New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample story from The Breastplate of Faith and Love

Claudia Chitworth sat in the enormous great room of Dismas Cottage and gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the mansion's manicured grounds and her beloved weeping beech trees. She didn’t often come into this room. It was one of those showplace creations that certain super-rich Victorians fancied-crafted more for shock and awe than daily living. Today, however, she felt herself drawn to the windows and memories of family gatherings under those very same trees.
An old woman should not have worries like these, she thought. In just a little while, she would make her weekly call to San Francisco and her dear, dear niece Angela. Would this be the day she told Angela about young Sam? Probably not. No, she couldn’t do that without telling her son Ivan―he would be angry if he weren’t consulted.
But nearly two years had gone by, and it must be done very soon. What if Angela found out through some third party that she and Ivan had custody of a child by her dead husband’s agency –a child she knew nothing about? Despite the awfulness of that man, Sam Porter, Claudia realized that her niece would feel a betrayal. Not his betrayal, but hers and Ivan’s.
In death, Angela’s forgiveness for that evil beast was total. She never spoke of him and never would, but Claudia knew her niece’s mind. If she heard of young Sam’s existence, she would insist on raising him with her own son Justin. This is what Claudia had to sort out. Would that indeed be the best thing for Sam ... or for Angela and Justin?
Oh dear, she thought, who could know such things? If only Kathy Dunnell had left the child with her own people, none of this would be a burden to Claudia in her final years. Evidently, the poor sick girl felt that Sam should have the advantages of their position and wealth.
When Kathy visited Newport the first time, Claudia warned Ivan not to get involved. But he hadn’t listened. When do children ever listen? Later, in 2005, Kathy came back with Sam to grant them custody. She was very sick then, and there were tearful scenes. Claudia tried to remain adamant, but Ivan prevailed. He was sure he could assume the responsibilities of a parent.
“But what about your people, Kathy?” Claudia had asked. “Surely they want custody.”
“My parents are dead, Mrs. Chitworth. My grandparents raised me. They’re too old to bring up another child. They understand I want Sam to have this chance.”
Now if they were too old, Claudia was as well. Ivan’s promises notwithstanding, would he be able to raise a child by himself when she died? He would never marry―she had finally come to realize it. Angela, on the other hand, had married that wonderful Brad Styles. Together, they enjoyed all the resources necessary to raise two boys who were, after all, brothers. Well, half-brothers.
With a sigh, Claudia rose from the settee, walked into the foyer, and trudged up the stairs to her room off the second floor balcony. The bedroom was large, but cozy in the yellows and pinks she favored. Her bedspread, chair coverings, rugs, and wallpaper all incorporated those colors. The rich, glowing surfaces of her furniture grounded the colors and played against the honey pine floor with the mahogany stripe inside the apron. Her mood brightened here after a short time, and she sat down, picked up the old-fashioned landline telephone extension, and dialed her niece’s number in San Francisco.
“Oh, Angela, it’s you. Somehow I always expect your housekeeper to answer.”
“Aunt Claudia! So nice to hear your voice. This is my cell phone, dear. You know that.”
“Well, I should, but I cling to old notions so fiercely, I just never expect to hear you right off.”
Claudia was delighted to hear Angela’s rich, lovely laugh.
“Now tell me how Brad and Justin are doing,” she said.
“Quite well, Aunt Claudia. You and Ivan are well, I trust?”
“Yes, Angela. Everything is fine here. Ivan is elusive, you know, he often disappears on me. But I can’t expect him to let me know every time he goes out. He would exhaust himself just looking for me in this enormous old house. And I’m never alone, my maid is a comfort.”
“Brad just walked by, Aunt Claudia, he says hello. He’s off to a luncheon now. I probably won’t see him until dinner. Justin has been sent to his room for a time out –I can’t seem to stop him from acting up whenever he’s told he won’t be going out with one of us.”
“Oh dear, the trials of youth.”
