He Started It – Samantha Downing

You want a heroine. Someone to root for, to identify with. She can’t be perfect, though, because that’ll just make you feel bad about yourself. A flawed heroine, then. Someone who may break the rules to protect her family but doesn’t kill anyone unless it’s self-defense. Not murder, though, at least not the cold-blooded kind. That’s the first deal breaker. The second is cheating. Men can get away with that and still be the hero, but a cheating wife is unforgivable. Which means I can’t be your heroine. I still have a story to tell. It begins in a car. Rather, an SUV. We sit according to our rank, the oldest in the driver’s seat. That’s Eddie.

His wife sits next to him, but I’ll get to her. The middle seat is for the middle child, and that’s me. Beth. Not Elizabeth, just Beth. I’m two years younger than Eddie and he never lets me forget it. I’m okay to look at, though not as young or thin as I used to be. My husband sits next to me. Again, later for that, because our spouses weren’t supposed to be here. One seat left, way in the back, and that’s Portia. The surprise baby.

She’s six years younger than me and sometimes it feels like a hundred. With no spouse or significant other, she has the whole seat to herself. In the very back, our luggage. Stacked side by side in a neat single row because that’s the only way it fits. I told Eddie that the first time. Our handbags and computer bags go on top of the roller bags. You don’t have to be a flight attendant to figure that out. Under the bags, there’s the trunk compartment. One side has the spare tire. In the other, a locked wooden box with brass fittings.

This special little box in this special little place, all by itself with nothing else around, is to hold our grandfather. He’s been cremated. We aren’t talking about him. We aren’t really talking at all. The sun beams through the windows, landing on my leg and making it burn. The A/C dries out my eyes. Eddie plays music that is wordless and jazzy. I look back at Portia. Her eyes are closed and she has headphones on, probably listening to music that is neither wordless nor jazzy. Her black hair is long and has fallen over one eye.

It’s dyed. We all have pale skin, and we were all born with blond hair and either blue or green eyes. My hair is even lighter now because I highlight it. Eddie’s is darker because he doesn’t. Portia’s hair has been black for a while now. It matches her nails. She’s not goth, though. Not anymore. The music change is abrupt. I didn’t even see Krista move.

That’s Eddie’s wife. Krista, the one with olive skin, dark hair, and brown eyes with gold flecks. Krista, the one he married four months after meeting her. She used to be the receptionist at his office. Pop music blares out of the speakers, a dance song from five years ago. It was bad then, too. ‘The jazz was putting me to sleep,’ Krista says. My husband’s eyes flick up from his laptop. He probably didn’t notice the change in music, but he heard Krista’s voice. Maybe she’s the heroine.

‘It’s fine,’ Eddie says. I can hear the smile on his face. I continue to stare out the window. Atlanta is long gone. We aren’t even in Georgia. This is northern Alabama, past Birmingham, where the population is sparse and skeptical. If we were trying to rush, we’d be farther along by now. Rushing isn’t part of the equation. ‘Food?’ That’s Portia, her voice groggy from her nap. She’s sitting up, headphones off, wide-eyed like a child.

She’s been milking that baby-of-the-family shit for a long time. ‘You want to stop?’ Eddie says, turning down the music. ‘Let’s stop,’ Krista says. My husband shrugs. ‘Yes,’ Portia says. Eddie looks at me in the rearview mirror, like I get a say in the matter. I’m already outnumbered. ‘Great,’ I say. ‘Food is great.’ We stop at a place called the Roundabout, which looks just as you’d imagine.

Rustic in a fake way, with the lasso and goat on the sign, but naturally run down with age. Authentic but not – like most of us. We all climb out and Portia is first to the door; Krista isn’t far behind. Eddie is the one who takes the most time. He stands outside the car, staring at the back. Hesitating. It’s our grandfather. This is our first stop of the trip, meaning it’s the first time we have to leave him alone. ‘You okay?’ I say, tapping Eddie’s arm. He doesn’t look at me, doesn’t take his eyes off the back of the car because Grandpa’s ashes are everything to us.

