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Authors: Lisa Unger

Tags: #Fiction, #Library, #Literary, #Suspense, #Psychological Fiction, #Thrillers, #Florida, #Psychological, #Suspense Fiction, #Family Life

Black Out (5 page)

BOOK: Black Out
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9

The next night I force myself to go to Ella’s cocktail party. In spite of my efforts to isolate myself from the crowd and appear generally antisocial, an older woman clad entirely in white drifts over to me and asks me what I do. She looks as though someone sprayed her with shellac, so unmoving and stiff are the various parts of her—her flesh, her bobbed hair, the muscles in her face. She’s so thin I can see the tiny bones in her wrist.

“I’m a housewife and a mother,” I say without the sheepish tone in which I’ve heard so many women deliver this information. What I don’t say is that I’m a housewife who doesn’t do much cooking or cleaning. And that my daughter is in preschool most days. My life consists of these big blocks of free time while I wait for Victory to be done with the various activities in her busy little life. It’s dangerous for someone like me; I should really think about getting a job. The devil would find work for idle hands, my mother used to say when she was in one of her Jesus moods. Or, in my case, work for idle minds.

“That’s wonderful,” the woman in white says with a smile, real or fake, who can tell? “It’s the most important job in the world.” Everything about her is perfectly manicured: her fingernails are square and pink, her lips lined and glossed, her eyebrows plucked into high arches. A huge diamond glints on her hand. She is painstakingly casual in a flowing linen skirt and top, leather thongs on her feet.

The conversation falters, mainly because I don’t participate, and she moves away, raising her glass and muttering an excuse. I’ve come alone to this party because I promised Gray I would attend just to “get out of the house and be with people other than Victory,” but I’d rather be home with her and Esperanza watching
The Incredibles
on DVD for the hundredth time.

I lean on the fence that edges the pool deck and look out onto the black stretch that ends in the Gulf. I can’t see the water because of the elaborate lighting and landscaping on the property, but I can hear it and smell the salt in the humid air. My mind is full of thoughts I’m trying not to have—my black patch, my dream, Gray, the man looking for Ophelia. I shouldn’t be here. I’m not cocktail-party material even on my best days. I endure things that other people find entertaining.

My eyes fall on a girl standing alone a few feet away. She’s leaning on the fence like I am and lost in thought looking out into the night. She must have felt my eyes on her, because she turns to look at me. I recognize her then, but I can’t place her. I suddenly feel a terrible need to remember who she is; my heart starts to beat a little faster with the urgency I feel. She’s pretty and far too thin, wearing just a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, a ratty old pair of sneakers. She’s not the type to be at one of Ella’s cocktail parties—too young, not enough money. I wonder if she’s the new maid Ella’s been complaining about. We’re staring at each other, neither one of us looking away. Finally she smiles. But it’s not a friendly smile; in it I see some combination of malice and pity. My gut lurches a bit. I look away quickly.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re not a very social person?” Ella says, coming up behind me. I jump slightly, and she laughs, surprised. “You need another drink,” she says, patting my back. “You’re too tense.”

“Who’s that girl?” I say, looking back over in the stranger’s direction. But she’s gone.

“Who?” Ella asks, following my eyes.

I scan the crowd. I don’t see her among Ella’s well-dressed guests.

“She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Pretty, young, too thin?” I’m still looking for her. In fact, I feel almost desperate to see her again.

“If she’s here, we should kick her out,” says Ella, mock jealous.

“Your new maid?” I say, hopeful.

“No, she’s off tonight.”

I can feel Ella’s attention shift from curious to concerned.

“You okay?” she asks after another moment.

“Yeah,” I say, smiling a bright fake smile. “I just thought she looked familiar.”

She gives me another rub on the shoulder, then returns my smile. “When’s Gray coming back? You’re lost without him at these things.”

“At the end of next week,” I say vaguely. I’m still looking over her shoulder.

“I never realized insurance executives had to travel so much,” she says. I snap back to the conversation and listen for signs of skepticism in her voice. But there’s just her usual light and musing tone, the wide-open expression on her face.

“Client risk assessment, large claim investigations,” I say with a shrug, as if this should explain it. She nods.

“Still,” she says, “he leaves you alone too much.”

She’s not looking at me. She’s looking out into the night. I can’t tell if she’s just making conversation.

