The Lost Pearl--Another S.B. Middlebrook Short Story
134 Degrees ...
Her whole body felt like it was on fire. Eva Pearl knew she had to get out of the king-sized bed, somehow, without waking him up. Slowly and gently, she slipped from underneath his arm, trying hard not to shake the mattress too much. Once free, she slid the covers back.
Cool air caressed her skin. It felt good to be out from underneath the blanket. It was early May, and only thirty-four degrees outside on that Las Vegas day, but with a low-grade fever--and Frank's warm body so close to her, it felt like one-hundred-and-thirty-four. She was struggling with restlessness--from the heat, a disturbing dream, and a vivid memory from her childhood that awakened her from a sweat-soaked night terror.
Every part of her body ached as she strained to get out of bed. She had to get up, to go somewhere; any cooler place where he was nowhere near, so that she could ponder the memory. It was a memory of the last night she’d ever seen the stray cat she and her siblings once tormented day after day--whenever it tried to come near them as they were playing in the back yard. In a blinding flash, Eva knew exactly why that particular memory had been coming to her again and again over the last several nights. It was because she was now the one living a tormented, tortured life that was hanging in the balance. Lonely and bruised, she was the one in desperate need of love.
Frank was asleep. A man who could not love her, a man she no longer loved. She didn't believe it was possible to hate him any more than she did. She had made up her mind. She was willing to risk her life, if that's what it took, to get away from the life she was living with him. Like the stray cat from her childhood--the one that was haunting her through her dreams, now she was the one trying to become part of a reality different from the one she knew.
Night of "The Cat"
More than 16 years had passed since the last time she had seen that cat. It was on a night when sweat was dampening her bed sheets. That night, a movement at the window closest to her bed had awakened ten-year-old Eva Peal. It was the cat settling himself, uneasily, on the windowsill. He'd found a comfortable place to be, a comfortable distance from the room's occupants and an instant exit--if needed. His green-gray eyes were staring, questioning, uncertain about his chances. He seemed to be trying to make up his mind. Should he continue his quest, or just give up on his dream of one day being loved and adored by the children who lived in the house.
It was the fourth week in a row that 26 year-old Eva Pearl had been haunted by memories of the cat. Today she wanted to understand what her mind wouldn't let go of this episode from her childhood. She decided to find a place in Frank's spacious and luxurious condo where she could be alone. In the quiet, she'd allow the cat to take her back to the last night he'd sat and watched her and her sisters sleep.
The recurring memory was from the first night they had ever slept in the new house. Their father had finally made good on his promise to build a new home for his family, to replace the shack they'd lived in, happily, for years. The new house was modern, with three bedroom suites--a complete bath in each bedroom.
It was the day, many years ago, when Daniel Brion had gotten her and her two sisters and two brothers to help him tear down the old shack they'd lived in for more than a decade. As young children, their contributions were largely ceremonial, at best. Their dad and his brother had done most of the real work. But Daniel still told them they were helping. He made them feel that, together, they were ushering in a new day for the Brion family by helping tearing down the past. By tearing down their old life, he said, they were building a new one capable of helping them secure brighter tomorrows.
But it was hot that first night in the new house. Unbearably hot. When new sweat beads started forming on Eva's forehead as she pondered the memory to replace the ones she'd just wiped away, it reminded her of the heat on that dark August night. It was hotter in the new house than it had been in the old shack. Even though that shack had no air conditioning, there were always plenty of fans capturing and blowing into their home any breeze that happened to pass by on a hot summer night. But the electricity hadn’t been turned on in the new house. So, even though there were fans in every room, none of them were working that night. There was also air conditioning that couldn’t be turned on. That's why all the windows in house had been left open to try to coax in a breeze from the outside. But it wasn't a breeze that had been coaxed in for a visit that night. It was that old cat.
She allowed the cat to move slowly and smoothly through her mind, to be at a close--yet safe distance from her, one more time. "Go on," she whispered to his memory. "Guide me. Take me to where you want me to go." Suddenly the cat turned to the right, toward a figure in the distance. As they got closer, the figure became clearer. He was taking her to see her father. Since Daniel Brion died, Eva Pearl had done her best not to remember him. He passed away when she was 14, and she missed him too much to want to remember him. Not thinking about him, somehow, made it easier for her to face life without him. But tonight the cat had brought him back. Tonight, her father was staring at her with the same questioning glare in his eyes that the cat had in its eyes that last night he sat on the windowsill. All those years ago.
Sitting on the edge of the bed in the dark, Eva Pearl put her hands over her ears. Her father was speaking, talking loudly. She wanted him to keep it down. She didn't want Frank to hear him and wake up. But his voice was booming, resounding like an echo, all around the large bedroom. Daniel Brion was not about to be quieted down. He was dead set on making his point.
After getting her attention, he started pleading with her. "It don't matter how ugly your past is, or how ashamed of yourself you’ve become," he said, glaring at her. "You can’t stay here, Eva Pearl. You are not loved here, and you never will be. And you can’t be afraid of going home. Your mother and your sisters are waiting for you to come home. You have to find the courage to go. Leave, Pearly girl. Save your life!”
