An intricately emotional and erotic debut and a haunting foray into the deepest recesses of a sexual underworld, Stacking in Rivertown is a novel of love, pain, and redemption.
Young, beautiful, and happily married, Beth is finally learning to relax and enjoy her success as a bestselling novelist. She has at last achieved the well-adjusted life she always wanted; it almost seems too good to be true. And it is.
Beneath her thin veneer of normalcy lies a terrifying history of sadism, sexual torture, tragic violence and a single long-buried secret that could destroy her. Beth is scarred by childhood abuse: as a sixteen-year-old runaway, she was picked up by Ben, an upmarket pimp whose girls are virtually slaves and who specializes in expensive sadomasochistic "plays" for wealthy clients.
In one of those plays, Beth was stabbed and her best friend (and lover), a fellow young prostitute, was savagely murdered in front of her eyes. Now, recaptured by Ben, she struggles to remember what happened and who did it.
Stacking in Rivertown marks the auspicious debut of a refreshingly bold new writer. In the bestselling tradition of Thomas Harris and David Lindsey, Barbara Bell plunges readers deep inside the mind of a woman struggling to survive and rebuild her life despite a harrowing past.
As Beth flees for her life, fighting to get her revenge and somehow learning to love without pain, Stacking in Rivertown hurtles its readers toward a terrifying and unforgettable climax.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Barbara Bell, a poet, songwriter, and professional gardener, lives in the Indianapolis area. This is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: The Shoebox
Ten Chits. That was what Mama called me ever since the day I came home bloody in the mouth from having kicked Gedders' ass.
"His hands don't go by me," was all I'd tell her, and she called me Ten Chits. I guess because ten was the highest she ever learned to count, and a chit was just a something to her.
Anything could be a chit. Mostly I was the chit. You're just a chit, she'd say. Sometimes, my big brother Vin was the chit. Or maybe she called that whip-tailed hound dog from down the street a chit when she had another bag of "groceries," having come up from town, and "that chit of a mongrel" growled at her, smelling the steak bones, I guess, with some of the meat still on, but dainty bites sawed away, or healthy man-sized cuts knifed out. She brought home baked potato skins hollowed and still wrapped in foil, and wilted green stuff too slimy to swallow.
The river there bent near in half right around our two-room, as Daddy called it, and a long patch of grass went right down to the bank. In the summer the water shrank down, leaving a mucky rock-strewn mess that Vin, me, and Mandy squished into barefoot.
"Bag of twigs coming down the road," was what Daddy said whenever he saw Mandy skipping down the lane. She looked all sticks and hands with a head, and lived in a trailer with her mama down near where the titi and the pop ash grew too thick to wiggle through.
Mandy, me, and Vin spent our time digging out crawdads and sneaking up on bullfrogs that sat fat on the edges of puddles left flat, full of waterboatmen and striders skimming.
Swarms of mosquitoes and gnats danced over in the afternoons, and the brown water gone lazy carried a film on top that curved and caught cottonwood seeds floating down. Damselflies screwed all the time, floating by tail to tail, and the lacewing and mayfly all broke out fine in their time.
But now I'm off my story and the chits. I've begun to think of the chits as pieces of evidence, like in a detective novel, to be numbered, catalogued, and put in order. I never counted them up that year, the year the chits fell so heavy, but maybe there were ten altogether. Most people collect evidence to solve puzzles outside their lives. I need it to solve my own life. I appear to have a problem with memory.
I know now that none of what happened was Jeremy's fault, even if he was a screwball. It's just that I wasn't meant for marriage, especially to someone like Jeremy, or living that kind of life. The life where you write your books in a studio in the afternoons after a morning jog and a trip to the spa. Eating dinner for two in a house meant for twenty. Or sleeping at night and getting up before his alarm goes off just to have him smile that inane smile when he comes in the kitchen, adjusting his tie, maybe whistling a horrible cheerful tune.
But I do blame him. It was his fault that I sold the novel. I completed it under Jeremy's constant insistence, his gentle pressure on "your talent," as he said to me. He was the one that prepared queries, synopses, and outlines, printed out and stuffed into envelopes sent off to small presses, large presses, literary journals, agents, anyone at all who might show an interest.
