Kellen Adams has fought battles, saved lives and earned the respect of her colleagues and the love of her friends. But now can she triumph against the greatest challenge of her life—her family?
Families and Other Enemies is a new Kellen Adams short story by New York Times bestselling author Christina Dodd, filled with her trademark mystery and humor.
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You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your family.
That's one of those interesting universal truths that gets quoted a lot in the Army on overseas assignments. Because everyone misses their family. But it's not their family who has their back, who will be with them under fire and volunteer to help them scout out the enemy. Friends, comrades-in-arms — in combat, they have greater impact than family. They become more to you than your blood kin.
You get back home, and your family, the people who knew you growing up, are aliens to you because they never experienced what you experienced, likely never fired an automatic weapon, never lobbed a grenade, never took on enemy fire on a cold, dark road in the Afghan mountains. They don't understand why you flinch when the campfire pops or stay awake all night to avoid confronting nightmares of screams and death and murdered friendships.
Most of the time, they don't want to know. They want to tell you about the harrowing time they were barreling down a ski slope and broke a ski, or someone backed into them in the Safeway parking lot and their insurance got stuck for it, or they dropped a boulder on Grandpa's fledgling walnut tree and it lived, anyway. They think they're sharing the kinds of ordeals a soldier faces in combat. Bless their hearts. They're sure not listening.
Take me. When I came back to the States after six years in the Army, here and abroad, I had one living relative I hadn't seen for eight years, and I had no desire to go see Aunt Cora Rae. For one thing ...
I hate to start this so soon, but this is where it gets complicated.
My real name is Cecilia Adams. When I was a kid, my parents were killed (you can already see why I'm twitchy about family, right?) and I went to live with my aunt and uncle and my cousin, Kellen. My uncle was a busy, important man, and he left the care of the children to his wife, Cora Rae. Aunt Cora was a good woman who did her Christian duty, but never in all the years I lived with her was I moved to run to her and hug her in joy or affection. To be fair, I never saw Kellen hug her like that, either, and Kellen was her very own daughter. So I had mixed feelings about Aunt Cora.
I graduated from high school, got a car and drove all by myself across the United States to Maine where I met and married a man twice my age.
Here's the thing. I was young, and I was stupid. I made a mistake. But no matter how young a person is, no matter how many protestations a person makes about "I didn't know" and "How was I to guess?" that same person still has to live with the consequences. Forever.
My husband was an abuser. My cousin, Kellen, came to rescue me — and my husband would kill me and himself before he'd let that happen. And because my cousin and I resembled each other and he was a crazy bastard, he accidentally killed her instead of me. Thank God he was just as successful in killing himself and that mostly got me out of a bad marriage. Mostly.
Naturally, I confessed all to the cops and the media ...
Kidding! No, I didn't.
See that part earlier about young, stupid and mistakes.
I took Kellen's identification and pretended to be her. Got away with it, too, all the way through living in her apartment, living in the street, living with a really good guy, getting shot in the head (don't ask), dealing with a serious case of amnesia (bullet in the brain, duh, can't remember a year of my life, have some quirks about how I remember stuff, how I catalog people, etc.) and enlisting in the military.
For all intents and purposes, Cecilia died by her husband's hand, and I am Kellen Adams. I am Kellen Adams, the soldier, the captain. I am Kellen Adams, the assistant resort manager. I am Kellen Adams, the woman who damn near got killed twice capturing a smuggler and paying for past sins.
All that's nothing compared to what's happening now. I have a family I never suspected, a child I never knew, and — don't tell anyone — I'm afraid.
I am not fit for this duty.
I am not prepared for this duty.
So I'm going back to my roots.
I'm going to go visit Aunt Cora.
It's time.CHAPTER 2
Kellen Adams drove from Yearning Sands Resort on Washington's Pacific Coast down the length of California and across into Nevada. She thought the long drive would give her a chance to think about the new realities of her life.
