Cheeseburger Brown CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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Victor's Mom's Car
A short story from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
Victor's Mom's Car, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown - illustration by Matthew Hemming

PLEASE NOTE: This story contains profanity, violence, adult situations, and mature themes. Reader discretion is advised.

In Pauly's basement the plan was hatched, and they were titillated.

The air was blue with smoke -- tobacco, marijuana, incense -- and the three teenagers giggled and sermonized. Pauly said that goodness was dead in the world, and so he would choose between dying with it or defying the stifling order, a hedged bet brokered by dangerous action. "It's about freedom," promised Pauly.

"Shit yeah," said Victor. He was not as sure as he sounded, but he loved Pauly and would not speak against the plan.

Victor found it both harder and easier to be more earnest once Dalia chimed in. It was harder because he worried that the way his face flushed and his hands sweated threatened to betray his dignity and secrets, and easier because it was inconceivable to Victor to watch Dalia's lipgloss shiny lips chewing over her stale, smoked gum and disagree. She was too pretty to disagree with.

If he raised his gaze to hers he would freeze like roadkill, so Victor just nodded at her gum-snapping mouth. "Dalia's right," he said, his voice quavering over her name. Victor released a breath he hadn't remembered he'd been holding and his penis made a brief, involuntary shudder from resting against his right thigh to his left.

"Shit yeah," nodded Dalia. "I'm always right. Right, Pauly?"

"Fuckin' A."

Victor envied their easy banter.

The weapons had already been secured: Victor's little brother Todd had been playing in the dumpster behind Venetti's Bakery when he found two dented Glock 19s and a 9mm Magnum Baby Eagle with sticky brown specks on the grip. They were wrapped in paper that smelled like old pork.

"What about ammo?" asked Dalia, twirling one of the Glocks on her finger and bouncing one leg against the opposite knee carelessly.

Victor was transfixed by the undulating seams of her jeans. "Huh?"

"We don't need no fuckin' ammo," snorted Pauly. "You don't think Old Chinkers will shit himself just having a gun pointed at his head? You think we'll need to actually fuckin' shoot him?"

Dalia shrugged. "Just feels kinda half-assed to have unloaded guns, like wearing a stuffed bra."

Victor adjusted himself and guffawed unconvincingly.

"Fuck," commented Pauly with a wry smile; "are you saying you stuff, Dalia? Let me see."

"Fuck you."

"I'm fuckin' checking you, girl."

Pauly and Dalia wrestled on the couch. They snorted and snickered. Victor didn't know what to do with himself. Pauly clutched Dalia's bosom through her T-shirt and squished at it clinically, nodding to himself. Dalia kicked him in the chest and Pauly dropped heavily to the floor, spilling a bowl of stale potato chips.

Everyone laughed. Victor fought to regain his breath. So did the wrestlers.

The next item of business was to draw a map of Old Chinkers' store in order to plot their positions. The job of drawing the map fell to Victor on account of his wearing glasses, which Pauly had always claimed made Victor smart. Victor was usually pleased to maintain this fiction in order to have something to claim for his own -- it had always been Pauly cornering the market on handsome, on strong, on suave, on funny.

Victor was content to let people think he was smart just because he looked like a librarian if it made him second fiddle rather than totally irrelevant.

He hunched over the pad and sketched out the shop based on his notes. Dalia flopped over the low table and hunched over with him. Victor called on a supernatural reserve of will in order to avoid glancing down the front of her hanging shirt. Dalia watched him trying not to look.

"Damn Vic," drawled Dalia, "I should see if I can drum up an ugly girl to touch your junk. Aren't ugly girls smart?"

"You're not ugly," squeaked Victor.

"Yeah, but she's not smart either," commented Pauly.

"Fuck you, dick-cheese."

"Put your money where your mouth is, dick-tease." Pauly laughed and clapped Victor on the back. "Besides," he said, "Vic's not ugly. He's just earnest."

"Same thing," said Dalia. "Honest, ugly, sensitive -- all just different ways of saying too much of a pussy to be an asshole."

"Not honest, earnest," groaned Pauly.

"Why would I want to be an asshole?" asked Victor.

Dalia lit up a cigarette and let the first drag vent languorously from her perfect nostrils. "So I'd fuck you, is why," she replied. She tapped her ash on the corner of Victor's picture and closed her eyes to smoke.

Pauly snorted. They went over the plan again, with Victor drawing little dotted paths on the map like football plays to support Pauly's overview. When they all heard Pauly's older brother home from school, walking around upstairs, they doused themselves and the furniture in an air freshener that they agreed was best described as smelling like lemon-dipped assberries.

