Betta Listen. Artwork by Paul Davey
The house wasn’t much but it was all he could afford. Stephanie told him a hundred times they needed more life insurance but he didn’t listen. Life insurance was for old people; they were still in their thirties and in great shape. Nothing could, or would happen to them.
Randolph Chambers followed the moving truck up the steep driveway then thought better of it. They would need room to take out the furniture, what little there was. Steph’s chemo drained everything they had and then some. What little he was able to keep was augmented by donations from family and friends. They should have counted themselves lucky but they didn’t. Randolph would rather live in the streets with Steph and Gina than in a mansion alone.
“So this is home now?” Gina barely looked up from her iPod. It was their last luxury, a gift from a co-worker.
“Yeah, baby girl, this is home.”
“Ummm.” Randolph heard her shift in her seat but he didn’t look at her. It was hard for him to. He hated to see the disappointment in her face and the pain that lingered just beneath it. She looked too much like her mother, her gestures and expressions a reflection of Stephanie. He gathered himself and turned to her, forcing a smile on his face.
“Come on. Let’s go see what our little bit of money bought us.”
He parked the Explorer next to the curb and exited. He was halfway to the driveway when he noticed Gina was still in the SUV. He walked back and tapped on her window. She looked at him, raising her eyebrows in annoyance.
“Roll down the window,” he mouthed.
The window slid down.
“Aren’t you coming?”
Gina rolled her eyes and snatched her earphones off her head. “It just a house. It’s not home.”
Randolph ignored the insult, just as he’d done every day since Stephanie died. The psychiatrist said it was normal for children to act out after a parent’s death so he sucked it in and took the blow. Some days it was harder than others.
They trudged up the driveway and into the house. Randolph had hoped his opinion of the modest home would change after a few weeks but it didn’t. He should have been thankful to be in a house at all but he wasn’t. Everything was less now.
He forced a smile. “Why don’t you go pick out your room?”
Gina stared at the floor. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Well pick out mine then.”
Gina cut him a curious glance. “Sure, whatever.” She stomped up the stairs.
Randolph stepped aside as the movers brought in the great room furniture and sat it down in the room to his right. He went down the narrow hallway into the kitchen/dinette area and did a quick inspection. He’d have to replace the faucets when he got paid. The laundry room was a cramped space that barely accommodated the washer and dryer but it would do.
Randolph broke his musing and trotted upstairs. “What’s up, baby girl?”
“I’m in here.”
Randolph entered the first room. Gina sat on the floor in the corner, a serious look on her face.
“This is it. This is my room.”
Randolph looked about the empty space and frowned. It was the smallest room in the house; her furniture wouldn’t fit. He’d have to put her chest of drawers in another room or the basement.
“You sure you want this…”
“I’m sure. This is my room.”
Randolph shrugged and walked out. He knew it wasn’t the right response but he didn’t care. He was tired, physically and mentally. He’d be a better father tomorrow.
He spent the next three hours leading the movers around the house making sure everything was in its proper place. He wouldn’t have much help arranging furniture once the movers left. Most of his friends were really Stephanie’s friends. After the mandatory support period they all slowly disappeared. His friends lived in his hometown of Atlanta, too far away to drop by and lend a hand. Stacy Upchurch, his best friend, had promised to fly out to visit ‘as soon as he got settled,’ but Stacy was never settled.
The movers arranged Gina’s furniture around her. She sat in the corner of the room, eyes closed and head bobbing to whatever played on her iPod.
“Where do you want your bed?” he asked.
“I don’t care,” Gina replied.
“Set it by the window,” Randolph told the movers.
“No!” Gina jumped to her feet, her expression angry.
“Anywhere but there.”
Randolph had enough. “Take off those damn earphones!”
Gina glared at him then slowly removed her headphones.
Randolph folded his arms. “Now you’re going to tell these hard working men where you want your furniture and you’re going to do it politely. And if you snap at me one more time I’m going to snatch that iPod and throw it into the street. You understand?”
