I Was Scared
Winning Entry by JC
I wasn't scared when Brett joined us up for a weekend of abseiling even though I'd never done it before. Brett's daredevil streak was what had attracted me to him in the first place. When he bought me a skydiving session for my birthday I hid my shiver and laughed, saying, 'How wonderful!' to show I was as fearless as he.
After the episode with my parents I'd spent my teenage years being scared. By my twenties I was sick of it. I'm strong, I told myself. What happened to them won't happen to me. I won't let it!
But when the letter came I blanched.
'What's up, Babe?' Brett was stretched out on the sofa flipping through travel brochures. 'You look like you've seen a ghost.'
Did I detect a hint of derision in his voice?
'No ghost,' I said, returning the stained parchment to its envelope and flicking the lot towards the wastepaper bin. It boomeranged in a neat circle and hit his foot. I dived for it but Brett was quicker.
'Transylvania?' He stared at the stamp. 'Who do you know in Transylvania?'
He didn't wait for an answer but pulled out the yellowed page. My mouth went dry as he scanned the spidery writing, smoothed out the ancient creases. When he looked up his eyes were sparkling.
'A castle? Bugger me, Diana, you've inherited a whole bloody castle!'
I forced out a laugh. 'As if. It's just a joke - a scam - one of those Nigerian cons.'
He looked at the letter again. Rubbed the thick parchment between fingers and thumb and frowned. 'The legal stuff looks kosher and I don't see any spelling mistakes.'
'So it's a good con. Come on, Brett. Throw it away and let's get on with our travel plans. I like the look of that Kathmandu hike. It would be good training for the Everest climb we want to do next year.'
He seemed hardly to hear me. 'This clause at the end,' he said, pulling out his phone to check the date. I closed my eyes.
'Seven days! You only have seven days to claim your inheritance. After that the whole lot reverts to the Romanian government.'
Once Brett gets excited about something there's no putting him off. All through the flight I kept telling myself I was doing the right thing - that I was no longer a frightened young teenager. I was stronger than my parents. I swallowed. This was my big test - the ultimate test. Was I ready for it?
Everyone said you should face your demons. I'd abseiled and skydived and reveled in finding my inner strength - a strength I'd always been afraid I didn't have. Now there was one last thing to do - prove to myself I'd gotten clean. 'I can do this. I'm not scared,' I kept muttering under my breath.
Beside me Brett was chuckling and babbling. 'This is pure Hollywood! Spend one night in the castle and it's yours. Maybe we can turn it into a B & B afterwards. No, too much like hard work. We should probably just sit back and make a mint renting it out to movie makers.'
The lawyer's office was situated on the outskirts of the town. Its gloomy rooms made me shudder but Brett was all triumph as I signed the paperwork.
'I told you this was legit! You now own an eighteenth century castle.'
'Not quite,' said the lawyer, a toad-like man called Oleander with jet-black hair. 'There is the matter of spending a night. I myself must attend to ensure everything is done correctly.'
'Piece of cake,' said Brett. 'We've brought our own camping gear.'
At Oleander's smile a little voice in my head said, it's not too late to pull out. Just say you've changed your mind.
Brett exploded the thought. 'We'll buy some food and head straight up. It'll be cold platters but you're welcome to join us for dinner if you like, Mr Oleander.'
The lawyer bowed obsequiously. 'You are most kind. Shall we say eight at the castle?'
We hired a car and shopped for the celebratory feast... and candles.
'We only need to illuminate one room, Babe.'
'Can't have too much light.' Darkness still made me tremble. Darkness... and other things.
It had gone sunset when we arrived but Brett whistled in appreciation. Even in silhouette the ancient castle met his expectations. We set up in the dining room, which was much as I remembered it - maybe with a little more dust.
'Wow, authentic or what?' Brett swept his sleeve across the mahogany table and starting setting out bottles of wine and platters of cheese, sausage and pickled seafood.
By the time Oleander arrived I'd lit so many candles the room was brighter than day. The toad-like creature winced as he entered but Brett, walking to greet him with a glass of wine, failed to notice.
