DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 22

“When the full moon waxes brightest

And there’s none left to scold.

I’ll keep my silver near my heart;

And you may keep your gold.

 

When they manage to fool you still

With faces of the old.

I’ll keep my silver near my heart;

And you may keep your gold.”

 

M. Michael Chwedyk, “Heart of Silver”

Chapter 22:

Magnificent Once

Nicole mashed her palms against the steering wheel as her car crept through traffic. She looked over at the empty passenger seat, pining for her little co-pilot. She’s not ready to see Grandma like this, thought Nicole. Tara was left at the house to deal with Jake instead. She had better luck with him than Nicole ever had, even if he was in one of his moods. She just needs to close her eyes tonight; Lord knows what’s waiting for me in Orland.

With her father hospitalized, Nicole would have to manage the full brunt of her mother alone. I should be going to see him, not Mom. Nicole wondered if she had heard her mother correctly before Jake ripped the phone from her hand. Did she really want me to come over first? It all felt so backwards. I’ll make sure she’s calmed down—then I’ll get a hospital name. She turned on the radio to chase the sleep from her eyes.

She parked along the curb. An unfamiliar car had beaten her to the driveway. The Indiana plates indicated her sister Amber. How many cars is that for you now? Nicole gave a cursory peek through the window—leather seats and the dashboard of a mother ship. She didn’t drive all the way here the last time dad had a scare. Maybe it’s worse than I thought.

The front door was unlocked. The cats greeted her as they always did, sauntering sideways into her legs. “Not now, babies.” She petted them as she parted through. Nicole walked into the kitchen to find her mother and sister sitting at the table. Amber stood up and paced the floor with a drink in hand. Her mother pursed her lips with an unconvincing smile—her eyes full of doubt and pain. “Hey, Nicky girl,” said Mom with a whimper.

Nicole embraced her, kissing her forehead and cheek. “How you holdin’ up?”

“I think you should sit.”

“What happened?”

“She said sit down, Nicky,” said Amber. Her face had traces of smudged mascara.

Why won’t they just tell me what’s wrong? Nicole took her seat. “Tell me he’s alright.”

They exchanged glances as footsteps echoed from the hallway. Nicole saw him out the corner of her eye.

“Daddy? They let you out already?”

He looked everywhere but her eyes. “Nick, we need to talk to you.”

“What is this?”

“I’m sorry, Nicky,” said Mom. “You only seem to respond to emergencies nowadays.”

“You lied to me?”

“He wouldn’t have let you out otherwise,” said Dad.

Is this what I think it is?

“We love you, Nicky,” said Mom as she took Nicole’s hand in hers. “We didn’t want to, but your husband makes it so difficult to reach you.”

“So this is about Jake?”

“We feel like he exacerbates self-destructive behavior, and it breaks our hearts to see how much you’ve deteriorated since the wedding.”

Nicole pulled her hand away. ’Self-destructive’!? “This is off to a great start. Aren’t my friends suppose to be here, too?”

“We thought we’d approach you in a smaller group. You do have a tendency to get…overwhelmed.”

What the hell is she talking about? “Just say what you need to say.”

“You’re so withdrawn now—pensive. When was the last time you danced? You were magnificent then, and driven. Does Jake not approve?”

“Are you talking about ballet? I quit that years ago. Look, I practice now and then, but I’ll never be at that level again. That’s not Jake’s decision or mine—that’s life.”

“Jake is a fucking asshole,” said Amber.

“Amber!” said Mom.

“I’ve never felt welcome in your house, Nick—not once,” said Amber.

“Really? Both times?” said Nicole.

“Maybe I’d visit more if he acted like a normal human being. He just stares at me like…I don’t know. I can’t tell what he’s thinking, but I know it’s bad.”

“It’s called eye contact, Amber.”

“You can’t ignore it, Nicky girl,” said Mom. “There’s a darkness to him.”

How do I even begin to explain to them what Jake’s been through? They’re like children. “He’s protective. He has his reasons, which I’m not about to go into here.”

“’Protective’ is one thing, Nick,” said Dad. “I never see you anymore. I haven’t seen my granddaughter in months because of him.”

“No one is keeping us from you—any of you! Yes, I haven’t been able to visit as often, but you need to understand that I have so many responsibilities now! I’m not available twenty-four seven!”

“Then at least tell us what happened to that psycho’s previous wife; we’d really like to know. Is she dead? Why hasn’t he brought her up?”

