Tess's Tale by Donna Joy Usher by Donna Joy Usher - Read Online

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Tess's Tale - Donna Joy Usher

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Tale.

1

Freedom

All eyes were on me. I shifted uncomfortably and glanced around the room. Bodies still littered the floor. FBI agents still lounged against the walls.

‘What happened that night?’ Chanel’s voice had taken on the whine of a teenager not getting her own way. It was a tone I knew too well. She had whined a lot throughout her teenage years.

‘There’s not really much to tell.’

She raised her eyebrows, her normally pretty mouth pressed into a thin, tight line. She had me cornered and she wasn’t going to let me go.

I looked over at the agents again. One of them looked familiar. I stared at his face. Where had I seen him before?

‘Mum.’ If her voice were a whip, it would have been cracking.

I met his eyes and he cocked his head to the side as if trying to work out what I was thinking. Ruggedly handsome. A body that made me want to play Twister with him. Hmmmm, strange. He wasn’t wearing one of the FBI agent vests. I’d definitely seen him somewhere before.

‘Mum.’ Chanel tugged on my hand to get my attention.

Recognition snapped into place. ‘Ah hah.’ I pointed at him. ‘You’re ‘The King’.’

The confidence on his face departed leaving Mr Embarrassment in residence. ‘That was a while ago.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Chanel looked between him and me. ‘King of what?’

‘Oh. My. God. It’s Matt King.’ Martine jumped up and down on her wedge sneakers. ‘He used to do the traffic report for Sunshine Radio.’ She turned from Chanel back to him. ‘I loved you. We all loved you. Why did you stop?’

Billy let out a chuckle as Matt shifted uneasily and said, ‘It was just the traffic report.’

‘Yes, but it was the way you did it.’ Martine sighed, no doubt remembering billboards of Matt hanging from a helicopter, his hair blowing wildly, his biceps bulging.

Well, that’s what I was picturing anyway. ‘Matt this is Chanel,’ I said. ‘She’s single.’

‘Muuuum.’ Chanel put her hands over her face.

‘Matt’s engaged,’ Billy said. ‘And leaving.’ He shoved Matt toward the front door. Seemed he was going to be one of those guys who didn’t like his mates dating his sister.

‘That’s it,’ Chanel hissed. ‘You’ve humiliated me enough for one night. It’s time for you to start talking.’

I sighed. How to start? How to let go of a secret I had guarded for 25 years?

I guess the only way was to start at the beginning.

‘Perhaps we should take this somewhere more comfortable.’ I looked at the FBI agents and then back at her. There were things I preferred they didn’t hear.

She nodded her head, thankfully getting my not-so-subtle hint. I love my daughter with my whole heart, but sometimes she’s not the cleverest puppy in the park.

‘Fine,’ she growled, ‘let’s go back to the hotel. But don’t for one second think you’re getting out of this.’

‘Don’t want to throw a spanner in the works but we need to get your statements first.’ Billy still had a shocked look on his face. It’s not every day that you find out that the girl whose pants you’d been planning to get into, is your half-sister.

That accounted for Chanel’s bad mood as well. I’d never met a girl with such bad luck in her choice of men. I was hoping that once they’d gotten over the initial shock, they’d enjoy having a sibling. Not that I ever had.

The sun had risen by the time the FBI had finished with Trent and me. They warned us that there would be more questions to come and not to leave the hotel. I wandered over to where Martine stood. She was staring at Chanel and Billy, a look of pity dancing over her handsome face.

Chanel and Billy stood facing each other, but they both stared at the tips of their shoes.

‘So,’ Billy cleared his throat, ‘guess I’ll be seeing you, Sis.’ He said the last word as if trying it on for size and finding it didn’t fit.

‘Yep.’ Chanel punched him on the arm. ‘See ya, Bro.’

I winced. Awkward didn’t even start to capture the atmosphere between the two of them. Looked like it was going to take a while before they got the hang of the whole brother/sister thing.

Chanel turned away first, but as she did she glanced up at Billy, staring at him through her lashes.

My breath caught in my throat. Raw longing, shadowed with sorrow, etched her features. He met her gaze, lifting a hand toward her before letting it drop back to his side. Her beautiful, green eyes swam with unshed tears.

‘Oh no,’ I said, looking up at Trent. This was far worse than I had thought. Things had progressed beyond a mere crush for both of them. I felt a flash of guilt for my earlier behaviour. No wonder she was so shitty with me.

Trent ran his thumb over the back of my hand and a shiver ran down my spine. I had waited a long time to risk a relationship. He had been well worth that wait – the things that man could do with his hands.

