Was there no end to the pre-wedding doubts?
Tears welled, blurring his face. She hurt, she felt useless, she was confused, she wanted Tamara out of her house, and Daniel to shut up and just hold her. Tired of slogging around in self-pity, she blinked them away, but it took a few moments before she saw clearly again. This wasn’t the first time things had briefly gone hazy, but, remembering how the knock on her head had caused her speech to slur, she didn’t panic. Dr. Fitzsimmons had said this might happen; eventually it would pass.
“I’m here now, aren’t I? Damn, Florida. I rushed through the afternoon and left work early to board my plane. Spent another hour driving in from Sedalia so I could be here mid-week. And now all you can do is bust my chops?”
Yadda yadda yadda. Daniel hadn’t noticed her tears. She watched him continue to stride around in an injured snit, and kept a tight rein on her own temper.
Sometimes Daniel acted like a spoiled child.
* * *
In Missouri’s room, next to Florida’s, Stan got up to close the door on Daniel’s ranting, wondering if the man knew how stupid he sounded.
“That happen a lot?” He poked a thumb at the door.
Sitting at a French Provincial dressing table, a recent addition to the room, Missouri twisted her hair into a knot and made a stab with a fluorescent orange hair comb. Her tongue poked out between her lips. The comb slipped and her hair tumbled over her shoulders again. She growled but started twisting again.
“Sometimes. Daniel can be such a child.”
Resuming his seat on the bed, Stan choked back a laugh, feeling glad, then guilty that he was glad about any trouble in Eden. Not that Florida didn’t deserve happiness. He’d had his with Serena and he wished her all the best, but Cordelia wouldn’t be the same with her gone. With Missouri gone, he amended.
Leaning against the headboard, he folded his arms behind his head and gave himself up to delight watching his daughter. Like every evening since Florida’s accident, he’d left work to spirit her off to supper, taking advantage of the situation to soak up the time she had left in Cordelia.
Also because was uncertain how far he could trust Tamara. Even though she belonged more to his parents' history than his, she had absconded with a chunk of their money and managed to hide for sixteen years, returning only long enough to dump her kids and spit on his father’s grave before she’d taken off again. Not exactly the stuff guardians were made of.
Although if it hadn’t been for the grace of the gods and his second wife, he wouldn’t have been much better. Through Serena, he’d gotten another chance, not just as a husband, but as a father. And this time he hadn’t screwed it all up. It was too late for him and Alcea, but he’d done his best to make Serena happy, and his utmost to involve himself with his oldest daughter, Kathleen. He’d come late to the table, but she’d learned to love him anyway before she’d moved on to college and then to the Big Apple, relegating him mostly to holidays and a weekly telephone call.
Which was as it should be; she had her own life. But now he felt Missouri slipping through his fingers as well. Way too soon.
As she took another stab at her hair, his gaze wandered her bedroom. The dressing table was a piece of feminine fluff among sturdier fare. Bunk beds hugged one wall. A bookcase crammed with a model car collection leaned against another.
From the age of four, Missouri had been Julius’s avid apprentice and was still the only female Stan knew who knew a crankcase from a camshaft. Actually, except for Julius, the only person. God knew he didn’t.
Despite ill-health and a disabled hand, Julius had continued to work up until the time he was forced to admit he needed the chair. Once he had, Missouri hadn’t been the only one to notice his increasing listlessness, but she’d been the first to jump on a solution. She’d begged money from Florida, rooted through Harvey’s Hobby House, an outpost of models, games, and trinkets just around the corner, and, after a lot of debate Stan had difficulty following, had picked out a box containing the diecast metal parts for a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible.
Julius’s eyes had lit up like Christmas when she’d put it in his hands. A new partnership had been born. With Missouri providing the sharp eyes and nimble fingers, and Julius the patience and entertainment, several evenings a week now found the two bent over the newest diecast model, each one sparking Julius’s memory into reminiscences of cars loved and lost.
His daughter was a marvel.
He wondered how Julius would survive without her. Florida seemed to be the only one who didn’t realize that no matter how much she schemed, Julius intended to stay put in Cordelia.
As he’d told Stan. “Florida’s a granddaughter to me, that girl, but, Crabbed age and youth cannot live together.” He’d waited a beat but when Stan (who only remembered Romeo and Juliet from high school) stayed silent, he’d sighed with obvious dismay at Stan’s lack of education. “Passionate Pilgrim.” Then a little later, “Besides, I don’t cotton much to that new beau of hers. Seems she’s been blinded by more flash than substance.”
Thinking of how much Julius would miss Missouri, how much he would miss Missouri, his ire at Daniel Davenport, unreasonable though it might be, increased. It’d been two years since Serena had passed, and three since his oldest daughter Kathleen had graduated and moved, but damn if he didn’t sometimes feel like life was taking away everything he loved.
Paybacks were hell.
“You don’t like my hair this way?” Missouri was watching his face in the mirror.
“I like your hair any which way.”
She rolled her eyes and went back to her primping, tongue jutting out in concentration, head tilting so she could see every angle. He smiled, a sad smile, wishing he could spend every remaining second with her until her mom up and married. But he couldn’t. He glanced at his watch. In fact, he had precisely one more hour today before business intruded.
As Serena had neared the last stage of her life, he’d realized the stark truth in that old chestnut, life is short. And he realized that, for most of his, he’d been toiling at the bank like his dad had before him and his dad had before him. Feeling like he’d been handed the family heirloom for safekeeping, it had never occurred to him to question what he was doing.
