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By Tekla Dennison Miller Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2005
Tekla Dennison Miller
All right reserved.
Chapter One GRADUATING
The serial killer was sentenced to life without parole on the same morning Pilar Brookstone graduated from medical school. Her mother shared that news as Pilar queued for the processional. Now, stepping away from the provost's handshake, the new Dr. Brookstone was still thinking about her mother's announcement. "Chad Wilbanks is permanently off the streets," Celeste had said as though presenting Pilar with an extra-special gift. "You'll feel safe enough to come home, at last."
On this of all days, Pilar didn't want to think about the murders or the man responsible. This was the moment to concentrate on the diploma she clutched to her chest, the sweet triumph of a hard-won degree. But instead, memories of her friend Susan Mitchell rose up to block Pilar's view of her classmates. Chad Wilbanks had first charmed Susan, then brutally murdered her. Susan was a statistic now, one of eight young women Wilbanks victimized during a vicious two-year spree near the University of Michigan.
Would Pilar feel safe in either Ann Arbor or in her Gross Pointe Shores home now? True, she had left medical school there because of the murders, transferring to Wisconsin after the first year. But Celeste's words brought no real comfort, because in the intervening years Pilar had come to realize fear of Chad Wilbanks wasnot the real reason she dreaded going home.
As Pilar searched the audience seated under the vast striped tent, her mother's aqua silk suit stood out like a large flower among a field of weeds. Seeing her always impeccably dressed mother gave Pilar a brief elated moment- -how often people thought they looked alike, how often people said they could easily pass for sisters. At forty-eight, Celeste still resembled a youthful model, slender, graceful, and no gray hair. Pilar remembered how her friends envied her good fortune to have inherited Celeste's naturally curly auburn locks and high cheek bones. Pilar believed she was even luckier to have inherited her mother's intelligence. Unlike her mother, however, Pilar put her smarts to good use.
Like a victorious athlete Pilar hoisted her diploma into the air. In response, Celeste made large circles with her arms, nodded her head, which was covered in a wide-brim aqua hat. Then she checked the others near her. Surely, her look said, everyone watching knew her daughter graduated fifth in the class.
Pilar descended the stairs with her diploma still triumphantly raised and caught a glimpse of her father's steel-wool-gray hair. Marcus Nathaniel Brookstone, III, forever tan and fit, sat to the right of Celeste. To Celeste's excited nudges, his body stiffened, and he crossed his arms over the chest of his navy double-breasted jacket. Despite her mother's proud gaze, Pilar felt her enthusiasm fade as she returned to her place in the front row. Her father remained rigid, eyes focused on the podium.
After the ceremony, Pilar lingered in the shade of a huge oak tree, giving brief hugs and short, bittersweet farewells to several women students. As they promised each other to keep in touch, Pilar's roommate and closest friend, Julie, threaded her arm through Pilar's. She steered Pilar through the crowd and said, "I truly wish you'd reconsider OB/GYN. You're a natural. Your compassion alone would be such an asset."
Pilar stopped and pulled away from Julie. "I haven't totally decided what I'm going to do. Perhaps I'll have a better idea after my residency."
"But," Julie scrunched her face, "we'll be so far apart. You in Detroit and me in Oregon."
Pilar hugged the short, perky woman. "Don't fret. There's always the phone. Besides, that separation may not be forever. Who knows where I'll end up?" Her own eyes tear-blurred, Pilar took in Julie's pouting lips and wished for a moment that she was going west with her friend.
Julie's parents whisked her away. As she bounced along beside them, Julie looked over her shoulder and called out, "Don't forget me."
Her remark seemed strange to Pilar, since they'd been so close all through med school. "Julie," Pilar teased in response, "you won't let me forget you." She tried to ignore the lump that formed like a huge fist in her throat.
Pilar watched the crowd fill in around Julie. Then, when Pilar could no longer see Julie, she scanned the well-wishers and excited parents. Finally, she spotted her mother, tall like Pilar, struggling through the sweltering crush. When Celeste saw her daughter, she waved one gloved hand, while the other held her hat fast against the breeze from Lake Mendota, a graceful motion practiced all her married life lived on a lake shore. Odd though, were the gloves in an age when most women had freed themselves of such restraint. Perhaps she and her mother weren't really so alike - beneath the black commencement robe, Pilar wore Birkenstock sandals and a sun dress.
"Where's Daddy?" Pilar asked as they embraced. She immediately regretted the endearing, childish title.
"He's getting the car," Celeste answered. She held Pilar at an arm's length.
Although her mother's eyes were shaded behind large, Jackie Kennedy-style sunglasses, Pilar knew her mother watched her face register disappointment. In fact, Pilar knew her mother wouldn't have to look at her at all. Celeste had been confronted with that expression so many times before.
"You know how he is, dear," Celeste added in a resigned tone.
"Just this once, Mother, he could have been here for me. Just this once." Pilar silently cursed her VW for dying a week earlier. She had no choice but to be a prisoner in her father's car for the long ride home.