She was right. The trouble was — the long drive gave her lots of time to think about the new realities of her life.
Her life, her growth, her time of becoming a fully capable human being, had started on the day she walked into an Army recruiting center, her cousin's identification papers and degrees in hand, and enlisted in the military. There she had become disciplined, strong, brave, displayed a talent for organization. She had handled vehicles and people, and when, six years later, she was given a swift and decisive medical discharge, she went to work as the assistant manager of the sprawling and thriving Yearning Sands Resort. She believed she was equipped to manage any situation, any crisis.
And she was: murder, smuggling, kidnapping, a missing shipment of tiny shampoo bottles — she managed everything, right up to the moment when a seven-year-old girl who bore a remarkable family resemblance hugged her and asked,
"Did you know that you're my mama?" Kellen hadn't known what had happened during the year she'd been in a coma. She'd imagined a lot of scenarios, but not this. Never this.
For twelve hundred miles, the scene played and replayed in Kellen's mind, so when she parked at the Las Vegas memory care facility that housed Aunt Cora, she got out of that car in a hurry.
The memory care facility looked like a nursing home: single story, four wings protruding out from the center, pretty gardens filled with white oleanders and carefully tended lawns. Oh, and locked doors. The staff locked themselves in with the patients.
Kellen Adams walked up to the main entrance and rang the bell. She had called ahead and talked to administration, and prudently omitted the fact she had problems with her own memory. They told her to bring identification to prove she was a relation of Cora Rae Adams.
She had agreed, and at the front desk, the nurse receptionist took her driver's license. Kellen's unique mind cataloged him.
MALE, 30S, CAUCASIAN ANCESTRY, MEDIUM HEIGHT, FIT, THIN AND TANNED. LONG, DEXTEROUS FINGERS. UNICORN EARRINGS. COMFORTING SMILE.
While she signed in with her name and the time, he examined it and announced, "Welcome! Looks like your ID is in order, so here's your fancy visitor's badge." He chuckled at his own joke. The badge was a faded piece of paper the size of a driver's license, laminated using the pull-apart sheets from the 1990s. It clipped to Kellen's jeans using a bent paper clip. "You can keep that," he said. "Just make sure you bring it on your next visit.
Now I'll take you to meet Mrs. Adams's doctor."
"Can I see my ... Can I see Cora first?"
"That's not wise. We were frankly relieved to hear from you since we need information about Mrs. Adams, any previous mental problems —"
"None that I know of."
"— and her family history. You'll like Dr. Hawkinson. I promise she's very caring with the patients, and she won't take much of your time." He ushered Kellen into the doctor's office.
DR. HAWKINSON: FEMALE, 5'10", AFRICAN-AMERICAN, MODEL-LIKE SLENDER, LONG LEGS, BLACK HAIR, BLACK EYES. WHITE COAT, OPEN AT THE FRONT, POCKET CLIPPED FULL OF PENS, SOME OF WHICH MIGHT BE, AND PROBABLY WERE, STUFF LIKE THERMOMETERS AND TINY FLASHLIGHTS. EFFICIENT. UNSMILING.
Dr. Hawkinson sat back down after shaking her hand. "Miss Adams, how much do you know about your mother's situation? Her condition?"
"Kellen, please." Kellen didn't know why she felt it necessary to assure a memory doctor that she knew her own name and wasn't lying about that. It was sort of like assuring a psychologist she wasn't crazy. "I know as much about Alzheimer's as the next person."
"Your mother has dementia as opposed to Alzheimer's."
Kellen was sure the questioning look on her face led the doctor to continue. "It means that ..."
The next ten minutes were a flurry of medical facts that granted Kellen a breadth of knowledge she didn't care to have. It was frightening to be reminded that a mind could so brutally betray its owner, even without the benefit of a bullet.
"But let's specifically speak to Mrs. Adams's condition," Dr. Hawkinson said calmly. "Does she have a family history of these types of issues?"
