April 10, 1972, Kokomo, Indiana
Eileen Avery closed her eyes and counted to five. That was all the time she had. And how did her daughter add so many syllables to that one word? Somehow Sylvia stretched out Mom so far that it gave antidisestablishmentarianism a run for its money. She waved her hand to halt any more nagging. “Sylvia, I said we will discuss this later. You need to get to class, and I have a student coming in early. Here she is. Corrina, I’ll be right with you.”
The petite freshman nodded but shyly moved farther into the home economics classroom, not making eye contact.
“You always have time for others but never for me. I’m your daughter. Can’t you spare a minute?”
How could she say that? But this was not the time. “Sylvia, I promise when we go home after school, we’ll talk about anything you want. But right now…” She lowered her voice. “This is important.”
Her daughter huffed, but at least she didn’t cause a scene or say something inappropriate. Instead, she stomped out of Eileen’s classroom. It was like the aftermath of a summer storm, without the physical debris. Tornado Sylvia. Did they name tornados?
Eileen pasted on a reassuring smile and focused on the young teen who’d stood out to her from the moment she arrived as a new student in her class before Easter break. A sweet, quiet girl. Sometimes Eileen just felt that nudge that she could make a difference for someone in her classroom. She swiped her hair from her forehead, sent up a quick prayer for guidance, and hoped she didn’t have to explain. “Corrina, thank you for coming by. I have something for you, but please, I hope you will accept it and not feel like I’m overstepping.” She reached behind her desk for the brown grocery bag. “I put it in here in case you want to take it home. Or you can use the changing room over there.” She pointed to the curtained area where her sewing-class students tried on their creations.
“What is it?” The girl took a few steps closer, still not looking Eileen in the face. Though clean, her dress had seen better days. Just like the other two she rotated in her wardrobe.
“I made this dress a while back for my daughter, but she didn’t like the color.” That was a big fat lie. Eileen spent Saturday making the outfit specifically for Corrina out of leftover material from another project. Well, her daughter wasn’t into coloring Easter eggs anymore, so why not? It’d be time well spent if the girl approved. “It’s never been worn and is only taking up room in my closet. You are welcome to it.”
A tear threatened to drip down Corrina’s cheek. “Mrs. Avery, I don’t have money to pay for it.”
“It’s not for sale. I just hate to see it going to waste. However, there are two conditions.” The girl stiffened, but Eileen went on. “One, please do not tell anyone I did this. And two, when you don’t want it anymore, pass it on to someone who can use it. Can you do that?”
Corrina’s smile grew, and now she was ready to look in the bag. “Yes, ma’am.” As she pulled out the brown linen dress covered in tiny daisies, her eyes grew too. “Oh, Mrs. Avery, this is beautiful. Are you sure?”
“Yes. Do you want to wear it today or simply take it home?”
“I should find out if it fits first. May I?” The girl showed more animation now than she had the entire week she’d been in school.
So many needs made it into her class, and though Eileen would love to help each one, there was a limit on her resources. But each time she was able to do something for a student like Corrina, she believed she’d found her purpose.
“Of course.” Finally, Eileen had done something right for a change. It didn’t happen often enough.
While Corrina tried on the dress, Eileen prepped and readied her first hour classroom. In a few minutes, students would wander in. This group would bake cookies, and one team had insisted on peanut butter meltaways. Thankfully, part of the lesson included cleanup, but Eileen had her Playtex gloves close by. Just in case. Not all cleaned as instructed, and the thought of what a peanut could do to her sent a chill down her spine. Frankly, it terrified her. She should have insisted that the group make something else. But then Sylvia liked to point out that it was “Mom’s way or the wrong way.” Maybe that attitude carried over to her class. She heard Sylvia’s voice in her head. “Ya think?” Her daughter would be the death of her someday.
Corrina came out wearing the short-sleeved, A-line creation. Eileen had guessed right about length—short enough to be cute and stylish, but not so much to be immodest. It looked perfect with the girl’s fro and her cocoa-colored eyes and skin.
“I love it, Mrs. Avery. But I don’t get why.”
Eileen shrugged, trying for her best imitation of nonchalant. “I needed to clean out my closet—this job means I have a lot of recipes, fabric, and sewing materials in my home. But when I pulled this out, I thought of you and, well…” She motioned toward the girl and the dress. “I was right. Perfect. Do you want to wear it today? You can put your clothes in the bag, and I’ll hang on to it until after school. Pick it up on your way home.”
