Being Mrs. Culpepper

Chapter 19 - Robin's Truth

Brandon remained at Robin’s house, in no hurry to leave, especially since Robin hadn’t asked him to go. She spent most days and nights with James at his home but on a Saturday morning, with the kids out of the house, Brandon called Robin and asked her to come by, alone. She arrived around ten-thirty.  

“What’s wrong? You’re usually up and bumping around by now.”

“Bad leg day.”

He sat up in bed. Their eyes met. She removed her shoes and got on the bed next to him.  

“I love you, Robin.”   

“I know.” Robin looked away.                                                                                               

“If I could make love to you, would you let me?”

“Good Lord, what a question. Honestly? I don’t know. Legally, I’m still your wife, and you are quite charming. Plus, you do know how to take care of my spots…”

“Thank you for being kind about it. James would leave you, anyway.”

“He’d be hurt, but he wouldn’t leave me.”

“You two talked about it.”

“We did, and I assured him it would never happen.”

“He knows I’m out of business in that department. Damn meds.”

“You’ll be back in business soon.”

“How is he, in bed with you?”

“Not going there, Brandon.”

“Are you happy, in bed with him?”

“Very happy.”

They were silent a long while. She wondered how many times they’d made love over the years, most likely thousands. High frequency in the early years; when frequency decreased, passion, patience, and pillow talk increased. She’d preferred the latter. 

She wept silently as he spoke of how she saved him with her love; he apologized for being a sorry husband and reminded her his failings had nothing to do with her. She’d been a good wife, better than he’d deserved. Sweat blanketed his forehead. She wiped his brow, praying the sweat wasn’t a sign of another heart attack. Two had been plenty.

She got out of bed and poured water for him. He finished the entire glass before pushing the covers away. She left the room and returned with ice chips wrapped in a towel. She dabbed his face, his arms, his neck, his chest.  

“I have to pee.”

She helped him up; his legs were unsteady. She gently pushed the walker within his reach; he pushed it back toward her then headed to the bathroom, which he managed on his own. But she stood at the door and waited, like a loyal sentry. He washed his hands and returned to the bed, with Robin beside him.

“I’m glad you and James found each other again. You’re good together. The kids like him a lot. I do, too.”

“He’s a likable guy.”

“His son, too. I’m sorry he and Sasha fell by the wayside so soon. Nice young man for her to get to know.”

“You haven’t heard the latest.”

“What latest?”

“Apparently JC wasn’t prepared to give her up. He’s been texting love poems to Sasha every day for the past three weeks and calls her every Friday night at eight p.m. sharp. They’re courting long distance, counting down to the day when he comes home again.”

“No one told me about this. I think I like his style. He went old school. Girls enjoy old school attention, even these new age girls.”

“Old School told him what to do.”

“James?”

“Yes, the Reverend James.”

“Well, I’ll be. That’s all right.”

“I spoke with Sasha two days ago and she fessed up. The girl is happy, Brandon.”

“Good to hear. Trey and Amber seem happy, too. Those two are good together. I think they’ll have a good marriage.”

She nodded. “Your eyes tell me you have something else you want to say.”

“You should have left me for James years ago, after your father died. You would have been happy, too.”

“Don’t think I was ready to be with him back then. I had to finish things with you.”

“You had to figure out things about yourself. Your father did a number on you.”

“I didn’t know you paid that much attention to me to know what my problem was.”

“I paid attention. Still do.”

Another long pause filled the air. Brandon got out of bed and moved to the loveseat. Robin sat next to him as he continued.  

“We should have been honest with each other before we got married.”

“About?”

“Monogamy. Not my nature. Yours, either.”

She grunted a series of oh nos. “Baby, I would have been happily monogamous with you, if you could have paid as much attention to me as you did other people. Darrius. Carla. Other women. You had nothing left for me. I was afraid, and lonely, and depressed until James came back into my life. I like being in a relationship where two people share, and listen, and show up for each other. You haven’t shown up, Brandon, for a long time.”

He diverted his eyes from hers; probably too much truth there, more than he expected.  

“You called me baby. It’s been ages since you called me that.”

“It slipped out.”

