Chapter One

BPOV

Classic Ivory.

That's the name of the long-worn foundation I smear on the tips of my fingers. I stare into my deep brown eyes in the mirror, losing myself in the depths of the darkness. Shaking myself out of my stupor, I rub the foundation over my cheekbones, across the bridge of my nose, then skimming my fingers across my forehead. The image staring back at me is a girl at war.

And I am.

I'm a girl at war … at war with myself.

The pastel pink lipstick is next. I dot it across my lips, being careful not to smear. Pressing a Kleenex against those lips, I feel hollow inside.

A pretty girl, people say.

She's so pretty, they murmur.

Makeup is my mask. It's a mask to cover freckles and blemishes, childhood playground scars and invisible flaws. And at the end of the day I'll wash it away, squeezing the washcloth beneath the cool water of the faucet, watching as an hour's worth of vanity circles down the drain in a swirl … a swirl of classic ivory.

If only it covered the ugliness I feel inside.

I slip on my favorite pair of low heels, the ones that rarely cause me to stumble and fall, the ones with the heel caps damaged from the wear and tear of the church's gravel parking lot.

I sip my coffee on the balcony of my home, the very same home my husband Eric built with his own hands, his own blood, sweat and tears. The sun rises and I stare into it, blinded by the orange globe bursting forth across the horizon. I stare into it until my eyes water from the pain, until the tears tickle the corner of my eyes and threaten to spill over, taking my carefully applied eyeliner and mascara with it.

Blinking rapidly I allow them to flow; tears. Tears make me feel something. The sting of pain reminds me that I'm alive.

Alive.

I grab the bottle of Jack as I leave the bedroom.

Our bedroom.

I pass the bedroom painted in blue, airplanes suspended from the ceiling. The sting is there, piercing through my heart, slicing through the hairline fractures and cracks, wedging them open with the silvery blade of memories that I choose to ignore.

The burn of liquid is a sweet relief. The cool bottle pressed to my lips brings a rare, warm comfort.

I choke it down as I wander down the stairs: the whiskey, the memories, the hurt. I smother it all in three long gulps, dropping the now empty bottle carelessly on the floor, barely aware of the cracking sound of glass as I leave my home behind.

Our home.

Yet ... it's not. It's not a home anymore.

It's not a home at all.

I step over the threshold and pull the door tightly behind me, purposely not locking the door. My neighborhood is nice; safe. There's no monsters lurking around, darting from house to house robbing, stealing, killing.

No, the true monster lives within each of us, gingerly lingering beneath surface of a well-polished exterior, shrouded behind tight smiles and polite, quietly spoken words.

We're all monsters inside. Some of us choose to disguise that monster. Some of us display it, unconcerned with hiding behind our masks of tolerance and indifference. And some of us … some of us keep him hidden, but he constantly threatens to slip through the cracks of our broken hearts.

I slip into my car, shoving my thoughts aside. I shouldn't be driving after drinking the Jack, but I console myself with the thought that it wasn't much. It was only a few swallows of whiskey. I'm not drunk.

It's a lie. I'm always drunk.

After turning the engine, I pull into reverse, my watery eyes glancing in the rearview mirror. The tires spin slightly before I slam on the brake and take a deep, shaky breath, my throat dry as I swallow. I ease down the tree-lined drive, hit the road, and stare straight ahead as the countryside blurs by in a constant smudge of vivid green, my favorite color.

The sound of a Kentucky bluegrass ballad resonates from the speakers of my car. I fumble with the buttons on my steering wheel, the sound of my ancestors' voice shattering my soul from the speakers.

I hate music.

The car goes silent as I find the proper button. The only sound is my high-dollar tires hitting the paved road.

Whomp, whomp, whomp.

It's a steady, constant rhythm, and I wonder why things just can't be quiet, why things just can't be still.

Nothing is ever still.

Things crawl around in my head, digging and scratching, refusing to be ignored. It's the monster … the monster of thought: the monster of the past, present, and future.

"What future?" I laugh, the sound escaping as a bitter, cynical chuckle.

I see the church ahead, pristine white with a pale baby-blue tin roof. It stands out majestically against the glowing green Kentucky foothills, but it's just an illusion. It's something pretty to look at from afar. It's me, pretty on the outside, but full of demons and monsters, and if the horde of evil beings have a chairperson that person would be my mother.

