tagNovels and NovellasFalling Prey Ch. 02

Falling Prey Ch. 02

bythemightyoak©

There is no sex in this chapter.

********

I was floating in that heavenly ether that exists somewhere between sleep and awake when the memory emerged from the black. I could see us riding the crowded bus that stirred the dry dust on a meandering road along the shoreline of Jamaica.

Karen and I had only been married about a year, and we had finally managed to scrape together enough money to have a honeymoon. Those few romantic days were over, and we were herded onto a bus with a tired mosaic of silent and sunburned faces. A high-school girl with teased black hair and heavy mascara sat one seat behind her parents. She stared out the window, longing to be home like the rest of us, while the period's number one Billboard hit, Time After Time, played softly from her small boom box.

Karen slept. Her head rested on my shoulder and her hair smelled of fresh shower. Her limp and exhausted body swayed with the motion of the bus. I felt the slow rise and fall of her breathing. I savored the warmth of her womanly body against mine. Her hand rested on my thigh and I watched the glint of bright sunlight flicker off the meager gold around her finger.

I took her delicate hand in mine. Her fingers were slender and fragile. Her nail polish was the color of cantaloupe. I touched the ring, and I thought to myself, "We're on our way into a life together. It's her and me. It's just her and me."

I watched the palm trees go by while I relished the sanctuary resting on my shoulder. Everything seemed so perfect.

The high-school girl pressed rewind and Time After Time started again.

I hoped that bus would never reach the airport.

The curtains fell on my wonderful memory and I awoke facing the urn-style lamp on my nightstand. The bedroom was dim, but slits of horizontal sunlight leaked through the venetian blinds and painted bright stripes across the polished blue-gray swirls of the lamp. In one of the wing-back chairs in the seating area of the room, my reading glasses sat on an archery catalog, which straddled the open pages of a technical publication titled, Data Acquisition Processes for EEG-based Electro-Biological Interfaces.

I lay still and basked in the quiet smell of fresh linen. I remembered Lauren "telling on me" about talking with Amber in the grocery store and I couldn't help but to chuckle, quietly. She and I have a long history of sparring with each other. We've always been especially close and to this day she carries my old Tau Beta Pi bent on her keychain.

But cheerful thoughts of her whimsical antics moved aside as a pensive mood strolled in, and I felt the melancholy stillness of a deep forest.

I missed my kids. I missed helping Alex with his calculus. I missed his well-informed thoughts on politics and the economy. I missed telling him to get his gym bag out of the family room.

I missed Lauren, her irrepressible liveliness, her quips, her unpredictability. Karen called her "Christmas cheer 365 days a year." Curled photographs of her popularity remained tacked to her old bulletin board, which leaned against the unpacked boxes in her room in our new house.

For so many years I had a Sunday morning ritual of cooking us all breakfast, whether at home, a rented beach house in Florida, or a ski chalet in the Rockies. We all sat around the table, stabbed at ham and eggs and pancakes, and shared our highs and lows and our hopes for the future. That ritual was a family fortress, but now, with the kids gone, broken walls formed an outline in the sand and the people that used to gather there, they were never coming back.

Behind me Karen moved and I realized she was awake. I rolled over to face her.

"I thought I heard you laughing," she said.

I chuckled again. "I was thinking about Lauren telling you about the grocery store. I'm sorry. I hope I didn't wake you."

Karen chuckled too. "She's a pistol, isn't she?"

"She called me the other day and said, 'Daddy do we have a good lawyer?'"

"I said, 'Yeah, darling, what do you need a lawyer for?'"

"I just punched a man in a chicken suit."

I shook my head. "How many parents do you think get a call like that?"

Karen laughed. "Why did she punch a man in a chicken suit?"

"It was a new restaurant opening near campus. She said he grabbed her ass."

"That would make Lauren swing," Karen admitted.

"I asked her if she thought she hurt him, and she said, 'How would I know? He was in a chicken suit!' Then she added, 'But I told him I was sorry.'"