Her father beckoned to her. There was something he wanted her to know. Suddenly, they were standing at the bank of the old pond; the one he dug and filled himself, in the pasture near where the cows they once owned always liked to graze. The little farm was perched on a hilly mesa in the rural Mississippi countryside where everything was usually serene and peaceful. But on this day, in Eva Pearl's mind, there was no peace shining out through her father's eyes.
"You have to leave here, baby," he said, again. "Go, Pearly girl, go. You have to get away from this man, and put your past behind you." His favorite nickname for her had been Pearly girl. "I want you to go now," he said. "Get out of here and leave all this mess behind. It's time for you to start a new life."
Was her father reaching out to her from the grave? Or was it just what she wanted to think he'd say, if he were alive?
"Pearly girl," his voice echoed again, smothering any other thought that tried to come into her mind. "If you stay here, sweetheart. If you stay here? This man is going to kill you."
Eva Pearl started to slid off the bed, slowly and very carefully. Moving no more than an inch at a time, she would not to shake the bed. Frank was messed up, again, and she would not wake him. After what felt like an hour of slow, fearful moves, her bruised and aching body was still on fire. She lowered her throbbing legs down, down, down, until her feet finally touched the hardwood floor. It was icy cold. It felt good. Holding on to the side of the bed, when she let go, pain rushed into parts of her body that hadn’t been disturbed when she was lying down. She wanted to howl in agony, but she cupped her hand over her mouth, instead, and moved as fast as she could to get away from the bed. Away from Frank.
No Sanctuary for a Restless Soul ...
She was in need of a quiet place where she could follow the cat; where she could listen to that part of her father that was still alive in her. She needed to hear the scolding. She needed the look into his disapproving eyes. She needed his undying, unconditional love. She would listen closely to every word he had to say. She would allow him to tell there were people in the world who still loved the girl she once was, even though she knew she would never be that girl again. But she needed to reconnect with that child, to find remnants of that girl, so she could know who she was, and who she could be.
She moved slowly to keep the room quiet, to be sure Frank was not disturbed. As she moved, the fog inside her head starting to clear. Perhaps the chill of the air out from under the covers was bringing her fever down, helping her reconnect with her present reality. Maybe it had taken everything that had happened recently--including the beating Frank had given her, to make her see. She had to make up her mind. She could stay inside the misery in which she lived, or she could think her way out of it, for good.
“I raised you to be a strong and proud black woman," her dad's voice went on. "Not this, whatever it is you’ve let this man turn you into. Your mama and I didn’t raise you or any of our girls to be no white man’s punchin’ bag, and no black man’s punchin’ bag. Who are you?" he asked. "Because this sorry, lost, confused young woman I'm looking at is not be the girl I raised. This is not my little Pearly girl.”
Eva Pearl eased out of the upstairs master bedroom. Slowly and quietly, she made it to one the guest rooms. None of the other women who worked for Frank had spent the night. That meant she'd be able to rest in peace.
When he woke up, Frank would ask why she'd left his bed. She'd tell him it was because he was talking again, in his sleep. That always worked. He liked for her to be well rested and ready to entertain his best clients, because, in his words to her, “You’re not only my woman, you’re my best girl.”
There was no spot on her body that did not ache as she started inching toward lying down on the bed. He had never beaten her before, but two nights ago, the man who'd never beaten her before had nearly killed her. The bruises were still fresh, her aches pronounced and sore. That night he had come home, again, wasted on drugs and alcohol, and he caught her trying to leave him, again. He flew into a rage and knocked her down. Then, in between pounding her with his fists and kicking her with the steel toe of his boots, he was wiping tears from his eyes and snot from his nose. And all the time, he was shouting at her, over and over, that the only problem the two of them had was that he loved her too much.
Just when she thought the next blow Frank delivered would be the one that would end her life, he suddenly stopped beating her. He'd only done that because she'd started bleeding, badly. What he did next surprised her. He scooped her into his arms, deposited her in the backseat of his Bentley, and drove her to the hospital. As he drove he told her exactly what he wanted her to tell the nurses. After that he promised never to hit her again. As she was losing consciousness, she knew. The only reason he was taking her to the hospital was that he thought she might bleed to death. That told her he hadn't been trying to kill her.
He hadn't known she was pregnant, and she still hadn’t told him, because she didn't want him to think the baby was his. That night, he had beaten and kicked her and her unborn baby unmercifully, and now all she had left was her bruised and aching stomach, limbs, back, and sides. And no baby.
Next year, it would be ten years since she'd run away from home to be with Frank, after meeting him on the Internet. She turned 18 before her mother knew she'd run away, so she was an adult by the time anyone knew she was in New Orleans. She and Frank spent a whole year together there, before moving to Vegas. That whole year, he spoiled her with attention and with every material luxury a young, stupid girl could ever want. Clothes, jewelry, night clubs, restaurants, and adventurous vacations like those enjoyed only by the very rich. Any expensive material thing she could ever dream of, he'd given it all to her. Then, once he was sure she was in love with him and would never leave him, he told her what business he was in. He owned a high-priced escort service. Then he told that if she wanted to stay with him, as his girlfriend, she would have to work for him.
© 2013 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD