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All the little pieces, p.2
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       All the Little Pieces, p.2

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  On its way to wreak havoc on Texas, late-season Tropical Storm Octavius had stalled over a sizable chunk of the Sunshine State, making life miserable for the past two days for everyone in Central and South Florida. Faith had grown up in Miami, and in her thirty-two years she’d seen her share of bad weather and hurricanes – usually they blew in, took down a few trees and power lines and blew out. But Octavius wasn’t playing by the script: the storm was expected to continue thrashing the state with rain and fifty-mile-an-hour wind gusts for at least one more day. Most people were smart and had heeded warnings to stay indoors and off the roads.

  Most people.

  Faith chewed on her lip. She wasn’t sure she was lost, she just didn’t know exactly where she was. She was supposed to be on State Road 441, only this didn’t look like the 441 she’d taken up to her sister’s that afternoon. Of course, she’d driven up to Charity’s in the daylight, and with no streetlights, gas stations, restaurants, motels or landmarks to help guide her, everything looked different in the dark. Out here there was nothing but acre after acre of farmland and for the last umpteen miles, stretches of sugar cane fields, their bushy, imposing stalks looming menacingly over both sides of the roadway. This was Central Florida, and outside the urban vortex of Orlando and the 140,000-room hotelopolis of Disney, Universal and SeaWorld, the middle of the state didn’t offer much more than a handful of small towns, rural farmland, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. If you were headed south, like she was, it wasn’t until you hit Palm Beach County that you’d start to see life and lights and buildings taller than two stories. The further south and east, the brighter the lights and taller the buildings until you finally hit the neon glow and towering skyscrapers of Miami, where there were sure to be bars open and people out and about, even at midnight and even in a tropical storm. But Faith wasn’t in Miami. She was far from it, still way out somewhere in the boonies, trying to get home, trying to stay awake, and trying to forget all the horrible reasons why she was out here on such a horrible night in the first place.

  A blinding streak of lightning cut across the sky right in front of her and she sucked in a breath. Her eyes darted to the rearview, to where Maggie, her four-year-old, was asleep in her booster, a thumb in her mouth, her other hand clutching a well-worn, stuffed Eeyore. Faith counted off the seconds in her head. When the boom of thunder came, it was so loud and so intense that she could actually feel it roll through the car. She stiffened, staring at the mirror, bracing for the fallout. Having had to unexpectedly leave her cousins’ house had triggered one of Maggie’s inconsolable, crazy tantrums and she’d spent the first forty-five minutes of the drive home screaming, crying, and kicking at the back of the passenger seat, finally falling asleep from pure exhaustion. Faith watched as she sucked her thumb harder, her tiny, slender fingers clutching at her freckled nose, her long blonde eyelashes fluttering, threatening to pop open.

  She carefully exhaled the breath she’d been holding, reached behind her with one hand and gently rubbed Maggie’s exposed bony knee. The two-sizes-too-big pink cowboy boot that had been precariously dangling off the edge of her toes fell to the floorboard next to its mate. ‘Cha-Cha’, the threadbare crocheted receiving blanket that Maggie never left home without, had slipped down the side of her car seat. Stretching her free hand, Faith found it on the floor and tried to toss it over Maggie’s bare feet. It landed instead on her head, completely missing the bottom half of her body and covering her face. Not exactly what she’d intended, but perhaps better, she thought as another jagged streak of lightning lit the sky, so frighteningly close you could almost touch it. Cha-Cha would help mute the thunderclaps and block the wicked flashes that lit the car up like a Christmas tree.

  Faith popped the two Advil she’d found in her glove compartment and downed them with a slug of ice-cold Racetrak coffee left over from the afternoon drive up to her sister’s. Had she really made this same drive only, what? Ten hours ago? She sighed and looked again at the shrouded tiny figure in the back seat as another round of thunder rocked the car. Even though the fight with Charity wasn’t Faith’s fault – and it certainly wasn’t how she’d envisioned her sister’s birthday party ending – she was going to have to make it up to Maggie for the way they’d had to leave tonight, rushing out in the rain with all those strangers watching, her cousins witnessing the mother of all breakdowns happen live from their bedroom window. She’d take her to a movie, or skating at Incredible Ice tomorrow. Or maybe she’d let her stay home from St Andrews and they’d bake cookies; Maggie would’ve missed school anyway if they’d stayed up in Sebring as originally planned. God knows that, after what had happened tonight, Faith could use a Mental Health Day herself.

