The view from my therapist’s window is unremarkable. Four stories down, the parking lot blacktop ripples under waves of Texas’s blazing summer heat. I stand here facing the view because it’s easier to look at than the two men in the office behind me. There is dear Dr. Ayers, the wisest old soul I have ever met. He might be eighty, judging by that wrinkled cocoa skin and his head of hair whiter than cotton, but he’s agile as a fiftyyear-old. My beloved brother, Rudy, is also here. He has kept me tethered to my sanity in ways that should earn him sainthood.
Rudy comes to these sessions because he knows I need him to.
I come—have been coming for weeks now—because I am trying to put the past behind me.
But today I am here because tonight I will see my father for the first time in five months. My encounters with Landon are hard enough in the best of circumstances. They always end the same, with flaring tempers and harsh words and fresh wounds. But tonight, I must confront Landon. Not about my past, but about his future.
Yes, I call my father by his first name. The distance it creates between us helps to dull my pain.
“So your dilemma,” Dr. Ayers says to my back, “is that you fear the consequences of confronting him could be worse than the consequences of staying silent.”
I nod at the pane of glass. “Of course, I’d rather avoid everything. Even Rudy thinks I should wait until I know...more. But if I’m right, and I don’t speak up now...” Why am I here? I have made a mountain out of a molehill and am wasting everyone’s time. I should drop this. “Landon probably won’t even listen to me. Not the way he listens to you, Rude.”
“He listens to you too,” Rudy says. Always looking for the positive spin.
The truth is, Landon does not listen to me. But Rudy, who is deputy campaign manager of Senator Landon McAllister’s bid for the United States presidency, is following in the man’s footsteps and so has his undivided attention. Also, Rudy doesn’t look a thing like our mother, as I do. Mama was a Guatemalan beauty with a café-au-lait complexion. I have had her personality and her looks since the day my head of thick black hair came in. Even today, I wear my hair short and windblown, the way she did. I have her leggy height, her long stride, her laugh.
Against all odds, our father’s recessive Irish genes won the genetic dispute over Rudy. As for me, I have always believed it is painful for my father to look at me.
“And I don’t think she should gloss over this,” Rudy says to the therapist. “I think Shauna should step very carefully. Avoid burning more bridges with Dad, if it can be helped. If she’s right, God help us all.”
I finally turn to look at my brother. “It’s not my goal to burn anything, Rudy, even though I’ll never have what you have with Landon.” This truth pains me more than the truth of what I’ve learned. And what I’ve learned, partial though it may be, is monstrous.
The tension headache that has started at the top of my spine spreads its fingers over the back of my head. The sickness I feel right now might come from what I suspect, or it might be rooted in my certainty that he will reject me again tonight.
Yes, I’m pretty sure that I am nauseated by the prospect of another rejection.
I’ll never forget the first time my father turned his back on me, though the second time was more painful, and though all the times since have clumped together in a unified throbbing heartache.
Rudy was the unwitting cause of Landon’s first abandonment. My brother came into the world when I was seven, and our mother died nineteen minutes after his birth. I remember not being able to breathe when I heard she was gone. I honestly thought that I might die those first few hours, my mother and I both dead in the same day all because of this baby boy.
My father said it was God’s fault, though he seemed to blame Mama’s passing on me. I guess I was the more tangible target.
After Mama’s doctor delivered the crushing news, my father turned away mumbling something about my uncle and carried Rudy out of the hospital without me. Uncle Trent found me two hours later, hiding behind a chair in the waiting room.
Truth not only hurts, it shames: at the time, I wished Rudy were dead. The day I stood at the head of Mama’s casket, I wondered what would happen to Rudy if I covered his squalling face tight with that silky blue blanket. Wishing that the balance of the universe might require Mama to come back.
It took just one night for me to understand that Rudy’s heart had been broken into more pieces than my own. The tears he cried for Mama came from some well that would not dry up. That night I fed him a bottle of warm milk and took him into my bed, promising to keep Mama’s memory alive in this little boy who’d never met her.
I’m twenty-eight now, and I have long since realized that the wounds of rejection do not heal with time. They reopen at the lightest touch, as deep as the first time they were inflicted. The pain is as real as flash floods in the wet season here in Austin, overwhelming and unstoppable.
