Delusions of the Past

delusions of the past

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chapter-1

drop-cap-reg didn’t recognize her right away. She looked at the woman who stood on the doorstep of the cottage and raised her eyebrows questioningly, wondering who she was and what she was there for. She didn’t have a lanyard with ID to identify her as a canvasser for any charity or a utility repair person. She wasn’t someone that Reg recognized from the area. She might be a client that Sarah, Reg’s landlord, had lined up or someone who had seen Reg’s advertising and decided to drop by instead of making an appointment as requested in all of her posters.

Reg cocked her head and was about to ask the woman who she was when she suddenly realized. The woman looked a lot different now. Clean and tidy, her shoulder-length brunette hair smooth and silky, her face enhanced by a little makeup and not covered with sores and pockmarks. She’d had her teeth done. Maybe a full set of dentures or implants. She bore little resemblance to the mother that Reg remembered.

“Norma Jean,” Reg said, heart sinking.

Norma Jean smiled brilliantly, showing off the perfect teeth. “Oh, my baby. It’s been so long since I saw you!”

She fell upon Reg, embracing her, trying to pull her in close for one of those warm Hallmark moments. Reg pulled back, pushing her away, trying to get her personal space back. “Don’t do that! Don’t touch me.”

Norma Jean’s eyebrows went up, and the corners of her mouth went down. She gave Reg a kicked-puppy-dog look, all hurt and offended.

Reg held her hands up in front of her in a ‘stop’ signal. “You can’t just go around hugging people. You’re not my mother. Not anymore.”

“I am your mother and will never stop being your mother, no matter what you say or do.” The slight southern cadence and accent were the same as Reg remembered. That woman had lived in her head for decades, from the time she had died when Reg was four, until… Reg shook her head to try to rid it of the feeling of vertigo she felt whenever considering the timeline and the changes that Weston had caused when he went back to see her mother.

Norma Jean had died when Reg was four. But not in the timeline Reg now inhabited. Whatever Weston had done had changed essential parts of Reg’s past. Norma Jean had not died. Her spirit had not attached itself to Reg, her guilt making her a constant companion, always telling Reg what to do and attempting to undo the harm she had done while she had been alive.

Reg just stared at Norma Jean, trying to comprehend it all.

“Well, aren’t you going to invite me in?” Norma Jean queried, giving a flirty little pout, acting the role she had made up. Why had she suddenly shown up in Black Sands, Florida? Reg had made it clear that she didn’t want to see Norma Jean. Either Norma Jean was thicker than Reg believed, or she had wholly disregarded what her daughter had said, deciding to fly in from Maine regardless.

“Fine, come in,” Reg said finally, glancing around the yard to make sure Norma Jean was the only one there. She wasn’t sure who else she was looking for. Weston or a more current boyfriend? There was no way for her to prevent the powerful immortal from entering even if she tried.

She opened the door wide enough for Norma Jean and stepped back.

Norma Jean gave a smile and came in, acting like the queen of Black Sands. She looked around Reg’s little cottage, chin lifted, smile set firmly in place. Reg went to the kitchen to put on a kettle for tea, an action that had become habitual since she had moved to Black Sands and started seeing clients for psychic readings. A cup of tea always went over well with someone who was about to take a foray into the unknown. And Reg could read the tea leaves in the bottom of the cup if they were so inclined. Reg would go with whatever psychic reading method they preferred.

“This is real nice,” Norma Jean told her.

“Yeah.” Reg wasn’t in much of a mood for conversation. It was just a cottage in the back yard of Sarah’s big house, but it was better than anything else Reg had ever had on her own. Clean and neat and furnished in Sarah’s breezy Florida style. Certainly better than anything that Reg had ever lived in while she was still with Norma Jean, a series of flophouses, shelters, and cold nights on the street.

She watched the kettle intently, hoping that it would take all day to boil.

Norma Jean wandered around, looking at the decorations and furnishings. She touched the leaves of the plant that Fir had given to Reg when he told her that she needed living things in her environment. It did perk the place up a bit, giving the cottage a more homey feeling. Fir said that plants had feelings, and maybe Reg was sensing the warm feelings of the houseplant itself. Or perhaps it just looked good on the little side table.

Eventually, Norma Jean settled on the wicker couch and waited for Reg to make the tea and bring it over on the tray. She helped herself to one of the cups, and they both gave their attention to their tea, Reg studiously ignoring Norma Jean, until it was no longer possible, because Norma Jean was talking, forcing Reg to acknowledge her existence.

