~ Chapter 1 ~ I managed to get my question out without falling apart. Not that I’m a crier. I’d kill myself if I was. Family would have done me in a long time ago if I was. We are NBA. No babies allowed, in our clan. But I’d had a few bad months. My orthopedic surgeon kept his eyes down a long hard-count. “You’re pushing rehab past what your internist even signed off for,” he said softly. “I’m breathing. Incisions long healed up.” My words sounded a little panicky.  “That bullet tore up your lung,” he said.  “My internist is a pansy. So do you think in a couple months, I’ll be able to run again?”  “Bea. You’re half titanium. Hip. Knee. Seventeen pins we’ll never remove. Your running days are behind you.” “NFL players—” “And you’re not twenty years old with a twelve-million-dollar contract riding on your performance, either.” The burn in my chest encouraged me to smack him in the face. Sure, my Olympic days were long over, but running had kept me sane, after— “I thought titanium was tough stuff,” I wheezed. I would not go soft in front of this guy. “The toughest, a lot tougher than the bone it’s screwed into. You start pounding the pavement and you think you have pain now.” I emptied the air in my lungs. There’s a reason I hadn’t asked this question in the past three months. “Let’s get you out of your crutches before your physical therapist has you doing anything tougher than balancing on a stripe on the floor.” My eyes threatened to well. I blinked it away. “You’re saying no running, ever?” I asked somewhat calmly. “I’m saying you’re recovering from injuries that would have kept most people in bed for a year. It’s incredible you’re up on crutches.” “The pain—” I didn’t really want to have this next conversation either. “Your therapist says you push yourself too much.” Yeah, yeah. “I’ve spent a lot of time around wounded vets.” He nodded slowly. “A lot of them get hooked on the opioids.” He nodded some more. I glared. “One problem at a time.” Inside my skull I screamed, maxing out my lungs. My eyes let me down. I quickly wiped away the tear on my cheek. “To get the pain below a twelve I have to practically make myself a zombie.” “Stop pushing yourself so hard.” Ah, crap. I wanted to whack him so badly my fist cramped. “It’s two thousand nine. Don’t you doctors have anything that works better than the stuff I’m on without making me an addict?” It was those drugs that made the next ten minutes of conversation wash over me as though I wasn’t there. I found myself standing at the entrance of the waiting room thinking about that acupuncture stuff. I’d try anything at this point. I jerked. Mom stood in front of me. What had she said? “Bea?” “Yeah. Yeah,” I mumbled. “You okay?” No. How could she ask such a stupid question? She gave me a slightly-patient Aguilar look. I’d gotten it a lot since Reed ruined my life, the bastard. Shooting me wasn’t bad enough. He had to see my body crushed by a—what tee-boned us? I don’t think anyone ever told me. Mom asked if I needed to sit down. I shook my head. Her hand slid up my arm. “You get bad news?” she whispered. My eyes welled again. “Let’s go,” I managed without enough air. Mom turned with me for the exit. In the corridor I worked to settle down my oxygen intake. The chafe from the crutches made me want to swear. Wasn’t worth upsetting Mom. How did she live alongside the Rollins Riot without becoming a swearing banshee herself? My cousins can’t get a word out without at least one fuck or a shit joining it. Uncle layers them one on another.  Funny. It occurred to me that Dad and that frumpy half-brother of mine avoided enhanced language skills too. So how did I grow up with sewer mouth? Mom caught the elevator button. Would Uncle be able to complete a twenty-minute campaign speech without throwing in a dozen colorful metaphors? They bleeped him three times the last time I caught him—I think it was a FOX interview. The man holds his convictions with gritted teeth. I caught Mom’s eye. Oh. Yeah. Maybe I should get in the elevator. “You don’t have to talk to me,” she said as I shoveled in, “for your good, but it would help me from worrying a million worse scenarios.” I exhaled. “I finally asked about running.” “Oh,” she said softly. I leaned over my crutches. For an orthopedist, he could have been a little gentler. Maybe he’s used to jocks thinking they’re Superman.  I wanted to be Wonder Woman when I was little. The lift opened and Mom held the open button for me. I was on Earth this time so I tumbled out. The rubber stubs of my crutches screeched over the polished tile. Every tic and breath echoed in the cavernous atrium. A side door banged open, the mechanical kind for the handicapped. The sound ripped me into the not-long-ago-past, the guy hurrying into the stairwell of my parking garage, eager to get away from me. Reed killed him to shut him up. The man was dead because he wanted to warn me.  Had he worried for his life? Or was he just lost?  Probably never in a hundred years would he have expected his old police buddy to put three in his chest in the next few days. Mom asked, “You want me to pull up the car?”  