Big Jim Collins dies, and his family rejoices. After decades of abuse, his wife and sons are finally free from his tyranny. One son follows in his father?s footsteps, while the other son takes a different path. But the brothers never really escape their painful childhood. It defines each of them and leads them to a final, terrifying destiny. Death comes again at the Collins farm on a quiet, starless October night. Both brothers will pay for the sins of their father in the shadow of the bleeding tree.
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By Wendy Moser
iUniverseCopyright © 2014 Wendy Moser
All rights reserved.
San Diego, California
Thirty-year-old Jerry Collins stepped out of the shower, slipping on his bathroom floor. The phone was ringing in the living room of his small San Diego apartment. He raced across the burnt-orange, shag carpet, wrapping his towel around his hips and securing it with a thumb and fist. He didn't get many phone calls. It had to be his girlfriend, Peggy, ... or her husband, Phil.
"Yeah?" he said, hoping it was Peggy.
It was his brother. Disappointment mingled with relief. He didn't want to talk to Phil. He really didn't want to talk to Phil.
"Jimmy." He took a deep, long breath. "So what's wrong? You never call me."
"Nothing much. I just wanted to tell you that the old man...." Jimmy stopped, and Jerry waited for his brother to continue, his voice deep and calm, icy cold.
"The old man is dead. It was mysterious circumstances."
Jerry couldn't believe it. He'd waited forever to hear those words. He dropped his towel and raised his fisted left hand victoriously in the air.
"Dead? Mysterious circumstances?"
"What was mysterious about his death? Did someone finally kill him? Did you?"
"The mystery is, he didn't die years ago. And no one killed him."
Jerry knew exactly what Jimmy meant. It was a miracle that no one had murdered his dad. He had more enemies than a mob boss. Before Jerry could find words, his brother let out a shrill laugh. It cut right through Jerry's brain like a long, thin filet knife. He could feel the cold blade dragging down his throat, as his brother's laugh echoed in his ears and came out of his own mouth. Yeah, he and Jimmy had a lot of pent-up passion for their father, and it was not love.
There were no more words. They'd said all there was to say about their father. "How's Mom?"
"She's Mom. She'll be fine. She'll be better now."
"Yeah," Jerry said. "We'll all be better off."
"Can you make it to the funeral?"
"Sure. Wouldn't miss it. I'll get a plane ticket tomorrow. Be home by Wednesday."
"Okay. Mom will be glad."
"I'll call and let you know what time."
"See you then, Jer."
"Yeah. See you in a couple days, Jimmy."
His brother hung up, but Jerry held the phone for a long, silent moment. He was holding on to the best news he'd had in years. He could breathe again. He finally hung up the phone and started across the room, his towel across his shoulder, his back relaxed. The pain from his childhood beatings and humiliation dripped from his shoulders to his chest, to his thighs, to his knees, to a puddle of bitterness on the floor at his feet. He felt taller and stronger as he walked back into his steaming shower. He felt like a man for the first time in his life.
Now he could make plans. He'd never dared to take control of his life before, but he had just been given his freedom. He felt giddy as he stepped back into the shower, and started to hum, random notes at first, looking for just the right tune. The song that suddenly came to him was the "Deliverance" theme. He could hear the dueling banjos in his mind, as clearly as if he were hearing the song on the radio. Back in the shower, water pelted the tiles, banging out a percussion accompaniment. He put words to the melody. "See you in hell, you stupid old man," he sang over and over again to the tune of his chosen song.
As he towel dried and got ready to go out for the evening, he continued to sing, working himself into a frenzy. He'd dreamed of killing his father so often, he almost felt guilty that the old man was dead. And then he felt disappointment wash over him, that he'd never actually realized the dream. He wished he had just a few minutes face to face with the evil that was his father, to tell him and show him how powerful his hatred was. Maybe he'd get the chance when he stared down into the open coffin at the lifeless form that had been his tormentor. Maybe he'd break the old man's nose like the old man had broken his so many times before. Who would know? It would be sweet revenge.CHAPTER 2
Pine Falls, Iowa
"What did Jerry say?" Debbie Collins asked her husband, Jimmy, when he hung up the phone. "Is he coming for the funeral?"
