The Comfort of Secrets - Available Spring 2019 in both print and Ebook formats
A SHORT STORY AND FLASH FICTION MIX OF CONTEMPORARY REALISTIC AND SOUTHERN LITERATURE, DARK WITH GALLOWS HUMOR, IMBUED THROUGHOUT WITH GOTHIC THEMES.
The Comfort of Secrets and other stories is a breakthrough book, a collection of short fiction, an unsettling glimpse through the window of other people's lives. Its stories can be best described as disturbing, twisted, maybe even savage, yet all are undeniably captivating in their observation of where contemporary life meets the odd and uncanny. I hope this book will stay in your mind long after you've closed its cover. R.E. Vaughn
BE READY TO BE CARRIED ON A STRANGE JOURNEY where every anguished soul, regardless of strengths and convictions, questions the real world as well as the surreal one. Inside The Comfort of Secrets and other stories, you'll find "Fragile Boundaries," a father's death wish come-true for his daughter's abusive boyfriend; "Preserving A Country Life," a southern fiction short introducing Riley and Will, mischievous, naïve young brothers who cross paths with the reality and harshness of life and death while at their grandparents' farm; and "Green Bananas and Death," a tragicomic piece in which a young husband encounters Death . . . The Grim Reaper himself. These and the many stories in this collection are an uncanny vision of how we all live in a world with others unpredictable and dangerous, some even merciless and unforgiving. There's no doubt the characters and events here will guide you to that dark place that's been a well-kept secret.
AT SEVENTEEN, I WAS A TALL AND LEGGY BRUNETTE, an alluring young woman not yet mature enough to comprehend the dangers of a man twice her age. On my eighteenth birthday, I married that man. By twenty-four, my life had become no more than a gruesome charade masking my husband’s dark moods, violent rages and verbal cruelty, and my psychological disfigurement. The man I once loved became my tormentor, rotten to his core, putrid and foul like a weeks-old dead animal decaying roadside.
Frank was someone my family should’ve warned me about, someone I should’ve been able to trust, someone the police should’ve known was dangerous. But when I awoke one night to find him standing over me, the knife in his hand inches from my face, none of those things mattered anymore. When he left the following morning for a new job in California, I left as well, but not with him. That was almost a year ago.
I've since returned home and taken back my life. My days are filled with promise and hope. When I think about the happiness that's now mine and the horrors I endured to finally have it, killing my husband came easily.
I WAS ON A TRAILWAYS BUS with my five-year-old daughter, Nicole, when my phone rang. We were leaving Norfolk, Virginia, headed to my parents’ home in Atlanta. The man on the phone said in an urgent voice, “Diana? Is this Diana Pearson?”
I looked at my phone. No caller name showed. The number wasn’t familiar. But the area code should’ve been. In my mind, I blamed my lack of attention on Pete, the only man I’d been with since leaving Frank. My life took another wrong turn when Pete put Nicole and me out on the street and then skipped town. I answered with a flat, “No, sorry. Wrong number,” to the caller, thinking he was a bill collector.
The week before, Pete had moved to Miami. He left me with nothing. And I mean nothing. Everything was his: the apartment, the furniture in it, “our” bank accounts, even the piece-of-crap Volvo I bought from him but never titled in my name. I guess I was too gullible, too ordinary and predictable for his taste, too much of the same stupid for him to come home to every day. He wanted warm sand between his toes and tequila sunrises, different lips every weekend to plant his against. Without Pete, my existence was like a book I hated to read. I was left with no choice but to close the cover. Making it on my own financially was out of the question. I'd quit my dismal, eke-out-an-existence, barely-able-to-afford-bologna job as a teaching assistant, knowing I’d have to go back home. If I was to give my daughter the life she deserved, I’d need my parents’ help.
The man kept saying my name over and over, sounding like he hadn't heard me or didn’t believe me. Again, I told him he had the wrong number. “Diana, it’s Cecil,” he finally said, “your parents’ next-door neighbor. I saw Frank, your husband, at their house today.”
My jaw tensed. I shifted in my seat, staring outside as our long red-and-silver bus left the terminal. I took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Inside I was a mixed bag of emotions, part of me thankful for the phone call, the other wishing I'd never answered it. “I'm so sorry, Cecil, for not recognizing your voice."
My real sorrow was that Cecil had pointed out Frank was still my husband. Cecil meant no harm, but I couldn't help but cringe at the notion of still being married to the man, even if it was just for two more days. I wish I had told him Frank was no longer in my heart, and there was no chance he would ever win it back. To love Frank again would be like loving childbirth, a painful experience I’d lived through but didn’t care to repeat. In less than 48 hours, it would be the end of us, and I would be a free woman.
