The rearview lights of a departing restaurant patron caught Kristin’s attention. Streetlamps cast hues at the beginning of their shift, as she whipped her van into the vacant spot. Her weak arms clicked the gearshift into Park. Noticing the time, she rested her forehead over clasped hands on the steering wheel and released a long sigh. Interstate 75’s sea of travelers delayed her northward commute home to Alabama, and she had arrived forty minutes late.
A buzz from the cradled cell phone on the dash prompted her to glance at the caller ID. Ten years after their divorce, and her stomach still pitted when she read his name.
“Hello,” she said, with a dab of pink lip balm to her faded complexion.
“Kris, listen. Things were hectic at the drop off; I wanted to speak, but—”
“We never speak at the drop off,” she interrupted. “What do you want, Hutch?”
“I felt like I should take a minute to say thank you.”
She flipped the driver’s side visor down and pinched her cheeks in the mirror. “You’ve already thanked me.”
“Again, then,” he said with a firmness that reminded her why her stomach still sunk after all this time. “I felt like I should thank you, again,” his tone softened. “I really appreciate you doing this for me.”
“For Olivia and Lennon, you mean.”
“Right, for the girls. I know it’s not easy. You, with your husband and dogs. Me, Peyton, and our four children—”
“The twins, they’re two children. So, you moved your wife and two children seven hundred miles away from the two daughters you had with me.” Kristin gave a one-sided shrug to the reflection in the mirror then flipped it back into position. “So, here we are.”
“You were always better with details.”
An extended break in her ex-husband’s conversation returned her to a familiar setting; her lungs filled awaiting his response.
“Well, like I was saying, thank you for keeping our weekends on track while I get things sorted.” She released her breath through an open mouth, as he continued. “I know it was abrupt, but this promotion was just the kick my career needed. I’m thriving,” his low tone lulled a lifetime of sales experience.
“I’m sure Peyton wanted to move closer to home, too.”
“This move benefited my entire family, Olivia and Lennon included. If I can be a better provider for them, they’ll only be more successful in the long run.”
Of course, more money, more success. It’s the Hutch Camek motto.
“Well, congrats. No additional thanks required. Just get a new plan in place. My dogs need me,” she said, feeling her “gray-rock” reply was in line with her therapist’s recommendations.
“Kris,” his smoky voice re-invited her attention. “You know you’re better than your mother. Let’s keep this up a little while longer, for the girls.”
“Gotta’ go. Good chat.” Ending the call, she realized she was now an hour late to dinner with her in-laws. She rubbed the blistered edges of her elbows, worn from their fixed position while driving through late-afternoon storms. Her chipped, nude-coated nails came into view; she recalled when their sheen once competed with that of the wood-grain steering wheel she’d gripped for hours. The woman’s round, toffee eyes focused on her overgrown cuticles while she smoothed the sunset-tinted whispers of hair around her face. This would have to suffice. Grey expected her at dinner, and she couldn’t let drive time disappoint her husband again.
When her ex moved to a suburban utopia on South Florida’s luxurious coastline, he feared missing precious time with their two daughters. She agreed to a temporary fix of a complicated situation. For months now, the former spouses crossed state lines to an agreeable half-way spot. Two days of travel whittled her weekends down to a single day, giving her little time to recoup from the wanderer’s lifestyle she’d adopted.
The weary mother stretched for a pair of decent flats she kept on reserve in the rear floorboard. Her lower spine popped when it realigned. She held her shaking muscles in position savoring their release. Opening the car door, Kristin rested her sneakers on the frame and rounded her back over her legs.
Her creased eyes admired the progressive renovations of her hometown’s historic district. This area was a blighted community during her youth. A resurgence of dining establishments and nightlife added foot traffic to the brick alleyways. Neighboring kitchen grills intoxicated the night air, signaling Ellington’s inaugural First Friday Night celebration was underway. Early birds crinkled their carryout bags while getting into their cars. Vendors lined the sidewalks offering fresh poured craft beers to thirsty customers; a strong sign the younger crowds approved of the new open-container law.
From the driver seat, she viewed the Mardi Gras-themed exterior of the restaurant where her husband awaited her arrival with his family. Despite Grey’s support, her in-laws disapproved of any arrangement infringing on the youngest Murphy son’s marital rights—late appearances to family dinners included.