“You don’t mind?”
“No, of course not. Go pack up your things, and I’ll put it all behind my desk.”
Corrina turned to do as instructed.
That gave Eileen a couple more minutes of peace before the first student showed up. She wandered over to the window and glanced at the spring green popping out with the random dandelion.
And that’s when she saw them.
Her daughter. And a boy.
It might have been a quick peck, but on the lips? She watched as they went in different directions—Sylvia to the old Main Building and the boy to… Was he heading into her building? The Vocational Building? Most likely for a music or art class. Her heart tightened. He wouldn’t be coming here, would he?
No, it was too close to the start of first period. He was headed to his class, and she didn’t have any males in this first period group.
Eileen turned away from the view in time for Corrina to leave the changing room, holding the paper bag out to her.
“Thank you, Mrs. Avery. I won’t forget this.”
Time to pull herself together. “My pleasure, Corrina. I’m glad it has a good home. Better hurry to your class now. I’ll see you fifth period.”
The girl met her gaze and smiled. If only she could make a break-through with her daughter so easily.
She and Sylvia would have a discussion after school. That was going to happen. No two ways about it. Sylvia needed to understand. Eileen knew the dangers that her daughter didn’t.
Sylvia hugged her first hour books to her chest. “She makes me crazy, Luke. I’m up for Stardust Queen and have to have an escort. She’s attending as a chaperone, but I need a date.”
“You’ve got me, babe.” He looked so cute, all patient and letting her dump her drama onto him. Why he wanted to spend time with her went beyond understanding. But he did. He even gave her his class ring. They were going steady. How did she luck out to have a boyfriend who would tolerate her mother’s edicts?
“Yeah. I just can’t let my mom find out. If she thinks we’re more than school friends, she’ll blow her mind and lock me in a dungeon. Or would—if we had one. Better keep my mouth shut before I give her any ideas.”
“Why’s she so totalitarian? Did you do something?”
Sylvia shook her head, though she’d often wondered that herself. No other kid in school had a parental shadow like she did. “I’ve no idea. She told me we’ll talk after school, so I guess I’ll have to wait until then. I promise to tell you what she says. But how I’m supposed to be in front of the whole student body at the dance and be the only one without an escort, I have no idea.” Then a thought hit. “She wouldn’t try to escort me herself, would she?” Images of her mother linking arms with her and dragging her to the front made her want to sink into the ground, buried alive. It would be less painful.
Luke reached up and wound the curl alongside her cheek around his finger. “Not even your mother is that crazy.” The guy was magic with how he could talk her down. “Just stay cool, baby. Get to class, and I’ll catch you at lunch.” He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss. “Remember. Stay cool.”
He sauntered off toward the Vocational Building, shaking his head to move the black tuft of bangs that must have slipped over his brow. No need to see his face. That gesture made her smile. Then she hustled toward Old Main for her first hour chem class.
Would she ever get out from under her mother’s thumb? Mick Jagger hummed “Under My Thumb” in her head. That would really set her mother off—Sylvia enjoying the Rolling Stones.
Speaking of setting her mother off, if Mom caught wind that she’d applied to Anderson College along with the Indiana University Kokomo campus for her next year’s placement, talk about a scene. But Sylvia had tried to think reasonably. It was a church school, which ought to help, but anything other than what her mother had envisioned wouldn’t even be considered.
She had to escape. The thought of living at home another year made her want to scream.
No one knew what it was like. Everyone thought her mother was so kind and thoughtful, the favorite teacher on campus. Always at the events, remembering every student and their ideas. Oh, Sylvia, your mom is so cool. She’s the best teacher at KHS. Wish I had her for every one my classes.
It was like she respected all the other kids at KHS, but not her own daughter.
Sylvia slipped into class. It was a lecture day—after they received the results of the latest test and reviewed it. She’d aced it. Of course. What else could she do? As a prisoner in her own home, there was nothing to distract from study time. She’d have to be an imbecile not to pass. At this point, valedictorian was a shoo-in. Almost.
Turning Luke’s ring on her finger, she enjoyed the feel, the weight of it. He’d asked her to go steady before spring break, but she’d hidden the ring from her mom. It stayed in her locker at school. Luke even understood that. He said she was worth it.
