Asking for it, p.25
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       Asking for It, p.25

         Part #1 of Asking for It series by Lilah Pace
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  I can’t imagine a snack would make any difference in how I feel. But I realize Jonah’s trying to be helpful. To at least act like the lover he might someday be for me.

  When will that be? After all your secrets are told. So, never. My illusions have been overshadowed by harsh, cold fact.

  “If you can give me something to take with me, that would be great. ” I kneel to pull on my socks. “But I have to get out of here. ”

  By the time I’m ready to go, Jonah has a plastic grocery bag filled for me—a chicken sandwich, a banana, even a plastic bottle of orange juice. Provisions for his hostage, I guess.

  “You’re positive you’re ready to drive?” he asks.

  I nod. I’m ready because I have to be.

  “Your family—” Jonah hesitates for a long moment. “Are they going to take care of you?”

  He’s seen between the lines. As little as I’ve told him about Chloe and my mother, he already knows they don’t have my back. Not even a crisis like this is going to seal the rifts between us.

  Jonah’s a perceptive man. That doesn’t change anything.

  “You don’t talk about your family. I don’t talk about mine. We figure how much we can share, and how much we can’t. Aren’t those the new rules?” I pause and take a deep breath. “Thanks for the food. And—this setup was great. Some other time. ”

  He simply nods. The man is no better with good-bye than hello.

  When I sit behind the wheel of my car, lingering soreness reminds me of how perfectly Jonah fucked me only minutes ago. I was exhilarated. I was shaken to the core. But all of those emotions have been wiped away. Only dread remains.

  I’m on the verge of losing the last adult person in my family who hasn’t betrayed me.

  •   •   •

  “Sugar, you aren’t acting like yourself,” my dad said so many times that spring and summer. “We need to take you to the doctor. I think you have mono. ”

  “I don’t have mono,” I would say. “I don’t need to go to the doctor. ”

  Even if I’d been miserable with strep throat or stomach flu, I wouldn’t have gone to the doctor then. For months afterward, I was convinced that my next medical exam would somehow reveal I was no longer a virgin. That wouldn’t make Mom believe me about Anthony. Instead she’d have assumed I’d slept with a boy from school, told me I was fast, grounded me for months. Then I’d never be able to leave my house. I’d be stuck staying in, having to sit on that sofa and pretend I hadn’t been raped there.

  My father had no idea about what Anthony Whedon had done to me. My mom didn’t share my “lie” with him, and Chloe wasn’t the type to admit to anyone that she was worried about her little sister “flirting” with her boyfriend.

  Page 97

  And, of course, I never said a word to Dad myself. He wouldn’t have been as unkind as Mom or Chloe—but he wouldn’t have believed me either. I’d heard the things he’d said when he heard news stories about a girl found unconscious in an athletic dorm, or someone trying to prosecute the five guys who videotaped what they did with her while she was passed out. If a girl gets that drunk—if she goes to a young man’s dorm room—she knows full well what’s going to happen. She wouldn’t have done any of that in the first place if she wasn’t looking for sex. Now she’s been caught and doesn’t want people calling her a tramp, so she’s making up stories. Ruining those poor boys’ lives.

  I hadn’t been in a dorm. I hadn’t been drunk. I had been watching a movie on my own sofa. But I sensed there were other excuses to be made for Anthony, excuses that would come too readily to my father’s tongue.

  Hearing those words would have destroyed what little sense of security I still had. The surest way never to hear them was never to tell, and I didn’t.

  Instead I clung to him tightly. To some extent, I’d always been “Daddy’s girl” while Chloe stayed closer to Mom, but that summer I spent more time with him than ever before or since. Although I never cared much about sports, I pretended to develop an interest in the Zephyrs, so he’d take me to the home games. We’d sit up in the stands, cheer on the antics of the team mascot (a guy in a nutria suit, called Boudreaux), and eat peanuts. I still remember Dad sitting next to me, one hand holding his beer, the other around my shoulders. In moments like that, I almost felt like a little girl again.

  Not quite. But almost.

