by BK Davis
Rated: 18+ · Novel · Young Adult · #647499
Jadean McCoy heads for New Jersey to start a new life
|CHAPTER 1: Starting Over|
The first rays of morning rose above the distant horizon, casting an ominous shadow on the final stop of my journey. It grew as the bus I was on drew closer and closer to Atlantic City. Soon, it would consume the entire bus; myself included, and the thought of it doing so terrified me.
Uncertain of what my future would hold here, I felt like a fish out of water. I was in unchartered waters, knowing no one other than my aunt who lived here for nearly two decades.
Would I come across new horizens while I stayed here? Come across new lands and aborginal people no one ever encountered, only to find myself being the one being dissected into a specimen for everyone to see?
Compounded with these uncertainities, fear overwhelmed me, wrapping itself around my heart and squeezed it until I couldn’t breathe. I began to choke and cough, drawing the attention of everyone on board. I felt the heat of embarassment rise below my cheeks, and wished I could have crawled beneath this very seat to avoid further embarassment. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself; yet, I had.
One woman sitting across the aisle turned toward me. "Are you all right, dear?"
Despite being able to nod my head, I couldn’t bring myself to verbally answer her. My throat had become so raw and tight with coughing it prevented me from speaking.
I've never before felt such a burning, or tingling sensation before. It first rose from the back of my throat, edging its way further into my mouth toward my lips.
I prayed I wouldn't get over my clothes or, especially, this nice woman. I would have been mortified, feeling the need to crawl somewhere and bury my head in the sand. A part of me wished I had. It would have saved me from being gawked at, I thought. However, I knew, it would have drawn additional attention, but perhaps not as much as it would have if I had died from choken or taken to the hospital for treatment.
I envisionalized the local authorities being called in in addition to paramedics
Hearing the call on the scanners, a couple of news vans would show up, turning the whole entire episode into a media circus I had hoped to avoid by coming here. Yet, my imagination continued to run rampant. Nineteen year-old Nebraskan girl rushed to the hospital after choking on a Greyhound bound for Atlantic City; death caused by asphyxiation, or an obstructed airway, whatever would have made the headline more scintillating for those turning in for the early morning news program.
I thought about my poor parents, sitting back home on the front porch of our farm. They were still reeeling from everything I had put them through before I left; did they really need to be contacted, notified that their baby girl was dead even before she made her way East? No, I didn’t believe they did. Yet, I could easily imagine the media frenzy circulating the farm. Camped out in front of the old farm house, reporters would swarm around Mama and Daddy like bees to honey.
“Mrs. And Mr. McCoy, what type of girl was your daughter? Was she a good girl?” They’d ask “How do you feel, knowing that she died on her way East, after you shipped her off there against her will?” Would they really have cared; or would they have regretted their decision, knowing that they didn’t save me afterall….
The odds were against my early demise; at least, they were at this conjunction. Redeemed through the kindness of a perfect stranger, Lady Luck welcomed me into America’s Favorite Playground. She extended her hand across the aisle, and, on her palm, she held out a cough lozenge. "Go on; take it," she said. "It may help."
I took it and mouthed a "thank you" to her before placing the lozenge between my lips. It brought a smile to her face. For a moment, the elderly woman and I just stared at one another; she then asked how I was.
"Better," I replied. "Thank you again. I don’t know what came over me."
"As long as you’re all right, dear; that’s all that matters." The woman smiled again and patted me on the arm. Our eyes met and we stared for the longest time before either of us spoke. She went first. "Are you looking forward to your stay?"
She nodded. "I can tell that you’re not from around here."
"My accent, right?"
Again, she nodded. "I’ve also been watching you” she admitted. “The way you were staring out of the window, and writing in your journal there. Not like someone who is eager to get home, or to whereever it is you’re going…."
This time, I was the one to smile. It had been over a week since I left home. And, as the woman alluded to, my trip East wasn’t a homecoming. In fact, it was the farthest thing from that.
Even though I couldn’t admit to it to anyone, I was travelling East to begin a new life.
My folks and the authorities back home thought it best, believing my coming here would help me to begin a new chapter in my life. One that would not include some of the people I once associated with, primarily the man I once loved and thought would marry one day.
