Chapter XII – The Queen of Swords
So I studied her.
When she first moved in she certainly had a lot of very expensive clothes for someone with such a lowly job. Like she had cleared out an Escada sample sale. After she married my father, those clothes were thrown out and a Talbot’s and Saks thing were inaugurated as she tried futilely to impersonate my mother. Those were the places where we had accounts; that’s where my father thought women ought to shop. She learned those bills weren’t even looked at.
More regrets, more things to make up for. How can I be so young and have so much to undo? But I didn’t attend the funeral. I was still too angry. When my sisters tried strong-arming me, I went to Vegas. It was where Penn wanted to go. Even I had the perfect rationale; my father hated funerals and never attended if he could possibly get out of it. McKenzie gave the eulogy; she said something like “If my father were with us today he wouldn’t be with us today.” Meaning, I guess, that his mind was so destroyed he ought to be dead.
I know this because they posted the video online. I only came back when Charmian announced our childhoods were up for sale.
Penn and I were already on the outs. He had discovered upfront close and personal Texas Hold ’Em. Whoa! Something in real life he liked better than online! A step forward? I don’t think so. He’ll tell anyone it’s not gambling but a game of skill, and so I’d been alone in our hotel room anyway. Now I have a lifetime of pictures that are too painful to look at. Things I have to compensate for. My only friend was my diary. So I started in on these diaries. You have to have somebody to tell. I was twenty years old but I felt my life over.
Searing, almost unbearable pain chewing me up inside whenever I thought of my father or my mother. But why? That was the question that obsessed me. If I hadn’t done anything terrible, so why did I feel so guilty? My mother was probably in the heaven that rewards martyrs, some disembodied spirit loving everybody equally, and my father was lost in the oblivion he had always insisted was just fine with him. But they didn’t feel dead to me. They didn’t feel gone. In some horrible way, they were more alive than ever. Inside of me. I felt them, right there at my elbow, horning in between me and the blank page, gazing up in mute supplication.
I apologize for turning this into a horror story of the demonic and the possessed. But you have to tell the truth. What else is there? Penn said it was the fault of that “classical education” my father had insisted on. Everyone was guilty, guilty, guilty all the time.
Penn didn’t feel guilty. Not when he stole my PIN number and cleaned me out. Not when he cheated and got kicked out of the casino. Penn is not better off. It’s better to have behavior mean something. Otherwise you’re just clawing your way up in the crab bucket. Like Charmian.
At least I did some things right. I hadn’t legally tethered myself to this jerk. That’s because my father said it’s smart to rent before you buy.
Our childhood house was cold and empty. My room had long since been eviscerated. Charmian tossed “some items” for each of us in cardboard boxes labeled with our names, but what I needed wasn’t there. Justice. That’s what I wanted. Just the facts, ma’am. Nothing but the truth.
Who was this woman who stood so confident, shining like a goddess before us? Was she really even my father’s wife? I had some vague hope that if she had married him under a fake name, I could have the marriage set aside. Declared null and void. All that time I was studying psych I should have gone pre-law. There was way too much I didn’t know.
I couldn’t even hint to my sisters; they might try to block me. I went through my father’s desk but she’d cleaned out everything. I was too late. If there was any evidence left I’d have to drag it up out of my own brain.
Dad and I interviewed candidates for “personal care assistant” together. I’d looked right at her resume. What had it said? I struggled to dredge it up before me. My psych professor assured me everything – everything we saw is locked somewhere in our memory. Should I get myself hypnotized? Would that unlock the secret?
That night, the night Charmian closed on both houses she took us out to dinner before driving us to the lake to gloat over her new abode.
I spent the entire meal trying to assess her difference. She looked younger. Maybe she had had “work”, she was definitely letting her hair grow up. Instead of streaks, it was flat-out blonde. The upper-class wife was gone; suddenly she looked like a graduate-level art student in one-of-a-kind batik and handmade jewelry. Alone in the restroom, my sisters said it was the Boulder look. Charmian didn’t come with us. Charmian must have known that we would talk about her, but Charmian is superior to our girlish bodily needs. Charmian never steps from behind the curtain; she wants us to have no idea how the magic is done.
She was leaving Colorado Springs behind, they said. I thought I was looking at a satisfied vampire reveling in her victim’s blood. She had given herself new life by sucking my father dry.
