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Woman in Blue
By Eileen Goudge
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Eileen Goudge
All rights reserved.
Los Angeles, California; present day
"You get off on pawing through ladies' underwear?" Kerrie Ann sniped.
The airport security guard glanced sharply up at her before resuming his search of her carry-on bag. She immediately regretted shooting off her mouth. Why go looking for trouble when it was already on your ass like an APB on a stolen car? Here at LAX, of all places. Since 9/11, you couldn't look crosswise at an airport official without being hauled off and strip-searched. And she was just the kind of person they would do that to. The kind likely to have a warrant out for her arrest or rock stashed in the lining of her suitcase. The only thing she wasn't likely to be suspected of was being a terrorist, but only because she was white.
Not just white but white-white. The kind of white that looked as if it never saw the sun because it was too busy soaking up the fluorescent lighting in some factory. She could almost hear the guard thinking, White trash. And who was she to deny it? Didn't she deserve to be looked down upon, to be the only one in line to have her bag searched for no apparent reason? It wasn't just that she looked the part, with her tattoo that snaked up one arm, pink streaks in her reddish-blond hair, and multiple piercings that had been enough to set off the metal detector. She was a world-class fuckup. She'd fucked up so royally, she'd had her kid taken away.
An invisible fist clenched about her heart at the thought. Annabella, Bella for short. Her six-year-old daughter, who wasn't hers anymore, at least not according to the state of California. Not until she could demonstrate that she was a fit parent. Seven whole months, and her only contact in all that time the twice-monthly visits supervised by Bella's caseworker. And with her daughter in a foster home near San Luis Obispo, a three-hour drive each way, the trip alone was an exercise in frustration. Twice, on her way to visit Bella, the engine of her geriatric Ford Falcon had overheated, and once she'd blown a tire, which had eaten away at even those few allotted hours.
It won't be this way forever. She clung to that belief as if to a life preserver.
"All right, you're good to go." The guard, a swarthy middle-aged man, his cheeks pitted with old acne scars, zipped up her canvas carryall. But before she could snatch it off the table, he leaned in so they were eye to eye and said in a low, warning voice, "One word of advice, miss. Don't get cute. You get cute with us, you could find yourself in a whole lot of trouble. Got it?"
Kerrie Ann bit back a sharp retort. The dude didn't have anything on her, but he could still fuck with her, and she didn't want to miss her flight. She shot him a dirty look instead, waiting until she was out of earshot to mutter a few choice words under her breath.
The delay had put her a few crucial minutes behind schedule, and when she heard the boarding call for Flight 302 to San Francisco, she broke into a run. Why was everything so frigging hard all the time? If she didn't live all the way out in Simi Valley, if her friend Cammie hadn't gotten a ticket driving her to the airport, if she hadn't been singled out at the security check, she might have been one of those people leisurely strolling to their gate, a Starbucks coffee in hand. Instead she was weaving her way down the concourse like OJ's white Bronco with the cops in pursuit.
The story of her life. Wasn't she forever running behind? A busted fan belt or blown sparkplug away from the breakdown lane at all times? At least once a week, she was late getting to work, delayed by car trouble, an appointment with her Legal Aid attorney, or a stop at the clinic where she submitted her weekly urine sample. And while Danny, her boss, wasn't unsympathetic — one of the advantages of working for someone in the program — she knew he was getting fed up with her excuses. She could hardly blame him, but what more could she do when she was already busting her ass just to stay afloat?
Would it be any different with the sister she was on her way to meet for the first time? Kerrie Ann had no idea what to expect when she arrived in Blue Moon Bay, and the pit in her stomach yawned at the thought. She hadn't even known about Lindsay until her attorney, Abel Touissant, had remarked the other day as they were settling into the booth at Denny's that was his ad hoc office until he could afford a real one. "You didn't tell me you have a sister."
Kerrie Ann stared at him, dumbfounded. "I do?"
"According to the state of Nevada. One Lindsay Margaret McAllister." He pulled his laptop from its carrying case, and moments later they were looking at a blurry copy of a scanned document on its screen. He'd gotten hold of her old case file from Washoe County, thinking it might prove useful in her bid to regain custody of Bella. "Says here she went into foster care the same time you did," he went on, "only the couple who took her in must've adopted her because her last name was changed to Bishop in '83."
Kerrie Ann peered at the computer screen, struggling to process this startling revelation. "You mean all this time I had a sister and didn't even know it? Wow," she muttered in an awed voice.
Abel smiled at her. "This could be good for you."
Kerrie Ann didn't know about that. Whether or not it was to her advantage remained to be seen. She slowly shook her head. "I wonder where she is now."