"Don’t be embarrassed, dear,” the woman said, believing she had embarrassed me. “Think of your time on the road as some sort of adventure.
“Each town we passed through has its own story; its own page within your young memory…” She added, waving her hand through the air between us like it had been some sort of magic wand.
"I wish I had your enthusiasm," I admitted. "And your sense of story-telling."
"You will, my dear. You will. Just give yourself some time. You’re still young! And, besides, we haven’t even arrived at the bus terminal yet! Imagine what’s still out there, just waiting for each of us to explore and take in!"
I couldn’t help but laugh at the woman’s enthusiasm for a trip that was otherwise long and tedious. For the past week, other than switching buses in Kentucky and the one time the coach had overheated, there was nothing else to do but to stare out into the openness.
I must admit, though, that the time spent doing exactly that did fly by. It flew as quickly as the images I saw from my motor coach window. On the other hand, what was there to see but fields of grazing cows and horses that eventually were replaced by highways lined with billboards and abandoned buildings.
The woman was right. I should have been more enthusiastic about my journey. I should have seen it as an adventure. After all, I was indeed coming here to start over, to start anew. But, instead, I felt like a common criminal, one who was being sent to Siberia.
Circumstances beyond my control warranted the move. My parents, as well as the authorities, thought it best that I did. Relocating, they argued, would put me out of harm’s way, and within a couple of days they had my things packed and me on a Greyhound heading for America’s Favorite Playground.
I resisted at first. I swore I’d never leave. They couldn’t force me to. And if they did, "I’d run away," I swore. "The moment I get there, I’d turn myself right around and come right home!"
"And where are you going to go, Jadean," my father asked. "No matter what you do, or where you go around here, you’re be a walking target for Peyton’s goons."
"Your father’s right," Mama agreed. "You’ll be better off where you’re going."
That’s when I learned they were shipping me off to New Jersey, to live with Aunt Jean and her new husband.
"Why there?" I asked. "That’s the first place they’re going to look!"
DA Blaine Thompson said they’d already considered that possibility. As such, arrangements were already made for me to switch buses at least once before arriving in Atlantic City.
"It’s going to look like you’re going anywhere but there," Blaine said. "You’re going to switch buses in Kentucky.
"Additionally, we’ll make it seem the bus broke down," he added. "And have you head north before coming back to New Jersey. It’ll look like you went joy riding before setting your sights on any one particular place."
I still objected. Knowing Peyton wasn’t stupid, I said, "Peyton’s going to think to check with Aunt Jean. She’s his aunt, too!"
"We believe he won’t," Blaine replied. "In fact, we’re counting on that."
"I hope you’re not a betting man, DA Thompson. I would hate to see you loose your shirt over this!"
"What, Daddy?" I said vehemently. "It’s not like he knows first hand how Peyton is. All he ever saw of him was in court! I’ve been around him. Been with him—"
"You don’t have to remind us," Daddy said, waving his hand for me to stop.
"All I’m saying is that Peyton IS going to contact Aunt Jean. After all, she was married to Uncle JD, his father’s brother!”
I turned on Blaine, my eyes accusing him. “I thought you were placing me in witness protection. What happened with that?”
Blaine hesitated; his mouth twisted. I imagined I caught him off-guard, and he wanted to choose his words carefully. “I’m sorry; it just wasn’t possible. I tried, but my supervisors didn’t find your situation warranted the program.”
“I didn’t warrant the program? What are you kidding,” I retorted. “Sending me to New Jersey is going to make me an easy target! God!”
"Jadean, you’re worrying over nothing," Blaine insisted. "Peyton isn’t going to break out of prison. He’s not going to come after you. And even if he did, you’re going to be protected, at all times. Trust me."
"How can I? You’re not giving me any proof other than your word. In my book, that’s worth the paper it’s written on...nothing."
"Believe what you will, Jadean. You’re going and you’re going to like it!" Daddy ordered.
"And be cordial to your aunt and her new husband," Mama added.
Yes, my new uncle. How could I forget? Aunt Jean surprised us with a letter a month prior, announcing her recent marriage to a man young enough to be her own son.
"He is such a gentleman," Aunt Jean wrote. "You would not believe what a catch he is! He is a living god, like something out of a Hollywood movie...Can’t wait for you all to meet him," she concluded before signing off.
