He Started It

‘Shut. The. Hell. Up!’

He banged his fist against the dashboard, making all of us jump. That’s what really got me. The fist. None of us wanted that flying in our direction. Grandpa sounded like something right out of the TV, almost like Mom when she got mad, except Grandpa was a lot bigger.

Even Eddie looked scared, and that didn’t happen often. Somehow Portia managed to keep her mouth shut for a while. Not easy for a six-year-old. Not easy for any of us.

When Grandpa spoke again, his voice was normal.

‘You guys must be getting hungry. Who wants McDonald’s?’

We were. We did. And when we were alone, we vowed not to pester him like that again.

That’s always the way, isn’t it? The threat of physical violence eclipses everything. As a child, you know it, and as a woman, it’s always in the back of your mind. The slam of a fist can change everything.

It even changed me. I didn’t know it then, when I was twelve. Later, as I started dating in high school and having relationships in college, it became clear. Men who raised their voices, who showed any kind of violence, repulsed me. I wanted the quiet guy in the corner, the one on his laptop or reading a book, or just standing around being awkward.

Felix is like that. Doesn’t scream, doesn’t yell. He either walks out or goes for a drive and he’s never slammed his fist into anything. That’s part of why I married him. I’m never afraid when I’m with Felix.

And he’s so easy to manipulate. He still doesn’t know the real reason we moved from Miami to Central Florida.





Arkansas


State Motto: The people rule


We arrive after dark. Small town, quiet streets, and one very special monument. The Henry Humphrey memorial stands in front of the Alma, Arkansas, police department.

‘This is it,’ Eddie says. He takes out his cell phone and turns on the flashlight. The rest of us do the same, lighting up the etched memorial on the lawn.

‘Jesus Christ,’ Felix says. ‘More Bonnie and Clyde?’

True. Henry Humphrey was an unfortunate victim of the gang. They forced him into the local bank and stole the safe. Henry was left alive, which seems like a lucky thing, but it turned out he wasn’t lucky at all. The next day, he got into a shootout with the gang and lost.

I still remember standing here with Grandpa, listening to him tell the story of yet another Bonnie and Clyde victim.

‘Don’t be so quick to think something’s good,’ he said.

‘Because you might get shot the next day?’ I said.

Grandpa smiled. ‘Hopefully it won’t be that dramatic.’

‘You’re so stupid,’ Eddie whispered in my ear.

When Krista hears the story of Henry Humphrey, she covers her face with both hands. Her voice is muffled when she speaks. ‘Please tell me this whole trip isn’t about Bonnie and Clyde.’

‘I thought you said they were romantic,’ Eddie says.

‘Only in the movie.’

Felix nudges my arm. In the dark, his pale eyes stand out like headlights. ‘It’s not, right? This isn’t a Bonnie and Clyde road trip?’

Eddie faces us, holding up both arms. ‘Relax. This is the last Bonnie and Clyde stop on the road trip. I promise. Cross my cold black heart and hope to die.’

Krista smacks him on the arm. This marks the end of our visit to Henry Humphrey’s memorial.

Less than twenty minutes later, we’re settling into our crappy motel for the night. The Red Barn Inn is neither a barn, nor is it red, but there is a picture of one on the sign. The rooms are the same as the previous nights, right down to the scratchy towels. Tomorrow we’ll need to pick up more insta-dry disinfectant.

Felix is in the shower when I get a text from Eddie.

Meet me outside in five?



I answer:

Vending machines.



Not for the first time, I imagine how different the first trip would’ve been if we had cell phones.

I yell to Felix that I need to get some snacks, then slip out the door with cash in my pocket. The machines are at the end of the motel, past all fifteen or so rooms. A quiet walk, just like the other night, and if someone is watching I can’t see them.

The only one I see is Eddie, he’s pacing and staring at his phone. The glow from the screen lights up his face.

He looks up as I approach and says ‘Hey’ in a low voice.

‘Hey,’ I say. ‘Are you whispering?’

