~ 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
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.   ~ 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 ~ D ad   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