JILL OLSON - REDEMPTION VIA GENEVA
REDEMPTION VIA GENEVA
WHEN IT BEGAN
Apparently, you can get pregnant the first time you have sex. Even if the act occurs in the inflexible back seat of a red Ford, rusting through the passenger side floorboard; even if your jeans are still around your ankles and your shins are cold; even if Billy Gregson still has on his black socks; even if the act takes only three minutes; even if Billy swears he loves you, but then is struck with amnesia when he sees you in the hall between classes at McKinley High School. Mother Nature doesn’t care about finesse or romance. She just cares about the sperm grasping the egg.
When she confirmed her pregnancy, Tina worried about being a good mother. Her definitions of this marker came from magazines and television. Tina couldn’t count much on her own mother, who created her in the back seat of a Chevy. This data entwined with the strands of her hair and traveled all the way to her toes. She was as defined by “conceived in the back seat of a car” as she was with her last name of Parkins.
Tina had sweated bullets, trying to determine how to tell her parents she was pregnant. She worried their reaction would be dismissive and angry. Theirs was a household roofed with a mask of contempt, as dreams wafted out the cracks in the windows. Tina chose to reveal the big tell during dinner. For some reason, she believed sitting around a table would help, and mashed potatoes with meatloaf provided protection from her parents’ ire.
While looking for an opening in the conversation, because you didn’t shout this while filling the water glasses, Tina avoided leaning on the table corner to her right. This would have caused the short leg of the neighbor’s garage sale table to greet the dingy floor. Her flowered plate would slide over the edge of the table, contents filling the many cracks in the linoleum. Her mother would bemoan the crappy furniture she lived with, and her father would have a chance to remind her he couldn’t work any harder than he already did.
Her mouth was as dry as when she’d had the flu last winter. She decided it was better to rip off the Band-Aid, so sucked in her breath and announced, “I’m pregnant.” She peered at her parents, as time stood still. Her father’s mouth made an O, as though he were singing in a choir and holding a harmonious note relegated to tenors. Her mother’s eyelids blinked a couple of times, then her shoulders rotated forward, heavy with resignation, perpetually trying to get ahead of bad news.
Tina broke the spell. “Billy Gregson is the father.”
“I’ll kill him!” Tina’s father roared his pledge. His face burst into a shade of red that rivaled the ketchup, as he half rose from his chair.
“Oh, stop. My father said the same thing about you.” Tina’s mother took another small bite of meat loaf and chewed. “Never mind. Don’t get all blustery.” She grasped Tina’s hand between hers. “Now, sweetie. We’ll make a nursery in your bedroom. God knows we don’t have a lot of room in this house, what with your father not bringing in a lot of money.”
“I don’t see you getting off your ass and bringing home some good pay.” Tina’s father leaned forward; his beer-created belly scraping his mashed potatoes.
“It takes all my time to take care of this house and keep this family in line.”
“Real good job you did, what with Ti getting knocked up.”
“Shut up. It does no good to argue about what’s already happened. If I could change the past, I certainly wouldn’t have married you.”
Tina gave birth to a beautiful girl. Though tired and overwhelmed, she was proud of Sarah. Tina loved her baby girl, this extension of her. Now, I’ll have someone who needs me. Someone who loves me. A few weeks after Sarah’s birth, Tina rolled up her courage, put it in her backpack, and returned to school. Evenings consisted of jamming homework between cuddling Sarah, feeding and bathing her, doing some laundry, and dodging her parents’ anger and pointless discussions.
But as weeks passed, Tina was falling behind in her classes. She found geometry and composition to be ridiculous and unnecessary. She struggled to concentrate on her teachers’ lectures, as she worried how little Sarah was napping or if she had to lay too long crying, before Tina’s mother would pick her up. Graduation was a doorway to a better life, but the handle seemed to be made of gelatin, never fitting securely in Tina’s grasp.
Each passing week weighed on Tina, as fatigue linked hands with feeling overwhelmed and incompetent. Babies were hard work. A few months into Sarah’s life, Tina faced her parents. It was much harder to say the practiced words to their faces, than it was to her mirror. She tried to utter her first words, but they tumbled so quickly, they formed as hiccups, rather than intelligible sounds. Tina tugged at her hair and pushed it behind her left ear. “I don’t think I can take care of this baby. I know I need to finish high school. I’m thinking about putting her up for adoption. I’ve read about some great families who go to this agency in Clive, and-”
Tina’s mother’s hands flew into the air, then her palms faced Tina, as though pushing back the words would erase them. “We’ll have no talk of adoption. This is my grandchild. We will raise this baby.”
“But, mother. I think-”
“Ach. The time for thinking is over. Now, we suck it up and do it. We’ll keep this baby. No stranger is going to raise my grandchild!”
Tina’s father stomped from the room. Tina wasn’t sure if it was from disgust at the idea or from wishing they’d done that with her.
As Tina cuddled Sarah while giving her the nighttime bottle, she noticed a small bruise around her mouth. When Sarah finished the bottle, Tina changed her diaper. Grateful the rash was healing, Tina kissed Sarah on the head and laid her in the tiny crib next to Tina’s narrow bed. She was careful to ensure the wad of cardboard was securely under the one crib leg which refused to grow in a length equal to the others. Tina checked the box of diapers by Sarah’s bed and puzzled at the large amount still peering from the side of the box. Certainly, babies didn’t go through fewer diapers, just because they had turned three months old.
She found a reserve of air and swallowed it. While drying her eyes, she peered in at Sarah. Her little girl was dozing the slumber of someone who thought this was the best it could be. The innocent contentment of someone who didn’t know it was supposed to be better than this. But Tina did.
When Tina went to school the next day, she did two things she had never done before. She went to the bathroom stall, sat on the stool, and cried. Tina lifted her chin and strode to the guidance counselor’s office for a 75-minute conversation. She returned to the bathroom, different stall this time, and cried again.
Tina was grateful a social worker came to the house. The woman carried herself with confidence. It had a calming effect on Tina and led her to dream of emulating the behavior.
“No. You can’t take my baby!” Tina’s mother begged.
“Mrs. Parkins. This girl is Tina’s baby. She has the legal right to sign her over for adoption, since the father has given up his rights.” the social worker rebuked.