"We'll keep trying," he said after every rejection, his confidence a disease that weakened me, kept me worrying about the upholstery, a need for new carpeting or a more tasteful tile for the shower.
Jeremy liked my stories. That's what drew him to me. Jeremy was seemingly blind to my other "talents," as Ben would say. Where most men I'd met thought my mouth had a better use, for Jeremy it was the stories.
And he believed in this weird notion called synchronicity. What with both of us having surgery in the same hospital on the same day and both recovering in blue gowns with wheelchairs and matching IVs, for him it was love at first sight. The synchronicity thing cinched it.
My appendectomy had been sudden, the obsolete fingerlike organ having burst without so much as a bleep in the symptom department. I had collapsed, Ben said (now there's a chit; I hadn't remembered that before), at the reception for the Senator. Fell right down the stairs in the black strapless (he added for my benefit), and had beat myself up pretty bad by the time I hit the last step.
Jeremy probably fell in love with my bruises, too.
He was always bringing home strays from Wall Street. He offered them scraps wrapped in napkins and saved from one more in a long line of power lunches.
Dogs loved Jeremy. They could tell he only had eyes for them. I think it would have pleased him immensely to be born a dog. He loved to adore, to press close excitedly. He was easily trained and loyal to a fault. So finding me all bruised and sick, after a minor gallstone removal on his part, was like finding the ultimate stray, the she-dog of his dreams. Except for Ben, I had no friends, no family.
Jeremy was in dog heaven.
Ben worried him. He's admitted that. Just to have Ben in the room with you felt like hanging around a pissed grizzly.
But Ben only visited me once at the hospital, holding buttercups nearly mangled in his massive, squat hand. His other hand was fat in a big white bandage. He must have hurt it trying to stop me from falling, I decided, a fall that for the life of me I couldn't remember, down those stairs in the ballroom.
Ben brought with him a shoebox and a small suitcase filled with my clothes. He gave me his card. "Call me when you're ready," he said. And I said I would, but then Jeremy wheeled by, measured Ben's extraordinary height with his eyes, and got his first look at me dressed in bruises.
The woman of his dreams.
After his first eyeful, Jeremy spent every minute at my bedside, offering me water when I was thirsty and helping me up to take my five trembly steps to the john. He offered me grapes and slices of oranges his mother had brought to enhance his healing in place of hospital fare over which she clucked her tongue in dismay.
I wasn't much on talking then, so he'd chatter away like a miniature schnauzer, pausing now and then to coax a few words out of me.
Jeremy asked me to marry him after a week. It was neither here nor there to me, but he could pester like a scotch terrier. And I was in some kind of shock, a shock that hung on like a leech for five years. I think I was lulled to sleep in suburbia, waking up like Rip Van Winkle and wondering where I'd been, and how I ended up married to such a clean-cut all-American guy as Jeremy.
No one gave me away at the wedding, which his mother has never been able to let be. And Jeremy's confused to this day about my lack of friends and family, my absence of a past. He gave up interrogating me about it after a year or so, instead substituting any number of various and increasingly bizarre fairy tales about my past of his own devising. Most of these included some fantastical intervention by a dog as a crucial element in the story.
Maybe he should write a novel.
So I kept Jeremy mollified with stories about the river and the bend of the river, about Grady, wild-eyed and muttering like a rabid possum. Grady lived not a stone's throw from our two-room in a shack, eating just about anything he could trap, spear, or grab bare-handed. Grady was quick, if nothing else.
But Jeremy could never get enough of me telling about the rise downriver where the oldest and the richest families in town deposited their dead, laid out in shelves, Mandy said, like dolls, but flat on their backs in boxes.
Stacking in Rivertown, we called it. Rivertown was me and Mandy's name for the cemetery because it was like a little village all by itself with small white stone houses and here and there a carved angel with the face of a mother, or a stern man with a sword. Flags waved there on holidays, and flowers wilted down. The river below was wider like a lake, and dull, overhung with willow and poplar all tied up with spiders.
My stories are like that river, muddy, buzzed over by flies, and wilting down by midday. It was the stories about the river and then the novel that got me in trouble with the chits.
