Midnight Bayou Page 54

"Look what you've done with this place!" Lilibeth dropped into a chair and dumped a floral suitcase beside her. She clapped her hands like a child so the plastic bracelets on her bony wrists banged together. "Why, I just love it. Suits you, baby. It sure does suit you.”

She'd been pretty once, Lena thought as she studied her mother. She'd seen pictures. But all that prettiness had been carved down, diamond-hard, to canny.

At forty-four, Lilibeth's face showed all the wear from too much liquor, too many pills and far too many men.

Deliberately, Lena left the door open and remained standing just inside it. The sound of traffic, the scent of the bakery across the street, kept her grounded. "What do you want?”

"Why, to see you, of course." Lilibeth let out a trill of laughter that scraped over Lena's brain like nails on a blackboard. "What a thing to ask. I got such a yen to see you, baby. I said to myself, My Lena's busy, but we've just got to have a little time together. So I got myself on a bus, and here I am. You just have to sit on down here, honey, and tell me everything you've been up to.”

Disgust rolled through her, and Lena clung to it. Better disgust than the despair that crept along just under it. "I have work.”

"Oh now, you can take a little while for your own mama. After all, you own the place. I'm just so proud of my baby, all grown up and running your own business.

"Doing so well for yourself, too," she continued as she looked around the room.

Lena caught the look, and the cunning in it. It tightened her chest, and stiffened her spine. "I told you the last time it was the last time. You won't get any money from me again.”

"Why do you want to hurt my feelings like that?" Lilibeth widened her eyes as they filled with tears. "I just want to spend a few days with my little girl.”

"I'm not a little girl," Lena said dully. "Yours in particular.”

"Don't be mean, honey, after I've come all this way just to see you again. I know I haven't been a good mama to you, darling, but I'm going to make it up.”

She jumped up, pressing a hand to her heart. The nail on the pinkie of her right hand was very long, slightly curved.

Coke nail, Lena realized without shock or regret. Now she knew Lilibeth's current drug of choice.

"I made some mistakes, I know I did, honey." Lilibeth's voice rang with apology, with regret. "You gotta understand, I was just so young when you came along.”

"You've used that one up.”

Lilibeth dug into her shiny red purse, pulled out a tattered tissue. "Why you wanna be so hard on your mama, baby girl? Why you wanna hurt my heart?”

"You don't have a heart. And you're not my mama.”

"Carried you inside me for nine months, didn't I?" Sorrow became temper as if a switch had been flicked. Lilibeth's voice rose, shrilled. "Nine months of being sick and fat and stuck back that damn bayou. Lay there in pain for hours giving birth to you.”

"And left me within a week. An alley cat spends more time with its litter than you did with me.”

"I was sixteen.”

It was that, the sad fact of it, that had caused Lena to make room, time and time again, in her heart. Until her heart had simply calcified from the blows. "You haven't been sixteen in quite a while. Neither have I. I'm not going to waste time arguing about it. I have to work, and you have to go.”

"But, baby." Panicked, Lilibeth shifted, back to the teary, choked voice. "You've got to give me a chance to make things right. I'm going to get me a job. I can work for you awhile, won't that be fun? I'll just stay here with you for a couple weeks till I find a place of my own. We'll have such a fine time. Just like girlfriends.”

"No, you won't work for me, and no, you can't stay here. I made that mistake four years ago, and when I caught you turning tricks up here, you stole from me and took off again. I don't repeat myself.”

"I was sick back then. I'm clean now, honey, I swear I am. You can't just turn me out." She held out her hands, palms up, in a gesture of pleading. "I'm flat broke. Billy, he took almost everything I had and ran off.”

Lena could only assume Billy was the latest in the string of users, losers and abusers Lilibeth gravitated to. "You're high right now. Do you think I'm blind or just stupid?”

"I'm not! I just took a little something because I was so nervous about seeing you. I knew you'd be mad at me." Tears spilled out, tracking bits of mascara down her cheeks. "You just have to give me a chance to make it up to you, Lena honey. I've changed.”

"You've used that one up, too." Resigned, Lena walked to her purse, counted out fifty dollars. "Here." She stuffed it into Lilibeth's hand. "Take this, get on a bus and ride it as far away as this takes you. Don't come back here again. There's no place for you here.”

"You can't be so mean to me, baby. You can't be so cold.”

"Yes, I can." She picked up the suitcase, carried it over to the door and set it outside. "It's in the blood. Take the fifty. It's all you're going to get. And get out, or I swear to God, I'll throw you out.”

Lilibeth marched to the door. The money had already disappeared into her purse. She stopped, gave Lena one last glittering look. "I never wanted you.”

"Then we're even. I never wanted you, either." She shut the door in her mother's face. Then flipped the locks, sat down on the floor. And cried in absolute silence.

She was certain she'd smoothed away the edges by the time she drove out to Manet Hall that evening. She'd nearly canceled the dinner plans she had with Declan, but that would have given her mother too much importance.

That would have acknowledged the grief that had slashed its way into her heart despite the locks.

She needed to put her mind to other things, and would never manage it if she stayed at home, brooding. She'd get through the night, hour by hour, and in the morning Lilibeth would be gone. From her life, and from her mind.

The house looked different, she thought. Little changes that somehow made it seem more real. It was good to look at it, to focus on it, and to contemplate that some things could change for the better. With the right vision.

Over the years, she'd come to think of Manet Hall as a kind of dream place, burrowed in the past. More than that, she decided. Of the past.

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