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SHE KNELT at the grave and laid one of two bundles of wildflowers she held next to the headstone.
Elizabeth held her tight. “Of course I won’t. I promise.” Elizabeth had memorized that paragraph from Aunt Karla’s
will. She whispered the words as the wind whipped around her. She would have to
leave soon or risk hypothermia. McAlester, Oklahoma, was a
ninety-mile drive due south from Tulsa.
it in silence: no radio, no thoughts. Elizabeth’s tongue was stuck. She knew it was going to stay
that way no matter how hard she tried to say something. Elizabeth scrambled to her feet and backed quickly away.
She turned and hurried to the door as bile clawed up her throat and her heart
pounded madly. The guard opened it, and she half-jogged out of it. When she got
to her car, she sat still for a full hour, eyes tightly closed, before driving
away. Elizabeth shook her head. “I don’t know why, but I don’t. I
had to do it. And I have to confront
my ‘mother,’ too. I have to. I don’t
know why! I just know that if I don’t I will never … I’ll never … I’ll never become who I’m supposed to be.” Elizabeth shrugged. “I just know … I know … I’ve got something really important to do.” She stared at
her. “If I’m adopted, I’m glad of it. I don’t want their blood in me. I’ve
thought that more than once in my life.” Elizabeth glanced at her. Auntie’s face was very solemn. Elizabeth nodded meekly. Elizabeth jammed her arm through and pushed it back open. Elizabeth’s hand flew. Its force was enough to stagger her
mother backward into the television cabinet, and then down to the ground. Elizabeth turned and
slammed the door, turned back around. Elizabeth grabbed her by her hair and pulled her up to her
feet. “Up! Get up!” Elizabeth took it. It was from United Airlines.
17 January 1963 – 8 December 1982
17 January 1963 – 8 December 1982
She placed the second bundle on the grave next to his.
22 April 1927 – 8 May 1988
IN GOD’S LOVE
22 April 1927 – 8 May 1988
IN GOD’S LOVE
Karla Boyd’s funeral was ten days ago, but
still came here every day. She thought she might need to come here every day
until the end of her life, because she felt responsible for Owen’s mother’s
Aunt Karla had set her free. Instead of judging or condemning her, Aunt Karla had helped her. She helped her escape her horrible family and run away. And because of that, her father brutally beat her before chasing Owen down and killing him.
also felt responsible for.
Her father was incarcerated in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He would be there at least twenty years.
The damage he did to Aunt Karla’s body was too much for her to recover fully. She became an invalid who had to take large amounts of painkillers just to get through each day. She retired from the slaughterhouse and moved to
Austin with her sister and Elizabeth. They took care of her, which was
made a little easier by means of the large civil settlement that bankrupted the
A month ago Aunt Karla didn’t wake up. She was rushed to the hospital, where it was determined a blood clot had gone to her brain—a blood clot almost certainly caused by Clinton Finnegan, Elizabeth’s father.
Karla Boyd, aged 61, died three days later.
There was never a time that Aunt Karla blamed her.
“You are a child of God, Lizzie,” she said just weeks before her death. “I’ve only said that one other time, and that was for Owen. He was a child of God, and so are you. And you don’t walk away when a child of God needs your help. There will come a day when it will be your turn to help a child of God. Don’t turn away from him or her, even if it means you must give your life. Understand?”
“Who knows?” said Aunt Karla. “There may be a new angel in your life sooner than you think. And that one will never leave you or be taken from you.”
Aunt Karla wanted to be buried next to her son. The headstone was still so new it gleamed, and the sod in front of it was still soft and bright green. She sat on Owen’s plot and crossed her legs and let emptiness fill her. When it overflowed, as she knew it would, it brought new tears to her eyes.
The day had dawned twenty degrees colder than the day before, and hadn’t warmed at all. The sky was an ominous, blustery gray that threatened snow; and in fact snow was in the forecast, despite being mid-May. But that was how it was in
Oklahoma: one day was
sunny and hot, the next freezing cold, the next muggy, the one after that
blaring with tornado warnings. Elizabeth
wrapped up tighter and stared without thinking at the gravestones.
Aunt Karla had willed
Elizabeth her Malibu
stationwagon, which had sat unused in storage the last six years, and almost a
hundred and fifty thousand dollars, well over half of which had come from Elizabeth’s parents.