  The memory made her heart hurt. No matter how much she wanted to forget, her thoughts kept returning to her sister’s kitchen, to the crowd of gaping, snickering strangers gathered around the makeshift bar at the dinette table watching the family drama unfold as if it was part of the evening’s entertainment. Charity had chosen the path she’d chosen in life and the man she’d chosen to walk it with, and it was time for Faith to accept that and stop trying to fix her little sister’s problems, because she obviously didn’t want them fixed. For years, everyone had been blaming Charity’s shortcomings on her idiot sloth of a husband, Nick, but maybe it was time to place that blame where it really belonged. And tonight … well, tonight was the last straw. Angry tears slipped down her cheeks.

  Even cold, bad coffee couldn’t get rid of the icky-sweet taste of the hurricanes that Nick had insisted she try when the night was young and the party was in full swing and all was going well. The back of her throat still felt like it was coated in Hawaiian-Punch-flavored wallpaper paste. She looked over longingly at the open glove compartment where she’d found the Advil. Inside, under a pile of napkins, was a stale half-pack of Marlboro Lights. Faith had picked up the habit back in high school, and had been trying to drop it ever since college. It had taken a bout of morning sickness to get her to finally quit the first time. She’d successfully stayed off the sticks for four years, but then came the phone call that changed everything last year and the first thing she’d picked up after she’d hung up was a Marlboro. It was like welcoming home an old friend, something that she definitely needed at the time. Not so much as a tickle of disapproval had sounded from her throat, and in no time she was back on a pack a day. Quitting this time around was proving much more difficult, though, and getting pregnant again to help her try and kick the habit wasn’t an option she was ready to consider.

  She reached over and slammed the glove compartment shut. No matter how much she needed an old friend right now, she couldn’t go there. Not with Maggie in the car. Nope. Jarrod, Faith’s husband, had no idea she was still trying to quit, and Maggie could never know she ever smoked. She’d be nominated for Bad Mother of the Year if she lit up with her young daughter’s clean lungs two feet away. She anxiously nibbled on a cuticle instead.

  The rain started to come down harder and Faith slowed to twenty. She looked at the clock. In six minutes, Charity would be turning the big 3-0. What was she doing at this very moment to celebrate? Was she passed out on the couch? Were Nick’s stupid friends still over? Was she having wild birthday sex? That thought made her want to gag. Was she even the least bit upset over how Faith had left?

  Originally, the plan had been for Faith to take Charity and her three kids – eleven-year-old Kamilla, five-year-old Kourtney and two-year-old Kaelyn – up to Disney next weekend, along with Maggie, to celebrate Charity’s thirtieth. No husbands – just the six girls and Mickey Mouse living it up in the land where everyone’s always happy. Faith had booked two rooms at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort well in advance. Ironically, the reservation had to be cancelled by midnight tomorrow – the last minute of Charity’s actual birthday – or Faith would have to forfeit her deposit. Of course she’d have to cancel, she thought as she wiped away more tears. There was no way things would be right between them by Friday. They might ne
ver be right again.

  After ten years of marriage, maybe Nick had wanted to finally show that he cared. Maybe he’d wanted to one-up Faith’s Disney trip. Or maybe throwing Charity a party was simply a good excuse for him to have a good time with his friends since Charity didn’t have many that he hadn’t slept with. Whatever his reasoning, Nick ‘Big Mitts’ Lavecki, the man who had forgotten his wife’s birthday more often than he had remembered it, had decided to throw Charity a last-minute surprise party. Last minute, as in he’d told Faith about it this morning.

  ‘Tonight, Nick?’ Faith had looked at the clock above the fireplace in her family room, which was in Parkland, a good two hundred miles from where her sister lived in Sebring. It was ten thirty on Sunday morning.