Jimmy stood facing the staircase and didn't answer at first. Debbie could barely hear him when he spoke, his voice almost a whisper. "We ran up and down those steps like jackrabbits every day, Deb. Mostly to jump at Dad's beckoning or run away from one of the bastard's beatings." Jimmy's eyes were glazed over, as if he were watching the scene play out. "Jer got the worst of it."
"Jimmy," Debbie asked louder. "Is Jerry coming?"
Jimmy turned toward Debbie, nodding. "Yeah, he's coming. Said he wouldn't miss it. He's going to call me with his flight schedule." Jimmy finally looked at Debbie. "Mom still insisting she's moving?"
"Yes," Debbie said. "I think she's looking forward to being in town, now that Big Jim is gone."
Jimmy grunted. "Yeah, I bet she was fearing the old man moving close to any respectable people." He shook his head and grimaced. "She'd a been mortified most of the time. Like Jerry said, this is the best of all possibilities for Mom. For all of us."
Debbie nodded, lifting the avocado-green, floral pillows from the threadbare harvest-gold sofa and fluffing them up. "I'm surprised that Jerry thought of that. He's right. She'd have been too embarrassed to enjoy church circle with her friends. Of course, most of them knew Big Jim. They just didn't know how cruel he is ... was to her."
Jimmy glared at Debbie. "Well, she's staying here until after the funeral, and that's settled. I got enough on my plate right now. I don't have time to add any new jobs in the next few days."
"I'll help her. I know she wants to move as soon as possible, and really, Jimmy, I want that, too. I can't seem to please her at all." Debbie punched each pillow.
"You just got raised like a princess, always wearing those pretty clothes and taking dance lessons and piano lessons. That's not the real world, Deb," Jimmy said, waving his arms around the living room. "This is. The cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, the kids. Working hard is the real world. Working your fingers to the bone is the real world. Not all that ballet and painting nonsense."
Jimmy followed Debbie into the kitchen and sat down at the big oak table. "Any leftovers? I know it's late, but talking to Jerry made me hungry. Get me a piece of that chocolate cake and maybe a glass of milk."
Debbie uncovered the cake pan and lifted out a double slice of the two-layer chocolate cake. She poured a large glass of cold milk and set it in front of Jimmy, then sat down beside him. He scooped up a big forkful of cake and shoved it into his mouth, drinking the milk before the cake was swallowed. He left a ring of chocolate goo on the rim of the glass.
"What else did Jerry say?"
"I think he was relieved." Jimmy chewed and thought. "He said he'd been meaning to come back and see Mom." He scooped up another big bite of cake. "Jer said his life was pretty busy, but he thought he'd be able to get away from work for a few days." Jimmy looked at Debbie with a smile, his teeth covered in chocolate. "Jerry kept saying, 'So Big Jim is really dead?' as if he thought I was playing a joke on him."
"Well, you might have tried that, if you'd thought of it."
Jimmy laughed a quick, grunting laugh. "Yeah. Why didn't I? I wish I had thought of it when we were younger. I could have pulled that prank over and over. He'd a fallen for it every time, wouldn't he?"
"No." Debbie shook her head, a subtle smile on her face. "He'd call me to verify. He never trusted you." Debbie stood up and took the milk jug, pouring herself a small glass before returning it to the refrigerator. "I'll bet you my egg money that he calls me tomorrow to check on the story before he buys his plane ticket. He'll probably ask for Dad."
"What will you do for the kids' lunch money if you give up your egg money?"
"I'm not going to lose, Jimmy."
"So, you and Jerry talk often?"
"More than you know."
Jimmy frowned, and Debbie knew that look. She was glad he hadn't been drinking.