“They took you away from me when you were still real little.” She took a tentative sip of the tea but didn’t look like she enjoyed it. Reg couldn’t remember Norma Jean ever drinking tea. She would probably have preferred the Jack Daniels in Reg’s corner cupboard. “I didn’t have any say in it. I would have kept you if I could.”

Norma Jean had been destitute and addicted, completely unable to care for a child. The times that she had ignored Reg had been the best. Better to be ignored than abused. It was a wonder that it had taken child services four years to apprehend her.

“You couldn’t be a mother.”

“No… I guess I couldn’t,” Norma Jean admitted. “I needed to take care of myself and deal with my own problems before I could be responsible for someone else.”

Taking care of herself was all Norm Jean had ever done, self-serving and focused on her own gratification. How long had it taken for her to get straight after Reg had been removed? Ten years? Twenty?

Reg played with one of the red box-braids that hung down next to her face. It had taken Norma Jean twenty-five years to make contact with her daughter again. How much of that time had she been clean and sober?

“I’m sorry that you had to grow up in foster care. I would have gotten you back if I could have. But they wouldn’t even talk about letting you come back unless I cleaned up my act. And…” Norma Jean wavered, “after I was off the drugs, I decided it was probably best if you stayed there. I needed to figure things out… learn how to support myself. I recognized that I didn’t have what I needed to take care of a kid.”

“Good for you.”

“I’ve been looking for you. Once you were old enough to look after yourself, I kind of looked around… tried to find out where you might be… but I couldn’t find you. They wouldn’t give me any information, of course; those government agencies act like they’re so superior and won’t tell you a thing. I thought… that maybe you might be looking for me too. Once you aged out of the system, then you could go wherever you wanted to and you could look for me.”

Reg shook her head. Of course she had never searched for Norma Jean. She had known exactly where Norma Jean was. Dead and lurking in a corner of Reg’s brain. She had tried to banish the voice, not to go back there. Her life with Norma Jean had never been a happy place. She hadn’t liked the instability of foster care, but she had rarely wished she was back with Norma Jean again. “They told me you were dead,” she told Norma Jean flatly.

“What? Why would they do that? They knew I wasn’t dead!”

“Well, that’s what I thought.”

Norma Jean shook her head angrily. “I should sue them! I cannot believe that they would lie to you like that. We could have been reunited years ago.”

Reg sipped her tea, not answering. She wouldn’t have wanted to have reunited with Norma Jean.

Or would she? In the timeline where Norma Jean had not been killed, had Reg yearned to be back together with her again? If she’d known that Norma Jean was alive, would Reg have gone back to her once she was sixteen or eighteen and had a mind of her own? At least there would have been someone in her life who was a constant, even if Norma Jean wasn’t able to provide the care of a parent. It would have been better than being out on the streets, as Reg had been several times since her graduation from foster care.

There was a soft thud, and Reg turned her head to watch Starlight come out of the bedroom to see who was visiting.

Norma Jean looked at the tuxedo cat with the mismatched eyes and white spot on his forehead, her eyebrows drawing down in puzzlement. Starlight went to Reg’s side and, after surveying Norma Jean for a moment, jumped up into Reg’s lap. Reg put down her tea and petted him, stroking the longer fur down his back and scratching his ears and chin. Norma Jean shook her head.

“Where have I seen that cat before?”

Reg knew very well where she had seen the cat, but thought it interesting that Starlight would seem more familiar to Norma Jean than her own daughter. Did she not remember the woman who had been with the cat? Or had her drug-addled brain lost that detail or morphed it into something else?

“Maybe you saw a cat that looked like him,” Reg said. “This is Starlight.”

“You always wanted a cat. I don’t know how many times you dragged some stray in and tried to convince me that you would take care of it.”

“Did I?” Reg didn’t remember that. But she didn’t remember a lot of specific experiences from when she’d been with Norma Jean. She had, after all, only been four. A lot of people didn’t remember anything before they were five, not just traumatized kids taken into custody after a parent was murdered. Maybe Norma Jean remembered only that one time when little Reg had met Starlight and hugged and cuddled him and asked if she could keep him. Maybe that had become ‘dragging home random strays and asking to keep them.’ Parents did that sometimes. Blew one little incident up into something the child ‘always’ did.

Reg put her face against the top of Starlight’s head and breathed into his fur. It was always very calming to hold Starlight. He gave out good vibes. He had chosen Reg when she went to the animal shelter, rather than her choosing him, and she was glad that he had.