Renee Swan.

I bite the insides of my mouth as I pull into the parking lot, parking the silver Caddy at an exaggerated slow pace. Renee's Mercedes is nowhere to be found and I close my eyes. Taking a deep breath, I silently thank the Lord for whatever event has hindered my mother's arrival at church, because I hate her.

I hate her, but no more than she already hates me.

I sit on the church pew, careful to not let my dress slide from one shoulder. It's the shoulder that holds my heart, his heart, the heart tattoo with a name and a date that I wear in memory of him, my child, my precious baby. I can only imagine the whispers and stares of the elderly ladies sitting behind me if they catch a glimpse of that tattoo. I'd be an abomination, destroying this temple of a body that the Lord died for.

If only they knew … if only they knew that I destroy it slowly, day by day, and I don't care, because I'm no longer living for myself.

I'm no longer living at all. I'm existing, just mass of bones, tissue, and organs, all twisted and jumbled up inside with empty thoughts and feelings.

Just existing.

I know the exact moment my mother enters the church building.

She's perfume and prose, neutral stockings, leather heels, and a rustle of a church program atop a well-worn family bible. The smile she wears is kind. It's completely fake, but kind, nonetheless. I immediately feel my haunches tense, as though I'm junkyard dog preparing for a fight, and maybe I am. If I'm a junkyard dog living off scraps and sleeping in broken-down cars, she's a poodle resting on a million dollar pillow, with a gold leash, and painted nails.

My father follows sheepishly behind her and her six-hundred dollar dress. His smile is bright, like the sun. Renee is a mottled cloud that he peeks at me from behind. I shoot him a tight smile in return. It's practiced. Comfortable, yet not. Maybe familiar would be the better term.

There is nothing fake about my father. He's a genuinely good man from his head down to his boots. After all these years you'd think he would have rubbed off on her.

You'd think.

"Your dress is wrinkled, you smell like booze, and for the love of God, go fix your face."

She says all this between clenched teeth, her thin red lips spread open wide to reveal perfectly white teeth as she smiles demurely and waves at the preacher.

Glancing down at my dress I see what she sees. There's wrinkles, a result of shoving clothes erringly from the dryer and directly into a laundry basket as I load the dryer once more. Those clothes may sit there for days, wadded up in the basket before I remove them, toss them in the dryer with a wet rag, and carelessly turn on the dial. The wrinkles loosen and some may fade, yet they never fully go away.

Nothing ever fully goes away.

"It does it you work at it, my dear."

My father's steely gray eyes stare back at my surprised ones as I realize I've muttered my last thought aloud. Those eyes are lined with age and wisdom, and I know I should heed his advice, in all aspects of my life.

I just don't have the will to do much of anything anymore.

"You're a mess."

She's right.

The reflection in the church restroom is a girl with mussed mousy-brown hair, wide brown eyes edged in red, and mascara stains smeared near the corners.

I yank a few brown paper towels from the dispenser perched on the wall, wad them up, and hold them under the faucet. The water is cool on my face as I wipe the dark residue away, and I take a moment to relish it, the coolness of it all.

It feels nice.

I toss the now useless paper towels in the nearby garage can, stumble a bit on my favorite heels, close my eyes, and take a ragged breath. Forcing myself into a more sober state would be helpful, yet impossible. Still, I close my eyes for a moment to gather my jumbled thoughts, then return to the pew. I cringe at the massive exasperated sigh my mother releases as she's forced to tuck her legs to the side to allow me to ease on by.

Instead of paying attention to the minister during services I focus on her, almost always on her. My mind travels back through the years to the times when I struggled to please her, wanting nothing but her love, wishing for her affection, yet never receiving it.

I'm a failure to her. I'll never be him.

I'll never be Jasper.

My little brother's absence is something ignored by my parents, although if I were absent my mother would be sure to call me immediately after church services to bawl me out. With Jasper … well, let's just say this is expected.

He's always been the golden child, the boy with a wide smile and laughing eyes. He shoves the dreary aside with ease, and is always the life of the party. I longed to be him for so many years, yet didn't want to be anything like him at all. He hides his demons in his own ways, choosing laughter and smirks where I choose solitude and booze.

