“You’re awake, Ronnie,” the big woman said. She was sitting at the foot of my bed. A man, decidedly less portly, was standing next to her, smiling. Who were these people? The room seemed out of focus. I couldn’t understand why they were calling me ‘Ronnie,’ when my name was Harry. And where was my lovely Monique? What in the hell was going on?
Fluorescent lights beamed down on me as I lay on an elevated bed in what must have been a hospital room. Moving my arm, I felt tubing leading to a bag holding fluids attached to me. How did I get here?
“The doctors said you’ve turned a corner and are well on your way to recovery. You’ve come out of your coma for good.” She started crying. “Ronnie senior and I were so worried about you we asked Jesus Christ himself to intervene, didn’t we Ronnie?”
“We certainly did, Christine. Jesus Christ himself.” Big Ronnie, grinning, attempted to put his arm around her but she pulled back.
“Where am I?” I managed to ask. The room was spinning. Somehow, I felt drained of energy.
“You are in the best hospital in the great state of Wisconsin, son, La Crosse Methodist. The doctors at this great institution saved your life,” big Ronnie said. “They put you in a medically induced coma three months ago and here you are today. The good Lord must have been smiling down on you, Junior.”
These people are my parents? The last time I looked, I was past middle age and happily married. I had to figure out what was going on. “What’s my name?”
“Don’t you remember your name?” Christine asked. Her mouth hung open and she began to sob again.
“Don’t cry, honey,” Ronnie said, attempting to console his wife. “He’ll come around, I promise. My son’s special.”
I noticed Ronnie was wearing a suit and tie—a bright yellow tie. He was in his middle forties, I estimated, with a receding hairline. A briefcase sat next to the door, which, I assumed, belonged to him.
A few years younger, Christine was generously plump. She had short brown hair and was wearing a blue sweater and black slacks. She carried a large pink purse.
“Ronnie Hanson Jr.,” she said, finally. “That’s your name, and you’re Norwegian,” Christine interjected, as if that somehow would invigorate me. Since I lived in La Crosse, I knew the city was full of Norwegians. They were nice enough people but somewhat bland, and they were tight with their money. That’s what I remembered most about Norwegians: tightwads.
I had been Irish, English, and French Canadian before today. Apparently, something had changed, something very troubling. I felt a pain in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to scream “let me go back to my old life.”
“How old am I?” I finally asked, refocusing again on my immediate situation.
Christine got emotional for the third time in less than a minute. She began tearing up. “You’re sixteen, Junior. Don’t you remember anything?”
“I guess not,” I said. “What happens now?”
“We’ll have to wait for Dr. Leakey to tell us,” she responded, wiggling uncomfortably in her seat.
At that precise moment, an older man in a white lab coat walked through the door. He was smiling. “And how are the Hanson’s today? I see Junior is awake and looking good, and his lab tests are up to snuff as well. Let me listen to his heart.”
“Junior’s doing just great,” Christine volunteered, as though I couldn’t vouch for myself.
Dr. Leakey cut right to the chase. Taking off his stethoscope, he placed it on my chest. It was cold. Looking down, I realized, like my mother, I had a big body, too. “Jesus Fucking Louise, that’s cold,” I yelled.
That went over like a lead balloon. “We don’t use those words, Ronnie,” Christine said. There was a firmness in her tone. Senior frowned and looked down at the floor.
Dr. Leakey didn’t seem to mind. “Everything looks fine,” he said. “You can discharge him today.”
Christine jumped up and clapped her hands. “Praise the Lord,” she yelled.
“Let us help you get yourself together, son,” Senior said. “For the first time in three months, you’re coming home.”
Home, I thought. I already had a home, with my wife, but I was too weak to go there; somehow, things were different. Now I was going home to live with these strangers. As I lifted my leg over the bedside, I could see heavy young thighs sticking out of the hospital gown. My body was inexplicably different now. What in the hell was going on?
The Hanson’s, like me, resided in La Crosse, a small community of about 50,000, nestled alongside the Mississippi River in western Wisconsin. Beside the river were bluffs, which gave the area one of the most beautiful vistas in the country. Because of this, La Crosse was sometimes called “God’s Country.”
The trip to Ronnie and Christine’s home took only twenty minutes. The house was located on one of the lower rungs of Pill Hill, the higher levels being reserved for physicians, mostly internists and family practice specialists, hence the name. The surgeons owned the bigger houses east of there on Highway 33, in Irish Valley. I wondered what Senior did for a living that allowed him entrance here.
I sat in the back seat and endured Christian music the entire trip. Ronnie drove his Buick sedan while talking nonstop as well as yelling at various drivers along the way. A smell of strong cologne permeated the car, which I realized must have been smeared all over my new father. Already feeling disoriented, I suppressed an urge to vomit.
“Your sister, Brittany, is waiting for you,” he said, looking in the rearview mirror and addressing me.
“I have a sister?” I asked. I wondered if she was plump as well.
“And a dog, too,” big Ronnie said. “She’s a miniature rat terrier.”
“Good,” I responded. “I like dogs, I think.”
Arriving home, I immediately noticed the steep driveway, one of many in the subdivision. La Crosse, of course, was famous for them since it was snuggled in the bluffs. Residing here was like living in San Francisco, but with snow and ice to boot. I remembered these steep inclines from my many years of living in this vicinity. In fact, at one time, we had friends that owned a home in this very area.
The garage door opened and in went the Buick, fitting neatly next to a large gray van. I didn’t have much stuff to carry; the clothes I wore into the hospital, I suppose. Senior led the way through the door, talking nonstop. “Brittany better have let Turtle out or there will be heck to pay.” I realized that religious people didn’t swear. I could see that was going to be a problem.
The house was big with a fenced-in yard in the back. It looked like the homes sat on two-acre lots, which provided some breathing space between neighbors. If I had to reincarnate, which I suppose I had, this was the place to do it.
As I began to walk, I noticed that my young body was weak from the coma trauma it had suffered over the past three months. I moved my feet with great effort. Shuffling alongside the car, I saw my reflection in the window. It showed short red hair and a round, freckled face, dehydrated and pale. The body was tall as well, perhaps six feet two or three.
“Brittany, did you take the dog out?” Ronnie asked in a booming voice.
I heard a young, high-pitched response. “Holy molly, I guess I forgot.” There was a pause, and then. “Turtle, wanna go out?” This was followed by barking.
As we entered, I could see a tastefully arranged home, with a large kitchen and a hallway leading to several bedrooms. “Put the stuff in your room,” Christine said.
“Which one is mine?” I asked.
Christine became visibly upset for about the ninth time this morning. “You don’t remember that, either?”
I shrugged my shoulders and looked down at the floor. Turtle jumped on my leg, her tail wagging, so I bent over and petted her. She was a black and white dog with a short tail, likely clipped off at birth. Judging by Turtle’s playfulness, she was still a puppy.