“You’re one to talk,” I say with a smile. “You’re gone as often as he is.”

“True. But my trips are
important,
” she says. “Shopping in New York City, detoxing at Canyon Ranch, sunning in Fiji.”

“Hmm,” I say. She laughs.

“Where is he this time?”

“Cleveland,” I answer.

“See? What could possibly be important in Cleveland?” she says.

We both laugh. I wonder whether she’d be laughing if she knew how easily lies come to me.

“Can I get you a refill?” she asks, pointing to my empty glass after a minute of us both staring into the night. “Seems like you could really use one, girl.”

“No thanks,” I say. “I’m going to sneak out of here and walk home down the beach.”

She knows better than to argue that I should stay, have another drink. She’s right; I’m lost without Gray at these things. I don’t know how to do Friday-evening cocktail parties, make small talk with neighbors and strangers, network, mingle, whatever it is one is supposed to do. There’s too much going on in my head for that sort of thing.

Even though I know I shouldn’t, even though this is not the type of behavior Drew would see as “tightening up,” after we say good night, I slip out the back gate, walk down a paved path lined with palms and recessed lighting that leads to the beach. I give one last look back at Ella’s gathering, but there’s no sign of the girl I saw.

 

Marlowe slept on the couch, his feet hanging over the edge, the sound of his deep breathing filling the whole place. Not for days, as my mother promised, but for weeks, with no sign of any intention to leave. I hated him and was fascinated by him in equal measure. He didn’t go to school, had dropped out and gotten his GED, he claimed. He spent his days writing and sketching in a collection of battered, mottled notebooks. But somehow he always had money, bought groceries, little gifts for my mother. He’d cooked dinner for us a couple of times, which basically sent my mother into convulsions over him. She raved about his pork chops and Rice-a-Roni like he was Julia Child; she was overcome by his consideration and sweetness. Meanwhile, the fact that I’d cooked dinner five days out of seven (the other two days we had pizza or fried-bologna sandwiches) for I don’t know how long had never even been acknowledged. It made me furious, and I raged about it.

“You’re just jealous,” my mother said, patting my shoulder. “He’s sweet. And we’re all he has right now. Try to be nice.”

God, she was pathetic. She’d do anything for a man—even a teenage boy—who showed her the smallest amount of attention. And there was nothing sweet about him, as far as I could see. The act he put on for my mother, he didn’t bother to use on me. For me Marlowe saved furtive looks—menace or desire, I couldn’t tell. But those eyes, those looks kept me up nights thinking about him, listening to him breathe out on the couch.

I was in a constant state of anxiety—worry about my mother, fear about this killer who might be coming to live with us, hatred for his son who was crashing on our couch, and yes, some secret fascination with Marlowe, too.

He awakened something within my body that was thrilling and unfamiliar. I was spastic around him, clumsy and prone to emotional outbursts or awkward laughter. I hated myself, couldn’t seem to get a grip when he was in the room. The half smile he wore when we were together told me he knew it.

At night our trailer park came alive with sound: singing frogs competing with television sets and rock music, our neighbors yelling and fighting, later stumbling in drunk and noisy, slamming doors. I would lie awake some nights just listening, wondering why I had been exiled to this life. I knew enough to know that I didn’t belong among these poor and angry people, living such ugly lives. But that knowledge wasn’t enough to lift me out.

“Get me out of here, Dad,” I pleaded during one of our weekly telephone conversations. It was a Sunday night; my mother was working late. I cradled the phone to my ear and kept my back to Marlowe, whose presence in our trailer seemed as eternal and unpleasant as the roach problem. He was
always
there. Watching. Listening.

“Just hang in there, Opie,” my father said calmly on the other line. “It’s all going to work out. You’ll see.”

“Okay,” I said miserably, believing he was alluding to some master plan he was concocting to rescue me, something he couldn’t discuss over the phone.

I was still young enough to hope that he was going to show up one day and demand custody of me. I didn’t understand back then that though my father loved me, he wasn’t really father material. He didn’t have the strength, the selflessness it takes to be a real parent. Neither one of them did. But my mom at least wanted me with her—some of the time, anyway.

The conversation ended, and I went into my room to cry into my pillow.

“He’s not coming for you, you know.”