"He hates to talk to your mom because he never gets any news. He'd never talk to your dad, and he doesn't trust you, so who's he going to talk to?"
"What does he care about anything around here?"
"It's still his home."
Jimmy's frown turned into a scowl. "It's not his home anymore, Deb. I've worked hard to keep this farm in the family. My family. He'll be a guest here. That's all. This is my home now." Jimmy slammed his fist on the table for emphasis.
"I guess I better get the guest room cleaned up tomorrow then," Debbie said, dunking the chocolate covered plate and glasses into the sudsy water and then in the rinse water. She laid them on a clean, white dish towel to dry.
"Deb, do I look like my dad?"
Jimmy was looking at his reflection in the shiny toaster on the kitchen counter.
Debbie turned to look at him. He was tall and dark like his dad, and he had the same blocky build with thick arms and big hands. The face was a bit different, but probably because of the age difference. Debbie always thought Jimmy looked like his dad, but she was loathe to say it out loud. "No, Jimmy. You are a blend of your parents. You have your mom's blue eyes."
Jimmy smiled. "Yeah. Jerry has Dad's evil eyes."
"Well, I'm tired, Jimmy. I'm going to bed. Don't be too long."
"I'm just gonna go over the prices here a few more times and see what I can get for the corn and the beans, if I sell right now. I won't be long, Deb." He reached for Debbie's hand and squeezed it, his sign that sleep would come long after bedtime.
She turned off the sink light and flipped on the hall light. She was hoping to have a third child, but hadn't expected Jimmy to be in the mood, with his father lying in the Morgan Mortuary, his body still warm. She sighed and looked back at Jimmy as she left the room. Maybe it was the release he was needing. His dad was gone, and in a quick twist of fate, he'd become the man of the house. Now that his dad was dead, he'd have the weight of the world on his shoulders. And she'd vowed on their wedding day to help him in any way that she could.
After pulling down the quilted bedcovers, Debbie went across the hall to the bathroom. Untwisting her bun, she let her long, dark hair fall to her waist. After washing her lightly freckled face, she took an extra moment to smear on a touch of color to her cheeks and draw black liner under her tired, brown eyes. She went back to her bedroom and opened the closet door. Her sheer, black nightgown, the one she'd bought right after Christy was born, hung on the hook at the back, away from prying eyes. Jimmy would give her just enough time to put it on. She was tired, really tired. But she never said no to Jimmy.CHAPTER 3
Jerry Collins still felt like a child when he thought of his father, and that made him angry. He tightened both his hands into fists. "I'd kill him right now, with my bare hands," he grunted, "if he wasn't already dead." He took a deep breath. "Wished I'd a done it," he added in a whisper.
His thoughts were more macabre than the words that he could actually speak. His first thought was that his father deserved to die ... a long, painful death, just like the animals that he slaughtered.
And what was his mother thinking, putting up with Big Jim for all those years? "Yes, James. Whatever you want, James. I'll get your slippers, James. Let me wash those overalls, James." There was no way she was going to wash the pig smell out of his dad's clothes. It had become his dad's smell. His dad smelled like a pig, grunted like a pig, and he was a pig. James Collins, a filthy, nasty pig. And a very rich one. If he handed you a dollar bill, it would smell like pig shit.
The call from his brother with the news of his dad's death had brought back many memories, none good. After he hung up, and after his euphoria dissipated, he felt like a kid again, a stupid kid, and Jimmy was playing a joke on him. First thing in the morning, he'd called back to the farmhouse and talk to his sister in-law, Debbie, to find out if it was true. Right after he made a pot of coffee. Right after he took a few deep breaths. Right after he cried, until no tears would fall. It was over. He prayed that his days, and nights, and months, and years of hell were over.
* * *
"Yes, Jerry," it's true. Your dad is dead."
