Still Air,Portland,ME, Book Four
Deprival haunted her…
Regret troubled her…
Silence left her detached…
A life in the service of others is both penance and a blessing. She soothes her personal hell by pulling victims from theirs, helping them on their path to survival; never finding her own.
When a crippling blow finally evaporates her last hope, the temptation to give up is strong. Still, she can’t find it in her to turn her back on those who need her: the innocent, whose rescue is her perpetual goal.
He was blind, but now he sees how his family has sifted through his fingers. The reality hits hard when his son becomes a stranger, slipping deeper into transgression. Concern has him call on the one person he fears will see his own failures all too clearly. A woman he’s kept his distance from for his own protection.
What appeared to be an incompatible pairing, turns out the unyielding bond needed to heal them all.
“Are you done with that?”
After four hours on the road, coming back from New York, I had to stop for a bite. The roads around Boston were brutal. With construction everywhere, a trip that normally would take no more than five hours in total, was going to take me at least another two from here to get to Portland.
Already with a blinding headache after the day from hell, I’d needed sustenance or I’d drive myself off the road. I found this little hole in the wall diner in Lowell that was still open this time of night.
The tired-looking waitress, who looks like she’s been on her feet all damn day, points at my half-empty plate.
“Sure, but could I have another refill?” I hold up my empty cup. That will make six coffees today, all after two o’clock. Not only am I never going to sleep again, but my stomach likely won’t recover for days. I have to keep a clear mind, though. Another two or so hours behind the wheel and I’ll be home, where I can sink into a bath and deal with my emotions. I’m done with this day.
At almost midnight, I finally pull into my driveway. For a minute I stare at the dark windows of my small bungalow. I bought it just early last year, mostly as a way to invest the savings I’d been able to stash away over the years. This is an older area of Portland and a lot of the property around here is steadily going up in value. On my street alone, eight of the original small houses were purchased, leveled, and replaced with ostentatiously big mansions. All because of the good sized lots and the location: close to the water, close to the downtown core.
For the longest time, I simply stayed in the small apartment on the first floor of Florence House, the women’s shelter I’ve managed for twelve years now. That place still feels more like a home to me than my own house. Perhaps because it offered as much of a sanctuary for me over the years, as it does for the women who walk through the door, looking for safety.
When the new funding came through last year, I was able to hire an additional two counselors, which relieved some of the pressure, but it also meant I was free to focus on a life outside the shelter. Something I thought I was ready for, but sitting here, outside what should be my home, I still want to turn around and find my sanctuary at the shelter. Especially today.
“How was your day off?” Brenda asks when I walk into the kitchen the next morning.
“Peachy.” I realize my response sounds a bit dismissive and to counter that impression, I smile and give her shoulder a squeeze as I reach past her for a mug. More coffee is needed. “What did I miss here?”
“Maria left last night after dinner and I haven’t seen or heard from her since. She’s not answering her phone again,” Brenda informs me, as she sits at the table.
Maria came to us about four months ago, trying to escape an abusive relationship. At nineteen, she’s the youngest resident we currently have. She’s also the most worrisome, with a history of abuse growing up and little or no resistance to the draw of Christian Neve, a good-looking bad boy, who, at the age of twenty-seven had just a few months ago, taken over leadership of one of Portland’s growing gangs. With a heavy hand in the local drug trade, the Seals have been amassing in numbers with the pressure of one particularly notorious gang threatening to expand their Boston territory north.
This is the third time, in the past month and a half, that Maria has disappeared on us. Just two weeks ago, we received a call from Maine Medical Center, that she had been brought in, unconscious, bloody, and beaten. Because of signs of trauma to her genital area, they’d automatically done a rape kit as part of their examination, something Maria had been upset about when she woke up.
I’d gone to pick her up the next morning and brought her back here, making it clear that she was not only endangering herself, but the other residents by sneaking off to meet the very man who landed her at Florence House to begin with. I can’t say I don’t understand her, because I was just as blind to reality at that age. Just as eager to believe that if only I understood better and loved harder, I could turn a monster into a man.
Maria had been warned that with one more infraction, we would no longer be able to offer her shelter, but if I’m completely honest, I don’t know if I can refuse her if she comes back.
“Okay,” I instruct Brenda. “Let me know if she gets in touch.”
One more thing to worry about, but I can’t let it dominate my thoughts; there are three other women currently living here, and they’re waiting in the meeting room for their daily group session. With my coffee in hand, I make my way over there and take my seat in the group.
A long hour later, I resurface, drained and struggling to keep it together. There are days when your own demons become so loud in your head, there simply is no room to take on anyone else’s. Today appears to be one of those days.
That’s probably why, when I walk into my office to find Viv there, I’m even more abrasive than normal.