Chanel nodded her head once, as if answering an unspoken question, and then turned away from Billy. She dashed her arm across her eyes as she walked towards us. I held out a hand to her, but it was Harry that got there first. He wrapped a comforting arm around her and pulled her in beside him.

Harry. Oh God, Harry. He was still so handsome, so virile. Emotions I had suppressed for years struggled to break free. I wrestled with them until I had them under control and then I stuffed them back in their box.

Two black SUVs waited to drive us back to the hotel. Trent and I climbed into the back of one, and Martine joined Chanel and Harry in the other. We backed out onto the side street and turned right onto the Boulevard heading for our hotel.

‘How bad is it?’ Trent asked.

I glanced over at him, wondering if he would still be my boyfriend when I had finished my story. ‘Pretty bad.’

He nodded once and then squeezed my hand. ‘Oh well, you know what they say?’

‘That the food in prison isn’t that bad?’

He barked out a laugh. ‘No. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’

I let out the breath I didn’t realise I had been holding and squeezed his hand back. It looked like things might work out after all.

***

As soon as the door to our hotel room had closed Chanel rounded on me. Her eyes were red and blotchy and I was guessing their ride back had involved a few more tears than Trent and mine had.

‘Okay, spill.’ She plonked herself down on the couch and tucked her feet up under her.

‘Anyone for room service,’ I said, partly because I was starving but mostly so I could see the look on her face.

It hardened to the point of shattering and Martine reached out and patted her on the back. Finally, her shoulders slumped. ‘I am pretty hungry,’ she admitted.

‘Excellent.’ Trent rubbed his hands together. ‘Room service.’

‘Fine.’ Chanel stuck out her bottom lip. ‘But I want the pancakes. With bacon, and banana. Oh and some ice-cream.’

‘’At a girl,’ Harry said, sitting on the couch beside her.

Once Trent had placed the order and everybody had found somewhere to sit, Chanel turned her attention back to me. ‘Mother,’ she said in a voice I was guessing she normally reserved for hardened criminals.

‘After we eat,’ I said. Once I started I didn’t want any interruptions. This was going to be hard enough as it was.

Chanel was silent until after the food had arrived and she had eaten her pancakes and ice-cream. To give her due credit, she waited until I had finished my omelette before she turned her steely gaze my way again.

‘Oh fine,’ I said. I leaned back onto the couch and closed my eyes. That night. It seemed so long ago. Like a movie I had watched rather than something I had experienced. But to explain what had happened, I had to go back further than just that night. Way back. Back before I met Harry. Back before my twin, Hillary, and I had started hating each other. Back to my childhood…

***

My mother crying. That’s my earliest memory. Soft sobs interspersed with whimpers. And then there were the strange men that came and went at all hours of the night and the weird noises that accompanied their presence in my mother’s bedroom.

One man in particular, hung around the house like the bad smell that clung to him.

Uncle Lou. It wasn’t till I was much older that I knew him by his street name. Lou the Brain.

Lou ran the books for the Mob. Two sets – those fit for viewing by the Internal Revenue auditors and the real ones. He was also responsible for the beatings that made my mother cry.

Hillary and I had polar opposite reactions to his presence. While I skulked in my bedroom avoiding him, she sat on his knee, sucking the lollies he gave her. While I hated our ‘Uncle Lou’, she adored him.

As time went by, Lou the Brain became a permanent fixture in our household and the strange men stopped coming.

I guess I should have been happy about that. But it’s hard to be happy while witnessing the beatings Lou gave our mother. Maybe this makes me a bad person, but I would have preferred she carried on being a prostitute, than become Lou’s woman.

As we got older, other differences between Hillary and me became evident. And I don’t mean our looks. The Billiton twins, who were also identical, developed differentiating features as they grew up, but Hillary and I didn’t. And while our personalities were dramatically different, our tastes were exactly the same. It wasn’t unusual for us to come out of our bedrooms dressed in the same clothes and sporting the same hairstyle.

Apart from the difference in how we felt about Lou, Hillary and I also reacted quite differently to what was going on right under our noses. She became quite popular with the boys. I didn’t. I figured if what Mom had was as good as it got, then I didn’t want it.

Over the years, things in our household settled into a macabre pattern. Lou came home from work. Mom cooked dinner. Lou started drinking and then a couple of hours later he would pick a fight with Mom. It didn’t leave much time to develop a mother/daughter bond with her. I’m sure she loved me, but between the beatings and the fights, she was too exhausted to show it.