I shook my head. Grimaced at the throb that radiated through my entire right side with every step. Halfway across the lot my mouth opened unexpectedly. “They’re making an addict out of me.” She didn’t reply. Probably wondering if that was any worse than the swilling lush I’d been the last year. While she threaded my crutches into the back, I clamored like a well-oiled alkie to get into my seat. I caught myself groaning. What a whiny bitch. I was reverting to my victim status again. I let that run my life for almost a year. Couldn’t go that direction again. “What, sweetie?” Hell. She caught my eff-bomb. She hates that word. “I’m going to quit the pain killers.” The sentence came out really angry. “Very OCD of you,” she said, clicking her seat belt. I barked a single-toned laugh. “Thanks for the support.” She told me to buckle up. She sat still, the implication she wouldn’t start the car until I buckled up. I wasn’t so suicidal that I’d hope to get tee-boned again with my mother in the car. Or maybe she was just looking across at her ten-year-old. I find myself acting that age a lot these days. Reaching for the strap wrenched a pain in my hip, but I managed not to grouse a fuck across the vocal cords. If I could go OCD on the opioids, maybe I could do the same thing with my enhanced articulation. Worth a five-minute trial? Probably not. She started her new Edge. Did she switch to black paint to avoid a repeat with what happened to her powder-blue Ford? Superstition wasn’t a big part of her makeup. “Any errands, or straight home?” she asked. I motioned forward, something of a karate chop, instead of answering her. In my peripheral view I sensed her give me a motherly look. The, you can speak, look. “So how are you taking retirement?” I asked as she pulled to the exit. “Never been so bored in my life,” she said. “Maybe you want to liven things up and attract another stalker.” I laughed out loud. That was more a Rollins crack, not a sweet, Belinda Aguilar Ruud comment.  “She can laugh,” Mother mumbled. “So maybe moving back to Ohio would be good for you,” I said. “Ah. We pull you from the morgue, coddle you hand and foot, and now you’re ready to kick us to the curb.” “Just you,” I said. “Dad can stay another week. I love him.” She cackled. She liked that one. “If I leave, your aunt will come take over.” “She’d take over, all right.” “So don’t insult your sweet mother,” she said.  How old was I when she transitioned from Aunt Belinda, to Mom? “What else did he say to get you so upset? Tell me, or I’ll run a red light and go for a tee-bone.” I sighed. “You bring up Aunt Annie and turn mean. It figures.” “Annie is no meaner than me.” I harrumphed. “She’s just more honest.” I mumbled, “The hussy.” “And my best friend,” Mom said. “How did that ever happen, anyway?” I shook my head. “We never have had that conversation.” “You never seemed interested,” she said, and grouched about hitting a red light. I waited. I knew the basics of the early Ruud and Rollins-es. To try to summarize that story would sound like an epic soap opera plot. Three women. Two half-brothers. Couldn’t be explained without pictures. One had to die. Another had to get tired of waiting for sex. The last hanger-ons just drifted together? “She adopted me when I moved to Middletown,” she finally said. “Did she really always have the hots for Uncle Tony?” Mom smiled. That was worth waiting for. So I waited.  “She was a girl of the sixties,” Mom said softly. “And you weren’t?” She repeated the smile. Dang she is still beautiful. No wonder Uncle Tony pined a decade for her. “I had the whole cultural thing holding me back.” She remained in her soft voice. “Daddy was the lesser misogynist, huh?” Again the soft smile. “He’s a curmudgeon now, but he was the sweetest thing in his twenties. Patient. Giving.” I told her I was going to gag. “Did Daddy really have a thing for Aunt Charlotte?” Four women, two brothers. I’d forgotten about the Charlotte drama. Mom laughed. Wow. I was on a roll. “Annie hated that woman for years.” Oh. I would hate to be on Aunt Annie’s bad side. “Maybe babysitting Davie and Elaine every weekday for a decade mellowed her to their mother.” Mom’s grin intensified. Maybe with old memories. Elaine had talked about dragging her little bro bro David down to see me again soon. That would be fun. Hadn’t seen my almost-brother for too long. Our short conversations before he gave Elaine her phone back were a treat. Made me feel ten all over again. “Thankfully, Annie is as full of love as she is, you know, other emotions.” The light turned and Mom hurried into the intersection. I found myself reaching for something to hold on to. But no speeding vehicles raced toward my door. I let out the sharp breath I’d sucked in. “She’s full of it, all right,” I mumbled. Mom grinned. Maybe she was working hard to be in a lighter mood. She’d been tense for a while. I’m not the easiest patient to care for, maybe. And the cramped quarters didn’t allow her to get away from Dad. For a quiet introvert he can be very annoying. They had talked about buying their own place here. It was time they got serious, or the three of us were going to have problems. At least all of our guns were in a safe back in Ohio. It would be nice to have the elder Ruuds in Florida, but not too close. Across the Bay, maybe. Mom trudged thirty miles an hour down MacDill Avenue. The beaming morning sun slumped me drowsy, or it was the pill I took before we headed for my doctor. Could I really