Karen burst out laughing, but it quickly subsided.

"I embarrassed her yesterday," she said. "'Mortified' is a better word."

Karen's face blushed red with humiliation. She was about to say more, but her effort to talk crumbled and she began to cry. Tears streamed from the corner of her eye and dripped off her nose. I pulled her against me, embracing the caring mother with a few extra pounds she was perpetually trying to lose.

She cried openly but softly as I held her, both of us hoping that I might soothe the welts that her parents had whipped into her self-worth. But there was nothing I could do. The open cuts had festered with time and her caustic memories sat like a roiling stench in the pit of her stomach.

I propped my head on my elbow and ran my fingers through the hair at her temple. Her wet cheek glistened. Dust particles sparkled in slanted gleans of sunlight.

"You need to go talk to someone," I said softly. "I'll go with you if you want. I'll do whatever you need, but you need seek some help, Beautiful."

She nodded and dabbed her eyes with the sheet. "If I could just find a job..." More crying smothered her apology.

"Karen, we don't love you because of your job. We love you because of who you are."

"But I need to be worth something to people. I need to..."

"Karen. Sweetie. You've raised two wonderful kids; you were the Director of IT for a major corporation; we have a great marriage. We live comfortably; we have a generous retirement already. There's nothing left to prove. It's time to ease up and start enjoying life."

She nodded in agreement, but the relentless indoctrination of not-good-enough still raged inside her and she only cried harder.

"Remember when I wanted to go back to school for my PhD?" I said. "The kids were young, you were working, and I would have to quit work. I didn't think we could handle it, but you said, 'Go for it. We'll figure it out one way or another.' That's you, Karen. That's always been you. Fearless. Undaunted. You've never been afraid to take life head on. You led us to where we are."

"I am afraid now," she sniffled. "I don't know what's happened to me; I'm falling apart. I feel it inside me. I don't know who I should be." She looked away from me. "I'm scared, Russell. I'm really scared."

I pulled her into my chest and spoke in a soothing voice. "You've never learned how to deal with the anger. You've never learned how to let go of the demands. You need to talk to someone." I looked down at her. "We'll get through this, Beautiful. You and me. We'll get through this."

We lay cuddled together, her forehead at my neck, her body in my arms. The house was quiet.

The once powerful lioness was succumbing to the jackals.

********

By the Christmas holidays Karen's drinking had gotten much worse. She made little effort to hide it anymore, or so I thought. She was seeing a psychologist and we both had a better understanding of her struggle, but that didn't make any difference. She no longer met her friends for coffee on Saturday mornings; in fact, she almost never left the house. She rarely put on makeup and she even gave up her beloved painting. Her downstairs studio of waiting easels and rectangular landscapes sat collecting dust like the forgotten vault of some dead artist. She had been paid as much as $1,800 for some of her pieces. So much talent wasting away.

But it was the holidays and the kids were home, so I tried not to think about it. I made dinner reservations at Mahogany, my favorite restaurant, a place that specializes in the art of aged beef. I was hoping a night out with the kids might allow Karen and me to take a deep breath from the constant tension that burned in our guts.

Lauren drove herself and Alex to the restaurant. Karen and I took my car. We arrived wrapped in coats under a gray sky just as the lights of the city were beginning to glimmer. The valet, same age as my kids, approached with a ticket in hand.

"Mr. Hawks, how you doing tonight?"

"I'm doing well, Brad, I hope you are."

"Yes, sir."

As always, sandy-haired Brad wore a knit sport shirt with the collar up. He covered it with a red sailing jacket and wore his much-loved dock shoes without socks. As Karen and I made our way inside, I heard the familiar squeal of my tires echoing in the parking garage.

"Brad's hair always looks like he just woke up," I said as I held the door for Karen.

"That's the style these days, honey."

"Yeah, well, remind me next time to wrap his tip around a comb."

I didn't expect to wait in the foyer very long, Alex and Lauren were right behind us, but Karen walked to the bar and ordered a glass of wine anyway.