Let go of your past, Lizzie. I know it’s difficult. Maybe it’s even impossible. It doesn’t really matter if it is, because it’s the honest trying to let it go that counts. You have lost so much; it is high time that you start gaining and winning. May my old-lady wheels get you on whatever highways and byways you choose to roam; and may the money give you wings. You have been like a daughter to me, and I couldn’t be prouder of you.
She closed her eyes. “ … and may the money give you wings….”
She made up her mind. The moment she did a great gust blew into her, pushing her over and sending the wildflowers careening away. She scrambled to her feet.
Sleet started falling. It flew into her face, stinging it.
She wasn’t one to believe in signs, but couldn’t help but think she’d just experienced one. “Okay, okay!” she yelled into the wind, which was urging her towards the
“I’m going! I’m going!”
The sting of the sleet felt good. She got into the stationwagon and wiped the tears away, some of which the sleet had caused, and turned the motor over and cranked the heater and defroster all the way up. She didn’t immediately drive away, but sat in the car and stared out the front window.
It was time for her to get her wings.
Before she could, though, she had a couple of stops to make. Stops that were located deep within the shadows she knew she’d have to visit again someday.
The Oklahoma State Penitentiary was located in
McAlester. She had contacted the warden and
scheduled a meeting with her father.
She didn’t know what she was going to say to him. She just knew she had to see him, and that when she left him, she would never see him again.
She parked in the designated lot and went through the big double doors to a series of security checks. The corridor she was escorted down was the same cold pale blue of the tiles in the mental ward, and almost as gloomy. Sounds of laboring men echoed down it, and shouts, and whistles. She was directed right, where another security check waited. She handed over her keys; from there she was led to a thick metal door with a meshed window. The guard opened the door, pointed, and grunted, “Table 20.”
Numbered signs hung from the ceiling. She located the sign with 20 on it and glanced down. Her father was already staring at her.
The door closed behind her.
Clinton Ellerbe Finnegan was a tall, thin man with receding black hair streaked gray and slicked back, dark eyes, sunken cheeks, and a strong, pointed chin. He wore a beard now; it gave him the appearance of an evil sorcerer. He was clothed in an orange prison jumpsuit stained with dirt and what looked like dried concrete.
She gathered herself and approached. He didn’t stand; he didn’t say hello.
It had taken her seven years to prepare for this moment. She wasn’t going to fail now, even though his stare made her feel like withering away.
She resolved above all not to cry. To remind herself she dropped onto the bench and let the impact jar her thoughts forward.
After a long and awkward silence, she spoke to the table between them. “I remember when I was a little girl …”
“You’re adopted,” he grumbled.
She blinked. “What?”
He grinned at her reaction. “Didn’t your mother tell you? I thought she might.” He shrugged.
“You’re lying,” she said weakly.
He shook his head indifferently. “Nope.”
“And Nick and Jeff?”
“Natural-born. They’re real Finnegans. You ain’t. I got black hair; your mother brown. You’re blonde. You never were too bright.”
They stared at each other.
He leaned forward. “I told your ma I didn’t want ya, but that dried-up bitch insisted. So we took ya and raised ya. And look what it got us.” He sat back and raised his arms and looked around before staring back at her. “You were the cause of our divorce. You were. A little unwanted brat. We spent all that damn money goin’ to marriage counselin’ all those Saturdays. I told her: it ain’t worth it. You ain’t worth it.”
When she couldn’t get her throat to work, he waved at her dismissively and growled, “Hell, find out for yourself! You’re all grown up now; go have the courts unseal your records! Go and see for yourself! You ain’t no Finnegan, and never were. No trailer trash the likes of you would ever come from my loins.”
The murmur of low conversation felt like a psychic buffer. It smelled of sweat in here, and desperation.
She clutched to her song. The shadows will return, it sang. But you’ve got me,
, and I’ll never
leave you. I’m real. This … this is all fake and false. It exists only for evil
men like this fool. It isn’t yours. Do not claim even the smallest part of it. Elizabeth
“So this visit,” he said, “lemme guess. This is you standin’ up to your dear ol’ pa, right? This is you thinkin’ you’ve grown some sort of backbone, so you drove here so you could look me in the eye and tell me off, right? It’ll make ya feel righteous and strong so you can git on with the rest of your life. Ain’t that right?”
He chuckled silently.