go cold turkey with those things? I hurt with them. How much worse could it get? I closed my eyes, but a bit of vertigo hit me. I opened them quickly and sat straight. A pang radiating from my hip and knee racked me. The constant is exhausting. “So, I get no insight in how the loved-him, loved-his-brother thing happened?” Mom pulled her hands from ten and two o’clock, twirled a carpet of hair in her left. “You know what happened.” “But not how.” I fought back a yawn. She didn’t speak for half a block. “Maybe Tony took me for granted. Or I didn’t see myself as his wife. I really can’t say why we fell apart.” “Your dad?” I prodded. “He didn’t have as much to do with it as Tony might think.” The hunky half-brother who lost out with one, seduced by the best friend. Definitely soap opera stuff. I nodded at that. Tony said Grandad Aguilar ran him out of El Paso. As though anyone could make Uncle do anything he didn’t want to do. I didn’t have to ask about Aunt Annie and Uncle Tony. Annie was very open about seducing the brother of the man she gave up on. “Did you have a crush on Dad when you took the job in Middletown?” Hadn’t I ever asked her that before? “He scared me to death,” she said. My daddy? Well. I’ve seen multiple layers of the man. “You remember Albert, don’t you?” she asked.  I still remember sitting in his lap. He told the greatest stories. “I fell in love with him first,” Mom continued. “And he adored your dad. Maybe the adoration wore off on me with time.” As a literature professor, Daddy’s Nobel for Uncle Albert’s life story probably had something to do with it. “Before or after my mother?” I asked. She reached the next light before she tried to answer. “A lot happened really quickly, then. We’d barely made it through the sixties.” “How was she, about naming me after you?” I asked. “Oh.” Mom stroked her cheek. One of her emotional tells. “It was her idea. Susan knew your dad loved me before her.” “And she still moved in on him?” She gave me a gaping mouth. The, don’t speak evil of that woman, look. “She didn’t know about me, then. When those two horn dogs got together it was like a match on gasoline.” I choked with laughter. And continued to choke as the light changed and she crossed the interchange. Susan Worth, my angelic, on a pedestal mother, and my introverted father, horn dogs. That was too much. Mom asked if I was going to live. I managed to quell the laughter after two false tries. Did I really remember flying back and forth between Connecticut and Ohio, splitting my time with them, or did hearing the story so many times make it feel real?  Chapter 2 ~ Dad turned the corner to face us. He must have been sitting at the kitchen counter. Brassbutt, the giant Rottweiler, appeared at his hip. I pushed the door closed as Mom re-set the alarm. I noticed she jolted to a stop before I noticed Dad’s expression. “What’s up?” I asked. A worm swam around in my stomach. “The bastard,” Dad mumbled. What the heck was that supposed to mean? Brassbutt poked me in the crotch for attention. “Reed,” he hissed. “What?” Mom and I hissed together. “Sent you a package.” Dad’s cheeks flamed Rome-apple-red. “My god,” Mother whispered. I asked if it was ticking. “That isn’t funny,” Dad snapped. I wasn’t trying to be funny. I clomped past Dad to find a twelve-inch box sitting on the kitchen bar. Thankfully it was in one piece, not a single dent I could see. Dad hadn’t stomped it to smithereens. I leaned the crutches against the wall. “Isn’t he ever going away?” Mom whispered. “I called Randal,” Dad announced. The air whooshed out of my lungs. My mouth was flapping before I had new air to propel the words. Something like, “Are you kidding me?” We didn’t need an assassin to take care of Reed. We needed a shrink. “He’s not an assassin,” Dad said. Had that come out of my mouth? Whatever. I pulled my clunky phone off my hip. Everyone hates my twentieth-century phone. Found Santiago, Reed’s former partner, and dialed. The man answered on the seventh ring. Maybe I caught him at a bad time. But he answered politely, with a, “Hello, Ms. Ruud.” I blabbed about the box. “You open it?” he asked. “Don’t you need to take it to the lab or something?” Was I ranting? “His name on the from label?” he asked. “Yeah.” “I think we know who sent it then, huh?” The smartass. “So you want me to open it?” He suggested I call him back after, and he’d get by when he could to write up a report. My mouth was forming an irritated, giant O as I threw around how I wanted to insult him, but he’d already hung up. Bastard. My dad shook his head. “He didn’t sound excited to hear his mass murdering partner is still harassing you.” Was three bodies mass murder? I’m a lawyer. I should know. Three separate locations. That would be serial murder. Maybe I should get back to practicing. I slipped the phone back into its clippie-thing. With one crutch, I hobbled into the kitchen for a knife. Grabbed the long serrated one Mom uses to shred her pork for burritos and stuff. As I drew it across the box’s tape, she asked if I didn’t want a bigger knife. Everyone is a comedian. Pulling back twelve miles of bubble wrap, I finally got to a smaller box protected by ten yards of tissue paper. “Looks like a Tiffany’s box,” Mom said. As though my father would ever buy her anything from