“But you meant it.”

 “Did it help you, all the running around?”

“Not really, no. Made me tired.”

“Did anything help you?” 

“Coming home to you.”

Throughout their marriage Brandon had been a man of few words. He’d spoken in brief, short sentences. She’d learned to do the same when in conversation with him, in deference to whatever drove that need of his. But now, he spoke thoughtfully, eloquently, about everything. The children. His parents. His sister. James. How chasing women had become his way of coping with pain, pain he hadn’t fully understood until the accident forced him to face it. He regretted pushing his wife into other men’s arms.

Robin hung on every word. She wanted to tell him how wonderful their lives could have been, if only he’d had his breakthrough years ago. She wanted to tell him how it tore her to pieces denying him a dance. How she’d known that if she had danced with him, she would have wanted him to come home and he would have, and things would have been great for a couple of weeks. Then the old habits would return. She wanted to tell him how they could have enjoyed growing old together, spoiling grandchildren. She wanted to tell him how, even during the separation, she remained hopeful he would figure himself out and come home. But instead, she listened, without interruption.   

He picked up the glass of water from the small side table and sipped. “You look a lot like Britt. Mannerisms in common, too. Trey noticed it right away. At first, I only saw you as the little tomboy who’d stolen my heart. You lived inside of me for twenty-one years before we met again at the concert. In all those years, I never figured out how to get you to move.”

He stopped to cough. “We argued when she dropped Trey off. She and her friends were headed to the lake to celebrate her birthday. I asked her not to go, or if she went not to swim in the lake. She wasn’t a strong swimmer and always went out too far. She asked, ‘Why do you care what I do?’ I told her I loved her and worried about her drowning.  She said, ‘Screw you, I’ll swim where I want to swim.’” He paused, a long pause, and stared at his hands. “I got upset, told her ‘go ahead then, drown yourself.’”

A long silence lingered between them.  

“Those words haunted me every day of my life.”

Robin rubbed his back, then his hand, the hand that had been burned by a Roman candle. “It wasn’t your fault, darling. You had nothing to do with her drowning. You weren’t there.”

“I know that now.” He patted her thigh.  “Darling, huh? Getting better by the minute.”

He gazed at her eyes, her hair, then glanced at her hands. He used to tell her she had the hands of a model: long, sleek, perfectly aligned fingers. Healthy nails. Her own, not those glued-on ones. He hated those. He took her left hand and kissed her ring finger.

“Tell me about the family you lived with after leaving Tidbit. The pictures of me in the box.”

He told her everything he’d told Trey.

“Why did you cross out Britt’s name and replace it with mine?”

“I did that when I found out about your divorce. Used it as motivation to approach you.”

“You’re a strange man, Brandon Culpepper.”

“I did the best I knew how to do, under the circumstances.”

“I know you did.”

“I wish I had a do over with you. I’d get it right.”

“No, you wouldn’t. I forgive you. And I hope you forgive me.” 

“What am I forgiving you for?”

“James.”

“Don’t forget old work dude with the ponytail and Italian accent. What’s his name?”

“Antonio. Is that what you meant when you said you pushed me into other men’s arms? I didn’t know you knew about him.”

“I knew. Didn’t like it one bit.”

“How do you know he had an Italian accent and a ponytail?”

“I followed you.”

Her eyes widened. “You followed me when?”

“When the group from London was in town, the year Murphy died. When you took them to a comedy club for a night out and sat in the back all lovey-dovey with Ponytail.”

Robin laughed until her stomach muscles ached. “You were in the comedy club? Close enough to hear him speak? That’s creepy, Brandon. Why didn’t I see you?”

“I was two tables behind you. Maybe you didn’t see me because you never took your eyes from Ponytail’s face.”

Her face flushed; she was embarrassed that Brandon had seen her, and embarrassed that she hadn’t noticed him. “It only lasted a minute. Not worth mentioning.”

“It lasted six weeks. Started after Murphy died. Ended when the team from London went home. Told you, I paid attention.” He coughed. “I pushed you away. Nothing to forgive.”

