***Agartha, Sedona, AZ***
Elvira had not pulled to a complete stop before the welcoming party was out. Good lord, that girl looked like she was going to pop. And Indie had over a month to go. It made Stacey glad that she had never had twins. Celestine was more laid-back in her welcome, but the smile said it all. Barry looked a bit older and more tired in just the couple of weeks since they had left the man in Laredo. Her chest tightened when she noted Mason’s absence. Was he still in rehab? Or had he simply chosen not to come back to Agartha? Stacey supposed they would find out soon enough.
Reb reached over and squeezed her hand, “You ready for this, sweetheart?”
Honestly, Stacey wasn’t sure that she was. For the past day and a half, she had done little else than debate the issue in her head. Overthink it, some would say. But this wasn’t just her life or Reb’s. This was three young girls. Who deserved a hell of a lot more in life than what they had gotten so far. Could she do this? Could she be what they needed now? Wanda Kerr had thought so. And Stacey knew she wasn’t alone. This moment showed that. “As ready as I can be. What about you?”
“Daddy wasn’t something I ever thought I’d be. But we’ll do whatever it takes to keep those girls safe.” He nodded his head and reached for the door handle, “So will they.”
Stacey wasn’t out of the truck before she was engulfed in one of Indie’s hugs. As much as she could around that belly, it was kind of a side hug. But Stacey had tolerated a couple of those from Elena and Laura. Tolerated? Since when had she done more than tolerated anyone’s embrace? But she was. Stacey was coming to actually enjoy a comforting embrace. And a strong arm resting over her shoulder, Reb leaned down and kissed the tip of her nose, “Welcome home, darling.”
Stacey took a deep breath of the crisp early morning air. And it was. This place just felt right, like home. It was a feeling that she was not accustomed to. But she thought perhaps she get used to it. Celestine stepped forward and embraced her, “Welcome back.” Then she turned to her son and embraced Reb as well. Before passing him to Barry. The round of embraces went on far longer than she anticipated.
“Do you want to get settled back into your cabin? They should start serving breakfast soon. Beth has been working in the kitchens. I thought maybe we could pull her aside after breakfast and talk with her first?” Indie suggested.
“Wouldn’t it better to talk with them all at once?” Reb addressed his sister.
It was Celestine who replied, “Normally, I would agree. But Maggy is so young that death won’t mean much to her. Katie will need to be told, but Beth has been causing a bit of trouble. Demanding to know why she hasn’t heard from her mother once Barry got back. Nancy has tried to speak with her, but….”
“But I’m tired of all the fucking lies and bullshit, old woman?” Stacey felt as if a knife had been plunged into her chest at the cold blue-eyed stare that seemed focused directly on her. She knew that look. She had attempted to stare it down forty-seven times. “Where’s my mother?”
“Now isn’t the best time, be….”
The girl whirled on Indie, “Shut up, bitch. I wasn’t speaking to you.”
“Perhaps it would be best if we went up to my office,” Celestine smiled at the girl.
“Perhaps you should fuck off.”
“There’s no need for that kind of language,” Barry stepped between the teenager and his wife and daughter.
“If someone would answer my fucking question….”
“She’s dead.” This was not how Stacey had planned things. But the girl was right. She deserved the truth. Maybe they had been wrong. Perhaps they should have told her before now. But Stacey had felt obligated to inform the children herself. It was just that she had been torn between her past and the future.
The girl shook her blond head, “No, you’re lying. She can’t be dead.”
“They both are. Your mother. And your father.”
“No,” that bravado was gone now. In its place stood a girl that looked more child than woman.
“I’m sorry, Beth, but it is true. Can we please go inside to talk about this? I don’t think you want people overhearing? For your sisters’ sakes?” Stacey knew better than to reach out to the girl. She had not earned the right to touch her. With this one, she might never. She knew that the scars went deep, and she had just added more to those old wounds which had just begun to heal. “Please.”
The girl looked up at her through tears. Those blue eyes didn’t look as cold and menacing now. This young woman was an innocent victim too. She had to remember that. “Will it be okay if we have Nancy join us? I know I could sure use some support right now.” That was certainly true enough, and perhaps it would make that small concession easier for the girl too.
The girl dropped her head but nodded just a bit. The small procession was somber as it made its way across the short distance to Shangrila and up the steps on the side that led to the office and counseling room. Stacey wasn’t even all that surprised to see that Nancy Hayward-Jones was already waiting for them there.
The moment the door closed, the fight was back in the girl. “What happened? How did my mother die? When? Why hasn’t anyone told me before now? And I want the fucking truth. I’m not some stupid kid.”
Stacey remembered that feeling well. As a mother, her girls had each had their minor rebellions but never anything significant. No, this girl’s pain reminded her more of her own. Sixteen was when she really began to lose it. She was rarely sober then.
Why would she want to be? School was a bore. The teachers and counselor didn’t even believe her. Not even when she showed them the bruises. And she sure didn’t want to be sober for those beatings. But, at least the alcohol and drugs took the edge off the pain and anger. Yeah, she knew this girl. Because Beth Kerr was her, four decades ago.