“You’re downstairs,” she said, pointing to hallway ahead and to my right. I could feel her eyes on me as I turned and descended.
I walked down to what appeared to be a finished basement, which was paneled with dark wood and a brown shag carpet. The whole atmosphere seemed gloomy and smelled musty. I immediately noticed a large bedroom ahead of me, decorated with various posters, mostly of musicians playing Christian rock.
Tossing my clothes in a hamper near the door, I sat down on the double bed and reclined, putting my head back, eyes closed. I tried to contemplate what to do about my current situation. If I was Ronnie Hanson now, what happened to Harry Riley? After all, I couldn’t be in two places at once. My consciousness had apparently migrated to a different person, but why?
Looking around the room, I noticed a large, flat-screened computer on a desk in the corner. I walked over and turned it on. After a momentary delay, the screen lit up. The icons on the desktop had mostly to do with school subjects. There was an American History icon, and others for math and forensics. Forensics? That was a high school course? I scratched my head and continued.
I googled Harry Riley through the local newspaper and searched for obituaries. It read: Harry Riley, age 48, died in a car accident, July 9th. [Glancing at the newspaper, I noticed it was October 4th.] There was no sign of alcohol use although the accident is still under review. Survivors include his wife of twenty-five years, Monique, and two adult children.
It gave their names as well as information about their spouses. Other relatives were listed as well. There was a memorial scheduled several days later. The body was cremated in accordance with the wishes of the deceased.
So, I’m dead, or at least Harry Riley is. I jumped bodies into a teenage boy’s injured physical vehicle. The original occupant must have abandoned it during the coma. I had been a practicing psychotherapist and now I was a sixteen-year-old high school student. What a fucking comedown!
I knew I would need to appear to fit into this family until I figured out what to do.
“Junior, Brittany, it’s time for lunch. Come upstairs, I won’t say it again,” Christine called.
I thought it best to follow protocol, whatever that was. When in Rome. Besides, I was starving. “I’m coming, Mom,” I yelled.
Arriving in the kitchen, I saw the family gathered around a small table, waiting patiently for me.
Ronnie seemed happiest to see me. “Man of the hour,” he said, smiling.
“We’re so glad you’re back, Junior,” Christine volunteered. She turned to Brittany. “What have you got to say, Chuckles?”
Brittany was tall and fat, like me, with short brown hair. Her face was oval, and it was covered with pimples. When my sister opened her mouth, braces jutted out, like teeth on a shark. “I’m glad you’re alive, I guess.” She smiled.
Christine’s eyebrows narrowed, her lips pursed as she stared at her daughter.
“Now, let’s pray,” big Ronnie said. We joined hands. “Lord, thank you for bringing Junior back to us. Praise the Lord and his son, Jesus Christ. We are grateful to share a wonderful meal that Christine was so kind as to prepare for us on this joyous occasion. Praise the Lord. Amen.”
Looking at the food, I couldn’t conceal my surprise. The lunch was a huge carb fest. No wonder these people were fat. There was pasta, homemade bread, probably sourdough, bakery with sugar coated nuts on top, and, thank God, a bowl of salad. Having been diabetic, I was aware of how all these carbohydrates and sugars had been so dangerous for me in my life as Harry.
Ronnie and Christine drank coffee, with tons of cream. Brittany and I were offered cool aid, probably raspberry. I declined, to everyone’s surprise, opting for a glass of water instead.
“Junior, you used to love cool aid. Drank it by the pitcher,” Christine said. “What’s happened to you?”
I was busy putting salad into my bowl. “Geeze, I don’t know.”
We made small talk for the rest of the meal. I couldn’t help notice Brittany staring at me. She wore a quizzical expression.
After lunch, Ronnie left the table and relocated to his study on the other side of the first floor. Since the family knew I had no memory, I thought I’d ask the question that had been bugging me since I first laid eyes on the man. “Dad,” I said, forcing the word out of my mouth, “what do you do for a living?”
He smiled. “I am the hospital attorney for La Crosse Methodist.”
So that’s how we could afford to live on Pill Hill. “Must be an interesting job,” I said, carefully choosing my words.
Ronnie frowned. “You really do have amnesia, don’t you, Junior?”
“I’m like a newborn, a blank sheet,” I said, smiling.
Ronnie shook his head. “I do administration’s dirty work. The CEO’s a hatchet man and my job is to carry out his wishes. Makes you want to have a good stiff drink now and again, huh?”
I scratched my head and asked the obvious. “So, do you drink?”
“That’s our family’s dirty little secret. Your old dad sometimes has a nip or two now and again.” He raised his index finger at me. “But no talk of this outside these four walls. Understood?”
I nodded my head in agreement. “Mum’s the word.”
“The church wouldn’t approve. The rules and all.”
“What religion are we?”
Ronnie rolled his eyes. “We’re Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, the only sect that follows the strict word of the Bible, or so they tell me. It doesn’t really matter to me, but Christine…” He raised his eyebrows.
“She’s devout?” I asked.
He nodded his head.
“Good,” I mumbled. “I guess.”
I heard Christine in the kitchen cleaning up after lunch. I carefully worded my question. “Dad, does Mom work outside the home?”
Dad bristled. “Of course. After all, your mother is a modern woman. She works at Lutheran, teaching fifth grade. Any other questions, Junior?” Ronnie seemed in a hurry to get back to what he was working on.
About this time, I noticed Brittany entering her room. I walked over and knocked on the door. “Got a minute, Chuckles?” I asked.
Brittany looked down at the floor. Her eyes began blinking rapidly. “Keep the door open.” She gritted her teeth.
I entered and took a chair next to her computer. She sat on the bed, book in hand, watching every move that I made. Apparently, Brittany had planned to study for school. There were four thick books piled next to her. I knew only one way to dissolve the tension between us. “Tell me about myself. Describe me.”
Brittany raised her eyebrows and smiled. The smile soon disappeared. She stood, walked to the door, closed it and then returned to the bed. “You’re not a nice person.” Brittany began to tear up. “You’re mean, just like Dad.”
The therapist in me began to emerge. “Tell me about my bad behaviors.”
Brittany didn’t hesitate. “You’re a bully. You hurt me and my friends…” She started crying.
The real Junior was apparently a jerk. “What did I do to hurt you?”
“You don’t remember? Any of it?”
I shook my head.
“You put me down all the time, calling me a worthless slut. When that doesn’t get to me, you push me, and…” Brittany held back her tears. “You slap me. Once, you even punched me in the stomach.”
I could feel my blood pressure rising. “I’m sorry I hurt you in the past. That won’t happen again. I…I promise.”
“You’re just like Dad. He’s always promising not to hit Mom, but he always does.”
She stood and walked to the door. Opening it, she turned and faced me directly. “Now leave.”