Tiffany’s. He had bought her more guns than jewelry. Not that she ever complained to me. I flipped open the leather box inside to find a fancy rose-gold band with a four carat garnet, balanced by multi-rows of diamond side stones. Not museum expensive, but I bet the stones weren’t cheap. There was about a pound of gold in the band. Of course my stalker would know my favorite color. “Throw it in the trash,” Dad hissed. Hell no. As much grief as that sucker put me through? I slipped it onto the third finger of my right hand. Fit like a charm. I’m not into jewelry any more than Mom, but it looked nice on my hand. “It’ll encourage him,” Dad mumbled. As though there was any discouraging that psycho. Mom reminded me I should get off my feet. Yeah, yeah. I better pay attention to Supreme Nurse Belinda or I’d pay. I grabbed my crutches and mumbled that I was going to take a nap. Not really. I just wanted to get away from Dad. He’d be a serious grouch for the foreseeable future. “You’re going to leave me with him?” Mom asked me. “You married him,” I said. Dad grumbled, “Don’t be rude.” I was ready to have my home back. Brassbutt wanted to hide with me, but I shooed her away. The big waggle of her butt traipsing to hide in the guest room gave me a grin. I slumped onto my bed. After the initial pang, the pressure lessened, for ten seconds. Then the ever-constant ache returned. I grabbed the surgical tubing by me and practiced my gentle stretches for a minute. Always good for ten seconds of relief when I stopped. Using the moment of near-euphoria, I grabbed my phone and dialed my uncle. He actually answered. The director of the CIA is pretty much always in meetings. I asked him if he’d already heard. “That my only niece is a horrible person?” he asked. “This a call to your uncle, or the admiral?” I hate when he divides himself like that. I asked him if he asked Annie that when she called him. “Why would Annie call me Uncle?” It must be comedian Monday. I told him about the package. He asked if I liked the ring.  “Yes.” “Then wear it,” he said. I intended to. “Dad called Randal.” “I think it would be better if he didn’t get involved,” Uncle said. He was paranoid before. Now with all of us encouraging him to leave DC and run for the governor’s mansion, he was acting spookier than usual. “I didn’t make the call,” I whined. “I’ll call your dad,” he said. “He’s a stubborn so and so,” I said. “You’re telling me.” And the jerk hung up. Tears flowed down my face. It had nothing to do with my uncle hanging up on me. Or a ring from my psycho, murdering stalker. Even the pain. A generic depression clasped my lungs and fisted tight. Instantaneously that voice somewhere in my head, that had been whispering to me frequently lately, suggested how peaceful it would be to be dead. A gasp, maybe it could be called a sob, bucked. Not the kind of thoughts I should be listening to. There was a day I’d get up and go for a run to scatter that black emotion. Or go to the gym. Or take a fast ride on my bike. None of those were options any longer. I am my father’s child. At least I’m not quite as OCD. My orthopedist told me acupuncture might help the pain, short term. He shrugged when I asked him if he really believed in that stuff. For the long term, he suggested I get into cycling. No impact. Could still be challenging. It’s challenging for me to get in and out of the shower now. So later, maybe. The black thoughts have darkened the past months. In intensity and frequency. As bad as after—I could think the rape now. I was past that. Right? I’d promised myself I was done being the victim. My responsibility to sprout a spine or go belly up. I needed to do something. I pulled my medical card from my back pocket, dialed the 800 number. After slogging through the various prompts, I waited for a human. Finally. I explained my situation. Did I need some kind of referral? No, just pick a practitioner from the website. Great. Choosing. I claimed I was currently bed ridden, could she possibly set me up with an appointment. Yeah. I didn’t expect that would work. I hung up. I so did not want to sit in front of my computer.  The thought of going eanie meanie moe over a list of strangers who would expect me to splay open my soul for examination tinged icky. But ten minutes later I had an appointment. It wasn’t so bad. I searched by zip code and picked the shrink at the top of the list. Five minutes away on Bay to Bay Boulevard. But he couldn’t fix me until tomorrow. So I took two white pills and got back in bed.  So much for going cold turkey. But sitting at my desk in front of the computer hurt like hell.  © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
B ea     Ruud,     accomplished     athlete,     successful     attorney, kidnap   survivor,   is   starting   her   life   over   with   a   titanium hip,     her     running     and     skydiving     history.     Her     stalker remains   a   threat.   Strong   willed,   agonizingly   independent, she’s      stuck      relying      on      her      parents.      Scandal      and international   intrigue   explodes   around   her   famous   uncle, who   disappears,   evidently   taking   Bea’s   father   with   him. Thugs    threaten    the    family.    Amid    the    chaos,    four    men appear   intrigued   with   Bea’s   charms.   They   must   be   crazy. She’s no bucket of sunshine.
