Did I kill him?
Jesse David, professional travel writer, can’t shake the past she doesn’t remember. With her blackouts growing worse at the approach of the anniversary of her father’s death, she’s convinced that this trip is her last chance to find answers. But then Momma tags along and brings her special brand of abuse and a suitcase full of secrets.
Gabriel Gutierrez, cruise ship director, doesn’t perform the job—he is the job. For the past two decades, he has avoided his home and the destruction he brought upon his family, yet he cannot escape the heavy anchor of guilt. When Jesse steps on board, old shame renews and compounds as not one, but two deaths rise from troubled waters.
With a clock ticking and lives at stake, Jesse and Gabriel must decide whether the dangerous truth should rise to the surface or remain drowned in the deep.
It’s the colors I’ll miss the most—the rose pinks and turquoise blues trimming the city, the burning golds of the lattice work, the slashes of red.
The evening call to prayer fades into the dusk, and a warm, dry breeze brushes my cheeks. I press my ribs into the hard stone of my comped balcony in my comped hotel room. A breath later, and Marrakech’s buildings and lively streets fade to gray.
Inside my hotel room awaits a half-finished feature article for work, and my editor has already sent three messages asking for the final draft. It’ll be a five-star review for the riad, of course, but it’s the intricacies of the article that are fleeing my fingertips. Marrakech is a rich, delicate dessert. Only a few bites are needed, but those bites stay with the visitor forever, and my article must leave my reader with that same sensation. I’ll settle for nothing less.
It’s my last night in the city, and the shadows in the streets whisper as if they need me, but responsibility and the addictive ping of a text message are my current bodyguards.
Only five people in the world would message me. My mother, my cat-sitter, my editor, the automatic appointment reminders from my therapist, and Gabe. My cat-sitter has already checked in with photos of Leo lazing about our condo, and of the other four people, there’s only one that causes a predictable stutter in my stomach.
My phone pings again, but I ignore it, dangle the waiting message as a reward for finishing the article. Or a punishment, depending on who it is. I turn my back on the city, face my almost-packed suitcase, my worn laptop waiting on the silk-clad bed. The shadows will be there when I’m through working. No matter where I am, what I’m doing, the shadows are always there.
Scents of the night market waft through the balcony doors—spices and fire-cooked meat, animal musk and motorcycle exhaust. Sand dusts the edges of the windowsills, ever present in this desert oasis. I grab my computer and inhale Marrakech—the city, the scents, the sounds—and exhale words. The room fades until it’s only me, and I fade until I’m only the work.
The night stales, the world darkens, and the shadows smile.
Sunlight stabs my eyelids, and I rub at my eyes. They’re gritty, as if I fell asleep in my makeup, and the sheets are tangled around my ankles. A two-toned voice, long and drawn out, thuds off my skull. Other voices join the first, and soon the air fills with the sounds of morning calls to prayer.
The room comes into focus. My laptop is closed and on the table. The sand on the windowsill has grown over night, like an hourglass running out of time. And my hand hurts.
I sit up, disoriented, massage my palm with my good hand, and try to piece together last night. I worked on the article and then…nothing.
My stomach sinks, and exhaustion falls over my body like a weighted blanket. Not again. I’d hoped that this year, with all the therapy… Doctor Hart had said we were making progress.
“Your definition of progress and mine are very different,” I mutter to my therapist, who is an entire ocean and continent away.
The room phone rings. I inch across the bed and grab it on the third shrill, the leftover dregs of the blackout dulling my senses.
“Miss Jesse, your car has arrived to take you to the airport.”
The front desk clerk. My car. Airport.
I push my bangs off my face, and the clock next to the phone slowly comes into focus.
“Shit,” I respond, slipping back into English. “I’ll be downstairs in ten minutes.”
