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All the little pieces, p.3
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       All the Little Pieces, p.3

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Some mean idiot had crooned an instigative, ‘Ooohh …’

  ‘What does that mean?’ Charity had asked defensively, moving her body in between Nick and the plastic bucket of beers on the counter.

  ‘You know what that means,’ he said, reaching behind her to grab a beer. He poked her in the stomach with his finger. ‘Lay off the Twinkies and birthday cake, honey, and one day you’ll look good in a dress again, too.’

  An embarrassed hush had come over the kitchen crowd. Then one of the Nicknames whooped and laughed. Everyone had heard what Nick said and everyone was waiting for Charity to do something. Throw something. Say something.

  No one had been waiting longer than Faith. ‘What the …?’ she’d started to say, turning to Charity, who was standing next to her looking pathetically weak and as challenging as a kitten. Nick had never hit her sister, but Faith had often thought it’d be better if he had. Maybe if she could see the damage he inflicted with his words she’d realize how badly she’d been hurt.

  Charity started to cry. She wrapped her arms protectively around her belly, obviously ashamed at how she looked.

  It wasn’t her place. Faith knew that now. She shouldn’t have said anything. She should have realized it wasn’t gonna do any good anyway; everyone had had too much to drink. She had, too. But after listening to her sister complain and cry for years, all the pent-up anger bubbled to the surface and spilled out of her like lava from a volcano.

  ‘You know, Nick,’ Faith had snapped, ‘you got a few tires to spare yourself. Charity, will you please finally tell your asshole of a husband to go to hell!’

  But Charity had not told her husband to fuck off or get out or drop dead. She hadn’t squeezed Faith’s hand and thanked her for her support. Instead she’d spun around and glared at her, her face red, her green eyes on fire. ‘You want me to leave him!’ she screamed. ‘That’s your answer! It’s always the answer! Stop doing that to me! Stop doing it already! You don’t know what’s going on here! You’re the one who’s wrong!’

  Instead of Nick, it was Faith who Charity had set on. She was dumbfounded. And mortified. The entire house went quiet. Even the music stopped. ‘I want you to stand up for yourself,’ Faith had barked back when she found her voice again. ‘I want you to have some self-respect for once. You’re better than this loser. You’re better than …’ she gestured around the crowded kitchen, ‘… this.’

  It came out sounding awful. She winced now at the memory of all those people staring back at her.

  ‘That’s real nice. Fuck you, Faith,’ Charity had said.

  It got worse. ‘These people … they’re not your friends, Charity. They’re his. They’re pulling you down, making you believe his shit, like you have to take it!’

  ‘Maybe I don’t want no different. Have you thought of that? ’Cause my life’s not perfect like yours I gotta go change it? It’s not good enough? ’Cause my kid’s flunking school and talking to pervs on the Internet it’s my fault, right? I can’t find a job in this shit town because I’m the fool who didn’t go to college. ’Cause my husband’s screwing my friends and I’m not leaving, it’s my fault? I’m never good enough, never right enough, never mad enough for you, Faith. Stop judging me! You make me feel worse than him!’

  She should’ve walked away then, just said Goodnight Gracie and left. But she didn’t. ‘So I’m the bad guy? I’ve never said anything like that! All I’ve done is listen while you cried and bitched about what a jerk he is. If you don’t have the balls to leave, I want you to stop letting him talk to you like you’re worthless, because you’re believing it. I mean, look at you – you deserve better than this! What does he have to do or say to get you to see that? ’Cause calling you fat and stupid on your birthday in front of all his friends who are laughing at you doesn’t seem to flip the switch. He wants you to leave – don’t you get that? He wants you to leave so that he’s not the bad guy for running out on a wife and three kids – and you’re not reading the cue cards!’

  ‘Hey,’ Nick had said, his hairy face growing dark. ‘You’re in my house now. You and your tight-ass lawyer husband might think you’re better than us, but you’re in my house now.’