Her mother’s admonition flew at her with the rapidity of fireworks. “You selfish girl. You can’t give away my grandchild. It’s better for her to stay with family, not go to some stranger!” Her mother faced the social worker. “Please. Let me adopt the baby.”
Tina took a deep breath and stood her full height. Though it was only five feet, two inches, her resolve provided her with a commanding presence. She quickly hurled words, worried if they sat too long, passiveness would reclaim her tongue. “You will not adopt Sarah. You haven’t taken good care of her while I’ve been in school. There is a bruise around her mouth. You probably squeezed your hand over her mouth to get her to stop crying.” Tina began to cry, then shook her head, defying the tears to continue. “And poor Sarah developed a rash, because you wouldn’t change her diaper often enough.”
Tina’s mother dismissed her daughter with a wave of the hand. “Ach. What do you know about babies? They get rashes and bruises all the time.”
Tina frantically searched for the social worker’s aid, wondering how to respond to her mother. Tina would later tell the school counselor, “Her name was Geneva Hampstad. She told me to call her Geneva, which I did. Like she wasn’t better than me, you know? She had weird eyes…one blue and one brown. But it didn’t matter to me. Anyway, she made it real clear what would happen with Sarah and how she’d go to a foster home till she was, you know, adopted.”
Tina took Geneva to the room she shared with Sarah. “Thank you for helping us.” Her breathing stuttered; as she gathered diapers, pacifiers, and two blankets for Sarah. Tina turned to face the woman giving new life to her baby, her ribcage crushing with grief.
“You’re doing a wonderful thing for Sarah. It is selfless. You are thinking of what’s best for her.”
“Will she get to keep her name?”
“No, her adoptive parents will name her.” Geneva touched Tina’s arm. “But I think Sarah will remember being held by you and know you loved her.”
Tina held Sarah a bit away from her and gazed into her face. Oh, my sweet baby. I will miss you. I want only the best for you. Tina nuzzled her nose against Sarah’s neck, desperately sucking in all her scent. I will always remember the way you smell. Tina gently ran a couple of fingers down Sarah’s head, curling at the end of a few strands of reddish hair. Sarah’s sweatiness clung to Tina’s fingers.
Tina handed Sarah to Geneva. “Oh, wait. Here’s her favorite little stuffed animal.” Tina tucked a ratty, orange, one-eyed mouse into the diaper bag. “Can I walk with you to the car?”
Geneva nodded. Stepping around piles of clothes, they walked from the house together. Both ignored Tina’s mother’s frantic shouts of unfair, illegal, crazy acts perpetrated by them.
Geneva buckled the baby into a car seat and stepped back. Tina didn’t need any urging. She squatted and leaned in. “Bye sweet baby.” She smoothed back the reddish locks. “I love you.” She kissed the top of Sarah’s head, eliciting a slight wiggle and tiny blink of blue eyes. “I hope you always remember.”
Tina backed away from the car, grabbing Geneva’s hand. “Thank you, again.” Tina aged four times her current years, weary from clashing with her mother whose words had become small explosives chipping away at her. Her throat tightened as she turned to face their house which was brimming with anger and would soon swallow her for a snack. The reality of this hit her with the unfairness of a cancer diagnosis. She trudged toward the house, where her mother was still ranting about liberal crackheads and calling her attorney.
Tina traveled halfway on the sidewalk and turned to face Geneva. She focused on the social worker, not the car holding the baby. “We don’t have an attorney, so don’t worry.”
Geneva quickly closed the distance between them. She pressed her card into Tina’s hand. “Call me if you need anything.”
Tina narrowed her eyes. “But you said I’d never be able to know about Sarah.”
Geneva clarified. “I mean for you.”
Tina raised her head, then lowered it in understanding. “Thank you. I’ll remember.”
Tina plodded to the faded green door, peeling paint announcing the state of things inside. She pushed her dirty tennis shoe at a terracotta pot cradling a plant long since dead and now folding its crinkly body over. A warning of how people faded into nothingness once moving past the front door. She experienced the warmth of Geneva’s blue and brown eyes on her back. Tina braced herself, as she captured the weight of her mother’s wailing when she pushed past the green door and entered the house.
Three months later, Tina left a telephone message for Geneva. ‘Come get me.’ And so, Tina worked with Geneva a second time.
SUMMERTIME, YEARS LATER
As the boisterous group of people, either oblivious to or uncaring about the decibel level at which they were laughing, continued to pretend they liked each other’s stories, Tina met a woman who introduced her to more energy than she thought her body could handle.
“Don’t you get so tired; you can feel it in your bones? Even your toes feel heavy?”
Tina nodded. “And bored. Isn’t life supposed to be fun? I mean, my God. I’m twenty-four.”
Betsy tapped her finger on her cheek. The blue nail shown in the light over the deck. “But I’ve found a way around that.” She inhaled the last of her cigarette and tossed it on the lawn. “I’ve found a guy who sells me anything I need to keep going. I’ve been able to manage community college courses, and I got promoted in my department for my project work.” She tapped the nail on the railing. “Girl, I get shit done.”
Tina didn’t like being tired. Relaxed, yes. Tired, no. “How much and what is it?”
Shoulder shrug. “Mostly pills. Sometimes, when I’m, dragging…I snort some luscious white powder.” Betsy winked. “Tell you what. I’ll bring you a sample…on me. One little bit won’t hurt.”
“I told you this was great stuff.” Betsy huffed, then smiled. “This is such a cool party.”
“You were right.” Tina snorted a line and wiped under her nose. “My boss has commented on how much energy I’m showing at work.” She whispered conspiratorially. “I think they want to promote me.”
Betsy laughed, then hiccupped. “Always happy to help a friend in need.”
“How’s it going ladies?” Adam slid into their circle, widening the distance between Betsy and Tina. He placed a hand on both of their arms, giving the effect of a connection between all three people. Tina was amazed how a white powder not only gave her energy, but made certain people look interesting to her.
“Great, Adam. How about with you?” Tina understood her mouth would smile no wider, but she still tried to extend it. I hope Adam likes me.
“Super, Tina.” He turned to Betsy. “Are you ready to move it?”