The pain, even when I can successfully numb it, has kept me at a distance from people and God. Now and then I consider the irony of this: how it came to be that my mother’s God, who once seemed so real and comforting to me, managed to die when she did.
So many deaths in one night.
And here I am, expecting yet another tonight. The death of hope. For most of my life, hatred of my father and hope of gaining his affection have lived in stressful coexistence behind my ribs.
I’m crying and didn’t even notice I had started.
Dr. Ayers’s voice is gentle. “Do you believe your father is culpable in this matter you are investigating?”
The question behind the question stabs at the tender spot in me that longs for Landon’s love. Do you believe your father is guilty of anything more than hurting you? Do you care about truth or only about the past?
Somehow I care about both. Is that possible?
“I believe he is capable. More than that . . .” I sniff. “I don’t know yet. Very soon, though, I will. Very soon.”
Dr. Ayers leans back in his leather chair and folds his wrinkled hands across his slender stomach.
“Tell me: what do you want this confrontation to do for you?”
Several possible answers rush me. I want to be wrong, in fact. I want Landon to tell me that none of what I suspect is true. I want my father to reassure me that I have nothing to worry about, that he is an upright man who would never do anything so foolish, so hurtful. Nothing like what he has done—
Rudy’s eyes bore into the side of my head, and the truth of what I really want punches me in the stomach. I step to my chair and sit.
“I want to bring him down,” I say before I think it through. “I want him to know what betrayal feels like. I want to get him back.”
My tears turn into sobs. I can’t help it. I can’t stop.
Rudy places his hand on my knee. Not to urge me to stop bawling, but to remind me that he is by my side.
Hatred for my father did not become a part of my life until the second time he turned his back on me.
I was eleven. Patrice had been my stepmother for three days when she took over my upbringing, with Landon’s permission. He claimed Rudy and she got me.
Her style of parenting, if it can be called that, involved locking me in closets and burning the scrapbooks my mother had made me and refusing to feed me for a day at a time. As I grew I quit trying to make sense of such behavior and simply became more defiant. She responded by graduating to more extreme measures. There was no hiding our animosity for each other.
I suspect I reminded her, too, of my mother.
When she turned brazen enough to beat and burn me, though, I broke down and told Landon. I showed him the triangular burns on the inside of my left arm, imprinted by Patrice’s steam iron for my failure to pull my clean clothes out of the dryer before they wrinkled.
Landon handed me a tube of ointment and turned away, saying, “If you ever go to such lengths to lie about my wife again, I’ll bandage those myself. And you won’t like my touch.”
My wife. He had always called Mama my love.
Dr. Ayers makes no attempt to calm me. He has said before that crying is the best balm. Eventually I fumble through my mind for the words to justify what I have said.
“If Landon pays for what he’s done, I’ll get closure.”
“On what?” says Dr. Ayers.
“On my past.”
He takes a few moments to respond. Rudy produces a tissue out of thin air and I try to compose myself.
“So you’re saying that closing yourself off from your past is what you need in order to move on with your life.”
There is more than an attempt at clarity in Dr. Ayers’s tone—a challenge perhaps.
“Yes.” I swipe at my nose with the tissue. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. I want to put the past behind me.”
“By inflicting on your father what he has inflicted on you. By betraying him, you said.”
“No. By forcing him to remember me.”
“Ah! I see. So when he remembers you, then you will have accomplished your goal and can forget your past.”
His words fill me with confusion. The way he says it, I have this all wrong. But in my mind, my goal is—was—clear. Isn’t that how it works? Deal with the past, get justice, make the pain go away?
“Something like that,” I say.
Dr. Ayers nods as if he sees everything clearly now. He rises and comes around the desk, propping himself against the front of it and leaning toward me.
The doctor reaches out with an aging hand and touches my shoulder. “Would you mind if I gave you an alternative theory to consider?”
Honestly, I have no idea.
Dr. Ayers straightens. “It is possible that your plan will only root you more deeply in the pain of your past, not separate you from it.”
My confusion mounts. “So how do you suggest I put my past behind me?”
“It is behind you, dear. And that’s where it will be forever. You can’t make it vanish—”
“But I want to. I believe I can.”
“By creating more pain? The mathematics of that isn’t logical.”
