Excerpt from Head On
Ask anyone in emergency services – rescue crews and deputies, even the staff of a rural Texas hospital known to area residents as Jackrabbit General. They’ll all swear it’s true, what you hear about the full moon bringing out the crazies. Friday the thirteenth, too, draws out its share of bad luck, sometimes even among those who deny such superstitions. Accidents, assaults, attempted suicides: regardless of how the skeptics or the statisticians spin them, the unluckiest events take place on this unlucky day. But every now and then, in a rare alignment of misfortunes, a Friday falling on the thirteenth coincides with the full moon. On this strangest of strange days, all bets are off and anything can happen.
Including the return of a small community’s most hated prodigal, a shock too soon eclipsed by the sort of murder that shatters country-safe complacency and sends sales of alarms and handguns soaring. A murder rooted in a tragedy so painful it formed fault lines in the bedrock far beneath the time-worn prairie and the clear, unblinking sky.
“I love you like a sister, but don’t be telling me which patients I can and cannot handle,” Beth Ann Decker warned from the office doorway. She had already pulled on a jacket over her white scrubs and picked up her nursing bag. In ultra—conservative Hatcher County, residents expected a medical professional to look the part – even if she was caring for them in their homes.
Flushing to the tinted roots of her strawberry blond hair, Cheryl Riker peered up from a cluttered desk in the center of an office crammed with file cabinets, two of which blocked sunlight from the only window. Beth Ann saw that she’d moved her computer – which must have crashed again – into a corner on the floor to make room for still more charts. These past few years, the county hospital district’s revenue had skidded downhill like bald tires on a patch of ice-slick asphalt. But even in the best of times, the visiting nurse and hospice program was the redheaded stepchild of the system.
The chair creaked as the plump Cheryl struggled to her feet in an attempt to look authoritative. Though she was technically the director of the program, she had never been much good at the bossing side of the equation. “Look, I’m sorry. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to take this particular patient, that’s all. Let me call in Vickie, cancel her vacation.”
Beth Ann shook her head. “You can’t do that. That poor woman’s been carrying on about this anniversary cruise for months – and when was the last time she had two weeks off anyway?”
Cheryl frowned, her face creasing into lines reminiscent of her mother’s. Since her fortieth birthday earlier this autumn, Cheryl had been fretting about ending up looking like a Texas road map – a worry which only made her frown more. “If we had any other nurse available…”
It wasn’t a discussion worth repeating. With Emmaline Stutz out with a bad back and the current hiring freeze, there was no one else available – and both women knew it.
Cheryl shook her head, concern in her hazel eyes. “You can’t go out there, Beth Ann. Hiram Jessup’s daughter died in that wreck. And his son – well, you know what happened with Mark —”
“Oh, for cryin’ in a bucket. Three years in hospitals and rehab centers, and you think it’s possible I’ve forgotten any of the details?” How could she with people reminding her every time she turned around?
At her friend’s stricken look, Beth Ann added, “Come on, Cheryl. It’s been sixteen years. Mr. Jessup and I have long since made our peace.”
Not that they’d ever come out and discussed it, but at least Hiram didn’t storm out of the town’s only grocery store during their infrequent, chance encounters. He nodded almost amiably in church, too, when both showed up for Christmas services and Easter.
“What about that lawsuit?” Cheryl asked.
Beth Ann shrugged. “That’s old business between him and my mama. It’s nothing to do with me.”
This wasn’t exactly true, since her mother had filed suit on account of Beth Ann’s injuries – or her medical bills, to be specific. But Cheryl, bless her heart, didn’t argue the point.
“Maybe I should take care of this one… brush up with some field experience.” Cheryl fingered the tiny gold cross pinned to the lapel of her wine-colored blazer. She had once confessed to Beth Ann that she had only taken the supervisory position, with its long hours and myriad headaches, so she could wear “grown-up clothes.” Scrubs, she complained, made her rear end look wider than a school bus.