At first, the publisher was low-key about it, narrow distribution, limited printing. And the book was slow in the uptake. My agent was just telling Jeremy and me that it wasn't even going to pay for its printing, when something started happening. An undercurrent, like the ones Mandy was always yammering about that pull you down and before you know it you're drowned like Grady. They found him a mile and a half downstream. The rats had done some damage.
Anyway, it's a muddy novel, as I said about my writing. "Dark," the reviewers began calling it as it was brought to their attention by the perplexing appearance of the buying undercurrent.
"Sometimes these things just happen," my agent said, trying to help me feel better about it. She appeared cheerful. "Sometimes you throw the dice and you win."
I was thinking that the last thing I needed right then was to win.
The novel began to have a "cult following." I'm not sure how that's different from having a reading audience, but it still sells books. Women were eating it up.
People became interested. The novel was called a "phenomenon." My agent began to get calls wanting interviews. The publisher demanded book signings, speaking engagements at colleges. Readers were beginning to wonder who I was and ask questions about my past.
"I had an appendectomy," I told my agent as we were constructing a bio for the book jacket. "It burst."
"College?" she asked.
"I try not to think about that," I replied, breaking into a cold sweat.
"Of course you think about it," she said, her voice catching in my head like a set of trolling hooks.
"All I did was write a book. Lots of people do that."
"They want to know about you, who you are, where you came from."
"Seems silly," I said. In fact, the whole thing was scaring the piss out of me.
After I arrived home from that enlightening conversation with my agent, I sat at my desk thinking about the fucking novel and my not-quite-right lifestyle. Jeremy's Porsche barreled into the garage. We owned matching Porsches, his Republican blue, mine hellish red.
I prepared myself for what came next, assuming my tenuous wife pose, making over him after he bounded up the stairs in search of me. Before the hour was out, we sat down to dinner, me toying with my food as usual.
I don't even remember when I lost my appetite. It just dried up and disappeared one day, like my memory, I guess.
Later that evening as I was busy avoiding Jeremy, pretending to clean out the closet in my studio, I found the shoebox. Ben's shoebox. I picked it up, then stood frozen. I felt so strange, and was surprised when I realized that I was homesick. I hadn't seen or talked to Ben since that last day in the hospital.
But it was more than that. I felt a vibration, a push behind, a thing that chased. This wasn't a new feeling, but holding the box like that brought it on strong.
It was like my nightmares, the ones of the woman in green. I always woke up chilled, trying to scream. And the need to run, to get the hell out of there, swarmed my brain like blackfly.
"Come to bed now, honey," Jeremy called from the bedroom.
Obedient to a fault, I turned to go. But first I dropped the shoebox in the back of my file cabinet.
After I joined Jeremy in bed, granted the mandatory goodnight kiss and squeeze of the hand, Jeremy dropped off like a trapjaw on a log. Biff, his cocker-mix stray, was dead asleep at his feet. Jeremy slept like a mastiff, curled tight and breathing heavy. So I did the same thing I'd done for a long time; I sneaked out of bed to write.
Night was when the stories got dark and rough, swishing and filled with undercurrents roving the bottom of the river. And tonight, for some reason, the ghosts came. They hounded. They crawled all over me. Maybe it was the shoebox and the vibrations. Maybe it was an incredible lack of food and sleep.
And for whatever combination of reasons the buying undercurrent, my not-quite-right lifestyle, or maybe just synchronicity it was at this point that I turned a corner. Not a real corner; a corner in my head.
I don't like to admit this, but I think that up until that moment I had some kind of amnesia. As a matter of fact, I didn't remember a lot of things for months. Oh sure, there were things I knew all along, things that I kept from Jeremy. But nothing was set end to end. It was like having some pieces of a broken vase. You hold them, remember the shape, but don't want to force a thing together that will never be what it was before. I gave up on that kind of thing a long time ago.
But in that moment, pressured by the shoebox and the nightmares, I turned a corner.
Mama said, "Turn a corner, turn a cup." And she'd turn over a cup, screeching bloody murder if it got knocked down before a week wore out. It was just a way Mama had of seeing things, of trying to make sure about the "dangers." She was always talking about the dangers like they were alive and buzzing in the air over our heads. For some reason it wasn't the dangers that bothered me. It was Gedders' daddy up the lane.