Nodding, I arose and walked out. Tomorrow I would find out more about Junior. Tomorrow was school.
It was senseless attempting to study for of my classes since I had no idea what was required of me. Instead, my mind drifted back to my life as Harry Riley. I thought of the lovely Monique and the twenty-five years we had spent together. What or who ended my life? Was it simply a heart attack or a stroke? Then it came to me. The reason I had entered Junior’s broken body was becoming clear: I had unfinished business. I was driven to find out how my life ended.
As I reflected back, I recalled my busy private practice, not far from where the Hanson’s lived. Having been licensed to practice psychotherapy in the state of Wisconsin, I had been employed at Deep Water Counseling for over twenty years. The staff there was close as many of us had worked together for better than a decade. We shared cases, struggled with diagnosis and treatment of some of the more difficult clients, and generally were supportive of one another. Of all the people I had worked with, however, one co-worker stood out above the rest: Robin Burns.
We had known each other for over twenty years, first as co-therapists at a previous clinic, and later at Deep Water. We had been lovers in the early days but decided to break it off since the affair was creating strain in our respective marriages. Robin told me we were lovers in a past life as well, something that I found curious. She was up on the subject of reincarnation, reading everything she could on it. Perhaps, I could pay my colleague a visit, I considered.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I knew that Robin worked late on that day. In addition, she was flexible, always keeping some slots open for walk-ins. Informing my parents that I was going for a short stroll, I left and began the mile-long journey to Robin’s clinic. An unseasonably warm, sunny day greeted me as I stepped out of the house and onto the front sidewalk. Inhaling deeply, a gentle breeze caressed my face as I slowly sauntered down the stairs and onto the subdivision outside our door. Continuing on, however, fatigue swept over me. How was I going to walk a mile? I remembered Harry jogging this distance in about fifteen minutes.
What I thought would be a twenty-minute jaunt ended up taking over an hour, with frequent stops along the way. When I finally entered the clinic, exhausted, I looked forward to sitting on the comfortable waiting room chairs that Harry Riley was instrumental in purchasing for the clinic.
“Can I help you?”
I recognized the receptionist as a temp we had employed when our regular secretary was out on medical leave. I realized it was probably not good to use my real name since my parents could follow the paper trail that was created. Besides, religious people weren’t supposed go to lay therapists. They were counseled by their own ministers. “The name’s Fred Friendly. I would like to see Robin Burns, please.”
The young woman sat in a desk behind a window. We had arranged the front reception area this way to provide safety for the secretaries. As she stared at me, her eyes narrowed. To her, I was an adolescent male seeking counseling services, something strange, to say the least. Most boys didn’t go to therapy. Their parents dragged them there. My very presence must have seemed odd.
“Is there a reason you wish to see Ms. Burns?”
I tried to force a smile. “I’m dealing with a personal issue she would be knowledgeable about.”
“Have a seat,” she said, and picked up the phone. Five minutes later, I was sitting across from my former colleague.
“Fred Friendly, huh? That’s a famous name, you know,” Robin said, starting the session from behind her cluttered desk. “What can I do for you today?”
Robin Burns carried her forty-seven years as well as could be expected, although she had aged noticeably after a double mastectomy two years earlier. Her long brown hair was streaked with gray. Robin had put on weight, as well, mostly around the middle. She wore a long flowery dress.
I was physically drained and it was everything I could do to make small talk. I decided to hit it straight on. “I’m going to tell you a strange story and ask that you do not interrupt me until I’ve finished.”
Robin raised her eyebrows. “Go ahead.”
“I woke up this morning in the body of a sixteen-year old boy, this body. He had been put in a medically induced coma three months earlier.”
Her eyes widened. She leaned forward in her chair.
I told her my story. It only took ten minutes, revealing my true identity at the end. My final words were: “Before I woke up this morning, I was Harry Riley. That’s why I came to see you, Robin. We had always been close and…”
Robin put her right hand up as if asking me to stop. She held her head and massaged her forehead. “Whoa! Harry and I were good friends for many years,” she said. “If you are claiming to be him, I’ll need some proof. Can you answer some questions?”
I nodded affirmatively.
She then spent twenty minutes asking me trivia from our shared lives together. After I answered all questions to her satisfaction, she sat there, stunned. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Harry, you’re alive.” Robin came around from behind her desk and we embraced.
“I went to your service. Everyone was grieving. It was so…sad.”
“Have you kept in touch with Monique? Is she all right?” I asked.
Robin stepped back and sat in a chair next to me. “It’s only been three months, Harry. She’s still pretty emotionally raw.”
“What about her step-mother, Ruth? Is she still living with her?”
She brought her hand to her chin and carefully rubbed it. “That woman’s a strange bird. She was the only person at the service who didn’t seem upset.”
“The paper said I died in a car accident. I don’t remember anything…”
“The accident happened right near the hospital. You ran a red light.”
“The last thing I remember was eating a salad that Ruth prepared. It was really tasty, too. Then I became nauseous and dizzy. I was trying to drive myself to the ER.”
Robin mouth opened. Her eyes were wide. “Are you saying your mother-in-law poisoned you?”
I hesitated. “I…don’t know. I’m still trying to sort this all out.”
“I spoke with Monique last week. She’s moving to Florida with Ruth. Apparently, you left her a sizeable inheritance.”
I nodded. “I took out a million-dollar policy many years earlier. We often joked that she’d be set if I kicked.”
Robin’s eyes widened. “Did her mother know about that?”
My eyes caught hers. “Come to think of it…”
She snickered. “Ruth lived in Miami for the past ten years, until she was widowed. Now she’s going back. I don’t think Monique has a clue what happened.”
“We can’t prove any of this. Anyway, I’ve got to deal with the insane situation I’m in. Living with these strange people I have no connection with…” I shook my head.
“There must be a connection somewhere. Like Einstein always said, ‘God doesn’t play dice.’ There must be a reason you came back to this place, with these people.”
“I can’t fathom…”
“Harry, you’re a helper. Maybe you came back because someone there is in trouble. There’s got to be a link, a…thread with at least one of these people from your previous life.”
“Whatever!” I said. “What I’d really would love to do is see Monique again.” Tears came to my eyes.
Robin put her hand on mine. “Maybe there’s a way.”
“Where were you all afternoon, Junior?” Christine asked. “You’re still very weak. You could have collapsed and died.”
I closed the door behind me and entered the spacious living room. “Sorry, Mom. I had to get some air.” It was late afternoon. The trip to the clinic and subsequent session with Robin took several hours. Luckily, she was able to drop me off, saving me a long and arduous trip back.
“Next time take your cell phone,” she instructed.
“Dad had to go into work for half a day. He’ll be home in a bit. Don’t you have some homework to do, Junior?”
