Steve slammed his foot on the brake then turned to Jessie. “Get out.”
Jessie stared at him, “What?”
Jessie studied the glare reserved for the most precious of crossed emotional lines and the set jaw that meant that this discussion was over. Usually she’d agree to disagree and move on, but this time her mind worked overtime. This time they were having the discussion, whether he liked it or not. She squared her shoulders against the hurt she was about to inflict, “No. I won’t. Not until you’ve faced reality.”
“Oh, and whose version of reality is that? Yours?”
She winced at the venom but they’d never got this far before. Jessie forced herself to breathe before answering, her voice as calm and rational as her thoughts.
“Sweetheart, you know she’s poison. It seeps from her every pore, corroding everything it touches. Every day she stays it destroys a little more of you.” Jessie’s voice cracked, “Of us.” She took note of the twitch in his jaw and rushed on. “Honey, I can’t keep living like this, please, let her go,” she took another breath, “and make it sooner, rather than later, for all our sakes.”
There, it was done. Jessie watched his eyes harden and then breathed a sigh of relief as they closed and his jaw relaxed.
It was barely a whisper, but the shards of hatred within it made Jessie reel. She reached for his arm, touching the tanned skin that only hours before had caressed her shoulders, fear fluttered in her voice, “Steve?”
There was no swipe of the hand, no tensing of the arm, nothing to indicate he’d heard her or felt her touch. Jessie repeated her plea, “Steve?”
He exhaled audibly and his shoulders slumped. His eyes closed and his voice cracked, “It’s… its wrong. You wouldn’t understand. Just go.”
“I wouldn’t…?” Jessie’s world spun. His choice of words split her heart and sank to the bottom of her soul. She swallowed the rising urge to rip his face towards her and make him understand the destruction he’d caused. Instead she allowed a soft “You bastard”, to escape before slowly grabbing her handbag and quietly opening the car door. She exited the vehicle with all the dignity she could muster, carefully closing the door behind her. The Mustang skidded slightly on the dirt verge before hitting the asphalt and Jessie watched through the dust as it disappeared into the heat haze.
Jessie stood there, unbelieving but relaxed. They’d argued over his mother before and he’d never waited longer than half an hour to come back to her. Then again, he’d never used her lack of parentage against her and she’d certainly never called him a bastard. She hoisted her handbag further up her shoulder. He’d come back. He always did. She just had to wait it out.
She looked around her and sighed.
Route 66‘d been their dream since college. Their first date had consisted of the movie Cars followed by a Big Burger value meal and listing songs with Route 66 destinations in their lyrics. Their first argument had been that night; ironically, it was over whether the lyric was ‘show me the way to Amarillo’ or ‘is this the way to Amarillo?’
Their second argument had been over Steve’s Mum and her insistence that her son avoid Jessie because, “that girl will be the death of me”. Jessie shrugged off the shiver that ran up her spine and looked again toward the horizon. It had taken them almost another decade to gather the time and money but several lengthy flights and a couple of time zones later they’d rented the Mustang in Chicago, officially exchanging Main Street, Palmerston North for Main Street USA.
They’d crossed the Mississippi, and quickly headed into the reality of life in Radiator Springs. Much to Jessie’s delight and Steve’s chagrin, the Mustang developed a case of flat tyre out by Tow Tater, narrowly missed a twister in Kansas and now, according to the GPS they were on the outskirts of Amarillo. Well, at least she was, for all she knew Steve was half way to Albuquerque.
Jessie kicked the dirt. It wasn’t as if any of it was her fault. Steve’s mum remained on the warpath until the night of the ‘big argument’ where Steve’s dad stepped in with a “Lord’s sake Dora, leave the man alone”.
Overnight a ceasefire lasted eighteen months. Just long enough for Jessie and Steve to get married and three days before Steve’s dad suffered a fatal heart attack. In the five years since, comments became lies, manipulations, and threats until the day Dora slapped Jessie, saturating both families with loathing and hammering a wedge of fear wrapped mistrust between them all.
But that was then, and back there, while this, well, this was here and now. All Jessie had to do was figure out how to entertain herself until Steve came back, climb the fence that would be between them, while avoiding the poison tipped barbed wire that surrounded every move they made. She chewed her lip and searched her handbag for a mint as a hint of uncertainty crept into her resolve. What if she’d gone too far?
What if he didn’t come back?
If nothing changed, did she even want him to come back?