Was she? Why would he choose her when he knew the truth about her mother? He could have any girl at school without the hassle of Mrs. Eileen Avery in his life.
After the lecture, she and her lab partner, Jim Hect, sat together and discussed a plan for their next experiment. They had to show the outline and materials list to Mr. Dolan so they could test it out during tomorrow’s class.
With that stamp of approval, they packed up and rapped a few minutes about tomorrow’s experiment until the bell rang. Jim never wanted to talk about her mother and tell her how lucky she was to have her. Sylvia liked that. And he was super smart, giving her a run for her money at valedictorian. Still, despite her good grades, he didn’t treat her as competition. Just someone who would pull her weight in a team effort situation.
That meant she’d most likely get a great grade, and he wouldn’t bug her. Yep.
If only all her peers in this senior class of 1972 were like that.
Three more subjects, and she’d see Luke again. Her heart thumped with excitement. This semester they had no classes together, which bummed her to no end. Last year they’d had calculus, and she’d helped him the first couple of weeks—Mr. Etherington had seated them next to each other. It didn’t take long for Luke to catch on, and then he used the time to get to know her.
Just remembering that brought a smile to her face.
The bell rang, and she headed for her fourth year Spanish class. No English allowed once you crossed the threshold of the third-floor room. Mrs. Myers was strict about that policy. Funny how Sylvia’s Spanish improved when she wanted to keep something from her mother. If only her friends spoke it. Who was she kidding? She’d settle for a group of real friends, forget about the Spanish part.
That class ran fast, but the next one, econ, always made her want to slash her wrists. Oh, she could follow along and do well on the tests, but the subject bored her to tears, though she tried to look somewhat interested so nothing got back to her mother about bad behavior.
“Miss Avery, may I speak with you a moment?”
Miss Avery? Oh-oh. Was she in trouble?
“Yes, Mr. Barsh?” Sylvia approached his desk, watching as he wrote something on a piece of paper.
He leaned closer as if he didn’t want the whole class to hear him. “Sylvia, I understand your mother sometimes has her cooking students bake for after school events.”
Her mother? This wasn’t about her? Her breathing came a little easier. “Yes, she often does that.”
“Would you please run this note to her? I’ve waited until the last minute, but I’m hoping she’ll agree.”
“Now? You want me to go now?” Popping in on her mom? After their so-called discussion before class? This couldn’t be good.
“If you would. Is there a problem?”
Sylvia shook her head. “No, no problem.” None that she would explain to him. She took the note, hurrying to the stairs and out a side door for a shortcut to the Vocational Building. Just as she reached for the door handle, something glinted.
She popped it off her finger and thrust it into her pocket. Her eagle-eyed mom wouldn’t make a scene in the classroom, but she’d have plenty to say once the audience disappeared. Might even take the Stardust Queen nomination away from her.
Nope, better safe than sorry. She patted her pocket for security and headed to her mother’s classroom.
“No!” Seth threw himself forward, grabbing at the woman and pulling her down, covering her with his body as something seared into his back. He grew weaker by the second. “Stay down!”
He gasped, the intake pulling him into a sitting position, eyes wide.
It took a few seconds for the vestiges of the dream to fade, allowing him to realize where he was—his mother’s living room. Even more ticks of the old mantle clock sounded in steady thuds before his heart rate slowed enough to allow him to exhale. In, out. In, out. His pulse returned to a semblance of normal. After nearly four years, the nightmares still snuck into his dreams.
Especially when he overdid it and irritated the lodged bullet shards. The inoperable lodged bullet shards.
Seth sighed, glad his mother flew to Florida for a month and wasn’t here to see this. He’d never explained, and he still didn’t want to. There was only one solution. A place of his own.
For Pete’s sake, he was a grown man. He didn’t need to live with Mom—or his sister for that matter, despite her hinting that it would be the perfect situation for them both.
No, he was definitely going house hunting. And today was better than tomorrow because if he waited, he wouldn’t go. He’d tried this before, and the women in his life managed to talk him out of it. If he didn’t act on this idea right away, it would sail on without him.
He found the Yellow Pages and searched for real estate agents. Ken Wooley’s ad jumped out at him, so he dialed the number. Ten minutes later, he hung up with the promise that Mr. Wooley would call him in an hour to set up a time to look at properties.