"Did you hear your mother," Daddy said.
I nodded, replying, "I’ll do my best."
God willing, I thought.
Despite being angry, I understood my parents’ decision to send me here. The past few years, I’d brought nothing but heartache to them, especially my mother.
She had higher hopes for me, even pictured me going off to college.
"I want you to experience things I never got the chance to," she said.
Mama had once envisioned herself going. God knew, if she had, it would have helped our family during the slow times. She could have found more suitable work then she did whenever our crops were destroyed by heat waves, days upon days of rain or some other natural disasters. But without a college degree, there were few and far between jobs to choose from. She took what she could.
Nonetheless, I knew Mama always regretted not getting her degree. Even though she never said so, I could see it in her face. I especially heard it in her words whenever she spoke to me about having goals and about getting an education.
"There is so much out there for you, Jadean. You’re young and beautiful and so very talented. You’re a very talented writer…don’t let those things go to waste by dilly-dallying around here and on Peyton Hatfield!"
But I didn’t listen. Instead, I opted for an education of another sort. One that ended me in court, twice.
The first time wasn’t that long after my conversation with Mama. I felt so ashamed; I couldn’t look at my parents, especially Mama, for nearly a month.
"How could you do this," Daddy ranted. His voice rose with every word spoken. "Your mama and I raised you better than stealing from Ollie MacDonald.
"And to vandalize his barn and cattle that way?! Do you even realize what you’ve done?"
Yeah. To make myself hated by own parents. Little did they know I was trying to make a statement. Farmer MacDonald was old and feeble. He kept his animals in the most inhumane conditions. Many were malnourished. Others slept in their own waste.
"You’re not the judge and jury, Jadean," my father went on. "There are proper ways of handling situations like this!
"What you did was childish and irresponsible. You could have gotten yourself killed!"
None of this prepared my parents for what happened next, though.
Peyton thought I needed some cheering up. So, we drove into town. Little did I realize what he had in mind.
"Here," he said, handing me a brown-colored bottle.
"What do you think? Beer, you dim whit. Drink up before it gets warm."
"Peyton, I can’t drink this! I’m underage!" I cried, my conscience speaking up.
He laughed. "When have you ever considered that before, JD? Certainly not last night when we were making love!”
Peyton laughed again, and then nudged me to take a sip. "What are you waiting for?"
I placed the opening to my mouth, and took a drink. I nearly gagged upon tasting the dark liquid, and heard Peyton laugh once again, this time at my displeasure.
"How can you stand this stuff," I asked, coughing and spitting some of it out.
"You’ll get used to it, Jadean. You’ll see!"
And with that, Peyton gunned the gas pedal, and, before I had a chance to take another sip, we were heading down Main Street toward the interstate. The speed Peyton was driving mirrored how fast we were drinking. We were throwing out the empty beer bottles with every passing mile.
"Yaaaahoooo," we both yelled from within the car.
Within moments, I had my head and half of my body out of the car, via the window. I continued to shout and holler.
I never felt so alive...
"Jadean, get in the car. Jadean!"
I looked back at Peyton. But before I had a chance to even ask why, I heard the screeching of the car wheels and then a powerful bang. The sound of it echoed within my ears until I came to. I sat up and looked around. Blood trickled down my forehead, blurring my vision.
"My head," I said, placing my hand to my temple. It throbbed like someone had just hit me with a pitch fork.
Looking around, I tried to focus on my surroundingss. It was only then that I had realized I had been thrown out of the car and was now sitting in the middle of a haystack, a good 10 yards away from Peyton’s camaro. Peyton had remained in the car; his body slumped over the wheel. Blood covered a portion of his face; traces of it also splattered across the shattered windshield in front of him.
"My God, Peyton!"
I stood up to run toward him. The moment I had, I came tumbling back down to the ground. A sharp piercing pain ran up my leg crippling me, and I screamed from the sheer agony…
In the distance, a siren whistled loudly, announcing the arrival of paramedics and police. I later learned a farmer called police after seeing the entire accident happen. It was his fence that Peyton’s car reared into.