“It's okay, Diana, I understand, but I hate to tell you Frank’s moved back here. I remember your falling-out with your parents last year. Have you heard from your mother and father? I can call them if you—”
“No, don’t, Cecil,” I said, cutting him off. “I’ll call them myself.” Cecil Jenkins is a genial, sweet man in his early sixties with a sincere smile, bow tie, and an irritating habit of repeating himself, like a broken record. My former Sunday school teacher, he means well, but he’ll talk your ear off, nonstop, every chance he gets. If you try to hang on his every word—and good luck if you do—you’ll be hanging on a very long time.
I’ll call the police, was what I really felt like telling him. I don’t want that lecherous bastard living anywhere near me or my family. I found myself second-guessing my return home.
Nicole turned and looked up at me, a surprised expression on her tiny face at hearing Cecil's name. Concerned with what he had just told me, I didn’t look at her, but she knew I could see her from the corner of my eye. She kept leaning forward, brushing at the air in front of me, doing her best to get my attention, while giving me this goofy grin. I gave in and grinned back at her. My precious child had not forgot who Cecil was, even though we hadn’t talked to or seen him since last year. And she had not forgotten, either, the all-too familiar look of fear in my eyes at that moment, like those of a hunted animal that can no longer hide.
Had Cecil not been a long-time friend of mine and my parents, and such a kind man, I’m sure, given my chaotic state of mind, I would’ve ended the call without saying a word. I thanked him instead and told him not to worry, that I would handle everything when we arrived, and then hung up. I was finally going home, to my family, to my place of peace and hope, and now I was questioning why my parents had not called to warn me about Frank. The picture I’d been shooting for, the one of my daughter and me reuniting with them, had all but gone to hell.
We had been on the bus for only a few minutes, but to me it felt like hours. The gnarled trees of late November, dark webs climbing against an ominous gray sky, passed by as the driver meandered through dizzying streets to the interstate. The smell of the greasy cheeseburger and fries I’d eaten at the bus station hung heavy on my sweater. That meal was now an ache, a mean lump burning in my stomach, along with the anxiety overwhelming me.
The bus ride home would’ve been a nicer one if Cecil's call had not led me so far back down memory lane, but I was nonetheless grateful for my old neighbor's concern. I had become a new person without Frank and having our daughter all to myself, and was not about to let his return change that. Time away had allowed the anger and sadness of the old Diana to seep out of my bones, leaving love and faith in their place, both hopefully just as endearing like the love and faith between my parents.
I shut my phone off, turned to Nicole, and wrapped my arms around her. Sleep came quickly, my mind retreating to someplace deep inside me, hidden away from all the worries of the world. Any more bad news would just have to wait.
Saturday, February 7, 1970—11:00 a.m.
I SAW AUNT LIB COME AND GO this morning almost in the blink of an eye. One minute, she’s pulling in our driveway. The next minute . . . POOF! She was gone. Just like that. Dad told Mom earlier in the week to let Aunt Lib know he wants no one—family or friends—drinking alcohol in our home. He took one look at the four wine bottles on our dining room table and wasted no time telling Mom and Aunt Lib to take them out of the house. Aunt Lib told him she understood, put the bottles back in her wreck of a Pinto wagon, loaded up her kids AND Mom, and then sputtered off leaving a trail of blue smoke. Aunt Lib didn’t seem upset, but Mom wasn’t smiling. She gave Dad one of her I’m-pissed-at-you-and-you’re-gonna-pay-dearly looks when he waved goodbye. He didn't seem bothered . . . he knows where she's been hiding a bottle of Merlot.
Aunt Lib and her kids are staying at Gram’s house this weekend since Gram now lives with us. It's there, according to Dad, where Mom and Aunt Lib can visit each other if they insist on drinking while she's here.
I can tell he’s worried, though. Not about Mom or Aunt Lib. He’s concerned about Aunt Lib’s three girls. “No good can come drinking around her kids like she does,” he said as Aunt Lib drove away.
Sunday, February 8, 1970—9:00 p.m.
I AM SO HAPPY! Aunt Lib’s finally gone, Mom’s back home, and Juanita’s mother called.
She asked Mom if Juanita could spend Monday night with me. She’s traveling to see a sick family member and staying through Tuesday. Juanita can’t go with her or she’ll miss school. Mom offered to have Dad pick up Juanita at her school (only about a mile from mine), but Juanita’s mom’s going to instead, and then drop her off at my school so we can ride the bus home together.
I haven’t seen Juanita in so long and she wants to come see me. My day couldn’t have got any better. Yeah!
