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IN BETWEEN MEN
By San Culberson
DAFINA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Serinbria Culberson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Shoot her, Mama! Just kill her!" Hope Williams looked down with amazement at the little girl who couldn't have been any more than five years old. She could tell by the bloodthirsty expression on her otherwise angelic-looking face that the little girl was dead serious. Hope focused again on the "mama" standing near the front bumper of a gleaming white Mercedes. The woman had a tight grip on the hobo bag that was wrapped over her shoulder, and it wasn't hard for Hope to imagine her pulling out some sort of automatic weapon.
The nasty remark she had been about to make died a quick death. She was not about to get herself killed in a parking lot shoot-out ... especially considering she didn't have anything to shoot with other than her mouth! Yeah, the other woman was wrong ... she had parked too damn close to the yellow line. Hope always-always-parked squarely between the lines. And it wasn't always easy in the big-assed Navigator her husband insisted she drive. She took a deep breath before attempting to reason with the woman again.
"Look, I'm just saying that I can't get into my truck. Will you please move your car over? I don't want anything to happen to your paint job or mine." Hope said it with as much pleasantness as she could muster, but she couldn't control the slight roll of her neck.
"I ain't movin' a goddamn thang! And I don't give a fuck about yo paint job, but lemme come outta this bitch and find a scratch on my car." The "bitch" she referred to was the exclusive boutique Hope had just left. "You betta get in the best way you know how. Bring yo ass on here, Shairaqetria!" She grabbed the little girl's hand and walked away, not even looking back to see what Hope might do.
Hope felt the rough-and-ready young girl that she used to be before she left the mean streets of South Dallas pleading with her ... Come on, Hope, you don't have to take that shit! Kick her ass! Fuck up her car. When the former Hope realized that the mature thirty-four-year-old Hope wasn't going to take her advice, she gave up with a disgusted sigh. Damn, girl, how you goin' let her do you like that? The memory of the little girl pleading with her mother to commit murder kept her quiet. Her mother had always said the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
She walked to the passenger side of her truck and pressed the small button on her keychain to open the door. She draped the garment bag across the seat and climbed in and over the center console to get to the driver's seat, cursing under her breath the entire time. The tears that stung the back of her eyes were from anger and frustration.
The engine sprang to life when she turned the key in the ignition. She backed out without looking and whipped the big Navigator around in the parking lot like it was a two-seater Porsche. Hope glanced at the small clock in the dashboard as she turned onto the street, and realized that she should have been back in her office thirty-five minutes ago. The drive back to the bank would take at least fifteen minutes. "Damn!" she muttered again under her breath.
If she hadn't spent the last hour in the small, overpriced boutique trying to convince herself not to blow her clothing budget, she would have avoided the nasty confrontation because she would have been where she was supposed to be ... sitting behind her desk. She wasn't happy about the fact that she had spent a small fortune on a dress she would wear three times max. She couldn't wear it to work and she certainly couldn't wear it to church. Hope glanced at the satiny black bag next to her and decided that the bag had probably added about twenty-five percent to the price tag.
Her lips curled defiantly as she came to the first stoplight and reflected on the last ninety minutes. The dress looked good on her, and she had been at the bank long enough to take a long lunch every once in a while. "And you should have beat that heifer's ghetto-fabulous ass! Since when did you start letting people talk to you like that? And that badass little girl needs an ass-whoopin' too!" Since no one was in the truck to hear her profanity, she continued her tirade for a few seconds longer.
From the time she had thrown the covers back that morning, Hope had been pissed. The kids had been fighting, and by the time she realized there wasn't any milk for cereal it was too late for her to cook anything. She had been forced to wait in the drive-thru line at McDonald's. And her husband, Ray, had waited until that morning to tell her that they were invited to an anniversary party that night and that he wanted to go. She hated going out on Friday!
The driver behind her pressed long and hard on his horn. She refocused her attention on the traffic light and saw that it was green. "So what! You can't control my fucking driving!" Although she was yelling at the top of her lungs, her voice didn't penetrate the two tons of steel that surrounded her. Hope pressed longer and harder on her horn before pulling off at a snail's pace.
Her hand was positioned to respond to any sign language that he cared to offer. She was not going to run from a fight two times in less than fifteen minutes. But the other driver moved into the next lane and passed her without so much as a glance in her direction. She was instantly ashamed of her irresponsible and juvenile behavior.
What if he had been one of those road-rage maniacs they're always featuring on the news? I could have been shot and killed, and no one would have ever seen how good I look in my new dress. My three children would have been left without a mother and Ray would have been forced to start cleaning up after himself. Ray cleaning up was such an impossibility that she laughed out loud, and suddenly the angst that she had been experiencing all day melted.
