A Many Splendored Thing

Chapter One: The Runaway

The house stood at the far end of the road, surrounded by a high iron fence and gate. Rambling creeper vines covered the gothic structure, lending it a sinister aspect. The windows were placed in a way that made it seem as though the house was staring with malevolent eyes at the pitted and potholed road that rolled out before it. There were tiny cracks in the worn stone, and here and there could be seen crumbling masonry. It was clear that whoever the occupants were, they had long neglected maintenance. The grass around the house grew rank and wild, and the driveway was choked with weeds.

Two cars sat in the driveway, both rusting and missing their engines. The first car, a Lincoln Continental, stood on four flat tires and had all four windows smashed out. The interior was no better. The once leather seats had been chewed to pieces by generations of rats, mice, and other creatures who made the car their home. The second car, a Mustang, was in slightly better shape in that it had four full tires, but the seats were ripped and torn, and there was an enormous crack in the windshield. But it was even more useless than the Continental, as a gigantic wasps' nest was nestled where the engine had once been. Nobody in their right mind got within five feet of that car.

The exterior of the house, when seen up close, was a poster for neglect. The paint, which had once been a lovely shade of robin's egg blue, was now faded and peeling from the sun, and the window frames were beginning to crumble. Once, the house had shone like a jewel in the sun. Now it more resembled an old Dowager Duchess gone to seed. The once grand French Doors were warped and rotted with age and weather, and the rusted hinges squalled like a damned soul whenever the doors were opened.

Inside, the house was festooned with cobwebs and dust, and no matter how much one of the occupants tried her very best to make headway, it seemed as though the cobwebs came back in droves the next day. The furniture was leaking springs and stuffing, and a three inch layer of dust was a constant part of the atmosphere. The whole house gave off a reek of mold and mouse droppings.

In the kitchen, both sinks were piled high with dirty dishes, and the odor of spoiled milk permeated the room. The garbage was overflowing with liquor bottles of all sorts and sizes, and the fridge stood open and empty except for a Tupperware container of three day old meatloaf, a bag from McDonalds, and a gallon of orange juice that now only held maybe two swallows.

Heading up the stairs was an exercise in bravery. The warped steps creaked and groaned every time something smaller than a mouse stepped on them, and the banister was slimy with mold, crud, and other items not worth thinking about.

There was only one room in the entire house that a person could conceivably want to live in. It was at the very top of the stairs, and it belonged to the daughter of the occupants of the house, a Judge and Mrs. David Owens. Judge Owens was a Family Court Judge, and his wife, Lucinda, was a stenographer in his office. Their daughter, Rachel, was attending Boston College, pursuing a Degree in Children's Literature. At the moment, though, she was on her Winter Break.

Rachel's room was in stark contrast to the decayed and rotting house. Her bed was made, her numerous books organized on her shelves, and her clothes cleaned and hung in her closet or folded in her dresser. Rachel was lying on her stomach on her bed, her laptop in front of her and a frown of concentration on her face.

She was a tall and shapely woman of twenty four, with dark red hair and blue green eyes, and she was wearing a pair of dark red Capri pants and a dark green blouse. Her hair was slightly curly at the ends, and she had freckles on her face and along her arms. Her legs were long, and she scissored them back and forth as she perused her term paper. . She was writing on the way storytelling had changed over the centuries, but she was stuck on the final part. She hummed along to her current song, head bobbing in rhythm. "I wish I had an angel…" she sang softly, unaware that she was singing at all.

When she wrote a paper, the world around her faded to background noise, a defense mechanism she had perfected over the years of living at home when her parents would stumble in at three or four in the morning from another 'Office Party', both of them drunk out of their minds. It wouldn't have been so bad, she had thought once, if her parents had been quiet drunks. But they were the sort of people that when they got drunk-which happened quite often-they became loud and abusive, and their favorite punching bag was their only daughter. It was her father that would start first, asking her if she was still wasting his money on frivolities such as books. When Rachel would point out that she herself had bought many of the books she owned from second hand stores, flea markets, and garage sales, he would give her a stinging slap across the face for being insolent. As she grew up, the insults became more vicious and spiteful, and her father graduated from merely slapping her across the face to punching. When she was twelve, he had broken her arm in two places when she tried to stop him from ripping up a story she was writing for her class.

Her mother was no better, because while she never raised a hand to Rachel, she also never raised a hand to stop her husband, and often joined him in insulting their daughter. When Rachel won a Scholarship to Boston College, she leapt at the opportunity to get away from her home and parents, and for the first time she felt truly free. She had wanted to go to college straight out of high school, but unfortunately the money hadn't been there. So she had found a job at the local library stocking shelves, sweeping, and doing anything else the Head Librarian asked her to. However, after two years of working her buns off, she was still no closer to her goal of college, and she refused to ask her parents for any help, not that they had any money left. Most of their not so vast fortune had been drunk. Then her boss had told her about scholarships, and she had spent months researching until she found one that looked promising. She had always wanted to be a writer, and Boston College was offering scholarships to budding writers. The requirements seemed daunting-write a novel or a book of poetry and submit it-but Rachel was the sort of person that, once they become determined to do something, they don't stop until it's finished. So with the encouragement of Mrs. Gordon, her boss, a healthy dose of insomnia, and an inkling of an idea, she sat in front of her laptop and began to write.