“What do you need?” I wince at how snarky I sound and immediately follow it with: “Sorry, girl.”
Luckily it’s Viv, who’s known me for a long time and she simply raises an eyebrow. Viv came here many moons ago, on the run from an abusive situation. Over the years, she’s become a good friend and a loyal volunteer, but just last year the full extent of her abusive history came to light. One that went back much further and deeper than the relationship she’d run from. Her new husband, Ike, had been an important component in her emotional recovery.
“Maybe I should ask what it is you need?” she counters sardonically.
I sit down heavily in my chair and immediately pull open the top drawer of my desk, where I stash my supply of ibuprofen. Migraines are a bitch to control if you let them get out of hand, and I have a doozy brewing. “Drugs,” I mumble around my mouthful of pills, three in all, before swallowing them down with my coffee.
“Not gonna keep you long,” Viv says with an understanding smile. “I just wanted to see if you’d be able to come over on Sunday night for the last BBQ of the year?”
“You nuts? They’re expecting snow next week!”
“I know,” she says, smiling mischievously. “On Tuesday, which is why Sunday night is perfect. A final goodbye to summer. Besides, my brother and his husband are heading back to the warm West Coast. Apparently their constitutions are too weak to handle our New England winter. So it’ll be their bon voyage party, too.”
I lean my head back and regard Viv through half-closed eyes. She’s become such a good friend, but even to her I can’t unload. The role of therapist is too deeply ingrained in me to even consider sharing my own shit. What irony; I became a counselor to unburden others but have never felt right about unburdening myself. Part of me wonders if Viv sees it in me—the dark pain I’ve been hiding from for so long.
There is only one person who ever picked up on it, which is why I avoid him like the plague.
“Jonas! Get your ass out of bed, boy!”
Fucking brat. Every damn morning the same song and dance. I’m sick of it, but I don’t know how to get through to him. He was never an easy teenager—something I can’t blame him for in hindsight. But since his mother left, he’s only gotten worse. Angry, confrontational, and downright challenging at times, I’m running out of ways to try and handle him.
I always thought when the kids were little, that Gina, my little princess, would be the cause of my worries. Would never have guessed that my boy, my buddy, would go from an active, happy-go-lucky kid to surly teen. At seventeen, he’s already a big boy. Not quite as big as his dad, but he broke six feet when he was only fifteen and since then has just been growing more solid.
Gina looks more like her mother; small, fine-boned, and with a smile that can melt my heart. Too bad I haven’t seen her smile since her mom fucked us over.
It’s been a brutal couple of months since she took off. Not even a phone call to check up on her kids. Her drug infused head so far up her ass; she didn’t hesitate for a second to blame our son for the stash of drugs I found in our house and the money shetook to pay for them.
I blame myself. I knew something was off. I’d known for a long time, I just…Fuck, I don’t know what I was thinking. I kept believing her when she denied using drugs again. Maybe it was easier to believe the lie than the reality. No wonder Jonas is pissed at me.
“Yes, baby.” I shake off my dark thoughts and turn to my little girl.
“Can you make pancakes? Blueberry?”
“Sure thing,” I say, prepared to do anything to try and get my baby to smile. “It’ll have to be frozen berries, honey. Wrong time of year for fresh. Do you have your lunch packed?”
Gina holds up her lunch bag before disappearing down the hall. No smile, but it’ll come.
When I have a stack of pancakes staying warm in the oven, I head back upstairs. “Jonas, you have fifteen minutes to get showered and dressed to make first bell.” I step into his room when I don’t get an answer. The lump under the blankets I presume is Jonas, although it’s hard to tell in this pigsty. It reeks in here; like locker room, and something else. I pull the covers away from him.
Christ. Fully dressed, stinking of beer and weed, comatose by the looks of it. I tamp down my anger as I grab him by the arm and start pulling him up. He’s like dead weight, and for a second, fear hits me like a punch in the gut, but then he starts mumbling.
“Up, buddy. Gotta get to school and you’re a mess.”
“Sick,” he mumbles as he sways on his feet. “Staying in bed.”
“The fuck you are,” I bark, losing patience. “You’ve got the stench of bad decisions rolling off you in waves. Not gonna let you hide in your room. You’re cleaning up, you’re going to school, and tonight we’re gonna have a serious talk because, Son, this is the end of the line for this bullshit.”
His eyes start blinking and slowly open; red-rimmed, and with pupils that make it clear whatever he’s been using has not quite made it out of his system. And anger–shit, so much anger. He forcefully yanks his arm free and I let him, my own anger and frustration is too close to the surface for any kind of confrontation right this minute.
