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Tammy climbed three flights of stairs. Her breath hitched as soon as she spied her apartment door.
In snakeskin stilettos, she tippy-toed down the stained blue carpeted hallway. The place reeked of industrial disinfectant. As she stepped into the vast emptiness of her home for the last seven months, she screamed. “Help! Fire! Fire!” There wasn’t a fire, but that always elicited quicker responses than Help! Police!
Nobody came. She blazed a trail through the apartment, checking every room and closet. Her possessions were all gone. Nothing remained but pink shower curtain rings dangling in the bathroom and a few shards of her Manhattan skyline mural clinging to the living room wall.
She sprinted down the stairs two at a time while groping the cold metal railing. She had a flashback of running down Beverly Boulevard in pumps and a thong tankini, but this was no publicity shoot for the gym.
Like the Bionic Woman, Tammy ran across the parking lot and stormed into the rental office. A couple sitting at the manager’s desk twisted around to look at her. The husband smiled, ogling her sculpted mocha thighs exposed up to there in a short white skirt. The wife glared at him.
“Where are my belongings?” Tammy demanded.
The manager said, “Excuse me one moment,” to the couple.
He slipped his fingers through his greasy gray hair as he scurried around the desk and motioned for Tammy to join him near the restroom. In a hushed tone he said, “Ms. Payne, you were evicted.”
“When? Why? How dare you!” She threw her arms up in the mildewy office air and then sliced through it with fists dropping at her sides.
The manager stepped back.
“My brother is Judge Perry Payne and you’ll be sorry—”
“You were given the required notice. You know there is no grace period here at Arundel Forrest.” He shot an eye over his shoulder and spoke up. “We are the most sought after luxury apartment community in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. You knew that when you signed your lease. There is no grace period. You failed to pay your rent. Our collections department set the wheels in motion.”
“What? My rent gets paid automatically by my—my money manager. Check your banking records. You lying little insignificant power tripping nobody.”
Tammy placed her hand on her cleavage, trying to keep her runaway heartbeat under her skin. She remembered an official looking letter from the Sheriff’s office that she chose not to open, thinking it contained a summons for parking tickets. Her rent was automatically deducted from her father’s checking account... Oh-Donna! When Daddy died, she became executrix of his estate. She must have cut me off! I’m gonna kill that sissy-girl!
Tammy clenched her fists and stamped her feet. Her blistered right pinky toe rubbed sorely inside the shoe. “There has been a terrible mistake. I’ll write you a check.” She sifted through her Kate Spade bag.
The manager said, “We have no vacancies.”
“Nobody is in my apartment. It’s empty. And I want reimbursement for my Manhattan mural. No. I want you to find another one and have it hung at your expense. And I expect my personal property—”
“Your apartment has been rented to another tenant. We have no vacancies. Ms. Payne, you no longer live here.”
“Well I’ve never been so insulted in my life. Just wait until my brother the judge hears about this!” Tammy flipped open her cell phone. The battery was dead. “And I want my belongings right now!”
“The sheriff’s department hauled everything to the curb. What the other tenants didn’t want was slam dunked into the dumpster.”
Tammy huffed out of the office and was smacked in the face with the Maryland August humidity. Scanning the parking lot, she drew in a deep breath. Good. At least my car is still here. She dug her keys out of her purse and clicked the door open on her teal Thunderbird. Grabbing the top frame of the door, Tammy stared at the dumpster across the lot.
She swallowed the wad of humiliation in her throat, threw her head back and marched up the wooden ramp. Her nose wiggled at the ode de diapers. She clapped one hand across her mouth and nose. Tammy swatted at a yellow jacket as she peeked over the top of the green metal Mecca of waste. Broken terra cotta pots, burst open plastic trash bags oozing out coffee filters and apple cores and somebody’s old webbed aluminum chaise lay scattered on the bottom.