‘Almost.’

‘Why?’

He opens his mouth and shuts it. The vending machines are on the left, one for drinks and another for snacks. I walk over and try to decide between Doritos and Ho Hos. Both, it has to be both.

‘So what’s up?’ I say, dropping coins in the machine. The plinking sound is hollow, like they’re the only coins inside.

‘How are you doing?’ he says.

I shrug. ‘How are you doing?’

‘Krista doesn’t know any details. Nothing important, at least.’

‘So I gathered.’ The Ho Hos hit the bin, followed by the Doritos. I move on to the soda machine. ‘Neither does Felix.’

‘At all?’

I shake my head. ‘No.’

‘Maybe that’s better,’ he says. ‘It’s weird enough as it is.’

I turn to face him. ‘You’re the one who insisted we bring them.’

‘I know. Not my best decision.’

It’s been forever since I’ve spent this much time with Eddie, but I can still read him. He doesn’t want to admit how bothered he is by the road trip. Neither do I.

‘Why do you think Grandpa wanted us to do this again?’ I say.

‘He was an old man. This is one last sick game,’ he says. ‘He probably wants us to be paranoid. To think there’s more to it.’ He pauses. ‘Portia thinks there is.’

‘She does?’ I answer too quick, unable to hide my shock.

He sighs and leans against a wooden post. ‘She was just too young. She hated the first trip.’

More than anyone else, she did. At six, she didn’t understand half of what we saw or what happened, and she never understood why Grandpa would get so upset. Most of the time she thought it was something she did.

‘I talked to the lawyer about getting out of this,’ Eddie says.

I did, too. ‘And?’

‘And he said this is the only way. It’s in the will.’

Same answer I got. ‘Felix and I could really use that money.’

‘So could we. Over a million each is a lot.’

It is. I already spoke to an accountant and figured out exactly how much we’d get. The answer: Quite a bit. Yes, we’d have to pay income taxes on it, but federal inheritance taxes don’t kick in unless it’s over $5 million. We could pay off our house, keep the rest for retirement. Maybe take a real vacation. Or create a college fund for our future child. If we have one.

Those were my first thoughts. The next ones were not quite as practical. That kind of money meant I could look for a new job, maybe take a new career path – one that doesn’t put me in the same office building as my husband. It would mean a pay cut. Worth it.

My last idea was the least practical. The inheritance would give me more than enough money to divorce Felix and get settled somewhere else. By then everything will be different anyway. The road trip will be over and everything will be back the way it should be. The way it always should’ve been.

Sometimes it feels terrible to think about life without Felix. It’s wrong, and I know that.

It also felt wrong to cheat on him.

Even worse, I knew it would and did it anyway.

But that’s the thing about being handed a small fortune: You start to rethink everything. Money gives you options, and the more options you have, the freer you feel.

‘We have to keep going,’ I say to Eddie. ‘We don’t have a choice.’

He nods and starts to walk away, but I have one more question. ‘Did you tell Krista about our parents?’

‘I told her they’re both dead,’ he says.

Good. I told Felix the same thing.





AUGUST 14, 1999

What’s your ideal day?

No school, that’s the first thing. The second would be a text or even a call from Cooper, but that may be asking too much. Depends on his mood, because he can be a real asshole. That’s why we aren’t together right now.

I’d spend the day out of the house, away from my family. I’d rather be with my best friends, Meghan and Sara, maybe out at Crater Lake, as long as it’s not too humid and the mosquitos aren’t out yet, because who wants those ugly bites all over their legs? Not me.

We’d spend the day swimming and gossiping and then go back to Meghan’s, because she’s rich and her house is so big her parents barely know when I’m over there. We’d do our makeup and then go down to the mall and buy some new clothes. Well, Meghan would buy hers because she can. I’d steal mine because I can.

I wouldn’t go home until dinner. That’s when I’d find out Cooper did call because he realized – finally – that we’re obviously meant to be together forever. But I wouldn’t call him back right away. I’d make him wait.

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