They were still giggling about this when Pauly's older brother Andrew came downstairs and started waving his hand around in front of his nose. "What the fuck, Paul?" he greeted them. "Are you smoking in our parents' goddamn house?"

"No," said Pauly.

"That is so motherfucking disrespectful," said Andrew. Then he punched Pauly in the side, and Pauly folded like a blanket. This was by design: when Andrew was hitting his brother in front of an audience he always made sure to aim for the badly mended secret fracture in Pauly's lowest rib on the left side, where Andrew had cracked him one with a ball-peen hammer when the boys were younger. The skin around this area was perennially discoloured and soft from frequent attention, and it was the first thing Pauly thought about whenever he found himself in a circumstance where he might have to take off his shirt with other people around.

Andrew called it his "button" because he could work Pauly like a marionette with it.

Andrew was a football player. He was the apple of his father's eye. When he was twelve years old he had a wet dream in which he was aroused by the sweetly smooth coffee skin of his younger brother's chest. Confused and upset by his feelings, Andrew sought revenge on Pauly by hurting him a lot.

After Andrew went back upstairs Pauly lit a cigarette and wouldn't look anyone in the eye. Victor tried to comfort him by reviewing the plan, but Pauly said he wasn't interested in the plan anymore. "Fuck it," he said.

Dalia knew the adventure was losing its juice. With Pauly defeated they would never maintain the energy required for liftoff. Boys were delicate. She needed to act quickly to rescue the momentum and reinflate Pauly, so she went over to have a quiet word with him and then touched his junk.

Later, the teenagers rode Victor's mom's car out of Witterson and into town. Victor drove. His balls hurt. His hands were greasy. Pauly unpacked and prepared the gear in the passenger seat: guns, masques, gloves, bags. Dalia was in the back, visible to Victor in the rearview, her eyeliner-raccoon eyes swaying in time to the loud, loud music.

They all smoked cigarettes. Even Victor, even though it made him feel even more like throwing up.

Pauly was juiced. Pauly was pumped. Pauly felt at the top of his savage game. In a matter of minutes he would shit on the face of civility and make off with a fat sack of free money, whistling like a canary and then laughing until he couldn't breathe. It was obvious to him that Dalia was wrapped around his finger, so he would get laid. And the whole experience was bound to impart Victor with some balls, too.

He felt like Santa Claus.

Lost in the drive, they were startled to arrive at Old Chinkers' "LIQ OR STO E." It was almost two o'clock and the shadows were short. There was one other car in the parking lot -- a corroded blue Saab with tined windows. Pauly wordlessly handed out the masques and gloves. They helped themselves to guns, Victor pinioning his arm against the cupholder to hide his trembling. Dalia smiled at him sympathetically and then pushed her face against his.

"Impress me out there, Vic," she whispered and then kissed him.

Victor felt her tongue dart through his mouth and he gasped. The kiss broke and she let her fingers linger on his cheek for a second before turning around to kiss Pauly slowly, wanton and wet. Victor looked away.

Everybody's hearts were beating fast.

"Go," declared Pauly.

Victor lost a moment in the first rush of adrenaline -- he had no memory of getting out of the car. He found himself walking across the parking lot, flecks in the asphalt scintillating in the sun, his shadow wheeling around his ankles as he turned. The air was hot and his breath tasted like tobacco and girl-tongue. He was dizzy but felt steadier when he focused on the store's delivery door, which seemed reassuringly distant.

He blinked and found himself upon it: green paint peeled from rust, letters illegible. He threw the door open with unintentional force and it smacked the side of the cinderblock alcove with a loud bang. Victor knew it would open. Dalia had promised she'd take care of it at the end of her shift, early that morning.

Peering through the aperture Victor saw Pauly pass through the store's front entrance. It was time.

He glanced over his shoulder at Dalia. She nodded at him from the driver's seat of Victor's mom's car. The car was the same colour as the asphalt. The air over the hood shimmered.

In his next breath Victor decided that he truly loved Dalia and that he believed he could save her from herself. It took him several seconds after that to recognize that the car was moving. He was able to briefly posit that she was moving the car closer to the front entrance, but forced to draw a more sober conclusion when his mom's car accelerated hard, sparks flying off the bumper as Dalia jumped it over the curb and hit Midland Boulevard with a screech.

"Holy shit," wheezed Victor. And then, "Holy shit!"