Her moods had been changing so rapidly recently that she had talked to her best friend Stephanie about the symptoms of premenopause. Stephanie had convinced her that at thirty-four she was much too young, and suggested instead that Hope was on the verge of losing her mind. "You just crazy," were her exact words. Hope's thoughts shifted again.
Going out on Friday wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have to rush and do everything. She pondered. I could have a glass of wine, listen to some music, give myself a facial ... Hope leaned over and grabbed the cell phone from the side of her purse before she had time to dismiss the plan forming in her head. She called her office and counted four rings before her secretary answered.
"Security National Bank." The secretary's voice was clear and professional.
"Helen, this is Hope."
"Oh, hi, Hope."
"I'm not going to be able to make it back in to the office today." She started to make up an excuse, but decided not to. She didn't owe the woman an explanation, and she hated to lie unnecessarily. But her voice did hold just a hint of "it's something personal, I don't care to discuss it" softness. "If anyone calls with an urgent question, and I do mean urgent, you can page me; otherwise, I'll see you on Monday morning."
"Okay ... I hope everything is fine?" There was a slight question in her voice, but Hope ignored it and looked again at the garment bag to her right.
"I'm sure they will be, thanks, Helen." She ended the call and chuckled to herself. I didn't lie; things will be all right if Stephanie comes through for me. She mentally crossed her fingers as she made a second call. The phone rang five times before her friend picked up.
"Hey girl, what's up?"
Hope chuckled some more before answering. "You and that damn caller ID." Hope was not a fan.
"I know you didn't call here to talk about my caller ID. What do you want?"
"I want you to stop being so rude, but I called because I'm looking for someone who can use a thousand dollars." Hope knew Stephanie would take the bait.
"I know a lot of people who could use a thousand dollars. Myself first and foremost."
Hope sighed deeply. "Well, girl, you're in luck because I'm so tired, I'll pay you that just to keep my kids overnight."
Stephanie laughed into the phone. "Your cheap ass wouldn't pay a thousand dollars for a first-class trip to the moon."
Hope laughed back at her. "This is true, but I will buy pizza for you and your hungry monsters if my kids can spend the night at your house. Please, please, best friend ... only real friend." Hope pretended to beg as she continued to maneuver through the light midday traffic. Stephanie didn't say yes immediately.
"What are you doing that you have to get rid of your kids for the entire night?"
"Ray and I are going to Ralph and Lisa's tenth anniversary party. That is, if you can baby-sit," she pleaded some more.
Stephanie tried to sound disgusted, but Hope knew that she didn't really mind. "Bring 'em on. The more the scarier. I'll just throw them in the back with my three monsters."
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" The appreciation in her voice was heartfelt. "I'll drop them off at six." Hope was starting to feel like butter. Anticipation flooded her body, and suddenly she was really looking forward to getting dressed up and going out. "Girrrlll, you ought to see the dress I just bought."
Stephanie, who was seven months pregnant and showing it, sighed into the phone. "If I can't wear it, I don't want to see it."
Hope had a clear picture of her friend's big, round belly. "I feel you, girl. I'll let you wear it after the baby is born." Hope laughed.
"After this baby is born, I'll be wearing nursing bras and stretch pants." Stephanie sounded cheerful about it, but Hope remembered what it felt like to be seven months pregnant and mother to a newborn. The flashback of midnight feedings and engorged breasts sent a slight shiver up her right arm.
"Been there, done that, glad to say I won't be doing it again." Hope's baby-making days had ended with a snip of scissors and a flick of her doctor's wrist twelve minutes after David had been born three years before. Hope was about to inquire about Stephanie's pregnancy, but her friend cut in before she could.
"Girl, I have to go, the buzzer is going off on the dryer. Just bring them on by, and don't forget to bring a super-large pizza with everything for the adults who don't have any sort of social life that doesn't involve minors, and some buffalo wings, and some cheese sticks too."
Hope laughed. "See you later on." Hope pressed the End button on the cell phone and tossed it back into her purse. She made the first possible turn, got on the expressway, and headed toward her home in DeSoto, Texas, a suburban community thirty-five minutes from downtown Dallas. She smiled as she always did when she thought about her home. Their five-bedroom house took up two lots in the center of a cul-de-sac. She and Ray had looked at dozens of houses before finding the one they fell in love with. The backyard had been the selling factor. The original owners had built a tropical pool with spa and waterfall in one corner, and had installed a large sandbox complete with swings and jungle gym close to the back fence. It was an idyllic spot for young children and lovers.