“Yes, I suppose. He’s really a wonderful child, but he does get moody and stubborn.”
“Well, your sister Helena was like that, if you remember.”
Now why did she say that? Helena was Angela’s stepsister, unrelated by blood. Those weren’t traits the child could have inherited―from Helena. She felt like a stupid old woman for saying such a thing. Thank heaven Angela ignored her gaffe.
“You’re right. I remember how she clung to Dad in the old days when we spent the summer with you.”
“Oh, how I loved those days, Angela. I was thinking of them just now, you know, staring at the beech trees from the windows in the great room. I am so nostalgic. It must be old age.”
“Never. Not you, Auntie. I feel the same way about those times. Who wouldn’t?”
“Well, I ... well, I’m glad everything is all right. Why don’t I let you go now?”
“Are you sure? For a second there I thought you wanted to say something more, dear.”
“No, no. I’m finished, Angela. I want to rest for a while. Give my love to Justin and Brad.”
“I’ll do that. And you give my best to Ivan.”
“Certainly, dear.”
“Good bye, Aunt Claudia. I love you.”
“Thank you, Angela. You know I count on it.”
As she hung up, Claudia thought about how close she came to broaching the subject of young Sam. But that would have been a mistake. Still, there had to be a way to get started, to work toward resolving the impasse. This wasn’t about her feelings, she reminded herself. It was for Sam’s sake and Ivan’s, too. The boy’s welfare might depend on it.
And suddenly she knew what that first step would be. Sam had a right to know he had a brother his own age. She would tell him, and his questions would force both her and Ivan to a decision. The longer they waited, the harder it would be to explain. She wouldn’t ask Ivan about this because he would stall, perhaps forever. She would never presume to tell Angela about Sam without Ivan's permission―but this she could do.
The boy would be in the little suite they still called the nursery―two adjoining rooms with bath that comprised his bedroom and a playroom. Maria, her maid, would be with him now.
Claudia's step was lighter as she walked out from her room and past the library to the nursery. She could hear Maria playing some counting game with Sam in Spanish. He was laughing as Claudia approached the open door.
Presents. So many, many presents with fantastic colored bows. And the tree in the big room covered with real snow! Not a Christmas tree, but something else, like a very tall round bush with a thick, raggedy trunk and layers and layers of palm fronds all shining with snow and icicles, right inside the house. The gift boxes were piled so high under the tree, Sam couldn’t imagine having time to open them all in a single day. And every tag he looked at had his name on it! Oh, who had done this for him?
He would have to ask Ivan to tell him who to thank. Aunt Claudia said it was impolite not to thank for a gift. He was anxious to start tearing them open, yet he stood back for a minute to look at the tree and the room bathed in light from the hall. But the richness of the colored wrappings, the glint of foil, the soft silk and satin bows – all of it was too much to resist. And he dived in.
He felt the first tug of disappointment when the snow and icicles began to melt, wetting his hair and dripping into his eyes. He swept the gifts within reach out of the way of the increasing torrent and yanked off their wilted bows.
Then the scene grew grim with the tree bare and all the presents wet, every one. He stripped the giftwrap off several boxes and lined them up. The tops were sealed with a little tape, forcing him to open them slowly. When the first box proved empty, he wasn’t angry – there were so many more.
Oh, but the second one was empty too, and now he noticed how cool the room had gotten. He was wet, shivering and alone. And he knew all his gifts would be empty. It wasn’t fair. There would be no one to thank and maybe no one to blame; but something was missing here and someone would have to put it right. As he turned back to look at the room one last time, the tree … itself ... had changed.
Sam Dunnell woke up with a yell, writhing in his sweaty bedclothes. But he didn’t cry. After sitting up and listening for a minute, he decided no one had heard him. He lay back down and thought for a long time about Justin. His half-brother, Aunt Claudia had said. Although he tried, he couldn’t figure out what that really meant. Did they look alike, he wondered. Was he nice?