The establishment’s corner location anchored the revitalized district, but its average health scores made her question the sister-in-law’s choice of venue. Vy was a serial planner and designated hostess for most Murphy family gatherings. From weddings to wakes, she wasn’t one to overlook a detail. With her husband poised to receive a handsome payment for joining his National Guard company on assignment overseas, Kristin doubted the party coordinator spared expenses either. She suspected the military wife would say Grey’s brother enjoyed the live music, but Weyman liked anything Vy told him to. An abandoned acoustic guitar propped on a wooden stool outside suggested the first set had wrapped.
Taking an owner-like stance on the front sidewalk, the plump woman stretched her neck scanning the crowd. The reluctant guest ducked, shielding her face from her sister-in-law’s scowl. As the violet and emerald beaded door sealed shut, the weary traveler swung her feet back into position and slammed the car door.
I can’t deal with this tonight.
The dashboard illuminated the interior, and she hoped her husband gave them a suitable cover story.
The caller ID flashed a perfectly angled platinum-blonde pixie onto her screen. “Vy, I hope you’re not waiting on me. Traffic is horrendous,” she said, watching the restaurant fade in the rearview mirror.
“We started to worry.”
Kristin imagined her sister-in-law’s Botoxed brow not cooperating with her fabricated look of concern. “I’m sorry, it’s still hard for me to gauge the drive.”
“I can only imagine driving that far each weekend. That’s—,“ she paused, “something. Our soldier leaves tomorrow. We wish you were here. Wey and I love the live music. Maybe you can make his welcome home party in October.”
With a hurried breath, “I need to catch our server. Everyone’s finished eating and he hasn’t taken the first dessert order. I’m not sure if he’s dumb or just oblivious,” she said, as the phone went dark.
The home screen refreshed, and another familiar name appeared. It was the first phone call of the night Kristin welcomed. “Hello, my only friend,” she said, letting the clicks of her turn signal fill dead air until her closest confidant replied.
“Hold on.” Audrie’s no-nonsense tone cut to the point.
When Grey introduced the two mothers they formed a bond commiserating with having a backstage ticket to the Boys Only Club they wed. The women shared emotional scars from first marriages and supported each other’s new commitments. Protecting their daughters from becoming the sacrificial lambs of parental egos was always a hot topic. Audrie’s own past a key contributor, her heart bled for children caught in the middle of adults vindicating a dissolved relationship. Most times, she made a hurried check on her stepnieces when her husband was out of earshot. A bold move, the friend recognized. The Murphy sons followed their father’s lead and supporting a non-blood-related family member over their own was disloyal. Though she missed their extended conversations, Kristin respected her sister-in-law’s promise of a unified home for her daughter. Secret carpool chats would do. Besides, how could she judge another woman’s sacrifices?
“Sorry about that, I had a visitor,” Audrie said. “Heads-up, Grey just left.”
“Any chance he grabbed a to-go box of beignets on the way out?”
“Nope, not tonight.”
“Thanks for the tip.” Kristin considered lying to her too, but she knew she’d see through it. “I’m just exhausted, Aud.”
“I know you are, friend. The girls will appreciate you for doing this, one day.”
“One day feels a long way off.”
“Do you see an end in sight?”
“Hutch says he’s working on it. He wants to do it without lawyers, if possible.”
“Can you trust him?”
The exes’ relationship had been complicated for a lifetime. “Trust is a strong word,” she said, giving a single-beat laugh. “I can say, wholeheartedly, court is not the place for family decisions. Attorneys just want the money. And judges have no obligation to preserve anyone’s dignity except their own.”
“Well, foster kids grow up in the system. My whole childhood was one big courtroom movie scene and you’re right, nobody wins.” Audrie’s life experiences deemed her the legal mastermind of the family, without question. “I'll call tomorrow on my way to the store.”
Her exits were always abrupt.
As the city lights grew distant, the stars peered from behind passing clouds. Her tires splashed through remnants from an earlier storm as she recalled the velvety kill shot Hutch used to nick the artery of her guilty conscience.
You know you’re better than your mother.
His statement was spot-on. She was a better mother than her own; Rosalyn Irvine would have killed him and been done with it. When it came to preserving a father-daughter relationship, Kristin reigned supreme, but he knew his ex-wife’s past. And he loved reminding her of the monster she refused to become.
Her father remarried three years after her parents’ divorce. She remembered her first visit to his new home when she was thirteen, the same age as her daughter, Lennon.
While packing her Dukes of Hazzard backpack for the weekend, her mother dictated marching orders, “Do you have everything, Krissy?”
“I think so,” she said, giving a sharp tug on the laces of her pale-pink Tretorns.