Peyton tried avoiding a cow, I was told. But, when he swerved, he lost control of the car and drove into a gully. The car crashed into the farmer’s fence and several bushes before coming to a full stop. Smoke still fizzled from beneath the crumpled hood.
From the impact, I had been thrown out of the car. I had to blame only myself for that; I was hanging out of the window just prior to the accident. Looking back now, I should have felt lucky to have gone through all of that literally unscathed. The only injury I had was a fractured right leg. (The way I landed caused the fracture, I was told at the hospital. A cast was placed on the leg, and I was given crutches.)
Peyton and I both were both transported to the county hospital by ambulance. We were met there by the authorities who had charges filed against both of us. Peyton faced serious jail time for reckless driving, driving under the influence and providing alcohol to a minor. I, on the other hand, faced an underage drinking complaint.
"You’re traveling down a dangerous path, young lady," the judge said. "This is the second time you’ve come before me in less than a year’s time. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
I shook my head. I was advised not to say anything; my court-appointed attorney believed saying anything would only cause the judge to give me a harder sentence.
"I am really disappointed," he continued. "I thought we had an understanding the last time you were here, Ms. McCoy.
"This time, I am not going to be as lenient with you..."
"Your honor, if I may," my attorney interjected.
"What is it, counselor?"
"I beg the court’s mercy again for my client. I know she ran into some trouble some months back, your honor, but this is the first time since then…
"Additionally, I truly believe she is sorry for her actions. Take a look at her, your honor. She has fractured her leg...she can’t go anywhere, and her boyfriend...I’m sorry, the other defendant is currently in county jail for related charges. Therefore, she has no contact with him in any way."
"Why should I consider your recommendation, counselor?"
"Because my client has agreed to go through both drug and alcohol counseling, but also to do whatever community service you provide her, as long as she isn’t sent to juvenile detention or foster care.
"She also has agreed to stay away from Peyton Hatfield and his ‘associates’ when he is released from jail," my attorney added.
“That sounds like an ultimatum, Mr. Gentile...”
“No. No, your honor. If it came off like that, we do apologize,” my court-appointed attorney said. “We ask for the court’s mercy and you leniency, your honor…”
The judge raised a hand, silencing the lawyer. Turning toward me, he asked, "Do you agree with your attorney’s statements, Ms. McCoy?"
For a moment, I stood there silently. When the judge called out my name for the second time, I looked at my attorney and then back at my parents. They sat in the front row of the courtroom the entire time I was in court. Daddy just sat there, his face showing no emotion. Mama cried. Her head lowered, she leaned against Daddy for support.
"Ms. McCoy, I’m waiting for an answer."
"Yes, your honor.
"Yes, your honor, what?"
"I agree to my attorney’s terms..."
For awhile, I did everything I agreed to in court. I behaved. I performed my community service at a local children’s home. I also distanced myself from the crowd I used to hang around with, especially Peyton.
That didn’t mean he didn’t try contacting me. There were phone calls. I even saw him in town; every time I had, I would just walk the other way. I knew it made him mad, but I had just made a pact with the devil and I had every intention of keeping my word.
This included going back to school, which made Mama happy. Yet these promises usually always faltered over time. My past usually resurfaced and pulled me in for one last ride. This last time, it resulted in someone being killed.
It all happened so fast. Peyton said someone owed him money. He drove across town, pulled up in front to the guy’s house and demanded to be paid back —- immediately. The man, who I never saw before, refused, insisting that the debt had been paid in full
Peyton still wasn’t satisfied, to say the least. He stood his ground, and demanded restitution. "You’re going to pay back every cent of it right now, Jojo, or I’ll make you pay."
"I couldn’t care less what you do, Peyton. I have better things to do than listen to you rave about this...it’s been paid.”
“Hey,” Peyton shouted as he grabbed Jojo and spun him around. “Don’t you ever turn your back on me!”
“Get off of me, you punk, and take your hoe of a girlfriend with you, Peyton. Go! Leave before you regret coming here...”
What seemed like an eternity, Peyton just stood there, staring back at Jojo. Neither one of them said anything else. Neither took any action. Then, the silence was shattered with the sound of gunfire. Peyton fired the shot. The bullet pierced through Jojo’s abdomen, dropping him to the ground. He sat there a moment before slumping over. Blood flowed from his mouth, and from the wound.