'Who left this place to Diana?' he asked, handing over the beautiful crystal goblet he'd been thrilled to find with dozens of others in the sideboard. 'The names in the document were unfamiliar.'
Oleander's brows lifted and he looked over to me. Instead of replying he sipped at the ruby wine and then strolled alongside the mantelpiece blowing out my line of candles. 'That's a little better don't you think?'
'I prefer a bright room,' I said. 'Please don't extinguish any more.' I was finding it hard to suppress my shivers. Whatever had made me think I'd be strong enough to face my demons? No point in kidding myself. I was scared.
Brett was frowning, seemingly annoyed that his question hadn't been answered, when they entered. They'd chosen traditional gear - the man in a tuxedo and cape, the woman in a long, black silk evening gown. My heart wrenched as I stared at them and I failed to notice Oleander snuffing out another line of candles.
'Who are you?' Brett demanded, more indignant than dismayed. He turned to Oleander. 'Are these additional witnesses?'
The couple moved towards me. 'No. Stay where you are,' I cried, dodging to the table and stuffing a piece of bread into my mouth. It tasted like dust. I'd worked so hard to learn to love food again and now...
'We knew you'd come back,' said the man - my father. This is your inheritance after all.' Only four candles remained lit on the table and Oleander was bending to blow one out.
'Stop that,' I screamed, a nameless yearning stirring within me.
'You want more light?' He pulled open the curtains and I gasped at the shock of the full moon.
Brett walked over and put a protective arm around my waist. The smell of him broke the last of my control. There are some addictions you just can't kick.
I smiled and for the first time he looked scared.
No, I thought, madness was me standing here behind this counter, cluttered with racks of impulse-buys, fronting a shelf full of liquor bottles, staring down the narrow aisles of wines, whiskeys, vodkas, gins, cordials, beer, mixers. And I was, alone and scared.
The liquor store was Sanchez's effort to find financial independence. After years of working in hard labor, driving trucks, he had saved enough to buy this place, Lupe's Liquors, although he had no more idea who Lupe was than did the guy he bought it from. A small store in an aging strip center in a deteriorating part of town. On the edge of the barrio, across the street from the projects. A color line. Brown to the south, black to the north, and no whites in sight.
But I'm white, maybe the only person in twenty blocks with blue eyes, standing and literally shaking under flickering florescents, behind an old cash register. There was, maybe, well over two thousand bucks there. Payday purchases. Mostly cheap wine and malt liquor, some low-end whiskey with sweet soda mixers and an occasional lime or lemon to give it some taste. At the moment, though, taste was the last thing on my mind. What I really wanted was a drink.
I'm an alcoholic. A drunk. Recovering. Been sober for five-hundred, sixty-two days, eight-and-a-half hours. That's the way alkies think. One day at a time, one hour at a time, no goals, no rewards, just one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Being a drunk has some merits, though. It makes you value your feelings when you're stone, cold sober. And that's what I am. Stone, cold, sober. And scared out of my fucking mind.
I'd known Sanchez since high school. Same age, same class, same bench on the baseball team where we sat watching other guys play and made snickering comments about them. That's the way friends bond. Not out of mutual interests. Out of mutual adversity. We'd stayed close, even though I went to college and he went to work. But he was smart. He never became a drunk. Instead, he got married, had kids--four, in fact--and even though Antonia was a flighty, she made a good wife and mother. Except when she insisted on going to Mexico to visit her mother, her aunts and cousins, leaving Sanchez, who'd never been closer to Mexico than the taco stand on the edge of the strip center, to watch the kids and take care of business. His business. So it went.
I'd never worked retail. Never liked the idea of it. Standing around waiting on people put me off. I never believed the customer was always right. I believed the customer was always wrong, actually. I told him that I was happy being a junior high science teacher. It fit me. Given my self-imposed affliction, it worked for me, too. Kept me sober. Junior high science teachers aren't supposed to go to bars, aren't supposed to get DUIs, aren't supposed to do anything that will attract negative attention. So I don't, didn't. And I had only been in Lupe's Liquors twice before--once the day Sanchez bought the place, and once when Antonia and he celebrated their first month of actually clearing a profit.