“Keep an eye out for me when you’re there. This wife of his, she’s a real piece of work. I hear she’s been around the block a time or two before she landed your dad. He never could say no to a woman.” Rosalyn lit a cigarette, watching her daughter skip across the bedroom. “You know she’s the reason for our divorce, don’t you?”
“I do.” Unbothered by her mother’s repeated accusation, she zipped the duffle shut and wafted smoke from her face.
The mother continued to speak to the back of her child’s head. “She was the control desk operator, and he was the telephone repair tech. He met her calling in to get his next job assignment. She’s trash. She probably doesn’t even use Duke’s mayonnaise.” Kristin’s mother rolled her eyes and flicked her cigarette in a crystal ashtray near the sofa. “I’m not even from this godforsaken state, but I took one hint from your grandmother on how to make potato salad.”
The child stood at the window, awaiting her father’s arrival while the bitter ex-wife continued to agonize. “And don’t get me started on this new pre-shredded cheese. How lazy does a woman have to be to not grate her own cheese?”
Kristin’s allergies surged with her mother’s fiery drag on a Benson and Hedges 100.
“I have a right to know what you’re being subjected to,” she said, her militant tone softened. “Take your own personal products. Her two girls are so young, they’re still in diapers.”
“Wouldn’t she have something?” The daughter dared not mention her new stepmother’s name; fearing her mother would cancel the trip altogether.
Her bottomless emerald eyes mirrored the rejection she still clung to. “Be careful poking that bear, child. Your father left us when you started puberty because he couldn’t handle you growing up. Asking him to go to the Piggly Wiggly for pads could trigger him to leave again. You wouldn’t want that on your head, now would you?”
The young girl sensed a need to pacify her mother’s Irish temper with an agreeable response. “You’re right, Ma. I just want to blend in,” she said, burying paper wrappers into the deepest corners of her overnight bag.
The mother-child dynamic duo was all she’d known since her parents separated. Her mother led the charge for wives of other promiscuous utility workers and coached them on how to restore their dignity.
Lighting another cigarette, the scorned woman angled her glare toward the ceiling. Her flame-colored layers feathered across her brow. “That coward of a man. Leaving us to be with a tramp operator. Why? To make him feel younger, sexier, richer? He never loved us, Krissy. You’ll see that hasn’t changed.” On an exhale, she forced the toxic fumes away from her child’s delicate senses.
Seeing the dented white hood of her father’s Datsun truck, the child tapped her hands together then leaned to kiss her mother’s delicate cheek. “I know, Ma. I’ll be alright. See you Sunday.”
“Lucky stars above you. Sunshine on your way.”
Joe’s horn announced his arrival, and young Kristin floated through the door.
Sliding inside the truck flooded her with fond memories. “Hi, Daddy.” Her dimples pitted into her cheeks.
“There’s my girl.” His warm, Southern drawl wrapped around her.
Her pink fingertips brushed over healed cuts on her dad’s sun-drenched forearms. “What happened?” she asked, pulling her hand back. Her mother’s warning rambled through her head.
“Life of a ‘polecat’ you know.” He laughed, pulling the tattered stick shift into reverse. Creases along his chestnut eyes deepened as he studied his path through the back window. She bounced in the passenger seat watching him look over his broad shoulder. “I swear this driveway gets longer every time I come here.”
Leaving the sleepy neighborhood together reminded her of many Saturday morning trips to the hardware store she and her father took when they lived in the same house. The eight-track player he’d let her play The Gambler, on repeat, was dark from years of her absence as DJ. She missed their weekends together when he lived in apartments, and hotel rooms after the divorce. Kristin welcomed her father’s sporadic visits to her tennis matches, but his work schedule made his appearances hard to predict. This was what her heart longed for; time with him uninterrupted by her mother’s siege.
“So, what are we doing today?” she asked.
“I thought we’d go back to the house first. Angela decorated a room for you, and I thought you’d want to meet her two daughters.”
“My sisters, right?” she hesitated to apply such a foreign label.
“Technically, yes. You have two new sisters. Kate is the oldest one, she’s four, I think. Kinsey will be three soon. They’re sweet girls, like you. You’ll be the big sister, so teach them well.”
Arriving at Joe’s house, Kristin delighted at the idea of having the large family she’d dreamt of. She noticed two tiny, towheads peering through the glass doorway as the lights of her father's truck illuminated the front stoop. One child in diapers, as Rosalyn predicted, and the other clutching a teddy bear.
An only child, she had few interactions with little ones. She channeled her favorite television mom from “Family Ties” and took the lead. “Hi, I’m Kristin. You must be Kinsey and Kate.”