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Ever in Shadow
Bea Ruud, accomplished athlete, successful attorney, kidnap survivor, is starting her life over with a titanium hip, her running and skydiving history. Her stalker remains a threat. Strong willed, agonizingly independent, she’s stuck relying on her parents. Scandal and international intrigue explodes around her famous uncle, who disappears, evidently taking Bea’s father with him. Thugs threaten the family. Amid the chaos, four men appear intrigued with Bea’s charms. They must be crazy. She’s no bucket of sunshine.   ~ Chapter 1 ~ I managed to get my question out without falling apart. Not that I’m a crier. I’d kill myself if I was. Family would have done me in a long time ago if I was. We are NBA. No babies allowed, in our clan. But I’d had a few bad months. My orthopedic surgeon kept his eyes down a long hard-count. “You’re pushing rehab past what your internist even signed off for,” he said softly. “I’m breathing. Incisions long healed up.” My words sounded a little panicky.  “That bullet tore up your lung,” he said.  “My internist is a pansy. So do you think in a couple months, I’ll be able to run again?”  “Bea. You’re half titanium. Hip. Knee. Seventeen pins we’ll never remove. Your running days are behind you.” “NFL players—” “And you’re not twenty years old with a twelve-million-dollar contract riding on your performance, either.” The burn in my chest encouraged me to smack him in the face. Sure, my Olympic days were long over, but running had kept me sane, after— “I thought titanium was tough stuff,” I wheezed. I would not go soft in front of this guy. “The toughest, a lot tougher than the bone it’s screwed into. You start pounding the pavement and you think you have pain now.” I emptied the air in my lungs. There’s a reason I hadn’t asked this question in the past three months. “Let’s get you out of your crutches before your physical therapist has you doing anything tougher than balancing on a stripe on the floor.” My eyes threatened to well. I blinked it away. “You’re saying no running, ever?” I asked somewhat calmly. “I’m saying you’re recovering from injuries that would have kept most people in bed for a year. It’s incredible you’re up on crutches.” “The pain—” I didn’t really want to have this next conversation either. “Your therapist says you push yourself too much.” Yeah, yeah. “I’ve spent a lot of time around wounded vets.” He nodded slowly. “A lot of them get hooked on the opioids.” He nodded some more. I glared. “One problem at a time.” Inside my skull I screamed, maxing out my lungs. My eyes let me down. I quickly wiped away the tear on my cheek. “To get the pain below a twelve I have to practically make myself a zombie.” “Stop pushing yourself so hard.” Ah, crap. I wanted to whack him so badly my fist cramped. “It’s two thousand nine. Don’t you doctors have anything that works better than the stuff I’m on without making me an addict?” It was those drugs that made the next ten minutes of conversation wash over me as though I wasn’t there. I found myself standing at the entrance of the waiting room thinking about that acupuncture stuff. I’d try anything at this point. I jerked. Mom stood in front of me. What had she said? “Bea?” “Yeah. Yeah,” I mumbled. “You okay?” No. How could she ask such a stupid question? She gave me a slightly-patient Aguilar look. I’d gotten it a lot since Reed ruined my life, the bastard. Shooting me wasn’t bad enough. He had to see my body crushed by a—what tee-boned us? I don’t think anyone ever told me. Mom asked if I needed to sit down. I shook my head. Her hand slid up my arm. “You get bad news?” she whispered. My eyes welled again. “Let’s go,” I managed without enough air. Mom turned with me for the exit. In the corridor I worked to settle down my oxygen intake. The chafe from the crutches made me want to swear. Wasn’t worth upsetting Mom. How did she live alongside the Rollins Riot without becoming a swearing banshee herself? My cousins can’t get a word out without at least one fuck or a shit joining it. Uncle layers them one on another.  Funny. It occurred to me that Dad and that frumpy half-brother of mine avoided enhanced language skills too. So how did I grow up with sewer mouth? Mom caught the elevator button. Would Uncle be able to complete a twenty-minute campaign speech without throwing in a dozen colorful metaphors? They bleeped him three times the last time I caught him—I think it was a FOX interview. The man holds his convictions with gritted teeth. I caught Mom’s eye. Oh. Yeah. Maybe I should get in the elevator. “You don’t have to talk to me,” she said as I shoveled in, “for your good, but it would help me from worrying a million worse scenarios.” I exhaled. “I finally asked about running.” “Oh,” she said softly. I leaned over my crutches. For an orthopedist, he could have been a little gentler. Maybe he’s used to jocks thinking they’re Superman.  I wanted to be Wonder Woman when I was little. The lift opened and Mom held the open button for me. I was on Earth this time so I tumbled out. The rubber stubs of my crutches screeched over the polished tile. Every tic and breath echoed in the cavernous atrium. A side door banged open, the mechanical kind for the handicapped. The sound ripped me into the not-long-ago-past, the guy hurrying into the stairwell of my parking garage, eager to get away from me. Reed killed him to shut him up. The man was dead because he wanted to warn me.  