"Oh, my God. Oh My God, Peyton. What did you do?"
"Come on; let’s get out of here," he said. When I didn’t move, he grabbed hold of my arms and shook me. "Jadean, snap out of it. We need to go. Now!"
"We can’t just leave him here," I insisted. "He’s going to die!"
"That’s the whole point, JD. That’s what he deserved for not paying up. Now, let’s get outta here."
"But what, Jadean? Do you want to sit around here and wait for the cops to show up? What do you think that’s going to do? Huh? We’d both be charged with murder, Jadean. Now, let’s get out of here."
Peyton pulled me to the car and pushed me inside. We were half way down the block before we saw the first wave of squad cars speeding to the crime scene.
Someone must have heard the shots and called the police. Whether or not the caller had seen anything, I never knew. The prosecution tried finding the individual, but no one ever came forward.
"Nor will they," Peyton told me prior to the trial. I went to see him in prison, hoping to sever all ties with him for once and for all. No one knew I came; I knew Mama and Daddy would have objected. So would have the prosecution.
Being the prosecution’s only known witness, I was warned not to see or speak with Peyton after his arrest for Jojo’s murder. If I had, if they found out that I had, I would be held in contempt. I would be thrown in jail and charged with obstruction. I had been forewarned.
“We’re serious about this, Jadean. If we ever find out that you’re still in contact with Peyton, you’re done. The deal is off, and you’re off to jail,” Blaine pledged with such certainty that his face appeared beet red. “Do you understand me?”
I told him I had, swearing that he, nor my parents, will ever know I had gone to see Peyton in jail after his capture.
The police had connected Peyton to the murder through the gun. Forensics found one usable print off its barrel; one Peyton failed to erase prior to throwing the piece into a dumpster.
"I should have been more careful," he said behind the glass that separated us. "I knew they had my prints from that earlier arrest. How stupid could I be?"
He slammed his fists against the table in front of him. For a moment, he looked down. But when he held his head up, his eyes met with my own. "If you know what’s good for you, Jadean, you won’t do this. You won’t testify."
But from where I sat, I knew I had no other choice in this regard. I had to testify, or be charged with being an accessory to murder.
The district attorney refused to make it easy on me. He pressed for the former, indicating it would be the only way I could remain safe. He promised to have me placed in a witness protection program; he would do everything in his power to make it happened, even though I later learned he lied about everything.
I resisted; I probably still would have, even if I knew what I do today. Regardless of that, all I knew for certain was I’d become a living target for Peyton’s growing rage. That was the end result of my testifying against him in court. No matter where I’d go, I would become the hunted and he, the hunter.
Despite my objections, and reasons for doing so, the district attorney, Blaine Thompson, dismissed my fears repeatedly. "There’s nothing to be worried about, Jadean. We have everything in order for your protection. You’ll see."
I never dreamt it meant relocating halfway across the country until the day the verdict came down. My folks showed up at the courthouse with my bags all packed. I stood there in disbelief.
"How could you do this to me," I shouted from the courthouse steps.
"It’s for your own good," Mama said with a tear in her eye. "You’ll be safe."
But how safe? I wondered. Peyton swore he’d get even. No jail cell ever held him for long...
My stomach churned with anxiety as the last stretch of my journey approached. My final stop emerged from between the buildings, pavement and highway, a tan and red brick building that was the New Jersey Transit bus terminal in Atlantic City. The building itself was small compared to some of the other buildings we had to pass through and occasionally switch buses at.
The terminal bay was located just behind the main entrance into the terminal. This is where I would get off and start my new life. But who would be there to help me get started, I found myself asking silently.
My mother and father said my Aunt Jean or her new husband, Joe, probably would be. City folk was what they called them, with an instant reminder to be mannerly and respectful while in their presence. I told them I’d try, God willing.
My Aunt Jean was Mama’s older sister, a woman now in her 60’s. Her husband, my new uncle, was nearly 20 years her junior, but a striking man according to letters she sent.
I last saw Aunt Jean years ago during a business trip to Wisconsin, but she never visited us in Nebraska. In fact, she hadn’t been back to Nebraska since she left home after my birth nearly 20 years ago. No one ever said why this was, even though she said it was because she craved for something other than farming had to produce.
