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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Shelter: First 3 Chapters

My readers have called it suspenseful and steamy, and you can read the first three chapters right now, for free.





Prologue

 

It should have been raining. Or snowing. Sleeting. It should have at least been overcast. But instead the sun sliced down through a crisp wedge of blue, cloudless sky and laughed as the swaying willow limbs threw its dappled light across the grass, and over the coffin.

            Alma didn’t see much of the proceedings. Her world had been a blur since the phone call, clarity returning in fits and starts that left her breathless. Wild collages of the past three days would bombard her senses: the phone falling out of her hand, the glass breaking as it hit the tile, her mother’s arms around her, the insanely shrill sound of her own screams punching through the night, the empty other half of her bed, the casseroles, sad smiles, hugs and shoulder slugs, well wishes, condolences, coffin catalogues, the funeral home smell, his wedding ring coming back to her in a clear plastic sleeve from the hospital…

            And now it was all down to this: A beautiful mahogany coffin the same color as her hair with a bundle of red roses and baby’s breath across the smooth lid. The headstone was lovely – polished black granite with laser script.

            Samuel James Morales

1982- 2012

He’d only been thirty. And she was twenty-four. And a widow.

On a clear, sunny autumn day, just like this one, Alma had been kneading homemade dough into a nice round ball, sprinkling flour over it and humming along to the radio because Sam had a craving for pizza, he’d told her so over the phone that morning. There had been a smile to his voice when he’d said, “I miss you, baby, but I’ll be back tonight.” Only it hadn’t been Sam who’d knocked softly on her door that night. It had been his cousin, Carlos, wringing his stocking cap in his hands and shaking his head, hardly able to say the words to her.

Alma lifted her head, eyes skipping up over the coffin and to the other side of the gathered crowd. All the people present were her family. Carlos had been Sam’s only living relative and she found him standing alone, hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans, his big brown eyes looking red-rimmed as they snapped up and locked onto hers. Like he’d sensed that she was watching him.

His face wavered and she knew it was because tears were pouring from her eyes, ruining her makeup. Her mother, Diane, tightened her arm around her waist.

“It’s okay, sweetheart.”

But it wasn’t. And Carlos knew that. He tilted his head back as the pastor began his recitation and over the proud ridge of his nose, Alma could see the unshed tears in his eyes, the overwhelming grief that was second only to hers. It was comforting, if anything could be considered a comfort at this point. Sam had been her whole existence, and even if her family was only grieving for her, Carlos grieved for her husband too. They were alone in that, bound together in this hell that swirled around them.

Or maybe that was her love and imagination getting the best of her again. Because she wasn’t sure anyone could feel so broken, so sawed in half, as she did now. She rested her head against her mom’s shoulder and closed her eyes, letting the tears push out logic and awareness, until she was trapped in her own body, with all her howling grief, her world shattered into a million, glittering, sharp pieces.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

1

 

The dream was always the same. Carlos was in the stairwell of that Godforsaken warehouse and Sam was in front of him: his cousin the tall one, the brave one, the one who got things done. As if in slow motion, a man came floating down the stairs from above them. Carlos saw him only a moment before the crack of the gun echoed through the stairwell, and then Sam was collapsing.

Only this time, when he tore his own shirt off over his head and pressed it to his cousin’s wound, Sam’s bleeding stopped. And the light didn’t slowly fade from his eyes. He didn’t tell him in a choked voice to look after his girl. It was okay, Sam was going to live, it was all going to be fine…

And then like always, Carlos went jacking upright in bed. He was sweaty, the sheets clung to his damp skin, and he was breathing in huge inhalations that shook his whole body. His hands trembled and the true scene played out behind his open eyes: Sam dying in his arms, his blood spreading out in a red, unstoppable tide across the cold concrete floor.

“Damn,” he groaned against his hands as he rubbed them across his face.

When he’d stopped quaking, he clicked on his bedside lamp and dug a pack of smokes and a lighter out of his nightstand. The first sweet draw of nicotine calmed him further and he was able to take stock of his bedroom.

The place was in a shambles. Clothes – clean, dirty, or neither – were thrown all over, hanging onto his chair and his desk like clinging vegetation. Moss or some shit. Food wrappers. Dirty paper plates. There was a musty smell of sweat and stale beer hanging in the air. His blinds were cracked and through them he could see a heavy rain falling. Thunder rumbled overhead and the storm was confirmed. It seemed like it had rained off and on constantly since the funeral three weeks before.

Sam had felt more like a brother than a cousin. Sam’s mother Nadia had raised Carlos from the time he was thirteen up until she’d lost her battle with cancer two years prior. If that loss had been crushing, losing Sam on top of it was absolute devastation. So much so that he’d been unable to do the one thing Sam had asked of him.

He had to go see Alma today, he just had to. He’d avoided it for too long and his guilt was starting to outweigh his grief.

With one last drag on his smoke, he stubbed it out in the overflowing glass ashtray on the nightstand and pushed himself out of bed. It was after eleven – he had such trouble falling asleep that he always overslept his alarm. But with this rain, he didn’t have to show up for his fulltime job and he had hours until he had to be at the bar, so he headed for the shower, plucking what he hoped were clean clothes up off the floor as he went.

Alma, her name flashed across his mind as he leaned into the shower and cut on the taps, cranking the hot water all the way on with just a trickle of cold to keep from scalding himself. He shrugged out of his wifebeater and boxers in front of the medicine cabinet mirror and pulled up a mental image of his dead cousin’s wife.

Slim but shapely, with long, silky dark hair, Alma Harris – now Morales – had always been a vision of classic beauty that nonetheless had inspired countless raunchy dreams. At least for him. He guessed Sam had never had to dream since he’d had the real thing in his bed every night.

“Dumbass,” he muttered to himself, stepping into the shower.

**

It was dark where she was.  Warm.  The surface upon which she rested soft and smooth.  The bed.  Their bed.  The place where she slipped naked between the sheets because he was already waiting; where his mouth found all the most sensitive, tender little places on her body; where she gave all of herself up as their bodies melded to one; and where afterward, he let her sleep curled up at his side.  The bed smelled of them…of him…the sheets cool but the covers fighting off the chill of the approaching dawn.  It was their haven; a place where age and time and the baggage of the past ceased to exist.  Here it was just them, together, and there was no limit, no boundary that marked anything as too intimate.

Alma loved it here, in their bed. Eyelids still too heavy to lift as sleep slowly left her, she stirred, kicked drowsily through the bedclothes.  She still clung to a scrap of a dream, not quite ready for the day, holding off awareness.  She reached across the bed and was met with empty, soft sheets.  Sam must have hit the shower early.  He no doubt had another job on the roster; he’d been home with her for weeks, the two of them wallowing in the house, their house, and Sean no doubt wanted him on the road again.

Alma smiled to herself.  She should join him.  He would put her hands over her head on the wet tile and the water would cascade down his lean, rippling, tattooed body.  Her personal sex god: a dark, mean-faced Adonis who devoured her with his eyes while he took her under the hot jets of water.

She stirred at the thought, heat rising in her cheeks, need tightening deep at the pit of her stomach.  God, how she loved him.  And wanted him.  Sam was her everything, her one and only.  As long as she had Sam, she didn’t need anyone or anything else.  She burrowed her nose into the pillow, breathing deeply the combined smells of his cologne and skin. She wanted to go find him in the shower, peel back the curtain and climb in behind him, pass her hands up the ink work snake on his back, sliding over the sinewy, soaped skin.  But she wanted to lay here and dream about him also.

The decision was made for her when a sound like cannon fire reverberated throughout the house.