  The lava would not go back in. No way, no how. ‘That the bank is foreclosing on,’ she’d snapped. ‘Try paying for it, Nick – then you can call it yours. Try holding a job for more than six months. And while you’re trying to be all man of the house, if you want her to work, get your wife a car that can actually make it to the grocery store and back when she needs to buy your fat ass a six-pack. And one last thing, man-up and stop screwing her friends like a total pig. Or at least have the decency to take them to a Motel Six. Hey,’ Faith had called across the room, ‘Gator! You better keep an eye on your teenage girlfriend over there, because your friend Big Mitts sure is.’

  ‘I never liked you,’ Nick replied angrily. ‘Or your prick husband.’

  Charity had moved next to Nick. He put his hand on her back.

  ‘Get out, Faith,’ Charity had said. ‘Get out of our house. I want you to leave now.’

  Nick reached for Charity’s hand and she grasped it. That’s probably what smarted the most – even more than the stares and snickers. Every Nickname and his spouse/significant other stood watching as Faith headed straight for the door, calling for Maggie to come downstairs. The terrible moment was made that much worse when Maggie started bawling about how she didn’t want to leave. Faith had to physically carry her out of the house, kicking and screaming.

  In the chaos and rush to get out, she’d left both her bag and her cell at Charity’s. It wasn’t until she’d tried to check for directions after Maggie had finally fallen asleep that she’d realized it, but by that point she was too far away to go back. It didn’t matter, though. Even if she were two miles down the road, she wouldn’t have turned around. She was beyond humiliated – she was crushed. Devastated and crushed. Charity would have to mail her stuff to her – after Big Mitts probably emptied the wallet and sold her cell. The tears were streaming down her face now. She never wanted to step foot in her sister’s house ever again.

  Something ran across the road then, in front of her car. Faith jerked the car hard right, heard a thump, and swerved off into the cane field, stopping with her headlights pointing into the tangle of dense stalks that were only inches away.

  Her heart was pounding. There were no more thoughts of Charity or Nick or the crowd of Nicknames at their door, condemning her as her sister banished her into the rainy night. There was no more feeling sorry for herself or thinking up ways to avenge her embarrassment. There was only one thought on her mind now. Only one.

  What the hell did I hit?

  4

  She squinted into the racing wipers, her sweaty hands clutching the steering wheel in a death grip. It was gone. Whatever it was was gone.

  It looked like …?

  She pushed the thought out of her head before her brain could finish it. It was a crazy, impossible thought. She’d only caught a look at whatever it was for a split second. It couldn’t have been a person. Her headlights stared dumbly out into the stalks.

  It must’ve been an animal. A deer. Maybe a dog. People dumped dogs in the Everglades. It was terrible, but they did. She was probably in the damn Everglades. Or even a bear. She’d read about some lady in Orlando who had walked out and found one picking through the garbage in her garage.

  What if it’s still out there, under the car?

  The thought made her want to vomit. The sky lit up. The angry cane army had indeed advanced during the blackout – its stalks hovered menacingly over the hood of the Explorer now, their razor sharp fronds clawing furiously at the metal.

  She turned off the radio and tried to listen. It was hard to hear anything over the rain and the scraping of the stalks and the furious beating of her heart pounding in her ears. Nothing. There was no barking, no whimpering. No moaning.

  She rubbed her eyes and shook the fog from her head. Had she nodded off? Had
she imagined she saw something? There was only one way to really know. She turned and checked on Maggie – who was still fast asleep under her Cha-Cha – opened the door and stepped out into the downpour. She ran to the front of the car on jelly legs, holding her breath as she approached the cane field and the front end of the truck.

  Nothing. There was nothing there. Nothing splayed across her hood. Nothing stuck to her grille. Nothing lying on the ground.

  ‘Hello?’ she called out into the night.

  Nothing yelled back.

  She tried to look under the car, but she couldn’t see a thing. She stumbled back to the car, her feet sinking in the muddy ground. She climbed back in the driver’s seat and toweled off, staring out at the angry cane. She was still shaking, her head spinning. Sheets of rain whipped across the windshield as the wipers raced to keep up.