A part of me felt I could relate. My parents were farmers, and so were their folks. What did that leave me, but to follow into their footsteps? I wanted to experience life. That reason alone may have caused me to wind up with the wrong crowd. On the other hand, it also brought me here, half way across the country. But traveling in this tin can of a bus left much to be desired, perhaps in more ways than I previously thought.
Stepping out of the bus, I stretched and took in a long, deep breath. An action I soon regretted. As soon as my lungs were inflated with a good dose of that city air, my nose crinkled up in horror.
I heard a chuckle from behind me. Turning, I saw the same elderly passenger I had spoken with earlier in the day exiting the bus. She apologized with a smile, and remarked, "That, my dear, is, the ocean air you smell. We’re only a few blocks from the beach."
"Does anyone ever get used to that?" I asked.
She just shrugged and moved on by me. Within seconds, she was gone, disappearing behind the terminal’s sliding glass doors.
After a moment’s hesitation, I followed.
The number of people waiting for a bus surprised me. I expected more for a casino-driven metropolis. But what troubled me more was the lack of signs. How on earth would I find my aunt and uncle? They knew I was coming, didn’t they?
"Jadean? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you."
A little late for that, I thought. At six-feet, four-inches tall, Joe towered over me like Kilimanjaro to mountain climbers. Nonetheless, his features were as Aunt Jean described them, "dreamy." His hair color was that of a wheat field, blowing ever so lightly from the sea breeze being let in every time the gliding doors opened. His skin glistened like the plow-turned earth under the early morning dew. And his eyes...they were the bluest I’ve ever seen.
"My reputation must have preceded me," he said with a small smile and a chuckle that brought me back to reality quickly. I looked away, my eyes lowering. "Hey! Don’t be ashamed. I know your aunt probably painted me up like some sort of Hollywood hunk.
"Come on. Let’s get the rest of your stuff and hit the road," he added as he grabbed hold of my small knapsack and headed back to the bus behind me.
"Aren’t you coming," he then asked, realizing I hadn’t moved a foot. "Don’t tell me this is all you’ve got?"
Joe did most of the talking on the way to his and my aunt’s home. From time to time, he would point out a place of interest, explaining in detail how Lucy the Elephant came to be at the foot of a Margate beach to the celebrity parties and visits by other Hollywood elite to the former Barbara Hutton estate in neighboring West Atlantic City.
“It’s more of a tourist attraction,” he explained about Lucy. “There were three of them built at different times and different locations. A way of making extra money.”
But this mammouth of a building was the only one to survive, and had been used as a hotel and currently as a museum. “It’s the only elephant you can enter and come out alive,” Joe said, laughing.
“And that there,” he said later, pointing to a bayfront property, “is the old Hutton Estate. At least, what’s left of it, anyway.
“Boy, the lavish parties that were once held there!” He continued. “And the celebrities that would come; they would literally come in droves!”
Joe’s smile evaporated, and his words took on a more solemn tone as he expressed his dismay in knowing the building would soon be demolished. "It was such a gorgeous building, and held a lot a memories for a lot of people here. But it became unsafe."
He explained that, after years of hearing complaints about the building, and the fact that the structure was indeed deteriorating, code officials here had no other choice but to deem the old home "structurally unsafe for occupancy." This came as no surprise to those living near the estate; they’ve argued this fact for a number of years, Joe said, but the local officials here had their own hands tied. The property was privately owned, and, as such, the decision to demolish the old structure rested solely upon the property owner, and not the neighboring residents or the township officials.
The new owners finally did make that decision just a few months ago, Joe pointed out, acknowledging that the wrecking crews would soon come in and demolish the building in a matter of days.
It brought tears to his eyes, Joe said, but noted how happy the residents were. They marked the occasion with a community-wide block party.
I wished I could say the same for myself. Being happy, that is. But my thoughts were not on Joe’s words, or the dozens of things we passed on our way ‘home.’ The string of motels and strip malls were nothing more than a blur strung together by an occasional housing development.
And, as if he could read my thoughts — which I later realized he had that uncanny ability — Joe said, "Jadean, I know you’ve been through a lot. Everything you witnessed back home to having to switch a dozen or more buses to get here. But your aunt and I want you to feel comfortable with us. To consider us all one happy family, even if it’s just for a little while. Your parents would have wanted it that way.
