The door opened into a short hallway. Batwoman ushered Kak through the first door on the right and into a room barely large enough to accommodate the five leather recliners arranged around the edges. The positioning created a small focal space in the middle of the room, about enough for two people to pass without bumping. One black chair and three brown chairs sat empty. The green one held the limp figure of Liliana Zamira Quintero, as though she’d been poured into it from a pitcher. Except for the small trash can beside each chair nothing else furnished the room. Not so much as a picture on the white walls. But what would you want to look at anyway?
Kak crept toward Liliana. She looked asleep, her head and legs protruding from a white paper gown. A large absorbent pad covered the seat under her. Kak didn’t want to think about what it collected. Liliana’s mouth hung open, her head resting at a slight angle. An empty kidney-shaped basin lay in her lap. Beads of sweat stood on her forehead like stones on a beach.
She clutched a small, white towel in her hand. Kak eased it out and carefully blotted the perspiration from her brow. Liliana opened her eyes. The tears came.
“God, it hurts.”
It was all she got out before she clenched her teeth against the pain.
There should be a bed, Kak thought. There should be privacy. And a wall she could roll toward if she wanted to pretend to be alone. That’s what I’d want.
But Liliana didn’t have to pretend. She was alone. No mother to hover over her, stroke her hair or sing some stupid song that would bring only the comfort of impatience and disdain.
Liliana shifted in the chair. Even that small effort seemed to drain her, requiring her to settle back into the twilight of almost-rest.
Kak waited until she thought Liliana had actually drifted off.
“I’m sorry,” Kak said, quietly.
Liliana stirred. “Sorry’s good for nothing.”
“Can’t you sleep?”
Liliana moved her head ever so slightly. “Hurts too much.”
“I won’t make you talk. I’ll just sit here.”
“I need to talk.”
“Okay.” Kak wasn’t sure if she should believe her. “Do you need any money?”
Of course he did. He’d have considered it a deal. If Kak hadn’t hated him before, nothing stopped her now. A fresh tide of sweat pushed out onto Liliana’s glistening forehead. Kak blotted her brow again. It flowed again. There was no end to it.
“Make me smile,” Liliana said.
Kak wasn’t in the mood to make another human smile. It seemed an odd request but under the circumstance maybe there were no odd requests. She thought back through their few interactions for anything that might be of use.
“In the cemetery,” Kak said. “Nono told you something that made you laugh. What was it?”
Sure enough, Liliana smiled. It lasted only a second before twisting into a grimace with the next wave of pain.
“He told me a joke,” she said. “The same joke he’s been telling me since I was a little girl.”
“It must be some funny joke to still work after all that time.”
“It isn’t funny at all. We just both know he’s going to tell it. And that makes it funny.”
Liliana relaxed. Kak waited, thinking this time she’d really fallen asleep and for the best. Without moving, Liliana asked, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
Kak hesitated. This was the joke? “I don’t know,” she said. “Why?”
“To avoid the Ifa priest.” She watched Kak to confirm the punchline had not found its mark.
“See,” Liliana said. “Not funny. But you hear it a thousand times. It’s downright hilarious.”
“I get it.”
Liliana brightened. “I’ll tell you something that really is funny.”
Kak scooted closer so Liliana wouldn’t have to talk above a whisper.
“Tell me,” Kak said.
“The other night. In Sloppy Joe’s.” Liliana beamed again. “When Carter got up on the chair? I thought he was going to propose.”
By the time she’d finished the sentence she was focused on something far away. Something Kak couldn’t see.
“You know,” Liliana said. “To me.”
Neither of them said anything for a few minutes.
“Didn’t you think so?” Liliana asked, finally.
There were times to lie. This was one of them.
“Yes,” Kak said.
“I did, too. That would have been just like Carter.”
Liliana settled down again. Kak let her mind drift over the blank walls. What the hell was she doing here? What was anyone doing here?