Liquor stores on the edge of the barrio and projects are a sure-fire investment. People without prospects drink. That I knew. When you give up on life, when you look at a calendar and realize that the rest of the week, month, year isn't going to be any better than today or yesterday or last week, month or year, you tend to look for something to kill the pain. Drugs, booze, crime. If you don't have the guts for crime, you go for drugs. If you can't afford drugs, which always want more of themselves, you go for booze. Booze can kill you just as easily as the other two; but it's slower, takes longer, and you reach a point where you level out. A gallon of cheap wine is as good as a gallon of single-malt scotch. It's the buzz you want. Hit it and sustain it, and you're fine. With drugs, you keep needing more to hit it, and it soon becomes impossible to sustain without overdoing it, pushing yourself into eternal blackness, which a lot of people want, truth to tell. With crime, well, that's different. That carries an illusion. It's no better. In fact, it's worse--riskier, deadlier, and quicker when it ends. And it always ends. All three lead to an always end of one sort or another.
But here I was, even so. Sober, clean, and sweating blood.
It was ten minutes to closing. A time set by state law, not Sanchez. He was a workaholic. He'd stay open 24/7 if he could. But the law said no booze sales after nine, and it was eight-fifty when the three of them walked in. All black. That wasn't unusual, and it wasn't unusual that they had their hoodies up, their faces more or less hidden from me and from the security cameras Sanchez had installed, even though it set him back quite a bit. They came in just as a small group of companeros went out, twelve-packs in hand. Somebody had set up a big screen TV outside, and a large group was standing around watching some soccer game. I'd seen that from the back window, when I heard cheering and yelling. They'd been coming in and restocking their beer and wine stashes all night. But the place was deserted when the three homeboys came in, hoods up, even though it was sweltering outside.
They prowled the aisles, as if browsing. Who browses in a liquor store? Customers knew what they wanted. They came in, went to the section of choice, maybe did a quick price check between this label or that one, and then bought what they wanted or needed or could afford. No customer all night had been inside more than a couple of minutes. But these guys had been there for nearly ten. It was closing time. I needed to say something. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to be invisible.
Sanchez called me at home around five. Amelia had collapsed with severe pain. She was screaming and crying, he said, and the sitter--a neighborhood kid who was watching them while Antonia was away--had already called 9-1-1. He needed me to watch the store.
"Why not just close down?" I asked.
"On a Friday night?" he yelled the question back at me. "Are you crazy? I'll make my whole week tonight. I can't. I need you, bro."
My mind was racing then, trying to find an excuse. I didn't want to do this, not just because I'd never done it, but because of where it was, who I was. It was one thing to drop by Sanchez's place on the opposite side of the barrio, a kind of upper-scale apartment perched on the outskirts of ancient complexes full of impoverished people, many of whom worked hard for what little they had. It was another thing to be standing behind the counter, over a cash drawer full of money, surrounded by enough booze to disorient a stone monument. I had not felt right about this from the start.
But when he called an hour after I showed up and took over, after he gave me quick instructions about operating the cash register, taking the money to the bank and making the deposit, after he showed me how to turn off the lights and lock up, and after he showed me the short-barreled, pistol-gripped Remington 12-gauge pump on the shelf right under the counter, when he made that call to tell me his four-year-old daughter was going into emergency surgery, that he couldn't leave her, not even for a moment, I knew that it was all up to me. That's what friends are for, after all. And that's what I was. A friend.
The trio were still roaming the aisles, fingering a few bottles here and there. One of them, a larger one, the one who kept his back to me the whole time, kept his hands in the hoodie's muff pockets, as if he was holding something there. I figured he was. He kept glancing at me from the edge of his hood, checking me out checking him out. I figured this was it. It was only a matter of time.