“When was the last time you did patient care?” Beth Ann crossed her arms, banging her cane against the doorframe in the process. The stick was one more thing that kept her — and everyone else — from forgetting.
“I handled Mr. Jessup’s intake after Emmaline went home with that back strain. Did all the paperwork myself —”
“Paperwork.” Beth Ann shook her head. “Just let me take care of this. Please.”
“Why? Why would you do this to yourself?” Cheryl demanded. “Why’s it so important to you?”
“Because for sixteen years, I’ve been fighting an uphill battle trying to convince everyone in Hatcher County that my first name damned well isn’t ‘Poor.’ I’m tired of it, Cheryl, tired of having everyone look at me and see three dead girls and sick to death of my mother having a better social life than I do — and most people don’t even like the woman. This is it for me. If I can’t prove I’m a competent professional with a future and not just a past, I’m pulling up stakes and starting over somewhere new. Somewhere no one ever heard of the Hatcher Red Hawks or some old car crash.”
Cheryl sighed, then dropped back into her desk chair, which gave a squeal of protest. “And you think that nursing Hiram Jessup’s going to prove to anybody you’ve moved on?”
“It’ll prove it to me,” Beth Ann said quietly, a little embarrassed by her eruption. The outburst had been coming for months, she realized. Since she’d moved into the new place with her mother – now known as “Lucky Lilly” in light of last year’s miracle – Beth Ann had been thinking a lot about her life. Or almost total lack thereof. She hoped to God it wasn’t yet too late to step up to the counter and claim her share. “Maybe that’s all I need.”
Cheryl glanced toward the Bible-verse-a-day calendar on her desk, then tore off yesterday’s page to expose the big, black 13 that lurked between the words Friday and October. Looking up again, she asked, “You’re sure about this?”
Beth Ann nodded. What did she care about some silly superstition? She attended deaths year-round and had recently concluded that the failure to live fully was the only true misfortune.
Cheryl nodded. “All right. If that’s the way you feel about it. But there’s one thing you’d better know first. My sister figured out about Hiram Jessup going on home hospice. And before you start lecturing me about patient confidentiality, I didn’t say a word to her about it. She spotted my Tahoe over at his place when I did the intake, and she was talking to Norma Nederhoffer, that woman who does transcription for the doctors. Norma didn’t tell her either, but she has this sort of grave nod.”
Beth Ann understood. In Eudena, a town of just over four thousand, the combination of Norma Nederhoffer’s grave nods and the sighting of a hospice worker’s vehicle at a person’s house had the authority of gospel, or at least the Wichita Falls Times Record. Besides that, Cheryl’s younger sister Aimee – now Aimee Gustavsen – had been an infamous blabbermouth since Beth Ann first met her back in kindergarten. That girl could whip a rumor out of less substance than it took a prairie wind to spin up a dust devil.
“You know how Aimee’s been just lately,” Cheryl continued. “Sort of disillusioned with this marriage business.”
At thirty-three, the same age as still-single Beth Ann, former Hatcher High Homecoming Queen Aimee was already on her second go-round. Like her sister, she had chosen a deputy this time out, although big, blond Ted Gustavsen was both younger and better-looking than Cheryl’s Pete. Still, not even the good-natured Ted could hold a candle to his wife’s nostalgia for the days she’d put out for pretty much every boy her Baptist parents badmouthed. Mark Jessup chief among them.
Beth Ann made the connection. “She called him, didn’t she? Told him about his daddy?”
Cheryl nodded and twisted her plain, gold wedding band around her finger. “You know Aimee. Once she got it in her head it was Mark’s duty to get out here, wasn’t anything going to stop her. A few days ago, she looked him up on her computer, found a number for that company of his in Pittsburgh.” Her lip curled in a look of disapproval. “Then she calls him, bold as brass, and tells him as his daddy’s only living family, it’s his place to come and take care of the man.”
