Chapter 11: Aunt Sarah
I took a sip of beer and stared at the imaginary line. All I had to do was hop in my Jeep and drive fifty feet and I’d be back in
The gravel parking lot was empty save for me and a rusty tractor that most likely had been parked there since the Carter administration. The State Line Inn—which really wasn’t an inn at all—was a square building with red wood siding that seemed smaller than what I remembered.
Even though the sun was directly overhead, it was at least twenty degrees cooler than it had been in the desert. But the air was humid and thick. Every inhale was like breathing warm bath water. My t-shirt was soaked with sweat and my stitches were starting to itch.
I caught sight of a deer dashing along the edge of the wildlife preserve just north of the
I looked back to the road. It was easy to tell where the actual state line was. Aside from the fences and the tree lines, the road that ran into
I finished my beer and got in the Jeep. Cerberus was watching the deer in the distance. The dogs eyes were wide, his brows turned down over his nose. The last time I saw him with that look on his face was just before he tore into Benoit.
“Easy now, dog. I don’t want to have to put that chain on you.”
He just ignored me and kept staring. I could feel his low grumble through the car seat. I gave him a tussle behind his ears then pulled out of the gravel lot and onto the road.
When I crossed over I couldn’t lose the image of Charon himself guiding me over the river
As I drove farther away from the state line, the fields gradually turned into farmland. Corn tassels waved in the breeze while the cattails and milkweeds that infected the roadsides wilted in the wet heat. Oak trees that were heavy with thick and green leaves hovered over the road.
Houses started coming into view as the land became more domesticated. Ranch homes, farm houses, the occasional dilapidated barn. There were animal pastures browning under the summer sun while cows and sheep clustered underneath what shade they could find.
Cerberus’ head was up and his nose was twitching through the rush of air as he held his head outside the window. I sniffed and smelled a nearby buffalo farm. Christ, that was frightening. Even after living nearly a decade in LA I could still tell the difference between a horse farm, a cattle farm, and a buffalo farm just by the stench of shit in the air. Damn I wish I could put that on a résumé.
After most of the cornfields and cow pastures bled into country yards and subdivisions, I came to a large grass field just off the road about a mile before it intersected with Highway 41. The field was a ten acre rectangle of flat, freshly mowed grass that was flanked on all sides by grotesquely affluent homes. A nearby hanger housed the crop dusters and Cessnas that used the field as a landing strip. Several of the houses themselves had small planes docked in the little carports just off the garages.
I pulled onto the road that ran parallel to the landing strip and drove the half mile to the end, then followed it around to the other side of the strip until I came to a three story home that would have rivaled Rick’s house in the hills. It was a castle made of cobblestone and glass. And when I parked my dusty Jeep in the driveway, I could feel the value of the house depreciate.
I got out and stretched. It felt good to stand. Other than the pitstop at the
A bi-plane was on the runway and taxiing for take-off in our direction. Cerberus was marking a nearby bush when he caught sight of the plane a few hundred yards away. The muscles in his shoulders tensed, his claws dug into the turf, and then he was gone. And I mean gone.
Cerberus tore ass across the grass field toward the airplane. I called out to him but the damn thing kept running, his legs churning like the wheel brackets on an overheated locomotive. I had no idea who his previous owners were, but I got the distinct impression that they didn’t let him run around that much. And when a dog is looking at several acres of empty space with a giant red toy coming at him, a whistle and a “here boy” ain’t gonna cut it.
Cerberus was closing in fast as the plane lifted off the ground. It was about fifteen feet up when the dog reached it. As the plane passed over his head, he jumped and snapped at the plane’s wheel axle. He missed by a few feet, did an awfully inelegant tumble in the air, and landed in full stride after the plane again.
“What is wrong with that fucking dog?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.”
I turned and saw Sarah with her hands on her hips and a crooked smile on her face. She was half my height, twice my age, and prettier than most people ever hoped to be.
“Daniel, what happened to you?”
“What, the stitches? Oh they’re all the rage in LA. Pretty soon all the fashionistas’ll be wearing them.”
She dismissed my snarkiness with a wave and hugged me. She smelled like apricots. “Daniel, what on earth are you doing here? I thought you weren’t allowed here any more.” She put her arm through mine and led me to her front door.
“I’m not. And I don’t plan on being here any longer than I have to be.” She led me inside and closed the door behind me. “And call me Dingo.”
“I will do no such thing,” she said. “I will not allow you to wear that albatross around your neck while you’re in my house.”
It was cool inside and the iron bar of heat that had been weighting me down for the last two thousand miles finally lifted.
The house itself was open with a single support beam running through the main line of the structure. The second and third floors stopped just before the large open area where the sun beamed through two large windows, illuminating the leather furniture below in a warm, orange glow. It reminded me of the large cathedrals my parents dragged me to when I was a kid.
Sarah pulled a beer from the fridge, handed it to me, and gestured me to sit on the sofa. “So, what brings you into the lion’s den?”
“Straight to business, huh?”
“We can start with the small talk if you want. I hear you have a girlfriend.”
“Well, I had one when I left. Not so sure I have one now.” I hadn’t talked to Julie since she took her ferret and ran for the hills. I tried calling her several times but she never answered.
“Her loss. How’s Rick?”
“Famous as ever.” I took a long drink from the bottle. The thin coating of dust inside my throat gently washed away.