She bit her nails, then told herself to stop. Interesting that he chose to say it started after Murphy died. Couldn’t bring himself to say it had started after Robin found out about him and Carla. “Why did you follow me? Why did you care who I was with, or what I was doing? You had Carla, other women.”

“Maybe I wanted to see the man who’d made my wife giggle and smile on the phone. You didn’t try to hide it when you talked to him. I figured you were punishing me for what I’d done, but I knew better.”

He took a deep breath. “When I saw you at that club, you seemed happy. There were no stress lines on your forehead. And your hair was down. No braids. He ran his hands through your hair, and I wanted to punch him in the face, because…”

She waited.

“You only wore your hair down for me, at night.” He pulled the ottoman close then rested his legs. “Sweetheart, I don’t want a divorce. I want another chance with you.”

She grabbed her stomach, hoping to restrain the nervous spasms. “We have to let the marriage go, but not each other. I’m glad that you and James hit it off. You’ll come to Sunday dinners with your new woman. The four of us will attend concerts together.”

He stared out the window.

 “You love James more than you love me.”

“I love him differently. You love Carla more than you love me?”

“I don’t love her. Never did. Matter of fact, I do believe I hate her.”

Robin grunted. “Thin line.”

“Yeah.”

“But you loved someone else, and I don’t mean me.”

He didn’t respond.

“What happened?”

“She told me if I stayed with you, she’d stop seeing me.”

“And?”

“I told her I understood.”

“What happened when we separated?”

“I saw her again, for a while. She kept insisting I divorce you. I said no, so she stopped seeing me.”

“What was her name?”

“Monique. But you knew about her, didn’t you? You and your spies.”

“I knew.” She could tell by the way he said the woman’s name, he loved her, still. 

“Where is she now?”

“Tampa. Married. Happy.”

“Oh.”

“Trey and I had a good talk. About everything. He forgave me.”

“Everything?”

“Yes, about Mr. Sam shooting Senior.”

“How did he take it?”

“It hit him hard. Will take some time to wrap his mind around it.”

“I’m glad. For him. For you. You and I have anything else we need to talk about?”

“Sasha and JC. Are you weirded out, them dating?”

“I guess I should be, but no. If they’d grown up as brother and sister then yes, and we’d put a stop to it. First love is like magic. Sasha needs a little magic. JC does, too. And I like their honest, mature approach about the whole thing. The experience will provide good memories for her, but she’ll outgrow him. It won’t last long.”

“Your parents said the same about us.” He leaned into her. “You want to talk about the shooting?”

“If you want to.”

“We need to.”

“I’m afraid to.”

“We’ll get drunk first.”

“You can’t get drunk with all the meds you’re taking.”

“The hell I can’t.”

Brandon took her trembling hand in his and led her to the kitchen. Robin removed her favorite port from the cabinet, then filled the glasses Brandon placed on the table. They sipped and talked for a long while. It was easier than she’d imagined it would be, mostly because she was talking to Brandon; he was there when it happened. And because she’d had the conversation with Rose and had taken solace in the outcome. The details of that fateful day poured out of her. She felt free.

Then she stopped to catch her breath.

Next, she talked about how she selected the rifle from the five that were on the rack. The smaller rifle was better for her. She remembered removing it from the rack, carrying it from her grandparents’ house. The weight of it. No fear. Keen focus. Adrenaline rush to save Brandon. Hoisting the shotgun to her shoulder.

Stance. Form. Do it wrong and you’re going to get hurt. She remembered her grandpa’s instructions. She thought about kickback. Saw Brandon’s face, swollen beyond recognition. Anger rising in her. Against Senior. Against her own father. She’d aimed at Senior’s chest but at the last second pointed the rifle at his groin. She missed her target. Shot him in the foot instead. Then she passed out.

Robin went silent.

“Sweetheart, you want to stop?”

She blew her nose and shook her head. “We need to finish it.”

They moved to the sofa. Brandon rested his left leg on a large footstool, then slid his hand across her shoulder. “What made you shoot him? I mean, he deserved it, but why did you decide to do it? Why not wake your granddad?”

“I thought he was going to kill you. You were my best, my only friend, and I didn’t want to lose you. I felt a sense of urgency. Didn’t want to wait for granddad to decide what to do. I’d already decided.”

 “You hated your father for mistreating your mother. And here was another father, brutally mistreating his family.”

Her shoulders rapidly rose, then down, before slowing to the rhythm of Brandon’s touch, and the sound of his voice. After settling into herself, she spoke about her parents’ argument and how she ended up in Georgia. Pent up rage released when she pulled the trigger. Then again when she pulled the knife on James. She told Brandon about the blackouts, how she’d forget stuff when she had one of those spells.  

“Did I ever pass out in front of you?”

He lowered his eyes. “Once.”

She leaned forward, elbows resting against her knees. “When?”

“The night you told me you were pregnant with Sasha. You don’t remember it?”

“No. How long was I out?”

“A few seconds.”

“You thought it was because I was pregnant?”

“No, I knew why.”

She pushed back against the sofa, tears flooding her eyes. “How could you possibly know? Did Mom talk with you about it?”

“Angel did, a few days before our wedding.”

Robin didn’t know if she should be angry with her sister or pleased that she stepped in. “And you married me, anyway?”

“Of course. I needed you to mother my son.” He grinned at her.

“Yeah, I was a sucker for your little motherless boy.”

“Plus…”

“I know, baby, I know.” She patted his hand.

“Let me say it. Please.”

“Okay.”

“I needed you to save me, all over again.” He wrapped her in his arms. “Sweetheart, you have to tell James about the shooting. And you and Rose need to talk about it.”

She tried to pull away. He held on, mightily.

“You two have become best buddies. You tell him. Mom and I talked already. We’re good.”

He gently placed his hand on her chin, lifting it, locking eyes with her. “That’s nice, about you and Rose. James needs to hear it from you.”

They held each other until her body no longer shook. 

“I need another favor.”

“Okay.”

“Full disclosure here. The kids and I talked it over with James, and he’s in agreement with what we want to do. I’m ready to move out. While I’ve been here my guys have been renovating my house. Making it easier for me to get around with my cane and walker. It looks good. I think you will approve.” He paused.

“JJ wants to come with me. I need him to come with me. I know the move will be disruptive, but I think it will work out for both of us. I need him. He needs me. I’ll arrange transportation for him to school and back. Who knows, maybe after one school term he’ll be ready to move out. We’ll see.”

“And Zoey? Sasha?”

“They want to stay here in the house. James assured them they were welcomed to move with you to their rooms in his house. With Sasha away in school, probably doesn’t matter much where she lives. Trey and Amber have agreed to move in here and provide guidance for Sasha and Zoey. They’ll need more space for the baby anyway, and they love this house. Trey’s already making plans to give it a facelift. Once Zoey finishes the school year, she’ll join you and James. JJ says he’ll stay with me until he graduates. He said to tell you he’s not mad at you; a boy his age needs his dad to straighten him out now and then.”

She giggled. “Did you tell Trey we’re giving the house to him and Amber?”

“I forgot about that. Let’s call them now.” They made the call. Trey and Amber wept on the phone.

“Sasha and Zoey need to go with me. Zoey won’t go without JJ, and JJ won’t leave you unattended. We can hire help for you during the week and JJ can spend weekends with you. I won’t pressure them, but that’s where they’ll end up. With me. Trey and Amber need their own space. Back me up on this, please.” 

“Will do.”

 

Robin had been gone for over five hours, causing James to worry that something had happened to Brandon. He called and texted each of them and when he got no answer he drove to the house and let himself in, through the garage. They were asleep on the sofa, with Robin’s head resting on Brandon’s shoulder. James’ rush of anger gradually turned into love for them, for what they’d suffered, for the parts of them stuck in Tidbit.

“Robin, honey, wake up.” He gave her a little shoulder shake.

Her eyes opened. “Hi Jamie, what time is it? We took a nap.”

Brandon’s eyes opened. “Hey James. What’s up?”

James kissed Robin’s forehead, then glanced at Brandon. “You all right?”

Brandon grinned, seemingly at the extra base in James’ voice. “We’re fine. Lost track of time talking. Just talking.”

“I was worried when neither of you answered your phone. You eat yet? Let’s all go out.”

