Bethany House Publishers
Brent Stark liked a lot of things about Austin. He liked the washed Texas sky at dawn, china blue and so big he could lie on a fresh-cut lawn and fly away forever. He liked waking up sober and free. Two huge words for a man who had once lost sight of both. He liked the life he had carved for himself since coming out of those big steel gates, walking under the razor wire that last time, taking that first breath of freedom. He liked having the last of his three penitentiaries a stone's throw away, close enough to remind him whenever that hunger started gnawing at his gut. Which happened less and less these days. But still.
Brent raised his head with the others. Giving thanks was a big part of these dawn AA meetings. All AA meetings followed a similar course, but each held a different makeup. This particular one was unreservedly Christian. Folks who wanted their higher power in more liberal doses were directed elsewhere. This particular meeting was led by the same man who had mentored Brent ever since he had arrived at the Texas federal pen. Stanley Allcott was a former convict himself, and a former pastor. He spoke a con's language, but with a Bible in his hand.
Brent Stark liked this place just fine.
After the closing prayer, Brent was moving down the central aisle when it happened. A woman Brent hadn't noticed before planted herself in his way and declared, "You're him."
Stanley glided over with remarkable swiftness for such a big man. "And you're new, aren't you, ma'am."
"But it's him. The movie star!" She had an alcoholic's ability to laser-focus on what she wanted. She ignored entirely the pastor blocking her path. "Oh, oh, what's your name, it's right hereon the tip of my tongue."
Stanley had a Texan's inbred courtesy. And a pastor's ability to criticize gently. "We don't talk about lives we once had, ma'am. Not unless the other members—"
"Oh, I know all that." She scrabbled through her purse. "All I want is his autograph."
The group leader inserted himself more completely between Brent and the woman. "We are glad to have you join us. But if you ever want to come again, you'll have to abide by our rules."
"There are no exceptions. Each of us comes in here with a past, and whatever that past may contain, it's confidential unless we choose to share." Stanley displayed his ability to command gently but firmly. "Your only choices are coffee and doughnuts, or the door. Take your pick."
Brent slipped around them and headed for his truck. These days, getting sideswiped by fans mostly happened after they aired one of his films on cable. But his guard was down in the meetings. Especially this morning.
The parking lot was typical for AA, with everything from heaps like his truck to a hundred-thousand-dollar status-on-wheels. Brent rolled down his window in a slow steady motion, his mind caught by recollections of the glory days. Back when he really was what that lady had called him.
The image flashed then. Of that last night, the last drive, and a woman whose hair shone like spun moonlight. That night Celia Breach had laughed from the seat beside him. She laughed a great deal back then, a beckoning sound that gunned his heart rate up to redline and beyond.
In these recollections, Brent always thought she told him to slow down. To pay attention to the road and not to her. Offering advice he had been too stoned to either remember clearly or obey.
Brent shut his eyes and shuddered through the rest of the memory—a flash of red from an oncoming car, a scream, the wheel spinning from his hands as they jumped the curb and smashed through a picket fence. Suddenly a stucco wall loomed before them, followed by an explosive impact. Then shattering glass, crushing metal, pain ...
"You okay there?" The pastor waited for Brent to open his eyes to continue, "Today of all days."
Stanley leaned one elbow on Brent's open window. "We could pack up and leave for the hill country right now."
Two years previously, Brent had been out four months and three days, with six weeks left on his parole. Stanley had displayed a telepath's ability and known Brent stood on the abyss. So he'd packed Brent up and taken him into the most beautiful region of Texas and walked him until Brent had forgotten what day it was. Almost.
Stanley went on, "I've been begging God for a reason to get back up there where a man can breathe easy."
"That was a good day," Brent replied.
"The kind of day we're supposed to focus on." Stanley gave his friend a piercing inspection. "Instead of the regrets, the if-onlys, and the thoughts that stab us in the night."
Stanley Allcott had been out for seven years. He had recently been promoted to associate pastor of the church where this AA meeting took place. He was back in the pulpit again, leading the Wednesday evening services almost against his will. The services were packed.
Brent said, "Thanks, but Liz Courtney invited me to a get-together tonight with some friends."
"What kind of friends?"
"From the amateur theater group. They know who I am, and they know what I've done, and they know I'm clean."
