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All the little pieces, p.9
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       All the Little Pieces, p.9

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  She’d decided not to bare her soul about the argument with her sister. She didn’t want Jarrod throwing verbal darts at her for the next however-many Christmases they were together. She’d navigate the relationship with Charity by herself.

  ‘Have you talked to her today?’

  ‘We texted.’

  ‘Everything all right?’

  ‘It will be.’

  She didn’t want to talk or explain any more tonight. She’d relived it too many times in her head already. She just wanted the day to be over. Octavius was gone, but the breezy weather remained. Through the crack in the drapes, a sliver of light shone on the ceiling. She watched the shadows of the palm fronds dance about, writhing in the wind. She could hear them rustling outside her window. It reminded her of the cane stalks and she shut her eyes and rolled over on her side.

  ‘Was everybody drunk at this party?’ Jarrod asked quietly.

  He was a skilled litigator, ensnaring many a witness with his cleverly worded questions. She knew where he was going, what he was really trying to ask. ‘No,’ she replied simply.

  He moved closer to her in the bed, wrapping his arms around her cozily, spooning her body. He was only wearing underwear. He kissed the back of her neck. ‘I missed you last night,’ he said softly. His warm hands rubbed her outer thigh, pushing her nightie up, feeling the curve of her hip and the softness of her waist. His fingers delicately traced a line from her belly button up to the fold of skin underneath her breasts, then back down again. Up, and back down. Each time his fingers ventured a little bit further in each direction, tugging at her panties, sliding them down inch-by-inch off her hips.

  Before Sandra, she loved having sex with Jarrod. When he looked at her a certain way, with his head cocked, his piercing green eyes saying things she once thought were only meant for her to understand, he could make her wet from across a crowded room. He was mischievously handsome, with tousled sandy-blond curls to go with those magnetic eyes, defined cheekbones, a boyish, broad grin. Physically he hadn’t changed much from the days of playing college baseball: he still had the V-shaped body of an athlete, his muscular chest hairless and cut in all the right places. He ran several times a week and went to the gym. But it was his sultry, smooth charm that Faith had always found made him even more attractive – the appetizer to the physical entrée. It was an honest charm – he made friends easily and won over juries because he was the successful, handsome and all-around great guy that most people couldn’t believe they had the incredibly good fortune of being friends with. He could be sexy on a phone without trying when he was asking what her plans were for dinner. He could make her do things in bed she shouldn’t want to do.

  They were supposed to be OK after the affair. It was out in the open. It was over. It was a mistake. It was time to move on and get back to where they’d been. And that included making love with the passion and intensity and frequency that they used to.

  Her panties were off now. His hand had moved up over her breast, cupping it in his hand, his fingers caressing her erect nipple as his tongue found her ear. She could feel his penis through his underwear, hard against her naked buttocks. He gently flipped her over on her back and climbed on top of her, his mouth finding her breasts as his hand slipped between her thighs.

  Her body still wanted him. When he touched her, physically she still responded. The problem was her brain – it couldn’t seem to get past the betrayal and her own stupidity in not seeing it coming long before the dirty details of his three-month affair were divulged to her on the phone by his lover. She hoped that would happen in a matter of time, that the brain and body would reconcile on the same sexual plane that they used to exist on. She hoped that in time, if she physically forced it, she would love him the way she used to. She knew that other women in the same situation withheld sex as a form of punishment, but when she had made the decision to stay in the marriage she had also decided that wouldn’t be her. She wouldn’t be a bitter wife waiting to passively-aggressively express her anger in the bedroom. She would, in fact, be the opposite. She would do what he wanted when he wanted sexually to show him what a great wife she was, what a great wife she always was, what he had almost lost forever when he screwed that bitch. Her body was the compliant traitor. In the meantime, her brain could go somewhere else for twenty minutes.

  She grabbed the curls on both sides of his head with her hands and pulled him up off her breasts, pulling his face close to hers, holding it inches from her own. She couldn’t see his eyes in the dark, if he was watching hers or if they were closed. She wondered if he ever wondered what she was thinking. She felt his warm breath on her skin, his lips parted, his mouth waiting for her to make the next move.