Betsy hesitated, glanced at Tina, and nodded.
He laughed, then squinted his eyes at Betsy. “Let’s get going.”
Betsy spoke to the air near Tina. “I, I’ve got some stuff to do, with Adam. I’ll see you later, Tina.”
“Are you okay, Betsy?” Tina stepped around Adam and grasped her friend’s shoulder. Adam’s desirability had weakened with the fear he conjured in Betsy’s eyes.
Adam wedged his body in between Tina and Betsy, forcing Tina’s arm to drop to her side. “Of course she’s okay. She’s with me.” He stomped a boot-covered foot and said, “Let’s get going. Pete don’t like to be kept waiting.”
Betsy smiled at Tina. “It’s fine. I’ll call you tomorrow.” Betsy handed Tina two small bags of coke, then exited with Adam.
THINGS MOVE TOO QUICKLY NOW
“It’s routine, Tina.”
“A drug test?” Tina shivered. She’d been at work a little over one hour. Why was the day starting like this?
“Yes. We randomly drug test employees, especially if there has been some behavior that is sus…has been odd.” The woman pursed her lips in an attempted smile. “Please follow me to the bathroom. This won’t take long.”
The HR Director nodded. “Yes, now. We have a private bathroom outside of the human resources offices. No one will see you go in, and you’ll have privacy in the stall.”
Tina walked into the bathroom, trying to remember how many hours ago she’d last snorted her coke. Shit! There was probably some still in her purse, but it was hidden. “Wait. You’re coming in with me?”
“Yes. I’ll stand outside the stall, but I must be in the bathroom with you.”
Tina took the cup which conveniently had her name, employee number, and birthdate written on it. “I might not be able to do this. You know, I don’t feel good.” Tina shot her best sad eyes at the HR Director. When no reprieve came forth, she extracted another excuse. “I have trouble peeing in front of people. If anyone is near me, I clam up.”
The woman stared stoically at her. Tina sighed and coughed into her hand. When she had finished, she considered spilling the cup as she left, but what would that accomplish? She was toast.
“Thank you, Tina. You can return to your workstation now.”
Tina trudged back to her desk and put on her headset. She talked to a couple of people, but her heart couldn’t focus on selling the latest pan which would never scratch or a fleece-lined jacket which would fold to fit in a pocket for a camping trip. She texted Betsy but received no reply.
Shortly before lunch, the HR Director stood beside Tina. “Please come with me and bring your purse.”
Tina grabbed her purse and followed the woman. She ignored the stares of her co-workers, which soon turned into whispers hissed from behind the thinly veiled cover of a manicured hand. The red blinking of their phones, usually tethered to their hearts, had taken second tier importance…overshadowed by the drama developing before their eyes.
Tina perched on the edge of a slippery vinyl chair, stationed in an office devoid of any signs of a life outside of work. She listened but didn’t believe the words assaulting her ears. She nodded, thinking this was a bad dream.
“Zero tolerance for drug use by our employees. Your urine test showed levels of cocaine. We’ve terminated your employment with our company. Please give me your employee badge. You will receive pay for time you’ve worked in this pay period, including today. But you will not receive any vacation time payout. Your health insurance is cancelled, effective at the end of the month. I’ve prepared an exit packet for you. Do you have any questions?”
Tina stared at the wall, not wanting to make eye contact. She didn’t know if she’d shoot daggers or tears.
“I’ll walk you to the employee entrance door.”
“I can walk by myself.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“Why? Because you care about me, or because it’s ‘policy’ or some such shit?”
The walk from the building was devoid of words, but heavy with emotions. Tina started by feeling scared, which was rammed away by anger. What was she going to do for money?
Tina pictured her mother laughing at her and wagging a finger. “Well, girlie. Looks like you were stupid to get caught.”
“Leave me the hell alone,” she shouted at the air.
Two weeks later, Tina was staring at a RENT OVERDUE notice and almost empty cupboards. None of this would have happened if I just had somebody to love me.
For the first few days after losing her job, she’d been able to maintain her supply of coke by lying to various two-bit dealers in Betsy’s neighborhood. She never went to the same one twice and handed each of them the same lie about paying twice the next time. She found other dealers around her apartment, but they accepted only two things in exchange for the coke. Lies weren’t one of the two options. Since she had little money, she had to opt for the second method of payment. Closing her eyes during the act didn’t conceal her mother’s face. The voice grated across her chest, “Always easy. Little Tina.”
Her phone’s pinging brought her back to the present.
COME TO CFHS. GOT SMTHNG 4 U
Tina threw on a jacket and shuffled to the coffeehouse. It would be good to see Betsy. Tina scanned the coffeehouse but didn’t see Betsy. She did see Adam, and he was coming toward her. Tina smoothed her hair with her hands.
“Tina. Have a seat.” He pulled aside a chair for her.
“Where’s Betsy? She texted me she’d be here.” Tina remained standing.
“Actually, it was me who texted you. It’s time we had a talk.”
“Betsy is busy. She’s working very hard for us. She said you would help us too. Said now would be a good time to ask you. Said you needed some money.”
Tina scrunched her face. She had never liked Adam. Being around him gave her the chills. But Betsy had always been there. She wasn’t now, and Tina longed to run from the emptiness. What does Adam want? “How do you know about my life?” Tina shivered.
Adam smiled, but Tina didn’t trust it. Too many smiles were frosting on a cake made from ingredients you hated. “I’ve got somebody I want you to meet.”
“I don’t need anybody else in my life.” Tina tried to make her voice firm.
“Actually, I think you do. Need him. He’s got some jobs for you. Can bring you a lot of money, if you’re a good worker.”
“I’m a good worker. I was close to being top salesperson at…at…oh, shit. What are you talking about?” She bit some skin from a fingernail and banged one of her shoes against the chair leg.
“Our territory is expanding. We have different clients who want our product. Some clients don’t like coming to a…shall we say…place like this to get our product. They like the product delivered to them.” He shrugged his shoulders. “We oblige them, if they are good enough customers.”
“You want me to deliver drugs?” How about if you let me sample some of the product right now. She smiled at her inside joke. Then, sniffed.