“Why would he bring her up to you!? I don’t talk about Andy with his family. And it’s none of your fucking business to begin with!”

“In amber’s defense, there’s a lot we don’t know about Jake, and it’s not from a lack of trying,” said Mom. “I mean, we didn’t even know he had sons until you mentioned it.”

“They’re older than you for Christ’s sake,” said Dad.

“I was wondering when someone would bring up the age difference! It’s NOT an issue! I wouldn’t have married him if it was!”

“I don’t think you were ready for marriage so soon after Andy,” said Mom. “You didn’t give yourself time to grieve, and now you’re with this man who controls you and hides who he is from people. How can someone like that be a good husband or father?”

I can’t take this anymore. Nicole stood up and slid her chair back under the table. “I’m sorry you all feel the way you feel. I hope in time you see just how unfair and wrong you ‘re being.”

“We want you to know that we are always here for you. If Jake becomes too much, call us—any one of us. We will pick you up and take you someplace he won’t find.”

There’s no one he can’t find. “I need to go home. I’ll tell him Dad is doing better.”

“Answer one question before you go.”

“What is it, Mom?”

“Did you hang up the phone on me or did Jake?”

“I don’t remember,” said Nicole. “I thought my father was dying.”

*****

Nicole struggled through class the next day—equal parts botched intervention and broken air conditioner. She focused on small goals to get through the day: grade tests, pick up Tara, drive home, take a shower. She would gather herself under a showerhead before any more thought was given to her “self-destruction.”

She let the water run over her long after the soap had filled the drain. The shower massaged her body, filling the room with steam. She placed her hands against the tiles as she lowered her head forward. You can’t stay in here all day, thought Nicole. Tara’s alone, she could hurt herself.

She wondered what her family would say if they saw Tara with a bump or a cut. It would be Jake’s fault, naturally. And I’d be the one who let it happen. He had given Tara a swat on the back yesterday. It still bothered Nicole. She remembered the crack of his fingers, and how she did nothing to stop it. Maybe he has crossed the line once or twice, but he’s not a monster.

Nicole turned for a final rinse. She slicked back her hair as the water chilled rapidly. Her body recoiled, huddling in the corner to avoid the jets.

She did not dry herself before slipping on her robe and descending the stairs. Tara was where she had left her, sitting in the glow of the TV.

“Jake’s home,” said Tara.

This early on a Thursday? “Did he say anything to you?” said Nicole.

Tara shook her head, still busy with cartoons. Nicole followed the rumble of the washing machine into the basement. She found Jake there, hunched over the machine with his hands pressed onto the lid. A single bulb interrogated him from above, draping light over his shoulders and back. Nicole was uncertain how to approach—every way felt wrong.

She inched closer. “You’re home early.”

“I’m not well,” said Jake as he straightened up. “Took the rest of the day off. You should probably keep your distance.”

The sound of her steps made his head turn to the side. She felt his eyes on her when she approached.

“You won’t like what happens when you get here, Nicole.”

She moved closer still. Jake’s body came into view. The back of his head had grown gray stubble. She looked down and discovered he was naked.  Jake did nothing as Nicole waited behind him with her arms crossed. What a ‘controlling psycho’ he is. He might even do two loads.

Nicole turned around to leave and felt his hands grip her waist. He lifted her straight up into the air. She had no time to think, but her muscles remembered to tighten her stomach and straighten her spine. Nicole shifted her weight back as Jake lowered her onto his right shoulder. It made her feel graceful again, if only for a moment.

“Put me down.”

“Admit you enjoyed it.”

“I said put me down.”

Jake moved back against the washing machine and let her slide onto the lid. He turned around and returned his hands to where they were. His face was covered in grime and rust-colored smears. It was not his blood; it never was.

“You drove around like this?” said Nicole. “What if the neighbors saw you? What if Tara saw you?”

“Her shows were on, there’s no pulling her from that,” said Jake. “I’m sorry about yesterday. I know we agreed no hitting.”

“Make sure you apologize to her.”

“I did last night. Are you still mad at me?”

“I just want you to talk to me about work instead of blowing up.”

“Do you want to talk about work or ‘double-shifts’?”

“That depends. Which one has more dead wolves?”

“I don’t know what’s so fascinating about it. It’s just the same old shit.”

“Then why doesn’t this feel like the same old shit?” She wiped his cheek with her fingers and held them to his face. “Tell me who you hurt.”

“One of ours,” said Jake. “He gave me no choice.”

“So Jessup sent you home to cool off?”

“Something like that.” Jake began to smirk.

