My dad’s life was tragic. He had grown up in the ghettos of LA fighting in gang wars, had spent years in prison for the murder of a man, and then had found God while inside. He loved my mother and did right by her by marrying her when I was two, but fate has a way of canceling out all the good effort you put into life. An old crime put him away again, DNA evidence proving he had helped hide another body when he was young.
After my mom died, I received a call from him. It was the first time we’d spoken in a year. He was going to get out soon and he told me how much he wanted to be there for me. I told him he should have been here to stop the home intruder from killing my mom. I was fourteen and so full of anger.
Two months later, he was released and asked if I wanted to live with him. I said no.
It was only natural that he fell in love again. They married and moved away from LA. He asked me to come with him, but I refused.
My dad’s life was tragic because he was never able to hold on to anything good. When his house burned down, his wife and child burned with it.
I was twenty, a waitress, and addicted to Vicodin. I worked the night shift at Denny’s. I slept on my friend’s couch in her one-bedroom apartment. My car was broken down and had been towed by the city and I never had enough money to get it out of impound. My dealer was on speed dial.
And that’s how Jacob found me.
There was a tall, broad, and scowling man in my front door. We looked at each other, each sizing the other up. He was obviously a cowboy hick, just missing a piece of hay in his mouth. “Billy lives in twenty-three,” I said, then I started to close the door.
Who was this man who knew my name? “What?”
“I’m here about your pa.”
It took me a moment to register what he meant. “My dad?” I said slowly. I had stomach cramps from overindulging and my head was stuffed with warm, pleasing cotton. “Why?” I said suspiciously.
“May I come in?”
I raised an eyebrow at his courtesy and turned to go to the kitchen. In the fridge was mayo and some old Chinese food stuffed so far in the back it must be radioactive by now.
“I don’t have anything…” I said, waving my hand around the tiny kitchen. He seemed like the kind of guy who wanted to sit down with a cup of joe and chat before getting down to business. Luckily, I did have two chairs.
I motioned him into one and I took the other.
He was a big guy; his arms swelled under his button-up shirt. Bits of his dark hair showed from under his cowboy hat. His clean-shaven jaw was smooth enough to make me want to run my hand over it in a reaction that was very unlike me. His expression was serious, which made him even more handsome.
He was really tall. I’m five foot nothing and don’t usually care much about height, but this guy was two inches taller than above average and it made him stand out. Even while sitting he was massive. Hello, did I just invite a bear into my apartment?
I focused on his face and tried to look like I wasn’t high. My friend said I had a ‘high face’ and that it wasn’t very attractive. Thanks, Jean, now you got me thinking about how I look.
“So, what’s this about?” I said, managing to string two sentences together without getting lost.
“I have some bad news, Miss Dunn.” I waited, then nodded to make him go on. “Your pa is no longer with us.”
My dad had moved to a community where they lived old-fashioned. There were farms and windmills and stuff.
“Where’d he go?” I discreetly rubbed some sleep from my eye.
“Is that like, another town?” What was the name of the place he’d been living? Humility? Chastity?
He stared at me for so long with such a disapproving look that I finally jumped to the right conclusion. “He died?”
He gave a short, serious nod.
I took in a deep breath, then let it out in a contemplative groan. I licked my dry lips. My eyes were half-lidded because the Vicodin was starting to reach that peaceful high point. Was this my high face?
“So…” I blinked and realized I had paused for too long. “Is he dead?”
The thing is, when a real-life cowboy in your home tells you that you’re coming with him to see your dead dad, you don’t really question anything. Dead dad, check. Hot cowboy, check. Vicodin, check. I said ‘okay’ and he let me pack. Good thing I had a full supply. My large baggie was tossed into the duffel bag and I just barely remembered to add my toothbrush.
Once we were in his macho black truck, I asked, “Where are we going?”
Ah, that’s right. My dad had lived in Deliverance. There was some sort of Puritan heritage thing going on there. His wife had been named Honor and the one time I met her I got the impression that she always wore long pilgrim dresses and no makeup.
“Right,” I drawled, then stared out the window.
