If electrical tape could talk, Shasta was sure the strip she held her in her hand would scream, “I’m not made for this!”
Shasta batted away the hyper-personified thought and executed a swift fix. Only God and her electrician would ever know…and she wasn’t talking to either of them at the moment.
A second razz from her doorbell told her that someone was getting a tad impatient. She eyed her work critically. Black electrical tape on a clear refrigerator shelf, cracked nearly in half, but oh well… She shoved the shelf back into its slot. It works. That had to be enough.
The bell sounded in two short bursts this time. “I’m coming!”
After running her fingers through her hair, Shasta smoothed down her rumpled sweater and figured that no one would notice that her shoes were broken down at the heel. Besides, the only people who came for a visit were salespeople who blatantly ignored the no soliciting sign posted on the edge of town or a couple of elderly religious ladies from a denomination Shasta kept getting mixed up with the local sport’s team: Vandals or Evangelical—something…
She swung open the door prepared to be polite but firm. The answer was no.
There he stood. Tall. Grey-headed. Heavyset. But still handsome. The train whistle in the distance could have carried the entire train with it, rumbled over her front lawn, heading directly for her, and she wouldn’t have moved.
She blinked to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. Though she’d lived clean and sober all her life—one heard stories of strange events. Carbon Monoxide poisoning? She sniffed the air. Nope.
“Can I come in for a moment?”
Shasta backed up, opening the door wider, ignoring the cold wind rushing into the room. Good Lord, he looks like mom.
It must’ve been twenty years…no…she tried to calculate. She’d been living in Chicago the last time they’d talked. He’d been drunk and said some things he shouldn’t have. She’d hung up on him…
“A long time, eh?”
Shasta dropped her gaze and considered dissolving into the floor. Her heart pounded, and spots swirled before her eyes. Jasper had gone from being a disturbed kid to a dysfunctional adult. When her mom got the police report that his body had been found in the park, she had grieved, but then relief had—
“I figure it was about twenty-six years ago we last spoke.”
Thank God that good manners ruled society with habitual fluency. Shasta gestured to the couch. “Please, sit.” She reached out. “I can take your coat.”
He shrugged the heavy winter coat off his body and smiled as he handed it over. He wore an impeccable blue shirt with dark pants and gorgeous leather shoes.
Heaven, those shoes alone probably cost more than my monthly rent.
“Uh, you want some coffee…tea?” She only had cheap tea, but her coffee was pretty decent. Something to make waking up in the morning worthwhile.
“Only if you’re having something.”
Shoot. Shasta never had coffee in the afternoon since it would keep her up half the night, so she’d have to offer her bland tea. She eyed her brother again. He looked like he was used to having the best. A drug dealer? She shook her head and started for the kitchen.
“I’ll just put the kettle on. My tea’s not that great, but I can make it nice and hot—”
Jasper settled his large frame onto the couch. “Whatever you have is fine. Don’t go out of your way.”
Hmmm…this did not sound like the Jasper she knew. Her brother had always been wild and demanding. Flighty even. Nothing like this composed fifty-something gentleman making himself comfortable on her shabby sofa.
She slapped her cheek as she turned the fire under the kettle. She had patched a worn spot on the couch cushion with black thread, though the fabric was olive green because, well, heck, who has olive green thread?
She pulled two cups out of the cabinet, snatched a couple tea bags, dropped them into her finest mismatching mugs, and placed a jam-smeared creamer pot dead center. Dang, I meant to wipe that—
Jasper ambled into the kitchen, smiling.
Smiling? Certainly never like that. Shasta leaned on the counter. “Sorry, I’m a little befuddled. You’ve kind of taken me by surprise.”
Jasper leaned on the sink and crossed his arms, his expression grave, but not sad. Just serious. A deep thinker? Jasper?
“I thought about calling, but I was afraid you’d hang up on me.”
Shasta had to give him credit. He didn’t say “again” though the word hung heavy in the air.
Shasta shrugged. “I might have. I don’t know. Usually I try to give people a second chance—”
“Oh, but you did. And a third…a forth…God knows how many. You and mom never seemed to give up. Always took me back in.”
“But then you disappeared. We thought you were dead for a while there.”
Jasper nodded. “That was kind of the point. I wanted to appear dead. Got mixed up with the wrong type of people…” He exhaled a long breath, his gaze on a trail she could not follow.
