Fiction: A Change of Climate

October 12, 2017 Fiction , Literature , POETRY / FICTION

Beth Solano photo

 

By

R.L.M. Cooper

 

 

The creamy, glove-soft leather of the Mercedes limousine was almost seductive, and the car itself seemed to float silently over the unpaved, washboard road. The minute they left the highway, Kate knew they were almost there. Her palms were growing sweaty and she could feel her level of anxiety rising along with her heart rate.

She pressed a button on her armrest.  “Drive slower, please, Jimmy.”

Her chauffeur nodded message received in the rear-view mirror and slowed the car.

“You are sure everything will be as I requested?” she asked her attorney, Mr. Parker, seated across from her, facing the rear of the limousine.  He nodded and she looked back out the window at the scrubby, dusty fields passing by.  She wiped her palms on her skirt. Nerves.

The last twelve years of her life flashed before her as rapidly as the snowy-white, defoliated cotton fields flashed past the limousine’s privacy-tinted windows.

Flash! — Midnight. Slowly easing out of bed. Oh, so carefully. Silently taking the small bag that held a few precious, hoarded dollars and a change of clothes stashed beneath the kitchen sink behind the cleaning supplies (a place he would never look). Walking eight miles in the dark. Afraid. Headlights! Run to the trees!

Flash! — Homelessness. Hunger. The exhaustive effort at just keeping clean. Menial jobs. Waitress. Then a break. Fabric designer. Finally, fashion designer and a modest level of security and success.

Flash! — The kind face of Walter Weston III who had first loved her designs and then had loved her as the child he longed for yet never had. The unexpected and amazing inheritance of Weston Enterprises on his death, and the sudden wealth and power that followed.

All this in the space of a dozen years since that long, terrifying walk-run in the dark. A one-in-a-billion Cinderella-story come true. Who would believe it? She had won the lottery. She scarcely believed it herself. But here she was, Kathy Anne Hickson, now Katherine Anne Weston, ensconced in comfort and luxury in a chauffeured limousine with her own fashion logo on the door. Yet, for all her current wealth and power, nerves were overtaking her.

Her past still clung to her with remarkable tenacity. In addition to sweaty palms she could feel beads of perspiration forming on her forehead and upper lip. She wanted this over and done with. She didn’t want to be here at all. She had to be. Sometimes there are things in life you just have to do. For Kate, this was one of them.

She spoke again to her attorney. “You are sure they won’t be at the house?”

Mr. Parker nodded. “I’m sure, Miss Weston. My assistant came for them this morning and drove them into town for the paperwork. He won’t bring them back to pick up their truck for at least a half hour.”

“I’m sorry, but could you just go over it one more time?” Anything to quell the uneasiness.

“Yes, of course.” The attorney pulled a sheet of paper from his briefcase even though he didn’t really need it. He read to her, paraphrasing the legalese. “Mr. Dwayne Hickson and his current wife, Holly Hickson, are to be paid $139,000 for the entire seven acres of land including the house and all its contents. They are not to remove a single item from the property except their clothing and personal belongings. All other possessions, including the furniture, are to remain with the house as part of the sale.”

Mr. Parker continued, “My assistant was here early this morning and made sure everything was in order. He will return with Mr. and Mrs. Hickson in about a half hour to forty-five minutes. They will have already signed the papers and accepted payment in full. The permits you require are in order and the local authorities will arrive shortly to execute the other arrangements, just as you requested.”

“Thank you. I’m sure you’ve taken care of everything.”

Kate felt her heart pounding as Jimmy parked the limousine just yards from the house and came around to open her door. She stepped out looking smart in pleated taupe skirt and shimmering peach silk blouse. Tiny, square-cut diamond earrings sparkled beneath waves of perfectly-coifed, strawberry-blonde hair. Light taupe heels touched down onto a yard more dirt than grass.

She suddenly felt dizzy at the sight of the familiar unpainted, sagging porch. The house loomed. Menacing. Hateful. Its dark secrets somehow exaggerated for its small size supported only by cinder blocks. Her throat was dry. Tight. She looked at the dark space beneath the porch behind the wooden steps.

Flash! — Dwayne’s threatening face. You sleep under the porch with the rest of the bitches! The grit of dirt on her lips as she hit the ground. The body-warmth of the gentle hounds on that chilly November night.

She took a deep breath and moved forward. Determined. She opened the screen door and entered the house. It belonged to her now–at least for the next half hour. The living room looked much the same. The sofa was different, but not in much better condition than the one she had lived with for three years, two months, and seventeen days. Other furniture had not changed. The sofa side-table…

Flash! Don’t ever leave your crap all over my chair again! The sting of the slap across her face. The salty taste of blood on her lips. Searing pain as her head hit the table. Unconsciousness.

She moved past the table, through the living room and into the kitchen. The smell of greasy fried food enveloped her. A knife lay on the countertop.

Flash! — The glint of the blade.

She closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see more. She pushed the memory away.

She made her way hesitantly into the bedroom. The same old vanity stood on the opposite wall, its finish chipped and scarred and its mirror speckled and dark with deteriorating silvering. She looked at the reflection in the mirror, puzzled at the face looking back. She scarcely recognized herself, so much had she changed since inhabiting these sinister rooms.