Adam cocked his head. “Betsy said you would be quick to catch on.” He flexed his arms. “I want you to make easy money.”
“I want to talk to Betsy.” Tina ran a finger under her nose a couple of times. She sniffed again. When I see her, maybe she can give me some powder.
“Sure. Come for a ride with me. I’ll introduce you to our boss, Pete. You can listen to him and we’ll take you to see Betsy.”
Tina shrugged and stood. She hopped from one foot to the other. She needed some money. She met Adam’s eyes, then closed hers. It would be easier to say this to the dark. “Okay. Whatever.” She rifled through her purse and said, “Let’s hit a drive-through first. I’m hungry for a hamburger and fries.”
“I’ve got something which will go nicely with your burger. A little bit. I’ll give you more after we talk with Pete, if he likes what he hears you say.”
WHEN PATHS COLLIDE
“I don’t want to do this anymore. Six months is enough. I’m tired of looking over my shoulder when I walk the street to make deliveries. What if I get arrested?” Tina stared at Betsy, hoping she’d hear the words this time.
Betsy viewed Tina with glassy eyes, not bothering to wipe the powdery residue above her lip. “It’s easy money, Tina. Quit your bitching.” She twirled in a small circle. “And, why would you want to lose this great feeling? We’re living the dream here in Virginia.”
Tina loved the energy burning through her every time she got high. The power surged, creating new vessels to explore. Coupled with the energy was a sense of hope. She was invincible...and smart. She would find a way from this dilemma. And every time she bent her nose to the white line, more answers would appear. It was right there…simply out of reach. Maybe it would take only two more lines…or four…or the answers would materialize next week.
Betsy whispered next to her, barely audible. “Besides. Nobody leaves Pete on two legs.”
The season changed as did Tina’s roommate. Betsy was there one night, sharing a line with Tina…and sharing a story about a trip she was going to take.
SURPRISED BY REDEMPTION / Olson / 18
“Going to New York to be with my sister.” She lowered her voice and perched her lips next to Tina’s ear. “I called her the other day. Used a burner phone of Pete’s and later threw it away. She and I hadn’t talked in a couple of years.”
“What did Pete say about the phone?”
“Shhhh.” Betsy pumped her hands a couple of times, palms facing the floor. She whispered again. “I told him I lost it.”
“And he was okay with that?”
“Hell, no. Told me I had to replace the phone…push more merchandise.” She gingerly touched the skin under her right eye.
Tina had seen the betrayal of yellow and green scattering across Betsy’s face. She had long ago stopped commenting on evidence of Pete’s anger, whether exposed on her or any of the other mules. There wasn’t enough time in the day.
“My sister said I can live with her.” Betsy grinned widely and winced when the muscle traveled under her eye. “She said she didn’t care how long it had been since we talked or whose fault it was. She said it didn’t matter what I’d been doing…I always had a place with her.” Betsy gripped Tina’s arm, tears in her eyes. “I have a place to go live…someone who wants me.”
Tina hugged Betsy and whispered in her ear. “I’m happy for you.” Even though you want to leave me.
“I’ll get you out of here, Tina. Let me get settled. I’ll find a way.”
Tina’s heart smiled at the sentiment, but her stomach crimped at the danger. It would take a lot of planning and money. She went to sleep thinking about it, though. The purpose of dreaming…right?
The next day, when Tina returned to the apartment, a strange woman was putting sheets on Betsy’s bed. “Who are you? What are you doing with Betsy’s bed?”
The woman shrugged. “I’m Laurie. Don’t know who Betsy is. This is my bed now.”
Tina walked to the dresser crouched under a tiny window and opened drawers once claimed by Betsy. These clothes stared at her, blame protecting them. Even Betsy’s favorite tee shirt, screaming about her love for ice cream, glared at her. “But her clothes are still here.” She faced the woman. “Who are you again? Where is Betsy?”
The woman took a step toward Tina, absorbing the oxygen in the room. “I told you my name is Laurie. I won’t say it again. Get rid of any clothes which aren’t yours. I need space in the dresser.”
Tina went cold, swallowing any words of protest. She began to pull Betsy’s clothes from the dresser, fingers moving numbly over the material. She did as she was told, again and always.
THE PAST, WITH SOMETHING GOOD
Tina moved blindly through the weeks. Her heart ached in the hole created by Betsy’s disappearance. Her brain tortured her with the memory of a brief conversation with Pete, the same day Laurie had moved in with her.
“Who’s this Laurie chick?” Tina had asked. “And where is Betsy?”
“Laurie is your new roommate. She’s gonna do great work for me. Maybe you can learn some things from her.” Pete slowly ran his index finger down the right side of Tina’s face, causing her to tremble. It took all her strength to not bolt away from his icy finger as his breath of laughter covered her face with the stink of garlic and finality. “And who the hell knows where Betsy is,” Pete continued when he strode to the other side of the room. “Don’t care.” He smirked and allowed a smidgeon of air to escape. “You might say she’s dead to me.” His eyes darkened, revealing an abyss which terrified her. She did what she always did, gave in and followed Pete’s orders.
Tina breathed deeply, trying to stop her quaking from a memory which wouldn’t leave her alone. She trudged by a coffeehouse, after making a delivery in a tony area. The zip codes in which she worked no longer surprised her. Her deliveries hit them all. The smell wafted onto the street, grabbing her nose and drawing her in.
She registered the multiple choices on the board, thinking she needed caffeine just to focus and choose between them. She spied a combination which had been one of Betsy’s favorites and wiped some mist appearing in her eyes.
“Geneva. Geneva H. your order is ready.”
Tina’s head whirled automatically. She spied the woman ambling toward the counter to claim her beverage, and Tina’s heart beat faster. But the rapid rhythm wasn’t due to fresh powder bursting through her veins. It was due to a memory flooding back with such force, Tina wobbled on her feet. Literally.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bump into you.”
Tina gawked at the woman who had answered the barista’s call for Geneva H. “You, you didn’t.” She noted brown hair, slightly stooped shoulders. “I’m a little tired, I guess.”
“Goodness. Are you all right? Would you like to sit with me and catch your breath?”