“Let me help you out,” he offered. “That tool shed you took to? You have no idea how many times I wanted to make that your permanent bedroom. I wanted to take you out there and use it proper-like, teach you some real lessons about life. I nearly did; but then you got knocked up and ran away.
“You ain’t my daughter,” he hissed, jerking into the table and making her flinch back. His smile was gone, his eyes wide. “An’ you never have been! Now go before I do somethin’ that’ll add to my bid. Go! Go!”
But she did not cry. She shook uncontrollably, yes, and she ached numbly with the deep sting of the unspeakable gash of his final betrayal, and she knew it was going to take years to heal, if it did at all. But there were no tears for Clinton Ellerbe Finnegan. Because he wasn’t her father. He never was.
Later that year, inmates at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary rioted. Seventeen died, including Clinton Finnegan, who was shot by a guard. When
Elizabeth read the news, she thought she
might feel something: glee, perhaps, or a solid, satisfying sense of justice.
But she felt nothing.
It took almost five months to locate her mother, who had moved to
She ended up hiring a private investigator when she kept running into dead
ends. She almost didn’t spend the fifteen hundred dollars the investigator told
her it would cost. Her encounter with her father did not go as planned. In
fact, if anything, all it did was traumatize her further. Greeley, Colorado
Aunt Madelyn spoke to her one day as she sat on her bed, her head in her hands.
“Would it help to confront her?” She sat next to
and put her arm around her and hugged her. “Would it really?”
“I don’t know,” murmured
“I really don’t.”
“You’re waiting on your applications to United Airlines and Frontier. Wouldn’t it be wiser to focus on that? Why do you need to do this?”
“I don’t know, Auntie,” she cried. “I just know I have to.”
“I’m not one to say ‘I told you so,’ but damnit, child, look what happened with your father.”
“I know, I know,” she said, forcing herself to look up. “It sucked. And he’s not even my father.”
“You bet he ain’t. You regret goin’ now, doncha?”
“No?” Auntie pulled back and gazed at her carefully. “No? Really?”
Auntie smiled warmly. “Who do you think that person is? Is this because
Clinton said you were
She held up. “I think …”
“What do you think?” said Madelyn, stroking her hair.
It was how
knew how much she loved and trusted this woman. Because what she had to say
would’ve been met with nothing but scorn and derision and laughter from her
so-called parents and schoolmates back in Claremore. But she knew Madelyn would
never treat her so poorly, and took everything she said seriously.
“I think that there’s something I must do someday that … that might … do something big like ... like maybe ... save the world.”
She convulsively shook her head and glanced down into her lap. “Stupid, right? I don’t even have a job, and nothin’ more than a high-school diploma. It’s dumb, I know …”
“Quiet down, child. Look at me.”
“I never want to hear those words come out of your mouth again, y’hear?”
“There’s nothin’ stupid at all in what you said there. Nothin’ at all! Hell, if more people had the courage to admit what you just did right then, this world would be a much better place. You bet it would!” She grabbed her hand and gave it a hard squeeze. “It isn’t a job requirement if you want to save the world to have a gol-danged college degree or work at the top of a hi-rise or live in some shinin’ palace. Jesus didn’t have a job, did he? And he certainly didn’t have a high-school diploma. He was homeless and hung out with prostitutes and criminals! You want to know what it takes,
Elizabeth? You really want to know what it will take for you to save the world?”
hold of herself, she murmured, “What?”
“It will take Elizabeth Barbara Finnegan to be the greatest and best Elizabeth Barbara Finnegan she can possibly be. You do that much and no more, just that much, and you’ll be up to savin’ this dusty ol’ world, y’hear?”
The corner of
and Fourteenth Avenue,
number 2521, . An old, melancholy, small
blond-brick home with a covered porch near the center of town. It was across
from a coffee shop; Greeley, Colorado Elizabeth
parked and went inside to collect her thoughts. She bought a small cup of black
This town was perfect for her mother, because it was a toilet. The air was choked with the odor of boiling blood mixed with cleaning detergent, which she knew had to be the local slaughterhouse, because she remembered the one near Claremore (the same one Aunt Karla was a comptroller for), and it smelled just like that one, only ten times worse. It seemed to saturate everything, including the people, who were as unfriendly a lot as she had ever encountered.
She sipped coffee and tried to relax.
The coffeehouse was located near the
so there were many students her age here. She watched them. University
of Northern Colorado
Many were dressed in the “preppy” style that had held on for most of the decade: corduroys and Hush Puppies and neatly trimmed short hair and button-down shirts buttoned all the way up. The girls wore plaid skirts and tights and bobbed hair and vacant husband-hunting smiles.