  ‘I love you,’ he said then.

  The grandfather clock began to chime downstairs. Tomorrow was finally here.

  She pulled his head down, putting his mouth to hers and silencing him, as her body arched into his, like it had done so many times before.

  18

  Two weeks later Nick was out.

  Actually, since the bank had initiated foreclosure proceedings and no one had done anything to stop them, eviction was imminent, so Charity and the kids were out, too. Charity, however, didn’t want to be out with her husband. According to the order of protection, she didn’t want to be within five hundred feet of Nicholas Lavecki.

  He’d hit her. She’d hit him first, but he’d hit her back, and that’s what finally did it. After a night out drinking with the Nicknames, Nick had passed out on the futon and Charity had gone through his cell, something she probably should’ve done months, even years, before. Nick didn’t lock his phone or try to hide it; she’d never looked because she didn’t want to see for herself what everyone else knew was going on.

  While Nick was passed out, Charity cleaned house. She read the texts from the multiple women and saw the pictures. Then she went looking and found the gambling chits in his sock drawer, and the credit card statements from the Visa card she never knew he had – most of the charges were made at bars and strip clubs. They were drowning in debt.

  When he came to, she had out the Louisville Slugger. She’d finished off a bottle of wine herself. She got in one round, and then Big Mitts got in his. Kamilla called the cops. Both of them went to jail – which is where Charity had called her from. It was the first time they had spoken since the birthday party. Charity got out first, thanks to Faith, who’d wired the bond money. And Charity got the first restraining order, thanks to Faith who’d hired the defense attorney. When she got back home from the hearing she saw the Notice of Eviction taped to her front door. That’s when she found out she was going to be homeless.

  Her sister was in no state to put her life back together. All she could do was cry and count down the days she had left in the duplex while her three kids tried to figure out what to do about dinner.

  Numerous times over the years Faith had asked Charity to come stay with her, but that was not an option now, for a number of reasons. In order for Charity to successfully break away from Nick and her life in Sebring she needed a long-term plan, not a short-term solution. Emotionally she was weak: Nick had gutted her self-esteem, so that she was unable to see a future without someone in it supporting her – that someone being him. So from the moment she stepped away from her old life she had to be invested in her future – emotionally, physically, and financially – not camping out on her sister’s couch, irritating her brother-in-law, wallowing in self-pity, biding time till Nick came calling. She needed her own life and she needed to see she could be successful at running it. With Vivian’s help, Faith found a modest, three-bedroom apartment in Coral Springs near the bakery and within walking distance of the middle and elementary schools. Their mom agreed to give Charity her old Jetta, as the bank was going to repossess Charity’s mini-van once they found it. She set Charity up to work at Sweet Sisters when the kids were in school, and found a low-cost daycare down the street from the bakery for the little one.

  And
she footed the bill for it all, on the understanding that Charity would be responsible for at least a portion of her monthly bills until she got on her feet, however long that took. All she had left to do was physically get her sister down to South Florida before Nick came back around. The day after wiring the bail money, she drove to Sebring, rented a small U-Haul and in a single morning she and Kamilla packed up the kitchen, the kids’ stuff, and Charity’s closet, loaded everything in the U-Haul, and headed back down to Coral Springs, with Charity following right behind her. She took the Turnpike up and back, avoiding 441 and the rural back roads. With any luck, she would never have to drive on them ever again.