Alma startled awake, eyes flying open, gasping at the deep, booming sound.  She clutched the sheet up across her naked chest, eyes going to the window.  Rather than the deep, blackest dark of coming dawn, she saw the lead gray of an afternoon storm sky.  Lightning ripped in jagged bolts low beneath the hanging clouds.  Rain lashed the house, rattled against the glass and drummed heavily up on the roof.  The scrawny, unkempt trees outside the window doubled over against the wind and scraped the panes.  It was storming.  A glance at the bedside clock revealed that it was twelve o’clock in the afternoon.  And as she passed a hand over her breasts, she remembered that she wasn’t naked, but wearing one of Sam’s old shirts. 

A ferocious bolt turned the gray afternoon to the white-hot surface of the sun, the flash washing the bedroom, branding the backs of her eyes with its echoes.  And just as it tore open the afternoon, it permeated the drowsy fog in her head, splitting open her memory, the disassembled bits of grief falling like the rain above.

It all came back to her: One of Sam’s rare, white smiles splitting his hard face as he’d walked out the door that morning. Sean’s broken voice over the phone. Fainting in the funeral home. The long asphalt drive, the roses, the voices, the sorrys, the kisses on her cheek and pats on her hand.

She remembered now. Three weeks ago…three weeks…Sam had…

She was going to vomit.

In a sudden flurry of movement, Alma tried to leap from her bed, their bed, her legs getting tangled in the sheets. She stumbled, went down hard on the carpet on her hands and knees. And bile was rising quickly in her throat by the time she finally staggered into the bathroom. She couldn’t make it to the toilet, instead curled over the sink, holding her own hair back as she retched. She hadn’t eaten in days, and it was only yellow bile and clear, bubbled saliva that she coughed up into the basin. She rinsed it away quickly, cupping water in her hand and bringing it to her mouth, splashing her face too. Afterward, when she shut off the tap, she glanced up at her white, dripping face in the mirror. She looked like a zombie: dark circles under her eyes, cheeks gaunt. Her hair was a limp, dirty, stringy mess around her shoulders. She looked terrible and couldn’t be bothered to care.

Because Sam was dead, and he was never coming home, and she didn’t know what she was supposed to do without him.

“Oh,” she didn’t recognize her own broken voice as she slowly shifted around so she was sitting on the closed toilet lid. Sleep was killing her, bringing with it countless memories of the past, making her believe that he was still alive, only to be crushed each time she awoke. Her relatives had given up, one by one. Her mother still came to visit every day, but she was no longer hopeful, just resolute as she fixed her food she refused to eat and tried to comb the snarls from her hair. No one had loved Sam, not the way she had, and she wasn’t even sure they’d love his legacy.

She pressed a weak, trembling hand over her belly and imagined she could feel the baby growing inside, even though it was a scant eight weeks since conception. Sam hadn’t even known. He hadn’t wanted children, but she suspected he wouldn’t have turned away from his own.

“I want a baby,” she whispered, flattening her palms down over his naked chest, burrowing closer to him through the sheets.

His frown was for show, but it put harsh lines at the corners of his mouth. “What do you need with a baby? Huh? Ain’t you busy enough already?” And he palmed her ass under the covers, making her laugh, getting her to lean even closer so he could kiss her.

How had this happened? She’d been in love with him for as long as she could remember.

The Morales cousins who’d performed odd jobs for her father had always been looked down upon by the Harris family, but only Sam had been dangerous, the younger Carlos just did what his big cousin did, always tagging along.

Alma had been eleven when she’d known, when the then seventeen-year-old Sam had pulled her out of the lake after that ridiculous daredevil high dive off the edge of Reaper’s Rock. Dripping wet and poised above her, shaking her, asking if she was still alive, she’d fallen so perfectly in love with him that the next thirteen years hadn’t done a thing to dim her feelings. He’d been a hard man, a guarded man, who didn’t let many people in, and who had admitted, when she was seventeen and kneading the lean, rope-like muscles in his arms that he felt guilty about wanting her the way he did. But that hadn’t changed anything.

She’d had only seven years to actually be with him, only three years of marriage. And now he was gone.

“My pretty little girl,” he’d called her and had brushed the long lengths of her dark hair back with rough fingers. And he’d kissed her until liquid fire pulsed through her veins.

Alma shut her eyes and let the tears fall, holding herself tight around the middle, and rocked back and forth on the toilet lid, sobbing loudly because there was no one around to hear her.

She didn’t know how long she stayed there, the storm raging around the little house, but she was eventually roused by a loud knock. And then another. Someone was at her front door.

On shaky legs, Alma stood and dabbed a bit of toothpaste on her finger, rubbed it along the fronts of her teeth and then rinsed her mouth again. The knock repeated and she headed toward the door, knowing there was nothing to do about her shabby wardrobe or disastrous hair.

The house was still fairly tidy, but a thin layer of dust coated everything. And the kitchen counters were heaped with casserole dishes that needed to be put back in their insulated zippered pouches and taken back to the various sympathizers. Diane had been forced to dump most of the food down the disposal because Alma could bring herself to eat very little.

Through the gray haze of the stormy afternoon, she saw a shadow of a man on the other side of the sidelights that flanked the door. She rapped on the glass to catch his attention, anxiety tightening up her stomach, until his face, framed by the hood of his sweatshirt, turned to the window.

It was Carlos.

She unlocked the door and waved him in, a stiff blast of rain-soaked wind following him before she could close it again. Any opportunity for pleasantries and may-I-come-in had been lost to the storm, and now Carlos Morales stood dripping onto the carpet of her modest entry hall, already shrugging out of the zip-up sweatshirt that appeared to be the wettest of his clothes.

“Here,” she took it from him and crossed to the kitchen, hanging it off the back of a chair where it could drip unhindered.

“Thanks.”

Alma turned around and found that he’d followed her and now stood propped in the doorway. Carlos was a little shorter than his cousin Sam had been, but a little wider in the shoulders. His muscles were thick bundled pads that filled out his clothes as opposed to the stark, lean cuts of Sam’s arms and torso. “Beefcake” Alma’s friend Caroline had always called him. He was in a plain black t-shirt and dark, loose-fitting low rider jeans today. Clean white sneakers. He looked only distantly related to his cousin in the face; his nose more pronounced, his eyes larger, wider, kinder. He kept his hair buzzed close to his skull and when he smiled, though he wasn’t doing so now, it was huge and dazzlingly white; it lit up the whole room. Today he was somber though. He shoved his hands in his pockets and his muscled shoulders sagged as he met her gaze with unwavering sincerity.

“Hey, Alma.”

She twitched a tiny smile she didn’t feel. “Hey.”

“You doin’ okay? I meant to come by earlier but I just never…”

“I’m okay,” she lied and the way he swallowed, adam’s apple bobbing along his thick neck told her he knew it.

Lightning cracked open the sky, the thunder chasing so close it sounded like it had borne the streak of light and not the other way around. Alma jumped reflexively and then sighed at her own jangled nerves. “Sorry,” she said, shaking her head.

Carlos took a step into the room and she wasn’t so out of it that she couldn’t see his hesitation, the way his foot hovered a moment like he wanted to take a few more steps and close the distance between them. But he hung back, hands now dangling by his sides. “You,” he paused and wet his lips. His eyes bounced around the room and then came back to her, head tilted back like he was now having a hard time looking at her. “You don’t have to apologize to me of all people.”

She clamped her eyes shut before the tears could get kick-started again. So much of her wanted to stop feeling the way she did, even as she recognized that it might not be possible to ever be happy again. But another part of her wanted to let loose because with Carlos, there would be no need to explain how much Sam had meant to her: he just knew. She opened her eyes, batting at the moisture in them, trembling self-control becoming more unsteady as she watched grief twist his handsome, friendly face into one she didn’t recognize. He was a man lost, and still looked like he struggled with whether to come closer or keep his distance.

“Alma, I didn’t mean to make you…I’m sorry, it’s just I thought…I was worried about you.” He swallowed again around the obvious lump in his throat and she lost the battle.

Alma curled in on herself, arms around her midsection, and cried.