Robin bolted from the sofa to the kitchen table where she found her tote. How could she forget? She opened the zippered slot and there it was. It had been several weeks since Marcus put it there. Since she’d forgotten about it.

Back in the family room she explained what was happening. “So here we are, the three of us, with a letter to read.”

She opened the large brown envelope. There was a note attached to the letter. Robin read it out loud.

“Robin, please hand the letter to James.”

She handed James the three pages, then kept reading.

“James, please step away from Brandon and Robin and read these pages silently. After you have collected your thoughts, read the pages out loud to them.”

Robin looked at James, then at Brandon. She went into the kitchen and returned with three glasses and a bottle of her father’s finest Scotch, taken from the wine cellar in his home. James stepped into the dining room to read. Brandon and Robin sipped and waited.

Twenty minutes later James returned, looking as if he’d had the scare of his life. Brandon did a double take; Robin moved toward James, as if to comfort him.

“Honey, no, please sit down.”

She did as he asked.

“This is not good news, but it’s helpful news. I’m going to read it just the way Rose wrote it to you. Brandon, hang on to her. It’s going to get bumpy.”

Robin couldn’t move. She tried to swallow but her throat felt as if it had seized up. Brandon took her hand as they listened to James’ voice.

 

 My Dear Robin,

        I tried to love your father as much as any woman could love a man. In our early years, we had a good relationship. Raised two children. Had a nice home. There were of course ups and downs, with him being who he was, and me being who I am. Some things got downright ugly, but I don’t like to dwell on those. I’m sure you have some sense of what I’m saying, having been married to James, then Brandon.

        Your father was in great agony before he died. Not physical pain. Emotional pain over what he’d done to you, to your family. He knew his time was coming to an end and damn him, he made me his confessor. I didn’t want to be. I begged him to let me call his pastor, but he said no.

        After you arrived home from your nana’s, he kept saying something was off with you. Couldn’t put his finger on it, but he knew you better than anyone, and wouldn’t let it go. He kept asking you if you were okay. Do you remember that? You always said yes, you were fine. He called your grandpa Sam, my father, and demanded to know what had happened to you while you were there. He assumed that someone had molested you, and he was ready to call the law.

        That’s when my father decided to tell him the truth. That it was you, not him, who shot Brandon’s father. After their call, John told me everything was fine, no worry. He’d overreacted, he trusted Sam with his little girl, all that stuff.  He didn’t mention what my father had said about the shooting. He went on with his life.

 

James stopped reading. “I love you, honey, and it’s best that we take a break before reading the next part.” He sat next to her, letter in hand.

“Jamie. I love you. I would say that I’m sorry you had to find out this way, but I’m guessing the father of my children told you about the shooting long before today.” She glanced at Brandon.

“I told him.”

“Let me guess. It was the day I freaked out at your house, my first time seeing you in that wheelchair.”

Brandon nodded. She leaned into James for a moment, then sat up and spoke her piece.

 “I know what the rest of the letter says. I read it on Mom’s face when we talked in Fairfax, and I heard it in her voice. My father refused to get me help, not because he knew I had no memory of the shooting, but because if word had gotten out that his eldest daughter, the one he worshipped, had shot a man on purpose, his reputation would have been ruined. And he wasn’t having any of that. He never cared if Mom knew. And poor Mom, so bullied by him, she knew he’d react that way. That’s why she never got me the help I so desperately needed, and why he didn’t want Mom to call a minister. Good old Robin — let her suck it up alone.”

James handed her a bottle of water. She swallowed every ounce.

“And he probably threatened Senior in some way, to keep him quiet about the matter.” She looked at James. “Am I close?”

“Yes, my love, you’re on the money.”

“My consolation prize was forty million dollars. Blood money. They didn’t murder me, but they didn’t try to help me either —I was a child, left to my own devices.”

 She stopped talking and blew her nose. “Most likely, he confessed that he used you James, to lie to me about JC, not to protect me but to punish me for the shooting, for what it could have done to his reputation if word had gotten out. And Brandon, he threatened to expose you not out of love for me but to control you, to keep you from talking. And he hated my little sister because she knew him, saw through him, and called him on his BS.”