I fell asleep and when I woke up, Jacob was carrying me into a hotel room. Night had fallen and with it my excellent high. If I hadn’t been feeling so shitty, I might have made a move on the man holding me. There was only one bed in here and I thought, that’s just fine with me, but then he went through a connecting door to another room and I was alone. I made myself get up and take enough Vicodin to help me sleep, then I was gone, floating.
During our road trip, I remembered to call my friend and we gossiped about the weirdness that was my life. She wished me luck with hunky-hunk cowboy man.
Jacob and I didn’t talk much because neither of us put any effort into starting a conversation. I was the reserved type and he seemed to be judging me too harshly to have anything nice to say. People sometimes said I was shy, but I liked to think I was just independent of the need to fill the air with words.
Montana was a long way from LA and my ass was numb and my legs were atrophied by the time we passed a wood sign that read,
The road was gravel and there was about nothing to see for miles: fields, a few trees, and the giant bowl of the blue sky. The first building I saw was a barn, then a house, then beyond that was a tractor kicking up a plume of dust. I pressed a piece of minty gum into my mouth and for the first time thought of my dad.
I knew he’d come out here to find some kind of peace. He had said how painful it was to carry the burdens he had on his soul. Killing a man, he had said, was the best way to give yourself nightmares for the rest of your life.
“How did he die?” I asked.
It was like the silence in the truck had been waiting for me to ask. I could hear Jacob thinking how to phrase it.
“Heart attack,” he said and I nodded.
If I would have guessed, I would have assumed lung cancer. Dad had always smelled like smoke. “When’s the service?” I asked.
I felt his eyes on me but I kept staring out the window.
“Cool,” I said.
We were driving past barns and farmhouses and lots of flat land. In the distance, mountains rose into the hazy air. We parked in front of one of the houses, a white two-story with blue shutters and an old tree that had a real, honest-to-god tire swing hanging from a stout branch. I rolled my eyes as I waited for Jacob to open my door. The first time I had got out on my own, when we’d stopped to pee at a McDonald’s, he had scowled at me so hard I thought his face would get stuck that way.
I got out and popped my spine by pressing my shoulder blades together. It was a habit that I started in high school; the desk chairs were the perfect height to get a nice long series of pops. I caught Jacob’s look as if he wanted to smack me upside the head. I turned my face away because Jacob was always judging me for breathing and I was really starting to dislike the guy, muscles and Stetson and all.
A woman opened the screen door to watch us approach the house. She was in a full-length dress with a starched white apron tied around her waist. She was older and shared Jacob’s disapproving glare. She had her gray hair up in a tight bun. Jacob marched us toward her and I lagged behind. This was the kind of woman who wouldn’t bother to argue with you, she’d just start a blood feud that would last ten generations.
“Jacob,” she said, and she turned it into a question at the end. She was asking how the trip had gone, and if he had stayed out of trouble.
“Ma,” he replied. I heard: ‘She’s a witch, Ma. Throw her down a well before I have to look at her one more time.’
His mom nodded deeply like that was exactly what she had expected. Then her eyes landed on me. Set me before a firing squad so I don’t have to go through that again. She looked at my Converse, my baggy jeans, and my off the shoulder t-shirt. The collar had been ripped off and I liked the look. Go suck a toad, old woman.
She grunted again, a woman finding that what she was looking at lacked anything to be impressed with. I lifted my eyes up to my dad. Had he really lived here with these people?
The woman stood aside to let us in. I half wondered if she was about to shut the door in my face, but she let me pass. It was quaint inside but also ordinary. It was very clean. The wood floor shone and there wasn’t any dust or cobwebs. This farmhouse was magazine-ready, not chainsaw-massacre-ready. She obviously cared about her home.
I heard voices in the kitchen and tensed up. I wasn’t ready to start chatting with strangers. In fact, I decided right then and there that I’d just go get my duffel bag and ask to be shown to my room. After my dad’s funeral, I was going to hitch a ride back to LA because I wasn’t about to sit next to Jacob again while he whittled away the time by judging me with every silent breath.
“I’ll just get my stuff,” I said so that Jacob would hear. I even pointed my thumb over my shoulder as if he didn’t know where his truck was.
“Stay,” he said like he was talking to a dog that he hated.
My jaw worked. He was still walking down the hall toward the voices and Miss Ma was behind me, caging me in. What was I going to do, rush her like a football player?