Strong arms wrapped around her and she let herself use them for support, pressing her cheek against the chest that was now in front of it. She slipped her arms around Carlos’s waist and returned his squeeze, unable to check the sobs that wracked through her. He was masculine and warm and smelled like clean soap, the soft brush of his shirt against her face the most comfort she’d felt since this whole thing had started.

This whole thing…like it was a singular event she’d be able to eventually get around. A hard time that would come to an end. That was how her family viewed it. But it wasn’t like that at all. It was a blow from which she could never recover; she’d lost a part of herself, it had been laid to rest in the coffin with Sam’s cold, lifeless body.

But Carlos was not cold and was not lifeless. He hugged her hard, his chin resting on the top of her head and his hand rubbing soothingly up her back. He didn’t say anything – he knew there was nothing he could say – just shushed her quietly like she was a baby and rocked her side to side.

“I’m sorry. I know, babe, I’m so sorry,” he said in a loop, repeating the phrases over and over.

 

**

 

“You don’t have to do this.”

“It’s no trouble,” Alma insisted.

Once she’d managed to wrangle her emotions into a suitable level of display, she’d pulled away from Carlos and had blotted her face with a paper towel while he looked on guiltily. Now she was pulling casseroles from the fridge and dipping him up a plate. Having something to do was good for her fried nerves, she found, as she covered the dish and popped it in the microwave.

She could only stay busy for so long though, she was realizing, as she turned around and leaned back against the counter, the buzz of the microwave the only thing disturbing the heavy silence between them. Carlos had obviously been staring at her because he whipped his head away, staring through the glass-paned back door and fiddling with the salt and pepper shakers on the table in a vain attempt to appear like he hadn’t been looking at her. She shocked herself by admiring him a moment.

His features were perfectly imperfect – the big brown eyes and roman nose – he was no male model by any stretch. But was masculine, buff and bulky, boyish at times, dead serious at others. He had Sam’s tan skin and prominent spiderweb of veins running along his arms like ropes. It was oddly comforting to look at him and find the same things attractive in him that she had in her late husband – a reminder of the vibrant, vital life that Sam had been.

Just as quickly, though, she acknowledged that it was Carlos and not his cousin, and then sadness descended again, heavy like a lead apron.

“I’m glad you came by,” she said. “I was starting to worry about you.”

He shot a glance her way, his smile ironic. “Worried about me? That’s a little backward, sweetheart.”

She returned his smile, but could feel her lips quivering. “You loved him too though.”

Carlos nodded and looked away again. His laugh was hollow. “’Bout half as much as you did.”

Alma felt her smile become brittle, and then fall away completely. She turned around and busied herself with removing his plate from the microwave and sliding an oven mitt beneath it so her countertop and hands wouldn’t get scorched. The distraction didn’t help though, and she felt tears threatening again. No! You cannot cry in front of him again!

When she turned around, she had managed to regain some semblance of composure, and even tried to force a smile when she set the plateful of reheated casseroles in front of him. Carlos lifted his fork and poked at a loose craisin in the cornbread stuffing, but didn’t dig in right away.

“It looks a little gross, I know,” she said in apology, taking the seat beside him, “but it tastes good. That’s mom’s stuffing and, well…” she felt choked up again “…please eat. I can’t and there’s just all this food…”

Weak, she called herself. She could see her mother’s face before her, her wide lips puckered in a frown, could feel her gently touch her on her brow. Diane had never liked Sam very much, but she still grieved for her daughter’s loss. Had still held her hand. Even though she thought she was weak. Alma knew the time was coming when the consoling would end and the ridicule would begin.

Carlos nudged the plate toward her. “Maybe you should try,” his eyes moved over her. “You’re losing a lot of weight, Alma.”

“I can’t keep anything down.”

“Well maybe -,”

For the first time since the funeral, something besides sadness flooded her system. Sam had always been the object of her affection, but Carlos had always been the one trying to mother her, take care of her. An old stab of anger spiked inside her. “I can’t,” her tone was sharp. “I told you.”

She waited for it, and it came, that big-eyed look of his that spoke of her youth and impetuousness, how he felt bad for her and wanted to save her from herself. She tried to move her hand off the table and his big, tan, callused and vein-laced one dropped on top of hers, keeping her still. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but -,”

“I’m pregnant,” she blurted, and his mouth snapped shut, teeth clicking together. “I have morning sickness and that’s why I can’t eat.”

The clock on the wall ticked. Thunder rumbled overhead. When he released her, she stood on shaky legs and went into the next room, hostess duty forgotten. She didn’t collapse onto the battered old sectional sofa, but perched on its edge, facing the window so she could watch the rainwater slide down the glass. Lightning flickered in the distance.

“Alma.” Carlos had come to the threshold and she refused to look at him. He shouldn’t have made her admit that. She hadn’t even told her parents yet, she hadn’t wanted him to be the first to know. “Babe.”

“Don’t call me that please,” she bit out, clenching her hands together.

He was silent a moment and she could imagine the muscles in his arm bunching up as he scratched the top of his head in one of his familiar gestures. “Why not?”

“Because it makes me want things I can’t have.”

He lingered a moment longer, and then she heard the door open, the pounding of rain intensifying, then it was shut again and he was gone.

She didn’t cry this time. Just watched the rain.

 


 

 

 

 

 

2

 

Diane Harris had been a pageant queen in her hay day, and Alma supposed she had her mother to thank for her looks, but she didn’t find much comfort in the shiny, plastic exterior the woman had developed at an early age. Everything was always “quite alright” and Southern charm was Diane’s utmost concern at all times: all the appropriate laughs and gestures and smiles.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t being fair to her as a mother and PTA hostess, the warm hands that had braided her hair as a little girl and the moist, lipsticked kisses that had chased her hurts away. But as she adjusted her bag on her shoulder and followed her mom through Macy’s, the whole outing had the air of torture about it.

“Ooh, these are pretty!” Diane gingerly lifted a white-on-white piece of china embellished with raised grapevine detail. “Isn’t it?” She thrust it beneath Alma’s nose.

“Very pretty,” she agreed, taking a step back. In truth, her head hurt, her stomach was empty, angry and growling, and the overhead fluorescents were reflecting off the dish with a blinding glare. She supposed the outing was her fault though. It had been two weeks since Carlos had visited and after that, keeping the pregnancy a secret had become impossible. Onward and upward, she’d resolved, throwing herself back into life in order to stop thinking about Sam’s death.

It wasn’t working, though, and today was proving to be another day of being comatose on the inside, pale and drawn on the outside, and completely at her mother’s mercy.

Diane regarded the plate a moment later and then set it back in its rack. “Some other time, though. You need a proper set of china but right now, we need to get to the baby department.”

“Mom, I’m only ten weeks along,” she felt a tremor of fear in her voice. She followed Diane as she took off in a new direction, crystal vases and hundreds of dinnerware displays fracturing the light into a million diamond shimmers, shoppers bustling around them with big smiles and fat bags full of purchases. With only a month to go until Thanksgiving, the good people of the metro Atlanta area were already Christmas shopping in earnest, and the mall was full to bursting. “Mom…” but it was no use, so she plunged ahead, bottling up her worries. If she could plow through work and sleep and nibble at mealtimes without Sam, what was one more thing?

Across the white tiles through bedding and bath, up the escalator, the baby goods department was an explosion of powder blue and princess pink. There was a big display of wooden blocks and pastel stuffed animals at the entrance to the department, an electric train chugging laps around the vignette. Racks and racks of everything baby-related aside from diapers and wipes stretched before them, and while Diane beamed, Alma couldn’t even scrounge up a smile.

“Mom,” she tried again, hooking her hand through her mother’s elbow. “I think this is a little premature, don’t you?”

“It never hurts to look,” Diane patted her hand. “And it might cheer you up.”