  I can’t lose my dad. If I do, then the slender thread that binds me to my family will snap. As insane as Mom and Chloe make me sometimes, even though I’ve never forgiven them for taking Anthony’s side and never will—I don’t want to be completely alone in the world.

  Then I will never, ever be able to make it up to Libby . . .

  Tears blur my vision, and for a moment the road seems to vanish. Fiercely I wipe my eyes and force myself to focus. This is no time to have a wreck. I have to make the best time I can without being pulled over by the highway patrol. Even if they did pull me over, I could tell them what happened to Dad. The cops would know I was telling the truth just by looking at me. So I press down on the accelerator, and my car speeds faster into the endless black landscape ahead.

  My phone rings. My entire body goes cold. It’s Chloe calling to tell me Dad’s already gone—

  —but it’s not her ringtone. It’s Jonah’s.

  I scoop the phone between my chin and shoulder. “Hey. ”

  “Vivienne,” he says. “Where are you?”

  “Outskirts of Houston. ”

  “Listen—what you said back at the cabin—”

  I try not to talk on the phone while I’m driving. Right now, I don’t need any more distractions. “What?”

  Jonah says, “You’re right. I haven’t told you enough about my life, and I haven’t listened to you about yours. ”

  “That’s not all your fault. ” It’s not like I haven’t kept certain doors locked.

  As significant as this conversation could be, it mostly just makes me crazy. I can’t think about Jonah right now. I need to focus. Is this really the best time for a heart-to-heart about our relationship?

  But then Jonah speaks again. “If you want things to go on like they have been, we can do that. But when I saw you leaving tonight, and you were hurting, and I couldn’t help you— Vivienne, I want something different for us. ”

  Despite my frustration and fear, Jonah’s words touch me. “Exactly how do we get there from here?”

  “I don’t know. All I can say right now is—if you need me, I can be there for you. I want to be with you. If that’s something that would help—if you’d take any comfort from that—just say the word. I’ll get on the first flight to New Orleans tomorrow morning. ”

  “Jonah,” I whisper. Tears threaten to overcome me again.

  “But if this is the wrong time—I know you have other things on your mind, and I don’t want to intrude on your family—”

  “Come. ” The word comes out as a sob. “Please come. ”

  He takes a deep breath. “You want me there with you?”

  “Yes. I do. ”

  Although Jonah sounded so unsure a few moments before, he turns decisive in an instant. “Okay. Next time you’re at a service station, text me your parents’ address. I’ll send my flight info as soon as I’ve booked the ticket. ”

  Page 98

  “Thank you,” I whisper.

  “And please tell me you’ve practiced changing a flat since we first met. ”

  My laugh is more like a sob. “I did. Arturo went over it with me. ”

  “Good. ” He pauses. “I should let you go so you can concentrate. But if you need to call me at any moment, then call. ”

  “I will. ”

  The line goes dead. This time I don’t mind the lack of a good-bye, because I know I’ll find Jonah again at the end of the road.

  How did this man with the power to terrify me also become the one person who truly makes me feel safe?

/>   •   •   •

  Our home is in the Garden District of New Orleans. It was built by a distant ancestor back in the 1890s. Since then it’s been remodeled for the basic modern comforts of AC, cable, and indoor plumbing, but we retain the cast-iron scrollwork on our gallery, the thick, ten-foot-high doors, and even the “carriage stone” out on the sidewalk—an old, white step that once made it easier for people to step into and out of horse-drawn carriages.

  This neighborhood has always been one of the most desirable in the city. A few movie stars have houses here, though they tend to appear only around Mardi Gras and Jazzfest. Our home is on one of the less fashionable streets, inhabited by the merely well-off rather than the mega-rich.

  Neither term has applied to my family in a couple of generations now. My parents keep up appearances, but at the cost of their savings. For years now I’ve wondered what they’re going to retire on, if anything. They could sell the house for millions, but that will never happen. For my mother, giving up this desirable address would mean admitting defeat.

  I cross the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge around four in the morning. The only other vehicles on the road are semis driven by truckers who are probably sky-high on speed. As soon as I exit the highway for local streets, the endless bumps and potholes in the road tell me I’m home for real.

