It had nearly torn Dru apart. First, her father, age 71, decided to walk out on her mother who was deteriorating with Parkinson's. The poor thing has spent the last ten years of her life with her body crumpled into a useless envelope of flesh, barely 58 inches long. God knows what her soul had withered into when Father walked out.
After he evaporated into local taverns, Dru had fed Momma by spoon, lifting her to the bathroom, making sure she was lying on her left side when she slept. However, there were only so many allowable days-off in teaching, and so Dru, finally, had had to return to Portland, leaving Momma to a hired practical nurse.
The hoodlums struck a month later. Robbery on their mind, they battered in the back door of the once-grand Tudor in Cleveland Heights; then finding Momma alone, they'd beaten her to death with tire irons.
Of course, the police knew who had done it--the hard-drugging boys across the street, but it was one thing to know who, and another to arrest and convict. The District Attorney told the police, there was not a tenth of enough evidence to bring the case to trial. And so the killers remained free.
The ordeal hadn't stopped Dru from living, but it had filled her with bitterness. Not even a chance to say good bye to her mother. Meanwhile Dad lacked the common decency to appear at the funeral. And through it all, the vile, rotten killers strutted about the neighborhood as if nothing had happened.
Of course, Dru's teaching had been affected. She could no longer think of hard-case boys as "misguided youth" whom a little "pro-active outreach" could turn around. The idealism that she had entered teaching with had vanished. "Teach them algebra and go home," became her new motto as she staggered through life, approaching her 42nd birthday, single, angry, full of bitter confusion.
And then one rainy Saturday in October, an abrupt knock startled her out of her tire-spinning. Someone at the door in this miserable, cold Oregon drizzle? She shivered. A vague feeling of apprehension washed over her. Were her eyes tricking her? Of all people--Tamara Rottman of blue lipstick and no-threat-to-ever-make-the-honor-roll fame. Staring out from between two sagging pancakes of dark hair that ineffectively concealed an anorectic, homely face and flat, emotionless eyes, Tammy rocked a baby swaddled in a threadbare, pink blanket.
"Hey, Miss O'Halloran."
"I know you're surprised, Miss O, but I wanted you to see my baby. You never knew it, but you were always my favorite teacher."
You had a favorite teacher? You hated school, Dru thought, giving Tammy a reluctant hug. It must have been at least five years since Tammy had dropped out of high school after she'd been caught drugging in the bathroom.
"Tammy, I didn't know you had a baby. In fact, I didn't even know you were"--she stopped herself before "married" slipped out--"pregnant."
"It all happened like pretty fast, you know, Miss O?" Tammy proudly held up the chubby little girl with gleaming blue eyes that sent an unexplainable shiver down Dru's spine. A strange voice seemed to open from the rain, "No!"
Dru stepped backwards.
"This is Emily." Tammy pushed the baby forward.
"She's adorable, Tammy. I'm so glad you've had a daughter." Dru held the baby lightly in her inexperienced arms, thinking, God--if only you raise this child right. "Now come on inside and tell me all about it."
Tammy plopped on the couch. "Do you mind if I smoke, Miss O?"
Dru bit her tongue. "No, go ahead and smoke."
A smudge of tears competed with the rain streaming down the windows, as the story of Tammy's pregnancy poured out between cigarettes, including the desertion by the father, followed by homelessness.
Now Dru grasped the meaning of Tammy's visit. Well sneaky, little Tammy Rottman had certainly never been a favorite student by any means, and now she'd done it again. The old homeless ploy. But then hadn't Dru always been everybody's soft touch?
Tammy wiped her eyes with a Kleenex, gobs of eye-liner coming off on the soft, blue paper. The baby whimpered.
"Miss O'Halloran, you don't think maybe me and Emmy could live here with you for awhile, do you? Winter's coming on fast, and we need a place. We've had some problems, but I'll be able to pay you rent before too long."
Dru shuffled her feet, her words edging out cautiously. What would it hurt? Finally she said, "Well, Tammy, maybe you and the baby could stay here for awhile until you get back on your feet I mean. I could probably even help you with her."