She let herself be towed over to the fully-assembled cribs: black and white and natural wood with blue, pink, yellow or green dust ruffles and little lace pillows. Mobiles of cars and ponies dangling over them. Alma passed her hand along the smooth, lacquered black rail of a crib with the most ornate, carved rails and tried to imagine a squirming pink baby nestled in the blue bunting. It made her want to vomit. She pressed her hand over her belly and forced herself to take a deep breath, and then another.

It didn’t seem real to her. She’d been to the doctor, Diane watching over the exam and chatting with Dr. Laramie, asking all the appropriate questions Alma had been too numb to think of. She remembered the prick of the needle when they’d drawn her blood. The cartoon ducks on the nurse’s scrubs. And the kind smile on the doctor’s face when he asked her about the “child’s father”. “He’s dead,” she’d told him woodenly. “And he didn’t even know I was pregnant.”

That had enraged Diane. She’d taken a firm hold of Alma’s arm as they’d left the office. “You can’t go around just telling people that, Alma! Have a little class.”

But she didn’t, did she? Or she never would have been with Sam Morales in the first place.

It was suddenly much too warm in the store. She could feel tiny beads of perspiration sliding down her spine beneath her sweater. Sam…if Sam were here he’d hate all the frills and lace. Would make faces at the mere notion of baby shopping. Sam…he’d put his hand over her belly though. He’d be proud, even if he hadn’t asked for it, he would have smiled that white smile that looked like his cousin’s.

“I have to get out of here,” she mumbled. Bile rose in her throat and she swallowed it down with a gasp. “Mom, I have to -,” she didn’t finish, instead lurched away from the crib and broke into a jog, breathing in ragged gasps as she rushed for the door that would lead out into the mall parking lot and away from the dreaded baby section.

“Alma!” Diane’s heels clipped along after her.

Shoppers leapt out of her way, but one lady wasn’t quick enough and Alma knocked their shoulders together in her haste, making the woman drop her bag.

“Hey!”

“I’m sorry,” she heard her mother apologize for her, but she kept going.

There were the registers, the promotional posters, the mannequins in the windows, and then she was free, bursting through the glass doors and out into the weak, late afternoon sunshine. She pitched forward at the waist, hands on her knees, sucking in air and trying to suppress her gag reflex. Sam…what was she going to do without Sam? How could she be here alive and carrying his baby and he was…was…

She was sobbing before she knew she was, not recognizing the pained, jagged sounds as coming from her own throat. Her tears pattered the sidewalk like rain, dripped off the end of her nose.

A hand settled on her back and she knew it was her mother before Diane was pulling her gently upright again. An arm slid around her waist and urged her away from the door over to a bench. “It’s okay, baby. I’m sorry. It was too soon. Shhh, you’re alright.”

But it wasn’t alright, and apparently that was all anyone could say to her. It stiffened her resolve some, enough that she was able to suck in her emotions until she was left with only tear-stained hiccups as she eased down onto the bench next to her mom. She’d been soothed so many times now that it felt empty. Ineffectual. If that was the best anyone could offer her, she supposed she’d have to get things squared away herself.

“I hate this,” she said on a sniffle.

“I know you do, baby.” Diane coaxed her head down so it rested on her shoulder and she stroked her hair like she had when she’d been a little girl. “It’s not fair that a sweet girl like you should have to go through this.”

“It’s not about me going through this. It’s about…Sam not deserving to…to go like that.”

Diane sighed and she knew it foretold another of those you-chose-this-life chats that only made her feel guilty. But she held off, just stroked her hair some more. “I wish I had an answer for you. I really do.”

She might not, but Alma knew someone who did.

**

Carlos had been tending bar at Flannery’s for four years. It had become his one constant gig; a steady source of income amongst the odd contracting jobs he landed here and there. Rather than some of the bars closer in to the city, Flannery’s had a seedier crowd than the college kids and club-hoppers who ventured downtown. Truckers, locals, constructions workers, biker-types and a small smattering of couples packed the place Friday through Sunday nights. And though slower during the week, there was always traffic. Always plenty of thirsty mouths in need of a fix.

The bar itself was a long rectangle in the middle of the floor, free floating with stools ringing it and tables spread across the floor. They had a game room in the back where poker and pool leagues had standing reservations each week. A jukebox, tiny dance floor, all of it sticky, grungy, dark and smoky. The water even tasted a little funny coming out of the taps. And Carlos was pretty sure something – or someone – had died in the men’s restroom judging by the stink.

Tonight was busy: the typical Saturday crowd swelling and swaying like a school of fish. There were peanut shells everywhere and the girls were complaining about customers playing grab-ass. The cigar smoke was thick enough to choke him and he’d coughed into his shoulder several times to the slight disgust of the customers at the bar.

He was pouring a flirtatious blonde another gin and tonic, wondering how serious she was about the winks and smiles she kept giving him, when he glanced up across the dance floor and saw her.

Alma Morales – just thinking her last name and knowing he shared it sent a jolt through him – looked like a ghost, her skin almost iridescent in the dim bar. She was so out of place, looked like some wilting flower amidst the tropical birds strutting around the dance floor – but she was somehow twice as stunning. She was in a fitted grey sweater with the hood pulled up, dark hair fanning around her shoulders. Tighter-than-tight jeans. I’m pregnant, her words came back to him. She wouldn’t be able to wear them much longer.

“Are you serious?”

He glanced down and realized that he’d over-poured the blonde’s glass and there was now G & T running off the bar into the lap of her mini skirt. “Shit, I’m sorry,” he leaned forward with a handful of cocktail napkins but she took them from him, dabbing at the spill herself.

“Think you’ve done enough for one night, honey.”

“I’m so sorry,” he apologized again, but was already looking at Alma, watching her move through the crowd toward him. He had no idea how he’d get away – there was a customer in every stool – but he knew that whatever had brought his cousin’s widow to the bar was important. And he had to talk to her. He kept replaying their last interaction in his head, imagined her sitting on the sofa like a broken doll, staring at the rain. I’m pregnant.

“Hey, Joe, can you cover me? I’m gonna take a smoke break.”

His co-worker grumbled, but nodded, sliding into his vacated spot in front of the taps.

Alma was waiting for him, hovering like a lost lamb at the edge of the dance floor, arms around her midsection like they had been a couple weeks ago. Subconsciously protecting the baby, he supposed with an odd tingling sensation in his stomach. She was still half a child herself, so imagining her with a baby in her arms was strange.

“You alright?” he ghosted a hand against the small of her back and leaned down low so she could hear him.

The eyes she turned up to his were startlingly clear; a deep, ocher color. “Can we talk?”

He took her outside and let his hand linger above her belt, guiding her around the side of the building to the outdoor party deck that was closed for the oncoming winter. Carlos held the gate open for her and then pulled two of the plastic chairs from the stack up against the wall and dragged them to the rail. Alma was silent the whole time, a carefully still expression making her face unreadable. He took note of the slow way she eased down into the seat, how the cool October breeze tugged at her hair. He started to dig a cigarette from the pack in his pocket, but nixed the idea when he remembered the baby, instead, clasped his hands loosely together and rested his forearms on his knees, turning toward Alma.

“What’d you wanna talk about?”

She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth: her first display of emotion. She looked so young – she was young, he forgot sometimes, but that was impossible now. Now he had the sudden urge to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I’ve…I’ve been wanting to ask since that day, but just couldn’t bring myself to.”

Dread fell like a stone in his belly.

“When Sam…when he, um…”

“We don’t need to do this,” he urged, hating that she was bringing up the inevitable, that she was even strong enough to want to discuss it beyond what the police had told her.

“We do. I mean, I do. I need to know, Carlos,” she turned toward him, her brown eyes wide and pleading. “My husband was shot, and I just need to know how that could have even happened.”