“Do you think I’d be here,” Liliana said, as if reading Kak’s thoughts, “if Rudy kept talking to me that night?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you tell him? About what’s going on with you?”
“Tell him. Don’t let him go. If I could go back, I wouldn’t let him stop talking to me. I’d grab his damn phone and throw it in the water.”
“What if you didn’t have a choice?”
“We all have a choice.”
That much was true. But some choices doomed you either way you went. And though Kak hated to make Liliana talk, the last bit of self-preserving instinct in her needed to know.
“Why did you do this?” Kak asked. “You know why. You know better than anyone.”
There was no reason for her to say that.
“No,” Kak said. “I don’t.”
Liliana cooed softly, as if it was a game, and Kak refused to play.
“I’ve always been a bride of the spirits,” Liliana said. “I forgot that. You helped me remember. With your problem.”
“When you first came to me. I asked who sent you. Remember?”
“But no one sent me.”
“Wrong. You were Elegua’s messenger. Bringing the news that I had to lift the darkness.”
Liliana waved a limp hand over her lap. “My inner darkness.”
“Liliana, this wasn’t your fault.”
It was as if the Santeria priestess hadn’t heard her.
“I had to atone,” Liliana said.
“Because I did it.”
“Stopped taking the pill.”
For the first time since Kak walked in the room, Liliana faced her straight on.
“I knew he was drifting away,” Liliana said. “I could feel it.”
“And you thought a baby would help?”
As soon as Kak asked it she regretted it.
“You see it now,” Liliana said. “This is my ebo. This is my blood sacrifice.”
“Don’t talk. Just rest.”
“I prayed for you. I prayed that this could help both of us.”
“How could this possibly help either of us?”
“Your osogbo. It was for my baby. You were the messenger.”
“Why would you say a thing like that? This has nothing to do with me.”
“It has everything to do with you. Come on. You remember.”
What was she talking about? Liliana watched her puzzle over it. She snorted, as if any of it could be funny.
Then the woman in the recliner moved her hands slowly and painfully to her head. She gathered her hair in bunches. “Sometimes,” she said, “to get what you want inside, you have to tear out what’s already there.”
Liliana’s meaning began to take shape in Kak’s head. She didn’t want to see it.
“I was having second thoughts,” Liliana said. “But you’re so brave.”
Kak stood up. She didn’t want to hear anymore. Didn’t want to be in the room anymore.
“When you said it,” Liliana went on. “I knew it. You’re the messenger.”
Liliana reached for her. Kak lurched away, knocking her chair over on its back.
“You misunderstood,” Kak said.
“I know it’s hard.” Liliana stretched a hand toward Kak. “But you see now.”
“I wasn’t talking about this.” Kak stumbled over the chair, falling against the door, scrambling to get her feet under her. “I didn’t know you were thinking about doing this.”
“Take my hand,” Liliana said, her fingers quivering, straining toward her.
Kak clutched at the knob behind her. She tore the door open, striking her hip against the door frame as she careened into the hall.
“You’ll see,” Liliana called after her as she ran. “You’ll see.”
The panic rose in Kak faster than she could run. She burst through the door to the reception area, past Rudy and out through the external door into the mid-day heat. She had the sense of something pursuing her that she couldn’t outrun. Kak covered the distance across the parking area, her chin over her shoulder, feeling it, expecting to see it coming after her.
Roosevelt Avenue was under her feet and she crossed blindly. A car locked up its brakes, screeching to a halt. She never saw it. The water on the other side stopped her, or at least the guard rail separating the avenue from Garrison Bight stopped her. Her breath came in sobs and coughs.
“Goddam it to hell.”
A westbound car pulled over and stopped behind her. The driver lowered his passenger side window. Kak picked up a fragment of concrete resting by the guard rail and let the driver see the intention in her face. He accelerated away.
“That’s right,” she screamed after him. “Move along!”