Tammy brightened, handing the smiling infant to Dru. As Dru cuddled Emily, she had the strange sensation of waves drumming on granite cliffs and the distant wail of bagpipes. Odd! The baby's eyes stared at Dru yearningly.
"Ain't she a beaut, Miss O?" Tammy's face was covered with a proud, proprietary grin.
And so they moved in, temporarily of course. Emily was so special. Radiant, blue, angel eyes that reminded Dru of something she couldn't identify, little hands with index finger always pointing in a familiar way that Dru felt she understood more of than she could put into words. What was it so special about this child?
Regardless, Dru was hooked, all her long-suppressed maternal instincts mobilized. What a shame she'd never had a child, but then there'd never been the right man. Of course, there were always men of the ilk of her father, but a right man was such a scarce commodity.
A little over three months later, in late February, the temperature suddenly soared into the sixties. A window stood open in the apartment. Dru was straightening things in Emily's room as Emily lay in the crib. With a lifting of the breeze, the sheer curtains fluttered, and Dru had the peculiar sensation that she heard a quavering Irish voice singing, "Tura, lura, lura." She ran to the window and stared out. Nothing! Odd, she thought, curtains moving, but no breeze outside. And that tiny voice! Momma's voice!
Dru's frightened eyes turned to Emily in the crib; angelic blue eyes glinted knowingly. Eyes that reminded Dru of her mother! How strange! How very strange!
Dru picked up Emily and holding her close, rocked her in her arms. The words to an Irish lullaby she barely remembered overpowered her. "Hush, child, as you sleep. Mother watches. Not a peep," Dru crooned, hearing the self-same quaver of her mother in her own voice. Even as a small child, she had watched her mother, back already slightly bent, carrying the youngest brother, crooning away his colic with those very words that Dru had believed forgotten. Dru felt the room spin slowly.
She pinched herself hard. She was a math and science teacher. All this eerie nonsense needn't be encouraged. Instead of poking around in shadowy nooks and crannies of the supernatural, she needed to be thinking about how to get Tammy Rottman off her butt and into the world of work.
Not easily achieved. Days turned into months and eventually years; Emily became the child Dru had never had, as Tammy stayed busy smoking cigarettes on the porch and talking on the phone with unidentified, faceless men.
Not long before Christmas of Emily's second year, Dru ferried Tammy and Emily to the mall, so Emmie could get her first good look at Santa.
Emily lolled placidly in her stroller until they encountered a second-rate, underweight, beard-askew Santa Claus, who looked vaguely like Dru's father. Santa stared down into the stroller.
"What a sweet young thing. A true rose of Tralee."
Emily's lip quivered as a feeling of foreboding shivered through Dru. "Rose of Tralee"--her mother's favorite song. Emily pointed her little index finger and burst into frightened tears.
"Do you want Mommie?" Dru asked.
Emily shook her head no and howled. It was obvious it was Dru's arms she craved. Dru clutched Emily close until sobs subsided, and a shadow passed over Tammy's face.
Dru sniffed. What was that peculiar odor on Tammy? What did marijuana smell like? Dru sniffed again. No, not marijuana. This time she smelled her mother's cologne. How could that be? Hands trembling, Dru calmed Emily as Santa Claus drifted off down the mall, ringing his lonely bell.
A year passed. Another January--winter fell hard and bitter once more. Emily turned three. Six inches of ice formed on the goldfish pond in the backyard. Tammy virtually disappeared. "Studying with a friend to be an airline stewardess," she explained.
Dru knew better--airlines did not hire hard-bitten girls with ankle tattoos and three packs a day habits. Tammy was drugging. Meanwhile Emily cried relentlessly. The cold seemed to torture her, reminding Dru of Momma's insubstantial frame, always so vulnerable to the cold.
She picked up Emily and stared out the bedroom window at a woman's tiny footprints in the snow. Where had they come from? Strange. A woman barefoot in the snow? It reminded Dru of Momma's favorite story of the time she and her sisters went to the village dance in Ireland.