Double shit. I pride myself on speaking the language of whatever country I visit, even if it is only a basic, butchered version. The point is to try. But my brain is already focused on grabbing all my belongings, stuffing them helter-skelter in my bag, and pushing away whatever happened last night to be explored at another probably useless appointment. I splash water on my face, drag my fingers through my cropped hair, and it helps none.
“Shower at the airport lounge,” I order my reflection and dash out of my room, bags grasping at my shoulders for dear life.
It’s not until after I slide onto the white leather back seat of my private car and we’re expertly navigating the beautiful chaos of Marrakech that I remember the message.
I pull my phone out of my bag, and grin.
Thinking of you in exotic lands, while I sail known seas. – Gabriel
He doesn’t know it, but he’ll see me next week. It’s been a couple of years, though we keep in touch through random texts. I touch my recently shorn hair—I’m not sure he’ll even recognize me.
Twenty-four hours later, the humid, jet exhaust-filled air of Bush Intercontinental wraps around my neck and my face and brushes away the recycled air of first class. I slip into my driver’s car, the black sedan waiting for me at the curb, and throw my carry-on onto the seat next to me.
“Welcome home, Ms. David,” Brian says, his English accent the most familiar thing I’ve come across in two weeks.
“Ssalam.” I bow my head, getting the accent just right.
“Shalam,” Brian repeats, massacring the consonants.
I raise an eyebrow at his rearview-mirrored glance.
“Not even close?” he guesses.
“The Moroccan people would say their version of bless his heart behind your back.” I flash him a smirk and pull up the pictures on my phone.
But instead of looking at the pictures, he grabs my wrist, studies my swollen hand. “Who did this to you?” his voice drops an octave.
I yank my hand back, my bruised bones protesting the movement. “I fell in the shower,” I say, and even as the words fly from my mouth I hear their clichéd lies.
He presses his lips together, studies me a moment, then puts the car into drive and pulls away from curb. “Please be more careful with yourself, Ms. David.”
I catch his gaze in the rearview mirror, give him a slight nod.
He’s picked up on it, I’m sure. The various bruises and wounds I come home with, the excuses that hold about as much water as tissue paper.
If I knew the source of the abuse, would I tell him?
At every red light, I struggle for normalcy. I show him all the people I met, the here-today, gone-tomorrow relationships that fill my travel articles, my phone’s memory, and the picture frames in my condo. Brian’s been my driver for five years, and besides my editor, he’s the longest, not-long-distance relationship I’ve had. I’m not naive enough to believe it’s friendship, but it’s something more than nothing, and that’s enough to hold onto.
Twenty minutes later, I grab my carry-on, wave goodbye, and stumble through the heavy glass doors of my building. Muffled sirens leak through the glass as I check my mailbox. The luxury condo was billed as soundproofed from the traffic of Houston’s Galleria area, but no soundproofing is strong enough to overcome that noise.
I like the noise—reminds me of Beijing—surrounding me like a cocoon, hiding me in discordant notes.
I step off the elevator onto my floor. Javier, a single-dad refugee from Columbia, climbs down his building-issued maintenance ladder. “Jesse, you’re just in time. I need an artist’s eye. What do you think?” He nods at the garland he’s hung around our floor’s lobby. His six-year-old daughter helps by hanging ornaments on the little Christmas tree in the corner.
“I’m no artist, but from here…que linda. Beautiful.” A smile spreads, almost painfully, across my face. I like Javier. I like how he’s never given up, how he’s reinvented his life to keep his child safe. I like how he loves her, even when she’s having a moment.
This is how a parent and child should be.
I fumble for the keys to my condo, the first one on the left next to the elevator, prop my suitcase against my leg, and balance two weeks’ worth of mail.
“I see tu mamá the other day.” Javier’s tentative voice winds softly around my ears, no doubt remembering my outburst from the last time my mother was here and convinced him to let her in my condo.
My heart stutters. My mail falls to the floor.
He raises his hands. “No, no. She was downstairs. I told her to leave.”