Kellen was quick to answer. "Not that I know of, but she didn't talk about her family much. I think there was bad blood — my cousin and I never met ... my mother's parents."
"I see." Dr. Hawkinson made a note on Cora's chart, then continued. "She is in the early throes of dementia. At this point, she can remember a good portion of her childhood, and she definitely has moments where she's clear on things that happened a few years ago, namely her husband's death. Other days, she has to be reminded he is no longer with us, and as you can imagine, that's always devastating news."
Kellen nodded. "Yes, she loved him more than anyone."
Dr. Hawkinson said, "Hmm," as if that revealed a lot about Aunt Cora. "She has become increasingly angry and hostile. I want you to be prepared. She can sometimes be pleasant and docile. However, she has the type of personality that does not brook disappointment."
Kellen couldn't help herself. She muttered, "Don't I know it."
"Yes, she has on occasion vigorously explained her disappointment in you. And why."
In the real Kellen Adams, she meant. In Aunt Cora's daughter.
Dr. Hawkinson continued. "It's kind of you to come to her in her hour of need. So frequently, in occasions where the family bond is damaged or broken, the family members never visit. We here at the memory care center do understand. We do. At the same time, I think you'll be happier, as her daughter, with contact and perhaps some closure."
"Yes. That's something I thought, too."
Dr. Hawkinson smiled. "Her moods are a trial for the nurses at times, but they're well trained, I assure you. They know to expect patients to have trouble processing old memories while being unable to remember what their shoes look like today or whether they've eaten breakfast."
"I can see how that would be difficult, even for the sweetest of dispositions."
"I don't tell you this to scare you." Dr. Hawkinson kept such excellent eye contact Kellen felt she could not look away. "This portion of the disease can last years, or it could end in a moment. But she is not likely to die for a long time. Her health otherwise is top-notch."
"She always was a stickler for good nutrition and walking everywhere, even in the summer heat." Kellen's own memories were rushing back at her, but she pushed them down in order to focus. "Doctor, I understand. This isn't going to be an easy visit. I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
"Let me show you to her room, then." Dr. Hawkinson led the way into the room. In her brisk, professional voice, she spoke to the woman inside. "Mrs. Adams, I've brought you a visitor. Do you recognize her?"
Cora sat in the winged easy chair, her feet encased in pink scuffs, looking small and lost.
CORA RAE ADAMS: FEMALE, 63 YO, 5'5", 135 LBS, CAUCASIAN ANCESTRY, AUNT BY MARRIAGE. SOFT-SPOKEN, GIVEN TO COOL REPROACH AND CONDUCTOR OF MASTERFUL GUILT TRIPS, A PILLAR OF CORRECTNESS AND STRICT PARENTING. ONCE PRETTY, NOW OLD BEFORE HER TIME: STOOPED SHOULDERS, WHITE HAIR, STRANGE GLASSY SHADE OF LIGHT BLUE EYES BEHIND BENT PLASTICFRAMED GLASSES.
Aunt Cora studied the two women without recognition, then returned to plucking at the fringe of the afghan in her lap and watching her fingers as if the motion surprised and fascinated her.
"Take the seat opposite her. Sometimes it takes a few minutes to get her attention." Dr. Hawkinson leaned over and placed her hands over Aunt Cora's, stilling the restless movements. "Mrs. Adams, you have a visitor."
Aunt Cora looked up again, and this time her eyes focused and narrowed on Kellen's face.
Kellen tensed, a girl trembling and guilty before a judgmental aunt.
In a rigid, cold voice, Aunt Cora said, "You've finally come to visit your ailing mother?"
Aunt Cora's lack of recognition was a complication Kellen hadn't expected. Of course she had presented herself to the facility as Kellen Adams, but all unthinking, she had expected her aunt to know her. The cousins looked alike. Of course they did. But Aunt Cora had seen them every day of their young lives. Surely she would know ... but apparently she didn't.