It took one and a half years of blood, sweat, and tears to finish, but when her book was done, and she mailed it off to the college, she felt a surge of pride. And when the Acceptance Letter arrived, her whoop of joy carried through the house. Four years, full ride, as long as she kept her grades up. And she had.

"RACHEL!" The sound of her father's drunken shout broke through her head, and she clenched her fists and counted slowly to ten before saving and exiting her paper and heading downstairs, face carefully neutral at the ever so familiar sight of the Honorable Judge David Owens bombed out of his skull.

Judge Owens had once been a handsome man. But the years of drinking had taken their toll, and now he looked more like a homeless wino than a respectable judge. His hair, which had once been the same color as his daughter's, was a lusterless brown and hung in clumps on his balding head. His eyes were brown, but constantly blood shot from the alcohol, and they peered out from a fat face broken by capillaries. His cheeks hung down like a bull dogs, and his nose was bulbous, the veins broken. His skin was covered in liver spots, and one hand constantly shook. His clothes were tattered and torn, and he would wear the same suit days in a row. He was tall, but fat and his fingers reminded Rachel of sausages. His belly hung over his pants, and as he swayed on his feet, he kept hitching up his belt. His drink of choice ranged from cheap beer to expensive scotch-when it came to alcohol, Rachel's parents didn't discriminate. His voice was as Rachel always remembered it-loud and drunk. Even on the rare occasions when he was sober, he still sounded like a buffalo in heat. Despite his bulk, he could move quickly, and Rachel had learned to be ready to run at the slightest sign of anger.

He glared at her, but Rachel had long since grown immune to his hateful stares. Once, she had been cowed by them, but after so many years, she couldn't bring herself to give a fuck. Whether that was a good sign or not, she didn't know. What she did know was that she was tired, she had a paper worth half her grade due when she came back from Break, and that once again her asshole father had come home drunk out of his mind.

"What, Dad?"

She ducked just in time to avoid his fists. Judge Owens' face was red with drunken rage. "What the hell have you been doing all day? Goofing off? This place is filthy! Why don't you make yourself useful and clean it once in a while?"

"Maybe because I don't have the word 'MAID' stamped across my forehead, that's why." This time she wasn't fast enough, and he slapped her to the floor. Rachel glared up at him, tears of rage and hatred burning in her eyes. "You know, when you and Mom asked me to come home for a visit, and swore that you had changed, I should have realized that you were lying. You're still a fucking asshole abusive bastard and a drunk, and Mom's an even bigger lush than you. Where is she, by the way? Out getting plastered?"

Judge Owens lifted her up by the collar of her shirt, bringing her face close to his, and Rachel tried not to gag at the fetid smell of alcohol on his breath. "You listen to me, you worthless brat. If you talk back to me again, I will beat you so badly you won't be able to walk for a week. And there's nothing you can do about it. I'm a pillar of the community, well liked and respected by my colleagues. A few phone calls and I can have a judge friend of mine declare you mentally incompetent. How would you like that? I could also fix it so you get kicked out of school. So I'm only going to say this once. Don't ever mouth off to me again." With those words, he threw her down on the steps and stumbled into the kitchen. A few moments later, she heard the sound of the liquor cabinet-which was, of course, always kept full-open.

She wiped a bead of blood from her mouth, her mind racing. After a few moments of thought, she headed upstairs, packed her bags, and walked out the open front door. A cab stood in the drive, and her mother stumbled out, giving her a drunken look. "Where you think you're going?" She was laden down with bags, and Rachel bit back a caustic remark.

Lucinda was the opposite of her husband in appearance. She seemed to be all sharp lines and angles, and Rachel had forgotten years ago what her natural hair color was. Her mother had destroyed it through numerous dying and chemical treatments, turning it to what Rachel had silently dubbed grey straw. Lucinda Owens had a perpetual frown on her face, and her green eyes glinted with drunken malevolence. Her mouth was set in a thin red line. Unlike her husband, Lucinda would only wear the latest fashions. Any money that wasn't spent on wine coolers and whiskey was spent on expensive clothes. Rachel had long stopped protesting the unfairness of it-her mother had the best of the best, and her daughter was forced to scour thrift stores for clothes. As a result, she had cultivated her own fashion sense. It was another point of contention between them. Lucinda Owens followed the latest fashions blindly, and she could not comprehend why her daughter would, in her words, "Dress like a reject from the circus."