“So, tell me all about your life.” Norma Jean leaned forward. “I want to know everything. When you were little, where you’ve been, and what you’ve done. If you have a boyfriend. What you’re doing all the way in Black Sands.”

Reg disliked sharing information about her past. She particularly didn’t want to give Norma Jean any ammunition. Who knew how she might use it.

“Nothing to tell. This is just where I moved. Now I try to make a living… doing personal consulting.”

“Personal consulting,” Norma Jean tasted the words. “What exactly is that? What kind of consulting?”

“Life planning. Making decisions about the future. I help people to… look ahead in their lives. Or sometimes, to take a look back at the past and make their peace so that they can move forward again.”

“That sounds very interesting.” Norma Jean was impressed. “How do you get all of your business? You must make good money to live in a place like this.”

Reg cleared her throat. “It isn’t as much as you might think. My landlord helps me get some work; she’s really… tuned into the community. I advertise, mostly locally, put posters up on community bulletin boards or places they might frequent. It’s picking up steadily.”

She always worried about how long it would last, and wished that she’d discovered a treasure like gold or jewels instead of Weston. Why couldn’t it have been gold?

“Maybe you could help me. I’m always so confused about where to go with my life… I guess I don’t have very much direction. I don’t have any big talents. You must have gotten an education, to be able to do that kind of life planning for people.”

“All self-educated. I didn’t have any money to go to college. Nowhere to live. No one to cosign a loan. I didn’t do great in school, so there were no grants or scholarships.”

“Yeah. That’s the trouble with foster care. I’ve heard it’s really hard.”

She’d heard it. Too bad she hadn’t lived it. She might not be so sanguine about it.

“What about you? What are you doing?” Reg turned the question back on Norma Jean. She had enough money to buy a plane ticket across the country. She looked well-fed and focused. Not gaunt and wretched and scattered, unable to conceive of how to make it from one day to the next.

“I do a little of this and a little of that… just whatever I can pick up. That’s why I said I should have you give me one of those consultations.”

“You pick up what kind of work? Cleaning? Cooking? Outdoor work? Hooking?”

Norma gave a shocked laugh. “Oh, not that! Yes, sometimes cleaning or outdoor stuff like mowing lawns. Some retail stores. Just… positions that don’t require any experience. I don’t have much on my resume. Employers don’t think much of that.”

The same kind of jobs as Reg had hopscotched between until she had happened onto the psychic gig. That had worked well enough that she’d been able to give up the back-breaking, footsore work.

Reg got to her feet and put Starlight down. She moved around restlessly. She didn’t like having Norma Jean there. It made her anxious. She was too anxious and restless to sit in one place and chat as if they were old friends.

She went to the window and looked out into the yard. The grass was all neatly trimmed around the paving stones that made up the pathway. She couldn’t see the main garden from that side of the cottage, but she could see well-maintained bushes, trees, and lawn. It had looked nice before, and since Sarah had hired Forst as a gardener, everything was looking lush and bright and happy. He had done an excellent job.

A movement in the corner of her eye caught Reg’s attention, and she turned her head to look at it, but as soon as she did so, it was gone. She watched for a moment to see if it came back. Maybe a bird or the wind blowing a tree. She waited for the movement to repeat itself but she didn’t see it again.

“What are you looking at?” Norma Jean inquired.

“Nothing. I’m just looking.” Reg moved away from the window again. “So, how long are you here? What are your plans? I use the second bedroom as my office, so there is nowhere here for you to stay overnight.”

“Oh, I would never impose on you,” Norma Jean assured, her voice earnest and smooth. Reg didn’t believe it for a minute. Norma Jean had been hoping for an invitation, or failing receipt of an invitation, to be able to talk her way into staying in Reg’s cottage while she was in town. Reg hoped that she couldn’t find anywhere to sleep and had to go back home right away.

Reg drifted into the kitchen and cleared a few dirty dishes away. Norma Jean watched and didn’t offer to help. Not that there were enough dishes for her to help with. By the time she got to the kitchen, Reg would have been done.

There was a quick tap at the door, then the handle turned and Sarah bustled in. “Good morning, Reg. Isn’t it a lovely day out there today? Oh.” Her eyes settled on Norma Jean. “I didn’t know that you had company.”

Reg didn’t have quite what it took to say ‘she was just leaving’ to get Norma Jean out of the way. “This is… Norma Jean.” Reg swallowed and tried to think of how much information to share. “My mother.”