Not for emotional reasons. ‘You want to stay out here? I can bring you a doggie bag,’ I say. Sarcasm drips. Eddie turns to me, his eyes wide. Oh, the shock. Like if I had just told him I was leaving my longtime partner for someone I met two months ago. Oh wait, he did that. Eddie left his live-in girlfriend for the receptionist. ‘I’m fine,’ he says. ‘You don’t have to be so bitchy about it.

’ Yes. I’m the villain. Inside the Roundabout, everyone is sitting in a semicircle booth. It’s twice as big as it needs to be. The seats are wine-colored pleather. Krista and Portia have scooted all the way to the center of the booth, leaving Felix on one side. That’s my husband, Felix, the pale one with the strong jaw and white-blond hair with matching eyebrows and lashes. In a certain light, he disappears. ‘No,’ Portia says. ‘There’s nothing vegan.

’ She isn’t vegan but checks anyway. Portia also looks for wheelchair access and won’t go in anywhere that doesn’t have it because fairness is important. ‘Should we leave?’ I say. No one answers. I sit. The burgers are chargrilled, the fries are crisp, and the bacon is greasy. A fair deal, if you ask me. The only thing missing is decent coffee, but I drink their bitter version of it without complaint. I can be a good sport. ‘We probably should get something settled,’ Eddie says.

He looks like our father. ‘We’re going to be driving for a while. A lot of gas, food, and motel rooms. I propose we take turns covering the expenses. More than anything else, let’s not argue about it. The last thing we need to do is fight over a gas bill.’ Before I can say a word, my husband does. ‘Makes sense,’ Felix says. ‘Beth and I will pay our fair share.’ Only a spouse can betray you like that.

Or a sibling. That leaves Portia. Given that she’s doesn’t really have a career, the deal isn’t fair. Oh, the irony. She yawns. Nods. In Portia-speak, she’s agreeing for now but reserves the right to disagree later. ‘Great,’ Eddie says. ‘I’ll get this one.’ He takes the check up to the register, because that’s the kind of place this is.

Felix goes to the restroom and Portia steps out front to make a call. That leaves Krista and me, finishing those last sips of lukewarm coffee. ‘I know this must be terrible for all of you,’ she says, placing her hand on mine. ‘But I hope we can have some good times, too. I’m sure your grandfather would’ve wanted that.’ It’s a nice enough thing for Krista to say, if a little generic. Given the circumstances, I expect nothing less and nothing more. Still. If everything falls apart and we all start killing one another, she goes first. You think I said that for shock value.

I didn’t. No, I’m not a psychopath. That’s always a convenient excuse, though. Someone who has no empathy and has to fake human emotions. Why do they do bad things? Shrug. Who knows? That’s a psychopath for you. Or is it the word sociopath? You know what I’m saying. This isn’t that kind of story. This is about family. I love my siblings, all of them, I really do.

I also hate them. That’s how it goes – love, hate, love, hate, back and forth like a seesaw. That’s the thing about family. Despite what they say, it’s not a single unit with a single goal. What they never tell us is that, more often than not, every member of the family has their own agenda. I know I do. Alabama State Motto: We dare to defend our rights We’ve been on this road trip before. Twenty years ago it was Grandpa’s trip for us, the grandkids, and it was because our parents hadn’t been getting along. Lots of yelling, lots of slammed doors, and too many silent meals. Dad slept on the couch but pretended he didn’t, and Mom pretended not to be mad.

Not easy for her, given that she was always slamming cabinets, doors, and whatever else got in her way. Eddie and I were the closest in age and we talked about it a lot, preparing ourselves for an inevitable divorce. We even picked a date: New Year’s Eve. Eddie marked it on his Nine Inch Nails calendar, filling in December 31 with a big X. We bet that by next year our parents would no longer be together. That was in the summer, when the fighting made the hot days seem even longer. We all lived in Atlanta then, including Grandpa. He showed up at our door in August and he was alone. Grandma had died six months earlier. Grandpa gathered us all up, sat us down on the couch, and said, ‘Your parents need some time alone.

They need to figure out grown-up things.’ ‘Are they getting divorced?’ Eddie said. ‘No, they are not. They just need to be alone, so we’re going on an adventure.’ ‘What kind of adventure?’ I said. ‘An amazing one.’ Grandpa said it strong and loud, trying hard to convince us it was true. I was ready for anything other than another day at home. The summer had been long, hot, and miserable. When Grandpa said an adventure would make things better with our parents, I couldn’t get out the door fast enough.