A long time ago she thought she might go to college. But then she got pregnant and ran away, and those dreams fled unreachably in the opposite direction. She had to go to an after-hours high-school program; it was there that she learned without any doubts what the world thought of any potential she might have. Her teacher looked down her nose at her one day and said: “You’re a fallen girl, dear. I think you should concentrate on that, and on seeking the Lord’s forgiveness, and perhaps a husband with a bigger heart than you deserve. Now get back to work, please.”
The woman’s Texan drawl added to her words’ bite.
Elizabeth found herself mouthing them now
between sips, and stopped at the realization.
She was a “fallen girl,” and so had no right to aspire to the status of these finely dressed students. If anything, she should be seeking a large-hearted boy willing to give her a second chance. That was all she should expect in this life.
She got straight-A’s in her classes, even after the kidnapping, even during the gloomiest days she had ever lived. She held to her song and the memory of it coming alive for her while she waited for Aunt Madelyn to come and get her out of that horrible hospital and take her back to Austin. She walked through those waiting shadows, and each time she emerged she found a tiny bit more strength before she got to the next one.
“Fallen girls” didn’t get to go to college. “Fallen girls” got only what society said they got, which was a trailer and welfare and a drunken lout for a husband. That had always been the message, and it certainly wasn’t different here. It was like the students milling about sensed that she didn’t belong, and it reflected in their unkind stares and upturned noses as they meandered by.
She took a sip of coffee and mentally flipped them off.
The drive from
was long: almost a thousand miles and three solid days. It was also good. The
highway stretched before her, endless and wide, like a promise of something
better coming. Oftentimes she was all alone out there, and when that happened
she felt like a traveler to a different world and a more expansive time. She filled
her heart with her song, and thought of flying, and of her porcelain angels,
which were on her dresser at home and given to her by Aunt Karla. When the
peaks of the Rocky Mountains came into view,
snowcapped and barely visible beyond the horizonless plains, the certainty that
she was doing the right thing seemed to take on an increasing gravity that
pressed her foot against the pedal with impatient insistence.
She thought of her violin, which she hadn’t practiced in two years. It was in its case and placed near the angels. She had no intentions of selling it or thrifting it. Like her, it seemed to be waiting for something, preparing itself for something big.
It didn’t matter what her mother said to her. It didn’t matter what she said in return. The only thing that mattered was that she do this. Words were irrelevant. The outcome was irrelevant. Any trauma her mother delivered or tried to deliver was irrelevant. Any pain she gave was irrelevant. The victory would be absolute and irrevocable the moment she looked upon her hateful face. If that was all she did, just that and nothing more, it would be enough.
She finished her coffee and stood, then used the bathroom.
At the shop’s entrance she looked around one last time, at the students in their expensive clothes and haughty glances.
She, Elizabeth Finnegan, was destined for a much greater path.
An infinite path, she thought.
She walked out.
She didn’t hesitate at her mother’s front door. She reached for the doorbell and pressed it as soon as she got to it. A muffled triple chime sounded out. A minute passed in silence. She pressed the doorbell again.
The door opened.
Her mother stared at her, then went to slam it.
“I’ll call the police!” her mother yelled.
“I’m your daughter,” said
She stepped inside.
Her mother didn’t respond, but simply backed up, glaring. “What the hell do you want? State your business and then leave me in peace!”
“Where are Nick and Jeff?” said
looking around. “I want to talk to them too.”
“Where they are is none of your damn business!”
“Because I’m adopted, right?”
Her mother’s surprised look lasted only a moment.
“So your father told you. Good for him.”
“That’s right,” said
It was almost as if the first sixteen years of her life she had been raised by unseen beings. The only thing the beast before her did was grudgingly give her food and a roof and a bed to sleep in.
“Biggest mistake of my life,” snarled her mother. “You are responsible for the destruction of my family! Nick and Jeff are constantly in trouble with the law and on drugs, and it’s because of you! You led them down a satanic path and now they may be forever unsavable because of you! You! Look at you! There isn’t a shred of remorse on your face! Not one!”
The accusations bounced harmlessly off
“You’re right,” she said. “There is no remorse. There isn’t because I’m not responsible for what happened to them, and I’m not responsible for what happened to you or your marriage, or what happened to
If your life was hell—if it is
hell—that’s entirely your fault.”