The kids walked in just as Karen returned, and the four of us were shown our seats at a robust mahogany table, draped in white linen, near the center of the restaurant. I held the chair for Karen and the waiter placed our napkins in our laps, black for three of us, white for Lauren's lace dress. He took three drink orders and left.

"So are you guys glad to have the semester behind you?" I asked.

"Yeah," Alex said, "that optics class was brutal. I hardly had time to lift weights."

Lauren looked him over. "I think you need to back off some," she said. "You're starting to look like SpongeBob when he had inflatable arms."

"Alex," Karen said, "I didn't see the charge for next semester. Have you registered?"

Lauren gave Alex guilty eyes.

"Umm...no...not yet," he said.

Karen looked puzzled. "Well you're going to miss it, aren't you? I would think it's already too late."

There was a pause. Lauren elbowed her brother, trying to be covert about it.

"Something up?" I asked.

Lauren kept looking at Alex. He checked her stare out the corner of his eye. Something definitely was up. I sat back in my chair and crossed my arms.

"Okay, let's have it. What's going on, son?"

Alex looked at the table. Karen tilted her wine glass to her lips.

"I joined the Marines," he said.

Karen sprayed red wine. "You did what?"

"He joined the Marines," Lauren said matter-of-factly.

"I heard what he said," Karen snarled.

Lauren rolled her eyes. "Saw-ree!"

Karen's words charged at Alex. "Have you lost your mind?"

"I thought it would be a good thing for me," Alex shrugged, "so I signed up."

"Well you'll just unsign up," Karen demanded.

"I can't unsign up, Mom. It doesn't work that way."

"I don't care how it works! You're not joining the Marines! I won't have it!"

"You don't make those decisions for me anymore...Mother." Alex sneered, mimicking the way Karen talks to Claire when she's angry.

Karen slammed her hand on the table. Silverware jingled. Lauren jumped.

"DON'T YOU DARE TALK TO ME THAT WAY!" She shouted. "YOU UNGRATEFUL LITTLE BASTARD!"

I grabbed her firmly by the forearms. "Karen! Calm down!" I admonished under my breath. "The entire restaurant is looking! What the hell's gotten into you?"

She spoke through clenched teeth. "I am not going have my own son..."

"Karen," I interrupted. "Hold on! Just hold on a minute! You are way out of line!"

She clenched her jaw, folded her arms, and turned away. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and spoke calmly.

"Son, you have one semester left and then you graduate. You have to admit, this is some really bad timing. Why now? Why the Marines?"

Alex dragged his angered eyes off his mother.

"I want to do my part, Daddy. If I start a career, it'll never happen. I'll never have the opportunity."

Karen touched my arm and spit like a viper. "Give me the valet ticket."

I didn't hesitate. I pulled it from my wallet and slapped it in her hand. She grabbed her purse, stood up, and walked away. Lauren watched her leave.

"Daddy, where's she going?"

"I have no idea, darlin." I turned to Alex. "Son, look, it is admirable that you want to join the Marines, but you should have given us some advance consideration."

Alex motioned to his mother's empty chair. "I knew this would happen."

"That doesn't matter. You owe it to us to tell us. You haven't officially moved out yet. We are the ones paying for your college, son, and that's no small-time bill."

"I understand that, Daddy, but Mama is acting crazy anymore. I'm convinced she's an alcoholic and I'm sick of it. She's erupts out of nowhere!"

I wasn't going to discuss his mother's difficulties with him right there in the restaurant, and besides, his situation was the topic at hand. We talked about it for a few minutes, and then Lauren broke in.

"Daddy," she said stiffly, "Mama left." Lauren held up her phone to me. There was a GPS image on it.

"What's that?" I said. I took the phone and studied the moving map. The screen showed an arrowhead tagged "Mom" that was headed up South Boulevard.

"It's a GPS tracker app," Lauren said. "It shows where Mama's phone is."

"A tracker app?" I said unthinkingly, and then it dawned on me. "Wait a minute. You have an application tracking your mom's phone?"