The hot air she sucked in did little to ease her distress. She inhaled what felt like the last scorching lungful of air in the universe and held it. What a collection they were. Damn Carter for buying his way out and leaving. Damn Liliana for laying this at her feet. Damn Rudy for being on that beach. Damn Kak for pitying herself because a man wanted to love her and give her a comfortable life. For thinking it made her some kind of sellout. For starting this disaster to avoid her own good fortune.
Rudy got there.
“What the hell do you want,” she said.
“Let me take you back to the hotel. You can lie down and rest. You’ll feel better.”
“No. No more deals. No more bargaining. That’s over.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Bullshit.” She couldn’t help it. Ready or not, anger had begun to sharpen its blade on bargaining’s dull stone.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m upset about this, too.”
She fought to get her breath back. To slow the panting enough to get words out.
“You’re upset?” she finally managed. “This is vindicating for you.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Why?” She gasped another hot lungful. “Because everyone who ever betrayed you is going down in some miserable way. Don’t tell me you’re not happy about it. You’ve been waiting for it, you sonofabitch.”
“Give me a break, Rudy. You finally drowned your father. Check. Carter? Mr. Confidence? Hiding with his tail between his legs. Check. Liliana in there bleeding her baby out. Check.”
“That isn’t fair.”
“You even got me back.”
“Got you back? For what? You’re the one person who’s been straight with me.”
He was such a dupe. No wonder she’d come with him.
“I’ve been straight with you? I haven’t been straight with anyone. Not for a long time.”
The sound of tires on the hot asphalt told her another car was pulling on to the side of the road behind them. Close. Another concerned passer-by. She weighed the chunk of concrete in her hand to send this concerned citizen along his or her way as she had the last. The late morning sun gleamed off a Key West Police interceptor. The officer exited, grinning broadly at them.
“Good morning,” he said. “You folks okay?”
“We’re fine,” Kak said, dropping the chunk of concrete, mopping at her tears with the shoulder of her sundress.
He approached them. “Are you sure?” he asked. “You seem a little upset.”
The nameplate on his right breast said R True.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Kak said. “She misunderstood me.”
“Have we been drinking this morning? Maybe a little mimosa?”
“Do you know the gentleman?” True said, indicating Rudy.
“We’re just having a fight. Is that against the law, officer?”
True’s grin broadened. “Not yet. Do you know the gentleman?”
“Okay. You might want to choose a safer place for a spat. This is a busy street.”
“We have a friend in the Clinic,” Rudy said. “Things got emotional.”
“I can understand that,” True said. “While I’m here let’s check your IDs.”
He collected a driver’s license from each of them and excused himself to his air conditioned prowler. Kak watched him behind the wheel, studying something to his lower right. A laptop? He turned his attention from that to her. He commented into his radio.
It began to occur to her then. What time was it? True looked at her again. Holy shit.
True emerged from his prowler. “Kastle?”
“It’s just Kak.”
He carried an iPad he’d brought with him from his interceptor. “Kak, you’re a missing person. Did you know that?”
Of course. Over twenty-four hours had gone by since she checked in. She was officially off the reservation. In all the excitement she’d forgotten the first rule.
“My mother reported me missing,” she announced through clenched teeth.
True studied his iPad. “Your mother is Evelyn Temple?”
Even worse. Evelyn had turned her in. Evelyn, the human. Evelyn, the bitch. Kak could see it in her mind. Dragging it out of Stammer that Kak had been out of contact more than twenty-four hours. Evelyn’s false concern as she spoke to the police. Her smug satisfaction at nailing Kak in the act of ducking out on her little boy.
Kak felt Rudy’s eyes on her. She didn’t bother looking at him. Didn’t particularly care to see the tumblers moving into place in his head. She’d been outed. It no longer mattered.
“That starched witch isn’t my mother,” she said. “She isn’t even my mother-in-law. Not yet.”
Another interceptor pulled over and stopped. Two more officers got out. Probably backup in case it was an abduction and Rudy had held her against her will. If they only knew.