“I’m going to have to start from scratch,” I said. “I don’t remember anything. I think they call it amnesia.”
“Well, then, go read your Bible,” she said. “When I discovered Jesus Christ, He changed my life.”
“Maybe you could help me. I know you’re well versed in the Biblical teachings. Could we sit somewhere and talk about that?” I knew the road into Christine’s inner psyche was through the religious door. It was important to find out everything I could about every member of this family. As Robin said, there had to be a connection here someplace.
We went to big Ronnie’s ample study to start my lesson with Christine stopping on the way to snatch a Bible from a bookcase. Once seated, she began to discuss how Christ had entered her life.
“I was adopted as a baby,” she said. Christine produced her birth certificate from the Bible she held. “It’s not easy knowing that no one wants you. It’s kind of like original sin.”
Suddenly it came to me. Shame. Christine was feeling shame. I had remembered the term from my psychology practice. Shame-based people feel like they are no good, rotten to the core. In her dark night of the soul, she had found a loving Jesus.
I took the documents from her and opened them. She had been born Christine Rebro on July 4th, forty years earlier. That name was familiar. Rebro. Where had I heard it?
“Mom, did you ever look up your birth parents?”
Christine fidgeted in her chair. “When I was eighteen. My biological mother’s name was Marilyn Rebro. She had me when she was only fifteen—really, just a child herself. I felt sorry for her, with all the problems that seemed to come her way.”
Marilyn Rebro. Jesus Louise, she was my bipolar aunt. Christine, Brittany, and I were all at risk for bipolar disorder, given its strong inheritability. I wondered if Christine suffered from the condition. If she did, her depression would be devastating and her manic episodes wild and uncontrollable. It would be easy enough to find out.
“What kind of problems did she have?” I asked.
“I…guess too many boyfriends. She was always in trouble with the law, too. I was glad she didn’t try to raise me.”
Typical bipolar. My parents had debated adopting Marilyn’s daughter. They were well into their fifties by this time, so decided against it. Christine could have been raised as my stepsister, so there was a connection of sorts.
“Mom, how old were you when your parents told you about the adoption?”
Christine shook her head. “I was thirteen. My God, as you can imagine, I was extremely upset hearing this. I ran out of the house, crying. I can’t for the sake of me figure out why I did it, but I hitchhiked all the way from La Crosse, Wisconsin, to Los Angeles. It took ‘em three weeks to find me, too.”
She spent three weeks in LA when she was thirteen? It begs the question. “Did anything bad happen to you while you were there? Did you meet any bad people…”
She gritted her teeth. “I can’t…talk about that. Now let’s get on with the teachings of Jesus Christ.” She opened the Bible to the New Testament.
I had the information I needed. Christine was an abuse victim and someone who had turned to religion to seek consoling.
“Class, settle down,” Miss Chambers called out. “Class, quiet. I have an announcement to make.” Amber Chambers was a woman of average height with thick glasses and long, blond hair that flowed over wide shoulders.
I fidgeted nervously, waiting for my homeroom teacher to make her announcement. Nonverbal communication says she hates my guts, I considered. Miss chambers had crossed her arms when I entered the room twenty minutes before the start of school. The therapist in me recognized the upward movement of the lip, a sneer, as an indicator of contempt. This woman despised me.
“Class, Ronald Hanson is back with us today.”
A chorus of boos arose from the class of twenty-five. An attractive redheaded girl in front yelled out, “Jerk. Go back home.”
“Settle down, folks,” Miss Chambers repeated in a louder voice. “Ronald doesn’t remember anything about his previous time with us. He has amnesia, so let’s try to be less severe with him.”
Less severe? What is she talking about? And why does this class sound like a lynch mob?
Someone else shouted something indistinguishable.
Finally, I stood. The class became quiet. “The feedback I’ve gotten from you suggests I’ve behaved badly in the past.”
More commotion. Heads nodded and laughter broke out.
“I just want to let you know that those days are over. I’ll do what I can to repair any damage I’ve done. Please feel free to talk to me individually if I’ve harmed you in any way.” I feel like one of my recovering alcoholic clients making amends in their 12-step program.
Amber Chambers unfolded her arms and stared at her student, who was now sitting amid a muffled commotion. A brief smile appeared on her face. I wondered what she was thinking.
I’ve got superior communication skills. I can get through this. Keep repeating to yourself: Every sinner has a future. The other half of the saying entered my mind as well. Every saint has a past. These people have their faults, too. Hopefully, they’ll extend me some empathy.
Suddenly, one freckled faced boy sitting on my right extended his hand. “I’m George. I’m willing to give you another chance.”
A pretty blond, one desk back, patted me on the shoulder. “I’m Emily. Everyone makes mistakes. Let’s start over.”
One by one, my classmates began to reach out to me. It was like group therapy, the breaking down of boundaries. I would have to do this in every class I was assigned to. I would have to build bridges that Junior had destroyed.
So many of my clients have said they wished they had known then, in childhood, what they know now. Here I was, an experienced person in a young body. I didn’t have to make the mistakes of youth like everyone else. In addition, as a trained therapist, I could recognize emotional problems in others and either help them or at least steer clear. I was beginning to see my situation as less of a predicament and more as an opportunity.
Of course, the one person I missed terribly was Monique, my friend, my lover, and partner. That, as the bard said, was the rub. I would need to talk with Robin again about that situation.
The bell sounded. It was time for American History.
One week later.
Robin looked pale and dragged out this afternoon. In fact, so much that I was beginning to wonder if the cancer hadn’t spread. She was my only connection to the past and losing her would be devastating. How could I explain to others that this was my colleague, my lover, and my intimate friend, the only person who understood my predicament? If she died, I would be alone.
I had stopped over after school to do a quick consult before going home. My body was feeling stronger as I entered her door. I started the session by indirectly voicing my concerns. “How are you feeling today, Robin?”
“Tired,” she said. “I’m seeing my oncologist next week. Hopefully, she can give me some answers. So, what’s going on with you, Harry?”
I shook my head and laughed. “Well, I just completed my first week of high school in over thirty years and, let me tell you, the curriculum is much tougher now than it used to be. You can’t imagine the pressure…”
“I read something about that. Kids are getting ulcers in grade school.”
“At least I have my trusty laptop and smart phone. Talk about an information overload. But, on the flip side, I don’t need bifocals anymore. Thank God for that.” I pointed to my eyes.
“How are you adjusting at home?”
“So far so good. The sister hates my guts, my father’s violent and abusive, and Mom is another matter altogether. It turns out, she’s my cousin, since she was abandoned by my bipolar aunt, hence, the connection. Family karma, I suppose. I guess that happens with reincarnation.”
Robin’s eyebrows narrowed. “Uh, Harry, this isn’t reincarnation. You entered a body whose inhabitant vacated it. You walked in, as they say. The last time I looked, that was called possession.”
