Meet Louise Farrell. Her husband, Frank, was a Chicago cop wounded in the line of duty over twenty years ago. His partner's in a grave and Frank's in a wheelchair. They have two daughters and one, Evelyn, is bat-shit crazy; the other is a college professor who teaches history (OK, so maybe Jess is nuts too). Jess is in love with Del Carter, a Chicago homicide dick... in the following scene, she and Del have informed Frank and Louise, who now live in Wisconsin, that the grandchild they adore and raised (Evelyn's daughter) is dead.
Sunny was thirteen. She was taken away from her grandparents a year earlier by the courts and returned to her biological mother, Evelyn. Evelyn, crazy as ever, took Sunny to live with her inside a bizarre religious cult somewhere in central Illinois; the cult is run by a charismastic but emotionally damaged leader and his horrifying sister, Rae Harte. Sunny ran away, was found dead inside a truck on an Illinois interstate and her autopsy revealed she slowly bled to death after she was mutilated... genitally.
The procedure, known as female genital mutilation, has arrived in the middle of the Heartland.
This is Chapter Twenty-Four. Del is up early and Louise Farrell is waiting for him. Louise is a mother who knows her children. The police are focusing on the cult's leaders and Rae Harte but Louise Farrell has her own ideas about who murdered Sunny: Sunny's own mother.
Could it be true?
Del woke about the same time Brownmiller was sneaking back to bed. He quickly shit, showered and shaved and walked into the kitchen about 5:30 to brew coffee, fill his small thermos and hit the road. He was surprised to find Wolf eating a bowl of oatmeal and Louise sipping coffee.
“Welcome to the Early Risers Club.” Louise nodded to Wolf who was happily slurping mush out of a large bowl on the floor, “Maple-flavored oatmeal; he loves the stuff. That’s his second bowl.”
“I know he likes bacon and eggs. Never saw him eat hot cereal before.”
“Too bad. This is much better for his cholesterol.”
Del didn’t know dogs had cholesterol. Interesting.
He poured a cup of coffee and explained he was heading back to Illinois and didn’t know if he’d be back for a few days. She understood, Frank told her last night.
“Want some oatmeal?”
“Is there any left? Or did Spoiled Monster Dog get it all?”
She laughed. “I put some aside special for you; thought I’d send you off with a warm breakfast.” She plunked a large bowl of oatmeal in front of him, piping hot, before he could blink an eye. Then she poured him OJ.
“You want a glass of milk, too?”
“No, this is fine. Just great,” he said, adding teasingly, “you’re a really great mom, Louise.”
Del regretted his words the minute they came out of his mouth; Louise visibly flinched, as if he’d slapped her.
“I tried. God knows I tried. We both tried.”
“Louise, forgive me. I didn’t mean anything by that remark. And you were – you are -- a very good mother. My God, look at Jess.”
“Oh I know. Jess is almost perfect. Ironically, we don’t deserve her either,” Louise laughed ruefully, “she’s the other extreme. Thank God she doesn’t hate us. She doesn’t hate us, does she?” Louise eyed Del with a concerned eye.
“God, no, of course not! She loves you both. And Evelyn loves you too, she’s just very troubled.”
“Evelyn always hated us. Right from the beginning. She said so enough anyway.”
“Louise, she’s troubled, probably very sick, but she doesn’t hate you.” He didn’t know what the hell else to say.
“Well, that’s nice of you to say but I know better.” She sipped her coffee. “She was as hard to raise as Jess was easy. Polar opposites. I never left them alone together. Evelyn always hated Jess, just like she hated her father and me. She did mean little things to her. Hell, she did mean big things, too. It was so odd, so unnatural.”
“Jealousy? New kid in the house? That’s normal.” Del was struggling to be comforting.
Louise looked at him long and hard. “It’s a nice thing to say but it’s not true. A mother knows. It was frightening. It was there, long before her father was shot. I’m not sure if Jess even remembers. Better she doesn’t. Sunny took after Jess. Resilient, forgiving. Thank God. If Jess wasn’t that way, well, we’d probably have two screwed up daughters I guess.”
She poured herself more coffee. “I never told anyone this except the doctors, not even Frank. Evelyn was four years old when she set Jess’ crib on fire. Jess was still young enough to be sleeping in a crib, nine months old.”
“Yeah. Christ is right. We had a Border collie, Dixie Belle, and she alerted me. Came running, barking, and almost knock me over, then she grabbed my pant leg and tried to drag me out of the kitchen, up the upstairs. I got the hint immediately and went running.”
