My phone vibrated from where I had it stashed and I pulled it out to glance at the text.
It was simple. It was sweet. It was a reminder that after this was all said and done, I had somewhere to go. I had someone that would always want me. I had never returned to anything or anyone in my entire life, so it sent warm and gooey threads of love and happiness shooting all through me so that I absolutely couldn’t wait to get back home. I wanted to get back to Rowdy. The days I had to spend apart from him felt years longer than the decade we had previously spent separated.
I missed him. I was worried about my sister. I wanted to cuddle with my dog. I wanted to get back to work, and as much as it surprised me, I really missed the crystal-clear Colorado sky. I had found my place and it would take a real act of God to remove me from it now. I sent him back the return sentiment and stood up as the service ended with a final prayer and everyone started to file out.
Exiting church took forever. Everyone had to say hello. Everyone had to stop and shake my father’s hand and tell him how much they appreciated his kind words and giving nature. I had to literally bite my tongue when more than one person muttered under their breath about the shock that they had felt about what had happened with Oliver and my sister. The sympathy the churchgoers so readily offered my father and mother as they told them to stay strong during this trying time made me see red. The fact that the lunatic that had held my sister hostage, put a gun to her head, and beat her senseless more than once had been so skilled at hiding all of his evilness while my sister suffered alone and in silence made my insides boil with rage. The injustice of it all left a vile taste in my mouth and had fury coiling tight along my spine.
Rowdy had gotten Poppy home without incident, but once they were in Denver, my sister had started to break down. She was a mess and Rowdy was at a loss as to how to help her. Poppy didn’t want to be at my apartment, she didn’t want to be alone with him at his place, so out of desperation Rowdy had called Sayer and asked her to take both of them in until I got home. Luckily Sayer had plenty of room at her Victorian and she was well versed in how to handle my sister in her fragile state. Sayer Cole was turning out to be a lifesaver, and the fact that she had dropped everything to pursue the same man I had pursued was undeniably fortuitous, and I was so grateful she had found her way into our lives. Rowdy’s endless prophesizing that all things happened for a reason really did seem to be true. There was a lot of really nasty stuff and a lot of really ugly bumps in the road we had all had to overcome, but in the end it really felt like all of us had ended up exactly where we were supposed to be. For me, I knew without a doubt that was wherever Rowdy was at, but I felt like it rang true for Poppy and Sayer as well.
I was the last one to leave. I felt like I was saying good-bye to this life and this place the right way this time. I wasn’t running in a blind panic. I wasn’t sacrificing all the good that was in my life just to escape the bad. I was leaving on my own terms and taking a stand to prevent any of the evil that lived here from reaching out and getting its tentacles into me and my sister ever again.
I smoothed my hair down. Tugged at the hem of my shirt and took a deep breath. I wasn’t nervous so much as I was anxious and ready for it to all be over with. I had to squint into the sun when I exited the church doors. My mother and father were standing on the top step waving to the last of the parishioners as they exited the parking lot for the rest of their Sunday afternoon. I flinched away when my mom reached out a hand to touch me. After ten years . . . it had been so long, they looked older and far less impressive than I remembered. I saw my dad’s eyes skate over all the tattooed skin that was exposed by my white, ruffled top and immediately saw the censure and disgust rise up in his gaze.
“It wasn’t bad enough that you desecrated our home with your lack of morals and lack of respect, you had to go and violate your body in an unholy way as well?” He shook his dark head at me like I really had shamed him in some unforgivable way. “Why am I not surprised?”
At another point in time that dig would’ve stung. It would have made me feel guilty for the choice to wear art on my body and for claiming my skin as my own, but now I saw it for what it was, a desperate attempt to belittle me, a way to exert his control and put me back under his disapproving thumb. I lifted an eyebrow at him and looked back and forth between him and my mom.
“I didn’t think you would want to do this here on the steps of the church, where any of your followers might happen by, but that’s fine by me. I don’t have anything to hide. Can you say the same thing, Dad?”
I saw my mom start out of the corner of my eye and saw my dad’s shoulder tense just a fraction. My mom reached out again and this time I let her fingers land on my forearm.
“It’s been ten years, Salem. This is not a proper homecoming.”
I laughed, an actual laugh, and shook her off. “No, and that’s because this has never been any kind of home.” I tucked some of my hair behind my ears and glared hard at both of them.
“You ran me out of town on purpose when I was too young to know any better. You made it impossible for me to stay, and as a result you destroyed Poppy and you forced me to leave the only boy I ever loved behind.” I poked my dad squarely in the center of his chest and saw the way his eyes flared with veritable hatred for me. “I see it now. You knew I wasn’t going to break, wasn’t going to come to heel, so you made it so that I couldn’t stay and would never come back. Well, I’ll hand it to you, you won that round, Dad.”
He scoffed at me and wrapped his arm around my mother’s shoulders. I thought I saw her flinch but I wasn’t about to break eye contact with him, so I couldn’t be sure.
“You were willful and godless. You were wrapped up in a boy that was too young and had no family. There was no good in you, Salem. It was the best thing for this family for you to go out on your own. Your sister would have fallen victim to your heathen ways.”