Tina melted into the eyes gazing at her and wobbled again. One blue and one brown. The feeling of grace and acceptance washed over her, fully, and she stood tall, solidly. “Yes. Thanks. Yes, I would.”
As soon as Geneva began talking to the woman who appeared as though she were going to fall off her feet, a tsunami of anguish hit her so strongly, Geneva almost toppled over herself. Goodness, it wouldn’t do to have two women flopping on the floor in the middle of a coffeehouse. She tasted the torment pouring off this woman. “Would you like to sit with me and catch your breath?”
Since the woman responded with agreement, Geneva placed her hand gently on the back and guided her to a table. “What can I get you to drink?”
“Nothing. You don’t have to. I’m fine.”
Geneva placed some fingers over the woman’s hand, which was trying to find a place on the table to claim. “No problem. I don’t want to be the only one at this table drinking something loaded with caffeine.”
The woman smiled and said, “Black coffee, with a shot of espresso.”
“I’ll be right back.”
What the hell is going on? What am I doing? Tina doubted herself as she drummed her fingers on the table. She missed the reassurance of Geneva’s hand over hers. As time with Pete claimed her, she’d convinced herself she didn’t need contact any more. But, a whiff of it coming back opened a chasm of yearning which made her want to retch.
“Here you go. Black coffee with espresso.” Geneva was back, back with coffee and back in Tina’s life.
“Thank you.” Tina wrapped her hands around the cup, tugging at any strength rolling in with the warmth. “I don’t usually do this.” She combed through her hair with her fingers, hoping she didn’t look too messy. “I am feeling fine.” Saying it loudly had to make it true.
Geneva smiled. “Good. I know I can sometimes get a little wobbly when I’ve been working hard or have missed sleep.” She sipped from her cup. Her dually colored eyes peered over its top at Tina.
Tina sensed Geneva was waiting for her to say something. Her eyes were floating an invitation to her. How do I begin talking to this woman who saved my life twice? How do I admit to her the mess I’ve made of her gift?
Geneva was used to running into adults she’d worked with as children. The spark of connection rattled against her bones, almost as soon as her eyes rested on them. When she touched them, the spark roared and rekindled a flame of confirmation. Conversations with them usually yielded their names.
But she was having a little trouble accessing the memory which would give her the name of this woman. Once seated, she acknowledged the woman’s face looked older than her arms and hands. Dark circles and wrinkles were painted on in indelible ink. The eyes shone with an agony which served as a warning to anyone who might want to come closer.
“It’s such a good afternoon to stop in for a hot drink, don’t you think?”
The woman nodded and sipped her coffee. She’d dumped several packets of sugar into the cup.
“I’m visiting some relatives of my late husband, Frank, here in Virginia. It’s a way for me to stay connected to him and to honor him.”
“I’m sorry, for the death of your husband.”
Geneva sighed. “I miss him every day. There’s a hole in my heart.” She clasped the woman’s hand again. “You know what I mean?”
The woman nodded and used the back of her other hand to swipe at her eye. She quickly disappeared into her cup for a long drink.
Tina certainly understood what Geneva meant about holes in the heart. She ached for Betsy. She grieved over her Sarah. She missed her tiny studio apartment. It had been hers, with no roommates and no strings. She wanted a job she’d be proud to announce, when people asked her what she did for a living.
Tina sniffed and drank more coffee. There were times, she missed her mom and dad. I am such a loser.
“I do know what you mean.” She pointed to her cup. “Thanks again for the coffee.”
Geneva nodded at her, smiled, and waited. Though Geneva’s eyes were looking at her, Tina no longer detected their different colors.
Tina spoke. “It’s like you’ve lost something which can never be replaced. Oh, sure. You have your memories. People who knew them, pictures, things you cherish.” She finished her coffee in one large swallow. “But they were such a large part of your life, they were like a piece of you.”
“An extension,” Geneva said.
“And it doesn’t matter how long they were in your life. It may have been a short time, but you still miss them.”
“You still feel their absence.”
“And you wonder if you did something wrong to make them leave you. And you might never have anyone to love you.” Tina squeezed Geneva’s hand and didn’t feel cold anymore. Warmth and strength took over, standing tall.
“But child, we never do anything wrong to make people leave us. Sometimes, things happen which are not in our control. Sometimes, a person makes the decision to leave for their reasons…not because of something we did. And, there are the times we must decide to remove ourselves from the lives of some people who aren’t good for us or could have a better life.”
As her ears grabbed the words, Tina’s eyes attached to Geneva’s. She wasn’t ready to let this go yet. Redemption had no place on her body. “But what if I keep making decisions which cause trouble for me? Wouldn’t it be my fault?”
Geneva yearned to banish the agony this woman was carrying. No one deserved the torture of self-loathing. People made the best decisions possible, sometimes in unbearable situations.
“No, child. That’s not the way it works.” She smiled. “Tina.”
“I wondered if you would recognize me.” Tina blushed. She didn’t remember the last time there was heat on her face which wasn’t associated with the rush of drugs.
“It took me a little bit of time.”
“You mean you didn’t know it was me, right away? I recognized you.”
“Sorry. No, I didn’t recognize you right away.” Her eyebrows folded into each other. “You’ve changed a bit, Tina.”
Tina laughed. “And you haven’t.”
Now Geneva laughed. “I’m still the same height, same hair color, same gorgeous eyes!”
Tina laughed some more and clutched Geneva’s arm for balance. She gasped when the current ran through her. Energy. Forgiveness. Safety. “I have changed so much, Geneva. I’m such a mess. I’ve made horrible decisions and mistakes.”
Geneva removed Tina’s hand from her arm and cradled it in both of her hands. “Tell me about it. Please.”
And Tina did. All of it.
Geneva had to work to keep a poker face during some parts of Tina’s story. She was sure Betsy was dead, and equally sure her body wouldn’t be found. While disappointed in the choices Tina had made, she was not disappointed in Tina. She recognized a person caught in one difficult situation after another, sometimes straddling each other. Tina didn’t have the internal or external resources to battle her way through all of them.
Geneva was very fearful for Tina’s wellbeing. An idea formed in her mind. “Tina. You’ve been through hell. And with what you’ve told me about Pete, I’m worried about your safety.”
Absent the bravado Tina admitted, “I am too.”