“Oh,” I said. “That has darker connotations. What do we know about possession?”
“Very little, I’m afraid. There are very few cases on record… It’s not politically correct to even acknowledge it since possession doesn’t fit into any scientific paradigm that’s widely accepted. Let me put it this way, you wouldn’t get a research grant to study possession.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Oh well. Not to change the subject, but have you had a chance to talk to Monique yet?”
Robin sat straight up in her chair. “I did, but only said that I wanted to meet face to face to discuss something important about her dead husband. I didn’t think it would be good social etiquette for a phone conversation.”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“By the way, is your wife open to paranormal topics?”
I paused for a moment to collect my thoughts. “She’s into astrology, that’s for sure. Monique took at least two classes from some woman in town. Some of her friends read tarot cards as well.”
“That’s good,” Robin said, smiling. “If Monique’s studied astrology, that certainly means she probably wouldn’t find your situation outside the realm of possibility. What do we know about her step-mother?”
“Ruth helped raise Monique after her mother died. I think she said she was twelve when that happened.”
“How long did she reside with you?”
“About two years. She was living in Miami with Monique’s father before that. Always complained about the cold weather up here.”
“Were you close to Ruth?”
“No. She was…aloof, I guess. I thought she was going through a situational depression, losing her husband.”
Robin stood up and walked to the window. “What did Monique’s father do for a living?”
“He was a chemist—in fact, that’s what killed him, bladder cancer. I guess it’s an occupational hazard for chemists. They lived in Milwaukee before he retired to Miami.”
Looking out the window, Robin rubbed her chin. “A chemist, huh?”
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said, laughing. “She could learn something about poisons from a chemist.”
Robin nodded. “You told me you became ill after ingesting a salad she made. That would be consistent with poisoning.”
“It would be. But I bet you could learn even more about poisons from a county medical investigator, someone whose job it is to investigate suspicious deaths, which is what Ruth’s first husband did for nearly twenty years.”
“No kidding. Where did he work?”
“He must have gotten his share of homicides involving poisoning. If they were like most couples, they probably joked about it like, ‘I better check the salt shaker for rat poison.’”
We both laughed.
“Ruth’s husband probably had literature on that, too,” I said.
Robin walked back to her desk and sat down. “I guess it’s a moot point. As far as I know, there were never any blood tests conducted on your body before you were cremated.”
“Yeah, we’ll never be able to bring Ruth to justice, but at least it helps me to know what happened to my old body.”
“As opposed to your new one?” she asked, laughing.
“Right. My new Norwegian body.”
Robin suddenly was quiet. The blood drained out of her face. “Listen, I’m having lunch with Monique on Thursday. I’ll call you afterwards on your cell. Is that okay, Harry?”
“Sounds good.” I got up to leave. “Take care of yourself, Robin.” I stopped in my tracks. “Can I have a hug for old time sakes?”
She rose and embraced me. Feeling her in my arms felt so comforting. Robin kissed me gently on the lips and, being a sixteen-year-old, I felt hormones surging. She pushed me away and laughed. “Easy, tiger. You may be a teenager, but I’m not.”
Gently stroking her arm, I headed for the door. “Call me,” I said.
“Time for supper,” Christine said. “Dad’s working late tonight. He won’t be able to join us until later.”
Brittany reacted to this message. Her eyes widened as she glanced at me. I wondered what was going on. Later, I took her aside to find out.
“Dad’s having an affair with a secretary in the legal department,” were the first words out of her mouth. She studied my face for a reaction. I noticed that Brittany was opening up to me.
“How do you know this?” I asked.
“Dad doesn’t exactly hide it. He knows Mom won’t do anything about it.”
“Why is that?”
“She’s just too nice to say anything,” Brittany said.
“Maybe she doesn’t mind Dad whoring around since it takes the pressure off of her. Had you thought about that?” The real reason, I was convinced, was that Christine was an abuse victim. That would also explain her weight, too. This was protection against wolves hitting on her. I had seen this numerous times in my therapy practice.
She laughed. “I’m getting to like the new you. You’re funny.”
I realized that Brittany was still just a fourteen-year-old and didn’t know a whole lot about adult matters. Having worked with abused women, I understood some of the issues these people were faced with. Later that night, I had a chance to sit down with Christine. She was knitting a sweater.
“Are your parents still alive?” I asked.
Christine stopped her knitting and stared at me. “Of course. Don’t you remember your grandparents?”
“No. Like I said, amnesia. What are they like?”
“They’re really nice people. Mom’s retired; she was a receptionist at a dentist’s office. Dad’s a retired grade school principle. They had to be saints for everything I put them through.”
“Do you see them much?”
Christina’s face suddenly became beet red. “No. Ronnie doesn’t think they’re a good influence on me. Look, Junior, I don’t think I want to talk about this…”
“Couldn’t you meet with them privately, without Dad knowing?”
Christine’s face became scrunched up. Her lips disappeared and she bared her teeth. I pushed on. She put her needle and cloth down and faced me. “A woman must obey her husband; that’s what our faith teaches us.”
“It must be very painful for you not to talk to your parents, the people who raised you.”
“I guess that’s just the way it must be. I have Jesus Christ…”
“Are you afraid of him?” I interrupted.
Christine stopped talking and stared straight ahead. She was mute. Tears began to stream down her cheeks. “You’re just a child, Junior, so you don’t understand. The world is a terrible place. This is the best I can get. I’ll settle for a few inconveniences, like not seeing family. At least I have my family here.”
That seemed to resolve her dilemma for the time being. She picked up her needle and began to knit again.
I quietly slipped out to study for school. I had a paper due on American History and an exam to prepare for in chemistry. That was the downside of being sixteen again.
A week later.
I had just exited school and turned on my smart phone when the call came.
“Monique wants to meet with us as soon as possible,” Robin’s voice said. I could hear breathing over the line.
I was standing on the sidewalk outside the building. “I’m ready anytime she is,” I replied.
“I’ll pick you up right away.”
We drove to my old house across town and exited the car. I was feeling more energetic every day but I noticed Robin seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. She labored to take each step and leaned on me for support.
Our house was a small Cape Cod with a fenced-in yard. It was painted white with black shutters that matched the color of the roof, which presented a striking color contrast. The first thing that caught my eye was the “For Sale” sign jutting out next to the front door. We had relocated there several years ago after our youngest married and moved out of state. As Robin and I exited her Honda and approached, the screen swung open and Monique emerged wearing a red sweater and jeans. She carried a curious expression as if seeking to investigate a suspicious activity in the neighborhood. Monique was as beautiful as ever with her brown pigtails and dark complexion. My heart skipped a beat as she neared.
“So, this is the young man,” Monique said.