I let go a hard breath, but my chest is still tight, my muscles still clenched. He bends down, helps me pick up my mail, and rests a hand on my shoulder. “She left. No worries.” His smooth tone calms me, and I have to wonder how much he’s guessed versus how much he understands from his own shady past.
“Gracias.” The r rolls off my tongue, my accent perfect, but inside, I’m wound into an impossible tangle. She left. But that doesn’t mean the stain of her footprints isn’t here.
The door shuts behind me, and I flip the deadbolt. Velvet footsteps pad down the marbled hall, and the only love in my life runs around the corner.
I kneel, drop the mail, and scoop Leo into my arms. “How’s my baby?” He wraps his paws around my neck and gives me an ear kiss, his calico fur vibrating under my touch. “I missed you too. Did Mrs. O’Neil take good care of you?”
Leo jumps from my arms and bumps against my leg. I give him a kitty treat and thumb through the mail, noting the package from Luxury Lines which contains my cruise ticket and information for their twentieth anniversary celebration cruise. Doesn’t look like any of it’s been touched, but with Momma’s lock-picking skills, I never know for certain.
I follow my routine, checking to make sure the lock on my safe hasn’t been tampered with, my password book is still hidden, my computer’s login record shows the last access was mine. So far, everything’s been left alone.
My shoulders unwind. I move to the wet bar and pour a whiskey. I tell myself that I’m safe, that all is well, even as a sense of shame snakes through my chest. No one else analyzes their home the way I do.
But they don’t have mothers like mine.
“Hey Google, play a John Coltrane mix.” The relaxing sounds of the sax fill my living room, and I sag against the bar, sip my drink, and let exhaustion take hold. For a few days, I can rest. My next trip is all mine. I’m not on deadline, I’m not on assignment—other than the homework my therapist gave me.
Leo winds around my leg, gives a sweet mew, and limps to my leather couch.
He’s limping. Everything in me freezes as all my caveman instincts go into high alert.
“Leo! What happened?” The next second, I’m cuddling next to him on the couch, checking his limbs, pressing his fur to see if he has any pain. He stretches out for tummy rubs and purrs, seemingly all right.
Except he was limping.
I take a hard look at my living room, and something curls around my stomach.
The blanket on my chair is rumpled, not the way I left it. The framed picture of me and Gabriel is propped against the lamp, the cardboard kickstand at the back of the frame ripped off and flung to the floor. There’s a pillow on the rug under my favorite painting, the one of a person split in two with a shining light connecting the halves. It’s crooked. One corner barely higher than the other, as if something was thrown at it. I look at the pillow, at the arm chair directly across from the painting.
Momma’s been here.
I try to tamp down the panic, try to push away the worry, but it’s pointless. What did she do this time?
I pull my lip balm out of my pocket and rub it into my lips, the ritual soothing my nerves. It could’ve been Mrs. O’Neil, but she never ventures further than Leo’s dish in the kitchen, and the electric shocks shooting through my chest are too familiar to ignore. I fumble for my phone, ignore the text from my editor. I sign into my bank accounts, my credit cards, my fingers trembling over the screen. Everything looks in order.
What. Did. She. Do?
This is exactly what my therapist has drilled into my head. Don’t let her in your safe places.
But I didn’t. I don’t. She pries her way in, despite all my efforts. I drop my head to my hands. I won’t cancel my credit cards, my debit cards, have them issue me new numbers. Not again. It’d put a kink in my next trip, and Momma would have already maxed everything out if that’s what she was after.
I unpack one suitcase and pack the next, layering in flowing pants, fitted tops, boyfriend jeans, my favorite leather cropped jacket, ignoring the drum beat in my temples pounding out what did she do, what did she do, what did she do. I throw in some dresses, exactly one athletic swimsuit, fire off a few emails, and text my editor—who ropes me into writing an article on “The Secrets of Grand Cayman,” even though technically, this is a vacation. The only secrets I’m interested in discovering on this cruise are the ones about Daddy’s death. Those have stayed buried deep, deeper than even my high-priced therapist has been able to dig.