He grew worms. We called his worm farm a wormtree, all those layers and layers with thousands of worms packed together in casings and stacked like the village we called Rivertown.
Gedders' daddy was just Snuff to everybody there. He fished for all sorts of grubs and crawly things along the banks, and carted boxes of them up into town stacked on the back of a bike, where I guess he sold them to places where they put them in a cooler next to the meat.
One time, me and Mandy were fishing tadpoles up out of a layback. She was talking redfly, blubberbee, weaving her words together like buttercup bracelets. Snuff came out of nowhere. He stood real quiet, staring from one of us to the other.
"Too scrawny," he said to Mandy, then looked at me. "But there's a little more meat."
I was already backing off when he jumped me. He was such an underfed, wiry thing I never thought he could have moved so fast, but he had me and I screamed.
He stunk like a dead possum, and I bit him on his teeth, because he had his mouth on me. I only chipped my right front lower. He lost two teeth. They just cracked off in my mouth like they were made of rotten wood or saltines. Mandy was hitting him over the back with a stick, and he was saying words I'd never heard before like he was hexing me. Mandy and me ran, me spitting out those teeth.
Ben had said the same to me. That was why he favored me.
"You've got enough meat," he said, "but not too much. Not fat. Straps don't look good on fat. The scrawny girls can't fill a cuff, don't wear it tight. It's your muscles pushing up, pressing against. It fills a man's eyes."
This is a chit, remembering Ben like that out of nowhere and what he did to me.
Ben was an artist. Ben was a playwright. It was Ben and his dark Sicilian eyes that I remembered most as I turned my corner.
He could devise theater strong enough to make men's hearts fail. One time it really happened. The guy was some CEO up out of Philly. After he collapsed over me, his driver and Ben got him lifted up onto a cart that Ben used to move some of his equipment. They wrestled his dead body into the guy's limo, and away the driver zoomed. I read the obit later that week, but didn't recognize his picture. I wasn't able to see him that night.
Ben started out just a regular pimp in Manhattan. Before that he'd worked the park taking tricks, but gave it up when he started "the bleed." He was much better as a pimp, carefully choosing his batch of girls and guys.
By the time he tagged me, he was already making his way into pimp history.
Ben wormed his way up, attracting clients from the sleazy clubs, but getting a reputation. He didn't just sell vaginas and assholes. He sold the whole show. It was his calling. And he kept getting better. He was already well known around the Manhattan hot spots with the wealthier set when I showed up.
Ben got all his business by word of mouth, refining his clientele as he went along. He picked me up on a corner in SoHo. I hadn't eaten in four days. When I think about it now, I'm surprised he bothered. I was only sixteen and must have looked like shit.
Ben liked his players a little older. They worked the plays better. But no matter what their age, he never took the blank ones. That was the reason he kept me for so long. Ten years.
"With you, it's always fresh. You've got a gift. If you were in Hollywood, you'd knock them dead."
I never did tell him the truth, that I wasn't acting a lot of the time.
Most prostitutes last five years tops. It's the monotony and the disease. And if I'd been tagged by anybody but Ben, I would have had that same dull expression, that "I've screwed you a thousand times" look which shuts down a man's excitement. They can still fuck, but it doesn't grab, doesn't scratch its way in.
Ben's customers were, for the most part, regulars. One night with Ben and his kids, and they were hooked, coming back as often as they could afford it.
Ben was pricey. That's how he did it. He was also a genius for timing and choosing his players. We didn't get worn and dull, because we only worked one trick a night. Sometimes it was a long night as we raised the pitch of arousal like Hitchcock worked fear.
I craved it.
I loved the feel of the straps binding, the unknown cocks (a new one every night), the forced strippings. The whip I could have gone without, and the clips, but not all his clients wanted that. I was great at faking the beatings.
I learned that from Daddy.
Daddy beat Vin and me so often that we got good at his rhythm, how he moved from the face to the stomach. We knew the timing of his kicks. We'd compare notes afterward, one with a nose bleeding, the other with lumps rising along the back or the side.