I tried getting her to talk about her past, to give me anything to go on, but she was more than a match for me. All she wanted to talk about was me. She needed a new victim now, and she wasn’t subtle about it, either. Rebelliously I ordered Alfredo sauce for my shrimp; I got the lecture on The Ten Foods You Can’t Ever Eat. (All of them my favorites, of course. Mine and my father’s.) My sisters failed to back me up. They’re all for being skinny. I ordered dessert to spite her, but I was depressed. Who’s the loser here? The oinker with the whipped cream moustache or the goddess with the Centurion Amex card? My sisters exchanged that maddening “older-sister” look. Once again I was just too, too, outré.
But we were all shocked into silence by the new house; a battleship of wood and cedar lording it over the silent lake. All admit that I was jealous. That view, those windows, that dock, the privacy – why would you ever leave? She had done very well for herself. Charmian Carr, whoever she was, had arrived.
After a walk-through of the luxurious, marble-bathroomed chalet (it was filled with boxes and a jumble of new-looking furniture but not, I saw, my father’s desk) she insisted on driving us back to her hotel for a “nightcap.” If her plan was to amuse herself by getting me slobbering drunk, she failed. I had one lousy cognac, and then asked her what she was doing with my father’s desk. She said she’d sold all the furniture “nobody wanted” to an auctioneer. I wanted to yell at her that I hadn’t been given a chance but that would just get everybody started on the Daughter Who Skipped Her Father’s Funeral.
Alone at last in Darby’s car, McKenzie turned down my musical selection (Gone Daddy Gone by the Violent Femmes) and said, “Our only hope is if she marries again.”
“Why would she?” demanded Darby. “Why sacrifice all that money?”
“Because she might meet somebody richer,” said McKenzie. “Plenty of people are richer than Dad. There are billionaires out there. Somebody young and handsome.”
“You are both crazy,” I said. “She’ll never marry again. She can pay for all the men she wants as long as she doesn’t marry any of them.”
“This is Charmian we’re talking about, right?” Darby said, deadpan. “Greed-crazy Charmian? She’s only forty-three years old. I say she’ll marry two or three more times.”
“She says she’s forty-three,” I sneered. “Why believe anything she says? She’s probably a tranny.”
“Give it a rest,” said Darby, giving me a strange look. “You’re only going to become more like her.” Sisters say the meanest things.
That night I had a terrible dream. I was making out with this hot guy. I was so aroused; I well recall the lubricious richness of my own bodily fluids bubbling and boiling. His hands were everywhere, aggressively manipulating me, compressing and expanding, bending my previous stiffness into fantastic shapes. And I, who have always been so shy in bed – I mean, I don’t want anyone to catch some deal-breaking visions of my folds and layers – was just a helpless panting mass of “do me-do me-do me.”
He rolled me over on my back and – I don’t know how else to explain this – the top of his head fell away and Charmian’s face came spilling out. She grinned wolfishly like she had caught me out, as if she knew who I really was and had demonstrated to the universe than I was way, way, sicker than her.
I could re-experience that cold horror again right this minute, but I refuse. A dream so terrible you either die or you wake up.
But sisters aren’t a total loss. Trapped in the horrible meeting I was called to on the day I saw Charmian disguised as Harmless Old Lady Offering You An Apple in a Disney Pic, I texted both of them (under the table) Remember anything about Charmian’s resume? Where she came from? Anything? And braced myself for the storm of personal “get a life” abuse that was bound to follow.
They couldn’t say anything worse than what this guy was telling us now as he explained how print journalism was totally in the toilet. I could tell from the stricken faces all around that this was Unwelcomely Horrifying News, but I’ve never felt trapped in any one world. I sell advertising. That will never go away. Even in a nuclear winter we’ll all be selling each other gas masks.
My sisters are so old they hate to text. So I was not surprised to be trapped in a three-way conference call on the way out to my car.
“She had a degree from some funky community college in East Texas,” Darby said. “Don’t you remember, McKenzie? You said something about how they probably operated out of a pizza box.”
“Cricklewood,” suggested McKenzie.
“Too Dickensian,” said Darby.
I could have wept with joy. Three’s a charm. “Cold Creek,” I remembered. “Cold Creek Community College.” Shared Brain compensates for years or ridicule and childhood abuse.”
“They probably don’t exist anymore,” said Darby. “Some Fly By Night Correspondence School Like You’ve Seen on TV. Otherwise you could sign up and go back to school.”
“Get a degree in Mortuary Science,” McKenzie suggested.
“For pets,” said Darby.
But what I did was sit down in the front seat of my car, my laptop and start looking up flights.
One response to “Queen of Swords: a novel”
Wow, this blog post is very intriguing. The author does an amazing job of painting a vivid picture of the protagonist’s complicated relationship with their father and stepmother. I am left with one question, though – do you think the protagonist will ever find the justice they seek? Will they be able to uncover the truth about Charmian and set things right?