Shasta’s body trembled. This was what was didn’t want to live with…why she’d been so relieved—
“So, I died. Sort of. Actually, I did time in prison, gave testimony, met an amazing teacher, and started going to Mass again. Then I—” He met his sister’s gaze. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
The kettle began to hum. “Like one of those reborn things people rave about?”
Jasper tilted his head. “That wouldn’t do it justice. I got into a fight while serving my time and didn’t win…if you know what I mean. I should’ve died. But for some reason, beyond everyone’s hopes and expectations, I lived.”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me…or mom?”
“I wasn’t going to drag you guys back into my mess. I never gave anyone your names. I wanted to either die or start over.”
The kettle shrieked.
Jasper laughed. “You always were sensitive.”
Shasta poured the steaming water into the cups, a blush working up her cheeks.
Jasper stepped closer and leaned in. “I made you cry more than once, and I’m really sorry about that, Shasta.”
Hot tears blurred Shasta’s eyes. Hot water burned her fingers.
Jasper took the kettle and placed it back on the stovetop. He took both her hands and peered at her. “I was a terrible kid and a nasty man. I choose to tackle hell and take everyone who loved me through it too.”
Her tears overflowed, and Shasta dropped her gaze. She wanted to wipe her face, but he still clutched her hands.
“I’ve made a new life, an honest one. Got married to a terrific lady and have three kids.” He let go of her hands and pulled a wallet from his back pocket. He flipped the picture section open and four attached photos dangled in the air.
A pretty woman with stylishly cut hair and perky blue eyes stared at Shasta. A handsome teen boy dressed in a basketball uniform smiled, while a preteen girl and an adorable baby made up the rest of the family.
Something hideous stabbed Shasta from the inside. Sarcasm dripped like poison from a keen-edged knife. “Great, Jasper! I’m so happy for you. When mom died, I, like the dutiful daughter, managed everything. I even paid for her funeral and cleaned out the old house. The next year, my prince of a husband left me, saying that he’d rather travel the world than pay bills. So, I’ve been slaving away at a dead-end job for sixteen years, and now—” She squeezed her eyes shut, smacked her hands over her face, and bent double under a nameless agony. Uproarious sobs exploded like lava from an uncapped volcano.
Jasper bundled his sister into his arms and held her close, rocking her ever so gently.
She could hear his heart beating through his fine shirt. A spicy cologne scent wafted into her nose. Her shivering body responded to the sudden warmth.
His voice turned husky. Choking on the words. As if he were crying too. “That’s why I’ve come back.”
Shasta pulled away and stared at her brother. “Why? Because you feel guilty? Because you heard that my life isn’t so great? That you’ve succeeded, and I’m a miserable failure?”
Jasper took his sister’s hand and tugged her back to the couch. They sat side by side. He plopped his family photos on the coffee table, never noticing that she had used a brown marker to color in a water stain.
“Last Christmas, my two oldest kids—” he pointed to the appropriate photos as if she didn’t have a brain in her head. “—got into an argument. Mary said some hard things to Dominic, and it got ugly fast. Everything was patched up after a bit…but the whole thing stirred some unpleasant memories.”
Shasta swallowed and wiped the residue of tears off her cheeks.
“I told them that family is forever. But then, Mary pointed at me and asked where my family was. Dom waited, like he wanted to know too.”
Shasta sighed. “Ouch, eh?”
Jasper threw back his head and stared at the ceiling. “I was convicted all over again. How could I tell my kids to forgive…to love each other through—whatever—when I had cut myself off from my own family?”
Shasta raked her fingers through her hair and straightened her shoulders. “You want to make amends?” She shook her head. “I never hated you or anything. It just hurt…that mom died thinking the worst.”
“I will live with that for the rest of my life. But you—” He swallowed and tears rolled down his face. “I don’t deserve to be forgiven. I don’t deserve another chance or the happy life I have. But…Shasta—I want to be able to tell my kids the truth. That family can forgive and love does—”
Shasta stood and waved to the kitchen. “Enough. I’ve cried enough for today. If you don’t mind stale tea, I think I have a package of cookies in the fridge.”
Jasper gave his face a quick rub down and followed Shasta into the kitchen. “What can I do to help?”
“Well, the cookies are in the crisper…” She put the teacups into the microwave and hit the minute button.
Jasper laid the package of Fig Newtons on the counter and smiled. “By the way, I like the black electrical tape on the shelf. Very chic.”
Shasta grinned. “Oh, you have no idea, brother. You haven’t seen anything yet.”
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