“We’re going to give you a lift over to the office,” True said. “We’ll let your family know you’re okay. You can speak with your mother.”
“I don’t need to be collected like a piece of lost luggage,” Kak said.
“She’s worried about you.” True extended a hand to usher her toward his car. “We’ll get you a cup of coffee and clear it all up as fast as we can.”
“Well. There’s only one thing to do here.”
She tried not to telegraph her punch. Her wild roundhouse missed True’s chin by the slimmest of margins. Before she could try again an officer grabbed her from behind and lifted her feet off the pavement. She whipped her head back into his chin before he could press her onto the hood of True’s interceptor.
“Slow down,” the officer said. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
The blazing hood was like a griddle against her cheek.
“Let go, motherfuckers!” she yelled.
She kicked at them as they pulled her wrists down behind her and locked handcuffs into place.
“Aren’t you glad I came along?” she asked Rudy as they lifted her from the hood. The other officer and True deposited her in the backseat of True’s interceptor and buckled her in. She gave the door a kick as it closed after her. She was covered in sweat from the struggle. Beautiful, hot sweat. Her cheek stung from its grilling on the hood.
The troopers were talking to Rudy now. Rudy, who hadn’t said a word to her. Who could have. Should have. He wasn’t even looking at the officers while they spoke. He stood there staring back at her with his stupid puppy dog face. What a putz. A bubble of laughter forced its way up her throat and out. She couldn’t help it. True and the others heard her. She laughed again. At Rudy. At herself. At the gods that watched from wherever gods watched from. Let them think she was crazy.
True got in, buckled up and pulled out onto Roosevelt. She shifted to watch Rudy shrink in the rear window. Not from regret or guilt, but to witness the conclusion of the deal they’d made. To feel the release of his gravity as the slingshot sent her past him and out of bargaining. If this didn’t send him the opposite direction and into depression, nothing would.
As he fell away behind her the last puddles of bargaining boiled down and sizzled to vapor under the irresistible incandescence of anger. It filled her entirely, trickling into every crack of her being. She hadn’t known a stage could be both shameful and satisfying at the same time. The only blemish, a fragment of conversation scratching at the back of her mind. Something Nono said about anger. It didn’t matter now and she pushed it away.
She began to see what she hadn’t before. What remained was perfect. The balance of power was being unbalanced. Her condition correcting so poetically after her journey backwards that it tipped the scale, threatening to make her invincible.
Up to now she’d held a flawed vision of the ideal conclusion. Coming here with Rudy would get her to anger. It would be easy after that. She’d walk down the aisle. When the priest performing the ceremony asked, Kastle Ann Keen, do you take Philip Bartholomew Temple to be your husband? Do you promise to be faithful to him in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love him and to honor him all the days of your life? She would simply reply ‘no’. The delicious uproar from the Temple clan could do nothing to change the fact that she had reached denial. It would be done.
Except now, in the backseat, bathed in sweat and locked in handcuffs, she recognized the cunning of the gods. They’d put that notion in her head to confuse her. Trotted out their hoops for her to leap through. Now that she was in anger, only one hoop remained. They’d meant it to be so tantalizing after her journey that she’d leap just once more, without thinking. Fortunately, anger burned away the deception. It left the truth in its ashes: that denial was a false destination, a lie the gods had whispered in her ear on a Sanibel beach.
But the lie had its value. Pursuing it brought her to the hot ecstasy of anger and all its potential. It brought her a new vision, for a new Kak, with power beyond anything she’d ever felt. Power to feel good for the first time in a year. To feel great. To feel—invincible.
To hell with her heart. All she had to do was stop short of denial. Keep anger. Out with the old Kak. Best forgotten in light of the possibilities ahead. In with the new Kak, to rule her world on her terms. To say it like it was. Live as she pleased. Marry well. And slide her toes into the cool Aruba sand.
She let her head rest against the seat and listened to the voice. It said, ‘and it was in this manner that anger would come to replace bargaining.’
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