He drew his gun and levelled it at the speeding car before he remembered it wasn't loaded. Then he remembered Pauly inside the store. They had to abort the plan. With no getaway they were screwed. Pauly had to be warned. Victor bolted through the delivery door and inside the store.

Victor stopped short when he saw Old Chinkers pointing a rifle at Pauly. Pauly's hands were in the air. His weapon was on the floor. He had wet his pants. A plump, middle-aged woman was cowering behind the fortified wine stand. She was crying, but she looked up as Victor burst in.

Old Chinkers, whose actual name was Guillaume Raoul Zhang because he was the bastard of a Frenchman his Mandarin mother had always carried a torch for, swiveled his head neatly and nailed Victor with his eyes. Victor realized he was brandishing a gun and his bowels creaked ominously.

Guillaume acted quickly, but incompletely.

Because he was staring at Victor part of his mind was satisfied that the more threatening target was in aim, so he squeezed the trigger on the rifle. The rifle, however, was still fixed on Pauly.

A small, wet piece of Pauly's throat struck the wall behind him, tarnishing a poster of a smiling pirate holding up a bottle of rum.

Pauly began to whistle involuntarily. He dropped to his knees and clutched at his bloody neck. He began to choke in a series of staccato spasms that sounded suspiciously like snickering. His eyes were wide and full of animal panic. He kicked over a display advertising pre-mixed cocktails and the middle-aged woman cowering in the next aisle screamed.

Victor dropped his gun. He ran to Pauly's side. Guillaume seemed stunned and he used the rifle to prop himself up as he stumbled against the counter. He was muttering things in Mandarin.

Victor cradled Pauly's head in his lap, his pants quickly soaking through with Pauly's unfortunate leakage. Pauly stiffened and his eyes rolled back into his head. He farted, then relaxed. Victor suspected that his friend was dead. His heart rolled. For reasons he did not fully understand he kissed Pauly on the lips.

Pauly's breath smelled like Dalia.

Victor scooped up his gun and stood. It was his vague intention to make Dalia pay for Pauly. He wiped the blood off his lips with the back of his gloved hand. He swiveled neatly and leveled his unloaded Glock at Old Chinkers. "Give me your car keys," he demanded.

Instead of handing over car keys Guillaume grabbed his left arm as a puzzled expression cascaded across his features. He pinched his mouth and cocked one eyebrow. He slumped against the counter and oozed down onto the floor beside the mop and bucket. He mentally chastised Dalia for forgetting to put the mop away at the end of her shift, and then thought about how much he had loved his mother as his heart stopped.

He had been taking blood pressure medication sold to him at a steep discount by the protection racket that controlled the neighbourhood, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who called themselves The Brigade. The medication was stolen from hospitals and Indian Reserves by people on the inside indebted in one way or another to The Brigade.

Guillaume did not know that for months Dalia had been swapping his black market blood pressure medication for mints of roughly the same shape and colour. Guillaume did not notice the change in flavour as he was such a heavy smoker that he could not by means of taste discern shit from shinola, a fact verified experimentally by his wife. Dalia sold Guillaume's actual medication as dance party drugs to grade school kids as for ten bucks a pop. She had repeat customers. They always assured her they had gotten very high, and were interested in more of the same.

Guillaume died on the floor of his store, clutching at his front shirt pocket, fishing for a tin of Altoids.

"Shit," said Victor. And then, "Shit!"

Police sirens moaned in the distance. The hairs on the back of Victor's neck stood on end. He looked at the middle-aged woman crouching next to the fallen cocktail mix display, "Is that your Saab?" he asked.

The woman simultaneously voided her bladder and handed over the keys.

Her name was Sarah and she was in the midst of slowly murdering her eldest sister, Myrna, whom she tended. Myrna had lost her legs in a childhood sled tragedy, which meant she was considered brave. Her husband had been tremendously wealthy, and Myrna contributed regularly to his most cherished charities after his death, which meant she was considered generous. She was beyond reproach. Everyone in the family and the community thought that Myrna was wonderful. Only Sarah knew what a terrifying bitch she really was.

For twelve years Sarah had been watching for opportunities to help her sister meet her end without implicating herself. Every coughing fit was a lottery, a rollercoaster of emotion for Sarah. She only ever engaged the wheelchair's brakes halfway, and usually stopped it where it was likely to be nudged by passersby. She greased the sides of the bathtub. She moved familiar objects out of place in order to encourage Myrna to lean and possibly totter.