Monday, February 9, 1970—10:20 p.m.
TODAY WAS A HORRIBLE DAY. Something terrible happened. My older brother Quinton’s short compared to most boys his age (seventeen), but there’s a dark, angry side to him that more than makes up for his small size when he or someone he knows is confronted or threatened. And his blood runs boiling hot when that someone is a member of our family or a close friend.
I wish I could say Quinton’s hot temper and fighting reputation precedes him, keeps him out of trouble, but that’s not always the case. Today, a neighborhood bully—Russell Weldon—learned how fierce Quinton can turn when provoked.
Russell ambushed Juanita and me on the school bus ride home this afternoon, repeatedly taunting us with profanity and racial insults. The bus driver, Mrs. Fullbright, I’m sure heard the terrible things he was saying, but did nothing to stop him, even when I brought his awful behavior to her attention. Instead, she threatened to stop the bus and put me and Juanita off if I didn’t shut up and sit back down. I should’ve known by her sour face and frequent glances at Juanita she wasn’t going to help. What an absolute bitch!
QUINTON WAS WAITING for us at the school bus stop when Russell, Juanita, and I stepped off. Two boys I recognized as Russell’s friends were standing across the street. The taller of the two boys pitched the cigarette he was smoking to the road. Both boys crossed the street, hands in their pockets, and took up positions shoulder to shoulder beside Russell. They followed us, laughing, talking in loud voices among themselves.
The shortest of the three said, “Hey there, Juanita. I wanna aks you something.” He paused, I can only imagine, expecting Juanita to stop and ask what he wanted, maybe even confront him. When she didn’t, he said, “Girl, we hear you’re putting out to the football team at Belridge High. That true?”
Juanita ignored him and kept walking, looking straight ahead while I kept my eyes on the sidewalk just in front of my feet. Quinton said nothing either. Not at first.
The boys continued following us. “Now, Tim, you know that ain’t true, don’t you?” the taller one said.
The short boy answered back, “Sorry, Shep. I was mistaken. It’s actually the basketball team that’s do'n her. Ain’t that right, Russell?”
“All I know is I see a black whore and her whore-loving friends in front of me,” Russell answered. “Yep, I’d say Quinton must like that dark stuff.”
The moment Russell opened his foul mouth in front of Quinton, calling Juanita a foul name , calling us what he did, he'd made a terrible mistake. His fate was sealed. My brother was looking for someone to take out his frustrations on—other than me—and he had found his man.
The three boys followed us as far as our neighborhood crosswalk and were within an arm’s reach behind us. "You need to hush, Russell," I said, looking over my shoulder at him, hoping he would stop before Quinton acted.
“How about you shut the hell up instead, you dumb runt,” Russell said, casting a mean glance my way. He pointed at Juanita. “You’re gonna end up a whore, too, hanging with your darky friend there.” His words were acid, emphatic, and without mercy, and I knew Quinton would not let him continue scalding us with his sadistic rant.
My brother doesn’t believe in preliminaries before a fight; no pushing or shoving, no verbal threats exchanged. And he’s not a coward who’ll try to talk his way out of a fight or back down from any bully. Never has. His adversaries were always stunned when he locked eyes with them and then caught them off-guard with a quick, well-aimed fist, dropping them without another word spoken—if they refuse his first warning. A black eye or bloody lip taught even the worst bullies to take their vicious tongue and fists elsewhere.
"Don't say anymore except for an apology, Russell . . ." Quinton said, turning to confront him. He stepped closer, his face looking up at Russell’s, his right hand balled to a fist behind his back. ". . . or I’ll make you regret every foul word you’ve said."
“Only regret I have’s not getting in your mama’s panties,” Russell said, “or, could it be, it’s your little sister I’m thinking about?” He scratched at his head, looking up, grinning as if he was contemplating a perverse thought, a sick vision involving Mom or me. “Bet your black girlfriend gives head, too.” The two boys beside him broke out in laughter.
Russell glanced down at Quinton’s left hand, now fisted as well, and balled a fist of his own. He pulled it back behind his ear, like a pitcher on the mound ready to strike out an opponent
I wasn’t sure in that moment if Russell would carry through and try to hit Quinton. Russell had been warned and all I know is this: that uncertainty simply didn’t matter anymore because, once someone swings a fist at my brother, God’s the only one capable of saving them if they miss.
"I ain't apologizing for shit, Quinton. Guess it's time to teach your dumb ass a lesson, you nigg—"
WHAM! Quinton’s first punch landed hard and square on Russell's nose, the second against his lower jaw, flattening him to his back.