Jessie popped the lid of the mints and tipped one into the palm of her hand. She saw the triple koru etched into her skin. A reminder of the family who’d gone and those who’d taken her in.
Did that mean she knew what it meant to be part of a family?
The thought came uninvited and the mint rolled around in her palm until Jessie tossed it into her mouth, slammed the lid of the container down and tossed the packet back into her bag, laughing at her own foolishness. Of course she knew the value of family, just as she knew he’d come back. She rolled up her jeans and started marching down the road toward Amarillo, just in case.
About a mile into her walk, the glass of water she’d skulled at lunch hit the one-and-a-half litre bottle she’d drunk since they’d left Elk City that morning. Each step became a painful reminder of just how far she had to go to get relief of the 21st Century kind.
She took stock of her options. In New Zealand, it was easy to find a tree or bush to take a squat under, but out here there was nothing but dust, a makeshift fence and irrigation circles. It would be just her luck that the one car to travel past today would be as she was mid-stream on the roadside. Even worse would be if the one car was Steve. After the way they left each other that was certainly not the way she wanted their reunion to start. A little further ahead was a barn and, judging from the state of the road and the buildings they’d passed so far, Jessie figured there was a pretty good chance that this was as run down and derelict as any other they’d seen. Hell, Jessie grimaced as another surge of water plummeted against the sides of her bladder, never mind derelict, she’d be happy with just deserted for now.
She upped gears from painful waddle to cross-legged sprint, cut across the grass and managed to confirm both derelict and deserted before relieving herself. Pain and panic over she buttoned her jeans and took a look around a little disappointed that even though she was a million miles from NZ, the splintered wood and crumbling framing of the barn could have fit into any farming landscape back home. Jessie turned and peered across the field, seriously doubting any animal could be contained within the drooping three-wire fence line, a theory confirmed by the empty spaces around her. Whoever owned the land obviously had other things on their mind.
Her gaze lowered to a small mound of bramble beside the barn. There was something about the way it sat that made Jessie take a second look. “Well, what do you know?” she whistled softly as she approached the pile.
She pulled back the bramble and looked at the remains of what she guessed was a door. Except the steel was so thick and twisted that Jessie wasn’t sure it had been a door, if it was, then something pretty darn powerful had literally ripped it apart, leaving one portion attached to the twisted hinge and sending the other to who knew where. She peered down into the darkness.
She could just make out a step and realised she was standing on a bona fide storm shelter. The sort of thing a kiwi heard about, but never expected to see. The only shelters like these back home were inhabited by hobbits. She gave a chuckle at her own joke and set about clearing the doorway, dragging the steel aside and ignoring the shiver running down her spine at the array of rodents, arachnids and reptiles her imagination threw at her.
Sunlight cast four more steps into view and then the ground appeared to level off. Jessie fumbled in her handbag for her small LED torch and crouched down; tentatively feeling her way with a foot until she was sure the step would hold her without her needing to touch the side of the earthen shelter. Creepy crawlies didn’t scare her, but there was no sense courting fate either. She took a breath and started down, each wooden step protesting at the intrusion, but holding her until the small splosh and what she hoped was mud oozing though her sandals. The sunlight extended a little way into the path ahead, but disappeared as the path sloped upwards. Everything else was lost to shadow.
Jessie pressed the button of the torch and white light swept the rest of the blackness away. The path was short and inclined just enough for water to pool at the base of the steps, a few steps away the tunnel opened out into a cavern, small enough that her flashlight beam met the solid dirt walls, but big enough that she could imagine a small family huddling together while a storm raged overhead. Other than dirt and rock, there was little else to see.
Slightly disappointed, Jessie swept the room once more and caught a flash by the far wall. Ignoring the shivers running up her spine she moved toward the object, the light revealing the tell-tale neck and body of a bottle. As she reached to pick it up her hand brushed against something sharp in the dirt. She yelped and pulled her hand away, the movement releasing her thumb pressure on the torch button and plunging the shelter into darkness.
Giving herself a mental slap for her dramatics Jessie pressed the button again and dug through the loose earth until she’d freed the hostile object. It was a metal box, roughly the size of a book, and when she ran her hands across the top she could feel some sort of embossing. Uneasiness trickled through her and the walls of the shelter started closing in. Jessie grabbed the object to her chest and clamoured back into the daylight.