Tammy fought back tears at the realization the dumpster had recently been emptied. She raced back to her car, climbed inside and slammed the door on her ebony pony tail. “Ouch!” She opened it up, pulled her hair in and shut it. After engaging the locks, Tammy shoved the key in the ignition and cranked it. Good. It started.
Tammy pounded on the front door of her sister Donna’s Virginia townhouse. Her pink manicure reflected back from the clean etched glass. A hulking monster of a dog placed two paws on the other side of the door. Tammy stumbled backwards and grabbed the wrought iron railing. The canine emitted only a pitiful whimper.
Maybe Oh-Donna’s in the shower. The sky began to spit on Tammy. She descended the twelve brown brick steps and marched around the matching path to the rear of her sister’s end unit townhouse. She opened the gate on the six foot tall privacy fence. The first five feet of it was board on board, the top foot was lattice. After latching the gate, she dashed under the deck.
Tammy tried the French doors in the basement. They were unlocked. She stomped in and slammed the door behind her. Immediately turning her nose up at the overdone red walls and carpet, she hurried across a room filled with guitars, a piano, harmonicas, violins and recording equipment. Tammy took the stairs two at a time. Reaching the top, she flung open a white steel door and was greeted by Scooby Doo-ette. “Hi girl, remember me? How are you, Sugar?”
Something wasn’t right.
The dog was nearly emaciated. Her ribs were showing and she wasn’t her boisterous self.
“Eew! What’s that smell?” The kitchen reeked of urine and there were three piles of poop on the hardwood floor.
“You poor thing! Oh-Donna went away and forgot about you.” Tammy unlocked the French Doors in the kitchen. The dog bolted out onto the deck. She filled her water bowl and then scooped three cups of kibbles into the chrome food dish. The whimpering dog slumped on the pressure treated wood deck, surrounded by terra cotta pots of wilted flowers. Tammy let her back in. The Great Dane immediately chomped down the food and lapped up the water.
The stench in the kitchen gagged her. Tammy opened the cabinet under the kitchen sink and dug out a trash bag, disinfectant and yellow rubber gloves. Yanking seven paper towels off the roll on the pistol-gray granite counter, Tammy went to work cleaning the mess, all the while mumbling, “Oh-Donna you good for nothing bitch. How could you do this to a poor defenseless doggie?” Tammy breathed through her mouth, trying desperately not to inhale. “And how could you be so cruel as to cut me off from Daddy’s money?” A tear rolled down her cheek. “How could you? You’ll pay for this little sister of mine.”
Tammy placed the smelly bag out on the deck and then shoved the cleaning supplies back under the sink.
The air conditioning kicked on. A cold shiver raced up her spine. “Where is the thermostat Scooby Doo-ette? Hunh girl?” The dog brushed up against her silk-stockinged leg and licked her throat. She petted the Great Dane. The pair headed down the hallway, in search of the thermostat.
Tammy stopped in front of the living room, where she glimpsed her sister lying on the sofa.
The dog cried and licked Tammy’s hand.
“Ohmagod, she’s dead!” Hey, wait a minute, if Oh-Donna is dead, then that means she can’t be executrix of Daddy’s will and so I can get put back on the dole and hey, wait a minute. She’s an old spinster, so I logically will inherit her estate as well...
Tammy sighed. Oh, I’ll probably have to split it with Perry. But at least I’ll get a nice chunk of change.
She looked the corpse over. Her sister lay in the fetal position, with a smile curling the corner of her pale lips. What an angelic porcelain face. Even now, a twinge of jealousy swirled. Oh-Donna was blessed with naturally wavy blonde hair and flawless Caucasian skin. Tammy never did feel like they were real sisters. Even though the Payne’s adopted Tammy as a baby, she never warmed up to their natural daughter, Oh-Donna. But Tammy did feel an allegiance to their son Perry. They were more alike.
Tammy stepped closer, stumbling over the clumsy dog. Oh for the love of Prada, her tummy is moving up and down with her breathing. There goes my plan. “Wake up Oh-Donna.”