Del was speechless.
“It was a slow smoldering fire; lots of acrid smoke, but no flames. I had a plastic bumper guard around the inside of the crib to protect the baby’s head. I can still see it. All Disney characters. Real cute. Anyway, it burned slow but the smoke could have been as deadly as the flames, of course.”
Del was chilled to the bone. “Of course, sure. Smoke is very, very toxic.”
Louise sighed. “So-called ‘accidents’ like that were a way of life for us. We lived with an elephant in the living room and tried to act like everyone had one too. Funny what you can get used to; just amazing, really. Frank never came into the house with his gun. Can you believe that? A cop afraid to have a gun in his house. He never mentioned where he kept it and I never asked. When I got the call about Frank and Jimmy my first two thoughts were: one, did Frank forget to take his gun with him and is that why he was shot? And then two, and more chilling, I wondered if Evelyn shot her father and Jimmy.”
Del could hear his own heart beating. Good sweet Jesus.
“Honest to God, Del, that’s true. I thought she killed her father and Jimmy because I knew she was mad as hell at him. Frank grounded her the day before and she screamed she wanted him dead. Do you know what she said?”
Del shook his head and in a whisper said, “No, what?”
“She told her father that if she had any money she’d pay someone to kill him.”
“Jesus, how old was she?”
“Twelve. Twelve years old and three months. Can you believe it?”
“Damn, Louise, I’m so sorry.” The oatmeal was going down like sour milk and Del pushed his bowl aside. Louise stirred her coffee and buttered cold toast.
“Did you ever get a diagnosis on her? Anyone ever tell you what was wrong with her?”
She laughed bitterly. “Oh, we had plenty of those. The doctors were all big on diagnoses, short on hope. They ranged from the ordinary to the extreme. I heard them all: schizoid, borderline, sociopath, narcissist, hedonist, bipolar, passive-aggressive, the whole megillah. A few said it was hard to diagnose children and refused to even try. ‘Don’t want to label’ they said. I asked everyone in the family, both sides, Frank’s and mine. I begged for answers, some explanation why, but there were no hidden skeletons, no weird uncles or cousins, no Lizzie Bordens or Sybils, no bad seeds. Not even much of the usual garden variety neuroses or eccentricities. There was mean Uncle Ted but he wasn’t blood so he didn’t count and we never dropped her on her head or caused any trauma that we could figure out.” She handed him a piece of toast and passed the jelly.
He waived it off. “No, I’m fine. The oatmeal’s enough.”
“I told one doctor that when she was two and a half she saw our beloved cat, Tigger, get run over by a car and, oh boy, he really keyed on that. He sure was disappointed when I explained Evelyn laughed. Up until then I’d never heard my little baby girl laugh but she sure found humor in my sweet little dead cat. I worried about Dixie Belle but she was smart; that dog wouldn’t let my daughter near her. She slept on Jess’s bed and Evelyn couldn’t get near either one of them. Wolf reminds me of Dixie Belle,” she said fondly. “Sometimes I even think Dixie’s come back to us in him, sort of reincarnated.”
She felt a little embarrassed to say it and added, “I know that’s weird. You think I’m crazy.”
“No, no I don’t. Wolf’s an old soul, as they say. My Grandmother talked like that too about people, about animals. She’d understand what you meant.”
“I kind of feel it sometimes, the way he looks at me, the way he looks at Jess. Particularly the way he looks at Jess.”
“She saved his life.”
“Yes, and he knows it. And Dixie saved hers once, too.”
“I don’t really know what that is,” she said, “but I sometimes think animals are our angels. They’ve come here to keep tabs on us, report on us. God help those who abuse them. That’s going to get back to St. Peter one day, big time.”
Del laughed. “Yeah, can’t you just see it now, the Golden retriever sitting next to St. Peter, giving him the thumbs up or the thumbs down, all these cats and birds and other animals sitting around watching justice being doled out. Can’t you see it?”
Wolf walked over and rested his massive head in her lap; Louise stroked his muzzle tenderly. “I like it. It’s a nice thought.” They sat in silence for a few minutes, each in their own thoughts. Louise ate a little more toast and topped off the coffee in their cups. Her mind was still on Evelyn.
