Crossing the Line

Battered Hearts - 3


Kele Moon

Part One

The Storm

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

—Mike Tyson

Chapter One

July 2012

“I’m happy you’re finally home.”

“Sure.” Tabitha squeezed her mother’s hand, not recognizing the stranger who stared back at her. Thirteen years had turned her mother into an old woman, and it was jarring to see, but she tried not to let it show as she forced a smile. “I’ve been meaning to come back and visit for a while now.”

“Your brother misses you.”

Tabitha visibly cringed.

She might be able to pretend it was no big deal to come home, when the reality was it required her to face over a decade of raging fear to do it, but she couldn’t hide the loathing she felt for her older brother, even for her chronically ill mother.

“I wish you two would make up.” Her voice was pleading, her gaze needy. “Once I’m gone—”

“Come on, Mom.” Tabitha smoothed the bedsheets with her free hand rather than meet her gaze. “Let’s change the subject.”

“I know you’re making a lot of money, and you’ve been sending me checks all this time like it ain’t nothing,” her mother went on as if she hadn’t heard her. “I want you to keep sending the money after I die. Send it to Brett. You won’t miss it, and he needs it.”

Tabitha made a choked sound of shock. Her mother expected her to send Brett three thousand dollars a month. Hell would freeze over first. Deathbed or not, there was no way that promise would leave Tabitha’s lips, let alone come into actual fruition.

“You’re not dying, and besides, Brett’s a big boy.” Tabitha used every ounce of strength she had to hide the anger. “If he wants three thousand dollars a month, he probably ought to get off his ass and make it.”

“Things are harder for him. He ain’t smart like you.”

“I think you need to rest.” Tabitha smoothed out her mother’s sheet once more. “Tomorrow we’ll go see that new specialist I lined up for you in Mercy. He’s supposed to be amazing.”

“Shoot.” Her mother snorted. “There ain’t no point in driving all the way out to Mercy. You and me both know I’m dying, fancy doctor or not.”

“You gotta stay hopeful,” Tabitha argued. “All the books say a positive attitude is the key to recovery. There’s a surgery for this sort of heart condition.”

“Once the heart’s gone, it’s all over. Might as well save your money.”

Tabitha sighed, knowing this conversation was pointless. Her mother was not one to look on the bright side.

Rather than harp on a sick woman, Tabitha looked around the bedroom, taking in the peeling wallpaper and cracked plaster on the walls and ceiling. The house had been old and crumpling before she left; now it was a literal hazard.

Her gaze rested on a pot in the corner, currently being used to catch the water dripping from the leak in the ceiling. The entire house was decorated with cookware to combat the nasty bout of summer storms hitting her small hometown of Garnet. The steady drip, drip, drip echoing through the decaying house was like nails on a chalkboard.

“Are you gonna be okay if I leave?” Tabitha finally asked in a tiny voice, because being back in the house was making her feel young and vulnerable in a way she hadn’t in a long time. “It was a long drive from Key West, and I have to make some phone calls. I’m gonna see if I can line up a home health aid to come stay here with you and—”

“Go do your thing,” her mother said dismissively. “I ain’t an invalid yet, and Brett’s here.”

Tabitha reached over to the portable phone charging on the nightstand and placed it next to her mother’s hand. “Call me if you need anything. I’m just five minutes away. Terry rented me that big cabin on the lake.”

“Terry.” Her mother huffed indignantly. “There’s something wrong with a man who ain’t never had a wife in thirty-some years of living. I don’t think he’s dated since y’all stopped going together. He owns half of Garnet; boy should’ve been able to find himself a wife.”

Tabitha stood up, sadly accustomed to her mother’s abrasive attitude. “Well, Terry’s my friend, and he was nice enough to rent me one of his properties on short notice. So we’ll just have to butt out of his personal life and be grateful for the charity. Brett doesn’t have a wife either.”

“If you pay for it, it ain’t charity,” her mother snapped, obviously deciding to ignore the rest.

“Very good point,” Tabitha agreed passively as she leaned down to brush her mother’s graying hair away from her forehead and press a tender kiss there. “I’ll be here at noon to pick you up for your appointment. Call me if you need anything before then.”

Her mother patted her hand affectionately, which seemed like a small gesture, but from a woman as callous as her mother, it was a huge improvement. Maybe thirteen years changed more than the physical, and for just a moment Tabitha felt guilty for being gone so long. Then she looked around the house once more and felt that shiver of fear that had nausea bubbling up in the back of her throat since she arrived tired and shaky after a long road trip. All things considered, Tabitha thought she was doing pretty darn good.

“Call me,” she reminded her mother, knowing it was almost a sure bet she wouldn’t, because accepting help was never her nature. Maybe if her mother’s pride hadn’t been such a huge obstacle, Tabitha’s childhood wouldn’t have sucked quite so intensely. She turned to leave on that thought, suddenly needing to get out of the house before she lost what little lunch she’d managed to choke down past her nerves. “I’ll see ya tomorrow.”

Tabitha tripped over one of the pots in the hallway, splashing water on the creaking wood floor. She swatted at her hair when she felt moisture on her scalp. She shuddered and scrubbed harder at her head, not knowing what sort of rat-infested attic nightmare that rainwater had traveled through to get to the leaks in the ceiling.