Shy, giggly responses relieved her, as the twin-like sisters led the way to the end of the dark, paneled hall. Her hands looked bleached against the wood-grained door when she twisted the scratched brass knob. A quaint bedroom invited her with the same décor Rosalyn had spent considerable funds removing from the former marital home. The dimmed lamp highlighted the latticed, white headboard of a twin bed. Delicate curtains matched a flowery patterned quilt and whispered in the gentle comfort of the ceiling fan, a mainstay in any Southerner’s bedroom. Snow globes her father collected from traveling storm-stricken areas in need, adorned the inside shelves of a linen-painted chifforobe. Each served as a reminder to his idolizing child, she was on her father’s mind. Stylish, multi-colored beads replaced the standard bifold closet doors and showcased new outfits hanging inside.
“I hope you like it,” the new stepmother said. Her fuchsia-colored fingernails twisted blonde ribbons of one child’s hair. “The girls helped me decorate.”
As Angela stood in the doorway, young Kristin noticed the mother’s eyelashes tapped the edges of layered bangs hiding her love of electric-blue eyeliner. The child mentally proclaimed allegiance to Rosalyn and tempered her full elation for a hung poster. “The Duke Boys! Cool.”
Joe’s smile spanned across his face. Giving a one-armed hug to his youthful wife, he said, “Well, you know Daddy had to have something in this ‘flower power’ room.”
The diapered child presented a new teddy bear to her new stepsister. “For me?”
With a bounce of her flaxen curls, the toddler shrank deeper behind her mother’s legs.
“He’s so soft. I love his collared shirt. What’s this say, ‘Preppy Bear’?” Kristin held the plush gift close to her face. “How cute, he reminds me of Paddington. Do you remember those books, Daddy?” She hoped her childhood memories still mattered to him.
“Yep, that bear knew how to start trouble.”
“Thank you, Kinsey. He’ll sleep in my bed tonight, okay?”
The weekend brought expected adjustments for Kristin. She felt awkward seeing her father with a woman other than her mother, and uncomfortable, because it made her happy for him. Rosalyn’s words rang in her ear, she’d remain diligent to monitoring this new union for anything unusual. Of note, her stepmother washed dishes, balancing on one foot, while the other perched onto her opposite thigh. While too frivolous for her mother, it still didn’t seem like a deal breaker. A trip to the refrigerator for a Coca-Cola, exposed an unopened bag of pre-shredded cheese; she’d have to see how that played out. Overall, she struggled with what horrible things she would come up with to tell her mother when she returned home.
The morning started with church and ended with a family dinner before Kristin’s dad drove her home. With a kiss on his cheek she said, “I love you, Daddy. I had a great time. I mean, really great.”
His rugged chin tightened. “I love you too, Kris. I’ll see you in two weekends, okay?”
She hopped out of his truck and gave the dented door a firm shove. Climbing the brick steps to the carport entry, her unbridled excitement of meeting his family stirred in her head. Rosalyn listened to the sultry sounds of her favorite crooner, which was her usual Sunday afternoon cleaning routine. The daydreaming child eased across the lemony linoleum kitchen floor. Each creak of the seventies-style ranch home’s wooden floors announced her arrival.
From a small, quilted bench her mother stared through the picture window at her ex-husband’s truck leaving the drive. “How was it?”
Immersed in the sounds of her father’s rattling muffler fading away, her mother’s question startled her into reality. “It was—okay. You know, weird. I missed you.”
“I missed you too, dear.” Rosalyn exchanged her feather duster for a freshly lit cigarette and quieted the music awaiting her daughter’s report.
“Well, I’m just gonna hit the sack. Tired you know, little crumb snatchers don’t sleep late.”
Her mother’s house smelled of fresh paint and wallpaper glue. She laid her bag on the mauve-and-blue comforter selected for her as part of the remodel. Her mother believed she needed to eliminate the flowery bedspread and move into grown up decor.
“Well, did you see anything?”
“We didn't eat potato salad, so I didn’t notice if she was a Hellman’s user.”
Her mother smacked her lips together and widened her eyes.
Young Kristin’s mind sifted through a joyful weekend, for one negative thing her mother could latch onto. “There was a bag of pre-shredded cheese in the fridge.”
“I knew it! She’s pure trash. Women, these days. They always go for the latest and greatest.”
A wave of relief crept in; she was hopeful she’d get approval for a future visit.
“Not much.” She returned the unopened sanitary napkins to the bathroom closet continuing her update from over her shoulder. “The girls are kind of annoy—”
Returning to her room, she froze seeing her mom at the bedside, holding her stepsister’s gift. “What’s this?”