There’s a kick in my chest. One that speeds up and clashes with the drum beat in my head. Luxury Lines’s anniversary celebration leaves in two days, recreating its virgin voyage from twenty years ago. The same Caribbean cruise, the same ship, the same itinerary leading to the day Daddy died. The same cruise where I lost all my memories and my reasons why. I’d even booked the same cabin.
When the opportunity appeared, Doctor Hart had jumped out of her chair with an enthusiastic cheer. This was my chance, she’d said, to recreate the trip on which Daddy died. The trip that started my blackouts. The blackouts that get worse every anniversary. She calls my blackouts an anniversary effect, and maybe, maybe by recreating the original trip, something will trigger a memory. It sounds like hogwash to me, but at this point, I’m desperate.
A lifeline dangles in front of my nose, and after years of therapy and confronting my issues, it’s come down to this—I need answers from the day of his death to get closure and fully heal.
I need to remember the memories I’ve blocked.
My phone rings with the lyrics to Reba’s “Fancy.” Momma. My thumb hovers over the ignore button, but she’ll just call back again and again. If I don’t pick up, she’ll make the forty-five-minute drive from Rosharon and show up on my doorstep with a mixed-up bag of love and abuse. No, thanks.
I punch my thumb on the answer button—“Hi, Momma”—and weariness slides out of my voice.
“You sound tired. I been tellin’ you for years, all this traveling’s gonna make you old before your time.” Her voice plows into me, more of a culture shock than walking through the arrivals gate at Bush Intercontinental.
“Yes, Momma, I know. Everything okay?”
“Fine, just fine.” Her voice is more chipper than usual, and it sends up warning flares. “I’m in the middle of packing. What is the appropriate attire for dinner on a cruise ship?”
My stomach twists into a hard knot. A slow, steady stabbing starts picking at my temples. My apartment seems to stretch out, snap back together, then stretch out again.
How did she know? I’d hidden everything. Researched online in incognito browser tabs. Kept the trip off my calendar. Even bought my cruise ticket in person so there’d be no trace. How could she—? My heartbeat trips. The pile of mail on the counter hunches over like a traitor on trial. The oversized cruise booklet with my luggage tags tries to hide at the bottom.
“What?” Momma continues. “We should be together on your daddy’s anniversary. Even better, we can toast to his life at the place of his death. What do ya think of that?” Her cackling laugh reminds me of a trained monkey I met in Burma.
My throat is dry, too dry for the humidity that invades every part of southeast Texas. “It’s too late to add you to the sailing. The trip is in two days.” I hold onto sinking hope that she buys that lie.
“Wrong! I called the cruise line. They said they could add me onto your room when we check in. Isn’t that grand?”
“Momma, it’s really not the best—”
“I’m coming, Jesse-girl.” Her tone flips, her voice deepening, all hints of play and excitement long gone, and for a moment I’m seventeen, and Momma is peppering the side of my boyfriend’s truck with a shotgun, pounding nails into the rusted aluminum siding of our trailer to seal my window shut, waiting for me outside school, never giving me a chance to defy her.
Never giving me a chance at all.
I sink to the floor, holding the phone against my ear, and Leo nudges my elbow. I lean my forehead against his, soak in the soft vibrations of his purr. Across the room, I swear I can see Daddy’s face, staring at me from the shadows, shaking his head at Momma’s bullying.
“I’m showing up at that port and will meet you at security.” Momma’s voice pummels my head. “I need to say goodbye to him too.” Her voice breaks a little, and the rare show of emotion twists me up, steals all my arguments. “You aren’t leaving me behind. Not this trip, not this time.”
I curl around Leo, hugging the cold marble, wishing I could disappear. And the shadows reaching for me—they darken a little more.