Robin and I stood on the sidewalk outside the yard and conversed over the fence with my wife. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Monique smiled at Robin, and then turned and stared at me as if attempting to find recognition in my face.
“Monique, I want to introduce you to Ronnie, aka Harry Riley,” Robin said in a panting voice.
“Let’s go in the house where we can talk,” Monique responded.
Robin made small talk as we walked through the yard. “You know, I only live a block from here,” she said, pointing to her right.
As we entered, I became choked up. Here was my home, the place the two of us had made together and where I wanted to end my days. Everything was the same as it was the last time I was here. Looking around, I became overcome with emotion. I began to cry.
“Monique, I miss you so much. Since I woke up in this body two weeks ago, you’re the only one I’ve thought about.” I took a step toward her and, to my surprise, she retreated.
Robin intervened. “Let’s all just sit down. Monique has prepared a list of questions for you, Harry. She wants to be sure you are who you claim to be.”
On the oak table in front of her, Monique produced a clipboard with several pages of writing on it.”
“By the way, where’s Ruth?” I asked.
“Mom’s out with friends,” Monique responded. “I’m going to ask you questions about myself, but also things that happened between us, things no one else could possibly know.”
I nodded. For the next thirty minutes, Monique asked me every type of query imaginable and then follow-up questions as well. I answered them all to her satisfaction.
“It would seem that you are Harry,” she finally said. “Now that we’ve established that, what do you want?” I could tell here was an emotional distance between us, something I hadn’t noticed in our marriage.
“I want to stay here, with you. I know things are…different now, but I still want to be with you.”
To my shock, Monique let out a loud laugh. “I should live with an adolescent? No, Harry, that won’t fly.”
I leaned forward in my chair. “But it would only be fair that I should get some of the insurance money I left for you. I’ve got to think about college…”
“Ha!” Monique laughed. “I find it interesting that the two of you came together, the two lovers. I knew all about your sordid affair.”
Robin intervened. “That was a long time ago. We’re just friends now.”
Monique motioned to me. “I could tell the way you looked at her that you were still in love. I knew I could never compete.”
“Monique,” I bellowed. “I love only you.”
She sat up straight in her chair. “I’ve moved on. I have a boyfriend now.”
“I don’t believe this. We were married for twenty-five years and now you’ve just moved on?”
Monique stood. “I think we’re done here.” She walked briskly to the front door and opened it. “Please leave now.”
Robin and I exited the home that I had beautified and hoped to retire in. To say I was in emotional pain would have been an underestimation. I suppressed an urge to burst out crying. Holding onto my arms, I could tell Robin was exhausted.
As we walked through the entrance, I turned and gave Monique my parting shot. “Are you aware that Ruth poisoned me?”
“Oh, yeah?” she said. “Prove it,” and slammed the door shut.
It was a difficult night for me, having lost any hope of returning to my old home. In addition, Monique, the love of my life, seemed distant, even hostile. I ate supper with my new family barely speaking a word. As usual, Senior was working late, or having an affair, I didn’t know which, and couldn’t join us. The meals had considerably fewer carbohydrates over time, probably as a result of my numerous suggestions to Christine. Afterwards, I studied for classes, if for no other reason, to get my mind off the events of the day.
About nine-thirty, Dad came home looking disheveled and preoccupied. I caught him as he retreated to his study. “A tough day at the office?” I asked.
Ronnie sneered as he opened a bottle of Scotch and poured himself a water glass full. “A very bad day.”
I sat down opposite him. “Is the boss giving you a hard time?”
As Senior removed his suit coat, I noticed lipstick on his neck. The smell of stale cologne, probably Old Spice, permeated the room and burned my nose. “One of my subordinates is going through some domestic issues. A problem of hers seems to have returned and she doesn’t quite know how to handle it.”
This sounded interesting so I pursued it with my usual caution. “One of your secretaries is having man problems? It must be nice for her to have you to confide in.” I wondered if that sounded a bit passive-aggressive since it was an open secret he was sleeping with an office subordinate.
Big Ronnie took a sip of his Scotch and laughed. “One thing you should know about women, son, is that they are all bitches who are controlled by their hormones. Us men, at least, can reason.”
I nodded, not being sure where he was taking this.
“This woman, as gorgeous as she is…” He looked off into space as a big smile crossed his face. “She had the wildest story.” He laughed again and then refocused on me. “Well, anyway, Junior, I’ve told you before but, with the amnesia and everything, you’ve probably forgotten that the most important thing in life is the bottom line.”
“The bottom line,” I repeated, anticipating a lecture or, in the least, a father-son talk.
Dad picked a cigar from the box in front of him and bit off the end. I half expected him to offer me one. “In life, son, you sometimes have to do what is necessary.”
I nodded and leaned forward.
He lit the cigar and took a long draw from it, exhaling rings of smoke in the air before continuing. “A certain female employee at the clinic—her name’s not important—approached me…oh, maybe six months ago about a legal matter. Since I represent the clinic, it was appropriate for her to seek me out about a potential legal threat to her department, which was Medical Technology.”
My heart leaped. Monique was the head of that department. I could feel my blood pressure rising and my breathing becoming more labored. Beads of sweat began to appear on my forehead.
“The skinny of it was that this woman and myself became…close. I usually go for the younger ones, but this gal…” Senior let out a loud yell.
“How old is she?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“Middle forties, but you wouldn’t know by looking at her. She is something else.” A big smile lit up his face. “At any rate, she needed help getting rid of a cheating husband and I had no trouble supplying her with the right…product.”
You mean, poison, I thought. It would be good, I reasoned, to draw him out a little more. “Did you buy her a gun?”
Ronnie chuckled. “Have you ever heard of the Barbados nut?”
“No. Is it tasty?”
He grinned. “Very much so. In fact, the threat of this nut lies in the very pleasant taste of its seeds. If you have one, you’ll want more.”
“What happens if you eat a bunch of them?”
“Within 15 to 20 minutes, you will experience difficulty breathing, drowsiness, dizziness, and intestinal distress—vomiting, diarrhea…whatever.”
I slumped down in my chair and exhaled. “Then it’s poison?”
“You bet your bippys it’s poison, and a very potent one at that.”
The memory suddenly came back to me of Harry Riley’s final moments of life. I had stumbled outside the house to my car while fighting to breathe. Everything was spinning as Ruth alarmingly asked what was wrong. I must have passed out before the final impact. But why would Monique deliver the poison to her mother’s salad? I hadn’t cheated on her in years and, even if I had, why kill me? Why not, just divorce my sorry ass, take me to the cleaners? Then it came to me: the million-dollar insurance policy. That was the motive.
“What do you mean, her problem’s come back?” I asked.
Ronnie took another sip from his drink and raised his eyebrows. “The crazy bitch thinks he’s reincarnated into another body; doesn’t that beat all?”
I laughed. “Yeah.” I felt my stomach tense.