Things changed the day I caught Lou watching me get dressed. I was sure I had closed my door. I was pretty careful about that sort of thing. But I glanced into the mirror as I did my bra up and there he was. The look on his face was an ominous foretelling of things to come.

That was the day I left home.

I closed the door in his face and packed my bag. Mom was sitting in the kitchen nursing a cup of tea and a black eye. She didn’t try to stop me. I was guessing she knew. Instead she pressed a piece of paper into my hand. ‘Go to Felicity,’ she said. ‘She’ll look after you.’

As I left the house, a sense of freedom flowed over me. All of a sudden the world had possibilities it had lacked just moments before. I was sixteen, and homeless, but I was the happiest I had ever been.

The address Mom gave me took me to the heart of Las Vegas. I double-checked it before entering the worn-looking building. A club? Why would Mom have sent me to a club?

‘Helloooo.’ Even to my ears my voice sounded scared. ‘Is anybody there?’

I ventured further into ‘Vegas Ladies’, my shoes echoing hollowly on the wooden floors. ‘Hello?’ I stopped when I reached the end of the foyer. Here the wooden floors ended and thick carpet took over. It would have been plush in its day, but now a path was worn into the soft fibres.

The path wound around scattered tables to a long, wooden bar. Countless velvet-backed chairs nestled around the tables, organised so that the patrons would have views of a stage. The room was empty and still, as if holding its breath while it waited for someone to step onto that stage and sing.

‘Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t throw your skinny ass back out into the street?’

I let out a gasp as I spun around. The woman dominated the room. It wasn’t so much that she towered over me, or that her voluptuous body filled her flowing garments. It was her presence. A dominant life force emanated from her. I didn’t know whether to run to her, or from her.

‘I … I….’

‘Well, spit it out girl.’ Her voice was low and gravelly.

‘I’m looking for Felicity.’

She tilted her head to the side as she examined me with eyes made bluer by the thick line of eyeliner that ringed them. ‘And what do you want with Madam Liss?’

Madam Liss? ‘Mom told me she’d look after me.’

I stepped back into a chair as she strode towards me. She grasped my chin with one hand, the nails scraping my skin as she turned my head from side-to-side. Finally, she let out a hmmphff and said, ’Which one are you? Tess or Hillary?’

‘I’m Tess.’

She nodded once and released her grip. ‘Can you sing?’

‘Can I what?’

‘Sing. You want to stay with me you’re going to have to earn your keep. If you’ve got half as much talent as your Mom, we’ll make a performer out of you.’

I’d never really had much cause to sing. ‘I can hold a tune,’ I said, crossing my fingers behind my back.

She turned and strode towards the entry hall, stopping to look back over her shoulder at me. ‘Well, come on. We need to get you settled before the girls turn up for the evening. Tonight you can serve drinks. Tomorrow we’ll see just how well you can hold a tune.’

I followed her through the foyer to a doorway with a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign. The door gave way to a staircase, which led to a long hallway. Small rooms, each with a bed taking up most of the space, opened off the hall.

‘Not there,’ she said when I stopped next to one of the rooms. She led me to the end of the hall and pushed through yet another door with a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign. ‘This is my private living quarters.’ She pointed at a couple of closed doors. ‘That’s the office, and this is my bedroom. There’s a kitchen and a loungeroom through here.’ She pointed down a corridor opening off the hall to the left. ‘Your room is at the end of the corridor. It’s small but I think you’ll find it sufficient.’ She pushed open the door to my new home and nodded her head at me.

I was prepared to thank her no matter how small or ugly the room was. Having a safe haven was worth more to me than all the beautiful bedrooms in the world. But as it turned out, there was no need to lie.

A huge bed sat against the far wall of the room. Cushions and pillows, dressed in pinks and greens decorated the simple white covers. A dressing table with a mirror and chair sat next to a wardrobe. Yellow curtains fluttered in the breeze from windows opening over a love seat.

‘It’s enormous.’ I took a few steps into the room and put my bag on the ground. ‘Thank you Madam Liss, it’s lovely.’

She let out a deep, throaty laugh. ‘Not as big as mine. Oh, and Tess, call me Liss.’

I heard the door click behind me as I kicked off my shoes. I placed my bag on the bed and unpacked my few possessions into the wardrobe. Then I sat on the end of the bed and contemplated my situation.

I was free. Free of Hillary’s barbed comments. Free of the sight of my mother’s battered body. Free of Lou’s leery smile. I couldn’t believe it. Until this morning that had been my whole life. It was a bit hard to take in.

I shuffled