We stepped into the kitchen. It was filled with sunlight and women. Most of them were young, a couple younger than me. They all wore dresses similar to Jacob’s mom. They all turned when we came in and hushed right up, looking at me curiously. There was an uncomfortable silence before one of the women, a brunette who was about thirty, took the task of moving first.
She poured some lemonade from a pitcher into a glass on the island. “Welcome home,” she said to Jacob with a smile.
That broke the spell and the rest of the women chirped in, too. I watched Jacob hug a couple of women, wrapping them up in his big arms and resting his chin on their heads.
He turned to me. “I would like to introduce Celeste Dunn, Harry Dunn’s daughter.” He said it very formally.
I gave a tight smile to these strange women all the while feeling Miss Ma near my back. “Hi,” I said with a small wave.
Then I was rushed. The women shook my hand and some of them hugged me. I tried to keep up with names but failed. Look, I wanted to say, I’m only here for like one shake of a goat’s leg, or whatever. But they were treating me like I was some long lost relative.
I have this way about me. It’s like a superpower. When I only respond in single syllables, people give up and leave me alone. So after the assault, the women started chatting with each other. There was going to be a funeral at the cemetery, then a feast afterward. That was the gist I got because they were all concerned about what food they were going to bring and that no one would bring the same dish. I stood stupidly at the edge of the room, watching them.
Suddenly, I heard the calls of children. A full army of small heads passed outside the window and a boy around twelve popped his head in the back door. “Mother, Clemency’s hurt. She hit her head on a rock.”
The brunette woman broke away and went to the boy. I slid sideways to the nearest window. Holy cow, there were about a million kids out there. I tried to count heads until I got lost at seventeen. They all wore old-fashioned clothes, although you couldn’t tell so much with the boys who wore blue jeans or rough slacks along with white shirts. The girls were in dresses, plain ones with sleeves. I had stepped into Little House on the Prairie. Some girls even had big floppy bows in their hair. I slyly glanced around at the women in the room, at the long skirts and neat hair in buns. None of the women had their hair down like mine was and I was the only one with blue and green stripes in my dirty blonde hair. So, I thought, that’s the way it is. I held my feelings back until I’d turned to the window again. If any of the kids had been looking, they would have got a face full of eye roll.
The chatter built back up again and I took my cue. It was easy to slide away from the crowd, down the empty hall, then outside. I breathed. What crazy people. What was so wrong with women wearing pants? The suffragettes had gone through a serious revolution for the right; you’d think these women would be more grateful.
I yanked my duffel bag from the truck and headed to the porch where I wouldn’t be disturbed. Checking around, I made sure no brats were spying before I popped a couple of happy pills. So, tomorrow, commit dead dad to the ground and then head out of Dodge. I took the time to look around a bit more. I saw a windmill, just like I’d always pictured there would be. A red barn peaked from the flat land. A truck picked up a cloud of dust. Dad and his second wife had been happy here; I knew because he sometimes sent me letters. It was kind of sad that Honor and her kid had died in the fire. That had been my half-sister. A good person would have felt an ache in her chest about that, but I was a loser, a bum, an addict, a slut, and how could I forget, a bitch, so I didn’t really feel anything in the way of sadness for them. I wondered where they had lived and if Dad had deeded the property and his assets to me. Was I going to get an inheritance?
I took out a joint and lit it. It seemed like the right thing to do. Dad liked his tobacco, I liked my ganja. “Well, Dad,” I said tightly, speaking through lungs full of THC, “I’m finally here.” I breathed out the smoke. “And it’s fucking weird,” I finished under my breath.
The screen door banged open and Jacob was glaring at me. It was losing its effectiveness. I stared blandly back. He saw the joint I held between my fingers and his eyes narrowed.
“Want some?” I offered it to him.
His nose went up a notch and I saw his mom in him. “Put that out,” he stated firmly.
Instead, I drew another hit, watching him. Hey, it was my dad who’d died. Then he stepped swiftly to me and snatched it from my fingers. My mouth fell open. “Hey,” I cried as he ground the joint under his boot. “Asshole.” I stood up, ready to… Ready to do something. Get in a screaming match.
Instead, I became aware that he was a really big guy and I didn’t even reach his chin. I’m not stupid.