The fiddles roared, whiskey flowed, and two girls were cornered in the darkness and raped. Terrified, they had raced home barefoot, leaving tracks in the snow. Trembling, Dru stood stock still, holding Emily, listening to the sound of something quietly moving in the attic.
Though she absolutely rejected the supernatural, fear skittered down her neck. She listened. Nothing. No, her ears had fooled her, but then she looked again, and Emily's tiny index finger pointed upwards towards the attic.
"Don't be afraid, Emmie," Dru whispered, heart pounding as the sound of tiny footsteps tiptoed above them in the attic, and Emily's little finger wiggled excitedly. And then the footsteps died.
Listening intently, Dru heard a quavering voice from the attic, "I'll always love you, Dru."
Emily's little hands shook with excitement as Dru raced up the steps to the attic. There was no one there.
The next year in the spring, Emily's left eye began to mysteriously droop. The opthomologist that Dru paid for said it was nothing serious and might take care of itself in time. "Not serious at all," Dru thought, remembering how Momma's left eye had drooped after the Parkinson's began.
"Devil's eye," Momma had insisted upon calling it.
"That's nonsense, Mom. It's physiological. It has nothing to do with any devil."
"Of course. T'was only what we said back in Ballyhool."
"Dear old Ballyhool," Dru had replied.
"Not so dear," her mother had answered.
"Then why remember it?"
"Some things you can not forget."
For example, the color orange! The color Momma had cherished above all.
Once when Dru had been in high school, her mother had come home with orange taffeta to make Dru a dress. Dreadful color. Dru detested orange.
"But, Dru my child, orange is the color of the earth itself. Nothing is so fundamental as orange." That had heralded the assortment of drab orange housecoats and dresses Momma wore to the end of her life.
Now why was it Emily insisted on coloring everything in her coloring books with orange crayons? So strange! Dru finally confiscated Emily's crayons and removed the orange one. Afterwards, Emily's angel eyes blazed with angry blue fire.
"You took away the orange, Aunt Dru. I want the orange! Why did you take it away?"
"There's something about orange that bothers me, Emily. You use the other crayons. OK?"
"No, I don't want to color with the other crayons. I want the orange!"
A shiver shook Dru's spine. Why was this child so odd? Dru blurted, "Momma, you always loved orange best, didn't you?" Then she realized what she'd said.
Emily shook her pretty head disapprovingly, the drooping eye fixing on Dru. "You made a mistake, Aunt Dru. I'm not your mommy."
That night Dru wrestled with a disturbing dream. She was an infant in a carriage, and Momma, who had become one and the same with Emily, was wheeling her down the pastel-tinted streets of Ballyhool. Suddenly, however, a car came racing out of the shadows, striking Momma. Dru struggled to climb out of the carriage to go to her rescue, but she was too small. Meanwhile a fully-grown Emily knelt over Momma, stroking her hair.
Dru awakened from the dream trembling, but in the broad daylight it lost its impact, and she returned to the utter banality of teaching school.
On the third of March, Tammy walked in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette. She flung herself onto a straight-backed chair, ignoring the fact that Dru had not permitted smoking in the house for the last three years. "I got good news, Dru. Me and my boyfriend are getting engaged. I'll be moving out. Then I'll pay you all the back rent and stuff I owe you."
Dru knew better. There would be no money and no marriage either for that matter, but taking Emily away--the threat of that cut to the bone!
Three days later Tammy's hideous peek-a-boo pancakes were gone. She'd been to the beauty parlor for a tacky permanent, and her new curls clung tight and hopefully to her head.
Dru suggested coffee. In the middle of the first cup, eyes brimming with excitement, Tammy stopped dead. "Jason and I are moving to California this weekend, Dru. We're going to be married down there! I am so excited."
Emily walked in the room. "I don't want to go and leave Aunt Dru," she said, her little eyes filling with tears.
Dru stroked the girl's hair. "This is all very sudden, Tammy. You're sure you're doing the right thing?"