“Tomorrow, I’m traveling to Tohi, North Carolina. I’m going to surprise a friend of mine.” She drained her second latte. “It’s special. There is almost a magic to it. The name Tohi means peace in the language of the Cherokee tribe which settled that area. With peace comes redemption.”
Tina’s licking of her lips had increased, and her eyes were darting around the coffeeshop more than when they first sat. The jiggled movements of her eyes were keeping time with the jumping movement of Tina’s feet. Geneva recognized the sign of a person needing a fix. “Are you all right?”
“Wha, what?” Tina mumbled. She shook her head. “Yeah, I’m coming down.” She shrugged. “You know. The coke.”
Geneva nodded. “Tina, I’d like to take you to Tohi with me. You’d be safe from Pete. We can find a rehab facility for you.”
Tina blanched. “I don’t have enough money. And, Pete would still find me. You’d be in danger.” She spread her arms wide. “Everyone would be.”
“Okay. But I know some people who can keep us safe.” She gripped Tina’s hand. “Let’s leave now. You can spend the night with me at my hotel, and we’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
Tina shook her head.
Geneva was incredulous. “You won’t go with me?”
Tina smiled and blinked through her tears. “Yes, I’ll go with you. You are saving me for a third time in my life. How can I thank you?” She wiped at her nose. “But I’ll meet with you tomorrow morning. I need to report back into Pete and Adam. I’ve got a shit ton, sorry, a lot of their money from my last, uh, my last delivery.” She wiped at her nose harder, now. “If I turn in my money, the day is over. They won’t be suspicious. We can get a clean start tomorrow morning, when they think I’m working. It will help us get some distance from them.”
In a way, this made sense to Geneva. But she chilled when she pictured Tina’s walking out the door, not re-joining her until the next morning. Sadly, she acquiesced. “All right. Here’s the address of my hotel. I’m in room 314. You can come any time, if you can get away.”
She gripped Tina’s hand. “Here’s my cell phone number. Memorize it.” Geneva shivered. While this wasn’t the first time she’d made an escape plan with someone, it still affected her.
Tina nodded. “Let’s meet back here tomorrow morning. It’s closer to my apartment than your hotel is. I’ll be here by 7:30.”
A hug between the two women sealed the agreement.
THE PRESENT, WITH SOMETHING BAD
Neither woman noticed the man sitting three tables from them. Geneva wouldn’t have recognized him, but Tina would have. Hell, those two hens are so wrapped up in each other. Pete had slithered in and hidden behind the day’s addition of the town’s newspaper. I can tell something’s going on. It looks like some deal. One that Tina is happy about. When it seemed they were separating, he prepared himself to leave unobtrusively. I gotta figure out who this other woman is and what she wants with my Tina.
Tina exited the coffeeshop by herself, hurrying to her apartment. She cursed herself for not carrying some coke with her. She loved Geneva for the chance she was providing her. But, damn, she needed a hit. She’d calm herself and turn in the money to Pete. She’d make some excuse about not feeling well, so she could spend the night at her apartment and not have to be around Pete, Hector, and Laurie. They liked to drink after dinner and laugh about the people buying their product. God, she was sick of this life. Sick of herself and the person she was now. Geneva was offering her a lifeline. She would get better. She wanted to.
Tomorrow, she’d meet Geneva at the coffeehouse. They’d travel together to Tohi. Tina needed some of the redemption Geneva spoke about. I hope the town doesn’t reject me.
Pete loped behind the woman who had been sitting with Tina. Hell, this isn’t hard to do. She’s not paying attention to what’s going on around her. He followed the woman to a hotel and into an elevator, joining her and another man. The woman he’d followed was getting out on floor three, the man on floor two.
After the doors closed, Pete turned to the man and asked, “Hey, know any good place around here to grab a beer and steak?”
“Sorry, no. I just got here. First time in this city.” While exiting the elevator, he tossed over his shoulder, “Maybe ask at the front desk.”
The door opened to floor three. Pete and the woman exited. He got in step beside her and said, “How about you ma’am? Any ideas?”
She turned to him and smiled. “Sorry, no.”
“Okay.” He stayed in step with her. “My room’s here. Guess I can change and ask at the front desk.”
“Sounds like a plan,” she said.
Pete heard her swipe her key card to open her door.
“Have a good night. I hope you find your steak.”
Pete stuck his foot in her door and followed her in the room. He had to only momentarily pause to get his eyes used to the dimly lit room, as the door clicked shut behind him.
“Who are you? What are you doing?” The woman’s voice hollered. “Get out of my room!” She hadn’t moved too far away from him.
Pete geared to fight mode. “Who the hell are you? Why were you talking to Tina? What are you two planning?” Pete’s heart beat a rhythm to the roaring in his ears, as the woman backed away from him and reached for something on the bed stand. It was a big, square box. What the hell? She’s coming at me with that box.
The box arced downward, and his hands pulled hard to get it away from her. Shit, her grip is strong. He pulled hard to the right, was rewarded with her release. He swung back to the left with the box, to move her out of the way.
At that moment, Geneva lowered her head. I think if I head butt him, I can knock him off balance. Something solid clobbered Geneva’s cheekbone. That hurts. Staggering, she stood upright. The man was looming in front of her. Why does he look puzzled? Geneva reached to grab something, the box or the man, she wasn’t sure which. Oh no! Falling. She reached to break her fall, as she crumpled toward the TV stand. Must. Stop. Falling. There was a loud, moist thwacking sound as her head hit the corner of the TV stand; then deafening silence. Geneva crumpled to the floor.
Pete glimpsed the woman put her head down. What is she doing? His arms were already swinging to the left with the box, which connected with her face. Thwack! Watching her stagger, his arms fell in front of him, the box rolling from his fingers. Why is she falling? She’s going to hit the TV stand. His vision unfolded, in slow motion, as the woman extended her hand. When the sound of the woman’s head hitting the TV stand reached him, his breathing ceased. It was as though his lungs were connected to her ability to breathe.
When no screams ensued, he opened his lungs, having severed a brief connection. The woman crumpled in a ball. Pete stared at her. He nudged her with his toe. She wasn’t moving.