Muncher wandered into the living room, settling his long, narrow snout on Seth’s knee, and stared at him with soulful eyes.
“Yeah, buddy. You’ll probably like it better once we have a place of our own again too.” Mom wasn’t all that keen to have hairy reminders of Muncher in her house. He ran his hand through the dog’s soft fur. Even if coming back to his hometown had seemed like the best idea, there were still moments when he felt he was letting down those who depended on him—whether or not they knew it. Both clients and coworkers.
Well, he could still be there for the women in his life. They didn’t require a fitness standard to keep them safe.
Speaking of fitness… Seth found Muncher’s leash. “Let’s go for a walk and check out the neighborhood.”
It was the same place he’d left when he went away to college. Basically. Oh, a few businesses had morphed into something else, but nothing much. Very few in his mother’s neighborhood moved away. Change happened when the homeowners either passed or their children moved them into a home.
Mrs. Thomas still swept her stoop. Like she did every day, right before lunch. He gave a little wave her way, and thought she sort of waved back, he couldn’t help but notice the confusion on her face. Oh, well. He wasn’t the school kid who roamed the neighborhood on his bike anymore.
Then came the Fosters’ home. Seth had spent a lot of time in that backyard playing with the two sons before they all grew up. Wonder where those boys were now? Anywhere local? Did they have sons of their own?
He crossed the street and soon found himself headed for the one place he’d sworn he’d never approach if he returned. The spacious Victorian had baskets of smile-making scarlet geraniums hanging next to every post above the porch railings.
As if anyone could be happy to be there.
Was she happy? Was she still there?
No, of course not. Mom had written him at college that she’d married.
And he said not to tell him anything more about her.
That house was more fortress than home. It reminded him of some fairy tale where the wicked ol’ witch enticed small children inside with goodies and treats only to make the children disappear by eating them. Or maybe he was getting that story mixed in with another.
He crossed the street and turned to the next block. It wouldn’t stop the memories, but at least he wasn’t punishing himself by staring at the place.
Wonder if the ol’ witch had taken notice of him on her sidewalk—not that she owned it, but she thought she did. He shook the thoughts from his brain and scanned the street. Not a time to let down his guard. Peaceful settings could be deceiving.
Fifteen minutes later, he’d lapped back to his mom’s place. Mr. Wooley would be calling soon, and he hoped they’d be able to come to an agreement on something fast. He needed his own house, not only for his independence but also because no one needed to walk in on him in one of his moments. If he could get moved out while Mom was gone, it would save a lot of arguing and trying to talk him out of this.
Muncher seemed to sense where his thoughts took him and nudged his leg.
He reached down and scratched the dog’s ears. Good boy. As much comfort as this four-legged friend had brought—and the knowledge that any confessions would stay confidential—he still couldn’t bring himself to even tell Muncher what dueled with him in his sleep.
He hadn’t told anyone. To say it aloud would make it all true. Not voicing it left the possibility of it only being his imagination. Until his back twinged.
The phone rang, and he answered.
“Mr. Matthews? Ken Wooley here. I have a couple of places I could show you. When might be a good time?”
“I’m available now.”
There was a pause, and Seth knew the guy was scrambling to figure out if a family could be ready for a showing that fast. “I do have one that is vacant at the moment. How about we start with that? I’ll come pick you up. Where are you staying?”
Seth gave him his mother’s address and stepped outside to watch for the car.
It didn’t take Mr. Wooley long, and it turned out the vacant home sat only a few streets over. “This actually just opened up. No one’s done any work on it yet. The owner passed, and the family is eager to sell, so you should get a good deal. However, it is a fixer-upper.” He parked in front of a small craftsman with a slab porch.
One look and Seth knew it was for him. Even with the peeling blue paint on the shutters and overgrown weeds. He saw the possibilities. More than that, he could imagine himself working hard to make this house rival its glory days, making him so tired he’d be unable to conjure the nightmares hidden in his subconscious.
“I’ll take it.”
Mr. Wooley froze. “You haven’t been inside or heard the price or seen anything else.”
“I don’t care. This is the house. Let’s check out the inside and then talk business.”
“If that’s what you want.”
Seth nodded as peace settled on his soul. Oh, yeah. That’s what he wanted.