THE PAIN MOVED THROUGH Andrew Pearson like a fist to the stomach. Ulcers. Maybe something far worse. The Big C was a possibility, he supposed. He clenched his teeth to chase away the hurt, but still his eyes watered. Nausea salted his mouth. Thick, briny saliva that also carried the flavors of Jack Daniels, of Smirnoff vodka, of Schweppes ginger ale and Tums and Pepto-Bismol. He allowed himself a glance at the radiant numbers on the digital cable box and then pressed SEND on his cell phone again. 4:48. Dusk not too far off. In eleven minutes and some-odd seconds he’d be dead if she didn’t answer one of his calls.
Please enjoy the music while your party is reached.
“Stand Tall” by the Dirty Heads filtered through Andrew’s cell phone receiver.
He waited, hoping this would be the call she answered.
Champagne blond hair, haunting eyes the color of wet lawn, bare shoulders. Her best feature, those shoulders. And she’d known it, too. Nearly all of her tops left her shoulders exposed.
The ringback tone continued to play. Andrew closed his eyes and kneaded his temples when the part about pressure blared in his ears. The central system in the house fanned out cool air but his T-shirt was tattooed to his skin at the shoulder blades and under the arms. The heat index had moved in the opposite direction of the starved Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Andrew’s call was dumped into voice mail. This time he didn’t sigh in defeat. He paused ever so briefly and pressed END and carefully placed the phone facedown on the kitchen counter. Next to a stack of letters. Bills mostly. July’s mortgage, MasterCard statement, a square warning slip from Blockbuster Video gently asking that Andrew Pearson please return Nine Lives or expect the credit card on file to be debited the full price of the movie.
He peeled off his Hanes T-shirt and used it to sop up as much sweat as he could. Tossed the damp shirt on a barstool that already had his wrinkled Perry Ellis dress shirt draped over it. Bare-chested now, and just over ten minutes from his end, he undid his belt and eased it from the loops of his pants. Sterling silver buckle, calfskin strap. He tested the belt’s resistance, stretched it with both hands, imagined it biting into his neck. Imagined his neck broken, his carotid arteries pinched closed and denying him a sufficient oxygen supply. Horrendous thoughts, all of that, but still it would be so much cleaner than…
He tossed the belt on the barstool with his Hanes T-shirt and Perry Ellis dress shirt.
Stood there for a beat in the center of his kitchen and contemplated more in that quiet moment than he had in thirty-five years of living. Looked back over it all. Thoughts of his five-year-old self almost choking to death on a Jawbreaker candy. The nasty spill off of his Huffy at twelve, his helmetless head smacking the asphalt and making a thud sound that sickened him now just remembering it. Repeating a similar trauma at twenty-one, that time having to lay down his Suzuki and wish for the best as it slid into an oncoming Monte Carlo. The kid at the wheel of the Chevrolet just as shaken as Andrew was, and just as thankful to be alive. Roads slick with rain downpour that day. Speed was most definitely a factor. Without question Andrew’s fault.
He’d cheated death more than his share.
Another glance at the digital cable box.
Six minutes potentially remaining in his life.
He staggered the few feet back to the kitchen counter and picked up his cell phone again.
Please enjoy the music while your party is reached.
Champagne blond hair, haunting eyes the color of wet lawn, bare shoulders.
Tears filled Andrew’s eyes.
He bit his lip to try and alleviate the trembling.
Shame gripped him as the call cycled to voice mail yet again and he made a sound like a puppy with a carpenter nail embedded deep in the meat of its paw.
What did Jesus say on the cross at the end? Joel Osteen had mentioned it on television just a few days ago. Strasburg on the mound for the Washington Nationals, plowing through the St. Louis Cardinals lineup. Good run support, a blowout. Andrew had turned the channel, stopped on the jovial preacher. Uplifting message delivered with a wide smile.
It is finished.
Jesus’ last words.
With the phone in his ever tightening grip, Andrew moved into the living room—his favorite room in the house—and took everything in. Artwork hung on the wood-paneled walls, greenery spread throughout in lavish pots, expensive furniture and Oriental rugs laid out on polished wood flooring. He’d done well. This home was something to be proud of. Julianne would have years and years of joy left here. Maybe she’d even remarry.
It is finished.
Andrew dropped the cell phone on the coffee table. It bounced several times and landed flat, monitor screen face up, a carpet of Julianne’s Cosmopolitan and O magazines under it. For some strange reason that tickled him. His eyes watered and his nose ran and laughter rose from way down deep in his chest and filled the room.
And then, just as quickly, the laughter faded.
Nothing but sadness left.
Cosmopolitan and O.
Now, with the end so near, Andrew wanted to open the pages and flip through the magazines. Funny how things he’d always resisted were now desires. Root beer probably wasn’t so bad after all. He could imagine his handsome face absent the goatee he’d worn since his twenties. A random Nora Roberts download or two on his Kindle wouldn’t necessarily soil the James Patterson and James Lee Burke novels he preferred. Cosmo and O. Bet there was a great article in one or both about wonderful storage ideas for a small space.
Open up your mind, Julianne always begged of him.
He glanced at his cell phone one last time, finally allowing himself a sigh. One final call? One final try? He shook his head as if someone else had asked him the questions. Calm came over him as he made peace with a life in foreclosure. He smiled for the final time.
It took just forty seconds of his remaining two minutes to adjust the thermostat and walk through the house and reach the door that led down into the basement where his guns were stored. Most of them his father’s, a few he’d added to the collection since the old man departed this world. A Winchester he’d picked up down in North Carolina, a futuristic looking H & K the old man wouldn’t have liked that he’d ordered online.
Enough of that.
No time for reminiscing. Andrew literally shook the thoughts away. Steeled his shoulders. The basement door was just off of the kitchen. He left it ajar and descended the creaky stairs with surprising strength. Buoyed by purpose.