She didn’t move. Tammy shook her arm. “Wake up! Now! Get up Oh-Donna.”
Tammy remembered Farts (their late father’s proctologist friend) telling her and Perry that Oh-Donna had a brain disorder which caused her to fall asleep at weird times. She recollected discovering her sleeping in the walk-in closet under the stairs at their parents’ house and then she’d fainted in front of her moments later.
Tammy hugged her chilled arms, wishing the damned air conditioner would shut off. “Wake up Oh-Donna. Wake the frick up, you brain damaged witch. Wake up sissy-girl.”
Her sister didn’t respond. It was as though she was in a coma...
“Ohmagod. Oh-Donna is in a coma! I’m so sorry sweetie! You poor thing. That’s why the dog was starved and crapped in the house. How long have you been like this?”
Tammy snatched the cordless phone from the end table and punched in her brother’s cell phone number.
“Judge Payne here.”
“Perry! Oh-Donna’s in a coma! And the dog pooped all over the house and she’s gonna die and that bitch cut me off, I’ve been evicted—”
“What? Slow down. Oh-Donna’s in a coma? Where are you?”
“I’m at her house. I can’t wake her up.”
“Hang up and call nine-one-one.”
Tammy breathlessly squealed, “I don’t have time to look up the number for nine-one-one. What if she dies?” Sweet Jesus forgive me for my earlier thoughts. I didn’t mean them. Honest I didn’t. Her stomach churned. I’m gonna go to Hell for my thoughts. Tears deposited mascara in her eyes. She closed them tightly.
Perry barked, “Call an ambulance. The number for nine-one-one is nine-one-one Goddamit! I’ll be over as soon as I can. Call me and tell me what hospital they’re taking her to.” He hung up.
Tammy conjured up the last time her sister fainted, she’d thrown a glass of water in her face and she woke up. “Water!” She sprinted to the kitchen and picked up the dog’s water bowl. She filled it and jogged down the hallway, sloshing a trail behind her. The Great Dane lapped it off the hardwood floor. In the foyer, Tammy tripped on the edge of a sisal area rug and emptied the bowl onto her designer suit. “Darn you Oh-Donna!” Her scream pierced so loudly the dog skedaddled upstairs.
“Oh...” Her sister groaned.
Tammy dropped the chrome bowl and scrambled to her side. She picked up her arm, pumping it up and down, slapping her hand. “Oh-Donna, wake up Oh-Donna!”
Her sister murmured, “No...! No...! Not the Donna song...” Her smile morphed into a scowl.
Tammy slapped her sister’s face with both hands. “Wake up Oh-Donna. Now!”
“No. No. Go back. Ash...ley...”
The damned Donna song. Why did Ritchie Valens have to write a song with my name in it? Oh-Donna. That’s my miserable nickname. They always use it to pull me outta my happily ever after. I hate belonging to the Payne family. Ashley, promise you’ll be waiting for me when I come back? Don’t forget to send some music to pull me back to you. Keep Make Believe Island just for us, will ya lover boy?
My stomach burned with sourness rising up into indigestion. When I breathed in Bellissimo, Tammy’s perfume, I quoted a famous bear, “Oh bother!” and opened my eyes. There she was.
Tammy screeched, “Good! You’re back with us. Don’t do that to me again Oh-Donna. You scared me to death.”
I focused on my stereo system across the room. The amber clock blinked and winked. My song wasn’t playing. I’d set Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” on repeat and was pulled into the best dream ever. Ashley and I had been consummating our love. That secret agent man freed my soul and beckoned me to the passageway of erotic delight.
Darn it. What had happened to the music that transported me to him this time? I groaned, “Did the power go out?”
The pitter-patter of four enormous paws announced the dog’s eminent return.
Tammy replied, “What? No. Well, I dunno, maybe. How long have you been sleeping? You ought to be ashamed of yourself. I shoveled out wall to wall poop in the kitchen. And scrubbed the nasty dried pee residue. Look at your poor dog. She’s starving.”