He straightened and scanned the room. He grabbed her purse and headed toward the door. His toe kicked at something on the floor. The damn box. He’d touched it, so he grabbed it also. What the hell? It’s a box of proverbs for every day. If she’d connected this with his head, he’d be the one laying in a heap on the floor.
Pete slowly exited the room, checking the hallway as he stuffed the woman’s purse under his jacket. Empty. He puffed a gust of air and strolled toward the stairs. Once outside, he walked several blocks before dumping the box in a trash bin. He’d look through the purse when he got back to his apartment. Maybe he’d scored some money. He didn’t know what Tina and this woman had arranged, but Tina wasn’t going to receive any delivery. He chuckled, then roared with laughter. Yep, he was ahead…again.
Tina hadn’t slept much the previous night, after she’d dropped off the money from her deliveries. Pete had kept leering at her, more strangely than usual. She contemplated going right to Geneva’s hotel, when she left the apartment he and Adam used as their base. But Laurie had tagged along with her, saying something about needing more sleep to help her work extra hard in the morning.
When daylight finally came, Tina tried to act in her usual manner. She didn’t want Laurie to become suspicious and report something to Pete. She left her apartment with only her purse. Excited to meet Geneva at the coffeehouse, she allowed her mind to contemplate getting away from Pete. If she didn’t like this Tohi, she’d still get away from Pete. Maybe, she’d try the rehab center Geneva had mentioned. But there was time to figure out all of this. Right now, Tina needed to get in the car with Geneva.
She got to the coffeehouse a little earlier than planned and ordered a coffee. “To go, please.” She positioned herself in front of the door. Every time the whoosh of air hit her face, she smiled at the person entering. She was surprised when none of the faces were Geneva’s. The clock on the wall ticked forward, stabbing at Tina’s visions for the morning. She was suspicious. Where is she? Now, she was angry. What the hell is going on? Why did she leave me?
Forty-five minutes later, Tina barreled into the bathroom. She was so angry she couldn’t remember the number of Geneva’s cell. She’d be damned if she were going to walk to Geneva’s hotel and beg to be taken with her. If she wanted me, she would have been here on time.
Tina entered one of the stalls and pulled some white powder from her purse. Snorting it, she waited for the warmth to enter her body. It did, always a constant companion. This stuff always comes through for me.
She stormed from the stall and banged into another woman, who began tottering on her spiked heels. Tina growled, “People lie,” and burst back into the coffeeshop.
Breathing deeply, she paused and scanned the room. She didn’t see a mop of brown hair. No one raised a hand to greet her and ask forgiveness for being late. Tina wiped at her eyes and slammed a fist on a table. She knocked through a group of people and surged through the door. Time to start her day. She did as she was told. Again, and always.
Pete stood in a shadow cast by the coffeehouse. Tina stormed from the coffeehouse and marched across the sidewalk. He smiled, pleased he hadn’t had to follow her very long this morning to figure she was supposed to meet the woman here, now. He broadened his smile, pleased she was his. Again, and always.
A week later, Tina had a day filled with more deliveries than usual. She headed to her apartment. She figured Laurie would be there and would talk her head off. She just wanted to sleep.
“Where the hell have you been?” Laurie greeted Tina with a sneer made less powerful by tears running down her face. “He’s dead. He’s dead. Oh, God. What are we going to do?”
Tina struggled to comprehend. “What? What are you saying? Who…who’s dead?”
“Pete. Pete’s dead.”
Tina froze. “He can’t be.” She felt no reason for tears over Pete’s death. In fact, she was trying very hard not to smile. She covered her glee with words. “How do you know he’s dead? What happened?”
“Kalley has a friend who’s a cop. He told her Pete was killed in a raid.” Laurie began to cry again.
Tina kept her mouth closed, not knowing what to say. She knew Laurie would fill the silence.
Laurie wiped at her nose. “I’ll tell Adam. He can tell his crew.” She glared at Tina through cloudy eyes. “You can keep lounging around, like the waste of space that you are. I’ll go find Adam now. No use wasting time, when we could be selling.” She tossed her head over her shoulder, as she exited the apartment. “Pete would want us to keep moving and sell.”
Tina waited a few minutes to ensure that Laurie had really gone. She grabbed her purse and dredged through its contents. “Aha!” She triumphantly held up a paint-smeared teddy bear, holding a metal ring in its mouth. Swinging at the bottom of the ring was a lone key. “I’ll just make a quick visit to Pete’s place and see if there’s anything there I can use or sell.
THE PRESENT, NEEDING DECISIONS
Tina jiggled the key and was quickly inside Pete’s apartment. The stench of rotting food, dirty clothes, and despair knocked her back. Breathing through her mouth, she began to search for the coke. Since it hadn’t been distributed to the crews, she’d pocket some for herself. No one would be the wiser.
Well Pete, old buddy. Are you still using your same hiding places? Tina opened cupboards and pulled back rugs. Successful but beginning to get tired, she checked one last place. It was one she’d seen Pete access, without his knowledge. A few months ago, she’d started to walk into his bedroom, calling at him for some reason. She’d seen him standing on a stool, moving sweaters around on a shelf in the closet. He’d removed a lid on something and pulled some large rolls of cash. Any of that stuff there now, Pete, old buddy?
Tina pulled the stool over to the closet and pushed the sweaters off the shelf. She found the false bottom and lifted the lid. Her eyes didn’t quite reach the shelf, so she let her fingers move through the container.
Score! Rolls of cash. She pulled two and held them next to her heart. There had to be several hundred dollars here. Again, most likely no one has seen it. Maybe there’s some more.
Her hand snaked back to the shelf and dove into the container. Something smooth hit her hand. She grasped it and yanked.
A purse. What was a purse doing in Pete’s secret hiding place? Tina stepped off the stool, stuffed the wads of cash in her pockets, and opened the purse. While digging through it, she touched the usual crap women keep in purses. There was a comb, tube of lipstick, Kleenexes, and a billfold. Wow. Maybe more money for me. Tina opened the billfold.
Suddenly, she stopped breathing. Her mouth dried and her tongue stuck to its roof. No money in the billfold, but there was a driver’s license. The name was Geneva Hampstad. She rifled through the rest of the cards, separating them from the billfold and throwing them on the bed. The name was the same on each of them. In raised letters, some gold and some silver. Geneva Hampstad.