"You sure about that?"
"I'll be fine, Stanley."
His friend patted the truck's side, like he was gentling a restless steer. "You get that itch, I'm five minutes away." Brent started his truck, waved his thanks, and eased his rig out of the lot. He saw his friend standing there still and knew Stanley was praying him away. Brent waved his arm in a Texan farewell, a lazy drift up and back, showing an ease he did not feel. The day ahead was anything but easy. There were too many memories eager to batter him into oblivion.
Five years ago tonight, Brent had stood at the back of a crowd of cons hooting at a television screen housed in a wire cage. He'd watched as his former producer and drinking buddy had walked forward and accepted Brent Stark's Oscar for best supporting actor. On behalf of the pal who was in San Quentin, doing three to ten.
* * *
Liz Courtney was, among other things, a mover and shaker in the Austin business scene. She was also Texan to the core, a sophisticated lady who had hunted first with her daddy and then with her husband, and still stalked birds and wild boar with her grown sons. When her husband died from a massive coronary five years back, Liz had inherited the family bank. Trained as an accountant, Liz had already worked for years in her husband's office. To the astonishment of many and the dismay of some, Liz had refused to sell out, but instead led the bank through successive years of steady growth. She was fanatic about her church, her family, her bank, her town, the local theater, and her friends.
Brent had met her soon after his arrival in Austin. Brent's parole officer had found him work with a tree trimmer who drank. One Saturday morning, Liz had watched Brent work around her house while his boss sat in the truck and nipped from a bottle. Liz had a talk with Brent and liked what she heard enough to set Brent up in business for himself. Liz had treated it like it was the most natural thing in the world to give an ex-con a fresh start. As though a felon's friendship was the only thanks she'd ever want.
Her home was modest by the standards of Texas rich, a low-slung ranch set on nineteen fenced acres. When Brent arrived, the house was already jammed with people, many of whom Brent recognized from the local theater. He stopped to say hello to his latest leading lady and shook hands with her bored-looking teenaged son. Helping himself to a soft drink, Brent left the crowd and stepped out into the backyard. A giant television played on the patio by the barbecue pit. The screen flickered with pre-show commentators and fashion naysayers. Brent did his best to tune it all out. He picked up a Frisbee and tossed it to Liz's Irish setter. The teenager came out and joined them.
About a half hour later, Brent was witness to a very strange event. His AA mentor, Stanley Allcott, arrived with two strangers in tow. Liz saw them through the rear glass doors and came close to launching herself through them in her haste to get there. "Stanley!"
"You don't know what it meant to get your call." Liz took the oversized man in a fierce embrace. When they finally let go, both of them swiped at tears. Liz's voice was a half inch from breaking as she said, "Hearing your voice after all this time was as close to heaven as I've been in a long time."
"I'm glad I had a reason to call."
"You don't need a reason. Not now, not ever." Which was good for another hard embrace.
A few minutes later Liz pried Brent away from his Frisbee game. "Stanley says to tell you his being here is a last-minute thing."
"Why doesn't he come tell me himself?"
"There's some big mystery about the two men he came with." Liz walked him down to where the cottonwoods anchored the riverbank. Some of the trees were older than the state. Liz stared out at the meadows and the rushing water with a tragic expression.
"What's the matter?"
She hugged both arms tightly around her middle. "Stanley was pastor of our church. The year I was appointed church treasurer, I discovered he was stealing to support a secret gambling habit."
"I didn't know about the gambling, of course. Just the missing funds."
"You turned him in?"
"I didn't have to, which I still count as a tragic blessing. I had to testify at his trial, though. That was the only time in my entire life I ever took sleeping pills, making it through that week. I went to the prison afterward and asked his forgiveness." Liz swallowed hard. "He came by the office once, you know, doing that AA thing."
Brent nodded. "Making a list of the ones we've wronged and meeting them face-to-face."
"It was about three years ago. I hadn't laid eyes on him since." Liz shook her head. "My husband and I thought the world of Stanley. It was good seeing him walk through my door tonight. Real good."
Brent wished he could focus entirely on what she was sharing. But he had an ex-con's fear of trouble. "Did he say anything about those men?"
"Only that the request came from somebody he couldn't say no to, and they've been asking questions around town about you."