“Fucker,” I said to him as I left the porch.
“You’ll pay for that, Miss Celeste.”
I gave him the finger over my shoulder and decided I could use a walk. He let me leave, probably glad I was getting out of his sight. I followed the road until I felt the blessed high come along. From that point on, I just let myself float. I blinked and I was on my back in some high grass. Oh, that’s right, I had decided to take a nap. My body tingled. That was my favorite part of Vicodin. I wiggled my fingers and toes. I sighed.
A distant voice called and I listened to my name, but they were weird people and I didn’t want to deal with them, not now, so I ignored it.
The sky was so blue, and those clouds, how did they make clouds so white?
“Celeste,” said Jacob. He was blocking my view.
I smiled at his upside-down face. He was really pretty hot. It was the symmetry of his features, I decided. He was like a model. Then he forced me to stand and I lost all good thoughts toward him. I didn’t like him, not a single bit, but he had his firm hand on my upper arm and all I could do was walk. My eyelids felt heavy and I really didn’t want to go into that wicked, clean, and starched house again filled with eyes and tight hair buns.
I yawned and tried to walk to the truck when we passed it, but he held on. We got to the porch and I said, “I’m really tired. Which way is my room?”
We paused then and he studied me. I lifted my brows and had to lick my dry lips. I thought about telling him how hot he was, but I decided he hadn’t earned the compliment.
We went up the stairs, only being watched by Miss Ma, then down a hall to a bedroom. It was bluish. That was all I saw before I crawled into bed. When I looked at the doorway, he was still standing there. I crooked a finger at him. “Wanna join me?” I purred, just to rub him the wrong way. He was so stuck up. “Or will that stick up your butt not let you,” I said.
He was giving me his patent look, then he shut the door without replying.
I lay still, the pillow under my head being too irresistibly soft to move an inch. The quilt over the bed had lots of texture as I rubbed my fingers over the threads. I didn’t know what time it was because there was no clock on the bedside table, but time didn’t matter. I fell back asleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like shit and had to find my way to a bathroom in the near dark. I wondered how many people were sleeping in the house right now. Hopefully not all those women and kids. My duffel bag was on a chair in my room so I popped a single Vicodin to put me back to sleep.
In the morning I was woken up by people moving around. This house had no soundproofing. I listened, with my eyes closed, to the creak of the floorboards, then to a shower turning on. Ah hell, it was way too early.
A knock on the door woke me again. I turned onto my back and this time the sun was above the horizon, streaming through my window like a punch to my eyeballs. I rolled over so my face was pressed into the pillow. I ignored the second knock and listened as the person walked away. Good, I really wasn’t a morning person.
A few minutes later, my door was opened and my ass was spanked. I flinched and glared up at the offender. It was Miss Ma. I didn’t know her real name, or maybe I did and had forgotten it. “Hey,” I complained.
“Get up,” she said. “It’s your father’s funeral today and I expect that you will want to be there?” She had a nasty way of speaking as if even her words were looking down on me.
I didn’t, actually. Dad had been locked away from us when Mom had been killed by the kids who had come in our house to steal stuff. Then he had remarried, essentially throwing me away and spitting on my mom’s memory. He’d even gone and had himself another daughter, a replacement for the one he’d failed to make into a perfect little girl. He was with his second family now. He wouldn’t notice if I wasn’t there.
I buried my face, but the witch slapped my ass again. “Stop it,” I yelled at her.
“Get up,” she countered.
In the end, I took a shower and got dressed. When I had packed, I realized I’d forgotten to bring anything black, but I had a dark blue band t-shirt and some dark skinny jeans. My Converse shoes were black if you just overlooked all the white.
I ignored everyone when I went downstairs. In fact, it was just Jacob and his mom, but their disapproval was enough to fill the entire room twice over. I downed some orange juice and the plate of eggs and hash browns. I kept my head down because if I looked up and caught one of their eyes I might burst into flames and turn into a pile of ash.
Jacob drove us in his mom’s car to the cemetery. I sat in back, waiting to feel the high that would let me leave this acidic atmosphere behind. I’d better not run out of pills before I got back to LA.
