by Joyce Faulkner
At first it was just a vibration -- like a distant heartbeat, then the faint smell of smoke. Hedy opened her eyes. Someone stood at the foot of her bed.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.” Alicia Jennings’ cigarette glowed in the darkness.
“Why are you here? Is something wrong?” Hedy could just make out her mother’s features in the gloom.
“You know why I came back.”
“Tell him to leave me alone.” Hedy pulled the quilt up under her chin.
“Comes a time when you have to let go of the past, Hedy. Forgive and forget -- that’s what I say.”
“I don’t know how to do that.” Hedy avoided Alicia’s eyes.
“I don’t think I can.”
“He’s your father. You owe him.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”
Hedy sat up in bed. “How can you defend him after what he did to you? To us?”
“That was years ago -- he’s paid for that.”
“Maybe that’s not up to you to say, Mama. You don’t have to live with it every day.”
Alicia stubbed out her cigarette in a china dish on Hedy’s dresser. “He’s changed.”
“I hope so, for his sake.”
“You are hard hearted, Hedy -- just like he used to be.”
Alicia lit another cigarette and exhaled.
“Don’t do this to me, Mama.” Hedy flinched. Smoke wasn’t her favorite thing. “Mama?”
Alicia was gone.
“For God’s sake, will this nightmare never end?” Every time her father’s case came up for review, Alicia came to plead for him.
Something sparkled in the mirror. Hedy threw on her robe and got up. It was the reflection of her mother’s lighter setting in the dresser. It was still warm. Holding it against her cheek, she examined her own reflection. The shiny scar started below her right eye, snaked down her jaw, crossed her upper chest and sliced her forearm from elbow to wrist. Time and several surgeries had minimized the grotesquerie, but it was an ugly reminder of the things she
learned at her father’s knee.
Sleep was no longer an option even though it was only six-thirty in the morning. She sighed and dropped the lighter into her robe pocket. In the living room, she curled up in front of the television under a blanket. Clay Jennings’s face flashed on the screen. The documentary on his case was on Court TV again. She clicked it off before they showed the famous photograph of Ronnie Kowalski carrying her out of the flames.
Thirty-eight years since that night and it was still in her face.
She was kissing Ronnie Kowalski on the front porch swing when her father yelled from the back of the house, “YOU STUPID BITCH!”
Ronnie startled. “What the hell?”
She flushed. Couldn’t she have one nice evening without them embarrassing her?
“STAY BACK!” A loud crash drowned out Alicia’s voice.
“Should we do something?” Ronnie peered into the living room window. “Maybe they need help?”
“They’re fine -- just drunk.”
The doorbell woke her.
“Miz Jennings?” The white-suited man towered over her.
“What do you want?”
“I’m Gabriel Angelino?” His embossed business card included ‘Esquire’ after his name. “I represent Clay Jennings in his appeal?”
“There’s nothing I can do, Mr. Angelino.” She tried to close the door, but he blocked it with his briefcase.
“I need to talk with you, ma’am.”
Irritated, she sighed and let him in. Usually she wore thick make-up, but she was in her nightclothes and her cheeks were clean. His eyes lingered on her scar. She resisted covering her face with her hand. Like he didn’t know what happened.
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Yes, ma’am. If you don’t mind.” He followed her into the kitchen and sat down at the table.
“Tell them that they can do anything they want. I don’t care,” she said as she put on the kettle.
“I’m afraid that’s not good enough.” He set his briefcase on the table. “He’s not getting out until you forgive him. That’s policy.”
“I don’t hate my father, Mr. Angelino. I’m not even mad at him. I moved on years ago. Okay?”
The lawyer took a file out of his briefcase. “It doesn’t work that way. He’s done his mandatory stretch, but now he has to get pardons from all the parties. Your mother indicated her willingness to forgive him years ago. You are the only one standing in his way.”
Alicia’s scream raised goose bumps on Hedy’s neck.
“We need to help her,” Ronnie stood up.
Hedy gripped his arm. “I’ll go see what’s going on.”
“But what if she’s hurt?”
“Go home, Ronnie.” She gave him a push.
“She won’t want you in there.”
He backed away. “What if you need me?”
He called from the sidewalk.
“I won’t.” She turned and went inside.
Hedy poured hot water onto the tea bags inside each mug.
“The state took care of all that right after it happened. It wasn’t up to me then, I don’t see why I have anything to say now.”
Angelino held up a death warrant. “Your father paid his debt to the state twenty-nine years ago when he was executed.”
“Closure.” Hedy served his tea and sat down across from him. “That’s what they said anyway -- but of course, whether he’s alive or whether he’s dead doesn’t change anything for me.”
“It was only the beginning for Mr. Jennings.” Angelino handed her the record of her father’s progress through the celestial courts. “As you can see, the clerk assigned him to me that same night. I presented his case a few days later and he moved to his current accommodations immediately after adjudication.”