Beth Ann shook her head. “Mark Jessup won’t be back. Not after his father turned on him like he did. Besides, people around here won’t give two hoots about how rich he is now. All they’ll think about is the boy they called Hell on Wheels and three dead cheerleaders, one for every year he served.”
A more disturbing thought struck. “And then they’ll think of Poor Beth Ann – oh, damn it. I’ll bury him myself if he doesn’t have the sense to stay away.”
About an hour later that same October morning, Beth Ann was stunned to realize her words were more than bluster. She really did harbor homicidal instincts.
Previously, she would have admitted she could pull the trigger of a shotgun in the white heat of self-defense against some psycho rapist, or to keep her mama breathing – though some of Eudena’s population might fault her for the latter choice. But no matter how tough she talked, or how many people she had watched die these past few years as she’d worked with the hospice program, she couldn’t imagine taking a life in cold blood.
Until she saw the big grill of the Ford pickup backed into the driveway of the lonely, little house tucked among the scrub mesquites on Lost Buffalo Road. With pinpoints of light exploding across her vision, she gripped her steering wheel and dragged in any number of deep breaths.
“No way is that the same truck,” she told herself. “No damned way.”
Like the shiny, black Camaro she had been driving that Homecoming Friday, the pickup truck of memory had to be long gone now, crushed flat and pancake-stacked behind the fence surrounding Culpepper’s Junkyard, a few minutes south of town. Beth Ann’s job took her all over Hatcher County, but she’d drive ten miles out of her way to avoid both that stretch of highway and the one on Mustang Road.
With all her flesh-and-blood reminders, she didn’t need or want one as immutable as steel.
As her vision cleared, she realized that the pickup’s paint job was a darker blue, that its bright chrome wheels and fancy mud-flaps decked out a vehicle far newer and nicer than the one wrecked sixteen years before. Still, both intuition and the Pennsylvania plates assured her that the truck belonged to him.
That reckless son of a bitch, Mark Jessup. “Jess” to all his friends, back in the days when he’d still had some.
Why hadn’t he just taken the easy way out – hiring a private health care aide or two to supplement the county’s offering? That’s what a lot of men did when their mama or daddy’s final illness threatened to part them from their important, out-of-town jobs. Most of the women came back, then tied themselves into tight knots trying to juggle the needs of their kids back home against those of the ailing parent, but the men… Beth Ann wondered if in the high-school shop classes she’d missed out on, the guys spent time soldering guilt-proof armor around each soft and naked conscience.
But evidently, Mark Jessup’s shielding had a crack. Maybe on account of what he’d done to his sister Jordan.
At the thought, Beth Ann considered putting her Subaru, a peeling, red station wagon as homely as it was indestructible, back in gear and cruising past Hiram Jessup’s place. Once she made it out of sight – a drawn-out process, considering the flatness of this stretch of prairie and the crisp brilliance of the cobalt sky – she could call the old man to say she’d had car trouble. Anyone who’d ever seen the War Wagon would believe it.
Then she could phone Cheryl and tell her that maybe it was time to trot out those mothballed patient-care skills of hers after all.
But Beth Ann hesitated, convinced that sooner or later — probably sooner, considering her supervisor’s penchant for easing her job stress by yakking with her little sister – Aimee would learn that Beth Ann had turned tail. And word would hit this county like hailstones bouncing off tin roofs.
She gritted her teeth as she pictured dings and dents. Did you hear what happened to Poor Beth Ann? Would’ve been kinder to whack her upside the head with a two-by-four than showin’ up the way he did. Always the nervy one, that Jessup boy. Nervier than a rabid coyote.
Facing Mark Jessup couldn’t be half as painful as losing her toehold on what passed for respect here in Eudena. Damned hard-won respect, for a never-married female on the wrong side of thirty, a woman who had chosen to ease the passing of the dying instead of working with – or having – babies. A woman who had once been pulled alive from a smashed Chevy ringed with dead cheerleaders.