“What the hell happened to the money I gave Mama to fix the roof?” she snapped as she walked into the living room. “I gave her four thousand dollars to get it done. I wanna know what happened to it.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to know?”

Tabitha actually growled out loud as she stared at the back of Brett’s head, knowing he’d taken that money and probably most of everything Tabitha had sent their mother. Looking unremorseful, Brett sat on the couch that had once been a flowered print, but now was so threadbare it looked like a swirl of the worst colors from the seventies.

Brett was playing one of those violent video games, completely uncaring that Tabitha continued to stand there fuming at him. He didn’t even have the decency to look uncomfortable in her presence. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected when she came back home. Some sort of guilt, some semblance of humanity, some indication that he’d grown up and found a conscience, but it shouldn’t be shocking that he was the same heartless bastard. She, more than anyone, knew Brett only cared about himself.

Maybe she was surprised by his juvenile attitude, because like their mother, Brett had aged horribly since the last time she’d seen him. He might act the same, but he certainly didn’t look it. He was thinner than before, more wasted away by life and the abuse he put on his body. His skin was sallow and dry. Dark circles lingered under his eyes that were still the same coldhearted brown she remembered.

The fact that Brett looked so much older than his thirty-six years was a small consolation when Tabitha felt her stomach lurch. Unbidden the memories surfaced, causing a sickening hot rush of fear to wash over her.

She was going to puke, and her consciousness clawed for some way to keep her mind off the inevitable. Her mother needed her to be strong. That thought had carried her all the way from Key West to Garnet when every instinct she had demanded she turn the car around and head back to the safety of her tiny house on the island, her laptop, and the stories that let her hide the demons long enough to feel normal.

The money, the leaking roof, her mother slowly wasting away, it all faded to the background as the reality of standing in this house again really hit her. It was a physical incarnation of the nightmares that had plagued her the past thirteen years, and no amount of levelheadedness was going to help her move past the panic attack now.

Tabitha turned on her heel and dashed for the front door. Even if throwing up on that hideous couch would probably improve it, she couldn’t let Brett see the weakness. She’d rather die than let him know the scars still ran bone deep.

She kicked the front door closed behind her and rushed down the steps. She leaped past the bottom stair that was broken thirteen years ago and like the rest of the house had only gotten worse with time. The second her sandals hit the mud, she lost her footing and fell backward before she even had a chance to shout in surprise. There was no grass for treading in their open, barren yard, and she knew that. Why hadn’t she worn her sneakers? Who cared if they weren’t as comfortable for cross-country travel?

Her head hit the bottom stair; the wood crumpled on impact. Her leg must have hit the rake on the way down, and she could feel the sting of torn skin along the back of her calf. Worst of all, her shoulder connected with the edge of a cinderblock that was the last support for a dying porch.

Tabitha would have screamed if she could breathe. The fall stole every ounce of air she had. She lay there in the mud, the rain hitting her face as she fought a battle for oxygen and sanity. For that one moment, the pain was everywhere, tingeing her vision gray from the force of it. Her head throbbed, her leg stung, and her shoulder hurt so intensely it made her forget everything but the agony of it. When she did find the ability to breathe again, she was almost grateful for the physical pain because it gave her a brief reprieve from the emotional hurt that was a thousand times worse.

The only thing more horrifying than having Brett see her puke all over that hideous couch would be for him to find her flat on her back in the rain. She’d never been one of those graceful, athletic females Garnet produced so easily. Her hometown probably had more pretty cheerleaders, dance team members, soccer and softball players per capita than any town in the country. Her graduating high school class had eighty-one students but still managed a full athletic program that never ran into spacing issues. She was a sore thumb, a redheaded stepchild who wasn’t just born into the wrong family, but to the wrong goddamn town as well.

She rolled onto her hands and knees, uncaring of the mud because it was already everywhere, and struggled to get to her feet. The pain might have temporarily hidden the anxiety, but it was still there, rolling dangerously under the surface. She made it to her car and got in, trying not to think about the grime dripping off her clothes.

She peeled out of the long driveway, hoping to get to her newly rented cabin before she came undone. The roads were wet and slick. The winding drive through the hills was more treacherous than anticipated. She drove slowly despite the need to put distance between herself and the horrible memories. She was too stubborn to die in a fiery car crash. She surely wouldn’t give her kin the satisfaction. They’d all be killing each other for the fortune she’d earned doing the very thing they’d mocked through the length of a truly terrible childhood.

Little did they know—uncles, brother, even her mother—they all had the right to jack shit if she bit the bullet. It would almost be worth dying to see the looks on their faces when they found out. She might’ve considered it if she knew God would give her the satisfaction of a peek.

And with that morbid thought, Tabitha realized she wasn’t going to make it back to the cabin. She pulled off to the side of the road and opened the car door. She fell onto the embankment on her knees. Hidden in the wildflowers that grew everywhere this time of year in Garnet, she puked her guts up.

She retched so hard and for so long, she felt like she was ripping all the pain of her soul out through her stomach, and even then it wasn’t enough. The rain fell harder, soaking her hair as the thunder rolled. Lightning cracked in the distance, illuminating the gray sky. It’d be just her luck to get struck. She certainly didn’t see how things could get much worse than they were at that moment.