“Del, I used to think we took the wrong kid home from the hospital but she’s a dead ringer for a Farrell and you can see plenty of O’Reilly and Smith in her. She had a horrible fever once, only eight months old, scarletina, and I used to think that’s what harmed her poor little mind. The doctors said no. I wracked my brain for reasons, clues, anything. I was a health nut when I was pregnant, ate great, took vitamins. Didn’t smoke or drink. Frank and I were never into drugs. We didn’t have venereal infections. Beats the hell out of me.”
She stood up with her coffee and walked to the sink and stared out the window, into the yard. “I’ll say this: if children are a gift from God, then a kid who’s mentally ill is the Gift that Keeps on Giving.”
She sighed deeply. “We should have fought harder to keep Sunny. We made a horrible, dreadful mistake. I will never forgive myself.”
“Louise, even knowing what you learned from Benson about Rae Harte wouldn’t have prevented the court from awarding Evelyn custody, even if you’d been able to get it into evidence, which you weren’t.”
Louise returned to the table and sat across from Del. She stared at Del with a puzzled look. “You don’t get it, honey. Rae Harte? I’m not talking about her. I’m talking about Evelyn. I don’t know that other woman from Adam and no file could ever tell me anything near what I already know about my own daughter.”
The light suddenly went on and Del understood but Louise continued, “Del, it’s Sunny’s mother who’s the real monster; Evelyn’s the monster. You understand? Unless you can tell me my Evelyn’s dead, that’s what I’m gonna’ think because if she’s still alive and living inside that goddamn cult after what happened to her daughter then I know she agreed to what they did to Sunny. She would have had to and I’m telling you, as God is my judge, that if someone tried to take a razor or a knife or a scissors, or even a belt or raised a hand one way or another, to one of my children that sonofabitch would be dead or I’d be dead because, by all that’s holy, I’m telling you I’d goddamn die trying to save my kids and no one better get in my way.” Louise slammed her fist on the table so hard the dishes and cups jumped. “I swear to Jesus, that’s a fact.”
Tears streamed down her stricken, tortured face and Del flew to the other side of the table and wrapped his arms around the trembling, devastated woman as she rocked piteously back and forth, crying over and over again in heart wrenching anguish, “Oh God why?” and “Sunny, baby, baby, forgive me.” An alarmed Wolf searched Del’s face for clues about what to do and then tried to nuzzle his way into Louise’s lap.
Del whispered “Shhhsh, shhhsh,” and “it’s not your fault,” and let his strong sheltering body sway back and forth rhythmically with hers, his chest and arms willing to absorb some of the shock waves of her incomprehensible pain.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I have to be strong. I have to be strong for Frank. For Jess. I’m so sorry, Del, so sorry. I don’t want you to see me this way. Forgive me.”
“Shhhsh, shhhsh… it’s fine to sometimes let it all out but don’t go so far you can’t come back, OK? We all love you, we need you Louise.”
He looked up, surprised to see Jess in the doorway. She was rocking back and forth too, arms wrapped tightly around her body, tears burning rivers down her face. Her heart was broken, smashed like fine china thrown against a cement wall, but at the same time it was stronger than ever, expanding to the point of bursting, filling to overflowing with unbridled, unconditional, infinite love for the greatest man in the world -- a man so strong he could cry and grieve with a broken soul like her mother and it only made him look more powerful, more extraordinary, more masculine. The kind of man who should have children, lots of children. Jess knew the world needed more people like Del.
Frank showed up thirty minutes later, surprised to see everyone quietly sitting around the kitchen table. He spotted the box of tissues on the counter, the used tissues littering the table, several dirty cereal dishes, and a quarter cup of strong cold mud at the bottom of the glass coffee pot. “What did I miss?”
“Nothing. I’ll make you a fresh pot,” Louise said.
Frank looked at the clock and it was after eight. “Del, you still here? I thought you were hitting the road early.”
Jess kissed her father good morning. “You snooze, you lose Dad,” she said playfully.
“Jesus. I guess so.”
Please go to my WEBSITE and listen to my two radio interviews; you can also see a video trailer about January Moon and read print interviews. And here's another interview at Glenn Gamble's blog.
BTW: there are many maternal themes in January Moon. I never thought about it much until I spoke at a book club where its members pointed out all of the many mothers in the book and their impact on the lives of their children. Louise and Evelyn Farrell are just two mothers but there are many others... women who defend their children stoically and women who have destroyed their children, and even their grandchildren. There are women who are not technically mothers in the biological sense but who also act as mothers.
Please be sure to let me know your thoughts about how motherhood might be a central theme throughout January Moon. I'd love to hear from you!
Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now have a nice Mother's Day!