“Just some lame toy.” The child huffed. “Stupid right? I’m thirteen. Too old for teddy bears.”
“Why didn’t you return it to its rightful owner?”
“You wouldn’t want me to be rude, would you?”
Rosalyn’s crimson peaks shifted across her forehead. Studying the stitches that held the bear’s playful, glass eyes intact she said, “It’s a sign he still thinks of you as a little girl, Krissy.”
“For sure. I’ll just toss it in the back of my closet. Kill me if my friends see it.”
“You’re too old for toys.”
As Kristin attempted to take the bear, her mother gripped the plush arm in her fist. “You don’t want this reminder of how they are putting you down, do you?” Rosalyn’s voice grated through her clenched jaw.
“I said I’d hide it.”
“You don’t have to hide anything, dear. Let me handle this, Ma Kelly’s way.”
“Ma Kelly hasn’t been here for a long time. Let me toss it under my bed.”
Marching through, the other half of her dynamic duo slung the teddy bear on the dining room table. “Krissy, I’m aware my own mother is dead. I’m going to teach you how The Family handles an insult from a trashy woman.”
The child accompanied her gift as clanging echoed in the kitchen. Running her fingers across the plush leg, she thought to herself, “But, the kid gave it to me.”
Emerging with a pair of steel-handled scissors in her hand, the mother’s face wore a rash-like pattern that engulfed throat and face. “Get me a bag from the pantry.”
Kristin retrieved a paper sack embossed with a faded, red Piggly Wiggly logo and joined the assassination at the table. She watched the silver, sheared edge of her mother’s weapon slide to the bottom of the bear’s plump neck. With multiple pumps, the severed head plopped, jarring the bag out of the child’s quivering hands. The assistant scrambled back into position.
Rosalyn continued to destroy the memento from Joe’s home, snipping one appendage on each side of its torso. Then, with masterful precision, she trimmed the shirt, leaving the identifiable logo in place. “Let it serve as a reminder to the new wife; our Irish roots run deep.”
The remaining scraps plummeted to the bottom, each with a jolting pop that sickened her child.
“Let’s go,” Rosalyn instructed.
Crimping the edges into a rolled handle, Kristin followed, wondering how she could stop this from getting worse.
With a fresh cigarette dangling from her lips, Rosalyn adjusted the gearshift of the white station wagon. After thirteen years of leaving their football-field-length driveway, Kristin knew her mother navigated reverse better than most people drove forward. The enraged ex-wife aimed her ambulance-shaped vehicle at the neighborhood road and stomped the gas.
Thick magnolias shadowed lingering, golden light from the father’s home. The living room lamp filled the front window of the darkened porch. Rosalyn’s headlights spanned over a tricycle lying in the front yard.
“They just moved here. How did you know where he lived?” the child asked.
“I have my ways. It’s best for you not to know everything.”
Desperate to normalize the moment for a fraction of rational thought to enter her mother’s mind, her voice filled the car. “Ma! Please don’t.”
The mother tiptoed through the grass with the ease of a serial killer. She glided over three steps to the front stoop where she delivered her signature ‘return to sender’ message. With the one-eared, one-eyed, severed head hung on the doorknob, she placed the makeshift body bag in the recipient’s full view. Her delicate finger chimed the parcel’s arrival, as she waltzed back to the wagon still running. The scent of a new cigarette meant the terror had ended. Kristin hoped the diapered stepsister was in bed.
“I can’t believe you did that,” the child shamed quietly.
“Oh, Krissy, you’re just like your tenderhearted father. Weak.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just scary to think he’s going to see that.” Her voice cracked, stumbling for words that wouldn’t infuriate her mother again.
“You’re making this a bigger deal than it is. What’s the worst that can happen?” she asked. “He’ll get mad about it, and they’ll have a little ruck tonight on my account.”
“What if they think it was me?”
“So what? They can’t eat you for supper.”
Her father’s truck did not pull down the driveway for several weekends to follow. Kristin tried re-establishing their relationship, but his responses lessened with time. She imagined it didn’t take her stepmother long to remove the door poster and give her stepsister the bedroom. Rosalyn continued to intercept packages intended for her daughter. As a child, she watched her mother shred blouses, ruin sneakers, and burn professional family photographs in effigy of her father’s memory. If a birthday card made its way through an ocean of changed addresses, she scrutinized postmarks for late mailing dates. All acts were for her benefit, her mother would tell her. Each done in the spirit of full transparency, so the child knew she was merely an afterthought to the man she called Daddy.