Richard watched and waited.
And while he waited, he fumed.
And while he fumed, he drank.
Beyond the hills, the sun blazed a fiery red and orange, before exploding into pink and purple, and finally a dark and navy blue. Then, a black shadow settled over all he could see; like a heavy cloak, obscuring everything.
Did he prefer obscurity? Would it be better to carry on in ignorant bliss?
But in truth, there had been no bliss for quite some time. Not since Maria lay spent and lifeless in the birthing bed. Not since Abuela followed too soon, afterwards. Not since his new wife.
And so he drank.
As he did, the burdens felt a little lighter.
And so did the bottle.
It was another hour before he heard her Jeep pulling into the yard. It was a scruffy old thing she saved up for and bought third-hand off his father – now too old and pained by arthritis to drive it himself.
Even now, he remembered the surge of pride that first day she drove the beat-up Jeep into the yard with a smile on her face. He felt no pride now – only a stab of pain in his chest. It seemed to throb with every echo of her footsteps on the wooden floors.
He could time her steps, predict the rooms. First the hall, then the kitchen, then the living room, past the study and-
The porch light flickering to life hurt his eyes. He’d been sitting in the dark too long, he knew.
One glance at his daughter told him she was exhausted, but happy. It was a long drive back from Mexico. One she had taken alone, in spite of his insistence that she book a flight.
This summer was her last before she ran off to college. It had taken every ounce of strength to send her away to Mexico. But he knew she would enjoy the sun, her mother’s family, the beaches, watching the wild horses. He knew she would be safe.
“What are you doing out here by yourself in the dark?” Cindi asked him.
“Drinking,” he answered. He put the bottle of whiskey to his lips as if in proof, but it was empty. He hissed, and tossed it across the yard.
It struck a rock. A sharp clink echoed in the night. Years had passed, since he last drank; years since he lost Maria.
He looked at Cindi and searched for Maria in her features. What he found finally brought a smile to his face. Sure enough, she had her mother’s olive skin, oval face, high cheekbones, and wavy hair.
But it was his piercing blue eyes that regarded him with concern. It unnerved him, those eyes. They should have been her mother’s eyes: a soft brown that was always warm, never judging.
“What’s this?” She reached for the envelope in his lap.
He didn’t move to stop her. Instead, he said, “That idiot director at work finally did me a favor.”
Dr. Barraj had committed the last five years to Richard’s termination, so his son could take his place as a senior on the medical team. But the board would never allow it. So in revenge, he often disrupted Richard’s work by assigning the interns and residents to him.
“I just wanted to keep the rookie occupied,” he said. “Him and the twins, after she dropped them on me, knowing I had a meeting that day. Nurse Walcott… she doesn’t know what she did. She just wanted to help.
“She showed the resident the easy stuff, while I was in the meeting: the best way to get a needle in an arm, when to delegate a task to a nurse, and the procedure for handling and sending off DNA tests for processing. It was the last one that did it.”
Cindi returned the contents of the envelope and set it on the windowsill without a word. “What will you do?” She finally asked him.
“She’ll say the test shouldn’t have been done without her consent.”
He rolled his head to look at her, again. Beneath him, the ground moved about in blurs and swirls. His head ached. “Cindi, I need you gone by morning.”
“I just got here!”
He nodded. “I know, and I’ve missed you. But I knew it was a terrible idea to keep you here with her this summer. And now, it’s an even worse idea to have you here when I confront her.
“When this is done, I’ll file for a divorce and move my practice to San Francisco. I’ll sell the farm and the horses. We can start a new life in the city.
“Maybe I’ll get a teaching job at UCSF. You wouldn’t mind your old man in the lecture halls would you? They were begging me to come ten years ago. Maybe they’ll remember me, still.”
Cindi stood before him, unsure of what she felt and what to say. His proposition had its merits, for sure. But the thought of giving up her horse and their home did not sit well with her.
Maybe they could start over, like he said. Put this all behind them.
“I won’t confront her until after you leave,” he said. “Or at the very least, I’ll try to hold my tongue until then.” He tried to smile, but it was more a grimace. “She’s visiting her parents, and took the twins with her. I’m not sure when she’ll be back.”
Cindi didn’t know what to say. What does one say to a father who learns the children he had raised were not his own?
In truth, she was relieved to hear she wasn’t related to the two brats. And even more relieved to know they would be out of her life, soon. But those were not the words her father needed. Not now.
“Let me help you up to bed,” she offered.
He refused, and tried to stand on his own. He almost tumbled back to his chair. She steadied him. What a strong boy he had raised. No, he had a daughter. He must remember that. A strong daughter; his only child.
“You’ll pack tonight?” he asked her as she helped him up the stairs. “By morning, you’ll be gone, right?”
“Yes,” she answered. She opened the door to the master bedroom, and then shuffled with him across the floor. Then he fell into bed, staring up at the ceiling.