"I have an address for her, in California," he said. "A town called Blue Moon Bay."
"It's somewhere up the coast, isn't it?"
"Just south of San Francisco. I vacationed there once as a kid with my folks. Nice place. Not much going on, but the scenery's awesome, and the people are friendly." He copied the address and phone number off the computer screen onto a slip of paper and handed it to her.
Kerrie Ann, in her present state, had no idea what she was going to do with the information, but she was glad her lawyer was taking her case seriously enough to dig up shit like that. Abel Touissant, twenty-four and fresh out of law school, might have come to her through Legal Aid, but he was as smart as any of those fat-cat lawyers with their fancy briefcases and high-rise executive suites. Better yet, he knew what it was to struggle. The eldest son of Haitian immigrants, he'd put himself through school on scholarships and by working nights and weekends.
Maybe because of that, he didn't act like he was better than she; he always treated her as he would any client instead of one merely paying what she could afford.
"Thanks," she said, tucking the slip of paper into her purse.
"You should look her up."
"Maybe I will." Sure, and what would she say? Hi, remember me? Your long-lost sister? If this Lindsay had wanted a relationship with her, wouldn't she have been the one to get in touch?
Abel's brown eyes regarded her thoughtfully. "Seriously," he said, a bit more forcefully this time.
Kerrie Ann balked. "How do I know she'd even want to hear from me?"
"You won't know unless you look her up."
"And what would I say? 'Hi there. Long time, no see. And by the way, where the fuck have you been all these years?' Now, there's an icebreaker for you." As far as she was concerned, this was just another blank page in a family album that wasn't exactly a series of Kodak moments. "I don't even remember my mom. All I know is she died in prison. Hepatitis, I think — something drug-related." She gave a short, dry laugh. "So I guess I come by it honestly."
"Your sister might be able to fill in some of the blanks."
Maybe, but the last thing Kerrie Ann needed in her life right now was another complication. Also, niggling at the back of her mind, was the thought What if she doesn't want anything to do with me? Why should she? Look what a loser I turned out to be.
Two days later a hard dose of reality from Bella's caseworker propelled her to take action.
"The court is acting in your daughter's best interests. And until such time as you can demonstrate that you're competent to care for her yourself, she stays put," Mrs. Silvestre stated in no uncertain terms after Kerrie Ann shot off her mouth in a fit of frustration. "Be patient, Kerrie Ann," she advised in a less officious tone, closing the file in front of her. "These things take time. A child isn't a lost pet to simply be handed over."
Anger pulsed in Kerrie Ann like the vein throbbing at the base of her throat, but she resisted the urge to let loose with another curse. What purpose would it serve except to prove Mrs. Silvestre's point? She took a deep breath and said in a controlled voice, "I don't get it. I'm doing everything I'm supposed to. I'm staying clean. I go to meetings three times a week. I have a job and a place to live. So I don't get why Bella can't be with me. She's only six. She needs her mom." I need her, Kerrie Ann added silently.
Mrs. Silvestre, a small, bosomy woman with short, layered brown hair who brought to mind a robin with ruffled feathers, smiled at her wearily but not unsympathetically. "You've made strides, yes," she agreed. "But it's going to take more than a part-time job at Toys 'R' Us. And what about your living situation? Has that changed?"
"No, but I'm working on it," she said defensively. True, her current living situation wasn't exactly ideal — her friend Shoshanna was letting Kerrie Ann crash at her apartment until she saved enough money for a place of her own — but it was in a decent enough neighborhood, and her housemate wasn't a druggie. Meanwhile, Kerrie Ann was setting aside as much of each week's paycheck as she could. She walked instead of driving whenever possible and subsisted mainly on inexpensive staples like rice and beans. But what did this woman know? Did she have any idea how hard it was to save enough for first and last month's rent and security? Or how many rentals you had to look at to find something even halfway decent and affordable?
Clearly not, because Mrs. Silvestre was shaking her head. "I'm afraid we're going to have to see more than willingness on your part, Kerrie Ann. Which I don't think is unreasonable considering the state of neglect your daughter was in when ..."
Kerrie Ann tuned out the rest, not wanting to be reminded of what was still fresh in her mind. Could this woman heap any more shame on her than she already had on herself? Some days she was so filled with self-loathing that she could barely look at herself in the mirror. On those days, the only thing that kept her sane and sober was her twelve-step meetings, where she could at least derive some comfort from the shared experiences of others. Yes, she had only herself to blame. No one had put a gun to her head. But according to the Big Book, she'd been powerless in the grip of her disease. Powerless, too, where Jeremiah was concerned. Would she have gone down that road if she hadn't wanted so desperately to be a part of his life? If she hadn't felt that by refusing to get high with him she'd be cutting herself off from him in some way?