I guess the laughter is more acceptable than the tears … the emptiness, the inability to mesh with the rest of society.

I'm not sure how he does it, smile that is. It physically hurts when I do it, the falseness of it all.

Jasper's an illusion of happiness when there is none.

People linger around as church services end. The ladies quietly laugh and smile at one another, chatting about their children and grandchildren. My mother stands beside one group bearing a tight smile. I wonder if she feels as out-of-place as I do in that moment.

Does she feels the never-ending void of those who have left us, the absence of their presence still startling from time to time, as though they just perished that very morning, as though they could still walk through the doors at any moment?

"Isabella," a warm voice speaks, startling me from my thoughts. "Did you enjoy the sermon?"

Reverend Cheney, our long-time minister, stands before me. His once ebony hair is now peppered with age, the gray strands of wisdom striking against his glossy dark hair.

I bite my lip, not wanting to lie in the Lord's church. She still lingers somewhere in there, somewhere deep inside … the girl I once was, the girl who could once quote passage after passage from the bible. And I can't find it in me to lie to this man.

So I don't.

"I'm sorry," I whisper, and I need to give no explanation.

His warm eyes know that I wasn't there, that this isn't me, but a shell of me, of the person who no longer exists.

"Reverend," my mother coos, grasping his hands in hers. "What a wonderful sermon! We thoroughly enjoyed it."

"I'm so happy to hear that, Renee," he responds, shooting me a secret wink as my mother shoots me a pensive smile. "Especially since I wish to personally ask your daughter to join the ladies ministry program I spoke of at the end of service."

My mother's face grows pale. Her lips turn white. It's the most emotion besides anger that I've seen from my mother in ages. For the first time in months something has sparked my interest. I give Reverend Cheney my full attention, raising one eyebrow in question.

"Ministry program?"

"Yes," he smiles. "Ministering to the local inmates at the county jail."

"Reverend, I hardly think a young lady such as my daughter has any business spending time in the … penitentiary," my mother laughs, the sound pained and tight. "No offense, of course. Would you allow your daughter, Angela, to spend her free time among a bunch of … hardened criminals?"

"No offense taken," the older man responds smoothly, a playful smirk pulling at his lips. "The county jail is hardly a 'penitentiary,' Renee. Isabella would never be in danger of any harm. There will be an officer present during each visit. It will be one-on-one counseling with each inmate. The inmates she will minister to are there for petty crimes. Misdemeanors. Nothing like murder or rape."

My mother winces as his casual use of the words 'murder' and 'rape,' her already pale face blanching even more.

"And, to answer your question, yes. I am 'allowing' Angela to minister to the inmates, although I like to think she's old enough to make her own decisions regarding things of this nature. She is twenty-six years old, after all … the same age as Isabella, no?"

My mother says nothing, choosing to give him a fake smile, her thin lips immediately falling into one hard line the second his eyes leave her face.

"You'll start tomorrow afternoon at three o'clock," the minister instructs me with a gentle smile, handing me a stack of papers and ignoring my open, silently protesting mouth. "Don't be late. The inmates get a little cranky concerning tardiness."

My mother gasps at his words as he gives a joyful chuckle, muttering beneath his breath how people can never take a joke. Her cold eyes meet mine. They narrow and bore into my soul. She says everything without uttering one single word.

You will not attend this ministry service.

You will find an excuse to back out.

She storms past me in a cloud of perfume and the sound of satiny hose squeaking against her thighs. I gaze down at the pamphlets in my hands, reading the words inked across the stark white paper.

"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you."

Clutching the paper tightly between my fingers, I glance above the baptistery, at the crucifix etched above the pool of water. For the first time in God-knows-when I feel a flutter of something akin to excitement creep into my bones. Was this is? Was this a sign from God? A message from my son or my husband, to ... forgive? Isn't forgiveness the key to forging on in life?

Slipping the pamphlets between the pages of my Bible I'm enthralled, filled with the possibility of moving forward, of doing something for myself for once, anxiously looking forward to something besides the bottom of a bottle of whiskey.

I'm anxious for tomorrow.


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