Jessie winced as her eyes adjusted from the semi darkness to the glare reflecting off the side of the barn, the road and steel door. Every strand of grass seemed to crackle with a fierce invisible energy. Jessie shook her head and whispered a stern, “Jeez woman, cut it out.” Hearing her voice out loud didn’t shake the prickles along her nerve endings. She threw the torch into her handbag, clamped the box tighter, found a clearing in the bramble and thumped to the ground. She laid her handbag down and placed the box in her lap.
She brushed off the dirt, exposing the three-rose embossing on its lid. The metal was thin, cheap. Jessie shook it, once upon a time it was probably some kid’s treasure box but Jessie figured that the thud against the walls of the container was more likely to be dirt than treasure.
Sighing Jessie ran a finger around the edge and found the catch. With a slight tug Jessie lifted the loop and with a tink, the catch broke away from the box. She lifted the remaining metal away and a small gasp escaped as the triple-rose embossed cover of a book stared back at her. Not any book either, from the pen lodged beside it Jessie was certain that it was a diary. Her annoyance turned to guilt. No matter how cheap and crappy the box looked, it was precious to someone. At least, it had been once upon a time.
Jessie carefully took the book out of its container and opened the cover.
To my darling Samantha
Happy Birthday Baby Girl.
With this book, know you’ll never be alone.
Intrigued Jessie turned the page.
September 21st 1980
My name is Samantha but my friends call me Sam.
I have a Momma and a Daddy and used to have a little brother, but Momma says he died when he was born. His name was George. We have two dogs, Scruff and Max and a cat called Hughie.
I turned ten today.
Momma made me a banana cake with pink icing, my best friends Ginny and Tess came round after school, and we had a mini-party. Momma says one day I’ll have a big-as party, just like all the real princesses do. She says once she feels better, maybe for my thirteenth birthday. Maybe we’ll go to Disneyworld and I’ll meet a real princess.
Momma makes tornado wind spinners. My favorite is the one made from soda cans. It’s not just cool, it’s also ackurate. Last time it spun a billion diffrent ways and Momma knew to get us into the shelter ages before the winds came.
After Ginny and Tess and me had eaten my birthday cake, Daddy went to see Uncle Jim and Momma gave me this diary.
Ginny and Tess gave me a cassette tape they made especially for me. It has Michael Jackson on, plus some jokes and things they knew I would like. Momma likes it but Daddy doesn’t. Momma says Daddy is more of a Johnny Cash fan. Mr Cash must be good if Daddy thinks he’s better than Michael Jackson.
The writing was careful but carefree, as if the writer knew what to write and relished in the freedom. Curious, Jessie skipped forward a chunk of pages.
November 18th 1980
Momma and Daddy had another fight last night. I didn’t hear what this one was over, but it must have been something terrible because there was lots of crashing and today Momma’s face has a big bruise and she can’t use her leg properly. I had to make Daddy’s breakfast. I over-cooked his eggs and he got grumpy and threw his coffee at me. Technicly it wasn’t my fault cause I was making his coffee while the eggs was cooking, but my arm still hurts, so I can’t write much.
I asked Momma why she doesn’t hit Daddy back or run away and Momma says she doesn’t do anything because two wrongs don’t make a right, but I don’t know. She also says to treat others the way you want to be treated. I think Daddy might want a cup of fresh boiled coffee thrown at him
Anyways I have to find a long sleeve shirt to wear to school in case Ginny and Tess see my arm. It’s hotter than a rattlesnake in a pepper patch so I don’t know how I’m going to explain a long sleeve shirt. Maybe I can find a white shirt like the ones they wear in the desert and tell them that its cooler that way. Ha-ha.
Jessie set the Diary down on her lap. The uneasiness returned and her stomach knotted. Her gut urged her to put it down. To walk away. To let it go. But she couldn’t. She had to keep reading.
December 23rd 1980
Momma didn’t get up today.
She always gets up. ALWAYS. No matter how bad she’s feeling or how much she hurts. She’s so tough she even went to our Thanksgiving recital at school with her back full of stitches and sat through the whole thing without even wincing once.
And she was fine yesterday. She invited Ginny and Tess to come around so we could eat the gingerbread house we made last week. After that, we was going to do our Christmas shopping. We ALWAYS do that on the 23rd. That’s today. I know she likes shopping with me, and now that Daddy gets angry so much she can’t hold as much stuff as she used to so she needs me. No way would she be sick today.