He released his breath in a rush. “It was a drive-by,” he lied, hating himself for doing so. He was murdered at point blank range, he didn’t tell her. One of Sean’s buyers in a goddamn mask put a bullet in his chest. And I was right there, it could have just as easily been me, but it was your Sam. I had his blood all over my hands, but I couldn’t save him. “A freak accident downtown,” he kept lying, throat feeling tight. “You heard what the police said.”

“They said he was shot. They didn’t say how.”

Carlos knew how: he relived it a thousand times a day, every day, saw it in his sleep. The mask-covered, featureless face of the shooter was etched in his memory. He woke from his endless nightmares with the echo of the shot ringing in his head. Some mornings he even patted down his chest to make sure there wasn’t a hole in his skin, that there wasn’t blood gushing down into his lap like there had been with Sam. God, there had been so much blood, rivers of it, all over his hands. He’d bundled up the clothes he’d worn that night, stuffed them in a garbage bag and left them in the deep dark recesses of his closet, too afraid to burn them or throw them out.

            Afraid. The word made his toes curl. He’d never considered himself a pussy, not before Sam had died on the floor, coughing his last unintelligible words through bloody lips, red droplets spraying onto his face.

“You’re a smart girl,” he was shocked by how hard his voice sounded. “You know what happens when someone gets shot. Spelling it all out for you won’t make either of us feel any better.”

Her brows pulled together, mouth twisting in that stubborn look of hers he knew so well. “I’m not a child.”

“No. You’re a grieving widow. Who doesn’t want the bloody details.” He shook his head and glanced away, out across the dark wall of the neighboring building. “I don’t know anyway,” he lied some more.

He could hear the soft rustle of her hair as a strong gust of wind snatched it over her shoulder. He thought he felt the very ends of it tickling against his arm. She had the softest hair…

“I want answers,” she said. “I just wanna know why…” she slapped her thighs in a helpless gesture. “Why this could happen. I’m so fucking angry.”

Didn’t grief happen in stages? Hadn’t he heard that? “I know,” he soothed, no longer able to resist the urge to push her hair back. He smoothed it along the crown of her head with his whole hand, as gently as if her were stroking a baby bird. “Shit happens that we can’t control,” it was a piss-poor justification, but it was all he had. “Awful, terrible shit.”

She made an amused snorting sound. “Mom wants me to ‘pray about it’. She’s tried to drag me to church. She took me crib shopping today -,”

“She what?” Carlos leaned forward in his chair. Diane Harris had never liked him much, and he didn’t blame her – her attitude had always been the product of his and Sam’s proximity to Alma. She was a hardass, sure, and maybe too superficial for his tastes, but taking Alma out baby shopping with her man five weeks in the ground? That bordered on cruelty.

“You know my mom,” she dismissed with a wave. But her voice quavered. He had no doubt that the shopping trip had not ended well, and that it was the exact reason she’d sought him out on a work night, looking for ‘answers’ he wasn’t willing to give her.

“I’m sorry,” she stood up suddenly, her chair screeching back across the concrete patio.

She moved fast, but Carlos was just that much faster, snagging her wrist before she could go dashing away. “Hey.” Her hair fanned out around her when she whirled in his direction. “It’s fine. You don’t have to run off.”

Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. He wondered if she’d ever stop being on the verge of crying.

“You can come talk to me anytime, Alma. I promise,” he told her, wishing she’d take him up on the offer.

She nodded and he realized his thumb was brushing lightly over the pulse point on her wrist in a soothing, unconscious gesture. When he released her, she lingered a moment, offered him a tremulous smile, and walked slowly back toward the gate. It was all he could do not to follow her: bad enough his eyes did.

 


 

 

 3

 

The Harrises belonged to an unofficial social group called the old Marietta folks. No dues, no meetings, no membership cards or plaques or potluck dinners, but an unwavering sense of pride among a group of Marietta High School graduates who had remained in town, were still friends, and all dwelled in that upper tier of the middle class where lawn service was a must, but a Mercedes was a luxury. The homes just off the town square were old and beautiful, tucked away on sprawling lots amid cozy backstreets lined with trees.

Tom and Diane had a white clapboard colonial on a pie-shaped, full acre lot. This time of year, the oaks, cherries and maples were vibrant pops of orange and red against the lush green expanse of the lawn. It had a long, curved drive that gave the property a grand look, the house’s two and a half stories and three chimneys standing vigil over the street below.

The backyard was a maze of vegetable and perennial gardens, bordered by white picket fences that dripped honeysuckle vines. As a little girl, Alma had spent countless hours playing hide-and-seek amongst the benches and shrubs, had pitched pennies into the lion fountain and made wishes with eyes closed tightly. Diane had spent years cultivating her oasis: her iris, roses, and topiaries. There was a fat yellow koi that lazed about the pond Alma swore was as old as she was. And at the very back of the lot, an arbor grown over with wisteria, like something from The Secret Garden, was supposed to have been the spot for her nuptials. But she’d run off and married Sam instead. At the courthouse.

            Through a golden autumn twilight, her breath fogged the window pane as she stared through the French doors of her parents’ home, all the way across the garden to the arbor. It mocked her. Look how well true love worked out for you. She pressed a hand over her still-flat belly, feeling achy and empty inside. The fetus wasn’t filling up the gaping, bloody hole Sam had left in his wake. Not even close.

            “Can I get you something to drink, sweetheart?” her father’s face appeared above her own, reflected in the glass. Tom Harris had been a football star, back in those old Marietta days, and had become a successful insurance agent. Alma had his brown eyes, but had thankfully not inherited the big, square jaw and strong nose that, even in his khakis and sweater, with streaks of silver along the wings of his hair, still marked him as a high school jock. Sometimes, Alma wondered how the hell her parents had managed to give birth to a daughter like her: she hadn’t completely abandoned the adoption theory.

            Beer was on the tip of her tongue, but she said, “I guess just some water,” instead, turning away from the doors.

            The house hadn’t changed since she’d moved out three years ago: the same ivory, oatmeal carpet and champagne drapes, tasteful, traditional furniture. The dining room stretched before her, a study in beige and mahogany, the chandelier’s tear-drop crystals shimmering. Diane’s sister, Alma’s Aunt Liz, was in town from Knoxville, and she and Diane had laid out the table with the everyday china. The smells of herb roasted chicken and an orange-ginger rice that wafted from the kitchen made Alma queasy.

            Tom went to the side table and filled a glass with perfectly formed ice cubes, pouring the most appropriate amount of water from a Brita filtration pitcher. When he put a cocktail napkin under the glass, her skin started to feel too tight, and by the time the water was in her hand, napkin and all, she was downright claustrophobic. At home, Sam’s clothes were still in the laundry hamper because she couldn’t bear to wash his scent from them, the coffee table needed dusting, the mail was cluttering up the counter beside the phone, where doubtless the message light was blinking. And by contrast, the stark, ever present perfection of her parents’ home was suffocating.

            “How’ve you been feeling?” Tom asked as he poured himself a Scotch. He made a gesture toward her that she knew was meant to indicate her current state of pregnancy.

            “Fine,” she lied with a poor attempt at a smile.

**

Marietta was an eclectic mix of old wealth, new couples starting out in transitional neighborhoods and seedy little pockets where the houses were rundown, and vandalism was less of an anomaly. It was a very typical suburban city in that respect. But thirty minutes south, the metropolis of Atlanta was a whole other breed of dangerous. Amongst the international headquarters of Coca-Cola, the new Aquarium, historic Fox Theater, High Museum of Art, and a hundred other cultural hot spots, crime and poverty festered in the shadows as in every other densely populated urban area.

            And it didn’t matter the measures the police took, the drug trade was constant. Meth, H, Coke, X: you name it, there was someone pedaling it on a corner somewhere downtown.

            Sean Taylor was not your average street corner dealer high on his own product. He’d played high school football, had been good friends with Sam, and then two years after graduation, he’d disappeared. No contact, no explanation. Until eighteen months ago when he’d been at Sam and Alma’s kitchen table one Sunday night for dinner.