Gina nodded her head.
“Do you understand?”
Gina looked away. “Yes, sir.”
Randolph stormed out of the room. When the movers were done he paid them then went to his own room. He’d sold the king size bed and replaced it with a queen. It was too big, but that wasn’t the reason he sold it. Stephanie loved that bed with its tall rice posts, standing do high from the floor she needed a step stool to climb into it. She used to say it made her feel like a child to sit on it, her feet dangling over the edge. The bed even smelled like her, or at least her favorite perfume. When he slept in the old bed her memories awakened. So he sold the bed not because he wanted to, but because he had to. That was when things between him and Gina started going bad. She accused him of trying to forget Stephanie. He couldn’t get her to understand that he wasn’t trying to forget. He just couldn’t have her memories so near.
The good thing about the new/old house was that it was still in Gina’s school district. The bad thing was that Randolph had to drive her to school. It wouldn’t have been a problem before. He was a street salesman before Stephanie took ill and he could arrange his calls around his personal life. Once Stephanie was diagnosed he took an inside sales position. It was less money and he hated sitting at a desk all day but he needed to be close to make sure she made her treatments and to help around the house. Having to take Gina to school meant getting up earlier, and Randolph was not a morning person. But that didn’t matter.
Gina stomped down the hallway and dropped into her chair. Randolph did a finishing flourish with the scrambled eggs then slid a portion on her plate. He scooped a spoonful of girts beside the eggs the placed two pieces of bacon on the edge.
“Good morning,” he croaked.
“Yeah,” Gina replied. Randolph would have been shocked if she had said more.
She attacked the food like a starved child as he made his own plate and sat opposite her.
“So how was your first night in the new room?”
“Terrible,” she mumbled.
Randolph nodded. “The first night in a new house can be rough.”
“It was all that damn noise.”
Randolph mixed his eggs and grits. “What noise?”
“All that talking. I guess it was the neighbors. You didn’t hear it?”
“No.” Randolph glanced at the clock. “Shit…I mean Darn it. It’s almost time to go. Hurry up.”
“I just got here!” Gina whined.
“It’s either ride or walk,” Randolph retorted.
Gina scooped up her food. “You need to talk to the neighbors. They’re too loud.”
She sounded like Stephanie. “I will. Now let’s get you to school and me to work.”
Randolph sped to the school and joined the parent processional. He was two cars away from the drop off point when Tanisha Bridges came outside. The young pretty assistant principal came straight for their car.
“Not today,” Randolph whispered. “I don’t have time for this.”
She walked up to the passenger door, flashing her bright smile and waving as if they were a mile away. Gina opened the door and stepped onto the curb. She was immediately swallowed into Tanisha’s hug.
“Welcome back, Gina! We missed you!”
“Yeah,” Gina replied. She escaped Tanisha’s hug and trudged to the school building.
Tanisha turned her attention to Randolph.
“How is everything?” she asked with over exaggerated concern.
“As good as can be expected,” Randolph replied.
“These things take time, Randolph. Is it okay if I call you Randolph?”
“It’s fine, Ms. Bridges.”
“Please, call me Tanisha.”
“Her smile changed, its intention matching her words.
“I’d love to talk – why did he say that- but I’m late for work.” Randolph shifted the Jeep into drive.
“I understand Randolph We’ll talk soon.” She closed the door and waved, mouthing the words, Have a nice day.
Randolph crept to the stoplight at the entrance of the school then into traffic. Steph was right. Ms. Barnes-Tanisha-did have a crush on him. She would tease him during PTO meeting about how she would look at him up and down and giggle like a twelve year old whenever he said something witty. It was funny then, but not now. She seemed like a vulture, waiting to swoop down on the remains of their marriage. He debated whether to curse her out the next time he saw her.