Maybe Beth Ann would have gone inside, or maybe she would have chickened out and driven north to Oklahoma and straight through to parts unknown. But she never knew the answer because at that moment, the house’s front storm door creaked open, and a tall figure trotted down the wooden steps that led down from the front porch.
A man and not a boy. And still every bit as handsome as store-bought sin.
Beth Ann felt her stomach drop down through the floorboards, felt every molecule of air wrung from her lungs. All these years later, she still knew him, though time had filled out the gangly promise of once-awkwardly-long limbs, though the king-of-the-world grin that had won so many conquests had given way to an expression so grave and guarded it was hard to imagine he was the same person.
But she’d heard that prison could do that to a man.
There were other changes, too. His once-tawny hair had darkened to a rich brown. He wore it thick and wavy and a little on the long side. Reluctantly, she admitted to herself it suited, as did the faded jeans and denim jacket thrown over a navy sweatshirt. Heavy stubble darkened his cheeks, as if he’d missed a couple of appointments with his razor. Which made sense, for he must have moved fast to get here so quickly after Aimee’s phone call.
But the suddenness of Mark Jessup’s arrival meant nothing, Beth Ann figured as she pulled her car into the driveway. It was just a pretense of devotion, an act to show his hometown he wasn’t some kind of monster after all.
Pretty ballsy, considering how people felt about him. If she didn’t have so much cause to hate him, she might even admire it.
He didn’t appear to notice her as he opened the truck’s front door and pulled a suitcase from the narrow back seat. A big suitcase and a duffel, as if he planned on staying a while.
As if he had that right.
Of course he does, the nurse in her insisted. He’s the only family. No one but his father was entitled to run Mark off at this point. As Hiram had before, on account of Jordan. As – dying or not – the old man might again.
Out of pure selfishness, Beth Ann hoped he’d do exactly that. But as she climbed out of her wagon and went for her supplies, she decided she had earned the right to peevish thoughts.
She hesitated, frowning down at the cane she’d left tucked behind her nursing bag. A glimmer of her mother’s vanity flashed through her, and she thought of leaving the stick, so Mark’s first impression of her would not be one of weakness.
Anger flared, and Beth Ann snatched up the thing. Other than the lackeys who worked for him in Pittsburgh, who cared what a murdering ex-con thought? She needed the cane for stability as she carried supplies in for her patient, so she would damned well use it.
Besides, that indignity beat the hell out of letting him see her fall on her rear while she struggled up the porch steps.
Leaving the hatch open – she’d need to make a second trip – she heard the crunch of footsteps on the gravel just behind her.
“Can I give you a hand with tha—?”
He stopped speaking as she turned, and Beth Ann felt perverse satisfaction as she watched the color seep from his face, heard the sharp catch of his breath.
“Beth Ann – you…” he tried, but he could get no further. Though the duffel remained slung over one shoulder, his suitcase landed on the gravel with a thunk.
Once more, tiny lights burst across her field of vision, but she faked a smile anyway. Or at least she hoped that’s what it looked like.
Professional, she ordered herself. You’re his father’s nurse, that’s all. Top of your class at Midwestern State.
Leaning her cane against the bumper, she stuck out her right hand. “Yes, and the last name’s still Decker. I’m the traveling RN assigned to Mr. Jessup.”
Before taking it, Mark stared at her a beat too long. Looking for damage, she supposed, telltale remnants of the collision that had forever altered both their lives.
A chill wind rattled the dry leaves of the front yard’s single, stunted live oak. The wind stirred the grasses of the lost Jessup acreage across the street, whistling through a trio of oil well pump jacks and peeling more white paint from the old ranch house and its outbuildings.
Beth Ann stared right back at Mark, daring him to comment on the reconstructed nose and cheekbones. They looked good, everyone assured her, with scars so faint as to be invisible beneath her makeup, yet her features weren’t the same. She would never have the face she had been born with, or the healthy spine, left leg, or pelvis. By comparison, the one scar she noticed – an inch-long, reddish curve beneath his left eye – seemed like nothing: fate’s hand-slap for his guilt.