  Faith was a month shy of her nineteenth birthday when she’d left home for college. She had never returned. Oh, she’d gone back for Thanksgiving and Christmas and summer breaks, but she never boomeranged back to the nest after graduation, like most of her friends had. But when she’d walked out the door of her childhood home in Miami Shores that sweltering August morning in 2001, she had no idea that she wouldn’t be back. She probably wouldn’t have left if she had, because the thought of leaving her home and her family forever would have been too overwhelming; even though she was aching for independence at that age, she was still a homebody. On that day Charity was sitting at the breakfast bar in sweatpants and a Nirvana T-shirt eating a bowl of Captain Crunch, watching Faith load the car. Their mom couldn’t get off work, so Vivian’s parents were taking them both up to UF. Once the last bag had been thrown in the trunk and she’d reclaimed her favorite jeans from the back of Charity’s closet, she’d returned to the kitchen, patted her sister down for anything else of hers that she might’ve tried to ‘borrow’, kissed her goodbye, and … that was it. There was no fanfare. No mopey tears or drawn-out clutching, lamenting when the two of them would be together again. She’d just driven off, hand waving out the window, watching in the side-view mirror as her house and her mother and her sister got smaller, never understanding at the time how nothing would ever be the same. Because she had no idea she wouldn’t be back. She was looking forward to the future, not missing the past as it waved goodbye to her.

  Now here was Charity, back in her rearview, behind her in the U-Haul, a sullen Kamilla beside her in the passenger seat, staring out the window. Torn from her home and her friends without notice, it might be years before Kammy smiled again. Faith couldn’t see the tears rolling down Charity’s face – just as she couldn’t that day she’d left for college – but she knew they were there. Because unlike Faith – who, when she’d left, had always thought she would return home – Charity knew she wouldn’t. This part of her life was over.

  ‘I’m hungry, Aunt Faif,’ said a small voice in the back seat. It was her niece, Kaelyn, who’d been so quiet, Faith had almost forgotten she was in the car. Strapped in another car seat beside her was a sleeping Kourtney – or ‘Mistake’, as Big Mitts liked to affectionately call her. Charity called her Boppy.

  ‘Hey there, sugar,’ Faith said into the rearview. ‘I was thinking that I need to get gas. Did you have any lunch?’

  Kaelyn shook her head.

  ‘Then let’s get you and Boppy something to eat. I bet Mommy and Kammy are hungry, too. How about a burger? Do you like McDonald’s?’ Crazy question. Charity wasn’t much of a cook. Her idea of a balanced diet was Burger King for lunch and McDonald’s for dinner. She followed a semi off the Turnpike and into a Shell station.

  Kaelyn nodded. The little girl was so polite and sweet. Just about the same age as Maggie, they were buddies whenever they got together. Her front teeth were missing, and she had chubby, freckled cheeks and a mop of light brown hair that ran halfway down her back. Unfortunately, she looked a lot like her father.

  ‘All right. Let’s gas up first and then we’ll grab some grub.’

  ‘I don’t want that. I want a burger,’ Mini-Mitts said softly. ‘Please.’

  Faith smiled. ‘Grub is another word for food. Aunt Faith was trying to be funny.’

  ‘Oh,’ replied Kaelyn, rubbing her nose. And obviously Aunt Faith wasn’t succeeding.

  Faith pulled the Explorer alongside a pump and Charity pulled the U-Haul in behind her. ‘Let’s gas up and then get the kids some food, OK?’ Faith said, walking up to Charity’s open window. ‘Boppy’s still asleep. Will she get up soon?’

  ‘Not if you keep driving,’ Charity replied absently. Now Faith could see the tear streaks and the swollen, bloodshot eyes.

  ‘You OK?’

  Charity nodded.

  ‘Well, I saw a sign for a McDonald’s up ahead. I know the kids didn’t have lunch. Viv is stocking your fridge at the apartment, so you’ll have stuff for the morning. We can grab a pizza tonight. I doubt anybody wants to cook.’

  She nodded again. ‘Whatever. I’m not hungry.’

  Faith squeezed her sister’s hand. ‘It’s not an ending, it’s a beginning.’

  Charity wiped away another tear as it slipped down her cheek. ‘Thanks.’

  ‘How’s Kammy doing?’ Faith asked. ‘Kammy, are you doing OK?’

  Kamilla didn’t reply and Charity rolled her eyes. Faith was happy she wasn’t in that car.

  She gassed up both cars and headed into the station. On her way in, she held the door open for an old guy in a battered coat and high-top sneakers. She could smell the beer as he passed. ‘Watch out,’ he mumbled angrily as he shuffled past. She wasn’t sure whom he was talking to. Then he turned around.

  ‘They know what you did!’ he yelled at her. Bits of spittle sprayed the air.