I felt her thick tongue licking my bare feet. Plenty of slobber. “Norma Jean” I said, weakly. I swung my legs off the sofa and thumped onto the floor, hitting my head on the glass topped coffee table. “Oww!”
I pushed myself up, shaky on my hands and knees. I tried to stand again.
Tammy gently helped me to my feet. “I’m sorry, Sis. You really are sick. I’ll make you some food. Sit back down.”
“No. Bathroom. Quick.”
Tammy got me there, just in time. She even helped me onto the seat and then she closed the door. That was scary. Tammy helping me.
“I’ll be right outside if you need me, Sis.”
I did what needed to be done and washed my hands. Oh did I look horrible in the oval mirror. I ran a brush through my tangled hair and washed my face with some liquid hand soap. When I flung open the door, my sister helped me stumble to the kitchen. I plopped down in a chair.
The grinder moaned as she dispensed crushed ice and then some water into a glass. She handed it to me.
I gulped it down and wiped my cracked lips with the back of my trembling hand. She refilled the cup. I shivered.
Tammy asked, “Where’s the thermostat?”
“The thermostat. I feel like Lucy Ricardo in the meat locker. It’s cold and raining outside. The air conditioner shouldn’t be set so low.”
“By the front door. Push the warmer button. Until you hit seventy-two.”
Tammy wiggled off on her mission.
Norma Jean laid on my feet. Her warm bony body felt comforting. I stroked her head with the tips of my fingers. “Oh poor girl. I’m so sorry you didn’t get to eat for...Tammy what’s today?”
My sister returned. “Monday.”
“Wait a minute. I paid the bills this morning. She couldn’t have pooped that much and lost weight in a few hours.” My head hurt. “Hey, you and Perry were leaving to go look for Momma today. I saw you.”
“You did not. And that was last Monday.”
We both gasped.
Tammy flipped a grilled cheese sandwich she was melting in a small skillet. She served it on one of my palm tree motif plates, with a dill pickle.
“I’m on a low carb diet. I can’t eat the bread.”
“Oh-Donna, you haven’t eaten in a week. And you’re not fat. Eat!”
“Cut it in half for me. Diagonally?” I gazed up at her pitifully.
She grabbed a steak knife from the block near the stove and slit the gooey sandwich.
I took a bite, huffing on the hotness, rolling it around on my tongue.
Norma Jean hurtled to the door, barking. The door bell chimed “Aura Lee”. I didn’t want any more company. Tammy sashayed down the hallway. I could see her open the door.
I chewed and swallowed. It tasted so good and creamy. It’d been so long since I’d eaten bread. Even this old stuff she’d found in the freezer tasted so buttery and comforting. And the gooey Swiss cheese was so yummy.
My stomach reeled taking in the residual doggy potty scent. The citrus disinfectant didn’t quite kill the odor. It stunk as if there was still a fresh pile. I leaned down and looked under the table. No wonder.
I overheard hushed whispers.
“We’ve got to do something about her. Have her institutionalized or something, Perry. You can sign a court order, like you did with Mom.”
“How bad is she? Crazy? Dying? Sick?”
“Yeah, yeah yeah. I feel sorry for her though. I mean, what a way to go, losing her mind and all. She was mumbling when I woke her up. It was as if she didn’t want to come back, she wanted to die.”
I sat up. The third bite of the sandwich did it. I was full. And angry. I light-headedly rushed down the hall, smack into my seven feet tall and seemingly seven feet wide fifty year old half-brother, with a shaved head. Perry was wearing his usual emergency visitation garb: his black judge’s robe. He was always such a show off, running around in it. Couldn’t he see how silly he looked out of the court room?
Perry steadied me. “How are you feeling Oh-Donna?”
“Like throwing the two of you out. How dare you come to my home, uninvited and unannounced and then talk about me like I’m retarded and can’t understand your evil hurtful words?” I cried.
Perry escorted me to my living room sofa. I didn’t have much of a choice but to comply, because of his size and my shaky state.