Sarah looked at me out of the corner of her eye for a moment as she twirled a lock of hair between her fingers. “Would you like a little more chit-chat, or are you ready to tell me what you’re doing here?”
“You know, Sarah. I’m getting the impression you aren’t too happy to see me.”
“Daniel, please. You know that’s not true and stop changing the subject.”
I finished the bottle and set it on the coffee table. “Darby stole the box.”
“The one I worked for your mother?”
Sarah got up and pulled a bottle of orange juice from the fridge. “How’d she find it?”
I gave her the abridged version: idiot brother, mic stand, idiot customer, open box, thug, twelve stitches, trip to Indiana. She just nodded and drank her juice.
“She’s in Terre Haute now, but I don’t know for how long.”
“Why not just let it go?”
This time I went to the fridge to grab another drink. “You know I can’t do that.”
“One, because I promised I’d keep it safe and B, nobody gets away with stealing my shit.”
“You know what I mean.”
Sarah threw her hair back over her shoulder. “I’ve been your mother’s best friend for forty years, Daniel. I think she’d—”
“You’d be wrong.”
Sarah watched me for a moment then stood up and walked to the large bay window that looked out to the landing strip. There were no planes to be seen, but Cerberus was still running the length of the field as if hellfire was burning his tail. “That’s a strange dog you have. What’d you say his name was?”
“Cerberus.” I swallowed half the bottle of beer.
“Where’d you get him?” she asked.
“Picked him up on the way to Vegas. Found him abandoned at some rundown gas station.”
She watched the dog run and jump and chase things that weren’t there. “You don’t usually pick up stray animals, do you. What made you take this one?”
“I don’t know. He just seemed…I don’t know. He was abandoned, left to burn in the heat. Besides, he reminded me of a three legged mutt I used to know.”
“Kind of an odd coincidence that you come across this dog just as you’re about to lose the box, don’t you think?”
“It’s just a dog, Sarah.”
Sarah laughed and walked back to the couch. “A dog the size of my hatchback that tries to pull airplanes out of the sky is not just a dog, Daniel.”
I looked out the window. Cerberus was a dark streak across the green. He just wouldn’t stop running. “Whatever he is, he saved my life.”
“Well, just be careful. Because it looks like you’re getting in the thick of it, honey.”
I snorted. “I’m just trying to get the box back, Sarah. I’ve got nothing to do with any of that nonsense.”
“If you say so.” Sarah set her juice on the table and walked over to a bookshelf. She grabbed something from the top shelf and then handed it to me. It was a picture of her and my mom at Rick’s first release party. Sarah’s eyes were half opened, an empty champagne glass in her hand. My mother’s face was twisted into a smile, the dark pendant around her neck like a black hole pulling her features into a warped and unnatural grimace. “I wanted to give you this when it was taken, but you were already gone by then.”
I handed it back to her. “I really don’t need it.”
I knew this was going to happen. I loved Sarah to death. Though she wasn’t a blood relative, she was still as much a part of the family as anyone. Hell, she was more a mother to me than my own mother, but I simply wasn’t in the mood to talk about the bitch that birthed me.
Sarah sat next to me and pointed at my mom. “Do you know what’s so special about this picture?” I shrugged. “It’s the first time your mother ever smiled after Michael.”
Rick’s release party had been almost two years after the whole mess with Michael. Although I could never honestly remember my mother ever smiling, especially at me, I couldn’t imagine not smiling for nearly two years. Even I smiled more often than that. “What’s your point, Sarah?”
“No point. Just wanted you to see it. But you should keep it. You need to remember that your mother—”
“She’s dead, Sarah.”
I stood up and went to the fridge for another beer. “Look, I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”
Sarah leaned back into the couch, spreading her arms along the top. “Okay, if you don’t want to talk about that, let’s talk about something else instead. Like why you’re here. You show up on my doorstep with your handsome face falling apart and a dog that chases airplanes. I know you missed me, Daniel. But seriously, why come here?”
I tossed the bottle cap into the sink and watched it clank around. “Because, Sarah. You’re the only one I know who can do it.”
“Do what, Daniel?” She sat forward on the couch, her hands resting comfortably on her knees.
“I want you to destroy it.”
Her brow bent over her eyes and her mouth was pursed into a sideways smile. “What would that accomplish?”
I sat down and started pulling the paper from my bottle of beer. “I don’t know. Maybe end all of this. End my obligation to keep hiding the damn thing.”
Sarah clasped her hands and stared at me in a way that made me feel like I was about to be sent to the principal’s office. I couldn’t help but squirm in my seat. “Look, Daniel. You can destroy the box. You don’t even need me for that. It’s just wood, nothing special about it. It’s what’s inside that’s the problem.”
“I know. That’s why I need you.”
“I can’t do it, Daniel. And even if I could, would you really want me to?”
When I spoke, she shrank back into the couch. “Twenty-seven people, Sarah. Some of them kids. You bet your sweet ass I’d want you to.”
Sarah stared at me with her soft blue eyes and then nodded. She stood up, smoothed her sun-dress, and said, “Well, unfortunately, it can’t be done. I’m sorry Daniel.”
I figured as much, but it didn’t hurt to ask. I just wanted to be rid of the damn thing. The idea of letting it go appealed to me, but there was no way I could let Darby keep it. I had promised to keep it hidden. Besides, there was no way in hell I was going to take a chance on that monster running loose in the world.