"He went from the face to the back this time," or, "Watch his eyes. Watch his eyes. The hands follow."
I got to be an expert at absorbing the blow, but not the brunt of it, falling back hard when it was expected, crumpling prematurely, and taking the kicks. He only meted out three or four of those. When you were on the floor, he just got disgusted and bored.
"Hit the floor," I told Vin. "Act like he broke your nose. Squall like a baby and drop. The kicks are candy."
That's how I got through the first couple months with Ben. When he gets you, they lock you in the basement and call you a newborn. And after they dragged me up into the lights after what they did to me down there, I worshipped Ben with the vehemence of a good honest hatred. Ben was the only man I ever loved.
I guess that's love in a nutshell.
Remembering Ben like this, experiencing an unusual bout of nostalgia, and having turned a corner, I got suddenly exhausted. It was two thirty. So I did what I'd been doing every night. I curled up on the floor of my closet to finish off the night, leaving the door cracked just enough for me to see. Jeremy slept like a log, so he never noticed. To tell the truth, Jeremy didn't notice much.
The closet seemed the safest place to sleep, since I knew that the man would come some night and that he'd be wearing gym shoes. I hoped he wouldn't think to look for me in the closet.
I dozed off for about an hour and drifted back to my nightmare, then woke up in a sweat. Gym shoes, I thought. Watch out for the gym shoes. Then I had a flash of something. It was almost a memory, but I couldn't catch it. And it scared me so much, I got to shaking all over.
I pushed open the closet door a little and lay looking at my tastefully appointed studio.
Out, I thought. I've got to get out.
Then I heard Jeremy's alarm go off. The alarm was a recording of dogs barking. I promised myself each morning that someday I was going to get a gun and shoot that damn alarm clock.
I ripped downstairs, hit the button on the coffee machine, and prepared my wife face again.
But that particular morning it cracked, it poured, it drained away, and I knew that I couldn't take my life one more minute, the nightmares, Jeremy's damn alarm clock, and the buying undercurrent pressing on me.
Jeremy didn't even notice my lack of a smile.
He looked down at Pussy, his chihuahua stray. "Honey, do you think she looks sick?" he asked me.
Personally, I thought that little rat dog looked sick from the day he brought her home.
He worried over her all through his breakfast, me just nibbling at my piece of crumpet. Then he jumped up and kissed me, racing the engine of his Porsche in the garage and squealing off to a day on Wall Street.
I sat at the table in a daze, trying to imagine a way out, a clean escape.
When I look back at it now, I think that moment was touch and go, because the only thought that made sense was that I wanted to die. I have to admit, I wasn't surprised. I just wondered why it took me so damn long to figure out that kind of thing. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I'd only thought it sooner.
And as soon as I had my thought about dying, I felt better. So I threw on a very short skirt and a pair of heels, revved up the Porsche, and hit the gun stores.
The better the novel sold, the less I ate and slept. The less I slept, the more antsy I got, going for drives in the morning after Jeremy left. I did a pawnshop junket, fascinated by the knives. That's when I saw my first Smith and Wesson with a long, sleek barrel.
"More accurate at a distance," the pawnshop guy assured me, brushing his hand over mine as he handed it to me.
I wasn't concerned about accuracy at a distance. I thought of the barrel in my mouth, pressing up against my tongue. I desired that gun. I fantasized. I thought of it like a lover, because of the thing that chased. The push behind was growing more insistent.
I soon became bored with the lack of firepower assortment in the pawnshops, so I visited gun stores, taking in the incredible array of weaponry needed to preserve democracy and a safe society. And ammo. I discovered a diversity of bullets that would have made any ecosystem proud.
That morning, I was in a buying frame of mind. No jogging. No trip to the spa or pumping iron. No wearing out of stationary bikes or NordicTracking myself toward tranquility. I had a suicide to attend.
My favorite gun store was Bob's Guns.
What an original name. Bob thought it up.
I tooled into the parking lot, walked inside, and waved at Bob. We'd become something like friends.
"Today I'm in a buying mood," I said.
"The Smith and Wesson?"
"You got it."