Before Bella was born, Jeremiah had been her whole world. She thought back to the night they'd met, eight years ago, when he'd picked her up hitchhiking. She was on her way to LA to see about a bartending job, and he invited her to crash at his place in Topanga Canyon. She never made it to LA. From that day on, they were inseparable. She was twenty-two and had been on her own for the past seven years, having run away from the last in a long line of foster parents (who'd probably been glad to see her go). Jeremiah did more than give her a home; he grounded her. With him she knew for the first time what it was to belong somewhere ... and to someone.
Jeremiah was the lead guitarist in a rock-and-roll band called Urban Decay. The first couple of years, she went to every one of his gigs, even sitting in on practice sessions, just for the sheer pleasure of watching him perform. She didn't mind when other women came on to him; it only made him more desirable in her eyes. She was the one who got to go home with him at the end of the evening, the one to whom he'd make sweet love. She'd had her share of lovers before him, a lot of them one-night stands. But with Jeremiah, it was the real deal. She was in love. She loved everything about him: his face, his hands, his voice and low, seductive laugh, the fluid way he moved around onstage — sexier than any rock god — even the way he smelled, like their bed after a night of lovemaking. When they lay naked together, she never tired of running her hands over his skin, the golden brown of buttered toast, or threading her fingers through his dark, coiled hair that was like the pelt of some woolly beast. He was perfect in her eyes. Who cared if they were living from hand to mouth, or if their funky old house, built by some hippie who must have been stoned at the time, was practically falling down, or if the bills didn't always get paid on time?
The drugs were just part of the scene; at any given moment at least one member of the band was high on something. At first Kerrie Ann steered clear of all that, scared of ending up like her mom. But Jeremiah began pressuring her more and more. You trust me, don't you? he'd urge, wearing that sweetly innocent smile. Would I do anything to hurt you? Finally she gave in. In the beginning it was just the occasional party drug — pot, Ecstasy, poppers, a line of blow here and there. She stopped as soon as she found out she was pregnant, but after Bella was born, when it became clear that the train, meaning Jeremiah, was leaving the station without her, she started again. With a baby to care for, she couldn't go to his gigs like she used to. Without her keeping an eye on him, he began coming home later and later, sometimes not showing up until morning, and then occasionally smelling of perfume rather than just cigarettes and booze. She began to worry that he'd leave her for someone who wasn't so tied down or tired all the time. She'd do almost anything to keep him, and the one thing they shared, besides Bella, was drugs.
At first it was the best of both worlds. Taking care of her baby by day — sweet, precious Bella, whose chubby arms around her neck were the best high in the world — and by night, while her baby slept, getting loaded with Jeremiah and his bandmates. Not the hard stuff. That came later. By the time she was forced to admit to herself that she was hooked, it was too late: Quitting was no longer an option. Her extended season in hell, which began with that first rock she and Jeremiah smoked, led to four years in which she was lost to everyone, including herself.
No, she had no illusions about why her daughter had been taken from her. She just wanted Bella back.
Wordlessly Kerrie Ann dug a coin from the hip pocket of her jeans and plunked it down on the caseworker's desk. "My six-month chip," she said. "Do you know how freaking hard I had to work to get that? You ever tried pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks up a mountain? That's what it's like. And do you know what gets me through each day? The only thing that makes it possible to keep putting one foot in front of the other? My little girl. Not an hour goes by, not a single minute, when I'm not thinking of her. When I'm not counting the days until I can be with her again." A tear rolled down one cheek, and she angrily brushed at it with the heel of her hand. She'd sworn she wouldn't break down in front of Mrs. Silvestre, and she'd be damned if she would.
The caseworker's expression softened. "I don't mean to sound unsympathetic," she said. "I just thought you should know what you're up against. It's a high bar, Kerrie Ann. Yes, I can see you've come a long way, but you still have a ways to go." She paused as if in thought before adding tentatively, "Is there a family member who'd be willing to help out? Someone who could provide backup? The court might be more lenient in that case."
Which was why Kerrie Ann was on her way to her sister's now.
Lindsay Margaret McAllister Bishop. Kerrie Ann rolled the name around in her head the way she might an unfamiliar taste on her tongue. She wondered what this Lindsay was like. Was she married? Did she have kids? Had she made a success of her life, or was she struggling in some way? If she's anything like me, she won't be much help. And if she turned out to be a nice soccer mom living in the 'burbs? She probably wouldn't want her nice, tidy life muddied up by the mess Kerrie Ann had made of hers.
Excerpted from Woman in Blue by Eileen Goudge. Copyright © 2009 Eileen Goudge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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