“I can’t just ignore it!”
“No, that’s true.”
“But you think I shouldn’t confront Landon.”
“Oh, I’m not making any judgment about what you should do, Shauna. I’m only talking about your motivations. What do you really want?”
“To forget. I want to forget every single, stinging moment that was inflicted on me by people who were supposed to love me. I want someone to take these memories away from me.”
Dr. Ayers wags a finger in my direction, smiling. “I felt that way once.”
I take a steadying breath.
“You know I used be a reverend before I began helping people here?” He gestures to the modest office.
“Ministry of a different but no less valuable kind. Got thrown out of my pulpit by some folks who said they loved God but hated his black children. I spent a lot of years feeling the way you do now—that if I looked far and wide enough, I’d find a way to erase both the blight of my memory and the stink of people I held
responsible for my pain.”
He leans forward again, encroaching on my space. “But I discovered something better. Shauna, your history is no less important to your survival than your ability to breathe. In the end, you can only determine whether to saturate your memories with pain or with perspective. Forgetting is not an option. I tell you the truth
now: Pain was not God’s plan for this life. It is a reality, but it is not part of the plan.”
I exhale. “God and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms. Especially not about his plans for my life.”
“Pain or perspective, Shauna. That’s all that’s within your control.”
I drop my head into my hands, feeling more certain than ever that absolutely nothing is in my control.
* * *
In spite of Dr. Ayers’s warning, I decided to talk to Landon tonight. Regardless of the outcome—closure for me or more pain for him—I hoped the truth would count for something.
Instead, when the moment came, I tripped all over my words. Landon’s larger than life and had the upper hand from the outset. Instead of staying on topic, I took offense at something he said. I can hardly remember now, something about a man’s world, and when I tried to set him straight he cut me to the floor with
a few harsh words.
So here I am once again, driving fast through the night on a rain-slicked road away from yet another argument with Landon. And as he has so many times before, Rudy has come along to calm my explosive temper. He is smiling slightly at my ranting. Sometimes I think he finds me entertaining.
The hum of tires kissing asphalt through water soothes my anxious heart. “I don’t know why I let him roll over me like that, Rude.”
“You handled yourself just fine. I thought you showed remarkable restraint.”
“But not enough.”
“Okay, not enough.” Truth does not make Rudy flinch. My car follows a downward slope onto a bridge, pointing me east into Austin.
“Underneath it all, Dad worries about you, you know.”
I look at Rudy. No, no I didn’t know. Just as Rudy doesn’t know about my scars from Patrice’s iron.
I’ve told Dr. Ayers, but not Rudy. He and Patrice get along.
“What does he worry about?” The relative unsafety of my little car? The condition of my heart?
My heart is even more mangled than the skin under my arms.
So why have I never stopped wishing? Wishing that Landon would only—
Rudy’s cry comes at the same moment that glaring lights from another vehicle blind me. It all happens so quickly that I don’t have time to think about swerving or stopping.
A horn is blaring, and voices are screaming, and then the terrible sound of metal smashing into metal.
Daddy . . .
This is the last plea for help that fills my mind before the world ends.
* * *
He shifted his cell phone to the opposite ear and stared at the hospital entrance through the windshield of his car. The parking lot lights were still on, though dawn had broken the horizon behind him.
“She was in surgery six hours,” he said. “Internal bleeding.”
“Where is she now?”
“But still in a coma, correct?”
“Yes.” Ironic that Shauna McAllister had dodged death only to end up in a coma. “I can get to her easy enough now. She’ll be dead within the hour.”
“No. Change of plans. Our hands are being forced. I’ll explain later, but for now she stays alive.”
“She’s too big a risk to just—”
“What’s her prognosis?”
“Too early to tell. She could be in a coma for a day or for a year.”
“Or forever. Even if she comes out, she could have brain damage.”
“Yes, that’s possible.”
“So she stays alive for now. She’s not a threat as long as she’s unconscious.”
“And when she comes around?”
“With any luck, she’ll forget everything.”
“I don’t do business with luck.”
“You will today. Like I said, our hands are being forced in this. Her condition buys us time. I’ll call Dr.Carver; he’ll have options for us. If we have to change course, we do it later.”
“What if she remembers?”
“If she remembers, she dies.”