  You must have imagined it.

  She slowly backed the car onto the road, holding her breath as she did, every muscle in her body tensed. Her headlights stared at the pull-off where the truck had been. Nothing. There was still nothing there. She finally exhaled.

  You’re tired, is all. Tired and upset. You’re not thinking clearly.

  She put the car into drive, watching the stalks where she’d just been as she drove off. The plant army writhed and roiled in the expansive field, beckoning her to come back.

  She was scared now – she was physically and mentally exhausted and perhaps nodding off at the wheel. She had no cell and was somewhere in the middle of nowhere, although she was still reluctant to say ‘lost’ – that word would set off a total panic and she never thought clearly under pressure. She could feel the fear brewing in her belly, trying to force its way up into her throat, and she tried to swallow it back down, along with the icky sweetness from the hurricanes. She probably shouldn’t have had that last drink at Charity’s, damn it. It was hard to think straight. She’d felt it when she stood up. She had a quarter of a tank of gas, which should be enough to get her home, but what if she was going in the wrong direction? What if she ran out of gas? Jarrod wasn’t expecting her till tomorrow afternoon. No one knew where she was. She was sure Charity hadn’t called him to say she’d kicked her out and, ‘Oh, by the way, Faith left her cell and bag at my house when she stormed out of here crying.’ Charity probably didn’t even know that Faith had left her bag behind. She probably should have turned around and gone back, but she’d let pride force her into making a bad decision. She should’ve stopped and gotten a hotel near Sebring and driven home clear-headed in the morning, but Maggie was so upset and so out of control that Faith had just wanted to go home. That’s all it was – she’d just wanted to go home.

  A series of bad decisions had led her here; panicking would make things worse. She needed directions, was all. And a phone so she could call Jarrod so someone would know where she was. Maybe he could come find her, get her, meet her out here, take her home …

  As quickly as it came to her, Faith dismissed the romantic thought of a midnight rescue in a rainstorm by her husband. No matter how mad she was at Charity, she didn’t want Jarrod thinking less of her sister. He already didn’t like her. If he found out about tonight, he’d be beyond angry with Charity: he would hate her. Nothing would ever change that – he was German and decisive. Although Faith wasn’t sure about the future of her relationship with her sister, she didn’t want her husband forcing her into making a decision she wasn’t sure she wanted to make. If she and Charity did manage to repair things – which they had in the past after some other whopping fights (they were sisters, after all) – Jarrod would always be there to remind her how Charity had treated her tonight, even if he didn’t say a word. She would know he knew about the stares and the snickers and the humiliation. And he would be right to wonder why she had allowed her sister back into her life.

  She wiped the tears defiantly, this time before they fell. Charity had been there before when Faith had needed her … after the phone call that had changed everything. She didn’t know all the ugly details, but her sister had been supportive in her own way without knowing exactly what Faith was struggling with at the time or why she was so depressed. She hadn’t told her about Jarrod’s affair for the same reason he didn’t need to know about everything that had gone down at Charity’s tonight: Faith had never wanted her sister to hate her husband in the event she decided to forgive him. She’d never wanted Charity to think less of her for staying with a man who had strayed. After all the advice Faith had handed out over the years, she’d never wanted to be accused of being a hypocrite. Damn, her brain hurt from dredging up painful memories and betrayals. She wanted to go home and think things through before she made any more bad decisions. She was getting too good at that.

  Then she saw it – the glowing red and yellow sign off in the distance. It was a fast food, or motel sign, she couldn’t tell. It was a business of some kind, of that she was sure. She breathed an enormous sigh of relief for the third time that night.

  There was life up ahead.

  5

  Faith followed the glow through the asphalt maze that wound through the cane stalks until she came upon a lone, old-fashioned Shell station with two pumps at a four-way stop in an otherwise remote, isolated area. The station was closed.