Pilar wanted to shred her diploma and toss it into the wind. Better yet, she wanted to throw it in her father's face. Instead, she yielded as her mother wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulder and guided Pilar through the throng. Like Julie's unfailing friendship, Celeste's loyalty had been one of few morsels of happiness in Pilar's life. Most times, Pilar was delighted that her mother had never given up on her, especially when Pilar knew how stubborn she herself could be.
"Mother, I'm only doing this for you," Pilar told her. "I could have gotten a ride with friends."
"I know, dear," Celeste squeezed Pilar closer. "I know."
Did her mother realize she couldn't acquiesce forever? Pilar's clenched hands hid in her robe. Did Celeste know how she needed to get out?
The heat from the soft asphalt lot reminded Pilar of walking barefoot on hot sand, but the small sense of vacation lasted only until Pilar caught sight of her father. Marcus was already seated behind the steering wheel of the idling car, cooling off in the air conditioning. Though he glanced at Celeste and Pilar, he made no attempt to get their attention. He hadn't taken off his jacket or loosened his tie, a brief, hopeful sign. Perhaps his immediate departure from the ceremony was really a gallant move. Perhaps he just wanted to make the car more comfortable for them. "Perhaps I'm kidding myself again," Pilar mumbled to herself.
As Pilar gathered the robe around her and hoisted it up so she could get into the back seat, Marcus turned to her and said, completely without warmth, "Congratulations, Pilar. Your mother and I are very proud of you." Then, with a total change in tone, he scolded, "But if you had stayed at the University of Michigan, we could be at the club for dinner rather than some restaurant where they don't know how to make a proper martini." He followed that with a forced chuckle.
Pilar found no humor in his remark. More than any thing, more than any one, Marcus loved the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club which nestled the shores of Lake St. Clair, a short drive from the Brookstone family estate.
"I thought we could have champagne," Celeste soothed as she patted his arm. "You know, to celebrate."
Marcus shook her hand away and drove out of the lot, almost laying a patch of rubber like a kid with his first car. Disheartened, Pilar rested her head against the window to catch glimpses of the university buildings as the car sped past. When the familiar, comfortable brick buildings of the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics slipped from sight, she clenched the folds of the robe. What made her more tense- -the looming residency at Detroit Receiving Hospital, or the prospect of spending three years at home?
Determined to salvage her special day, Pilar announced with too much cheer, "You'll enjoy the restaurant I picked, Father." Her voice gained strength when she added, "Everyone will be there." Then her bubble of selfassurance popped. She pressed her nose against the window like a child looking through the glass display case in a candy store. As she watched the hospital merge into the sun low in the spring sky, she mumbled, "I promise you'll get a perfect martini."
"We're not stopping." Marcus' voice broke the silence like a sudden thunder clap.
Pilar raised her head far enough to see him peer in the rear view mirror. Did he want to see how unhappy he was making her? It was a game they'd played too often. As Pilar was drawn to the mean creases surrounding her father's eyes, she wondered who had coined the phrase "laugh lines." Feeling her own face tighten like a mask, Pilar looked away from her father's spiteful challenge and immersed herself in the fleeting sights of Madison and Lake Mendota.
She could almost smell Marcus' discomfort when she didn't respond, but she also knew he wouldn't let the issue go, so his next statement held little surprise. "I want to get as far today as we can. I have to prepare for an important meeting." He baited Pilar one more time, "You understand?"
"Sure." Pilar's tone could have etched glass. Of course, Marcus always put his needs before everything else. As usual, she was in the way but didn't know why.
When she remained silent, Marcus continued, "Besides, I don't want to meet any more of your radical dogooder, liberal friends. I had enough of them when you went to Michigan."
Pilar slumped into the corner. If she squeezed her eyes shut, would her father disappear? She tucked her nose into the seat. "New car?" she asked as she breathed in the scent of fresh leather.
"It's your graduation gift," Marcus announced, like a fulsome CEO buying loyalty from a subordinate. "It's more reliable than that VW."
Pilar bolted straight up. "Mine?" She slapped the leather and added with some sarcasm, "Your generosity is overwhelming. Besides, I don't want some bourgeois Mercedes." She'd been proud to earn the money to buy the VW.
"Bourgeois went out of style in the seventies, Pilar," Marcus chided. His face creased with disapproving furrows as he again sought out Pilar's reaction in the rear view mirror.
"Not among my peers, Father." Pilar glared back.
"Oh, Pilar, get a grip on your life." He made the turn onto eastbound I-94, heading to Michigan, dismissing her opinion, as usual. "If you plan to be a doctor, you'll need to think more clearly."
Celeste, straightening her suit where it tangled in the seat belt, turned to Marcus and Pilar. "Need I remind you two that today is a celebration?" She removed her sunglasses. "Besides, Pilar, when you join Daddy's practice, you'll want a car that ..."