Her mother sneered. “Listen to you. Did you rehearse that speech before you got here with your ‘aunt’? I heard that old bitch died. Good! Good for
Clinton for putting her in
Marjorie Finnegan, left cheek blazing red, screamed, “Help! Help! Someone help me!”
Her mother, shrieking, stood.
hauled her backwards into the kitchen.
“Remember what you did to me after that first appointment with that pervert psychologist? Remember, mother? When we got home you grabbed me by my hair and hauled me into the kitchen and filled my mouth with dishwashing soap and jammed a brush in it and scrubbed my tongue until it bled. And then you threw me into my bedroom. I started puking, remember? When Dad got home he whipped me until my butt got welts, and then made me clean up my own puke! Remember? Remember?”
“Let me go! Let me go, you hateful demon! LET ME GOOOOOOOO!”
Marjorie Finnegan was no match for
youthful strength emboldened by twenty-three unceasing years of outrage. She
rammed her mother’s head into the sink and forced dishwashing soap up her nose,
then into her mouth. Her mother struggled and screamed, but eventually Elizabeth got the dish
brush into her mouth and began scrubbing furiously.
“One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand! …” she yelled, repeating the same count she received, and going to the same number: “ … ten one-thousand! Now spit! Spit!”
Instead of spitting, her mother coughed and puked.
Elizabeth yanked her up by her hair in
mid-gag. Marjorie Finnegan’s mouth was bleeding. Puke hung yellow on her chin
like a goatee.
“You killed my boyfriend!”
shrieked a half inch from her nose, which ran with green dishwashing liquid. “You and that worthless piece of shit father
are MURDERERS! You killed my boyfriend and Aunt Karla and took my baby away
from me! It is YOU who should be remorseful! YOU! YOU! You should be on your
knees BEGGING my forgiveness!”
Her mother still fought her, but was much weaker now. She tried elbowing
Elizabeth in the ribs; for her trouble Elizabeth tripped her and slammed her head
into the refrigerator.
Marjorie Finnegan collapsed to the floor.
grabbed her hair and pulled up as hard as she could, but the bitch wouldn’t
budge, even when she started coming up with handfuls of dyed gray-brown hair.
“I’m not done with you yet!” She stooped and picked her up and hauled her through the dining room into the master bedroom, where she dumped her on the bed. Marjorie Finnegan curled up sobbing and gagging.
The rage singing through
felt like a flooding river of ice released from a crumbling dam. She went to
her mother’s closet and threw it open. She found what she wanted hanging from a
hook—a long, thin, black leather belt. She went back to the bed and jerked her
mother’s dress up above her buttocks, and then yanked her virtuous Christian
cotton underwear down her thighs until it ripped—just as her father used to do
Two decades’ worth of outrage powered the whipping
Elizabeth gave her. She lashed her “mother”
without restraint, gleefully, riotously, shouting with each cracking blow. She
kept going until she saw welts rise. Marjorie Finnegan shrieked even as she
coughed up big gleaming soap bubbles.
finished, she contemptuously threw the belt behind her. It struck the window
and dropped to the floor. She went to the dresser and the purse on it and
extracted the cash inside—over six hundred dollars.
“This’ll make up for some of the cost it took to find your bony ass.”
She pocketed it. “You got off light, bitch. Pray I don’t ever see you again, because if I do, not even Jesus your personal butler will be able to save you. I believe you can deduct this beating under ‘personal ass-whuppin’s received by unwanted daughter.’ Say hello to that dickhead ex-husband of yours when you get to Hell. Bye-bye.”
She marched out of the house, slamming the door behind her. She crossed the street, got into her stationwagon, and twenty minutes later was speeding west on Highway 34.
She thought the bitch might call the police, but nothing, astoundingly, ever came of it.
Elizabeth drove all the way back to Austin, nursing the cuts
and bruises she got delivering long-overdue justice. When she got home she told
Auntie everything she did, sparing no details.
Madelyn stared at her for a long time. “She had it comin’. She knew she had it comin’, and that’s why she hasn’t called the authorities. Whatever conscience she has left won’t allow her to.”
She left it at that.
“I believe there’s some good news waitin’ for ya,” she added after a long and silent hug. She reached behind
for an official-looking letter.
Her application for flight attendant was approved. She was expected to show up to work for training in just two weeks.