Sarah was fighting for her life. She knew Myrna was the only one who could possibly have put broken glass in Sarah's toothpaste or peed in her shampoo bottles. Myrna whispered terrible things to Sarah through the wall at night while Sarah pretended to be asleep. On these occasions Myrna used a deep, masculine voice and described unspeakable things to Sarah involving genital torture and the decorative branding of infants.

Lately, Sarah had been parking Myrna in the Saab with all the windows up during the hottest part of the day. She had read in The Sun that dogs died this way. Sarah would go shopping, and buy herself ice cream. She lolligagged. She felt giddy as she walked back to the car, always hoping today could be the day.

She often stopped at the cheap Chinese liquor store between chores in order to pick up a little sherry, which she hid inside the toilet tank so that Myrna wouldn't find it and use it to set Sarah's bed on fire.

Sarah was not sure how to feel as she watched the teenager with the black ski masque run across the parking lot to her Saab. She bit her lip. The lottery was on! "Mr. Zhang?" she called.

The Saab chirped as Victor approached. He swung into the driver's seat and jammed in the key, twisting. He put it in gear and accelerated hard, bumping up over the edge of the lot and tearing up a swath of yellow grass on the boulevard. Victor twirled the wheel and sent the car speeding the wrong way up a one way street.

Victor believed that Dalia was going to Edmonton. She had talked about it before. There was only one highway out of town. He knew he could beat her there. Justice would come to Dalia, he swore. His hands were no longer shaking. He was resolute, and in control of at least this splinter of the day.

His eyes flicked to the rearview mirror where be beheld the startling apparition of a white-haired woman with no legs clutching her skeletal hands over her own mouth as her eyes bulged and twitched.

Victor screamed and involuntarily dragged the Saab along the side of a Murano van in which the children were watching a movie about a high speed car chase. Their mother dropped her muffin and steered the van into a small park, scattering picnickers and knocking over a pile of feather-weight boxes that were in the process of being unloaded from a logoless truck.

The boxes contained kite kits for kids, part of a community event in the park sponsored by Myrna in the name of her late husband, Anthony. Anthony had adored kites, and had been killed while hang-gliding. Myrna had never fully forgiven him that folly, which is why when she masturbated in the bath she never imagined Anthony but rather their old gardener, Felix, instead. Felix himself had died in the arms of a beloved prostitute, an idea which repelled and titillated Myrna in equal measure.

Victor decided he was hallucinating. He risked a glance over his shoulder to confirm this appraisal only to come face to face with Myrna again. She released her hands from her face and offered up a stream of milky vomit. Victor ducked. He caught most of it on his hair.

He swung back around to face the windshield in time to manoeuvre around a streetlamp and fly through an intersection, somehow finding the narrow and shifting way through the melee of opposing traffic. Horns bleated, Dopplering away behind.

"Who are you?" gasped Myrna. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Fuck you, lady," said Victor.

"How dare you?"

"Sit back and shut up or I'll shoot you in the face."

Myrna was not used to being addressed in such a fashion. She simply did not tolerate it. Her ineffectual fusspot of a sister Sarah had once tried to aggrandize herself by criticizing Myrna's hat at a wedding, and what had that earned her? Broken glass in her toothpaste, that's what. Nobody messed with Myrna.

She attacked Victor from behind, using her long, exquisitely cared for nails to claw away his glasses and stab at his eyes and trachea. Her unusually strong arms wedged her against the back of his seat, the doilied stumps of her thighs flailing free. She howled like a banshee into his ear, and then bit off the lobe.

The blue Saab weaved across the lanes.

Victor was smacking over his shoulder with the Glock. He made a solid connection and heard the crone whimper. He grinned to himself and then peeled across another intersection at high speed, colliding with a brown F1 pickup in such a way that both vehicles were thrown upward into the air. They crashed down as a unified form and then shattered into dozens of pieces which bounced and slid away to cause secondary accidents.

Neither Victor nor Myrna had been wearing seatbelts. Their corpses were desecrated by inertia.

The man driving the F1 pickup had been wearing his seatbelt, but he was mashed into a space too unfortunately small for his body to retain its coherence when the Saab's engine block entered the cab at high velocity. The pulverized man's name was Cecil Traag, and he was a science teacher at Witterson Elementary. His last thought was, "I forgot to buy butter."

Cecil was a passionate teacher who gave of his own time to impart the excitement of science to his students. Students he took an especial shine to were invited to come out for wee hour astronomy sessions, looking through Mr. Traag's formidable lens. "That's Ursa Major," he would say.