"And I know I can never fill your father’s shoes, nor would I want to. Michael is, and will always be your dad. But I do want you to know that I’d be there for you, whenever you need me to be, night or day," he added.
I wanted to believe him. A part of me actually had, or, at least, wanted to. But the rest of me knew not to believe everything you see or hear. For one, I sensed he knew more than he was letting on, or perhaps it was just the words he had so eloquently used to earn my trust.
I guess I’d never know. Or would I?
CHAPTER 2: Heading East, Heading West
My aunt and uncle lived in Mays Landing, about 30 minutes west of the bus station. Joe insisted we take an alternative route "going home."
"Why go back on the Atlantic City Expressway," he asked. "Sure, it'll get back to Mays Landing quicker, but what else is there to see but cars, cars and more cars!
"No! I'm sure you've had enough of seeing an endless flow of cars, highway and billboards," he added as he lead the way out of the bus terminal and toward the car. "We're going home another way. It may take longer, mind you, but I think you'll enjoy the view a lot better you did on the drive in..."
It was still early when we left the terminal. The sun barely had its head over the horizon behind us. Even so, there was enough light trickling in, between the buildings, to allow for a better view of the city around us.
A few blocks away, the casinos rose above the homes, office buildings and other structures that were located here. The casinos, even in the distance, appeared gigantic; they reminded me like centaurians, towering over the aging city behind it, protecting the inner city from those hovering beyond the coastline, in international waters. I recalled, from history class, that German U-boats came up just off the coastline of New Jersey during the Second World War. Residents who lived here at the time, and businesses, too, were made to turn their lights off during certain hours of the day — to prevent or provoke an attack. I couldn’t remember which it was now; American History was never a favorite subject of mine, in or even now after high school. Apparently, it was for Joe. He demonstrated how much so throughout our trip back to Mays Landing. I guess, he thought it would be of some interest to me since I would be living with him and Aunt Jean. But at that particular moment, I could have cared less. I wasn't up to talking or idle chitchat. All I wanted was to get out of that bus terminal and into AUnt Jean's loving embrace.
Despite the appearance of the buildings between the casinos and the bus terminal, I was surprised to see more mordern structures — many of which appeared to be new — so close to where we stood. The others appeared older; many, I was sure, were twenty or more years old. The ones immediately surrounding the bus terminal, however, were much newer than that.
"The city officials are trying to rebuild the area," Joe said, seeing the curiousity on my face.
He further explained that Atlantic City had ‘gone down hill,’ before and even for a time after the casinos were first built here in 1978-79. However, there was a mechanism where money was set to help rebuild the area, Joe explained. "I don't know all of the technical legalize, but CRDA, which is the Casino Development Reinvestiment Authority, oversees where this money goes by providing loans or grants. Most of it has gone to projects in North Jersey, which has a lot of people down here upset. They feel more of the money should go to projects here in Atlantic City or the surrounding communities. But that's Big Brother for you.
"In this particular case," he continued, "the city used the money to hire someone to come in, knock down some of the older homes and replace them with newer ones where low to moderate-income families can buy them and have a home they can call their own."
Then, there was the tunnel project, Joe added. "It was out of necessity," he said, "to allow motorists to have an easier and faster route to the marina district casinos. However, there were some pitfalls. People lost their homes for the tunnel to be built.
"There were some who were angry about losing their homes and resisted. They didn't want to leave; they had too many memories. These were their homes where they raised their kids, their grandchildren. They didn't undertsand why they had to sell and move from the only homes they knew.
"In the end, they were even more bitter because their properties were taken by eminent domain. They couldn't fathom the idea of any governmental agency doing that, but they did. As such, some families were forced out and they received little, if anything, for their properties."
"Of course, these are other concerns," Joe noted. "Many felt it took too long to build the tunnel. When it was finally completed, there were a couple of glitches that prevented it from being used for another couple of weeks."
There were also the environmental and health concerns connected to the actual construction of the tunnel. "Residents were concern about the air quality. Whehter or not there was any danger breathing in the dust and whatever else that was being carried.