"With that nice long barrel," he added, looking me up and down like he'd figured out my other talents, the ones Ben was so crazy about.
I'd thought ahead and brought my tote bag. So into the bag with my lipstick and blush, I dropped a box of bullets and a Smith and Wesson with a long barrel. They lay neat and cozy beside the seven-inch switchblade I'd picked up at Johnny's Pawn. (Another original name.)
So much for a safe society.
It was high noon just like in the movies. I had a good seven hours to go and get the job done. I sang along with a CD of Hendrix on my way home, happy as a bee. Stacking in Rivertown, I belted out to "Hey Joe" while the garage door closed behind my Porsche. As I keyed in the alarm and opened the door into the house, the heat from the engine warmed the back of my thighs. It gave me another flash of memory. But it didn't make any sense. I saw a knife pointing at my stomach. Dizzy now, I shook my head to make the picture go away. And the push got sharper, driving into me.
I skirted through the kitchen, leapt the back stairs, then floated, trying to prepare. I wafted into my studio, all the while assailed by the fine colonial house, the white carpeting, the dandelion-free lawn, the maid, and Jeremy.
I walked to my desk and sat in the great swivel chair, shoving six shiny cartridges into the chambers of the desirable S&W for my fabulous suicide. The phone rang and the answering machine picked up with my fake happy voice regretting our absence, pleading for a message, promising a call.
It was my agent telling me of two book signings, one in Manhattan and one in Philly, both next week. In my mind, everything went dull gray.
It's this feeling of future that I get. I never had this future problem until I met Jeremy. There was something about him and his friends and their "tomorrow" this and "planning for the future" that. They harped about newer and bigger houses, brighter cars, new babies, preschool enrollment, private school costs, and projected college tuition. It socked my brain in, poking and pricking me like I'd got the ghosts in Ben's basement.
Ben I could take, even on a bad day. But not Jeremy. Not interviews. Not a house big enough for twenty.
I turned the S&W around in my hands so that it was pointed at my face. I stuck the muzzle back near my throat, aiming toward my brain.
What a metaphor, I thought, remembering all those cocks I sucked working for Ben. That's what reminded me of Violet.
Oh, lovely Violet. I thought of her then because Violet had "teeth." She could suck a cock right off a man and swallow every drop of his mystery.
We all said, oh yes, Violet. Now Violet has teeth. That was the term. The really good cocksuckers had teeth. Never made any sense to me.
When Ben used us together, I was always in some grand strapped-down position of welcome. Violet was made to suck cock. Clients were always asking for Violet. Not only did she suck cock, she did it like she was terrified, struggling with her hands cuffed back.
They loved that, those men with their fat bellies, with their silly little drooping sacks, their powder puff skin, and their twitchy arrogant eyes. They were nothing but meat to us. We'd see the picture of one in the paper and laugh, saying, remember his thighs? They flapped. They trembled. His belly's too high.
I still see their faces in magazines and newspapers every now and then. Some of them are presidents of corporations, or chairmen of boards of directors, or elected to some public office.
So, another chit that. Remembering Violet, I mean. And I thought of her wearing green and that she had teeth as I sucked in that gun barrel.
I waited. I counted one to five.
But something was wrong with me. I couldn't get myself to do it.
I checked the clock. Four o'clock was coming on fast. I'd wasted a good four hours of a potentially excellent death. I sucked in the muzzle again, trying to concentrate. Nothing doing.
I guess those years with Ben, working myself into a state just to keep my head above water, had created a habit. On nights with Ben whipping me while some bumbling CEO screwed from behind, I thought I might stop breathing. The gag choked. And the blindfold. I hate blindfolds.
I gained a penchant for struggling. I fought. I survived.
So no wonder I couldn't pull the trigger.
All that pushing got to be a habit, a routine supported by special sayings, rituals performed before my act to ward off disease and to keep me safe from the fruitcake clients wanting more than sex, wanting blood.
Ben never left us unwatched. As he got more sophisticated, the rooms had a one-way mirror somewhere and a secret door. If Ben wasn't in the room, he watched from behind the mirror, interfering if things got too nasty. Ben was the best daddy a kid could ask for.