He pulled into the parking lot ten minutes late. Walking into the side entrance Taylor Freemen, his boss, stood before the coffee dispenser filling his cup. He cut an eye at Randolph then at the break room clock.
“Morning, Randy,” he said coolly.
“Good morning,” Randolph hurried by him. He went directly to his cubicle and sat before his computer. He was logging in when Randy appeared over him.
“How is going?” he asked.
“How’s Gina doing?”
“Is there anything I can…?”
Taylor lingered and the moment became awkward. Randolph waited for him to say it. Taylor wasn’t a tactful man, so his hesitance was out of character. He’s seen his boss rake other employees over the coals for taking too much bereavement time. But Randolph was different. He’d been the company’s best salesman when he was on the road and now he was its best in-house sale rep. Firing him meant losing money and Taylor hated losing money. It wasn’t that Randy’s work was bad; he was still closing deals head over heels compared to the other reps, he just wasn’t producing Randy numbers.
Taylor scratched his balding head. “Well, if you need to talk or anything, let me know. We’re…I mean I’m here to help. You’re a valuable employee and I know things are tough right now. We want to see you back to your old self.”
“So I can get back to making you money.”
“Sure, thanks Taylor. I really appreciate it.”
Randolph logged in and went through the motions of the day. On his worst day he was better than most, and the past few weeks were his worst days. Before Steph’s illness he was road warrior, a street salesman bouncing from city to city and sometimes state to state hawking TF’s electronic goods. But he requested an inside job when she was diagnosed. Upper management resisted until he threatened to quit.
He ate lunch at his desk. On his screen a string of memories scrolled by, images of his life during better times. Photos of Hilton Head spring vacations, summers in Canada and winters in Miami marched by in perfect time, triggering as much joy as pain. He watched the images flash by over and over again. He was still watching them when his phone rang. It was another wasted day.
“Hello?” His voice was almost angry when he answered.
“Randolph, this is Tanisha. We need you to come to the school immediately. There’s an issue with Gina.”
“I’ll be right there,” Randolph hung up the phone before Tanisha could explain. He grabbed his things and rushed toward the door.
“Hey, hey hold up partner!” Taylor yelled. “Where are you running to? You just got here.”
“Trouble at my daughter’s school,” Randolph shouted back. “I’ll be in early tomorrow.”
He sped to the school. Tanisha waited outside.
“What’s going on, Tanisha?”
“Gina was in a fight.”
“Fight? Gina’s never been in a fight in her life! What happened? Was someone picking on her? You know she’s…”
“Calm down, Randolph.” Tanisha placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. He flinched then cut his eyes at Tanisha. She took her hand away.
“Gina started the fight. She’s in the principal’s office right now. As much as I hate it we have to suspend her for two days.”
Randolph nodded absently. “I understand.”
“Will there be anyone at home with her?”
“I’ll take the days off,” he said immediately, knowing he’d catch hell from Taylor.
“I’ll figure out some way to work from home.”
Randolph followed Tanisha through the narrow halls to the principal’s office. Gina sat by the door. Her clothes were rumbled and a dark bruise formed around her left eye. He knelt immediately in front of her.
“You alright, baby girl?”
Gina nodded. “Don’t call me that.”
Randolph turned to see Principal Wiggins approaching him. He shook the principal’s hand, wincing as the tall ex-football player squeeze a bit too hard.
“I’m sorry we have to meet under such circumstances,” Wiggins said. “Gina’s usually a good young lady. This is obviously a surprise to you, as it is to me.”
“It is,” Randolph said. He was angry and embarrassed.
“I wish we could handle this situation differently due to Gina’s circumstances but rules are rules. We have to suspend her.”
Gina’s circumstances? So Stephanie’s death was just circumstances to them.
“As I told Ms. Bridges, I understand.”
He went back to Gina. “Come on, let’s go.”