Sometimes it could be very chilly, so Cecil encouraged the boys to bring hot chocolate in a thermos. When the hot chocolate ran out he sometimes mentioned that the body loses a considerable proportion of heat through the genital area, and would go on to suggest he put his hands down the boy's pants and cup their junk.

Later, if Cecil himself felt chilled, he might ask the boy to cup his junk in turn.

Some thirty percent of Cecil Traag was reduced to a fine red mist within the first second of the collision. His brain was ultimately found roped in his intestines, themselves packed into a neat gelatin-mould the inverse shape of the F1's transmission shifter. Some of the flying splinters of Cecil's bones were sufficiently accelerated as to penetrate the accordioned dashboard and end up in the glove compartment. One fragment pushed through half of the driver's manual, its journey taking it as deep as page 268, "Emergency Braking Procedures."

The first boy whose junk Cecil Traag had ever cupped on a chilly star-spangled morning was Andrew, Pauly's older brother. At Cecil's funeral Andrew would take the podium and call the deceased a "brainsick childfucking faggot monster." It would ultimately take all six of the mortuary's security staff to get Andrew under control. Three of them were sent home with minor injuries. No criminal charges were laid, but Andrew and Pauly's parents were asked to chip in for the salad bar Andrew destroyed during his rampage.

The salad bar had been set up by the Alberta's Finest Catering Equipment Company out on the highway, which at that moment Dalia was passing on her way out of town. She pushed Victor's mom's car hard and the steering wheel began to wobble. She slowed down for Hornsby's regular speed-trap and then floored it again on the other side.

"I'm fucking free," she breathed with relief, letting herself smile.

She lit a cigarette and cranked up the squelchy radio.

Dalia fought frequently with her mother. They fought about anything, but a notable favourite topic was how much they resembled one another, how much they were hypocrites, and how much they could or couldn't read each other's minds. They fought about money and rules. They fought about grades and necklines.

Two days earlier while they had been fighting Dalia clocked her mother with the charging base for a portable telephone, knocking out three of her teeth and bursting open a slit on her tongue. The telephone was undamaged, however, and Dalia's mother used it to call the police. "I'm pein annack!" she blubbered through her swollen mouth before Dalia smashed the handset.

"Die!" Dalia urged her mother, and then broke down sobbing.

Dalia's mother held Dalia to her tightly, humming and rocking back and forth. She cried, too. "Whad habben noo us, papy?" she cooed. "We use a pe pest friens."

When the police arrived Dalia's mother denied that it had been Dalia who hit her, which made Dalia feel a way she couldn't describe. The police thought it possible that Dalia's mother's boyfriend, Peck, had hit her. Peck had had trouble with the law before, and had twice been jailed for being drunk and disorderly. "Peg never dutch me," Dalia's mother insisted.

Never the less, the police decided to swing by Peck's garage to ask him a few questions. Peck was drunk when they got there, and by all reports he reacted in a fairly disorderly manner. "Those lying bitches!" was his refrain according to one of the greasemonkeys. "I'll kill them both."

That was Monday. Dalia knew she had best be scarce by Wednesday. She had crossed Peck before and regretted it. She was interested in any ticket out of town. She had friends in Edmonton. One of them said he would set her up to deal lysergic acid and ecstasy. She could squat, or sleep on the street until winter. All she needed was a ride.

Now she rode.

She had intended to fulfill her part in the plan faithfully. She thought having some start up money would be good. But once she found herself sitting in Victor's mom's car it seemed pointless to expose herself to the risk of whatever was going on inside Old Chinkers' store. "Fuck it," she said to herself. "Choosing is life."

Surely Victor and Pauly would chicken out once they'd seen she had ditched them. She gave neither of them another thought.

The radio played a righteous tune and Dalia experienced the best moment of her life. The sun was burning low and turning orange, the sky a cloudless vault of graduating colour. She breathed deeply and laughed without reserve.

When the moment faded she lit another cigarette and drove faster. The next song sucked.

Dalia was inexperienced with the reading of gauges and thus was surprised and confused when Victor's mom's car ran out of gas. She coasted it to the side of the road and then swore for a while. She punched the passenger seat, which was made of leather. It squeaked. "Fucktruck," she said.

It was dark out. The aurora was a vague green blur in the north, Edmonton a vague orange blur to the south. Dalia shivered and walked, pissed off.