  When I reach my parents’ house, I click the plastic box clipped to my sun visor. Slowly the metal gate in front of the driveway begins to slide open. I take the moment to check my phone. Jonah replied to my text of my parents’ address: FLIGHT ARRIVES 10:45 WILL CATCH TAXI.

  For a moment it seems like there’s still a way this could all turn out okay. If Dad makes it through, and Jonah’s here—I can bear this. I can.

  I walk to the front door. At first I think no one has waited up for me, but at the last moment before I go for the bell, the door opens. “There you are,” Chloe says. She’s wearing designer jeans, a form-fitting cashmere sweater, and gold-knot earrings—glamorous even at a moment like this. “You made good time. ”

  “Any change?” When Chloe shakes her head, I breathe out in relief. The only change that could’ve happened overnight would’ve been bad.

  As soon as I walk into the hallway, I see Mom coming down the winding oak stairs in a thick white robe, the pocket monogrammed in red. “Vivienne, darling. ” She hugs me too tightly, as if we were being watched by someone she wanted to impress. “It’s all so terrible. I still can’t believe it’s real. ”

  “Me either,” I say. Maybe the hug is genuine. Even my mother is vulnerable at a moment like this.

  Our house was built for a grander age. Twenty-foot ceilings on the first floor, French windows that stretch almost as high as the walls. In every downstairs room but the living room, my mother has decorated for that era instead of our own. Our dining room could seat twenty-four. If you don’t look too closely, you won’t notice that the long velvet drapes have become a bit shabby, or that dust has collected in the crystals of the chandelier.

  The long, low sofas are overly grand as well, but right now they look perfect, because one of them has been draped with a quilt to cover a sleeping little girl.

  “Libby,” I whisper. I want to brush my hand over her golden curls, her chubby cheeks. But of course I don’t want to wake her. “Why is she sleeping on the sofa?”

  “Dozed off down here, and we thought we might as well not move her. ” The answer doesn’t come from Mom or Chloe. It comes from Libby’s father.

  I straighten and take a deep breath before I turn around. “Hello, Anthony. ”

  Twenty-nine

  Sitting beside Anthony at the breakfast table makes my skin crawl.

  I tell myself what I always do: It’s not as bad as being a bridesmaid at their wedding, is it?

  No, it isn’t. But this still sucks.

  I took a quick nap around dawn, but now I’m here, drinking café au lait with my family as we pretend my father isn’t being wheeled into surgery this very moment.

  Page 99

  “He was on the golf course,” Mom says as she sips her coffee from a china cup. “They say he simply fell over. Not a word. Bud Teague didn’t call me until they were already at Touro. Wouldn’t you call a man’s wife first thing?”

  “I’d call an ambulance first thing,” I say. “Which Mr. Teague did. He might’ve saved Dad’s life, Mom. So maybe don’t worry about the etiquette. ”

  My mother gives me a wounded look, as does Chloe. It’s my sister who reprimands me as she primly spoons a slice from her grapefruit half. “We’re all upset. I think sometimes it’s easier to fret about little things than the big things. ”

  That would almost be wise, if it came from someone who didn’t take it to the point of living in total denial.

  “Do you want some Cocoa Krispies, Aunt Vivi?” Libby believes us when we tell her that her PawPaw is going to be just fine, so she’s as bright and chipper as ever. “’Cause look, I have Cocoa Krispies, and then we would be alike. ”

  “Aunt Vivi would rather have some bacon, wouldn’t you, darlin’?” Anthony always smiles when he calls me darling. He knows I hate it. He also knows I can’t shoot him down for it without roiling waters we’ve all allowed to lie still.

  “I’ll have Cocoa Krispies,” I say, to make Libby smile. Besides, I’m operating on about two hours’ sleep, so I could use the sugar rush.

  “Better watch it with that kind of junk,” Anthony says. “Don’t want to lose that pretty figure, do you?”

  How dare he examine my body. How dare he act as if he should get to control me. I say only, “You’re one to talk. That’s your fourth piece of bacon. ” And I cast a pointed glance at his softer middle, but then I wish I hadn’t. Even looking directly at him revolts me.