"I'd follow Jason anywheres." Tammy's fingernails glittered under a heavy layer of purple lacquer.
"I see," Dru said; "I'm sure you've thought it all through." She gave Tammy a half hug, knowing full well the trip would be a disaster. Jason turned out to be a shiftless gas-station-attendant-type with hair to his shoulders, an earring in one ear, and exorbitant auto insurance rates on his banged up Toyota because of his many wrecks.
"Poor Emily," Dru thought, "What a step-father. Maybe I should try and argue Tammy out of her decision, but no it's not my place to do that."
She stood forlornly holding Emily's hand on March 15th as the under-nourished-looking boy in a Black Sabbath T-shirt, reminding her of Momma's murderers, loaded Tammy's few pathetic bits of furniture into the U-Haul truck. Dru watched the big, orange truck disappear in a driving storm.
The loneliness for Emmie was unbearable.
The remainder of the spring, Dru felt like a certified old maid. Sometimes Momma's ghost would come and sit beside her on the sun porch. Dru wouldn't answer, but it was comforting to feel Momma close once more.
She remembered Momma saying, "Having a man is no necessity, Dru dear. Those who are plain must bide with loneliness you see. Your chastity is more important than some feeble fling with a worthless man. And many the worthless man there is. Remember to say your rosary, dear, and be sure the dishes are done before you leave the house."
Then on the first day of June, Tammy's brittle voice crackled over the phone wires, sobbing. There was bad news.
"Emily's DEAD! Jason was going to the convenience store for cigarettes when this crazy driver pulled out from a red light and crashed into the passenger side of Jason's car."
"Oh my God! Was Emily wearing her safety belt?"
"Don't ask me that, Miss O. Don't accuse me of nothing. She was with Jason. It's not fair. The cops are on Jason's case. He's being cited for child endangerment because he was a little over the speed limit." Tammy's sobs filled up the wire.
The phone turned cold in Dru's hand. Huge, taunting oak leaves signaled to her from outside the kitchenette window. Emily? Dear, sweet Emily dead because of a young, irresponsible bastard? What tired excuse would he have? His parents had been divorced? He'd been made to sit in his room? He had Attention Deficit Disorder? Dru was certain he was lying about the car at the red light. She could feel it deep in her guts.
"You have a head, Dru, and a heart. The head is good for solving arithmetic problems, but the heart leads you to the truth." She could hear Momma's words and voice.
Emily's funeral was the saddest thing Dru had ever experienced. The poor child lay in a fancy orange dress with white lace at the neck and wrists, blue eyes glittering mysteriously, the left eye drooping slightly. It was all Dru could do to be civil to Tammy and Jason. She left California $3,000 poorer, for, of course, Tammy and the boy had no money for the funeral. Neither of them had been able to find a job! Bitterly Dru thought of Momma working in the pad-factory eight hours a day, then returning home to raise her and her younger brother. Before the Parkinson's Mother's little hands were tough as sandpaper.
Dru sat in a stupor as the plane juddered through rough weather back to Oregon. Uncharacteristically, she refused to make conversation with the pleasant dumpling of a grandmother seated next to her. Dru's thoughts were dark, but coming clear now.
Whatever force it was that controlled death and rebirth had erred and sent Momma back as Emily. Perhaps, the murder had disturbed the order of things. Now, however, conditions must be rectified. Emily's spirit needed to return far, far, from California on another side of the planet. It would be better that way. Having Emily so close had failed and resulted in terrible pain.
Numbly, Dru staggered out of the taxi; she automatically went to the mailbox. Amidst a stack of bills and junk-mail lay a cheap, flimsy blue envelope. With trembling fingers she opened it. It was a photograph of Emily in a lovely white dress and Easter shoes.
Below the photo was scrawled, "I miss you so much, Aunt Dru." Dru's heart thumped wildly. "It must have been mailed before the accident," she told herself, knowing that was quite impossible. Four days had elapsed.