  ‘Nothing fancy. A bunch of friends, ya know, some beer, food from Costco, like those platters of wieners and chicken nuggets, that sort of crap, and ya know, a cake. I’m gonna get that at Costco, too. A chocolate cake. They can write “Happy Birthday Ya Old Bag” on it.’ He laughed. ‘Maybe they can put, like, a wheelchair decoration on the frosting or something.’

  Faith cringed. ‘Really, Nick?’

  ‘No! I’m only fucking with you, Faithey. But I am taking the kids so they can pick out black balloons and Over the Hill plates.’ He laughed again. ‘Char will get a kick out of that.’

  Faith had looked out her kitchen window at the toppled lawn umbrella and the chaise longue cushion that had blown into the pool that was close to overflowing. Jarrod had cocked his head at her from across the table and mouthed What? She shook her head at him. ‘The weather’s pretty nasty, Nick.’

  ‘It’s not so bad up here. Everyone says they’re coming anyway.’

  ‘Everyone? How many people?’

  ‘I dunno, about thirty or forty.’

  ‘Wow. When did you plan this?’

  ‘I dunno. A week or so ago.’

  ‘Thanks for the notice.’

  ‘Yeah, I thought I told ya. I get it if you can’t make it. We live so far away. What’s Jar call it up here? Bumfuck?’

  Three years later and Big Mitts was still holding onto the comment he wasn’t supposed to have heard. ‘He was kidding, Nick.’

  ‘Yeah, I know. I’m only busting chops, Faithey. Look, I get it if you can’t make it. The weather sucks and it’s a long drive. No big deal. Char will understand.’

  Of course Nick would understand if Faith didn’t make it, because he didn’t want her to make it. The kids had probably been bugging him all morning, asking if Aunt Faith and Uncle Jarrod and Maggie were coming to Mommy’s party. That’s likely what had prompted the phone call. That and Charity would be livid if she found out her only sister – her only sibling – wasn’t invited to her birthday party.

  ‘I’ll be there,’ Faith had said.

  What? Jarrod had mouthed again.

  ‘Great,’ Nick had unenthusiastically replied.

  ‘Save the couch for me. I’ll drive home in the morning.’

  ‘You might be sharing it with a new friend, Faithey.’ She hated when he called her that. Absolutely hated it. It was Charity’s pet name for her since they were kids, but when Nick said it, it felt like he was mocking her. ‘I think T-Bone’s already called it,’ he added with a chuckle that she knew was accompanied by a smirk.

  Most of Nick’s friends had nicknames, too: T-Bone, Skinny, Slick, Gator. But they weren’t gang members or cops or Mafioso – they were just grown men with nicknames.

  ‘Tell T-Bone he can sleep in his car; I’m calling the couch,’ Faith replied coolly.

  ‘Daddy, tell Aunt Faif to bring Maggie!’ said a little voice with a lisp in the background.

  ‘Well, if you’re coming, bring Maggie,’ Nick had said. ‘The kids’ll all be upstairs, locked in. We won’t let ’em come down for the stripper. Promise.’

  ‘You’re kidding, right?’

  ‘Yes, I’m kidding. I’m not getting my wife a stripper. At least, not one she’d be interested in watching, although that’s a fun idea and it would make her a real fun wife if she was into it. I’ll get the kids pizza. And, ah, Jarrod too,’ he’d added hesitantly. ‘I, ah, hope he can make it.’

  Jarrod had stopped mouthing What? because he had figured out what What? was and he wanted no part of Nick’s couch. He slumped down in his seat and hid behind the paper, like a kid in class who doesn’t want to be called on.

  ‘Have you looked out a window?’ Jarrod had asked as Faith was buckling Maggie into her car seat a couple of hours later. She clutched Eeyore in one hand and a pouch of fruit juice in the other.

  ‘It’s her birthday, Jarrod. You know what she’s going through. All his friends are gonna be there – probably only his friends. Knowing Nick, he’ll invite the next mistress. It’s only rain; I’ll be fine.’

  ‘Since you must’ve missed it on the news, I’ll be the one to tell you that there’s a tropical storm happening. That’s the first thing. Second, these are not normal people, Faith. This is not gonna be a normal party.’