Rachel glared at her. "Anywhere but here. Your husband is in the kitchen getting even more shitfaced. I can't do it anymore. As far as I'm concerned, we're done. Now, if you'll excuse me..." she pushed past her mother, climbing into the back of the cab and shutting the door, relief coursing through her. This was it. She was severing all ties, and never returning home ever again.

The cabbie glanced at her in the rearview mirror. "Where to?"

Rachel opened her mouth, and then shut it in confusion. She had no place to go, she realized. The dorms on campus were locked up, and she had no other relatives that she could stay with. She had enough money for a cab ride, but not enough for a cab ride and a motel room at any place above a roach infested flea bag. But there was no way in Hell that she was going back into that house ever again. As she sat trying to consider her options, she remembered something her dorm mate had said just before they parted ways.

"We'd be more than happy to have you for the Break, Rach. The house is big enough, and since it's just Dad and me we can get pretty bored."

Rachel smiled at her roommate. Adelina Black was two years younger than her, with blond hair and blue eyes. She had been a cheerleader in high school, and kept it up in college. Despite looking like the stereotypical dumb blond-large breasts included-Adelina was, in point of fact, extremely intelligent and studying Forensic Anthropology. She and Rachel had hit it off right away, discovering a mutual love for chocolate milkshakes, good fantasies, and a mutual hatred of Mr. Jennings, the Dean of the Arts and Sciences Department. They could never quite agree on just why they despised him, but their consensus was because he looked like a fish and smelled like a dead frog. On top of that, he was utterly incompetent at his job, but he had tenure.

Rachel lay back on her bed, looking over at Adelina. "I do appreciate the invitation, Addie, but Mom and Dad seemed genuine this time. I know I'm probably the biggest idiot in the world for actually believing them, but I still harbor some grudging affection for them."

Adelina snorted in derisive laughter. "After the way you described them, I'm surprised you don't hate their guts with a blazing passion. But I can respect your decision."

"Thanks Addie."

Adelina sat next to her, giving her a one armed hug. "Look, at least let me give you the address. It won't be a major undertaking for you to come for a visit." She wrote down the address over Rachel's protests, placing it in her hand. "Remember, you can stop by anytime. We'd love to have you."

The cabbie looked at his fare. "Miss? Where to?"

Rachel grinned and dug into her bag, pulling out the paper. "Cambridge. 3214 Rosewood Avenue."

"Can do, Miss. It might take a while to get there. The cab's clean, so if you want to stretch out and catch some sleep, be my guest."

Rachel nodded in thanks, and then stretched out in the back seat and let the rhythm of the wheels on the road lull her into slumber.

"Dad! Where's my Calculus Book?" Adelina Black stood in the kitchen doorway, gazing in slight exasperation at her father. Lucas Black was at the stove, stirring up a pot of chicken soup and singing 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' in a cracked voice. "Dad!"

"Hmm? Oh, Addie. What is it?"

Adelina laughed. "My calculus book. Have you seen it?"

Her father frowned at her. "You're on vacation, sweetie. Forget about math." She gave him a look, and he sighed. "It's on the top shelf of the linen closet." Adelina rolled her eyes and went to retrieve her book, and Lucas returned his attention to dinner.

Strangers that first met Adelina and Lucas often took them for brother and sister. They both had the same dark blond hair and grey green eyes, and Lucas looked much younger than his forty two years. He kept himself in shape by swimming every day when it was warm and jogging in the cooler weather. He was a freelance reporter, and despite his daughter constantly pushing him to apply for the position of editor for their local paper, he loved and enjoyed what he was doing. He also made a modest living writing and submitting short stories and novellas for a magazine.

He had been forced to raise Adelina on his own after the death of his wife in a car accident twelve years ago, and if asked, he would state with some confidence that he had done a rather decent job.

He had an aura of confidence and charisma that drew women to him, and for a while he had tried dating, convinced by his mother that her granddaughter needed a maternal figure in her life. But it seemed to him that while he was able to easily attract women, they were always the wrong kind of women. They would be sweet and lovely on the first date, but as soon as he introduced them to Adelina, something in them changed. They were more than happy to have him all to themselves, without a pesky daughter thrown into the mix. So after a numerous string of disasters, he had given up on finding anyone.

He heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, then the sound of a car door slamming. "Addie, see who's here!"

"OK!"

Adelina went to the front door, wincing as thunder rumbled nearby. She could see the rapidly darkening skies through the living room windows, and jagged streaks of lightning danced across the sky. She opened it, beaming in surprise and joy. "Rachel!" Her smile faded at the look on her friend's face. Her bottom lip was swollen, and she had tears brimming in her eyes. She spoke in a voice on the verge of tears.

"Is the invitation to stay still open?"