I turned, startled and embarrassed to see Marlowe standing there in the narrow doorway. He leaned against the frame, hands in the pockets of his faded, dirty jeans. He wasn’t smiling; his expression was grim.

“I mean, I’m sorry,” he said, looking down at his feet and then back up at me. “I can see you’re clinging to that. But he’s not coming.” His voice was bass and throaty. There was an odd accent to his words, not quite a southern twang. Florida cracker, my mother told me, all their family born and raised in this hot, miserable swamp of a state.

“Shut up,” I said. “What do you know about
anything?

My voice shook; his words were a blow to the solar plexus, the pain spreading, taking my breath. In my deepest heart, I was afraid that he was right—and I hated him for it.

“If he was going to come, he’d have come by now. He has money, right? And time? As long as I’ve been here, he’s never even once called you. It’s always you calling him. How long have you been waiting for him to come?”

“Shut up!” The words just burst from me in an angry scream, a belch of rage. I got up and pushed past him, ran out of the trailer into the night.

I ran clumsily, crying, until I got a pain in my side and came to a stop at the ancient strangler fig that stood at the end of the park. I put my hand against its textured bark and rested, trying to catch my breath. The wide canopy of the tree sheltered me. The carpet of fallen and rotting leaves at its base was wet and stinking. Behind it was a teeming forest of palms and ferns, pond cypress and loblolly pine, surrounding a stream. I knew that the wooded area was rife with snakes and citrus rats, a terrible sampling of insects and spiders. Part of me wanted to enter its cover and be consumed by it. It seemed wild and barely contained, like most of Florida, as if it were only waiting for us to stop moving and clearing and digging, manicuring and trimming, for even just a minute, so that the lush greenness of this place could swallow all our silly structures, take back its rightful place on the earth. I sank between the thick roots of the tree and wept against its bark, ignoring the damp that seeped through my jeans, the mosquitoes making a meal out of my blood.

“Crying is not going to lift you out of this shithole.”

He’d followed me.

“If you want to get out of this place, this life,” he said as he swept his arm toward the trailer park behind him, “you’re going to have to do it yourself.”

I looked up at him, wiped my eyes on the sleeve of my shirt. He moved closer until he was standing right in front of me, our feet nearly touching. He offered me his hand.

The strangler fig, native to Florida, begins its life as an epiphyte, a plant that grows on another living plant. Its seeds make a home in the cracks and crevices in the bark of a host tree. At first the strangler grows slowly, insinuating itself gradually into the systems of the other tree. Over time, the strangler begins to cover the trunk of the original tree, forcing it to compete with the strangler for light, air, and water. Eventually the host tree dies. But the strangler doesn’t die with it. By that time the strangler has planted its own roots, grown its own branches, formed an intricate latticework of living tree around the host’s withered and hollow shell.

I gave Marlowe my hand, let my fingers entwine with his, let him hoist me off the wet ground.

 

I walk up the beach from Ella’s. I can see the lights from my own house just ahead, not more than two or three hundred feet away. I see that Victory’s bedroom light is off, and I smile to myself, wondering how Esperanza always convinces her to go to sleep without any fuss. I generally wind up lying on the floor of her bedroom, chatting with her quietly as the colored fish from her rotating night-light swim on the walls and ceiling.

“Aren’t you tired, Victory?” I’ll ask her.

“No, Mommy. I’m not,” she’ll say, then fall asleep a few minutes later.

The problem is, I love that time. I don’t mind staying with her until she falls asleep. And she knows it. I’ve rocked her and nursed her to sleep since she was a baby. They tell you not to do that, that then you’ll have to do it for longer than you want, that they’ll never learn to “self-comfort.” But I always figure the day will come when I’ll ache for those moments. And I figure if you don’t have a half hour to be with your child as she goes to sleep, if you think she’s better off crying alone in her bed so you can be sure of who’s in charge, then maybe you shouldn’t have kids. I’m thinking about this when I hear it.

“Ophelia.”

I stop, startled, and spin around to see the empty beach. The word, my name, cuts through me. My eyes scan the beach. The grass and sea oats rustle slightly in the wind, just as they did in my dream. There is no one ahead of me or behind me. My heart is jackhammering in my throat. The voice was low and male, more like a growl. I take a deep breath and start a light jog.

BOOK: Black Out
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