Grandpa drove a minivan. Always had, as far as I could remember, and it was that same greyishgreen color as every other minivan. A lot of my friends’ parents had them and I’d been in them a million times. The upside was we had plenty of room to move around if we wanted. There were enough seats for at least six people, so we all piled in and off we went. First stop: Tuscumbia, Alabama. North of everything, almost into Tennessee. In 1880, Helen Keller was born in a house called Ivy Green and now it’s a tourist site. That was where Grandpa brought us first. The house itself isn’t large; it’s a simple, white, one-floor building.

We went on the tour and learned all about Helen’s silent, dark world and how Anne Sullivan had saved her. The original well pump is still there, the place where Helen first learned the word water and started her long climb out of the abyss. Outside the house, we walked around the grounds. Grandpa kept going on and on about how amazing Helen Keller was. I can’t remember if I knew who she was before we went there or not. It feels like I should have, but maybe that’s me hoping I knew more than I did. What I also remember is when we were done and heading back to the car. Eddie walked on top of a short brick wall lining the street. Portia ran from one side of the sidewalk to the other, trying to find the best-smelling flower. I chased after her, giving my own opinion on them.

She didn’t ask. Grandpa stopped and looked at each one of us. He shook his head. ‘It’s a lucky thing you have all of your senses.’ ‘But you heard the guide,’ I said. ‘She went deaf and blind after being sick. We can’t get the same disease now.’ ‘Yeah,’ Eddie said. ‘It’s been cured.’ Grandpa shook his head again, like he was disappointed by our reactions.

‘Lucky indeed,’ he said again. ‘Maybe we can try it sometime. I’ll cover your eyes and ears and see how you do.’ I laughed because he was being so silly. We all were, because we were on a grand adventure across the country. Our goal, Grandpa said, was California, and that’s where we would see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Today we go to the same house, except this time we already know the story. We’ve all seen The Miracle Worker and we’ve all read about Helen Keller in school. The only surprise is how small the house is, along with the cottage where Helen lived with Anne Sullivan. It seemed much larger when I was a kid.

As we leave, Felix claps his hands together. ‘What an amazing piece of history.’ ‘Isn’t it?’ Krista says. ‘I love uplifting stories. I wish there was a cable station that only played inspiring movies and TV shows.’ ‘They already have religious stations,’ Portia says. Sarcasm intended. ‘Oh, not like that. Like Helen Keller,’ Krista says. ‘So, a station about kids who overcome physical challenges?’ Krista gives up and steps away from Portia, realizing she is being made fun of.

We all get back into the car to leave, and no one says anything else about Helen Keller. The drive continues along an empty road, heading neither north nor south. Sometime after dark, Eddie pulls up to a roadside motel called the Stardust. ‘What do you think?’ he says. It looks like a shithole with Wi-Fi and cable. Perfect. ‘It’s so early,’ Portia says. She has a slight childish twang in her tone. ‘I can drive if you’re tired.’ ‘I’ll keep that in mind,’ Eddie says.

He drives up to the front office and jumps out of the car. It’s no surprise Eddie insists on driving and choosing our motel rooms, because that’s who he is. Who he always has been. It doesn’t seem to bother Krista, who sits in the front, smiling and bobbing her head to the music. Portia rolls her eyes and lies down in the back. I sigh and pick up my phone, scrolling through Instagram to check up on everyone back at home. To check up on him. Tonight, Portia will stay with Eddie and Krista. She’ll stay with one of the couples each night to save money on motels. Portia doesn’t get a night by herself, because she’s single so she’s alone all the time.

That’s how Krista says it. I think it’s payback for Portia making fun of her back at the Helen Keller house. As soon as Felix and I get into our room, we use quick-drying disinfectant and antibacterial spray on the bedsheets, the towels, and the tops of all the furniture. Even the hangers. There are two. Not that we’re germophobes, but who wouldn’t do this in a roadside motel? That’s like not using an antibacterial wipe on the pull-down tray when you’re on a plane. When we’re done, I flop down on one of the beds. ‘I’ll take a shower first,’ Felix says. ‘Okay.’ I watch him walk into the bathroom and wonder, not for the first time, if our children would have his white-blond hair.