She was thinking about her boys as she turned onto the cul-de-sac, and made a quick decision to take them out for ice cream right after school ... mother guilt. Whenever she knew she was going to spend any amount of time away from her kids (and with the exception of work, she rarely did) she felt compelled to do something special for them.
She pulled into her driveway and pressed the garage door opener. She frowned when she saw that Ray's car was parked in the garage. Damn! What is he doing here in the middle of the day? Her thoughts were uncharitable, but she didn't care. She had been looking forward to spending some time alone in her home ... something else she rarely had a chance to do.
Hope noticed that her next-door neighbor, Margaret, was pulling weeds out of a flower bed. The woman was wearing a flower-patterned bonnet that tied under her chin. She probably ordered it from some Ladylike Living magazine. The thought of it caused Hope's eyes to roll. Hope Williams was an anomaly in a neighborhood full of "soccer moms" and PTO volunteers. Most of the women were like Margaret; they stayed at home and tended their flowers and their children and their husbands. Hope had heard that some of the women had recently started a pinochle club. Rumor had it that a select group of women met every Wednesday for a game of cards and a cold lunch. It didn't bother Hope that her invitations to join the other women in their pursuit of happiness had trickled to none a long time back.
She decided to leave her truck in the driveway and turned the engine off. Before she could open the door properly, Margaret was running across their yards like Chicken Little. Why the hell is she coming over here? Hope tried to smooth the irritation from her face. The bonnet looked even more ridiculous on closer inspection. The hand she waved in Margaret's direction said "hi, but I'm really too busy to talk to you right now."
"Hi, Hope." The short run had made Margaret breathless. She was still carrying a small trowel in her hand. She looked at Ray's car in the garage and then quickly back at Hope. "Hi, Hope," she said again.
"Hi, Margaret." Hope wondered how much neighborly conversation she would have to endure before she was allowed to go inside.
"You're home early today." The petite redhead smiled warmly at Hope, apparently unaware that she was a nuisance.
"Yeah." Hope smiled back with exaggerated politeness. "We have plans tonight and I'm a little tired, so I decided to come home and get some rest." Margaret pointed to the garment bag in her hand.
"Not too tired to shop I see."
Hope's fake smile widened genuinely. "Never too tired to shop."
Margaret's look was almost envious. "Well, before you go in why don't you come over for coffee. I'm finished with the yard."
Hope looked at the small containers of Mexican heather that Margaret had deserted. "Looks like you have quite a bit more to do." What part of "I'm going to get some rest" didn't she understand? Hope wondered, but kept the smile fixed on her face.
"Well, I'm almost finished, and I could use some adult company." Margaret looked again at Ray's car. "Why don't you just come in for a minute ... show me what you bought?" She sounded almost desperate.
Is she that lonely? Hope wondered. "Another time, Margaret." The other woman started to protest, but Hope waved and walked through the garage without looking back. The sound of the alarm greeted her as she pushed the door open. She hurried over to silence it before looking around her living room as she always did. Hope loved her home. She tried not to make it a habit to love things, and the house and its contents were definitely things. But two years ago, after she had finally finished furnishing it, she sat down on her jewel green sofa, looked around at all the things that had been chosen so carefully-from the mahogany coffee table to the three identical silver frames that held each boy's "first photo"-and gave herself permission to love this one thing ... her home.
Five bedrooms, four and a half baths, hardwood floors where she wanted them, a Jacuzzi tub! It was a mansion and a haven to a girl who had grown up in the housing projects of South and West Dallas. It took six months of living in the house before she stopped feeling like Weezie from The Jeffersons. She was definitely a woman who had "moved on up." A hissing noise somewhere toward the bedrooms broke her train of thought. She had almost forgotten Ray was at home. She put her purse and the garment bag on the sofa.
"Ray?" she called out as she walked to the back of the house. As she got closer to the master bedroom the hissing noise became louder. "Ray," she called loud enough for him to hear and respond. When he didn't, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she stopped in front of her bedroom door. Her thoughts moved immediately to the negative. Maybe Margaret was trying to keep me out of the house for a reason ... maybe she knows something I don't know. Hope's heart started pounding faster as she turned the crystal doorknob that led to her bedroom. It was like she was playing the lead role in a second-rate soap opera. Lord, don't let this be something I can't handle, she prayed silently before pushing the door open.
Excerpted from IN BETWEEN MEN by San Culberson Copyright © 2007 by Serinbria Culberson. Excerpted by permission.
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