Had he worried for his life? Or was he just lost?  Probably never in a hundred years would he have expected his old police buddy to put three in his chest in the next few days. Mom asked, “You want me to pull up the car?”  I shook my head. Grimaced at the throb that radiated through my entire right side with every step. Halfway across the lot my mouth opened unexpectedly. “They’re making an addict out of me.” She didn’t reply. Probably wondering if that was any worse than the swilling lush I’d been the last year. While she threaded my crutches into the back, I clamored like a well-oiled alkie to get into my seat. I caught myself groaning. What a whiny bitch. I was reverting to my victim status again. I let that run my life for almost a year. Couldn’t go that direction again. “What, sweetie?” Hell. She caught my eff-bomb. She hates that word. “I’m going to quit the pain killers.” The sentence came out really angry. “Very OCD of you,” she said, clicking her seat belt. I barked a single-toned laugh. “Thanks for the support.” She told me to buckle up. She sat still, the implication she wouldn’t start the car until I buckled up. I wasn’t so suicidal that I’d hope to get tee-boned again with my mother in the car. Or maybe she was just looking across at her ten-year-old. I find myself acting that age a lot these days. Reaching for the strap wrenched a pain in my hip, but I managed not to grouse a fuck across the vocal cords. If I could go OCD on the opioids, maybe I could do the same thing with my enhanced articulation. Worth a five-minute trial? Probably not. She started her new Edge. Did she switch to black paint to avoid a repeat with what happened to her powder-blue Ford? Superstition wasn’t a big part of her makeup. “Any errands, or straight home?” she asked. I motioned forward, something of a karate chop, instead of answering her. In my peripheral view I sensed her give me a motherly look. The, you can speak, look. “So how are you taking retirement?” I asked as she pulled to the exit. “Never been so bored in my life,” she said. “Maybe you want to liven things up and attract another stalker.” I laughed out loud. That was more a Rollins crack, not a sweet, Belinda Aguilar Ruud comment.  “She can laugh,” Mother mumbled. “So maybe moving back to Ohio would be good for you,” I said. “Ah. We pull you from the morgue, coddle you hand and foot, and now you’re ready to kick us to the curb.” “Just you,” I said. “Dad can stay another week. I love him.” She cackled. She liked that one. “If I leave, your aunt will come take over.” “She’d take over, all right.” “So don’t insult your sweet mother,” she said.  How old was I when she transitioned from Aunt Belinda, to Mom? “What else did he say to get you so upset? Tell me, or I’ll run a red light and go for a tee-bone.” I sighed. “You bring up Aunt Annie and turn mean. It figures.” “Annie is no meaner than me.” I harrumphed. “She’s just more honest.” I mumbled, “The hussy.” “And my best friend,” Mom said. “How did that ever happen, anyway?” I shook my head. “We never have had that conversation.” “You never seemed interested,” she said, and grouched about hitting a red light. I waited. I knew the basics of the early Ruud and Rollins-es. To try to summarize that story would sound like an epic soap opera plot. Three women. Two half-brothers. Couldn’t be explained without pictures. One had to die. Another had to get tired of waiting for sex. The last hanger-ons just drifted together? “She adopted me when I moved to Middletown,” she finally said. “Did she really always have the hots for Uncle Tony?” Mom smiled. That was worth waiting for. So I waited.  “She was a girl of the sixties,” Mom said softly. “And you weren’t?” She repeated the smile. Dang she is still beautiful. No wonder Uncle Tony pined a decade for her. “I had the whole cultural thing holding me back.” She remained in her soft voice. “Daddy was the lesser misogynist, huh?” Again the soft smile. “He’s a curmudgeon now, but he was the sweetest thing in his twenties. Patient. Giving.” I told her I was going to gag. “Did Daddy really have a thing for Aunt Charlotte?” Four women, two brothers. I’d forgotten about the Charlotte drama. Mom laughed. Wow. I was on a roll. “Annie hated that woman for years.” Oh. I would hate to be on Aunt Annie’s bad side. “Maybe babysitting Davie and Elaine every weekday for a decade mellowed her to their mother.” Mom’s grin intensified. Maybe with old memories. Elaine had talked about dragging her little bro bro David down to see me again soon. That would be fun. Hadn’t seen my almost-brother for too long. Our short conversations before he gave Elaine her phone back were a treat. Made me feel ten all over again. “Thankfully, Annie is as full of love as she is, you know, other emotions.” The light turned and Mom hurried into the intersection. I found myself reaching for something to hold on to. But no speeding vehicles raced toward my door. I let out the sharp breath I’d sucked in. “She’s full of it, all right,” I mumbled. Mom grinned. Maybe she was working