I said, “No! In the recliner.”
At least I’d be able to get myself up easier from the chair.
My half-brother squatted at my side. He brushed a stray curl from my eyes. “Oh-Donna. You have a brain injury. Remember when you collapsed at work and they rushed you to the hospital? The neurologist said it likely happened when you totaled your Suburban, after hitting the deer. Remember?”
Oh yeah, I remembered. I was moments from leaving home, to catch a flight to New York for the writers’ conference. I was up for an award and I had been assigned an eight minute appointment with the acquisitions editor of Charlatan Press. But Daddy telephoned me and said Momma was trying to kill him. He was a pathological liar. I’d only figured this out two years ago. My whole life had been smoke and mirrors, all orchestrated by the great puppeteer, Dr. Nathan Payne.
But my conscience made me check it out. I was driving to my parents’ house when Daddy called again, on my cell phone. I knew it was him because the distinctive ring tone I’d set for him was “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” I couldn’t unhook it from my belt. I remember the deer smashing through the windshield and pinning my shoulder with his antler. Then I woke up in the hospital.
I shuddered. “Yeah, I remember.”
“They wanted to run more tests and keep you under observation. You ran off against medical advice.”
“So your little narcoleptic-like incidents are getting worse. You need to get some medical help. Maybe a nice long rest away from all the stress you’ve been under, I know it was tough on you—” He cleared his throat, “When Dad died. You were his favorite and all.”
I was his favorite. Oh yeah, right. That’s why he named me executrix, but willed everything to you and Tammy. Greedy needy children that you are. That was in the will Perry produced. Roderick Meddlestein, Esquire, my parent’s across-the-street neighbor for thirty years, later revealed daddy had retained him to draw up a more recent will, leaving everything to Momma.
Perry stood up and said, “I’ll call Saint Christopher’s. They have a nice unit—”
I flipped him the bird. Poked him in his big floppy belly. “You sonofabitch, Perry Lucifer Payne! You’re trying to have me committed like you did Momma, so you can sell my house and things and split the money with Tammy and laugh all the way to Hell. That’s where you are both going. Go now! Get outta my house! You go to Hell! You couldn’t keep Momma in the nut house and you won’t stash me there either! I’ll go to Momma. You’ll never find us.”
Tammy said, “So you do know where Mom is. You sent us on that wild goose chase to Palm Springs on purpose, didn’t you?”
The phone rang. Tammy answered. She handed it to me. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I sniffled and said, “Hello.”
“Donna? This is Mike Taurus...your mother’s friend...”
Something in his voice didn’t sound right.
“Yes Mike. How are you?”
I cleared my throat as I listened to him exhale.
“You’re mother died in her sleep this morning.”
I threw my head back onto the firm gold recliner. “No.” I choked out. “Are you sure?” What a stupid question. If he weren’t sure, he wouldn’t have called me.
“Yes sweetheart. She’s in a better place now.”
I swallowed hard. “I’ll fly down right away. Give me directions to the island.”
“Just go to the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Call me when you arrive and I’ll come and get you. Tell the concierge you’re my— You’re Chloe’s daughter. They’ll take care of you.”
The historic Fontainebleau. Where old Mike works as a bell hop. Love the place.
Mike coughed. “She wanted to be buried next to her babies. Is that all right with you?”
I closed my eyes. Remembering talking to Momma on the island, by the graves of her stillborn twins. “Of course. Yes. Yes.”
“I’ll see you some time tonight or tomorrow then?”
“Yes.” I clicked the off button.
Tammy asked, “Just where do you think you’re going? Have a date with a Starbucks barista? Can he hop you up on caffeine long enough to stay awake during dinner and dancing?”
I closed my eyes tight and then broke into a breathless round of tears. Oh it hurt. My whole body hurt. My soul hurt. The little girl in me was dying.
I finally blurted out “Momma died. Momma is dead. I’m an orphan.”
Tammy and Perry shot looks at one another.