By now her voice was frail, her words spoken with a sense of urgency.

“I’m guessing he told Mom to tell me how sorry he was for ruining my life, our lives.”

 “He did.”

 “Did he apologize to Mom?”

 “He did.”

“What about Angel?”

“He asked Rose to ask Angel to forgive him.”

James looked at Brandon, as if he were asking for his help.

“Whatever it is, tell her. We’ll deal with it together.”

“Honey, there’s one more critical piece.”

Robin ran her index finger around the rim of her glass. “Go on.”

“John found the box where you stored the diaries. Apparently, there was a small journal containing details of the shooting.”

Robin glanced at Brandon. “I promised you I wouldn’t write about what happened. I wouldn’t break my promise.”

“You didn’t write about it, honey. You sketched it. He found the sketches and destroyed them, but not before chewing you out about what you’d drawn. He accused you of making stuff up and told you to never repeat a word about anything you’d drawn.”

Robin rose from the couch, as if in slow motion, then slid into Brandon’s leather recliner. Her words were measured, as if each one caused great pain. Her eyes were closed, her hands tightly gripped the arms of the recliner.   

“Up until the day he burst into my room like a madman, I remembered everything about the shooting. I didn’t know how to tell my parents. Nana and PopPop assumed I had suppressed it. That’s what I’d wanted them to believe. I was tortured every single day by what I’d done. I’d been home a little over a week when I heard him pacing outside my closed door. I knew at that point that he knew. But I didn’t know how he knew.”

Tears streamed down her face.  Her eyes remained closed. “I was sitting on my bed doing my nails. Daddy rushed in yelling and screaming. Calling me names. I don’t remember where Mom and Angel were. Maybe out somewhere. His face was contorted in a way I’d never seen before. I was afraid of him. He kept moving toward me, forcing me to move away from the bed, back toward the wall.”

Robin opened her eyes. “I thought he was going to strike me. I had a sharp nail file in my hand, and I’d already decided how I’d destroy his face with it.”

Brandon and James shifted their gaze to the floor.

She paused. “I think he kept his hands to himself out of fear of the consequences. He knew I would tell the truth about my face or body being bruised or worse. He knew he’d be ruined. Mom would leave him, take half his money, and he would be forced to leave his firm in disgrace.”

She sobbed loudly at first, then barely audible.  She spoke in a child’s voice. “After he left my room my mind shut down. I passed out. When I came to, I was on the floor, my back against the wall, holding the nail file in a defensive grip.”

She looked at Brandon and gave him a half smile. “You taught me that grip when we used to play fight. You said I might have to defend myself one day, and you wanted me to be prepared.”

James left the room. Brandon pulled a chair next to Robin and held her hand. “He needs a few minutes, Sweetheart. He’ll be back. Can I get you anything?”

“Aspirin.”

Brandon went into the kitchen and returned with two aspirin and a cup of water. He lightly massaged her shoulders as she swallowed the pills and water. She sat the cup down. Panic swelled inside of her. He took his seat next to her and held her hand.

“We’re going to get through this, the three of us. We’ll be all right.”

She nodded. They stayed that way, one hand clutching the other, until she heard James’ screams. She pulled her hand away and headed for the door.

“No, Robin. He needs the time alone.”  

A few minutes later James rejoined them, eyes red, nostrils flaring. He sat on the edge of the sofa, breathing heavily. “Go on honey, finish your story.” He punched the sofa, twice.

 “Jamie?”

“I’m okay. Please. Continue.”

“I didn’t remember any of this about him until hearing the letter. Even though Daddy probably had a couple months of life left, Mom couldn’t stand anymore of him, and she ended his life. Maybe an overdose of his meds, maybe an odd mixture of meds. It wouldn’t have taken much. Jamie, please tell me that’s not in the letter.”

“It’s not.”

“Good. What did I miss?”

“Nothing important.”

Robin closed her eyes. “I’m cold.”

The men placed a blanket over her. James kissed her lips, gently. Brandon placed a kiss on her forehead and pressed the button to recline the chair. Then the men sat shoulder to shoulder on the sofa, sipping whiskey, watching her sleep.

 

               

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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