  ‘Excuse me?’ she asked, taken aback. She still didn’t know who he was talking to.

  He squinted at her. ‘You better run, young lady. Better get in that car of yours and get the hell out of here!’ He sniffed at the air and nodded his head, as if there were a person standing beside him. He lowered his voice to almost a whisper. ‘Your fear gives you away; I can smell it. You stink of nasty secrets!’

  ‘Skipper …’ yelled the clerk from across the store. ‘Come on. Leave the lady alone.’

  ‘When you give them the pound of flesh they come for, it’s gonna hurt.’

  Faith shook her head as the man stumbled out, still mumbling. ‘Everybody pays. We all pay. Can’t get out of paying when the devil wants his due …’

  She watched through the glass doors as he made his way across the lot, muttering to himself and gesticulating as if he was in a heated argument with someone right beside him. She wanted to make sure he didn’t walk over to the cars.

  ‘Don’t listen to him,’ said the clerk. ‘He’s an old, sick geezer. Drinks too much. I think he’s got something mentally wrong with him. Comes around all the time, telling us how we need to be preparing for the end of days. He’s harmless – really.’

  Faith nodded uneasily. She picked up a pack of gum and a couple of candy bars for the kids, searching through her purse for her wallet as she walked to the counter. ‘I need a pack of Marlboro Lights, too. I’m on pumps five and six,’ she said as she dug out her AMEX card. ‘The U-Haul and the black—’

  When she looked up to hand her card to the clerk, she froze. Everything – her hand, her words, her thoughts. Everything stopped in its tracks. She stared at the poster behind the clerk’s head.

  ‘We don’t take American Express. Do you have another card?’

  Faith looked at him blankly. She didn’t understand what he’d said. Not a word. Her knees began to shake.

  ‘Another card?’ he asked, pointing at the AMEX in Faith’s still-outstretched hand. ‘Do you have another card, ma’am?’

  It was a handmade poster, like one you might see stapled to a telephone pole or a tree, advertising a garage sale or a found cat. But it wasn’t anything as innocuous as that. On this poster was a smiling photo of a girl with dark brown eyes and long, dark hair.

  ‘Do you want to pay with cash?’

  On her neck was a tattoo of a pink heart wrapped in chains.

  ‘Ma’am? Hello there? I can’t take this card. I told
you.’

  It was not just any girl. It was not just any poster.

  Handwritten in block lettering above the smiling face of the girl who had asked for her help weeks ago in the rain was the word MISSING.

  19

  She had finally stopped thinking about that night. After checking the papers and Internet for days and finding nothing, she’d figured everything was OK, that there was no need to keep worrying.

  ‘Who is that girl?’ Faith asked the clerk hesitantly.

  ‘Huh?’

  ‘That girl. The one in the poster,’ she managed, pointing. ‘The one behind you. Who is she?’

  The clerk looked behind him, as if seeing the poster for the first time himself. ‘Um, I don’t really know. I mean, I don’t know her personally. I’ve seen her before, in here. Her mom lives around here, I think. She works at the Animal. Not her mom, you know, but Angel.’

  MISSING

  Angelina ‘Angel’ Santri, 19

  5’3, 110 pounds

  Missing since Friday, October 17

  ‘The Animal? What is that?’

  ‘Animal Instincts. It’s a club, you know? Like a gentlemen’s club?’ He chuckled because she kept staring at him. ‘It’s a strip club. She’s a dancer there. Her mom, I think, asked my boss if she could put it up. The lady might’ve worked here once – not Angel, but her mom. Worked the register, ya know?’

  Faith shook her head. No, I don’t know! she wanted to yell at him. She stared at the poster: Missing since Friday, October 17. The weekend of Charity’s birthday party.

  ‘You know her?’ the clerk asked.

  ‘No, no …’ she replied quickly. ‘I don’t know her.’

  He pulled the poster off the wall. ‘You sure? Want to look at it?’

  ‘No.’ She stepped back from the counter. ‘She looks like my friend’s kid. That’s what I was thinking, but it’s, ah, it’s not her.’

 
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