Nurse Warren stuck his head in the door. "Dr. Hawkinson, we need you in Mr. Brenner's room."
Dr. Hawkinson didn't hesitate. "Excuse me a moment," she said to Kellen, and disappeared from the room.
Kellen didn't blame her; she wanted to disappear, too. She slid into the chair opposite Aunt Cora. She glanced at the door to make sure Dr. Hawkinson was really gone, and said, "No, Aunt Cora. I'm not Kellen. It's me, Ceecee."
"Don't tell me who you are. You're my daughter, Kellen." Cora sat up straighter, her hands clenching the afghan as if she would tear it. "You're a lesbian!"
Uh-oh. Not only had Aunt Cora confused her daughter and her niece, she remembered the most inconvenient fact about Cousin Kellen. Cousin Kellen had indeed been a lesbian, a woman deeply in love with another woman.
"You insist on continuing your ridiculous lifestyle choice regardless of my feelings. I gave you everything, and this is how you repay me! I want grandchildren to comfort me in my old age." Aunt Cora leaned forward, her blue eyes now vivid with rage.
Kellen should have explained she wasn't Cora's daughter, but rather her niece. She should have focused on breaking the news to Aunt Cora that her daughter was dead. She should have done a lot of things, but Aunt Cora had caught her by surprise, and she stammered, "L-lesbians can have children."
"I don't want to hear it. You insisted on telling your father about your girlfriend. You announced that you loved her. You had a choice, and you made the wrong one. Immoral. Disgusting. I raised you better than that!"
In some cool part of her mind, Kellen noted that this tirade was sparked by Aunt Cora's wounded parental pride.
"How the neighbors gossiped!"
Kellen knew she was making a mistake, but the lack of logic drove her to say it. "How did the neighbors know if you didn't tell them?"
Aunt Cora's face turned so red Kellen feared a heart attack. "You dare."
Get back on track. Tell her the truth. "Aunt Cora, I'm not Kellen. I'm your niece, Ceecee. I'm not a lesbian, but Kellen told me about her love for her girlfriend, and I was happy for her."
Aunt Cora leaned forward like a snake about to strike. "You broke your father's heart. You killed him!"
"Aunt Cora, he died of heart disease!" She was talking at cross-purposes, trying to reason with dementia and paranoia. Back on track. Back on track. "Aunt Cora, I have bad news about Kellen."
"Earle died because you couldn't keep your mouth shut, that's what! You kept telling him he needed to accept you and your 'girlfriend.'" Cora flung her arms in the air in what Kellen took to be air quotes every time she said the word girlfriend. If Cora knew what Kellen knew — that her cousin had intended to marry her girlfriend — the gesture probably would have been considerably different.
"I never thought I would hate someone as much as I hate you." Aunt Cora's soft voice contrasted with the venom of her words.
"I'm Ceecee. Kellen was your daughter, and I have news about her. Aunt Cora, she's —"
Aunt Cora leaned her hands on the arms of the chair and pushed herself to her feet. She didn't yell — Aunt Cora would never raise her voice — but her quiet hatred made Kellen lean away from her. "You are my daughter no longer. Last time I saw you I told you to get out and stay out. Now do it. I don't need you."
It was too much. Too much. Kellen had lived through fire and rain, through battle and terror. Now she felt like a child again, with Cora telling her how much of a disappointment she was to her aunt and uncle, and a disgrace to her parents' memory.
No wonder she had been reluctant to visit Aunt Cora.
Kellen pushed the button to call the nurse.
And ran away.
Kellen knew she looked ridiculous speed-walking out of the memory care center, her arms pumping hard to speed up her cowardly feet. At the front desk, she avoided Nurse Warren's sympathetic gaze, signed out and headed for the exit. The lock clicked to let her out, the door swung slowly open and desert heat struck her right in the face.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Families and Other Enemies"
Copyright © 2019 Christina Dodd.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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