"Are they cops?"
"Stanley didn't say. They claimed they're here to observe you, whatever that means."
"That doesn't make any sense. What do they think I've done now?"
Liz shook her head. You want my advice?"
Above him, the bare winter branches trembled. "Always."
"Don't let them get you alone."
* * *
Soon after his release, Brent had made the rounds of Austin's regional theaters. The early roles had been unpaid walk-ons, with theaters that wanted him for the scandal value of showcasing a genuine Hollywood has-been. For some people, it might have been a bitter humiliation. For Brent, it was acting.
Later, Brent appeared in Romeo and Juliet at the Austin Playhouse. He did Copenhagen at the University of Texas. Music Man at the Austin Musical Theater. He did two commercials. He did one-liners. He held no hope of ever making it back to Hollywood. As his former agent told him the one time they spoke after his release, Hollywood studios were not in the business of second chances.
He took what he could get because he loved acting. Going to prison had not quenched his thirst for the lights.
Brent's favorite stage was the Zachary Scott Theater on Toomey Road. The place might have less history than some of the others, but it was a wide-open house with room for newcomers' explosive enthusiasm. They had treated him oddly at first—some with resentment, others awe. Brent took two small one-line roles and thanked them sincerely for the chance. He was respectful of a first-time director in well over her head. He made no suggestions unless asked. He stayed sober. He refused liaison offers from both women and men and ignored how some labeled him the village eunuch. Slowly but surely, he earned his place as one of the gang.
Liz and her late husband had shared a passion for the theater. Every other month they had flown to New York and gorged on Broadway. Since losing her husband, Liz fought her solitude by actively supporting all the local theater groups. She nurtured talent wherever it arose. Even in the heart of a former felon.
* * *
By the time the pre-shows ended and the commentators worked the red-carpet crowd, Liz's Oscar party was in full Texas swing. Caterers flitted about as though on Rollerblades. People with heaping plates clustered around the screen on the patio and another in the oversized den. The largest crowd occupied the living room, which had been transformed into a theater with room to sit or sprawl before a wall-size screen. The crowd hooted as the lights dimmed. Stanley and the two men he'd brought remained in the back corner. They neither approached nor spoke. But they also did not let Brent out of their sight.
He drank his share of ginger ale and laughed at the banter. When friends asked him about the ceremonies and the parties, he did his best to respond. But his fears would not let him alone. There might come a time when he could be easy around cops, when he did not constantly fear the wrong step that might land him back inside. But he wasn't there yet.
After a half-dozen awards, Brent finally gave up and left by the side door. The crowd's noise followed him as he crunched down the drive to where he'd left his truck. His isolation bit hard. He knew twelve of those up for the top slots, had acted with two of the leading ladies, and had performed under three of the directors. There was an exquisite agony to seeing their faces painted and smiling on a night he yearned for and knew would never be his again.
But something even stronger than memories drove him away from the house, stronger even than his fear. He had been acting back there. Playing the role for the two sets of eyes at the back of the room. Honesty was one of those vital components of his new life. If he couldn't be honest, he had to leave. There was no going back on certain promises.
A lingering image chased him down the drive, of a woman with white blond hair, gemlike gaze, and the finest smile Brent had ever known. As he drove into the night, Brent could not say which was worse—not seeing Celia Breach among the glittering Oscar crowd or knowing she was absent because of him.
* * *
Celia Breach sat in the dark house and winced at the television's flickering images. Aiming her remote at the screen, she pushed the channel button as though shooting a fatal bullet. The awards show vanished, only to be replaced by the image of her own face, a closeup in a cable rebroadcast of one of her films. The image filled the screen with painful perfection. She snapped off the TV altogether.
Setting her wine glass on the coffee table, she rose and crossed the room on shaky legs. She halted before the gilded hall mirror. She should have asked Manuela to take this thing down long ago. A crack snaked down one corner, a souvenir of her rage after his last visit. She traced a finger along the scar that snaked down from her hairline, its pattern eerily similar to the crack in the mirror.
When she saw the tear reflected in the glass, she angrily swiped it away. "No." She spoke aloud, the single word echoing in the empty house. I will not let you do this to me. Never again....
My Soul to Keep by Davis Bunn
Copyright © 2007; ISBN 9780764204357
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.