She rubbed her eyes. “So, is it like a prison for ghosts?”
“You are dealing with a whole other organization now, Miz Jennings. Different rules, different punishments, different opportunities.”
The struggle in the kitchen escalated. Another crash. Scuffling. Screams, grunts
and a strange gurgling sound. Heart pounding, Hedy burst through the door. Her
mother writhed on the table trying to ward off the long butcher knife clutched in her
“NO!” Hedy froze in the doorway. “Stop it, Daddy!”
The knife sliced through Alicia’s fingers and hit the table beside her head.
Something wet splattered Hedy’s cheeks.
Stunned, she wiped her face with the back of her hand. Blood!
Without thinking, Hedy tackled him screaming. “You’re killing her, Daddy!”
“It’s her own damned fault.” Clay swung the knife in a wide arc, slashing Hedy’s
cheek. “She made me do it.”
“Hedy,” Alicia moaned, pink bubbles frothing from her nostrils. “Go get help.”
“YOU STUPID BITCH.” Clay Jennings lifted the knife over his head, aiming at Alicia’s heart.
Hedy tried to push him away. “Don’t you hurt my Mama!”
Clay flung her against the wall and she fell hard against an overturned chair. Her feet slipping on the bloody linoleum, she struggled to get up.
Alicia’s scream was more of a wheeze. “Hedy, stay back --!”
Clay Jennings plunged the knife intAlicia’s chest just as Hedy jumped between them.
“What happens next?”
“He’ll be reassigned to a new body if everyone agrees that he’s ready.”
“Ready?” Hedy frowned.
“He’s been through a lot.”
Angelino tapped the paper. “He’s learned to accept responsibility for his choices. He understands that there are consequences even when a course of action is justified.”
“Oh yes, it was our fault. We got in his way. We made him angry.”
Gabriel Angelino raised an eyebrow.
She folded her arms across her chest. “You think I’m bitter, don’t you?”
“Then why can’t you forgive him?”
“I don’t know how, Mr. Angelino. I don’t even know what forgiveness is.” She leaned her head on her hands.
“What do you think it is?” His voice was kind.
“At first, I thought it was letting go of the emotion. Moving on with my life. Not being angry -- but then that is about me. What good does that do him? He doesn’t get a pass just because I’m doing okay.”
Angelino’s nod was noncommittal.
“Then I thought that it was about putting things right -- but there is no do-over here. My mother has been dead my whole adult life. I spent my twenties in hospitals -- first to fix my body, then to fix my mind. Then there were the trials, the appeals -- waiting for his execution. Getting over his execution.” She sniffed. “He can’t give me back my youth, Mr. Angelino -- or my mother.”
“No, he can’t.” Angelino sighed.
“Someone once told me there was peace to be found in amnesia. I tried everything from meditation to hypnosis -- but how do I forget my mother’s face that night? How do I forget that blade slicing into me? Or the smell of the blood? Do you know what it’s like when someone you love wants you dead, Mr. Angelino?”
The tall man’s eyes were damp.
She blew her nose on a paper napkin. “Actually, I don’t want to forget. Those memories make me cautious -- wise.”
“Wisdom comes at a price,” Angelino agreed.
“And even if I DO forget, how does that help my father?”
“Has nothing to do with him, that’s for sure.”
The pain didn’t start right away. She lay on the kitchen floor -- numb, bleeding. She thought she heard Alicia’s last breath. Clay staggered around the room, sobbing. “Look what you made me do, you bitch.” He slapped Alicia’s cheeks, trying to revive her. “Don’t you dare die on me.”
Hedy gritted her teeth, hoping he would pass out before she did.
Dropping the knife, he dragged Alicia’s body off the table and fell to the floor with it, cradling her in his arms. “Don’t leave me, baby.”
In the distance, a siren distracted him.
Through half closed eyes, Hedy watched him. Drunk, distraught and frightened, he arranged Alicia on the floor beside him --straightening her legs, smoothing back her hair. On all fours, he crouched over her -- wailing. “ALICIA!”
The siren grew louder. Clay Jennings quieted, listening. Wiping his nose on the back of his hand, he lumbered to his feet and looked around. The evening newspaper was on the table, Alicia’s last cigarette smoldering in the ash tray beside it. He wadded up the top sheet -- then the second one.
Using the cigarette butt, he lit sheet after sheet and tossed them around the room until the thin curtains over the sink ignited. Still sobbing, he lay down beside Alicia.
Smoke filled the room quickly. Hedy closed her eyes, knowing that she was going to die soon. She felt the heat on her face and heard the flames crackling. Her father coughed. She opened her eyes.
He got to his feet and stumbled out the back door, gasping for breath.
“Bastard,” she thought.