  She could feel the panic building inside, with the same fever and intensity as the rain pattering on her roof. Where the hell was she? And what should she do now? The street sign on the corner said Main Street. OK. Main Streets always ran through the center of a town, right? The thought encouraged her, although she couldn’t help but wonder what the rest of the ‘town’ must look like if this was where the hubbub was supposed to be happening. Then she spotted a road sign with a pointing arrow: SR 441/ US 98.

  What road she was on before, whether she was ever really lost, didn’t matter any more because now she could find her way home. She followed the sign down a desolate Main Street, past a blinking, swinging streetlight, and finally into what looked like a small, one-street town. There were boarded-up buildings, a closed convenience store, a shuttered Chinese restaurant. A thrift store/hardware store/barber shop, all in one. Another streetlight that was blinking yellow. A medical clinic.

  The buildings appeared old and rundown, dating to the forties or fifties, if she had to guess. Most of the signs were hand-painted on the businesses that looked like they were still in business: Chub’s BBQ, Sudsy Coin Laundry, Frank’s Restaurant. Other businesses were clearly gone and had been for quite a while. It looked like a town that might have had a heyday a very long time ago.

  There were no cars parked on the street or in the little lots adjacent to some of the buildings. It was only her in the Town That Used To Be. The wind rocked the street’s second and final traffic light. She watched it swing back and forth on the cable like a gymnast getting ready to flip over. A streak of lightning splintered the sky, striking terrifyingly close. Raindrops the size of quarters began to ferociously pummel the car, making it literally impossible to see more than a few feet in front of her. She was in the heart of the storm. There would be no outrunning this rain band or driving through it. She pulled over defeatedly in front of a sign that said ‘Valda’s Hair Salon’, which she couldn’t tell was closed for the night or closed forever.

  The adrenaline rush from running off the road earlier had subsided. She wasn’t panicked now as much as she was mentally overwhelmed and physically exhausted. And discouraged, because even though she was on the right road, she was still a long, long way from home.

  Time for a smart decision – maybe the first one of the night. It was probably best to wait out the squall and let the worst of the rain band pass. What she didn’t want was to get lost again. Or run out of gas. Or worse, have an accident. There was no one out here to help her. She turned off the car to save gas, raised the volume on the radio so Maggie wouldn’t hear the thunder, and settled back to wait out the rain. The bands seemed to move quick; the worst rain should pass through in the next ten minutes.

  Fait
h turned and watched Maggie, still shrouded in her blanket like a ghost, sleeping peacefully in the rearview. Her hand had slipped out the side of her Cha-Cha and tiny fingers – that Faith noticed her cousins had painted a bright pink – clutched Eeyore to her chest. She was definitely out for the night, which was a very good thing, having slept through Faith’s run off the road and into the cane stalks, and now through rain that sounded like a million Drummer Boys going at it on the roof. She placed the beach towel over Maggie’s bare feet. Watching her sleep made it easy to forget how difficult raising her was at times, although one look at the back of the passenger seat would probably remind her – there was likely a hole in it from the latest tantrum. Maggie’s ‘fits’ were one of the reasons she and Jarrod had decided not to get a new car for a few years – one that would have had GPS; they were waiting for Maggie to grow out of this challenging phase that was looking more and more like a condition.

  Faith leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes. Her brain had no more real estate left for a new worry. And she didn’t want to think about Charity’s kitchen, or Jarrod’s intern, or the snickering Nicknames who would be talking about her in the morning over an Alka Seltzer. Instead, to pass the time, she thought about all the things she had to do tomorrow: she had a stack of purchase orders at Sweet Sisters that had to be signed, then the ad copy had to be written for the paper, and Maggie had ballet at four. If they were going to see a movie, it would have to be before that. There was laundry in the bucket …

  A loud but muted bang sounded near where her head was resting against the seat, by the window. She sat up with a jolt and looked around. The SUV’s windows were all fogged. She wiped the drool from her mouth and looked at the dashboard clock: 1:11.

  Thwap!

  It was at the driver’s side window. Something had hit the window.

  ‘Help me!’ a voice said.

 
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