He kept us locked in most of the time. When I first came, the only players Ben had were Kat, Toni, Matt, and myself. He didn't pick up Violet until later.
I loved our rooms. They were tall and airy, at the top of a warehouse he'd renovated. A wall of windows looked out over the East River. The water glittered on sunny days. I had a pair of binoculars that I used to watch the boats go in and out the river. Pigeons roosted on our window ledges. We had a small patio on the south roof where we could lie out in the sun. Ben thought the air did us good.
I began to remember how Toni always tried to cheer me up with little gifts he picked up here and there. Matt was quiet, like me, but he always let me curl up in his lap when we watched scary videos together. For some reason I could never put my finger on, he reminded me of Vin.
I thought of Kat for the first time in five years. Kat's body and face came the closest I've ever seen to what I would call perfect. No man ever just glanced in her direction. But it was her inner grace, a sense of timelessness, of all the days gone by, that captured you. Kat was the one that mothered me, coaxing me back to life after Ben's basement.
As I began remembering them, I almost started to cry. I missed them so much.
And we had Charles and Princess Di, two cats Matt found in a Dumpster one day. Eventually, we caught on that Charles was really a girl. It didn't matter to us. Di was disappointed. And there was Buster. Good old Buster. He must have weighed in over one hundred pounds and was part mastiff, part St. Bernard. Ben gave it away as a reward to be able to take Buster out to Central Park. Ben had Buster trained as an attack dog. For our protection, he said.
I have to keep my family safe, Ben said over and over. That's how we said it. We said we were family. On nights we had off, we'd make popcorn and watch videos. We celebrated holidays and made up birthdays, spending weeks agonizing over gifts for one another. Kat posted charts of the cleaning duties. We bought groceries and cooked, spending mealtime niggling back and forth. And we cared for each other like our lives depended on it.
I laid the gun on top of my keyboard.
Why me? Why did I have to get a cult following and an undercurrent? Why couldn't they have just ignored me?
So that was when I thought to take out the shoebox again. I lifted the top off it and found Ben's business card. Beneath that were all my old IDs, all fake. I pulled them out, staring in amazement, the wheels turning in my head.
I couldn't even remember what my name was when I lived by that river. But during my ten years with Ben, I was Elizabeth Boone.
It reminded me (another chit) of Ben visiting me in that hospital, but I was in a different room from the one where I first saw Jeremy. This was a lockdown ward where I got off the smack cold turkey, soaking the bed with sweat and shaking like a baby. I was restrained hand and foot, which didn't bother me at all. But Ben kept waving the new IDs before my eyes.
"You're Clarisse Broder. Remember that. And when the police ask, say you were Ekker's girl. Don't mention me."
I couldn't get it in my head why, and I asked him if I had appendicitis. At first he laughed, but when I kept asking about the surgery, he got to looking pale. I'd never seen him like that.
"Yeah. Appendicitis," he said at last. And he took my hand with that gentleness that he showed sometimes, and told me the story about falling down the stairs. I remembered the ballroom and the black strapless, but I didn't remember falling.
After I had the police as confused as Ben about the appendicitis, they stopped bothering me and wheeled me into a regular ward.
Ben came that last time and handed me my things. Thinking about it now, I'd almost say he looked sad. Then I met good old Jeremy and got married.
In the shoebox beneath my old IDs was a savings account book. It showed that Elizabeth Boone had some twenty thousand dollars saved in First Mutual. That was a stunner. And beneath that I found a batch of folded papers of stories I'd written years back.
So it started. The beginning of my "year," as I call it, when I began counting up chits and thinking about a different type of suicide, the kind where you end up free, in a new life that you yourself decide.
Holding the IDs in my hand and having my recurring problem with memory, I picked up my phone to call Ben. He was the only person I knew that could get me a batch of new IDs.
And it's funny how you forget the important things. How the bad stuff just falls right out of your head and you remember a whole ten years of your life with a man like Ben, thinking that everything that happened was only natural and not all that terrible when you get right down to it.
So at that moment, for some crazy reason, I was thinking that Ben was the one to help me.
It turned out to be the stupidest thing I've ever done.
Copyright © 2000 by Barbara Bell