  He and Chloe broke up and got back together endless times during undergrad. Each time they split filled me with hope. Maybe this time he’d go away for good; maybe Chloe would be so angry with him that she’d think again about what I’d told her, and realize it was the truth.

  But Anthony sweet-talked his way back into her life over and over again. My mom did what he couldn’t, encouraging Chloe to take him back. I know Mom was thinking more of the Whedon family fortune than anything else. If only the same were true for Chloe. Instead she actually loves the son of a bitch.

  I can tell Anthony’s trying to think of a comeback to my “bacon” remark, so I decide to move the conversation along fast. “When can we visit him?”

  “Once he’s in the recovery room. ”

  “Not before surgery?” So much for my hopes of seeing him before the operation.

  “No, not until after. ” Mom looks stricken, and for a moment, the real love she feels for my father eclipses everything else. I feel like her daughter, the one who trusted her so much. Despite everything I still want to trust her. “We’ll all go in together. ”

  “Not Olivia,” Chloe says hastily. “She’s too little. It will frighten her. ”

  “I’m not too little!” Libby insists. She would say this no matter what we’d just suggested, whether it was visiting the hospital or steering a fire truck. “And I want to see PawPaw. ”

  Mom says, “I tell you what, Chloe. Vivienne and I will go in first. If Thad seems up to talking, you can bring Olivia in with you. If not, she can stay with Anthony. ”

  Libby looks like she might cry. Anthony chucks her under the chin. “Cheer up, sunshine. I’ll take you someplace nice. ”

  She smiles at him. This little girl I love so much adores her father. To her he can do no wrong.

  Someday, no doubt, Libby will learn that’s not true. But she’ll never learn it from me.

  •   •   •

  The mundane has a way of intruding on the extraordinary.

  Mom runs out of bread, and Libby will want some milk later on, plus I don’t have any extra underwear with me. (Thank goodness I can write this off to packing in a hurry. ) So aroun
d ten A. M. —even while our dad is lying on an operating table—Chloe and I make a Walgreens run.

  “I feel so guilty,” I say as I grab a package of cheap Hanes bikini briefs from the drugstore wall. “I know it doesn’t make any difference whether we’re in the waiting room, or at home hoping the phone will ring, but—buying panties and groceries seems so trivial. ”

  “It’s trivial until you’re hungry,” Chloe points out. “Besides, what would be the point of the waiting room?”

  Page 100

  This isn’t as heartless as it sounds. We live not even a five-minute drive from the hospital, which means the house is as logical a spot to wait as anyplace on-site could be. I know my parents stayed at the house while I was getting my tonsils out; they sat with me on the upstairs gallery while Chloe was in labor.

  And if we get bad news, Mom would rather fall apart in private. Even then, she would care about appearances. Then again, I’d probably rather be at home too. Then I wouldn’t have to think about driving back, or pulling myself together to talk to doctors, or anything. I could just let go.

  Listen to yourself, I think. You’re telling yourself how to react if your father dies.

  Which is when Chloe’s phone rings.

  We both freeze. She and I stare at each other, stricken. This is too early for them to be calling, isn’t it? Too early if it’s good news—

  Chloe fumbles in her purse for her cell phone. As she lifts it to her ear, she holds her other hand out to me. For this moment we are sisters again, sisters only. Daddy’s little girls.

  “Momma?” Chloe’s voice shakes. I can just make out my mother’s voice—high, tremulous—but the words escape me.

  Then Chloe smiles, and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.

  Thank God. Thank God.

  I hug Chloe tightly. She hugs me back like nothing had ever come between us, or ever could.

  This truce lasts all of seven minutes.

  After we cry our eyes out standing in the Walgreens cosmetics aisle, and Chloe relates the details (went even better than expected, new valve is functioning perfectly), we check out and head back home. As Chloe steers her beige-gold Lexus down Napoleon Avenue, she asks, “What else do we need to do for him? He’s got his bag. We can bring him a couple of books—”

 
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