When I hear the shower turn on in the bathroom, I take one look around the room before resolutely pulling the door shut. I rest my forehead against the frame and close my eyes. With Jeannie, I refused to see what was right in front of me; an addiction rooted so deep, that the girl who once couldn’t even fib without betraying herself, became a stone-faced, cold-hearted liar. The thought the same thing might be happening to my boy, right under my nose, is unacceptable. I will not let that happen, even if it means calling in help.
Viv’s cheery voice greets me when I walk into The Skipper’s kitchen. I’m supposed to be in charge of the kitchen here, but over the last few years, every time I turn my back, someone else slips behind my stove. At first that ticked me off, but it sure helped the past months when I’ve had to take time off until the kids and I got our routines sorted without Jeannie. Although, I’m starting to wonder how sorted we really are.
I grumble at Viv, but I can’t pass by her baby girl, Francessca, sitting in a bouncy chair on the kitchen table, without taking a sniff of that downy golden head. Babies are the bomb. They’re soft, sweet, and cuddly and best of all, they can’t walk away from you or lip you off. I nuzzle her little neck and blow a raspberry, earning me a happy squeal and a big smile when I step back. Her little legs are kicking out furiously, making the seat bounce over the table.
“She’s gonna fall,” I tell Viv, who is working on prep for the lunch crowd.
“She’s not, I’m keeping an eye on her.”
“Yeah? How are you gonna do that with your back turned?” I point out, heading for the pantry.
“Moms have eyes in the back of their heads, haven’t you heard?” she jokes, but when she sees me walking out of the pantry with a sack of rice, she rolls her eyes.
Just like every other morning when Viv brings her little girl into work, and we have this discussion, I use a ten-pound bag of rice on the little chair’s frame to anchor it.
I grab my apron, wash my hands and move next to Viv, who’s made a decent start on the vegetables.
“How’s the kids?”
Well, my daughter has lost her light, and my son drinks, does drugs and is slipping away—but I don’t say that. “I dropped them off at school earlier,” I answer with a nonanswer to divert. “I made pancakes so they missed the bus.” I try to ignore Viv, who has dropped her knife and has turned to me, her hands on her hips.
“You know,” she starts, in a tone that promises nothing good. “It’s amazing for someone prone to grunting, how many words you can string together when you try to avoid something.” A chuckle slips from my lips. She’s a ball-buster, Viv. Not afraid of anyone.
“I’m losing him,” I find myself confessing. Viv doesn’t need an explanation, she knows who I’m talking about. Every one of my friends has seen the change in Jonas. “I just sat through a painful meeting with the school counselor, who caught me in the school parking lot. She informed me he’s missed more classes than he’s been present for in the past month. Apparently, he’s been bringing in notes with my forged signature. I’m at a loss,” I admit.
“Are you ready now to have me ask Pam for a good referral?”
This is not the first time she’s suggested getting her friend, Pam, involved, but it’s the first time I’m considering it. Of course, the fact that woman hates me might have had something to do with my reluctance. I can’t remember doing anything to her, but since the first time we were introduced, she’s taken a dislike to me. I don’t care much for her either, with her bossy attitude, but for the sake of my kids, I’ll deal with the devil himself.
“Yeah,” I give in. “Please,” I add as an afterthought and I see it surprises Viv. Her mouth hangs open in disbelief.
“Did you just say pleeease?” She drags out the word, harassing me.
I don’t get to finish my insult because a loud banging can be heard at the backdoor. Viv reacts faster than me and is already heading into the hallway. I can hear the sound of voices and then heavy footsteps coming this way. I recognize a hint of panic on Viv’s face when she enters the kitchen, two men following behind her.
“Mr. Brachio?” The older of the two walking up, holding out his hand. I automatically wipe my hands on the towel I have tucked in my apron before grabbing his hand in mine. “I’m Detective Barnes and this is my partner Detective McCullough.” I shake the other man’s proffered hand, but my eyes never leave the first detective. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.” I hear a kitchen chair scrape over the floor, despite the sudden roar in my ears and my first thought is Jonas, but his next words take me by surprise. “We received a phone call from one of your neighbors at about nine this morning. They noticed unusual activity at your place; an unknown van was parked in the driveway and they spotted a person crawling in through the kitchen window. The responding officers found a young male beside an old Dodge Caravan in front of your home and a woman inside the house, apparently in the middle of a burglary. The woman claims she lives there. Claims she’s your wife. We need you to—”
“Impossible,” I blurt out, unable to comprehend what he is telling me. Jeannie? I feel an arm slide around my waist and I know Viv is close. “She’s in Springfield with friends.” At least that’s what she’d told me last time we spoke.
“I’m not sure what the story is, sir,” Detective Barnes says gently. “We’re holding her and her companion at the police station on Middle Street. We’d appreciate it if you could come with us and help clear this up.”
This is going to tear my kids apart.