            Not a moment passed that Carlos didn’t kick himself in the ass for following his cousin out on the back deck for cigars that night. Sean had come to them with a proposition: a way to make a hell of a lot more money than they were mowing lawns and trimming shrubs. Sam had told his wife that he was going to work construction for his old pal Sean. Carlos had waited, hesitated, and had kept hold of his landscaping and bar jobs, but he’d succumbed to the lure. Or, more accurately, had tried to please his cousin.

            Sean was the reason they’d been in the stairwell of a foreclosed commercial building in Atlanta the day Sam had been shot. Sean’s product had been the point of contention with the shooter. And poor Alma had no idea she’d lost her husband over a drug deal gone bad. The morose, damaged brunette was heavy on Carlos’s mind as he swiveled back and forth in his chair and waited for Sean to get off the phone with whoever he was talking with.

            “…nah, we’re good. I can get you in to see the property tomorrow. Sure. Absolutely, bro.” If Carlos was living the clich√© life of a Puerto Rican landscaper with minimal income, Sean was doing the polar opposite. He had the cultivated air of a black man doing very well for himself without any need to demonstrate that to the public in a flashy, obnoxious sort of way. Tall and lean and still in ball-playing shape, he always looked like he’d stepped out of a catalogue in pressed shirts and tastefully patterned ties. Rolex. Gucci belt. Stainless steel and glass office full of the latest computer technology. Caddy in the parking lot of his rented business condo. He looked every inch the successful Fulton county real estate agent, and nothing like the man who supplied yuppie kids and suburban dumbasses with all their chemical needs.

            The charade was elaborate, and the paper trail doubtless reflected a legitimate agency. Carlos had wondered how that could be worth it; wouldn’t it be easier to sell on the fly out of the back of a car? But Sean had said that the big fish didn’t want to buy from small time thugs. Corporate types wanted corporate-type dealers. Which was why Mr. Taylor was so hugely successful.

            Save for that whole getting Sam killed thing.

            “Carlos,” he greeted, finally, as he disconnected his cell and set it on his desk. “Guess you got my message?”

            He nodded and kept swiveling the chair back and forth, not really wanting to make eye contact.  

            “My buyer wants to have a rep meet you some time

after -,”

            “I’m busy,” he blurted, not waiting for the full request. Something akin to panic was pressing on his chest, flight was winning out over fight, and he was filled with the unshakeable knowledge that he couldn’t do this anymore.

            He’d never showed resistance like this to Sean – at least not to his face – so the dealer looked truly taken aback, though he masked it well, linking his hands together as he leaned back in his chair. “You gonna let me finish?” His tone was polite, which was more frightening than if he’d reacted with anger.

            Carlos didn’t answer.

            “You runnin’ scared now?”

            He dropped his eyes.

            “I know it was hard losin’ Sam, I do. I know that.”

            Carlos swallowed the lump in his throat. “He was like my brother,” he said and Sean’s eyes stayed flat, face expressionless: he already knew that. “We were just supposed to be pushin’ some blow for you and then…” his voice shook. “I couldn’t even tell Alma the truth -,”

            “Alma? His wife?” Sean frowned in a knowing sort of way. “So it’s not just about Sam, huh?”

            He realized too late that he’d brought up Alma when he shouldn’t. Now Sean knew. “I…I don’t wanna hurt her anymore,” he said, ashamed.

            “And how would you do that? Unless she was sweet on you. You movin’ in on your cousin’s girl? That it?”

            Again, no answer would suffice, so he kept silent.

            Sean coughed a laugh. “You know, Sam may’ve married her, but she didn’t affect his business decisions.”

            “Well maybe she should have.”

            “And maybe she’s just messin’ with your head, man,” Sean countered. He leaned forward across his desk, face hardening, brown eyes going wide with intensity. “I don’t care where you put your dick, Carlos. But your ass is mine. You signed on and you ain’t done till I say you’re done. You hear me?”

            He shivered inwardly, a coldness washing over him that went all the way to his core. “I hear.”

**

The normally happy sounds of dinner – cutlery on china, heavy glasses thumping on the tablecloth, the little gummy smacks of chicken and rice and steamed veggies moving from plate to mouth – all worsened Alma’s nausea until she had her head between her hands, no longer caring that she looked the picture of rudeness. Her parents and her aunt had seemed content, however, to discuss the upcoming Thanksgiving food drive at the church, at least up until now.

            “So, Alma dear,” Liz said, voice indicating she’d just taken a sip of wine and was good and vocally lubricated for whatever she had to say. “Have you been to the doctor yet about the baby? What did he say?”

            Alma lifted her head in shock, eyes going wide. Her aunt was looking at her expectedly, fork in one hand, head cocked and dirty-blonde bob slipping from behind her ears. “You,” she licked her lips and glanced at her mother, “you told her?”

            Diane’s eyes hinted at guilt, but only a moment, then she nodded, regal, sloped nose lifted high. “Of course. She’s your aunt.”

            Alma felt betrayed. “How could you do this?” Diane had asked when Alma had told her, haltingly and over the phone, that she had married Sam. She supposed turnabout was fair play. But maybe, well…Liz and Diane were both looking at her with wide, green, expectant eyes…maybe she was overreacting?

            No, she decided, shaking her head, she wasn’t. If Sam was still with her, his hand on her thigh beneath the cover of the table, rolling his eyes at the presumptuous dinner, she might have smiled and put a hand on her belly, talked about the baby as if it were the bouncing bundle of joy that it was supposed to be, rather than the burning reminder of all that she’d lost.

            “I had an appointment last week,” she said, voice suddenly quavering. “Doctor Laramie said everything seemed normal so far. That I should watch my sugar intake…” she trailed off with a shrug, glancing back at her plate again. The sight of her meal left the underside of her tongue tasting salty, bile building at the back of her throat, but it was better than facing the two women across from her.

            “That’s great,” Liz said, chipper. “How many weeks along are you?”

            “Ten.”

            “She’s had some morning sickness,” Diane explained. “Can you eat tonight, baby? Or do you feel too green?”

            “I have ginger ale,” Tom said, and his chair scraped back across the hardwood. “I should have thought of that earlier. Sit tight and I’ll get you a glass.”

            “Maybe you could just try the rice,” Liz suggested. “It’s easy on the tummy and you have to eat something, grow that baby nice and –,”

            “May I be excused?” Alma pegged her mother with a pleading look, biting down on the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming.

            Diane seemed taken aback. “You’re an adult, you can do whatever you want.” Her narrowed eyes didn’t lend any truth to the statement however.

            Alma didn’t care. She fled; pushed up from the table and nearly jogged through the adjoining family room, up the stairs and somehow down the hall to her old room.

            In the two years that she’d been gone, her mother had made some minor changes that gave the space a more guest-friendly feel – a new comforter and a Chippendale chair in the corner by the window – but it was still very much her room. The sun had set and when she flipped on the bedside lamp, warm, buttery light turned the yellow walls a cheery color. It was a large bedroom with the same plush, ivory carpet as the rest of the house, but the drapes here were gauzy and blue, the same as the throw pillows on the bed. Alma’s desk held tidy stacks of stationary, notebooks and two writing volumes. She passed her hand over the white, wooden surface, recalling the countless hours she’d spent hunched over a spiral notebook, pouring her heart and imagination into the pages. Once she’d married Sam, her life had become laundry, cooking and sex…but she missed writing. Missed it badly, she realized, as she flipped through the blank pages of a fresh notebook.

            When she pulled the crystal knobs of the top drawer, she found her collection of favorite pens and all her old sketch pencils too. She’d had a flare for graphite drawing once upon a time as well. Her stomach clenched in an unhappy way and she slammed the drawer shut, refusing to dwell on anything negative that wasn’t related to Sam’s death. He had been her whole world: she didn’t need anything else.