Lauren's face turned to, "Oops!"

"Have you got this on my phone?"

I pulled my phone from my inside coat pocket and began scrolling through applications. Lauren snatched her phone back.

"Daddy!" She asserted. "We can't worry about that now! Mama's driving away!"

The waiter walked up. He set down a beer for me, a beer for Alex, and an unsweetened iced tea for Lauren.

"We have some specials tonight if you'd like to hear them," he said. "Should I wait for the Misses to return?"

"Umm...yeah," I said, "if you could give us a minute."

He walked away and Lauren urged, "Daddy, we have to go! This is an emergency!"

I didn't know how much the beers and tea cost, and I didn't know if Karen paid for her wine or put it on the tab. I threw fifty dollars on the table for the drinks and the waiter's trouble and we headed out. As we made our way through the restaurant, I mumbled, "My wife's driving away, my son's joined the Marines, and my daughter's tracking my phone." I threw my hands up. "I just wanted a good steak!"

We stepped outside and Brad took Lauren's valet ticket. "You're not leaving already are you?"

"Yeah," Lauren said, her voice had suddenly become soft, "we have a minor emergency."

Brad pulled her keys from his pocket, pressed the unlock button, and the car chirped -- right next to us!

"Hey, hold on a cotton pickin minute," I complained, "how's she get this primo spot? She never spends any money here."

"Sorry, Mr. Hawks," Brad said as he opened her car door for her. "It's the only spot I had left."

There were at least ten empty spots just outside the parking garage to our left. I looked down the way at the empty spots. I looked at Brad. He just grinned.

I shook my head. "Let's go, kids." I hopped in to ride shotgun and Alex sat in the back seat.

"I only work till eleven tonight, you know," Brad said with goo-goo eyes at Lauren as she stood at her opened car door.

"Really?" She said. "And then what?"

"I don't know. I was kind of thinking about going over to..."

"Hey," I called to Lauren, "I thought we had an emergency here."

With her hand hidden behind her back, Lauren waved vigorously for me to shush as Brad tried to arrange a date.

I guess the term "emergency" is relative.

"I really like your hair like that," I heard Brad say. Lauren's hairstyle hadn't changed in years.

"Oh," Lauren fawned, "I'm just trying it long for a while. I thought it would..."

I tapped her with my hand. "Hey. Juliet. Get in the car already. He's here till eleven, remember?"

The love fest would have gone on forever, but I finally got Lauren in the car and we took off to find Karen. By then, the GPS was showing "no data," so we drove home by our typical route. But as the garage door opened, we found that Karen wasn't home. I tried again, but her phone kept going to voicemail.

Lauren's face was worried. "Daddy," she said, clutching the steering wheel, "something's wrong."

"Alex, do me a favor and stay here in case your mother comes home," I said. "Lauren and I are going to drive back to the restaurant."

We didn't quite make it all the way back to the restaurant when my phone rang. It was Karen.

"Hey, Beautiful, where are you?" I asked.

"Rus...Russell," she said. "I'm...umm..." her voice trembled, "I'm being arrested."

"Arrested?"

Lauren flicked her head my way.

Karen began to sob. "Will you come get me?"

It was not a question of whether or not I would bail her out. She was asking if I would still have her.

"Of course I'll come get you. Where?"

I heard her talk to someone.

"The county jail. They're taking me to the county jail. I'm sorry, Russell. I'm so sorry."

"I'll be there as fast as I can, okay? Everything's going to be alright."

"Yeah...okay...umm..." Karen's voice ripped to shreds. "It's a DUI. I'm sorry. I'm really so sorry, Russell."

"Sweetie, calm down. Everything's going to be fine. I'll be there as fast as I can and we'll have you home before you know it."

"Don't tell the kids, okay? Please don't tell the kids." She begged. She was crying in a pitiful, sobbing, gush of humiliation. "I would never be able to face them again, Russell. Please don't tell them. Please don't."

Lauren was looking right at me.

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