Returning to the apartment, Dru made the necessary phone calls. Then working methodically with a sense of Emily and Momma looking over her shoulder, she carefully packed. The first possible flight to Los Angeles left that afternoon. She left her bag at the airport.
A driving rain inundated the sprawling city as she sat frozen in the back of the taxi, staring through rain-spattered windows, strange thoughts wheeling through her head like berserk amusement park rides. This thing could be done perfectly if she were smart. The boy's self-satisfied, lying, murderous face flashed on and off through her mind.
Ignoring the taxi driver's efforts at small talk, she slid out of the cab into three inches of water. Thrusting a twenty into the bemused cabbie's hand, she trudged through the gloom, water gushing through her shoes, soaking her feet. She didn't care.
In the distance, a fire siren rose and fell warningly. A feeble-looking lost dog limped past, staring at Dru wonderingly, and a chopped-top Mercury, with two Chicanos eyeing her, slowly eased past into the gathering darkness.
"Determination, not talent, separates those who achieve from those who don't." One of Momma's favorite expressions.
A police cruiser followed Dru for a half-block, then suddenly sped off. Her breath yipped in and out now, and she could feel her heart fluttering fearfully. In a few more minutes she was standing, soaked, in front of Tammy's shabby, gray apartment building. Jason's nearly-totaled, brown Toyota was parked in front on two flat tires. No doubt he was angling for some sort of insurance settlement.
Carrying her heavy purse, she stepped into the vestibule of the apartment. A radio blared tuneless rock. It had to be them. The steps were filthy, and Emily's Big Wheels was obscenely turned upside down on the upper landing.
Slowly Dru trudged up the steps, her legs heavy as barbells. The light bulb on the landing flickered as, with shaking knees, Dru stood in the gloom and knocked heavily, the sound foreboding and insistent.
"We ain't home!" She recognized Jason's voice.
She knocked again, louder, stronger.
"I said we ain't home. Buzz off." Jason's voice rose irritably.
Dru took the unfamiliar thing out of her purse. The barrel was blunt and dark and efficient looking. Momma had given it to her when she learned Dru was to be working in an urban environment.
"A woman must have her protection," Momma had said. "To a man a rape is an idle entitlement."
Dru put her head to the flimsy door and listened. The radio vibrated the walls. "Next up Guns n' Roses," the announcer shouted. She sensed Jason listening back at her on the other side of the door. Wasn't he a man like her father? Like her mother's murderers? Wasn't he in effect Emily's killer?
"I've got some money for you," she called out, disguising her voice.
"Yes, insurance money for Jason Weber."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
The safety chain rattled, and the thin, wooden door swung open six inches. She smelled the ropy smell of dope as Jason's narrow face appeared. Framed in the yellow light of a bulb, his scraggly, blond mustache and colorless gray eyes were centered between the door and the jamb. Behind him, a hanging light cord illuminated a seedy, Thrift-store-furnished apartment with a poster of a naked-to-the-waist rock guitarist on the far wall.
"What's going on? Who are you?" Jason's voice rose suspiciously.
Dru felt the cold metal of the trigger freezing her finger before she squeezed. There was an explosion, then Jason doubled over, clutching his belly. She shot again. Then twice more.
The bastard lay on the floor, whimpering.
Turning abruptly without a feeling of remorse, Dru turned and headed for the airport. The flight to Cleveland was in less than an hour. There was still important work to be done there, and Dru had the bullets to do it.
As her heavy steps crunched down the stairs, she saw Momma waiting at the bottom, as before the Parkinson's, so young and lovely with blue, blue eyes, beckoning to her, gleaming angelically.
"Emily!" Dru cried. "Oh, Momma, my sweet, sweet Emily!"
"Yes, darling daughter, come closer now. Much closer. Come and hold me. Now at last I can rest. Oh darling, darling Angel Eyes!"
Latricia Lacey-Lane is a full-time middle school art teacher and a part-time writer. Smoking too many cigarettes and drinking too much coffee, she shares an apartment and friendly writing competition with an opposite sex friend.
Published by permission of the author.