Something moved behind her reflection. She whirled around to face him. Dwayne. They had gotten back early. She froze. He wore a western-style shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest and the usual cowboy boots because they added height to his 5 foot, 8 inch frame. He looked at her curiously. Suddenly recognition spread across his face. He relaxed and smiled.

“Well lookie who’s here. If it ain’t Kathy Hickson, my old heifer. Just couldn’t stay away from me, could you?”

Kate could feel her body weaving though she kept her feet planted firmly on the bare wooden floor. She stood her ground and yet could feel her courage seeping away as though some demon in a bad science fiction film was sucking the life out of her in steady, smoky wisps. Still, she met his gaze in stubborn silence.

“Where did you get the clothes? And that fancy car out there? You whoring yourself out to some rich old man these days?” As he spoke, he slowly circled her. Examining her. His face was so close she could smell the hot tobacco breath and see those eyes the color of black ice. He smelled of greasy food and motor oil. She lowered her eyes to avoid his face and could see dirt beneath his fingernails as he clenched and unclenched his punching fist.

Beads of sweat formed like mist on her lip and trickled in rivulets between her breasts beneath the silk blouse. Still she did not move. Through the bedroom window in the far wall she could see dust rising from the road and the flashing lights of the arriving police and fire department vehicles. He hadn’t noticed. He continued the verbal assault and measured questioning as he moved around her.

“I wondered who would be crazy enough–or stupid enough–to pay so much money for this place. Now I see. You put your sugar daddy up to buying it? What in hell do you want it for?” He had completed his circle and stood directly in front of her, his face only inches from hers. Challenging.

Kate looked back from the window. She met his gaze but remained infuriatingly silent. Wouldn’t he be surprised, she thought, to learn that a half-way house for battered women would be erected on this site by this time next year. But he would not learn it from her. Not on this day. Not ever.

“Answer me, you slutty bitch!” He raised his fist to strike her.

She closed her eyes.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” A soft, menacing voice spoke. She opened her eyes to see Dwayne’s arm caught mid-air in Jimmy’s vice-like grip. Jimmy’s six-foot-plus frame towered over him from behind, his head bent close to Dwayne’s ear.

Relief flushed over her. She quickly stepped around them and made her way to the door. On reaching the door, she turned back to face Dwayne and finally spoke. “You know, I had almost forgotten how very small you are.”

At last she turned her back and strode through the living room, across the porch, and out to the waiting limousine. Jimmy followed her closely and reached to open her door. As she bent to enter the car her eyes fell on Holly Hickson standing nervously alone near the end of the porch. This was the first time Kate had seen her. A wave of recognition and compassion flooded her as she noticed the tired look on her thin face, the dark bruises peeking above her collar and from beneath the lank, dishwater hair. She noticed the long sleeves of her shirt although the temperature was warm on this day. She saw herself a dozen years ago. In this instant she knew exactly what she was going to do. She had imagined hurting Dwayne in oh-so-many ways over the years. They had been like therapy, those angry daydreams. And though this–this wonderful, delicious idea–had not been a part of any plan, it just seemed so right. So Just. So perfect.

Kate abandoned the car and approached Holly just as Dwayne was emerging from the house. She tilted her head toward him but continued to look at her. “Do you want to stay here with him? Or would you like to go with me?”

Holly’s eyes grew wide and darted from Kate to Dwayne and back to Kate again. Dwayne was making–for him–a super-human effort at controlling obvious fury due to the presence of the police and fire personnel who were mere yards away, trudging from their vehicles toward the house.

Kate urged her. “This is a once in a lifetime offer–good for the next minute only. We’re leaving. As soon as we are gone this house will be burned to the ground. You will never have to return to it or even think of it again.”

Holly swallowed hard. “I’m afraid. He’ll find me. You don’t know….”

“I promise you,” Kate said, “I do know. And he will never hurt you again.”

Holly hesitated. She looked back at Dwayne. A moment’s hesitation. Then she quickly ran to Kate and got into the car. Kate followed, sliding onto the seat beside her. Jimmy closed the heavy door solidly behind them.

A blur of activity commenced outside the quiet of the limousine. Mr. Parker had given a nod to the fire department official as he entered the car from the opposite side and this had set into motion a rash of activity among the waiting men.

Jimmy put foot to pedal and the car sped away–the sounds of Dwayne’s shouted threats and obscenities fading to nothingness in the red of the stirred-up dust.

Kate looked back once. The house was engulfed in flames. At last she turned to Holly and reached for her hand. They sat, hand-in-hand for a long moment, each looking into the eyes of the other. Silent. Knowing. An unspoken truth flowed between them. Sisters-under-the-skin.

Holly smiled. It was her first in a very long time.

Kate pressed the button on her armrest. “Drive faster, please, Jimmy.”

 

 

 

 

 

R.L.M. Cooper

R.L.M. Cooper is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the recipient of several academic and achievement awards. Her short story, “Flighty,” will appear in the upcoming October issue of Ariel Chart. In addition to short stories, Ms. Cooper recently completed a novel in the thriller genre and is currently working on a sequel.

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