            Her framed photos were still on the bureau. The whole Harris family at Christmas. Her childhood dog Banjo. Her high school graduation. A photo of herself with her best friend Caroline…who she hadn’t spoken to since her marriage.   

            None of it was what she was looking for. All of it made her feel worse. Alma plopped down on the edge of the bed, the old springs squeaking, and the sound reached into the folds of her memory and yanked on all her tender heartstrings.

            She recalled a summer afternoon, the house empty and cool, a respite from the heat outdoors. Sam had smelled like cut grass, sweat and man, had left streaks of dirt on her cheek when he pushed her hair back behind her ear. She remembered the thrill of watching desire flicker in his dark eyes, could still feel his lips against her skin when he asked her if she was ready. She’d cried: she hadn’t been able to help it, the pain had been so much sharper than expected, but he’d been gentle, more so than she would have thought possible. Afterward she’d curled up at his side, fingers tracing the pattern of the tattoo on his chest. That’s what she’d been doing when she’d realized they were not in fact alone. Carlos had shown up, late, looking for his cousin, ready to tackle the front shrubs, and there he’d found them.

            “You sure about this?” Carlos had asked her the next day. He’d been digging out a plot in the garden for the railroad timbers that would be the base of Diane’s new raised tomato beds. He’d leaned on his shovel and given her a sad look she hadn’t understood at the time. “You wanna be with him?”

            The door creaked open behind her and she twisted around, not surprised to see her mother slipping into the room. Diane didn’t speak at first, but came to sit beside her on the bed, sighing as she examined her perfectly manicured nails. This was not, Alma could tell, going to be one of those light pats on the back and generalized encouragements to buck up. This was deeper, darker, something that was disturbing her mother but had been a long time in bubbling to her polished surface.

            “I named you after your great grandmother.”

            Which she already knew. Which meant this was, as she’d feared, one of those “big picture” talks.

            “Alma Lynn. I always thought it was a beautiful name,” Diane glanced out the window, face wistful, “for a strong woman.” Alma watched her mother’s lower lip tremble. “You are such a strong girl, Alma. I don’t…I don’t understand how you

let -,”

            “Mom,” she struggled to make her tone firm, but not angry, knowing how poorly Diane had always responded to tantrums. “I never ‘let’ anything happen in my life. I knew what I wanted and I made decisions. Decisions you didn’t like. But wasn’t that the point? Raising me up to think for myself?”

            If she’d heard her, Diane gave no indication. “You deserved better than to live in some goddamn hellhole with

that -,”

            “Don’t!” Alma bolted to her feet, quivering head to toe as she faced her mother with sparks shooting from her eyes. The jagged, weeping hole inside her that Sam had left in his wake was too raw, too bloody for her to stomach the same old insults. “He was my husband!” she thumped her palm against her chest. “And he’s dead now, you happy? So you don’t have to talk about him anymore!”

            She watched her mother’s face close up – mouth tightening, eyes narrowing – saw her become the self-contained, unflinching woman she liked to pretend she always was, even when she was offended, even though Alma wished they could just scream and claw each other’s faces.

            “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings. I’m trying to be practical. Sam is gone and the house he left you isn’t fit for the homeless.”

            Alma thought about the cheap plastic frames that held her favorite pictures on the mantel, the little gingham drapes over her kitchen sink. The way the king sized bed didn’t really fit in the master bedroom. Sam had been fixing the place up slowly, pouring his heart and soul into it. All for her. Isn’t fit for the homeless…

            “Your aunt Liz has offered to let you stay with her in Knoxville for a little while and I think it would be very rude if you turned her down.”

            She took several deep breaths and sat down slowly at the antique desk chair across from the bed, the one with the needlework seat cushion she’d loved since she was a little girl. “You want to send me away,” her voice was hollow, too far past the point of disbelief to be shocked further. “I’m not sixteen and ‘in trouble’. I’m not ashamed.” She turned what she knew were flat, hooded, eyes up to her mother. “And you shouldn’t be either.”

            “I’m not ashamed,” Diane sat up a little straighter. “I’m protecting you. Getting you away from whatever godforsaken influences might still be here for you!”

            “Influences?”

            She glanced away and tidied an already tidy strand of hair. “I don’t want you around any of those Moraleses.”

            “Carlos,” Alma said, snorting. “He’s what this is about?”

            “Don’t act like you haven’t seen the way he looks at you! He was always mooning over you when he worked here. He -,”

            “Will be my child’s cousin, just like he was Sam’s.” A new kind of anger stirred to life inside her, one she hadn’t expected. “Carlos isn’t your business. And for that matter,” she stood, shaking again, “neither am I.”

 

**

 

            Carlos’s meeting with Sean had left him rattled. He’d spent a night or two in lockup, had barely managed to escape a possession charge once. But being hunted? That shit was new and terrifying. He’d always assumed – Sean had always said – that their biggest threat was law enforcement. Now he’d be having nightmares about thugs with ski masks and sawed-off shotguns kicking in his apartment door.

            He was shrugging out of his clothes, the TV a dull murmur out in the combination living room/kitchen, when he heard the light rap of knuckles against the door. Not a boot, he told himself, taking a deep breath as he slid his wifebeater back over his head and went to see who’d come calling at six after eleven on a Sunday. When he glanced through the peephole, the last person he expected was Alma Harris.

            He threw the locks in a rush, taking in the way she held herself as always, the way her shoulders sagged. “Alma, shit. What are you doing here?”

            She came into his apartment without invitation, sweeping past him as light and frail as a ghost. He closed and locked the door, following her. All her pretty, mahogany hair was tied up in a sloppy ponytail, loose strands hanging limp around her face. And her face, her pretty little china doll face, was even more sallow and thin, her cheekbones severe, her eyes sunken dark pits under her brows. Her slender frame was swallowed up by a sweatshirt he knew had been Sam’s. She was pitiful, standing in the middle of his shabby living room, the TV throwing blue, flickering shadows over her.

            “I had dinner with my parents,” she said quietly, eyes latching onto his face. He could guess how well that had gone. “And I just didn’t want to be alone after that.”

            “Oh…” he scratched at the back of his neck, contemplated the idea of sending her away in order to remove temptation, and then took another look at her face and knew he’d never do that. “Yeah. Of course. You want something to eat? Glass of water?”

            She shook her head.

            And then they just stood there. Carlos waited for her to sit down, or sort of crumple, anyway, onto the sofa. He wanted to walk toward her, he wanted to do more than that really – seeing her like this punched all his sympathetic, protective buttons and sent a jolt of electricity through the attraction he already bore for her – but he knew that was a bad idea. She would not take his lingering stares or gentle touches well, not now, not when her dead Sam was all she could think about. So he waited, awkwardly, until he couldn’t any longer and said, “the couch looks like shit but it’s pretty comfortable.”

            “Oh.” It was like she’d been startled out of a trance. She blinked. “Oh, right. Okay.” And then lowered herself down, pulling her legs up beneath her like a little girl.

            Deciding it would look stupid – and defeat the purpose of her wanting company if he went into the next room – he plopped down on the other end of the couch, as far away as he could get. The way she was sitting, with an arm tucked across her middle and the other raised, the backs of her nails pressed lightly against her lips, she was just begging for an arm around her shoulders, a warm body to lean against. It was such a dangerous way for him to think, to see what she needed and want to be the one to give it to her. But Sam had asked him to, hadn’t he? That’s what he’d meant by “look after my girl” before the light had gone out of his eyes, right?

            “Alma,” he said, taking a deep breath. When her eyes swung over to him, the blue glow of the TV reflected across them, he almost swallowed what he’d been about to say, but he didn’t. “I know, trust me I know how awful this all is. But I think…I think you’re punishing yourself.”

            She frowned. “You sound like my mom.”