“And he’s…” Mark hesitated, clearly searching for the right words. “My dad’s okay with having you here?”
“It won’t be a problem,” she said simply. Hiram had never broached the subject with her, had never reminded her that she had been the one to tell his only daughter, Better hurry or we’re going. Sixteen-year-old Jordan had a shy girl’s terror of being bumped from the fragile fringe of popularity, so that even after all these years, Beth Ann saw the blond girl hesitate, then turn and wave to her father instead of kissing him goodbye.
Beth Ann had replayed that moment endlessly, since it was the last intact memory she had B.C. — Before the Crash.
“Your father’s a forgiving man,” she added. “He’s never once blamed me.”
“Why should he,” Mark asked sharply, “when he had me for that?”
She looked away, troubled by the glimpse of anger and raw pain. Her gaze sought out the solace of the nearest pump jack, the only one still rocking gently back and forth. The oil men called the things mosquitoes, for the way they sucked life — and cash — from this dry prairie.
Yet all around the county, the jacks were going still. Mama had been smart to insist on a monetary settlement instead of mineral rights. But unlike her recent stroke of fortune, that prize was long gone now, given over to the hospitals and the doctors: a long, long list of them.
“Let’s go inside,” Beth Ann suggested as she brushed a flutter of red bangs from her eyes. When loose, her hair’s soft waves tumbled past her shoulders. Her best feature, people told her. She had clipped it back this morning, but the wind was making steady progress pulling strand by strand free. Her nose was probably red, too, and she could use a tissue.
She must look a mess, she thought, then gave herself a mental kick. She wasn’t some simpering fool — like Mama, a traitorous facet of her conscience whispered — she was a nurse, here with a job.
And she meant to prove that she could do it, even with a Jessup as a patient. For Larinda, Heidi, even Jordan… but mostly, for her own self-respect.
Rosario Gutierrez had the key to a columned white two-story called The Lucky Pull in honor of the day Lilly Decker walked into an Oklahoma Indian casino with the goal of meeting an oil-rich good time and walked out the winner of the largest progressive slot jackpot in that state’s history. Though the wind blew cold beneath the hem of Rosario’s black-and-white uniform, the fifty-three-year-old woman buzzed again and waited, half-leaning on her favorite broom, almost like the señora’s daughter, Poor Beth Ann.
Rosario knocked, too, but no luck. Still, the maid hesitated instead of letting herself inside. The Señora’s daughter, Poor Beth Ann, didn’t know it, but her madre had a lover. Maybe two of them, from the comings and goings that Rosario was too discreet to mention. But discreet or not, Rosario had been upset — mortificado — that day last June when she had taken her mop into the huge, new kitchen.
It still astonished Rosario the thing she’d seen them doing on that hard countertop. And at Lilly Decker’s age — híjole! Who would have believed it? So this, and not the fit of her silk blouses, explained the disgraceful woman’s visit to the doctor for a pert new set of chichis.
Still no answer. Rubbing a chilled arm, Rosario thought of going home, where her daughter Carmelita had brought the baby for a visit. But Rosario took her obligations — and her paycheck — seriously, so instead she walked around to the attached garage and stood on tiptoe to peer into the window of the left bay. Señora’s big, new, silver Mercedes was still inside, and the right bay — where Poor Beth Ann parked every evening — remained empty.
Rosario nodded to herself, satisfied that this afternoon, no strange man’s car was hidden in the daughter’s spot. Maybe after all these months, one of the neighbors had forgiven the señora for building a palace that dwarfed their fine homes. Rosario smiled as she pictured blond ladies together in a fussy parlor, eating tiny sandwiches with their pinkie fingers delicately crooked.
She drew the key out of her pocket, certain it would be safe to go inside now.
Not guessing that it wasn’t. And that what Rosario saw would scar far more deeply than a summer afternoon’s tryst on a cool, custom granite slab.