“There’s my dimple.” Nicole stared into his serene hazel eyes. How could Amber find any fault in them?

“I got a note from Terry.”

“Do what you need to do,” said Nicole. “Be careful, as always.”

“This fight angered a lot of people. You’ll need to stay sharp while I’m away. Don’t trust any Finishers other than Terry. No matter what they say or do—never leave this house with anyone. The militia has no ‘safe houses.’ Is that understood?”

“Don’t trust anyone—got it. Will you be back by the curfew?”

“I’ll make it quick; this one is long overdue.”

*****

By Wednesday there was still no word from Jake. All her calls were sent to voicemail, her texts had no replies. Are you in a cave? Just give me something to know you’re allright. Nicole tried contacting Terry, but the results were the same. She was leery of calling any other members of the militia. Jake’s warning, like most conversations, provided more questions than answers. Why does everything have to be so cryptic with you? I thought we were all supposed to be on the same team.

Tara sat at the coffee table with her paint tubes. She swirled blue, green, and purple with her fingers, periodically stamping her palms around the center of the paper. “When’s Jake coming home?” said Tara.

“I don’t know, Sweetie. Do you miss him too?”

“He’s supposed to buy me red.”

A knock came from the door.

“Looks like you’re doing just fine with what you’ve got. Stay on the paper, okay?” Nicole checked the peephole to find a pale man on her doorstep. He wore the uniform from the finished metal factory. The name “Randal” was embroidered over his right breast.

Maybe he’ll just leave if we keep quiet. She headed back to sit near Tara. The man knocked again, this time pounding with the side of his fist.

“Nicole! Jake sent me! It’s an emergency!”

It has to be a lie, but what if Randal was Jake’s only option? “Go wait in the basement, Tara, and lock the door. I’ll be there soon.”

Tara did as her mother asked. Nicole waited for her to leave the room before she climbed two shelves of the bookcase, reaching deep behind the top board. Her hand came back with a Glock. She slid out the magazine to see if it was loaded. When she pulled back the slide, a bullet sprang out onto the floor. Nicole snatched it up and fed it into her magazine, flustered by her visitor’s pounding. Just take it slow, Nicky girl. She took a deep breath before reinserting the magazine and pulling back the slide.

Nicole secured the deadbolt before cracking the door open, clasping the pistol near the small of her back. “You said my husband sent you?”

“Yes, Ma’am. The name’s Randal. I work with Jake over at the factory. I came over as soon as I got his message. He wants to get you and your daughter as far from here as possible.”

She caressed the side of her gun with her thumb. We’re not going anywhere you lying, pasty fuck. “That’s so strange, Randal. Jake just got back in about ten minutes ago. He’s down in the basement. Would you like me to get him for you?” She turned and yelled “Jake” into the house.”

“No! No, that’s fine. We must have heard an old message. Sorry to bother you.”

We?’ Nicole watched him return to his truck. Another man sat in the driver’s seat even paler than Randal.

That shouldn’t have worked! Thank you, God, that shouldn’t have worked! Nicole pressed her back against the door and slid down to the floor. Her hands trembled as she set her gun on the ground. This is too much to handle alone. It’s time to pay my parents a visit.

Nicole spent the rest of the afternoon packing a few days’ worth of clothes for her and Tara. They rolled their luggage out onto the driveway.

“Wait here, Tara.” Nicole locked the front door. Please comeback soon, Jake.

“Hello!” said Tara.

“Who are you talking to—“ Nicole stared down at a man in a black suit. He had hunched down to meet Tara eye to eye, waving back at her with a grin. He wore aviator glasses, even as the sun faded into the horizon.

“Good evening, Mrs. Reto, my name is Harry Montang. I’m sorry to interrupt your trip, but I’m going to have to ask you two to step back into your house.”

Nicole clutched her gun inside her purse. “What is this about?”

“Your husband sent me. I’m here to provide full protection detail within your home until he says otherwise.”

“Show me your hands.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your palms; I want to see your palms!” The tip of her weapon created a protrusion in her purse.

Harry held up his hands and stood slowly. “That’s some bag you’re packin’.”

“I don’t know where you came from, but you’re going back now.”

“I should probably tell you more people are on their way. Don’t be scared. No one is going to hurt you.”

“Why aren’t they with you?”

“Your file said you were…volatile. We thought it would be best to send a liaison first instead of storming your house. We wouldn’t want to overwhelm you.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“I know, Mrs. Reto. That’s kinda the idea.”

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