Tina’s fingers started to burn, and she pitched the billfold. It lay beseechingly next to the purse. Why did Pete have Geneva’s purse? What had happened to Geneva?
Tina held the answer to those two questions but didn’t want to believe what her brain was telling her. She stumbled to the table in the kitchen and powered on Pete’s laptop. As she conducted a hurried search of crime reports on the day she was supposed to meet Geneva, her worst fears were verified. Through tears which became heavier after each word, Tina learned a hotel maid had found Geneva dead in her room. The hotel had verified Geneva’s identity from her check-in information.
Tina slumped over the computer. It’s why she didn’t meet me. She was dead. Pete killed her.
Tina stared at a wall filled with holes and darts. These disappeared as she imagined Geneva’s face and remembered her words, “We’ll go together.”
Tina slammed her fist on the table. The bastard must have been in the coffeehouse and followed Geneva to her hotel. “Oh no!” Tina wailed.
She seized the laptop and hurled it at the wall. She overturned the table, grabbing a chair to smash against the kitchen counter. Only a pounding on the door interrupted splintering wood and breaking glass. “Hey, knock it off in there.”
Tina dropped her arms to her sides, giving in. Geneva. You didn’t quit on me. You were going to meet me. Crumpling, she tried to disappear into the floorboards.
She lay there until her arms and legs would no longer tolerate the position. Still, she lay there some more. Finally, she wobbled and breathed. Again. Tina ran her fingers through her hair. What to do now? Geneva had suggested rehab. Tina had coke in one pocket and lots of money in the other. What to do now?
Tina moved through a fog while descending the stairs in Pete’s apartment building and exiting the structure. She began walking, thoughts and emotions fighting for space in her brain. A shoulder plowed into her. “Hey, watch it lady.”
Tina balanced herself and kept walking. Her right hand fiddled with the coke in her pocket. Her left hand clutched Geneva’s billfold, minus the credit cards and driver’s license. She wouldn’t sully Geneva’s memory by using her credit cards. The billfold held the money she’d taken from Pete. Can you take something from a dead person? She didn’t think so. The money was now hers.
But you could give something back to a different dead person. You could honor them. She turned a corner, heading to the church where she’d recently spent a night. This time, I can walk in there giving…instead of taking. They can put this money to good use.
Tina remembered the church also hosted meetings for addicts. Always believed they were a bunch of losers. Guess I’m the same. She rubbed Geneva’s billfold. Can I be anything else?
Tina turned again and crossed a street. When had it gotten so dark? What if they won’t take me tonight? What if I am turned away, again?
Her right hand grew hot, as though being summoned. Nothing wrong with getting a little powdered courage. Tina slid into an alley and opened the packet. Do I really want to do this? Is this honoring Geneva? Because she was concentrating on the white elixir, she didn’t notice the two men in the alley. They were bent over something, then straightened when they spotted her.
“Hey. Girlie. What’s ya’ got there? Want to share?”
Tina screamed, “Get away from me.” When her words didn’t work, she threw the coke and sped from the alley. Her ears caught one of them say, “This ain’t nothin’. Bet she’s got more.” Tina sprinted further into the street. She hadn’t run this fast in a long time.
She wasn’t sure which registered first; the screech of brakes, the whine of tires, the shouts of amazement, or the cries of anguish. Only when she recognized the cries were coming from her throat, did Tina begin to breathe slowly. So slowly.
“I didn’t see her run into the street. It’s dark here. No damn street lights.”
“Oh, my God. Somebody call 911.”
Tina caught the agony in the voices coming from the faces floating above her but didn’t understand the cause. She tried to reach her right leg but didn’t quite make it. If only I can rub my leg, the pain should go away.
“Here, put my sweater under her head. Hold it steady now.”
“She’s got blood coming from her mouth.”
“Probably has some internal injuries.”
Tina couldn’t make sense of the cacophony of voices chattering above her. Why are these people shouting? Suddenly, she rose a few inches from the pavement and screamed in agony and bewilderment. She tried wrapping her arms around her stomach but couldn’t erase the pain spilling into the street. Are my guts falling out of my stomach? Somebody, please…make this stop.
Suddenly, Tina was no longer cold. A cocoon of warmth wrapped her body, and something else. Understanding and resolution. I’m sorry Geneva.
The warmth tightened around her. She smiled. I’m sorry for thinking you’d leave me.
“What’s she saying? Is she trying to tell us something?”
Tina exited the body lying on the street with the people hovering over it. I’m sorry I threw away the third chance at life you gave me. She sighed, then melted into the small, circling motions on her stomach. The pain was beginning to subside.
Cool breath landed on her right ear, staccato, separated by space. It reminded her of a child’s light laugh, gathering energy to continue. I missed the opportunity, Geneva. I’m sorry.
Tina turned her head toward the source of the warmth. And I’m sorry I led Pete to you.
“Why is she turning her head? Should we hold it, so it won’t move? We don’t want there to be neck damage.”
More circling pressure on her stomach. I’m sorry I got you killed.
“Are those tears running down her face?”
“She’s still talking, but I don’t think it’s to us.”
Cooler air rested on Tina’s right earlobe. Solid, steady pace. Coming from a place of peace. Her legs began to open, her knees acting as hinges to the side. A warm, slight pressure circled around her entire body. The pressure increased, enclosing her.
“She’s almost sitting up. Is she okay?”
“Why does she look like that? Hey, ma’am. Are you all right?”
“I don’t think she can hear you.”
“What’s going on? She’s holding her arms in front of her, like she’s making a circle.”
“Where the hell is the ambulance?”
A strong, balanced pressure asserted itself on both sides of her face. Sitting still, Tina stopped breathing. A wet sensation rested on her forehead, pushed, and warmly released. Tina inhaled sharply. She exhaled sadness and guilt. I love you, Geneva. Thank you for forgiving me.
Tina melted and became lighter. And, I can forgive myself. I’m ready. Tina closed her eyes. Her light was fading. She put one last wish into the universe. I want other people to receive what Geneva gave me. The path and self-power to redemption.
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