The cemetery was bordered by an iron fence. We parked outside along with the other cars and walked beneath a metal arch. It simply said ‘Cemetery.’ My gaze lingered on the graves. Some looked kind of old. Dad’s grave was easy to find because people in black were milling around it. I crossed my arms and didn’t make any eye contact with any of them. A casket, a well-built handmade one, was sitting right there, waiting to be lowered into the ground. Dad was in there. Next to his new gravestone were two others: Honor Dunn and Hopestill Dunn. What kind of name was Hopestill?
People talked in hushed murmurs, then we all watched as a priest walked to the grave site. Everyone collected around, facing him. Jacob made me stand next to him and his mom. I began to float and the words the priest, or was he a preacher? A reverend? Who cared. His words became background noise that lulled me. They lowered the coffin into the ground. Coffin, what a sinister word. They should think up a better word for it. Like… Pine box or sleeping box. The forever-sleeping box.
I let my head rest on the cool window as we drove away. We didn’t go back to the house; instead, we parked before a simple building. Doing some errands maybe. I scowled when they wanted me to get out, too. I was ready to go home.
Inside, we went into an office. The lawyer looked solemn as he spoke to us. I nodded as he explained my dad’s will in dull terms that were hard to follow.
I kept the corners of my mouth still, but I began to make plans. I didn’t need to couch crash anymore. My dad had thirty thousand dollars in his bank account and he had owned the farm free and clear. I would sell the farm and then buy my own house in LA. What neighborhood did I want? I rested my chin on my hand.
The man across the desk nodded as Jacob spoke. My eyes were already getting heavy since I’d taken a little more than my usual dose.
“Is this acceptable to you?” the man asked me.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, opening my eyes to show him I was just fine.
“Your father was a good man. A father should always look out for his daughter.”
“Well, he has now,” I said. I wanted a house with three bedrooms. And a pool. Oh and a rain shower. And a bidet too, just for the laughs.
“No ceremony is necessary,” said Jacob.
“Really?” said the man. He glanced at me and I shrugged.
“It can wait,” replied Jacob in a tone that was as easy to move as a tectonic plate.
“Very well, sign here, and here.” I signed a few papers and so did Jacob and his mom.
“Congratulations,” the lawyer said. “I’ll get these filed right away.”
As the others got up, I stayed seated. “I’ll be right out,” I said to them.
They hesitated with their noses in the air but finally left. I looked at the lawyer. “All right. I need to sell the farm. Is there a good realtor I can talk to around here?”
He looked surprised. “Well,” he said, “Yes, but don’t you want to discuss this first with Mr. Cannon?”
“Mr. Cannon?” I asked.
“Jacob Cannon,” he said slowly.
“Uh, no.” I leveled my fuzzy gaze at him. “I need to sell the farm ASAP. Could you recommend me a realtor?”
He pursed his lips, then said, “Of course.”
I slipped the paper into my pocket and stood. I gave him a two-fingered salute from my temple. He’d done well. I ignored the two Cannons waiting in the lobby for me. Now that I had my money, all I wanted was to leave.
I rubbed the spot between my eyes that was throbbing as we drove back to the house. I wouldn’t let anyone know I had cash ‘cause then they’d ask for what I owed them and I’d be down to pennies before I knew it. Maybe I’d give Jean a bit of cash for letting me crash with her for so long. Jean was a good friend.
I could smell the food even from the porch. It made me realize I hadn’t eaten yesterday at all. All the women were inside, and also some men. People began to tell me they were sorry for my loss. One guy said he was glad I was here with them. I made myself look mournful as I thanked people. All these strangers thought well of my dad, but they probably had known him better than I had.
I extracted myself from the mourners and went to the kitchen to make myself a plate of food, then went onto the back porch. Kids were playing, a marked contrast to the black clothes and muted silence inside. I watched them run around kicking a ball. A couple of boys played in an enormous old tree. Some teenagers stood watch over the little ones and chatted with each other. The food was good and my stomach filled nicely. I left my plate in the sink, then looked around the corner. If I rushed past the living room doorway and up the stairs fast enough, I might not be seen and be drawn back into the somber grip of strangers.
In my room, I closed the door. I was too tired and stuffed full of food to leave now. I’d get some sleep, then call the realtor in the morning.