Her mother's pleas had too often trapped her in the past. "I have to return this robe before we skip town." Pilar fanned the material up and down. "Do you think you have time for that, Father?" She no longer could accept her mother's pretense of maintaining a happy family. Didn't she get it? Their happy family had never existed.
"We'll mail it back," Marcus clipped as he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Then he sighed deeply and stretched one arm over the back of Celeste's seat.
Celeste smiled, though Pilar knew her mother didn't understand. Marcus' newly relaxed state wasn't due to getting out of Wisconsin, but was because Pilar ignored her mother's statement about working in his practice as a neurosurgeon.
Pilar studied the backs of her parents' heads. It was a good thing all her personal belongings had already been shipped home. Her father probably would have left them in her apartment for the next renter. And the Mercedes - it was just like him. Appearances were what counted. Her father never missed an opportunity for him and his family to look good.
They might look good, but they'd never win an award for family of the year.
The car's claustrophobic interior made it hard to breathe. Pilar sniffed deeply several times to bring oxygen back into her brain. She only smelled leather and made herself dizzy.
Pilar clawed at her neck. Who was strangling her? Her body shuddered awake as she struggled to pull the robe away from where it had crept above her shoulders and tightened like a noose. She interlocked her fingers, pushed her arms forward and stretched. As the fuzziness cleared from her head, Pilar recognized her surroundings. "Can we stop? I have to pee."
"Didn't they teach you anything at that med school?" Marcus asked as he engaged the turn signal and exited I- 94 East of Kalamazoo.
"Yes. We all must pee sometime." Pilar's acerbic response was wasted on deaf ears.
"I had just decided to take a break anyway," her father remarked. Celeste's sigh was deliberate and loud.
The illuminated arches of McDonald's created eerie shadows over the entry to an otherwise dark parking lot. "Are you sure you can afford to eat here?" Pilar asked. "I've heard the martinis aren't very good." Why could she not resist baiting her father?
Pilar hopped out of the car almost before it came to a complete stop. She pulled the robe over her head, tossed it on the seat, and after slammed the car door. No matter her rush to reach the bathroom, Pilar couldn't help but shout out one last comment over her shoulder, well aware that she often provoked a confrontation with her father.
"I thought as a graduate of Michigan med school, you'd earn more money."
Before Pilar slipped inside the restaurant, she heard her mother say, "You know, Marcus, you could be just a tad more happy for your only daughter." Pilar's shoulders slouched at the challenge in her mother's exhausted voice. "You should be thrilled that she wants to follow in your footsteps."
Berating herself for making her mother's life more difficult, Pilar stopped long enough to hear her father answer, "I didn't ask Pilar to do that." Leaving Celeste behind he headed to the restaurant, and yelled to her as he looked at Pilar, "She'll just get married and waste my investment."
At that moment, Pilar prayed her mother would get back in the car and drive off. Pilar knew she couldn't. Where would she have gone?
After splashing cold water on her face, Pilar stared at the person looking back at her in the restroom mirror. Even without makeup and with a head of thick, sometimes unruly hair, she was pretty. Over the years, she hadn't always felt that way. She thought her full, naturally red lips overpowered her face. Who would have guessed full lips would come into vogue? Who would have guessed women would pump their lips with silicone to have a mouth like hers? She snickered at that image. "Little does my father know there's not much chance that his investment in my medical career will be wasted. No man at the moment wants my full lips."
Pilar lifted her hair to the top of her ahead and then let it drop. "You know as well as I do," she said to the vision in the mirror like a friend, "marriage is out of the question. The one- night stands I've known don't want a doctor for a wife." She leaned into the mirror to more closely examine her features. "Besides, only Barbara Streisand could love that nose."
Pilar thumped the mirror and headed out the door. By the time she got to the counter, her parents were in a booth eating Quarter Pounders and drinking coffee. When Pilar started to order her father yelled, "I have your hamburger here."
The clerk raised his eyebrows as though he knew what it was like to have a father like that. Pilar shrugged in response.
"Marcus," Celeste said with a hint of ire in her voice, "maybe Pilar would like to order for herself. She is capable."
Though shocked by her mother's uncommon, forceful tone, Pilar didn't turn away from the young man taking orders and asked for a grilled chicken sandwich and a diet Coke. She paid him with a ten-dollar bill she had tucked into her pocket. When the clerk finished the order, Pilar grabbed the tray and slid into the booth beside her mother, while the other customers, clad in shorts and T-shirts, eyed the more formal trio with suspicion.
On their way back to the car, Marcus announced, "We'll drive straight home."
"What? We're not stopping overnight?" Pilar shouted loud enough to draw the attention of the group parking nearby. How many hours would she be stuck with him? "How could you make that decision without asking Mother or me?" Pilar plopped into the car and again slammed the door.
Marcus slid behind the wheel. "In case you haven't noticed, this isn't a democracy."
Excerpted from Life Sentences by Tekla Dennison Miller Copyright © 2005 by Tekla Dennison Miller. Excerpted by permission.
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