            “No I don’t,” his voice became steadier, firmer. “I’m not judging you or telling you what to do. I’m just saying, that I think it would be a good thing if you gave yourself a break. It’s okay to talk about Sam, or cry, or laugh, or whatever will make you feel better. You don’t have to hold it all -,”

            Feel better?” she asked, spine going rigid as she sat up straight on the sofa. “Whatever makes me feel better?” She stood and faced him, a fire crackling in her eyes that he hadn’t seen in weeks, a bold, hot reminder of the pre-funeral Alma. “I don’t have the flu, Carlos! I’m not going to wake up one morning and feel better! God,” she flung her arms up in the air and stalked around the end table. “Why don’t any of you get it?!”

            He’d thought that when it came to her, his patience was limitless. But it wasn’t, and obviously she’d been worrying away at it without his knowledge, because suddenly he was furious. Carlos got to his feet and walked around the arm of the couch, putting the heavy piece of furniture between them. “Don’t do that to me; don’t put me over there with ‘any of you’,” he snapped. “I’m not your mom. Sam was my cousin, he was like my brother, so don’t put that on me, Alma! I love him, and you, so I get it. Believe me, I get it.”

            She didn’t say anything, but her expression hadn’t become any less enraged. He couldn’t look at her anymore, so he went back into his bedroom, through to the bathroom to take the shower he’d intended before she arrived. He didn’t care if she stayed or left: he was sick of not earning credit where it was due. Whatever his shortcomings in life – and there were plenty of them – she wasn’t going to accuse him of not caring. It was quite the opposite in fact: he cared too much.

 

**

Carlos had a sagging twin mattress in his tiny little bedroom that groaned when Alma lowered herself onto its edge. The bed was unmade, sheets rumpled. A glass ashtray full of crushed-out cigarette butts accompanied the beer cans on his nightstand. Clothes were stacked on the bureau and spilled out of the hamper in the corner. She felt a small flicker of sadness because though he lived paycheck to paycheck, Carlos had always been tidy. He took care of what was his. The sloppy housekeeping was evidence that, yes, he did know what she was going through, because he was going through something very much like it himself.

            As she glanced around the room, a picture tucked into the corner of his hanging wall mirror caught her eye. She was tempted to investigate, but even from here, she knew the two figures, their arms around each others’ shoulders, were Sam and Carlos. Alma took a deep breath and let it out slowly, shakily. All she had done was react, it was time to do some acting, even if it was just a small, timid step. There was no one better to start with than Carlos.

             The water finally shut off, the pipes beneath the floorboards thumping. Steam billowed out like fog in a campy horror flick when the bathroom door opened and Carlos looked startled to see her, tightening his grip on the towel he’d tied around his waist. The light behind him slipped over the moisture that still clung to his shoulders, down over the muscled contours of his chest, and Alma was suddenly reminded that he was not just her husband’s cousin, but a very fit, sexy twenty-eight-year-old man. His skin looked the color of an iced latte in the shadow of the doorway; the same as Sam’s. Eyes deep and wide and chocolate. Scruff on his chin. Carved abdominals.

            She glanced away and licked her suddenly-dry lips.

            “I, um…” he stammered a bit, the badass from the living room gone again. Now obviously feeling the awkward tension of the moment that shouldn’t have been there. “I didn’t think you’d still be here.”

            Alma studied her fingernails and shrugged. “I can leave if you want me to.”

            “No. No…I just…” his bare feet scuffed across the floor, just a few steps.

            “I’m sorry, Carlos.” Tears burned the backs of her eyes, her throat tightened. It was almost as hard talking to the living as it was thinking about the dead.

            She heard him close the distance between them, was very aware of him sitting down next to her on the edge of the bed, as if the dipping of the mattress wasn’t enough of a giveaway.

            “I shouldn’t have snapped at you out there. You’re right; I-I do need to…” but she couldn’t make herself say it. It felt so, so disrespectful to talk about moving on, “feeling better,” when Sam was rotting in a coffin. Alma covered her eyes with her hand, blinking desperately in hopes of maintaining her composure. But it didn’t work.

            Carlos’s arm came around her shoulders and she was pulled in tight against his chest. He smelled like soap, his skin warm and smooth and just a little bit damp against her cheek. But the feel of a strong, solid body around her was a relief she didn’t dare hope for, one that made her feel guilty and thankful all at once. A relief she wasn’t ready to let go of.

            Alma dabbed at her eyes and took a series of deep breaths that left her calmer. And Carlos was helping: the thump of his heart beneath her ear, the way she swore he nuzzled at her hair. One of his big, rough hands cupped her jaw ever-so-gently and tipped her head back. When she met his eyes, they were as warm and inviting as hot coffee, open, looking a little shiny like she knew hers did. Their faces were so close together, and as his hand moved so that his fingers slid into her hair at the nape of her neck, she had a startling mental image of where this moment was headed if she let it continue.

            She had cried herself to sleep every night, had tossed and turned through nightmares, waking in a panicked sweat when she realized that she was alone. And why she was alone. And here was this person, this man, who she cared about so much, who was hurting just like she was. Who…

            “I see the way he looks at you.”

            He wasn’t her Sam. But Sam, she thought with a jolt that brought fresh tears to her eyes, was never coming home.

            Carlos tilted his head, eyes flicking down a moment and then back up in silent question.

            “Yes,” she whispered, and then closed her eyes as he pulled her into him and kissed her.

            His lips, warm and soft, pressed against hers gently, not rushing, not pressuring her. But it was enough to stir all of her pent-up sexual frustration. She missed Sam the man, the person, her husband. But she missed Sam her lover too, the way he touched her, made her come alive, set her blood on fire. With her eyes closed, with Carlos’s strong arms around her, she let her hormones drown out her logic, and even some of her grief, and filled her mind up with the latent knowledge that here was a strong, virile man who wanted her.

            She touched the seam of his lips with her tongue, leaned into him, let him know that this was what she wanted. In the immediate moment at least. And he didn’t need to be told twice. Alma felt his fingers spear through her hair. His mouth opened, tongue coming out to meet hers. The kiss deepened, became hot, intimate, almost obscene in a way she hadn’t expected. She sucked in a breath through her nose, heard herself whimper. His hands slid down over her shoulders, along her sides, latched onto her hips and he lifted her up into his lap like she was a doll. Then she had no doubt as to exactly how much he wanted her: she could feel it against her thigh.

            Alma kneaded the thick bundles of muscle at the base of his neck and moved her hips in a slow little circle. He made a grunting noise deep in his throat that was muffled against the front of her sweater. And that was when his good manners failed him.

            Alma felt his hand leave her hip, move beneath the hem of her sweater, and she glanced down between them, saw his arm slip under her clothes by the soft light of the bedside lamp.

            Suddenly she was on her bed at home, straddling Sam’s lap in just her pink bra and panties, worrying her lip with her teeth while she watched him touch her through the thin barrier of silk. As rough-and-tumble a reputation as he’d always had, he’d been so gentle with her at times. Times like this…only it wasn’t Sam who now cupped her breast and thumbed down the lace of her bra, his finger brushing over her tight nipple.

            Oh, God, what was she doing?

            “Stop!” In a panicked flurry of limbs, she stood and moved away from him, tried to straighten her bra with fast, ineffective movements as she took a half a dozen steps away from the bed. “I…I,” tears pooled in her eyes, turned him into a fuzzy man-shaped object. “I’m sorry…I don’t…I didn’t think…” She closed her eyes and gulped in air, willing herself not to turn into the sad, sobbing wreck she couldn’t seem to be anything but these past few weeks.

            She opened her eyes on a strangled cry and saw Carlos scrub a hand back across his buzzed hair. Heard him sigh. “It’s fine.” But his voice told her otherwise. This was all anything but fine.

            “I’ll let myself out.”

            He didn’t protest and didn’t follow her.

 

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