“Your mother went after your father. There was this cabin. Your grandfather’s, I believe. She didn’t tell anyone about it. I don’t know why….”
“Because she knew that as long as that man was alive, we’d never be safe.”
Stacey nodded; she noticed that Beth never once asked how her father died. Instead, the term ‘that man’ said it all.
She wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to give her all the gory details. Stacey looked towards Nancy and Celestine, but the women just nodded their heads in agreement. “Okay, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll tell you everything we know. If you’ll sit down.” She could see that Beth wanted to argue. “Please. It’ll take a while and the old lady ain’t as young as she once was.”
The girl looked around the room at each of their faces. Finally, she shrugged and plopped onto the pink bean bag chair that her mother had sat in that first day Stacey had seen Wanda here. She sent a silent plea to the universe.
No, to Wanda. She might not believe in her daddy’s heaven and hell, but one thing she knew was that a mother’s love was eternal. There was no doubt that Wanda Kerr had given her life for her girls. Just as Stacey was prepared to do for hers. But she knew that woman wasn’t going anywhere as long as her daughters needed her. And right now, they all needed her.
It took far longer than she had thought to tell the whole story. Beth had interrupted with questions a couple of times. “So, what happens to us now? Are you sending us back to his family?” There was no mistaking the alarm in the girl’s voice as she spoke.
Stacey looked at Celestine and Indie, then her gaze found Reb’s. He nodded encouragement as she pulled the letter from her pocket. “No, that’s not what your mother wanted. Your mother’s last words were, ‘Take care of my girls.’ I found this letter in my purse the day of the funeral. My daughter, the fancy lawyer, says it’s not legal, though.”
“So his family could still take us?”
“Not if they don’t know where to find you,” Indie rubbed her belly and grimaced.
“What do you mean? And wait, you said the funeral? So they buried my mother without us there?” Stacey heard the anger rising in the girl’s voice.
“Yes, Beth, that’s why we didn’t tell you,” Celestine took the heat though it had been a group decision. “We were afraid that you might do something rash.” Thankfully, the woman had the sense not to say stupid. But, then again, she had children of her whom, perhaps Cellie had learned that lesson the hard way too.
“Your mother did everything she could to give you and your sisters a life away from all that, Beth,” Nancy said. “Right now, only a few people know where you are. People that can be trusted. It was your mother’s wish that you all remain here with us. And that we complete the process to give you new identities.”
“If you and your sisters had gone to her funeral, none of that would have been possible. You might have even brought undue attention to Agartha. I know this isn’t easy to hear. But funerals aren’t for the dead. They’re for the living. Your mother would have rather known that you were all safe here.”
The girl got up from the bean bag, walked over to the large bay windows that opened onto the patio, and looked out across the mountains and desert. She just stood there silently for several minutes before she turned and faced them, “So, what happens now?”
Celestine smiled, the relief evident in her face, “We have our hackers from the network create new identities for all of you. That isn’t as easy or failsafe as it used to be. But since you don’t go to school, that makes it a bit easier.”
“Your mother asked me to look after you. So if it’s okay with you, the papers will have me and Reb as your guardians.”
The look was back. Stacey practiced that deep breathing shit. She would need to talk to Nancy or Celestine about this. Get her head around those cold eyes. “Why you? You hated my Mama. Whenever you saw her around town, you always acted like you were better than her. Were you one of his whores, too?”
The voice even held traces of the man. Stacey closed her eyes at the vitriol. And more than a touch of her own guilt. She would not deny the girl’s accusation. She couldn’t. She had always seen Wanda as a co-conspirator instead of another victim. Until it was too late. But it wasn’t, not for this woman-child. She took three deep cleansing breaths and counted to ten before opening her eyes.
If this had any chance of working, the only way to deal with this one was to treat her as an equal. Honesty and transparency. That stupid reconciliation that Bradley preached about came to mind. It might be too late to make things right with the woman, but she could her daughter.
“You’re right. I judged your Mama unfairly. I can’t change that. But I can make it up to her by doing what she asks. Your Mama was that man’s victim the same way I was. The same way that you would have been if she hadn’t gotten ya’ll away from there. The best way that any of us can honor her memory is by making damned sure her sacrifices weren’t in vain. That you and your sisters grow up safe and secure here at Agartha.”
“What if they find us?”
“Then we’ll deal with that if it happens. But I promise you, no one is taking you or your sisters from here against your will. You have my word on that. And I would kill or die to protect any of you.” Stacey had gotten so used to the gentle and loving man that this side of Reb still surprised her. But he was a killer, and she knew he would do as he promised.
The girl looked from him to her, then back out that window for a moment. “A few conditions. I get that Katie and especially Maggy need parents. And I guess if you were Mama’s choice, I can live with that. But don’t think you can go mothering me.”
Stacey nodded, “Fair enough. But I have one condition too. You stay here and continue therapy with Nancy until you’re eighteen.”
“You can count on it. I ain’t going nowhere until I’m sure you’re taking care of my sisters. And that’s my other condition. I tell Katie and Maggy about Mama.”
Stacey felt a new respect for this woman-child. “May we be there? Just in case they need us?” Or you, but she was wise enough not to say that aloud.