“I think she needs a shrink, myself. However, if she insists, we can meet with her and this new guy. Then I can get an order for protection against him until she moves south, which is only a matter of time.”
I sighed again. “Sounds like you have a tough job, Dad,” I finally said, as I rose to leave.
“That’s right,” he responded. “So be nice to your dad, he’s got it rough.”
We both laughed.
I spoke with Robin on my phone about my conversation with Ronnie. She was as shocked as me.
“We weren’t having an affair,” she said. “Years ago, maybe, but that’s ancient history.”
“Anyway, you don’t kill someone for being unfaithful,” I chimed in.
There was a momentary silence on the line. “Harry, do you recall that car accident Monique was involved in about a year ago? Remember, the doctors were concerned about a head injury. Could there have been some trauma to her prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls higher functions, like conscience?”
“The thing about that whole ordeal was that it took her a long time to get back to baseline again. Ruth was the one that picked up on the changes in her personality. I guess I just didn’t want to see…”
“What exactly did Ruth see?” Robin asked.
I hesitated to collect my thoughts. “Odd things. Before the accident, she had always been a caretaker, always wanting to help someone. Afterwards, she seemed…what’s the word? Dissociated?”
“What else, Harry? Just because Monique was a little withdrawn…”
“It went beyond that. She started to accuse me of things like having secret liaisons with my clients, insane paranoid stuff. I didn’t know what to make of it.”
“Harry, you must have noticed something was wrong. You’re a trained therapist...”
“If you remember, Robin, we were doing all those late-night couples and family sessions together. I hardly had time to turn around.”
I heard a muffled scream on the other end of the line. “For God’s sake, why didn’t you mention this before? This changes everything. Your wife very likely sustained a head injury that changed her personality.”
“Right, and, with the help of a certain sociopathic attorney, she was able to commit a homicide. He supplied her with the poison and she used it.”
I heard a loud groan again. “Isn’t that a tad bit dangerous for him to be passing out poison? I mean he could go to jail, not to mention losing his license to practice law.”
“I don’t think he actually gave her the poison, just the info on how to get a hold of it, probably over the internet. Don’t forget, by this time, they were sleeping together, and Monique is a great lover. Knowing Ronnie, he probably just gave her whatever she asked for.”
“You know, Harry, if Monique has gone off the deep end, wouldn’t Ruth be in danger as well?”
“She definitely would be a liability to Monique. After all, Ruth knows what she did to me. That, in itself, could get Monique put away for the rest of her life.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. I could almost hear the gears of Robin’s mind turning. “I think it’s time we had a sit-down with Ruth,” she said.
Robin called me and arranged to meet with Ruth in the afternoon so that I could also be present. I felt strong enough to run the mile or so from my charter school to get to Deep River Counseling. I had lost weight and my endurance was coming back as well. Having been a jogger, I began to pick up where I had left off in my life as Harry Riley. The clock showed two minutes after three as I walked through the door of Robin’s office, slightly winded and carrying a backpack chock-full of schoolbooks.
Ruth Schultz was sitting in a stuffed chair next to Robin. She was a thin woman, average height, with short gray hair, maybe eighty. Ruth wore a bright green blouse with brown slacks. She seemed surprised as I took a seat next to Robin and across from her.
“Who’s the kid?” she asked.
Robin and I had worked out an identity for me, rather than explain that I was the old Harry, since that would take a whole session by itself. In addition, as I made clear to Robin, Ruth was a devout Catholic and would likely have difficulty accepting our explanation.
My colleague explained to Ruth that this was merely a meeting, not a therapy session, in order for her to freely discuss matters as they arose.
“This is my stepson, Ronnie. When he grows up, he wants to be a therapist, just like his mom,” she said. “I’d like to have him observe our meeting so he can pick up some pointers on how to talk to others. Isn’t that right, Ronnie?”
“Yes, Mom,” I countered.
“That’d be fine with me,” Ruth said, smiling.
Robin spoke first. “I’d like to start things off by saying that I was a friend of Harry, and also Monique. Harry and I were co-therapists for over twenty years and, as a result of our work together, became very close. He had expressed concern over changes in Monique’s personality after her vehicular accident about a year ago. Said she had changed, had become paranoid, that kind of thing. What are your thoughts on this, Mrs. Schultz?”
Ruth looked off into space as though processing the question. “Harry was always right on when it came to sizin’ up folks. That he was good at. I have to say, I miss him every day. Should’ve been nicer to him, too, but I was strugglin’ with dark thoughts after my George died.”
I nodded. For the first time, the real Ruth was coming into focus.
Ruth took a piece of tissue paper from the box in front of her and dabbed her eyes. “Fact is, somethin’s changed in my daughter. She’s become cold, aloof and, the truth be told, I don’t recognize her anymore.”
Robin leaned forward in her chair. “Do you think she’s capable of…homicide?”
The old woman carefully measured her words. Her steely gray eyes burned through Robin as she spoke. “I do believe she killed Harry, poisoned him, and I do believe she plans the same end for me.”
After taking a moment to absorb the shock, Robin spoke. “How do you know this?”
“Because that poison was used in two of my first husband’s cases in Milwaukee, cases in which the wives killed their husbands. It’s called the Barbados nut, and grows wild in south Florida. George pointed the plant out to me years ago. The Barbados nut is a small spreadin’ shade tree about 15-feet high, which has thick branches and a sticky yellow sap. The flowers are small, greenish-yellow, and hairy. I think Monique put some of the nuts in the salad I served to Harry the morning he died.”
“Will you testify to that in a court of law?” Robin asked.
“If my daughter don’t kill me first. I watch everythin’ she gives me to eat and I test it on her beloved cat, Daisy. One of these days she’ll be dead Daisy.”
We all laughed.
“One last thing,” Robin said. “The man who supplied Monique with the poison is Ronald Hanson. It would be important to catch him in the net as well.”
“Whatever it takes,” came Ruth’s reply.
“Mother, this is my friend, Ron Hanson. He’s an attorney at La Crosse Methodist. You said you wanted to talk to us?”
As Ruth swished the cocktail in her hand, she could hear the ice cascade around the glass. She looked up at her daughter and their well-dressed visitor sitting across from her. “It’s time we had a heart-to-heart, dearie. I got to come clean on some things and thought it best that your lawyer friend be here for that.”
“Well then spit it out, Ruth. We don’t have all day,” Monique said.
Hanson leaned forward in his chair. His eyes briefly met Monique’s before settling on the old lady in front of him.
Ruth put the glass on the coaster and then leaned down and snatched a clear plastic bag off the hardwood floor. In it were numerous brown nuts, which she tossed on the ottoman between her and Monique. “I think you got some explanin’ to do, dearie.”
Monique carefully examined the contents of the bag in front of her, generating a quizzical expression while in the process. “They’re nuts. So what?”