Sarah looked stunned. She put a hand over her heart. “Your mother? But I thought your mother—”

Reg waited for Sarah to say “was dead,” but she trailed off, not finishing the thought.

“Apparently not. That’s what they told me, back when I was little, but I guess it was just a lie.”

“Well, this is quite a shock.” Sarah landed heavily in the chair that Reg had recently vacated. “That’s amazing news. How… wonderful for you.” Sarah smiled at Norma Jean, turned her head and looked at Reg, and the smile on her face faltered.

“I was so excited to be able to track Reg down,” Norma Jean gushed. “And you must be her friend…?”

“Sarah.” Sarah stuck out her hand to Norma Jean and shook vigorously. “Yes, I’m Reg’s friend and her landlord.”

“Oh, so this is your place.”

Sarah nodded. “Well, I own it, but it’s Reg’s for as long as she wants to live here. I needed someone stable to take it for me. Reg has been a lifesaver for me.”

Did Norma Jean know she was being lied to? Reg didn’t do anything for Sarah but pay a minimal rent for the cottage. Sarah came and went, keeping everything clean and tidy, feeding Starlight when he insisted he was hungry, lining up clients for Reg, delivering her mail and flyers, and telling her about the community events coming up. She was like… a mother to Reg.

Maybe Norma Jean sensed this. Her mouth was a straight line, lips pressed together. She didn’t like this interloper in Reg’s life.

But to Reg, Norma Jean was the interloper. Who did she think she was, showing up on Reg’s doorstep without any warning and expecting to be invited in and even being allowed to stay with her for… however long Norma Jean was planning to stay? Reg bit her lip, worrying about that. Norma Jean hadn’t said anything to indicate that she had ties back home. She might be planning to move to Black Sands permanently. A choice that would make things very difficult for Reg.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Sarah told Norma Jean pleasantly. “I’m sure Reg will have the best time while you are here.”

Norma Jean gave a broad smile, which to Reg looked utterly fake. She nodded vigorously. “Oh, yes, we are going to have the best time, aren’t we honey?”

Reg didn’t try to match Norma Jean’s smile. The answer was no; they were not going to have the best time. Reg looked around, trying to figure out some way of getting out of the situation. She looked back at Sarah, wondering whether she could see the panic in Reg’s eyes.

“Did you… need something, Sarah?”

“Well…”

“Did you need me to do something for you? Norma Jean can go, I’m free if there’s something that you wanted…”

“No, no. It’s not that. It’s just that I needed to do some maintenance here. I know I haven’t given you the proper forty-eight hours’ notice, so I really shouldn’t spring it on you like this, but I was going to see whether you were going to… be out for part of the day. and then if you are, I could come back then to work on it.”

“Oh.” Reg looked around. “Well, you gotta do what you gotta do. Norma Jean, we’re going to have to vacate, so…”

“Are you going to go out to lunch?” Sarah suggested. “You could take her to The Crystal Bowl. Maybe go out shopping for a while or go for a walk in the park. Then by the time you are done, I’m sure I’d be mostly finished here.”

“Oh, yes, let’s!” Norma Jean jumped in. “That sounds like fun.”

Reg glared at Sarah. “I don’t think that I can fit that into my schedule today.”

“You can make time for your mother who you haven’t seen in years,” Norma Jean pouted. “It’s my treat. I don’t know the restaurants in the area, so you’ll have to tell me what’s good, but I’ll take you out and we’ll have a nice time.”

“Go,” Sarah encouraged, making a motion to shoo Reg out of the room. “You go on. Have a good time. I need the space to work.”

Reg shook her head. “What about Starlight?” she grumbled. “Do you need me to lock him up? What are you going to be working on?”

Sarah looked at the cat. She was not a cat person and would probably prefer that he weren’t underfoot, but she was always good about it and didn’t make a fuss. “Oh, no. He’ll be fine. I’ll only have the door open for a few minutes, and I’ll keep an eye on him to make sure he can’t get out.”

“And he won’t be in your way? You know how he has to get right in the middle of whatever you’re working on.”

“He won’t bother me. The two of you go ahead, go have a nice lunch together.”

Reg fetched her purse, moving slowly, still trying to think of an excuse to get out of it. She could tell Norma Jean that she had somewhere else to go. A competing appointment. But Norma Jean was going to know that something was up. And she would keep persisting until she got her own way. At least if they were going to lunch together, there was a natural break point where they could each say their goodbyes and go their separate directions. She only had to put up with Norma Jean for an hour or two.

That sounded like a very long time.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Delusions of the Past

By P.D. Workman

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