Gina followed him to the car. They rode home in silence. Randolph didn’t know what to say. He was angry at her for fighting, but he knew it had something to do with Stephanie. She should be punished, but how would she take it? He couldn’t do it any longer. It was time to talk to a therapist. No matter how he tried he couldn’t make it right, he could work things out. The pain went deep like old roots.
He was still coming to a stop when Gina flung open the car door then jumped out. She was fumbling with her keys at the door by the time he exited the car.
She shoved open the door then went inside. Randolph followed her to her room. When he entered she was on the bed crying. He tried to speak to her, searching his mind for a string of comforting words to say but he came up empty. The truth was he wanted to do the same thing but he couldn’t. He was her father. He had to be strong for her. So he placed his hand on her until she sat up, hugging him until she fell asleep in his arms. He lay her down then slipped to his room. He took a long, hot shower, trying his best to wash the tension from his body and mind. But his mind wouldn’t give in. He sat before the television, flipping channels before giving up then listening to Al Jarreau until he became drowsy. He decided to check on Gina before calling it a night.
He heard the voices halfway down the hallway. At first he thought Gina might be on the phone with one of her friends, but as he listened closely he realized it wasn’t her voice. It was a collection of voices, children and adults, male and female. He went to the window at the end of the hallway then peered outside; the streets were empty. Walking back to Gina’s door he was sure the voices came from her room. He opened the door.
Gina sat on the floor beside the wall, a blank look on her face. Behind her the wall moved with dozens of faces, their mouths spewing a torrent of words. Randolph lunged toward Gina but something shoved him back.
“Betta listen!” the voices said in unison. “Bring him back. Bring him back. Bring him back!”
A bright light emerged from the wall surrounding Gina. She began to fade.’
“No!” Randolph tried to reach her again but was shoved back again. He watched as she slowly faded then disappeared.
“Bring him back. You get her back. Betta listen!”
The last he saw of Gina was her eyes. Then the light and the faces were gone. He was alone in her room.
“Gina! Gina!” Randolph snatched open her closest. He looked under her bed. He ran through the house, searching every room as his voice went raw screaming her name. Then went back to her room then collapsed on the floor before the wall where she disappeared.
“Betta listen,” the voices whispered. “Bring the man back.”
“What man?” Randolph croaked.
“The man that lived here. The man that killed us.”
He’d gone mad,he thought. The strain of Stephanie’s death had driven him insane. Gina was somewhere in the house hiding from him, probably terrified of him.
“Gina, stop hiding and come on out,” he said. “I’m okay.”
“I’m not hiding, daddy,” he heard her whisper. “I’m with them.”
“It’s going to be alright baby,” he said. “Don’t worry, it’s going to be alright.”
Randolph ran back to his room. He had no idea who owned this house before. He rummaged through his top dresser drawer until he found the Sunshine Realty card. He punched the numbers on his phone with trembling fingers.
“This Ann Coolidge,” the sweet southern voice said.
“Ann, this is Randolph, Randolph Chambers. You sold me the house in the Old Fourth Ward.”
“Oh yes, Mr. Chambers! How is everything?”
“It’s fine. Ann, I was wondering if you knew the person that owned this house previously.”
There was silence for a moment. “Yes I do. His name is Charles Wynn. He bought a house in Griffin. A small thing with a lot of land.”
“He left a few things at the house. I’d like to ship them to him. Do you have the address?”
“Yes I do. That’s kind of you. Most people would just count it as a bonus. I’ll text you the information tomorrow.”
“I was wondering if you could send it tonight.” Randolph struggled to keep his desperation out of his voice.
“Well, okay. Give me a minute. Nice talking to you Randolph.”
“Same here, Ann.”
Randolph hung up then immediately gazed at his screen. It took Ann thirty minutes to text the address. He immediately pulled up his GPS app then plugged in the address. As the GPS did its job he went into his closet then opened the safe. Inside was a 9mm Glock and a Taser. The Taser was Stephanie’s; she refused to carry a gun. He grabbed a coat and hat then hurried downstairs to the garage. There he found a new roll of duct tape. Not once did he hesitate, not once did he have second thoughts. He had to find Gina.