Russell’s the same age as Quinton but at least six inches taller. He’s a well-muscled athlete, fast and agile (plays linebacker on our school football team), but it’s clear he has no experience in being taken down by someone as small and volatile as my brother. Stunned and confused, he rolled to his stomach, tried to stand, but gave up when his legs wobbled from under him. He fell to one knee, then cast his eyes up, as if trying to look at the inside of his skull before collapsing sideways to the pavement. He lay there, convulsing, hands clawed, jabbing at the open air while gasping at it. Drool and blood poured thick from his mouth and nose. I jumped back, but it was too late. Dark red covered the tops of my white sneakers.
“You didn’t have to hit him twice,” Juanita said, looking first at Quinton then at the stony faces of the two boys quickly backing away. Her voice was loud and the only noise around us, when their laughs abruptly ceased. She squared her shoulders and moved toward them. The short one, Tim, departed in a run, obviously wanting no more to be an accomplice to Russell’s bullying or to be in the sights of my brother’s fury.
Quinton said nothing at first. He grimaced, shaking his hand, trying to relieve the pain wracking his knuckles. “I didn’t want to hit him again,” he finally said, “but he was reaching for his pants pocket after my first punch.”
I knelt and watched Russell, amazed at the deep rise and sudden fall of his chest, sure he would soon stop breathing and die there on the spot, right before my eyes. He surprised me by kicking a leg straight out, drawing his shoulders up until they were touching his ears, and crying out like an infant in distress. A pocket knife fell from his jeans. Juanita kicked it with the side of her shoe. It disappeared down a sewer grating.
A few moments later, Russell sat up to consciousness, holding his hands to his face, whimpering at the sight of all the blood—his blood—covering his shirt, pants, and my shoes. He spat twice and pushed his tongue out. There were two teeth on it and he spit them onto the road. He rose unsteadily to his feet and then sat down on the curb in front of his house, crying, looking up at Juanita through eyes swelling shut and with that same, pitiful look of surprise and confusion I had seen so many times before when my brother got into fights. It was the same look I’d seen on Quinton’s face when he realized he would never be a Marine. My mindset quickly changed from satisfaction to one of compassion. I sat down beside Russell.
The tall boy named Shep moved toward Russell but stopped when Juanita turned to face him. She was looking at him in a strange way, like a snake eyeing its prey, her body tense, rigid, ready to strike.
Shep nodded toward Russell. “I just wanna check on him.” He held his palms up high, looking as if in surrender. “I don’t want no more trouble.”
Juanita pointed at the road behind him. “Go back the way you came, and there won’t be any. Understand?”
“Yes,” Shep answered, “but Russell looks like he’s in a lot of pain.”
“I imagine he is,” Quinton said. “And you will be, too, if you stick around. Now scat.”
When Shep turned to walk away, Juanita looked over to Russell. She studied his face, frowning like she might be sorry for all that Quinton had done to him, and then said to me, “Come on, Amanda. Your brother's leaving.”
“I can’t,” I said, standing. We were all four right there on the open street, and it seemed unlikely neighbors hadn’t witnessed what had happened to Russell. And Russell wasn’t okay. He was still bleeding a lot.
“Suit yourself,” Juanita said, turning to walk away with Quinton.
I sat back down beside Russell. I’d never seen so much blood. “You gonna be okay?” I asked him.
He nodded, said, “Like you should care,” and turned to face me. I got a close-up view of his nose, twisted hard right, no doubt broken. One eye was swollen shut, the other not far behind.
I didn’t know what else to say to Russell. As much as I wanted to tell him this was all his fault, I couldn’t (knowing the two boys with him were just as much to blame). But, he did in fact mouth off to all of us, call Juanita, Quinton, and me horrible names, even mention my mom. And I figured if I wasn’t going to be much good at openly blaming others besides Russell, at least I’d let him know how bad I felt. “I just want you to know I’m sorry you’re hurt, and I wish any of this had never happened.”
“I don’t give a shit what you feel,” he said. “I shouldn’t be seen with you.”
And you shouldn’t be trashing my friends and family, either, I wanted to say back to him. But I didn’t, because I hoped it was clear to Russell my sitting next to him wasn’t out of contempt or ridicule. He looked over at Juanita standing in our backyard.
“Okay,” he said, sniffling, his voice sounding high and nasally from the swelling and pain in his nose, “you’re here to make peace, make me feel better, make my fucking day. Aren’t you a real darling.”
“Russell,” I said, suddenly aware of how physically vulnerable I was by sitting so close to him, “I’m here to make sure you’re okay. Seriously.”
“Seriously?” He shook his head and wrinkled his mouth to a smirk. “Are you for real?”
“Yes, and I hope you believe me.”
