Friday, July 13, 2007

Chapter Twenty-Two: Showdown

Compass showed up at her mother’s door. It was early. She hadn’t called first. This time, there would be no alerts beforehand, no warning shots across the bow, no chance for Mina to hitch up her skirts and head for the hills. Compass wanted answers. Hell, she was entitled to them. She was in danger, after all: people were lurking! There was actual lurking involved here. In the course of her normal life, nothing lurked except her cats, and they were too fat to do it right. Now it was an epidemic: people were lurking in every alley, around every corner. Lurking was high on the list of Compass’ least favorite activities to be on the wrong side of. She was pissed off enough to confront Mina now, even early-morning, pre-coffee, why-the-expletive-didn’t-you-call-first Mina. Probably.

Compass started out knocking, but as she heard her mother moving around inside without actually moving toward the door, she gave up knocking and started pounding. Pounding moved to full-on body-checking: a running-start, hip-first, full-body slam that made the heavy oak door shake on its hinges. Three or four of those, and even Mina could no longer ignore her.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mina shrieked as she yanked open the door.

Horrified, Compass almost laughed out loud. Sleek, feline Mina with the perfect face and coiffure had been replaced by a wild-eyed harridan with panicked hair, breath that could drop a rhino, and a bathrobe that had recently spent time in the garbage disposal. She held an empty shot glass in one hand. For the first time ever, Compass felt a jolt of pity for her mother.

“Get out.”

It was short-lived.

“No. You owe me some answers.”

“I don’t owe you anything. For christ’s sake, Compass, you’re 42-”


Mina giggled. She was still a little drunk. “What year did I say you were born in?”

“I saw the birth certificate, Mom. I’m 39.”

Compass shoved past her mother, pulled her away from the door and shut it behind them. She was astonished by how angry she was, and how powerful it made her feel. Mina was a pathetic drunk, and Compass was ashamed at how thoroughly cowed she’d been by this woman. She pulled Mina over to the couch and pushed her onto it.

“You owe me some answers. And not just answers. I want proof.”

“And why is that, dear; don’t you trust me?”

Compass shared with her mother an ability to raise one eyebrow in a manner that said, You are so thoroughly full of manure, I could raise roses in your mouth. She raised that eyebrow now. Mina tried to raise her own in response, but her face wouldn’t cooperate. She threw the shotglass, bouncing it off the wall.

“Proof, Mina.”

“What the hell else do you need to know? You ransacked my house while I was gone, destroyed that box I told you never to look into, prowled through the boxes in the attic, invaded my privacy-”

“Mom!” Compass shouted. “Shut the hell up!” She walked across the room and picked up the shotglass. “I don’t give six shits about your privacy.” She threw the glass, shattering it on the fireplace. “You are a wretched, drunken, bloated old cow who has lied to me about everything in my life. Everything! I met a couple of old people not too long ago – they might be my grandparents. Notice I said ‘might.’ Most people are clear on things like grandparents. Those same old people who have been staring down at you your entire life, those people who dispensed wisdom and made you cookies and gave you ten bucks when you came around and watched you graduate from high school; those people who wrote you letters about what’s growing in their garden this year and how Aunt Frannie had her spleen removed, and who at the senior center cheats at canasta, those people are your grandparents. Not a hell of a lot of mystery there. Me? I get taken to lunch by a pair of friendly seeming old people, and I have to worry whether they’re secretly planning to poison my eggs and bury me in their basement. Now suppose you shut the fuck up about your privacy,” here her voice dropped to a hissing whisper, “and fill in some of the gaps.”

Mina was clearly more than a little taken aback by this creature in her living room. For 39 years she’d had a daughter who was meek, timid, careful, at least around her mother. This person who pounded on doors and threw glassware and curse words was new. Mina’s eyes took on that snaky, crafty look of someone planning their next move. Compass leaned down and took hold of her mother’s shoulders, not gently.

“I don’t know how much this will matter to you, but if you lie to me again, even just one lie, even a really small one, you will never see me again. Do you understand?” Compass meant it. And finally, she knew she was strong enough to do it. She didn’t want to – she really wanted those answers – but she’d rather walk away never knowing than let Mina play headgames with her anymore.

The sly look disappeared, and suddenly Mina just looked old. The woman was in her 60s, after all, but she’d always hidden it so well, Compass had half expected to find a painting of an aged, decrepit, withered old crone in the attic. But now the old crone was here on the couch, looking every minute of her age and every inch of her lifestyle.

“I don’t care if I never see you again.” Mina’s voice was as dull as her eyes. They stared at each other for a long moment, Compass still gripping Mina’s shoulders. Then Mina laughed. “You’re still here, so obviously you don’t think I’m lying when I say I don’t care.”

Compass didn’t say anything. Mina was right: her instinct, on hearing that her mother didn’t care about her, was to believe it. Virtually any other thing that came out of her mother’s mouth had to be double-checked and cross-referenced for accuracy and truthfulness, but this, this she had believed without question. It made her feel sick.

“I’ve known that for a very long time,” Compass said, quietly. She let go of Mina’s shoulders, sat down in a chair across from her. “Now tell me some things I don’t know.”