By the time he got in the car the directions to Charles Wynn’s house were plotted. He sped out of the neighborhood headed for Griffin. It was farther than he thought. By the time he reached the exit he was low on gas. The GPS guided him down a dark lightless road bordered by pines and oaks, the dark wall of vegetation occasionally interrupted by farms or small homesteads.
“You have reached your destination,” the GPS announced.
Randolph stopped his car before the open area. The grass rose high against the ragged barb wire fence, a damaged light flickering over the driveway entrance. The house stood about fifty yards from the road, so faking a broken down car wouldn’t work. He cut off his lights then drove up to the house. There was no pretense to his actions; he had no time for such things and had no idea what he was doing.
He banged on the door. Hard footsteps advanced the stopped. The door jerked open.
Charles Wynn stood about Randolph’s height but was powerfully built. A ragged beard covered his face. He glared at Randolph with bloodshot blue eyes.
“What the hell are you doing here? What do you want?”
Randolph pulled out his gun with a shaky hand.
“I need you to come with me,” he said.
Charles knocked the gun from his hand. It struck the porch then went off, shattering the nearby window. He grabbed Randolph’s coat, jerked him inside then threw him across the room. He crashed against the wall, blacking out for a moment.
“How did you find out?” Charles barked. “How?”
Randolph’s sight cleared to Charles advancing on him with a knife. The blade was covered with blood. Randolph checked himself; it wasn’t his. He looked about desperately then saw someone lying on the couch. It was a man, his eyes staring blankly into the ceiling. Blood ran down his shirt then dripped onto the brown carpet. Randolph pushed back his fear, waiting for the murderer to come to him.
“Don’t matter how you found out,” he said. “Don’t matter at all.”’
Randolph waited until Charles reached for him. He slapped the man’s hand aside then drove the Taser into his chest then pressed the button. Charles shook, dropping the knife then collapsing to the floor. Randolph waited until he stopped convulsing then scrambled to his feet. He tased him again then ran outside to his car for the duct tape. Randolph fought to ignore the dead man on the couch, concentrating on his task. He taped Charles feet together then taped his hands behind his back. He taped his mouth last. The man was heavy; he dragged him outside, waiting until he was near the car before lifting him up then dropping him into the trunk. Then he sped away, driving back to the city. He waited until he was almost home before calling the Griffin police and reporting the dead man. He pulled into the garage then closed the door. When he opened the trunk Charles was conscious. There was no fear in his eyes, just anger.
Randolph reached for him and he struggled. He took out the Taser; Charles pleaded with his eyes just before Randolph tased him. He waited a moment then lifted him from the trunk. He carried the man to Gina’s room, dropping him on the floor.
“He’s here!” he shouted.
Faint mumbling danced about him.
“Where’s my daughter?” he shouted.
“He’s here!” the voices shouted.
The faces appeared in the walls, ecstatic smiles on the myriad faces. The light that consumed Gina materialized over Charles. He came to as it descended on him, his screams muffled by the tape. The faces laughed in delight at their light enveloped him, the laughter increasing with each tortured scream. Then the light exploded, blinding Randolph. When his sight cleared Gina lay on the floor before him. She seemed to be sleeping.
Randolph grabbed her, hugging her tight as tears streamed from his eyes.
“Daddy?” she said.
“Yes, baby, it’s Daddy.”
“They let me go like they said. You listened.”
“Yes baby, I listened.”
She hugged him back. “I saw momma.”
Randolph pulled away from her. “What?”
“I saw momma. She told me to tell you that she’s alright. She told me to tell you not to worry.”
She looked in Gina’s eyes. She was calm, her eyes peaceful.
Randolph hugged her again.
“Everything is going to be alright baby girl,” he said. “It’s going to be alright.”
“I know daddy,” Gina whispered. “I know. You listened.”