We’ve been married for six years, together for almost nine, and I still haven’t decided what our kids would look like. Haven’t gotten pregnant, either. We met during our senior year of college. Career day. He stood in line for Global Com, Inc. while I stood in line for Williams Kane Ltd. Both were international conglomerates with jobs for every major imaginable. Felix and I ended up next to each other as we waited. It seemed rude not to acknowledge each other, so we exchanged recommendations about where to apply and warnings about who to stay away from. It was the most normal conversation.

At that stage in my life, normal was what I needed. At one point he said, ‘We’re lucky to be born when we were.’ ‘Why’s that?’ ‘We don’t have to stay at the same company forever. Five years, max. If it’s really terrible, it’s perfectly acceptable to leave after two. Anything less than that …’ Felix shrugged, as if to say you were screwed. Spending less than two years at a job might mean you’re a flake. Or you’re trouble. ‘That’s true,’ I said. ‘We are lucky.

’ Neither of us got jobs that day. Instead, we both ended up at the largest conglomerate of all, International United, but in different departments, of course. No corporation would allow married couples to work side by side, not if they want to stay in business. Felix emerges from the bathroom already dried off, wearing boxers and a Miami Dolphins T-shirt. We’re not big on football but we don’t hate it. ‘Your turn,’ he says. Not much hot water, if there was ever any. When I come out of the bathroom, Felix is sprawled out on one of the beds. Not the one I was lying on. ‘My legs hurt from being in the car all day,’ he says.

‘You mind if we each take a bed?’ ‘That’s fine. They’re small anyway.’ ‘Yeah, compared to ours.’ I sit down on my bed and pull up the alarm on my phone. ‘Should we walk in the morning?’ I say. ‘Definitely.’ I set it for seven. ‘How are you feeling?’ Felix says. ‘Fine.’ ‘I mean about seeing Eddie and Portia.

Been a while.’ It has. None of us live in the same area. Eddie and Krista live on Dauphin Island, Alabama, just south of Mobile – the other side of the state from our current location. Felix and I live in Woodview, Florida, while Portia went to Tulane in New Orleans and still lives there. None of us live in Atlanta, but we grew up there. It’s where our last trip started. For the Morgan siblings, separation is the best form of togetherness. The last time we were all together was a few years ago, when Portia graduated from college. Two days in the same city and we spent about eight hours together, all of it intoxicated.

Portia insisted we try the hurricane, the mint julep, and the Pimm’s cup. Dangerous on their own, lethal together. Grandpa wasn’t there. None of us had seen him in years. This was back when Eddie was still with Tracy, the girlfriend he used to live with. He hadn’t met Krista yet. I liked Tracy. She was smarter than my brother and told him that a lot. He even seemed to like it. I remember being at a bar uptown, near the university, on the night before graduation.

It was hot as hell and I wore a tank top with a print skirt. Tracy wore a fancy sundress that showed off her arms. They were ridiculously toned. ‘You know the thing about your brother,’ she said. A gentle slur, not sloppy. ‘He can be an asshole but he’s a lovable asshole, you know?’ I do. You know the type, you’ve met him. He’s the guy who gets away with mouthing off in class, the one who can convince teachers to give him a makeup exam, the one everyone wants to be around even when he screws up. Especially when he screws up. That’s Eddie.

I never got a chance to ask Tracy what she thought about the woman Eddie went out with right out of college. Bet that woman wouldn’t call him lovable. She said Eddie slapped her, and she even reported him, but nothing came of it. Eddie said she was the crazy one and he never hit her, not in a million years. I believed him. I believed her. Back and forth, back and forth, just like that seesaw. Still haven’t decided who’s right, if he’s a lovable asshole or just the latter. This is what I’m thinking about in bed, at the Stardust, when Felix asks me how I’m doing. I’m trying to keep my balance.

‘It’s fine,’ I say. ‘I’m doing fine.’ ‘I’m glad. Good night.’ ‘Good night.’ I wait for his breathing to slow. Doesn’t take long. Felix has always been able to fall asleep instantly, no matter where he is. I get up, get dressed, and leave the room.

.

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