The twelve-gauge Boss shotgun winked at him from its housing like a committed lover. Andrew retrieved it, pushed two shells in, and walked across the cold cement floor with the shotgun at port arms. He settled directly in the center of the musty room. A lone light bulb offered just a crumb of illumination. The chair he’d arranged directly below it was old and wooden but sturdy. He plopped down in the chair.
The prayer was quick and familiar.
Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain
The prayer of Jabez.
He finished with a hearty Amen and sat there smiling sadly, the same smile from upstairs; it hadn’t left his face. The shotgun lay across his lap like the child he’d never be a father to. If only Theresa had picked up just one of his calls. Not much to ask for. How many times had he called today? Seven…eight…ten? If only she’d picked up just one. Just one. Just one. Just one, Theresa. Just one.
Champagne blond hair, haunting eyes the color of…
Andrew’s watch beeped.
Without hesitation he put the end of the shotgun barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. His chin, mouth, and lower cheeks remained, but the upper part of his head misted the air and painted the light bulb with crimson matter the consistency of oatmeal.
MOTION-SENSOR LIGHTS FLASHED on when Julianne stepped up on her porch. The electric bug zapper at the corner of the house sizzled and crackled as mosquitoes and dragonflies flew into the grid. Julianne’s skin was moist and warm as if she’d just stepped from a hot shower. The walk up the drive, in this heat, was all it took. She trapped her Blackberry Curve—cheek to shoulder—and eased the house key into the lock, two bags of groceries sitting at her feet. Then she turned back, pointed her keychain at the BMW X5 parked in the circular drive. Chirp, chirp. Headlights blinked like eyes with grit in them.
“Allowing Catalina to use the Saab to drive your kids to school doesn’t exactly qualify you as a liberal, honey,” Julianne said into the Blackberry as she crossed the threshold and entered the house. She felt along the wall, touched against the light switch, flipped it up, and chased away the pitch black darkness.
Shoulder-length hair the color of crushed cranberries pinned back into a tight ponytail. A spray of freckles on her cheeks and nose dotted her tanned, oval-shaped face. Eyes as green as Palmolive dish detergent. She was dressed in tan Armani Exchange cargo pants and a punch-colored Sky ‘Dalene’ top. Four days at the LA Fitness each week kept Julianne’s curves in fashion as well. Defined arms and shoulders, shredded abs, treadmill-ready legs.
“Speaking of which, I’m feeling my inner Sarah Palin,” Julianne said, shuddering against the cold. “Todd…Bristol, I’m home,” she called out, chuckling. She clutched the grocery bags and moved briskly through the foyer. “No, honey, I don’t have a fever. It’s cold as Alaska in my home right now. Igloos where my couch should be. Andrew’s apparently lost his mind. I’d hear it for days if I were this reckless with our precious air conditioning.”
She made the necessary adjustments with the thermostat and made her way to the kitchen while her friend Liz rambled on in her ear. She placed the two bags of groceries on the counter, glanced at the stack of bills for a split second, then engaged herself in the conversation again. “It’s surprising to hear you take that tone, Liz. Sarah Palin and you share such commonalities. You’d think one hockey mom would embrace the other.”
Last month it had been a vegan diet. The month before was historical romance novels. This month Liz had reshaped herself into a bleeding heart liberal. Anything with a hint of conservatism sent her off on a high-pitched rant. It was such a joy to needle her.
“Don’t get yourself unsuitably worked up, Liz. Think of the baby.”
Liz popped them out like an assembly line. Her two boys and two girls all had VIN numbers.
No worries. Liz didn’t have to think of the baby. She could’ve given birth upside down with Sean Hannity on the television in the background.
“Hey, Liz? If it’s a boy I vote for the name Rush,” Julianne said. “A girl you could use Sarah, of course. Or Ann. Or Laura.” Ann Coulter. Laura Ingraham. Conservatives to their death. Julianne bit her lip to stifle the wanted laughter as Liz’s high-pitched voice shrieked in her ear.
Then: “My foot won’t reach back that far, Liz…and I wouldn’t do that with it if it could.” Even with the phone held away from her ear Julianne could hear Liz’s voice, strong and chastising.
“Forgive me,” Liz said a moment later. “What if Andy and I make a healthy donation to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America? And I could even help you on some Tuesdays down at the soup kitchen. Would that make us friends again?”
Liz said it would, her voice, amazingly, raising another octave.
“Consider it done, then.”
They blew each other kisses—mwah…mwah—and disconnected.
Immediately Julianne’s eyes settled on the basement door. The cottage as cold as a tray of ice cubes, the basement door left open, Andrew must be having another bad day. Julianne sighed with worry. Moved to the basement door and called down to him from the top of the stairs. Nothing. Probably down there listening to his iPod. All of those dark songs that soured his mood. She stepped into the near dark and moved to go stir him. She’d picked up a pack of UNO cards at the grocery store, pure impulse buy. Maybe that would get a smile out of Andrew. If he asked nicely she might even play the naked version he delighted in when they were first dating.
Take four cards and lose the bra.
“Andrew, Drew, Andy,” she playfully called out as she descended the stairs. Halfway down her steps slowed and lines formed in her forehead. A rancid smell like voided bowels and urine and…
“Andy?” she whispered.
Six more steps and she’d be at the bottom.
She took two and stopped completely. Her heart felt as if it was ready to leap from her chest cavity. “Andy?” she whispered once more. Another tentative step. Then another.
A red, disco glow made Julianne blink her eyes. She stood there near the bottom of the stairwell, paralyzed for a moment, her brain circuitry lagging a few seconds behind, then turned and bolted up the steps, screaming at full tilt the entire way.
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