hard to be in a lighter mood. She’d been tense for a while. I’m not the easiest patient to care for, maybe. And the cramped quarters didn’t allow her to get away from Dad. For a quiet introvert he can be very annoying. They had talked about buying their own place here. It was time they got serious, or the three of us were going to have problems. At least all of our guns were in a safe back in Ohio. It would be nice to have the elder Ruuds in Florida, but not too close. Across the Bay, maybe. Mom trudged thirty miles an hour down MacDill Avenue. The beaming morning sun slumped me drowsy, or it was the pill I took before we headed for my doctor. Could I really go cold turkey with those things? I hurt with them. How much worse could it get? I closed my eyes, but a bit of vertigo hit me. I opened them quickly and sat straight. A pang radiating from my hip and knee racked me. The constant is exhausting. “So, I get no insight in how the loved-him, loved-his-brother thing happened?” Mom pulled her hands from ten and two o’clock, twirled a carpet of hair in her left. “You know what happened.” “But not how.” I fought back a yawn. She didn’t speak for half a block. “Maybe Tony took me for granted. Or I didn’t see myself as his wife. I really can’t say why we fell apart.” “Your dad?” I prodded. “He didn’t have as much to do with it as Tony might think.” The hunky half-brother who lost out with one, seduced by the best friend. Definitely soap opera stuff. I nodded at that. Tony said Grandad Aguilar ran him out of El Paso. As though anyone could make Uncle do anything he didn’t want to do. I didn’t have to ask about Aunt Annie and Uncle Tony. Annie was very open about seducing the brother of the man she gave up on. “Did you have a crush on Dad when you took the job in Middletown?” Hadn’t I ever asked her that before? “He scared me to death,” she said. My daddy? Well. I’ve seen multiple layers of the man. “You remember Albert, don’t you?” she asked.  I still remember sitting in his lap. He told the greatest stories. “I fell in love with him first,” Mom continued. “And he adored your dad. Maybe the adoration wore off on me with time.” As a literature professor, Daddy’s Nobel for Uncle Albert’s life story probably had something to do with it. “Before or after my mother?” I asked. She reached the next light before she tried to answer. “A lot happened really quickly, then. We’d barely made it through the sixties.” “How was she, about naming me after you?” I asked. “Oh.” Mom stroked her cheek. One of her emotional tells. “It was her idea. Susan knew your dad loved me before her.” “And she still moved in on him?” She gave me a gaping mouth. The, don’t speak evil of that woman, look. “She didn’t know about me, then. When those two horn dogs got together it was like a match on gasoline.” I choked with laughter. And continued to choke as the light changed and she crossed the interchange. Susan Worth, my angelic, on a pedestal mother, and my introverted father, horn dogs. That was too much. Mom asked if I was going to live. I managed to quell the laughter after two false tries. Did I really remember flying back and forth between Connecticut and Ohio, splitting my time with them, or did hearing the story so many times make it feel real?  Chapter 2 ~ Dad turned the corner to face us. He must have been sitting at the kitchen counter. Brassbutt, the giant Rottweiler, appeared at his hip. I pushed the door closed as Mom re-set the alarm. I noticed she jolted to a stop before I noticed Dad’s expression. “What’s up?” I asked. A worm swam around in my stomach. “The bastard,” Dad mumbled. What the heck was that supposed to mean? Brassbutt poked me in the crotch for attention. “Reed,” he hissed. “What?” Mom and I hissed together. “Sent you a package.” Dad’s cheeks flamed Rome-apple-red. “My god,” Mother whispered. I asked if it was ticking. “That isn’t funny,” Dad snapped. I wasn’t trying to be funny. I clomped past Dad to find a twelve-inch box sitting on the kitchen bar. Thankfully it was in one piece, not a single dent I could see. Dad hadn’t stomped it to smithereens. I leaned the crutches against the wall. “Isn’t he ever going away?” Mom whispered. “I called Randal,” Dad announced. The air whooshed out of my lungs. My mouth was flapping before I had new air to propel the words. Something like, “Are you kidding me?” We didn’t need an assassin to take care of Reed. We needed a shrink. “He’s not an assassin,” Dad said. Had that come out of my mouth? Whatever. I pulled my clunky phone off my hip. Everyone hates my twentieth-century phone. Found Santiago, Reed’s former partner, and dialed. The man answered on the seventh ring. Maybe I caught him at a bad time. But he answered politely, with a, “Hello, Ms. Ruud.” I blabbed about the box. “You open it?” he asked. “Don’t you need to take it to the lab or something?” Was I ranting? “His name on the from label?” he asked. “Yeah.” “I think we know who sent it then, huh?” The smartass. “So you want me to open it?” He suggested I call him back after, and he’d get by when he could to write up a report. My mouth was forming an irritated, giant O as I threw around how I wanted to insult him, but he’d already hung up. Bastard. My dad shook his head. “He didn’t sound excited to hear his mass murdering partner is still harassing