"Hey, guys," I said, picking a term that I hoped was racially neutral and at the same time sounded familiarly friendly, "Law says I got to close at 9. You got two minutes."
It was as if my words froze them, freeze-dried them in place for a second or two. They didn't look at me, didn't look at each other. I was reminded suddenly of that moment when a fielder snags a ball off the ground, just before he throws to first for the out, he takes a beat, less than a second, sometimes, centers himself, finds his balance, then throws smoothly and accurately. A good fielder does that. A bad one panics, flings when he's still off balance and throws wild. But these guys weren't bad. They were good. For a full two seconds, at least, they didn't move at all. And my heart began a pounding throb I could feel in my ears.
"What?" one of them said. "You talking to us?"
"Yeah, I have to close," I said. "It's the law. Hey," I added, shrugging and opening my hands. "I just work here."
Why did I say that? I don't work there. I'm filling in for the owner. But I didn't want to say that. They might have known that, anyway.
They all turned now toward me, started walking to the counter. The large one was in the middle. The other two each had a bottle in hand. Cheap whiskey. I might have known. One snagged a bottle of Dr Pepper on the way. Whiskey and Dr Pepper, I thought. That's just disgusting. The large one kept his hands in the muff pocket, moving now, as if adjusting them around whatever he had in there.
"You trying to throw us out?" one of them asked. His tone was flat. There wasn't any hostility in it, but still, it chilled me, ran through me even as I felt my body temperature rising suddenly. I had always wondered why you couldn't feel high blood pressure, but now I was sure I could. It was as if I could feel my own heart beat pounding inside my skull. My eyes darted to the outside, where there was nothing buy empty blackness beyond the neon sign's faint illumination of the near side of the parkinglot. "We might not be ready," the same one said. "What about that?"
My mouth was alum dry, and my tongue felt twice its normal size. throat was closed and I couldn't swallow. My eyes were on the large man's hands inside the muff pocket. He started to pull them out, and I watched as if in slow motion. I thought
one brief gasping flash of consent. In one sweaty moment, a bridge is jumped
and all re-routed; connection suddenly occludes a complex network of tangled
doubts and hesitations; tracks to No and Later and Maybe closed for service. Things
start moving. By predictable, extraordinary linkages the morning sickness starts
two weeks later, and another sick lurching besides. Cold, hard fear nestles into the pit
of my stomach. Daughter, forgive me. Your brother screamed his first 12 months –
waking hourly to protest his existence. For a whole tortuous year we spoke the vain,
misguided language of science and control: mapping patterns, isolating variables,
eliminating allergens and exacerbating factors. In the end, exhausted and beaten,
we finally accepted that we were simply along for the ride – participants, not masters
of the laboratory. Our primary variable resolved itself independently, and lovely Jude
emerged from the mist, delightful. I can vouch for it: Life is good and full of sweetness
again. We are no more afloat. We revel in the small delights of sharing life as three.
But four? Sweet thing, it took months of living with you – of you living with me – as my belly
swelled, to forget and stop fearing the flood of incandescent rage of that first year. Drowning
in adrenal soup, your calm and slow to anger mother had rent her hands – beat the walls,
bludgeoned furniture, paced the halls. The sadness of sleep deprivation vaulted into
unexpected furies, laced with an icy edge of fear: who is this raging woman, and how
do we find a way back from here. Can you blame me, little bug, for crying when I saw
other swollen bellies on the street? Like signal flares: this too will be yours, like it or not.
The journey felt so long. So tiring to face forward again – both feet already out the door.
And then, one day, inexplicably, it all melted. The icy knot of fear shrunk, then bloomed
into wonder and warmth for you, little thing. Thank you for waiting it all out, quietly
kicking to make more space for yourself against a worn-out, not you narrative and fear,
biding your time until the seasons changed. I don’t know how you did it and Science, again,
fails me; the language of oxytocin falls short to explain the shift from dread to welcome, a change
in track from fear to love. Your heartbeat helped; your kicking helped; but mostly I thank
your loving, slow patience; your calm, steady presence lighting the path home.