A white Rambler pulled up to the stop sign at the end of our street. We both looked up to see who it was. “Is it my father?” he asked, apparently not able to see clearly through eyes now just mere squints. I shaded my eyes to see better against the afternoon sun. “Is it my father?” he asked again, this time with a sense of regret in his voice. When he heard me say that’s who it was, he stood and went into his house . . . without saying he was sorry and whether he would or wouldn’t tell his father what had happened. I knew he would have to tell, though. If not today, tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, well, I was sure his father would eventually find out from the many nosy neighbors living among us.
“The judge threatened to send me away if this ever happened again,” Quinton said when I walked into the kitchen. “And Mom and Dad won’t be able to help me this time if the police are called.” He stood silent, staring out the window for what seemed an eternity before speaking again. “That’s why I wanted to go in the Marines. So I could go somewhere far, far away from here.”
“And what about me? Juanita?” I asked, shooting him a quick, fierce glance. “We could be in just as much trouble. We were there, too.”
“I don’t know,” Quinton said, hanging his head, his expression one of defeat and resignation.
Tuesday, February 10, 1970—8:30 p.m.
SLEEP WAS A STRUGGLE LAST NIGHT. I pretended ignorance and innocence of the foolishness with Russell. I prayed, seeking help and guidance from God, but deep down I resent him. He has betrayed all of us, especially Juanita. When I did fall asleep, it was only with the realization my brother’s life has reached a crisis and he could be sent away.
I awoke this morning with Juanita shaking me from a miserable, short sleep. “Get up, you sleepyhead,” she said. “I’ve tried to wake you three times. There's no way I’m riding that crazy bus without you.” I rose and dressed quickly.
Mom and Dad sat at the kitchen table, both reading the newspaper. I poured a bowl of cereal and milk and sat down beside them. “You girls sleep okay?” Dad asked, standing to pour himself more coffee. I hesitated then nodded yes.
“Me too,” Juanita added, then excused herself to the bathroom.
“Why aren’t you at work?” I asked, my words sounding garbled from a mouth full of Cheerios. Dad’s usual routine is to leave the house for work at 6:15 a.m., the same time Quinton and I wake for school.
Dad sat back down and looked at his watch. “I’m not driving to work today.” He smiled again. “Your mom needs the car, so I’m riding in with Skip Weldon.”
I gulped. “Russell’s father?”
“Yes. Skip wants to talk about something while we ride to work.” Dad frowned at me. "Everything okay?"
"Just asking," I said. Quinton appeared from around the corner. His face was pale. Mom looked up from the newspaper. She extended a hand toward Quinton’s forehead as he sat down.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Quinton said, gently pushing Mom’s hand aside.
“You don’t look well.”
“I feel fine.”
“You can stay home if you need to.”
“I’ll be okay,” Quinton said, turning his head to the sound of a car horn.
“Hurry, Honey, or you’ll miss your ride," Mom said.
The car horn sounded again. Dad took one last sip of his coffee, blew Mom a kiss, and then waved a goodbye to all of us. None of us said a word until Dad and Russell’s father drove out of sight.
Mom was the first to speak. “The three of you are NOT riding the bus this morning. I'll take you to school. I know all about what happened yesterday.” She stared hard at Quinton. “You should’ve kept your mouth shut and your fists to yourself. You are so lucky, young man, you’re not in the county lockup—or worse.” Her gaze shifted to Juanita when she came out of the bathroom. "Juanita, I’m so sorry this happened to you. Truly, I am. Russell’s father wanted to tell you he was sorry for what his son said and did, but I thought it better if Russell himself apologizes.”
“That’ll never happen, Mom,” Quinton said. “Never. He’s a coward.”
“And a racist, too,” I chimed in. “He’s nothing but a bully.”
“He can’t take back the hurt he’s left,” Juanita said. “I don’t want Russell’s apology or his father’s.”
Mom sighed. The hard look on her face softened. “Okay, then I’ll tell them both to never say another word to any of you. Besides, Russell’s being sent away to live with his mother in Baltimore.”
“That won’t change him,” Quinton said. “He’ll cross paths with the wrong person, and we’ll end up reading his obituary.”
“I hope not, Quinton,” Mom said, standing. She began clearing the breakfast table. “But if Russell pulls the foolishness there that he does here, he’ll be in serious trouble with the Baltimore police.”
“Or worse,” Quinton said. “He’ll end up shot or knifed, his body dumped, lying dead in some dark back alley.” Mom said nothing. She turned to the sink and began washing dishes.
I'm glad she didn't see the smile creeping across Juanita’s face at hearing Quinton’s last words; it was one of undeniable satisfaction.