you.” Was three bodies mass murder? I’m a lawyer. I should know. Three separate locations. That would be serial murder. Maybe I should get back to practicing. I slipped the phone back into its clippie-thing. With one crutch, I hobbled into the kitchen for a knife. Grabbed the long serrated one Mom uses to shred her pork for burritos and stuff. As I drew it across the box’s tape, she asked if I didn’t want a bigger knife. Everyone is a comedian. Pulling back twelve miles of bubble wrap, I finally got to a smaller box protected by ten yards of tissue paper. “Looks like a Tiffany’s box,” Mom said. As though my father would ever buy her anything from Tiffany’s. He had bought her more guns than jewelry. Not that she ever complained to me. I flipped open the leather box inside to find a fancy rose-gold band with a four carat garnet, balanced by multi-rows of diamond side stones. Not museum expensive, but I bet the stones weren’t cheap. There was about a pound of gold in the band. Of course my stalker would know my favorite color. “Throw it in the trash,” Dad hissed. Hell no. As much grief as that sucker put me through? I slipped it onto the third finger of my right hand. Fit like a charm. I’m not into jewelry any more than Mom, but it looked nice on my hand. “It’ll encourage him,” Dad mumbled. As though there was any discouraging that psycho. Mom reminded me I should get off my feet. Yeah, yeah. I better pay attention to Supreme Nurse Belinda or I’d pay. I grabbed my crutches and mumbled that I was going to take a nap. Not really. I just wanted to get away from Dad. He’d be a serious grouch for the foreseeable future. “You’re going to leave me with him?” Mom asked me. “You married him,” I said. Dad grumbled, “Don’t be rude.” I was ready to have my home back. Brassbutt wanted to hide with me, but I shooed her away. The big waggle of her butt traipsing to hide in the guest room gave me a grin. I slumped onto my bed. After the initial pang, the pressure lessened, for ten seconds. Then the ever-constant ache returned. I grabbed the surgical tubing by me and practiced my gentle stretches for a minute. Always good for ten seconds of relief when I stopped. Using the moment of near-euphoria, I grabbed my phone and dialed my uncle. He actually answered. The director of the CIA is pretty much always in meetings. I asked him if he’d already heard. “That my only niece is a horrible person?” he asked. “This a call to your uncle, or the admiral?” I hate when he divides himself like that. I asked him if he asked Annie that when she called him. “Why would Annie call me Uncle?” It must be comedian Monday. I told him about the package. He asked if I liked the ring.  “Yes.” “Then wear it,” he said. I intended to. “Dad called Randal.” “I think it would be better if he didn’t get involved,” Uncle said. He was paranoid before. Now with all of us encouraging him to leave DC and run for the governor’s mansion, he was acting spookier than usual. “I didn’t make the call,” I whined. “I’ll call your dad,” he said. “He’s a stubborn so and so,” I said. “You’re telling me.” And the jerk hung up. Tears flowed down my face. It had nothing to do with my uncle hanging up on me. Or a ring from my psycho, murdering stalker. Even the pain. A generic depression clasped my lungs and fisted tight. Instantaneously that voice somewhere in my head, that had been whispering to me frequently lately, suggested how peaceful it would be to be dead. A gasp, maybe it could be called a sob, bucked. Not the kind of thoughts I should be listening to. There was a day I’d get up and go for a run to scatter that black emotion. Or go to the gym. Or take a fast ride on my bike. None of those were options any longer. I am my father’s child. At least I’m not quite as OCD. My orthopedist told me acupuncture might help the pain, short term. He shrugged when I asked him if he really believed in that stuff. For the long term, he suggested I get into cycling. No impact. Could still be challenging. It’s challenging for me to get in and out of the shower now. So later, maybe. The black thoughts have darkened the past months. In intensity and frequency. As bad as after—I could think the rape now. I was past that. Right? I’d promised myself I was done being the victim. My responsibility to sprout a spine or go belly up. I needed to do something. I pulled my medical card from my back pocket, dialed the 800 number. After slogging through the various prompts, I waited for a human. Finally. I explained my situation. Did I need some kind of referral? No, just pick a practitioner from the website. Great. Choosing. I claimed I was currently bed ridden, could she possibly set me up with an appointment. Yeah. I didn’t expect that would work. I hung up. I so did not want to sit in front of my computer.  The thought of going eanie meanie moe over a list of strangers who would expect me to splay open my soul for examination tinged icky. But ten minutes later I had an appointment. It wasn’t so bad. I searched by zip code and picked the shrink at the top of the list. Five minutes away on Bay to Bay Boulevard. But he couldn’t fix me until tomorrow. So I took two white pills and got back in bed.  So much for going cold turkey. But sitting at my desk in front of the computer hurt like hell.  © R. Mac Wheeler 2017