Cindi knew she wouldn’t be able to say goodbye in the morning. But she also knew it was pointless to say anything, now. He was so drunk. He probably wouldn’t remember a thing.
“Call me if you need me,” she told him, as she made her way to the door.
By the time Richard stumbled out of bed, Cindi was long gone.
In her room, he found a note wishing him well, asking him to be careful, not to be rash. She told him she loved him, that they would be a family together, and that they would survive this as they survived all else.
That afternoon, the attorney stopped by with his assistant to witness and sign his new will.
A longtime friend of Richard’s, and his legal adviser of some twenty-odd years, Brad did not hold his tongue. “I’d like to think the next time we speak, it will be to draw up the divorce papers.”
Brad’s assistant reached across the table and touched his hand. A Latina from the Dominican Republic with copper skin and copper hair, she had been Maria’s closest friend.
It had been Brad’s idea to introduce them; thinking Richard’s new wife could use a fellow Spanish friend in her new home. He’d been right.
“I’m sorry, Richard,” she said. “This is one betrayal no man should suffer.”
He only nodded, again.
After they left, he went up to the attic. The fresh footprints, pressed into the dust settled on the floor, told him Cindi had visited before leaving. No doubt, she had been going through her mother’s things, again.
What did she take this time? He wondered.
Maria’s jewelry, journals, and favorite books lay in the large trunk, where he kept the things he couldn’t part with. After her death, he had read those books she loved so much, but her journals he never found the nerve to read.
He reached for the photo album from their wedding and honeymoon, and brought it back to the bedroom. It didn’t take him long to find his favorite picture of her.
Her long braid fell down her left shoulder, held in place by a black ribbon that soon came loose. The ribbon and the loose tendrils atop her head flew wildly in the breeze. She was laughing, while one hand tried to keep her hat from blowing away, and the other kept her dress from blowing upwards.
He remembered the moment like it was yesterday. The feel of the sand between his toes. The sound of the water crashing on the shore, retreating, and then returning again. Her laughter had rung like music in his ears: sweet, soft, melodious.
The purr of the BMW in the driveway was not as sweet. He strolled through the open French doors and onto the balcony, overlooking the fenced fields where the horses grazed in the daytime.
He could hear his wife’s high heels clicking and clacking on the floors, then the twins running into their rooms.
He heard her pause at the door – no doubt noticing the ladder to the attic was down – and then she entered. “Richard,” she said, surprised. “I thought you would be at work, tonight.”
He held his tongue, his thoughts fixed on his laughing Maria.
“Richard!” Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Her heels were daggers in his ears. And then she was beside him.
Cindi crouched low amidst the shadows, and looked up at the balcony.
They were only silhouettes against the light streaming in from the bedroom. There were hands flying, tempers flaring, shouts echoing across the yard and then dying in the trees.
Cindi struggled to hear the words, but caught the gist easy enough. Richard did not care for explanations. He wanted his wife to take the twins and leave. But still she yelled and pointed.
She blamed him for inciting her jealousy and leading her astray from their marriage bed. “It’s almost like you love this dead woman more than you love me,” she said contemptuously. “Her and your little chica!”
Richard knew better than to take the race-bait regarding his daughter. It was not the first time someone remarked on her heritage in a less than favorable manner.
Instead, he poured salt into her wound. “Is it any wonder I prefer them to you?”
It was more than she could bear. She screamed at him in frustration. When that failed to soothe her, she shoved. Richard grabbed the rail to steady himself, but he was over 6 feet tall, and it was not.
Over the edge he went.
Cindi clamped a hand over her mouth as the scream rose in her throat. Her stomach churned at the awful cracking sound his head made as it slammed into the rocks below.
Her stepmother stared down at Richard, speechless.
Cindi ran to her father’s side. “Dad!” She shook him, and then fell back as blood and brain oozed out onto the ground beneath him.
“Cindi!” her stepmother called down. “What are you doing here?”
“You killed him!” Cindi screamed up at her, tears stinging her eyes. “You’ll spend the rest of your life in a prison cell for this. I promise you!”
Even in the dark, she could feel her stepmother’s glare. Then, she disappeared from the balcony.
Cindi didn’t wait to find out why. She rushed to the stables and opened the stalls for the horses. Lightning she mounted immediately, no time to saddle him up. Bolt, she slapped on the side, sending him off into the woods.
She would find him later. If he was wise, he would not return.
A shot rang out in the night, and a bullet whizzed by her ear. Bolt reared up, and for half a heart beat, she thought he would throw her. On the balcony, her stepmother struggled to reload the shotgun.
Lightning remained stubbornly rooted to the spot, despite her pleas with him to run. But when the next shot rang out, the horse needed no further encouragement.
Lightning shot off into the woods with his rider clinging desperately to his back… just as the final bullet ricocheted into the darkness.
To be Continued
By special request from Anne J, for her Invitation: write your own “Cinderella” story! writing prompt. If you haven’t tried it yet, I encourage you to give it a go. I had lots of fun working on this one.