I rolled my eyes. “My heathen ways led me to a wonderful career, a life full of great friends, and put me back on the path to the guy you forced me away from. My heathen ways led me to exactly where I was always supposed to be. You turned your daughter, your own flesh and blood, into a victim, into a shell of herself, because she was so scared of disappointing you. You nearly got her killed. How do you think your parishioners would feel about that, Dad?”
He tilted his chin defiantly and looked down his nose at me. He would never give in, never admit what he had done was wrong. Not when it came to me or to Poppy, but there was fear there. I saw it in the way his mouth tightened and the way he paled just a fraction. I could pull the mask off and everyone would see who he really was. I had the upper hand but he still knew how to dig his way under my skin.
“Poppy made many mistakes. She had a penance to pay.” The blame would always fall on someone else.
The rage that was riding me so hard burst bright and hot between my eyes. I wanted to smack him across his smug face. Instead I curled my fingers into my palms and dug in so hard that I drew blood.
“She had sex, Dad. Most girls in college do, and that is not an unforgivable sin that she needs to pay penance for the rest of her life.”
He was going to disagree and this was going to be an endless battle of words and wills, so I cut it short.
“Look, I don’t care what you think. I don’t care if you spend every single night trying to will me to my own special corner of hell. What I do care about is Poppy and making sure she is happy and safe moving forward. You are not to contact her. You are not to reach out to her. You are not to try and make her feel bad or vilify her for being involved in the death of a terrible man. I want you to leave her alone. Do you understand me?”
My mom made a noise in her throat and my dad grunted at me. “You don’t speak for your sister, Salem. There is still hope for Poppy to find her way back to the flock.”
I growled and took a step forward. “If she contacts you, all you are going to do is tell her you are happy she is okay and that you support the choices she is making. You do not want to push the issue with me, Dad. I’m not a kid anymore and I will fight you tooth and nail for her.”
“You can’t threaten me, Salem.”
“Oh, really? If you think you’re embarrassed by the way I was when I lived under your roof, just wait until I drag out all the dirt that’s under my nails from the things I did to survive when you ran me off. Did you know I was a stripper? How do you think you would like some of those videos and pictures uploaded to the Web with your name and the church attached?”
I lifted a challenging eyebrow and watched him weigh if I was serious or not.
“How about the years I spent as a burlesque dancer or the time I worked for a freak show on a boardwalk, or the time I hosted a drag show in a g*y bar? What about a sex tape? You have no idea the kind of skeletons I can drag out of the closet, and once something ends up on the Internet, it never dies. I can drag you and this entire parish into the mud. Don’t push the issue with me, Dad. I will do whatever I have to do to keep Poppy safe. Oh, and that kid next door that had no family and wasn’t good enough for us is actually all grown up, wildly successful, and willing to fight right by my side. Did I mention his sister is a lawyer? I’m sure he would love to tell the world all about how you pushed Poppy to date that quarterback and then turned on her when he got her pregnant and left her alone. What kind of man of God are you? The kind that gives his daughter’s location to an abuser and covers up the fact that he’s been protecting a wife beater. The farce you have going on will disappear in a puff of smoke. I won’t just pull the mask off, Dad, I’ll shatter it into a million pieces.”
I crossed my arms over my chest as we faced off. I could see he wanted to fight, wanted to believe that he was beloved enough, had people enthralled enough, that all my dirty deeds wouldn’t tarnish his glow, but my mom suddenly moved out from under his arm and looked up at him pleadingly.
“She’s right. This has to stop.” My dad opened his mouth to argue and she held up a hand to silence him. “Enough. We lost one daughter already and Salem is right: we nearly got another one killed. I won’t be part of this anymore. This isn’t a righteous life.” She pointed a finger at my dad’s stunned face and told him flatly, “If you think your reputation can survive what Salem is threatening, then know this. It absolutely won’t survive your wife leaving you on top of it. You are going to do as she says and that is all there is to it.”
My father looked dumbfounded and furious. My mom looked shaky and kind of sick. She turned back to me and gave me a sad smile.
“I thought Oliver was good for your sister. She was never the same when she came back from college. I didn’t realize he was hurting her until it was far too late, and I allowed your father to convince me that Oliver had changed and was remorseful for the way he treated your sister. He told me that Oliver was healing through prayer and counseling. I was wrong to blindly believe and trust. I have been very wrong for the last decade. You take care of your sister and give her whatever she needs. We won’t get in the way.” She looked over her shoulder at my father and firmed her mouth. “I’ll make sure of it.”
I wasn’t going to say thank you. She didn’t get gratitude for finally doing something she should have been doing my entire life. It was her job to stand between her children and this man. I nodded and turned to walk away from both of them for the last time.
“Salem.” I looked over my shoulder as my mom called my name. “I need you to know it broke my heart when you left all those years ago.”
It broke mine, too, but not because I was leaving her. It broke my heart because I had left Poppy and Rowdy with waves of sorrow in my wake.
“Then you should’ve done something so I didn’t have to go, Mom.”