Jerry heard relief in Debbie's voice when he called home the next morning. She had been traumatized by the bastard. And probably her kids had, too. He didn't even know their names, he was so removed from the family. The Collins family ties were really ropes, binding and painful, cutting into you so deeply, they made you bleed. Even though the ropes had been severed with his father's death, the feelings would never return. He would be numb all the rest of his life, in his heart and in the part of the mind that lets you give a damn about anything. Now he remembered their names. The girl was Christy, after Great-Grandma Christine. And the boy had his dad's middle name, Douglas. Jimmy's kids ... they got to carry on the family DNA ... inherited anger, cruelty, and hatred. Lucky kids.
A quick glance at his reflection in the mirror reminded Jerry he was getting older. He'd been trying to stay young, but time was getting the better of him. He held on to the fantasy that someday he'd be a successful lawyer with a loving wife and a couple of kids. He'd worked out, kept his hair blonde with a little help, and had even grown the heavy sideburns that were popular. But his brown eyes, Collins' eyes, were wrinkled and squinty, dull and lifeless, just like his father's eyes. He always hated looking into his own eyes.
Now, when he looked in the mirror, all he saw was a loser. Capital L. The Beatles had even written a song about him, or so he thought. The tune had come to mind every time he'd been passed over for a coveted promotion at the law firm where he worked. The paltry money he was making didn't give him the lifestyle in San Diego that he'd hoped for.
And just to remind him of his place in the family, his mom had called a few weeks earlier to inform him that he was not mentioned until the very last in his dad's will. Even the snot-faced rug-rats were in line before him. His brother would inherit the farm land, nearly 1000 acres, along with the dairy barn, the pig lot, and a small herd of cattle. There was no justice in this world. All he could hope for was that Jimmy would feel generous enough to give him the thirty-five untillable acres near the winding creek-bed. That plot of land was lush with trees and shrubbery, his hiding place. That's where he went to day-dream when he was a kid. If he could talk his mother and brother into giving it to him, he'd build a rustic cabin there, right in the middle of the pines. He'd stake out his claim, hunker down, and become a hermit. They'd never even know he was there. His father wouldn't approve, but his father was dead.
The last time he'd seen his father alive, they'd argued. And he could still hear his dad's hostile voice saying, "If you want something ... anything ... you have to work for it." Jerry had considered picking up the golf club that leaned against the office window frame and taking it to his dad's thick head. But he didn't. His dad continued, his voice becoming louder, "You will never get a penny of my money until you are the last one standing. Your brother does all the work on the farm, and his wife takes care of the chickens, and the hired men, and the paper work. And the young ones will grow up to do the same. Go, enjoy your place in the sun." The old man had sneered at him then, and Jerry could see his disdain. "Just come back and visit your mom from time to time."
Well, he would go back. He'd go back for the old man's funeral and take a look at the Last Will and Testament of James Douglas Collins. Jerry was an attorney. And a good attorney could find a loophole in any legal document. He'd contest it for sure, and he'd break it, but only after schmoozing his mom and getting her on his side. Yeah, Jerry Collins was not going to take any crap, especially from his dead father. And he wasn't going to take it from his dad's clone, Jimmy, either. He could get mom on his side. They were a lot alike. He had her light coloring and frail bone structure. He shared her love of the arts. He had her temperament. He was her son in every way. All but the eyes.
Jerry's family went to the back of his mind, after he made his flight reservations for the next day. Today, he was sticking with his plan to take the day off work, ride his Harley out to Coronado Island, and meet up with his girlfriend, Peggy. His shiny, nearly-new bike was sitting in the far end of the parking garage of his apartment building, all gassed up and ready to go. He loved taking it out just for fun, and today the weather was especially nice. Sometimes he wished he had a car, but the motorcycle was his only mode of transportation. He'd bought it to fit in. Lots of the partners at the law firm had Harleys. And he'd met a few of his best friends at Harley rallies.
Excerpted from Bleeding Tree by Wendy Moser. Copyright © 2014 Wendy Moser. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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