“Suppose we feed a couple of them to Daisy and see what happens.” Ruth produced a whistling sound with her tongue, which brought the cat running. “I kept a handful of them in my pocket for the demonstration.” She reached in her pocket and pulled out six nuts. “Here, Daisy. Here, Daisy.”
Monique acted quickly and forcefully, rising and lurching towards the older woman. “Give me them or I swear, Mother, I will break your hand.”
With a flick of her wrist, Ruth threw the small brown pieces on the floor, sending them tumbling across the living room. Daisy, thinking this was a game, began pouncing on the rolling nuts one by one, quickly ingesting them. Enraged, Monique picked up the cat and, walking to the door leading to the basement, gingerly placed Daisy behind it. Closing the door, she quickly returned to the living room. Attorney Hanson watched in amusement as the events unfolded before him.
“Mother!” Monique screamed at the top of her lungs as she lunged for Ruth, fists closed.
Ronnie Hanson quickly intervened, placing himself between Ruth and the now airborne Monique. “Stop it right now. You can’t kill your mother because she poisoned your cat.”
By this time, he was holding the agitated Monique by the wrists. She was inconsolable. “You killed Daisy, you fucking bitch!”
Ruth raised her eyebrows and tilted her head sideways. “You mean those nuts were poisonous?”
Restrained by Hanson, Monique, still incensed, screamed, “You knew they were fucking poisonous…”
Hanson tried to prevent her from incriminating herself, just in case someone was eavesdropping. “Darling, shush. Don’t…”
Monique would not be silent. “Don’t shush me,” she yelled. Then she looked down at the seated Ruth. “You knew I killed Harry with those Barbados nuts. That’s why you hardly eat any food I serve you. Now you’ve destroyed the only thing I ever cared for.” She began to sob.
Ruth smiled. “Don’t worry, dearie. The cat will be fine. Those were store-bought nuts. I picked some brown ones out of the can.”
“See, Monique, no harm, no foul,” Hanson said, releasing his grip on her. “Now sit down. We need to talk sensibly about what to do with your mother.”
“That’s right, Mr. fancy lawyer,” Ruth said pointedly. “You need to get me out of the way. I got the goods on both of you. You see, I heard Monique talkin’ to you on the phone right before Harry died. I got notes to prove it.”
“Tell me what you know,” Hanson demanded. Color was rushing to his jowls.
“I know you told my daughter where to go on the internet to get the stuff. I got it all written down.”
“Is that right? Well, Ruth, I think you just outlived your usefulness.” He turned to Monique. “Grind some of those Barbados nuts up real fine, darling. We’ll make a little snack for grandma here.”
Monique jumped up wearing a big smile. “Anything you say, Ronnie.”
She hadn’t reached the kitchen when the front door came crashing down and a swat team began flooding the room. A gruff looking officer displayed identification and instructed them to get on their knees. “Ronald Hanson and Monique Riley, you’re under arrest for the murder of Harry Riley, and the attempted murder of Ruth Schultz.”
“That’s right, dearies, I was wearing a wire,” Ruth said loudly over the drone of the SWAT team officer reading the two their rights. “Your ass is grass, honey,” she said to Monique.
I was enjoying one of Christine’s high protein meals when the call came in.
“I’ll get it,” I said, picking up on the third ring. “Hello?”
“La Crosse Police,” a stern male voice on the other end of the line boomed. “Is Christine Hanson available?”
“Mom, it’s for you,” I said as I handed her the phone.
Five minutes later, Christine broke the news to Brittany and me: Dad was being arraigned tomorrow for murder and attempted murder. Mom would make an appearance at the courthouse in the morning when Dad was scheduled to appear before the judge. She suggested we all show up to demonstrate our support for him. After all, she reiterated, we were a Christian family. Christine then went on with the business of calling church members who could provide moral support, if nothing else.
I went outside to call Robin and was surprised to get voicemail. “They got ‘em,” was all I said. I sat on the front steps, looking up at the stars, rejuvenated, and feeling that a thousand pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. I took a deep breath, inhaling the air of God’s country. After a minute, I went back in the house, if nothing else to provide emotional sustenance to Christine. The rest of the night went quickly and I found myself in bed before ten. I drifted off to a sound sleep.
Somewhere in the blackness of night, I felt something cold pushing into my stomach. As I struggled to awake, the stench of stale Old Spice singed my nostrils. “Huh?” I said, still half asleep.
“Hey, Junior,” a familiar voice said. “Or is it, Harry?”
Through the darkness, I could make out the visage of Ronnie Hanson. “Hi, Dad. What’s going on?”
The face laughed. “Dad? I don’t think so. I think you’re Harry Riley. What do you say about that?
“Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said in my most innocent voice.
I felt the butt of the gun hit the side of my head. “Let’s try that again,” he responded.
Blood gushed from my temple and the room spun out of control. “That hurts,” I screamed.
Ronnie laughed. “It’ll hurt a lot more before I’m done with you. See, Monique showed me the video of you and that Robin woman in Harry Riley’s old house, trying to convince her that you were really Riley. I bet you didn’t know there was a security system installed after your untimely departure, did you?”
I moaned loudly. Blood was running down onto my pajamas.
Dad continued. “I took care of your friend, Robin Burns, tonight, too. Did her husband as well—collateral damage. And now I’m going to put you out of your misery.”
“Wait,” I screamed. “I’m innocent.”
He laughed and pointed a Glock at me. Suddenly, the light came on and the room exploded. Blood poured out of his head as he sank to the floor. Christine lowered the gun. “You don’t hurt our son, Big Ronnie,” she said.
“Mom,” I shouted.
“Let’s get you a wash cloth. You’re bleeding all over.”
Brittany appeared at the door. “Mom, the police are outside.”
Suddenly, she saw her father’s corpse on the floor, covered in blood. She began screaming uncontrollably.
Christine put the gun on my dresser and escorted Brittany out of the room. The rest of the night was a blur. I remember the police came and took Christine down to the station for questioning. Some months later, it was ruled justifiable homicide. Within the next year, Monique was convicted of murder and sentenced to prison for the rest of her life. Eventually, Christine, Brittany, and I couldn’t afford Pill Hill and found more modest-priced housing on the south side of La Crosse.
Looking back, I realize, if I missed anyone, it was my co-therapist and friend, Robin. She was the only one who knew my past and how I got here. She haunts my dreams and I often wonder where her consciousness is.
I understood now the reason I came back in this family. It was not only that Christine was my cousin but also because Big Ronnie co-conspired to kill me. In a sense, then, I was put in a position to even the score, kind of like instant karma.
For me, I guess, I got to start all over. It wasn’t half bad, either, maybe a bit more frenetic than last time. But, as they say, I know now what I knew then and, really, that’s all that matters.