Dad says Momma’s real sick, but he’s full of it. Even without the screaming and crashing last night and the policemen and the sirens today, I know she ain’t sick, not really. When I went downstairs, I saw the television on the ground and the gingerbread house is busted. Daddy says the dogs knocked over the television and broke the house but there was a piece of gingerbread up on the mantle and another in the cupboard, along with some sticky stuff that looks like mushed brain but Daddy says it’s strawberry jelly. I’m pretty sure the dogs can’t reach up there but the policemen don’t say anything about it.
Jessie’s stomach flipped as she read the note scrawled at the bottom of the page.
They won’t let me see her.
December 25th 1980
Burying Momma on Monday.
Merry Christmas to me.
Jessie stared at the entry, tears welling. Her parents died when she was a baby and growing up as an orphan was hard enough. How was a ten year old supposed to cope with a loss like that? How was a ten year old supposed to cope with any of it?
Jessie turned the page. It was blank. As were the next few pages. She flicked through the diary until she found where the writing started again.
Sorry Momma. It’s been so long since we spoke. I was trying to talk to you at night, but you wasn’t answering, then I remembered what you wrote in the front of this book, so I figured that maybe if I wrote to you, you’d be able to help. There’s been so much I wanted to say, but I just don’t know how.
I want to tell you how things are fine here. How that ‘nado that touched down over by Uncle Jim’s never touched down here. How you don’t have to worry. How Daddy is looking after me, how my teachers think I am doing so well and how I finally learned to bake shortbread, just the way you like.
I want so much to tell you all these things Momma. But you always told me not to lie, so I can’t. Not to you anyway.
Momma, I know Daddy was grumpy before you left us. I know he was good most times and bad other times, most specially when he’d been to Uncle Jim’s. But Momma, now he doesn’t go to Uncle Jim’s. He hardly goes to work outside no more neither. He just lies on the couch, drinking that pretty gold colored stuff and watching our old television. The one that broke so bad that night you left that it only plays one channel and the volume is stuck on real loud.
And he’s got mean Momma. Real mean.
Mean enough that he doesn’t need an excuse to throw something, he just throws it. Last week he threw the full-boiled kettle at Father Andrews just for knocking on the front door. Yesterday he threw Scruff out the window when the window wasn’t even open. Scruff didn’t move after. Not even when a buzzard started pecking him. I think he’s with you in Disneyworld Momma. At least I hope he is.
I try to be good, but I guess I’m not trying hard enough because nothing makes Daddy happy. I used to try to make him breakfast and lunch and all like you used to but it started hurting too much so now I just wait until he is asleep, then I get something so my belly doesn’t rumble too loud. Most days I can get something to take to school for lunch but I think Ginny and Tess must know things aint right. They always give me the extra from their lunch bags.
Jessie wiped smeared tears from her hand on her jeans before turning the page.
Ginny and Tess want to come around but they can’t. I know Daddy’ll hurt them but I can’t tell them that. I don’t want to lie neither. So I tell them that the house is a mess, or I tell them nothing.
Momma, I’m scared. I know it ain’t supposed to be like this but I don’t know what to do.
Why’d you have to leave Momma?
Why didn’t you stay and help me?
There were several blank pages before the writing began again.
September 21st 1983
Today I turned thirteen and I know you lied to me Momma. There was never any party at Disneyworld and I was never going to be a princess. That’s ok because I was a baby back then and I know you were just trying to make me feel good.
I know that the policeman lied on the day you went away, I know that Daddy made you go. I know because I heard Ginny and Tess talking when they thought I couldn’t hear.
Do you know how that feels Momma? To hear your best friends talking about you when you aint around?
“Jeepers, you think she’d be gone-busters,” says Ginny
Then Tess says, “Yeah, like why would she stay with the guy that murdered her mama?”
“I don’t know, maybe she kills people too.” Says Ginny.
I feel stupid Momma, stupid and foolish. Like, I knew that Daddy had done that, I just needed to hear someone else say it. Momma, now I know for sure, I aint scared no more. Last night Daddy kicked our Hughie against the wall and even though I knew what was coming’ next I laughed, cause you know what Momma? I know that I’m leaving one day too. Only I’m doing it my way. Not cause some bag-o-booze Daddy says so.
“Oh no baby girl,” Jessie held her breath, the page shaking along with her hand as she turned it over.
Momma, he’s gonna have to wait.
Newsman says there’s a ton of twisters coming and the roads all the way to Elk and Amarillo are blocked. Your wind spinner has been going like crazy so I’m gonna put my bag and your diary in the storm shelter. Maybe God will put Daddy on trial and I won’t have to do anything.