It took most of the morning. Compass made them both coffee, and later, eggs and toast which neither of them ate.

Arthur and Ginny were Mina’s parents. She loathed them to a degree worthy of a angst-ridden teenager. They were provincial and plump and content, and Mina preferred to think of herself as descended from sleeker stock. She insisted there was nothing nefarious in her refusal to put grandparents and grandchild together; she simply didn’t like her parents and didn’t want to give them an additional reason to involve themselves in her life.

“You went to some pretty spectacular lengths to keep us apart. You expect me to believe that it’s because you don’t like them, and that’s all?”

“Believe what you want. Arthur and Ginny didn’t approve of my life, didn’t approve of me, would likely have had me declared an unfit mother and had you taken away.”

“I’m trying to see the downside here. Oh, right. You’d be without your insurance policy then.”

“You were my daughter. Smug, self-righteous little prig that you were, you were my daughter, and I’d be damned if I’d let someone else raise you.”

“Touching. No, really. I’m touched. Drunken, neglectful, acid-tongued, jewel-thieving harpy, who else should have responsibility for a child?”

“You think I was too critical.”

“I think Genghis Khan was more forthcoming with the praise.”

“I was raising you to be strong.”

“You were raising me to jump at every shadow,” said Compass.

“It’s my fault you took everything the wrong way?” asked her mother.

“Was there ever a Jeremy Jones?” Compass refused to be led off topic. It would be easy enough to do: she desperately wanted to let Mina know what a truly lousy parent she had been, how Compass had come to regard her entire childhood as an open wound. But Mina would never hear it. Compass could waste all the time and breath she wanted, but Mina would never hear, would never care. So Compass plowed on, the myths of her life piling up on the roadsides.

“There was a Jeremy Jones. We met on the airplane from London. I was about three weeks pregnant. He was very civilized and looked enough like Oliver that just in case you looked like your father, no one would wonder.”

“Wow. Is there anything in life that you aren’t cold and calculated about?”

“I believe in being prepared. Pour something in this coffee. If I have to spend this many hours on a couch with you, I’m going to need reinforcements.”

“No. Did Jeremy know that I wasn’t his?”

“Jeremy had very advanced denial skills.”

“He’d need them. So you introduced yourself over Greenland and were married before you hit the ground in Chicago, huh? Poor shmuck, he never knew what hit him.”

“Jeremy never regretted a thing.”

“I’ll bet.”

Mina abruptly smacked her daughter across the face. “You can trample on and judge my history all you want, but you know nothing about Jeremy. So back off, little girl. That part of my life has nothing to do with you.”

Compass was stunned – not from the slap, which was one of Mina’s favorite argumentative strategies – but from the fact that she’d apparently touched a nerve. Mina had a nerve, had a moment in her life worth protecting. That was shocking.

“Why is all of this coming up now? Why, after all this time? What started it all off? Was it Todd telling me about the blood stuff?”

“No, of course not. I’ve had my cover-up story ready for years. In fact, I can’t believe it took you this long to figure it out. And it wasn’t even you who figured it out! According to Todd, you had to have it laboriously explained to you. Good lord, child; do you ever pay attention to real life, the actual people around you? Or are they only real and interesting if they’re in a book?”

“You’re boring me pretty badly right now, for example,” said Compass. “How about answering that question.”

Mina yawned theatrically. “I’m tired. Let’s finish this some other time.”

Compass waved her nearly full glass of coffee over one of the couch cushions. “Keep talking or the couch gets it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. This ‘couch’ cost $11,000 and was imported from Paris. It’s one of a kind.”

Compass tilted her glass a little further, and a little further still. Her mother, slit-eyed, still said nothing. Compass let a single drop fall, a drop which Mina miraculously intercepted, though it meant sprawling across her daughter’s lap. “Stop that! Goddamit!”

“I’ll destroy every beautiful thing in this home, Mina. I can do it, too. Hell, look what I’ve done to you, in just one morning.”

Mina raised her hand to hit her daughter again, but this time Compass saw it coming. She caught her mother’s bony wrist mid-smack.

“What started all this?” Compass would never have believed herself capable of violence, but now she had to stop herself from deliberately squeezing her mother’s wrist to the point of pain.

“Fine. I’m out of money,” Mina said. “Or nearly. I contacted your father to sell him the Hines emerald. I have cancer and I can’t afford the treatments. I can get a note from my oncologist if you don’t believe me.” She paused for a moment, but Compass was too shocked to speak. “Your father won’t buy it. He can’t own the emerald because of the curse. But he can take it back to the Museum and collect the very generous reward. He’s afraid I’ll sell it to someone else, so he’s come for it, but I won’t let him have it. And now it’s a race to see which kills me first.” Mina stood up, pulling her wrist easily from Compass’ slack grip. “I think I’ll just go have my shower now.”

As soon as she was gone, Compass burst into tears. And spilled her coffee on the couch.


NuclearToast said...

<picks up jaw>

Ash said...

OMG! I can’t wait to hear what happens next! How could you leave us hanging like this?!?!?! Great chapter!