The Keeler Trail Motel wasn't far away. A group of four men were sitting outside in the parking lot, drinking rye as they discussed their motorcycles. "Oh, please give me a hit of that," said Dalia. She played cute. She explained her situation, and her new friends agreed to give her a ride back to the car and lend her some gas. After a few more belts from the bottle she warmed to the idea of waiting until morning to deal with it.

"This is my motel," said her new friend Benny. "I'll comp you a room tonight. A sort of damsel in distress discount. You know?"

"You're so sweet, Benny. I love you," said Dalia.

"Have another drink, honey. Everything's going to be fine."

It wasn't, though.

Dalia eventually came to live at a private halfway house called Sarah's Farm. Sarah had been deeply involved in the rehabilitation of wayward young people ever since her dear sister Myrna had been killed in a car-crash after being taken hostage by a teenage robber nearly two years earlier. The house was an old Calgary colonial with white gables and shutters around the dormers. There were three gardens -- two vegetable, one exclusively floral -- and a peach tree in the front yard. The tranquility of the house was only seldom broken by angry shouts from inside or by neighbourhood protesters waving placards and chanting by the curb. "Not in my backyard!" they cried.

Sarah seemed to have a source of infinite patience when it came to the young people. She did not rage or deflate whenever they stole from her or kicked holes in the walls. She did not lose hope when one of her charges disappeared in the night and turned up dead in Vancouver months later. She could absorb even the most vitriolic abuse without awakening her ire. She had heard it all.

"You're an evil cunt," Dalia told her. "Fuck your house."

"I've made you some toast, dear," said Sarah, carrying a plastic tray. "Do you like jam?"

"Eat shit."

It took Sarah a long time to bring Dalia around, but Sarah was patient. In time, Dalia began to help out with the other girls at the house. After taking a shift on suicide watch over a cutter named Lillian Dalia told Sarah she was ready to talk about her experiences. Over a cup of hot tea she wove a fractured and nonlinear tale about being introduced to a new and previously inconceived level of subjugation at the hands of Benny and his pals from The Brigade, by whom she was towed around as chattel for a long year: tattooed, used, traded, berated. After she escaped she worked as a prostitute in Vancouver which was relative bliss, though nothing compared to the paradise that was prison. "Three squares a day and no cocks," explained Dalia. "Like Eden never ended."

Feeling that a bridge had finally been forged between them, Sarah for her part unburdened herself to Dalia: she had cancer, and there was no one she trusted to understand the plight of her girls well enough to take over the management of Sarah's Farm. "I keep a little plastic bag in my purse for throwing up into," said Sarah.

Friendship bloomed, and then a kind of love.

"You're the only person I ever met who isn't out for nobody but themself," said Dalia. "And you're not even into Jesus."

As time went by Sarah was less and less involved in the day to day operations of the halfway house. She was always tired. Dalia became more and more involved, and cradled the head of a burn-scarred Ethiopian illegal alien as she died from a heroin overdose on the front porch one night. Somebody had told her she could find hope at Sarah's Farm. "Maybe she thought they fugging said dope," joked a hard-faced girl named Margarita.

Dalia pierced her with a withering look, and Margarita softened. "I'm fugging sorry," she mumbled. "Shit."

Dalia and Margarita eventually became lovers. They took the master bedroom once Sarah was moved to the first floor because she couldn't handle the trip up the stairs. They talked about adopting a little Ethiopian girl and naming her Hope.

Margarita procrastinated about moving the adoption forward, because she was HIV positive and didn't want the child to see a parent die. She would not tell Dalia about her condition for several years -- not until just six months before she was struck down by double pneumonia. Dalia's own bloodwork would come back positive, at which point she would forge a relationship with Christ.

Sarah, once plump and meek and now thin and determined, had to be moved to the hospital before her own end came. Once there she faded quickly, her spirits turning to dust. Her last lease on life had been calculating her daily puzzle of how to steal a few sips of her precious sherry without tipping off any of her charges. Her quiet alcoholism was her most closely guarded secret. Before she left the house she would sometimes insist on helping to empty the trash-cans or carry the laundry, but this was almost always a ruse -- a cover to allow Sarah to ferry empty bottles away and move in fresh ones from her stash in the cellar.

Sarah enjoyed being sneaky more than she enjoyed the sherry. "And why not?" she thought. "Am I not entitled to a little fun?"

Despite a life of sacrifice and giving, Sarah became consumed by guilt for her deceit as she lay withering in palliative care. Even as Dalia and Margarita held her hand while she slipped away, Sarah thought only of sherry.

At midnight's stroke Sarah's head sank back into the starched hospital pillow, her ears ringing with the roar of Hell's flame.


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