Oh Momma, it’s too late. You warned me and now it’s too late. I’m sorry, so, so very sorry. Momma, I’m not going to join you in Disneyworld, I’m couldn’t be a princess like you wanted. Please forgive me.
Jessie turned the page, but it was blank. So were the rest of the pages in the book. Confused, she slumped back against the dirt, emotions mingling with thoughts. What had happened? Was Samantha alright? If so, where was she now? Why hadn’t she taken the book? Jessie looked at the cover and turned the book over. Through everything she’d been through the girl had taken such good care of the diary, it didn’t fit that it was left in the shelter.
Jessie brushed the gnawing in her stomach aside. No, Samantha had to be alright. Jessie turned the book over again; as she did, a slip of paper fell from the pages.
September 23rd 1991
My counselor has been at me for years to open up but I can’t, not to them. Not about this. You are the only one who knew, you are the only one who understands. But everyone’s moved on except me and I know I have to get past this. So here I am.
Momma, I know you’d tell me to start from the beginning but we all know where the beginning was and I’ve made my peace with that. No, it’s the end that still eats away at my soul. I’ve read and re-read this diary so many times I can say the words by heart and don’t even cringe any more. What was broken is now empty. It is an empty I can live with.
But the end isn’t in here and I wish it was, because then I could take it to others who would turn it over feel the context and steer me through the rest. I didn’t write it down, so no one knows. Until now.
Do you remember how I said that your wind spinner was going crazy and how the newsman warned of a ton of tornado’s on the way? Do you remember how excited I was and said that maybe Daddy would have his trial by God?
Momma. He did, and God spared him.
Momma, the wind was howling and the air was crackling so much even Hughie’s hair was on end. The roar was so loud I couldn’t even hear the television. There was wood and steel and rubbish flying everywhere and there was Daddy on the couch. Half a bottle of his precious golden brew left on the floor. Lord knew I’d seen him go from that sort of sleep to full on rage in less than the blink of an eye. So I made a choice Momma. I chose to leave him to the ‘nado and let God decide.
I ran from the house and dove into the shelter. I saw the side of our house disintegrate into boards and nails. Then I saw Daddy running from the house toward the shelter.
God had spared him Momma.
But I couldn’t.
I dove into the shelter and slammed the door shut, bolting it just as Daddy thumped against it. He was banging and screaming that he was sorry, and that if I’d just open the door things would be different. He was screaming and crying but I closed my ears on his words until the roar cut short his screams and tore half the door from its hinges.
Momma, I know Daddy was a bad man. I know he killed you and Scruff and nearly killed me, but Momma you always said that two wrongs don’t make a right. When I entered the storm shelter, I was a child who had a home and a father. Now I’m an orphan by my own choice. That’s something I need to find peace with and I can’t do it without you.
I love you Momma. Please forgive me.
“Oi!” Jessie jumped and her tears splattered onto the page. She squinted into the distance as Steve jumped the roadside fence and started strolling toward her; Jessie quickly folded the note, put it back in the diary and replaced the book in its metal casing. Then she jumped up and ran to her husband wrapping her arms around him and covering his face with kisses.
“O-kay, I guess I’m forgiven”, he smiled as Jessie hugged him tighter, “Come on, I found the best steak house this side of Albuquerque.”
Jessie nodded, “You go ahead, I’ve just got to do something”. Ignoring his raised eyebrow she grabbed the case and dove back into the blackness of the shelter, feeling her way to the back of the cavern and placing the box on the ground.
“Forgive yourself sweetheart”, she whispered to the earth, then turned and climbed back out, grabbing Steve’s hand at the last step and hauling herself out.
“Do I ask?”
She gave him a half smile, “No, it’s nothing. Just an old storm shelter.”
The pair walked back to the car in silence.
“Steve I -”, they both started together, and then laughed. Jessie said, “You go first.”
Steve took a breath, “Honey, I’m sorry and I know how my mother is. You know I do. I know the destruction she causes and God forbid she ever lays a hand against you again, but I can’t turn off the machines while there is a chance she’ll make it. I can’t kill my own mother.”
Jessie smiled and Steve narrowed his eyes. She placed a hand on his cheek and his face relaxed, “It’s alright sweetheart. I get it. She’s in God’s hands”. Jessie looked at her triple koru as she spoke. “She is who she is. That’s her choice. But for all of that I respect that she is your mother and human”, Steve’s eyes welled and Jessie continued, “and two wrongs will never make a right.”