But when Serena fell sick, he questioned a lot of things. His job. Fate. God...
All while working his body and working out his anger and grief. Early mornings found him at the local Y before he joined Serena for breakfast; nighttimes when he couldn’t sleep saw him pounding the path that circled the duck pond in Memorial Park, once, twice, four times... and ultimately more circuits than he wanted to count. By the time hospice workers were haunting their home, he was running miles along the wooded, uneven trails of the surrounding Ozark hills in a futile effort to stem the unrelenting approach of a future he couldn’t control.
During those bleak hours, he’d considered his own future without his wife. The long and empty hours he’d need to fill. Some years before, he’d invested heavily in Florida and Alcea’s franchise endeavors—no cheap enterprise—rather amazed he’d done so at the time. But, pounding the pathways, he’d realized it had been a vicarious venture—he’d enviously and avidly followed their dreams instead of living his own. Before Serena had drawn her last breath, while she was still capable of encouragement, he’d given up the bank, plowed his money and efforts into planning a new business. Not long after her death, he’d opened the door on Strides, the largest fitness facility in the region and slowly becoming its best. Plans were progressing for outlets elsewhere. It had required hard work and long hours: Strides opened at dawn...
And closed at ten. And he’d told his second-in-command, a bundle of muscle named Jess, he’d handle the night deposit.
He pushed up from the bed and stretched. “I don’t have much time left, cutie, so if you still want ice cream...”
“Yes!” She twisted around. “I’m having Chocolate Death. What’ll you get?”
Missouri grimaced at the mention of the only fat-free flavor Sin-Sational offered and turned back to the mirror. “You always get that.”
Yeah, not much excitement in No-guilt Napoleon, but—he patted a flat belly that had once had the consistency of a down pillow—he had to stay in shape for the marathon. The marathon. The Kilauea Volcano Wilderness Run, a twenty-six mile test of endurance known as one of the world’s toughest.
When he’d started running, his only goal had been escape from pain; once that had dulled to a throb, he’d hunted down new challenges. First had come some local runs—to benefit the library at Cordelia High School, to raise money for St. Andrews’ outreach programs, to assist the Ladies’ Auxiliary, the Masonic Lodge, and Brownie Troop 1411. When small runs palled, he’d involved himself and finally Strides in regional efforts for the American Cancer Society.
To make a promotional splash, he’d not just entered himself. He’d planned and promoted team participation, stirring local interest, drumming up funds for charity, and increasing membership in Strides. Over the short history of his new business, his groups had joined throngs in Des Moines, Kansas City, St. Louis and had capped last year with the Chicago Charity Run.
But Kilauea was the biggest of them all and the challenge of his lifetime. Originally he’d intended to enter one of the run’s lesser counterparts, the ten-mile Rim Run or even the Kilauea Caldera run or walk, tame by comparison at a mere five. But when he’d filled out his application, he’d hesitated only a moment before checking the wilderness run.
It was time to see what he really could do.
As the date approached, despite his fitness, he wondered if he’d stretched too far. Not just because of the punishment his body would take, but because of the hit to Strides bottom line at a time when he needed capital for expansion. Travel to Hawaii wasn’t cheap, so he’d deep-discounted the cost, expecting a loss, but figuring that with the right press releases, his group could get mentions in local papers where he planned to open new outlets next year. But half-price tickets to paradise had proven irresistible. Thinking he might get a dozen participants if he was lucky, he’d lured four times that from across the state, with a loss now in the tens of thousands and counting. He’d held his breath as applicants had finally trickled to a halt, leaving him with a meager cash flow, but no need to assume more debt.
Missouri finally lost patience, wadded her hair in a knot and wrapped a band around it. “Horrid,” she pronounced.
“Nah. You always look like a princess.”
“Oh, Daddy.” Missouri shook her head.
Stan was again hit by melancholy. The roll of the eyes. The exasperated tone... The universal female expressions—ones perfected by his ex-wife, ex-mistress, and, even, on occasion, used by Serena—for the cluelessness of men. Missouri was growing up. And away.
With Daniel. Who was still grousing in the room next door.
Abruptly, Stan stalked to the door and yanked it open. “Can it!”
Rubbing his hands together in a job-well-done gesture, he turned around. Staring at him wide-eyed, Missouri clapped her hands over her mouth before laughter escaped. But her efforts were futile. A snort sounded through her fingers, and she went off into peals.
And that did it for Stan. He joined in.
And a short heartbeat later, he heard a burst of laughter from the room next door. Florida had caught the wave.
* * *
That night, for the first time since the accident, Florida fell asleep with a smile on her face. She hadn’t meant to laugh at Daniel, but the look on his face when Stan had shouted down the hallway had been... priceless. Daniel was so accustomed to issuing orders himself, the idea someone else would take umbrage at his bitching...
because it was bitching...
...had completely blown his mind.
The look on his face had combined with the sounds of hilarity coming from Missouri’s room. She’d tried to hang onto an expression of disapproval, but her lips wouldn’t stop quivering. When she’d finally let loose, Daniel had turned fire engine red. She’d managed to stop almost as fast as she’d started, but hadn’t been able to talk again without a quiver in her voice.
He’d gotten disgusted and left, muttering something about not being appreciated.
She felt rather bad, but really. Who was the injured party here?
Still, she thought, snuggling into her pillows, she’d call him in the morning, tell him she was sorry, stroke his ego and remind him of how well she stroked other things. She smiled. He’d forgive her.
But when she woke up in the morning, calling Daniel was the furthest thing from her mind. Because when she opened her eyes...
She couldn’t see.