  Jarrod was not a fan of either Nick or Charity’s. Faith’s sister and her husband ran in completely different social circles: Jarrod was a former criminal defense lawyer and Nick was a scheming petty criminal. His trade was fixing transmissions, but he was always looking for a way to beat the system, score unemployment, cheat the IRS. Aside from the weather and the Dolphins, there wasn’t much for the two of them to talk about when they did get together, unless Nick wanted to put Jarrod on retainer. Charity wasn’t like that necessarily, but having Kammy so young and marrying Nick had made her completely dependent on him and it had changed her. That’s the Charity Jarrod saw.

  ‘You’re being dramatic,’ she’d said.

  ‘Drama is your sister’s middle name. Wait till she finds Nick in the bathroom banging another one of her girlfriends – you’ll see some drama.’

  ‘Jarrod …’ she’d scolded, nodding at Maggie, who’d sat quietly watching both of them, the blonde pigtails on the top of her head flopping about as she followed the conversation.

  ‘Better hide the cutlery,’ he’d added.

  ‘You’re welcome to come.’

  ‘I’ve never wanted to write a motion for summary judgment as badly as I do today.’

  ‘I bet.’

  ‘I’d like to talk you out of making a two-hundred-mile drive in a tropical storm is what I’d like to do.’

  ‘I wish he’d consulted me before he planned it,’ she replied, ‘but I wasn’t even on the D list of invitees, apparently.’

  ‘Stay home. With me.’

  ‘Come with us.’ She smiled. ‘On second thought, that’s a terrible idea; you’d be miserable. What are you gonna do all by yourself on a rainy night?’ Even as she asked the question the unsettling, queasy feeling roiled her stomach. She hated that feeling. She hated that, after all these months, she still couldn’t stop having it. She wondered if she’d ever not get nauseous at the thought of what might happen when she left her husband home alone. She looked away, out the open garage door.

  He knew what she was thinking. ‘Order a pizza and finish my motion.’

  She nodded.

  He came up behind her and rubbed her shoulders. ‘I don’t have a good feeling about this. The weather is brutal,’ he said softly, kissing the back of her head. ‘You’re going up to Orlando next week, anyway. Your sister will understand. We can cook something special tonight, chill out with the rain.’

  ‘I can’t miss this party. We’ll be home tomorrow afternoon.’

  ‘What about St Andrew’s?’

  ‘It’s preschool; Maggie can miss a day. And she gets to see her cousins!’ she’d added, turning her attention back to her daughter with a big smile. ‘That’s pretty exciting, right?’

  ‘What’s cutlery?’ Maggie had asked, as a gust of wind ripped an enormous frond off a Royal Palm. It crashed to the ground outside the garage, steps from where she and Jarrod were standing.

  Another streak of lightning cut across the sky, pulling Fai
th’s thoughts out of her garage and back into the moment. In the instantaneous flash of brilliant light she saw the sprawling fields of cane stalks violently twisting in the wind – assembled in tight, neat rows, like a plant army getting ready to march. Then it all went black again.

  Where the hell was she? She could only hope that she was still on 441 and not on her way to Tampa. She thought of the creepy zombie game that she and Charity used to play as kids, where you close your eyes and count and when you open them all the zombies are frozen in place, having silently advanced on you while your back was turned.

  A cold shudder ran down her spine as she forged ahead into the endless black. She couldn’t help but fear what it might look like out there in the middle of nowhere when the lights flashed back on …

  3

  Jarrod was right: Charity did love her drama. Three hours into her party and feeling no pain – thanks to Nick’s hurricanes and more than a few glasses of wine – she decided to invite a little in. When she caught him chatting up some young girl in the living room, amnesty was over.

  ‘Why you gotta look at her like that?’ she’d demanded in a loud voice when he came into the kitchen to get a beer.

  ‘What?’ he’d asked, obviously annoyed.

  ‘That girl. The one in that slutty dress. Why do you have to talk to her, huh? Why?’

  ‘She’s Gator’s girlfriend. Stop being jealous, Char. I was only telling her I liked that dress.’

  ‘Oh? Not her boobs in that dress? What is she, sixteen? She could be your daughter, you know. You’re disgusting.’

  ‘I didn’t ask her how old she was. She looks good in that dress. Real, real good. Now if you looked good in a dress, I’d compliment you, too.’

 
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