"But there are positive outcomes from the project. Traveling to Brigantine or the casinos in that part of the city was now easier to get to, and faster," Joe noted, but quickly pointed out that there were also jobs created as a result of the tunnel and with the addition of the Borgata.
As such, it came as surprise to me that Joe said he "could care less" about what they did in Atlantic City. "I don’t gamble. Never had a desired to, until I met your aunt Jean, that is. She showed me a whole diffent side of Atlantic City.
"It’s not just for gamblers, anymore," he said. "If you are into music or Broadway shows, there are concerts and an occasional musical. ‘Riverdance’ has even been performed here!"
"Am I supposed to be impressed by all of this?" I asked.
For what seemed like an eternity, Joe looked at me, puzzled. Then, a small smile emerged from his lips and laughter. "No...I’m sorry to be boring you with all of this nonsense. Some people DO find it fascinating, but, I’m sure, for a young woman like yourself, you’re more interested in hearing about boys, and fashion, and things like that. Right?"
Again, that puzzling look on his face, then laughter. I wanted to puke! How egotistic and self-righteous I thought he was.
Happiness consumed me the moment we arrived at the house. The car wasn’t even to a full stop when I opened up the car door.
"Here, let me get the car door for you," I heard Joe say as he exited from his side of the car.
"No, that’s quite all right. I’m fine," I said quickly. Leaping out of the seat, I closed the door behind me before he even had a chance.
Aunt Jean greeted me at the door with an embrace. "I’m so glad you’re here," she said, as she looked over me. "You’re a sight for sore eyes, and, boy, how you’ve grown!"
She hugged me again, bringing me closer to her than the time before. The faint scent of Este Lauder’s Beautiful replaced any lingering of salt air left by my first arrival here.
As she let go, Aunt Jean cast her eyes upon my face. A small smile emerged as she said, "I was beginning to worry. You were due in last night."
"There were some problems with one of the buses Jadean was on," Joe said from the car.
Looking back at him, I wondered how he even knew. Even though Joe and I had just met, I felt there was more to my dear uncle than his general good looks and laid-back personality. He knew more than what he was letting on, and that troubled me.
I couldn't put my finger on it just yet, even though it did spark a mistrust of him that only grew over time, beginning at that very moment. As I stood there, Joe as he spun and weaved an elaborate story regarding my trip here.
He knew I saw right through his lies. From time to time, he made eye contact; yet, he went on, telling Aunt Jean that the bus I was on broke down. Comparing it to some of the casino buses headed for Atlantic City, Joe told her it took several hours before another bus could arrive to take us to a bus station in Tennessee. We had to spend the night as mechanics worked on the bus.
Joe then exaggerated, telling my aunt I was like most young people. The first time being on my own, I wanted to experience life a little. So, instead of coming straight here, I switched buses, headed in opposite directions before finally setting my sights here.
"It’s typically normal, Jean. She’s just feeling her oats. And, besides, if there was really a problem, don’t you think Jadean here would have called?"
"Yes, yes. I suppose you’re right, dear," my aunt said with a smile. Turning back to me, Aunt Jean ran her hands along my arms. "It’s so good to finally see you. It’s been so long."
I had to agree, even though I questioned Joe’s motives for telling Aunt Jean that elaborate story. It was, indeed, good to see Aunt Jean again. I was a small child when I had last seen Aunt Jean. My folks and I drove to Wisconsin one summer to visit her while she was there on business. That was perhaps 10 years earlier, but, in my eyes, she still looked the same as I remembered her.
She looked very much like my mother, but had a smaller framed and a lighter complexion. Mama always said Aunt Jean favored their mother’s side, who was English decent. My mother, on the other hand, took after their father, the son of German and Polish immigrants.
"How is your mother," my aunt asked, indicating with her hand for me to come in and take a seat within the dining room.
"She’s doing good," I remarked. "She misses you, though."
"And I, her. As kids, we used to do everything together, you know?"
I nodded, recalling the stories my mother told. They had some wild times together, pulling pranks and running around town with the Hatfield brothers before finally falling in love and getting married to Daddy and Aunt Jean’s first husband, my Uncle JD.
They often joked about the men they married. Aunt Jean married a Hatfield whereas Mama, a McCoy. Although it was often disputed whether Daddy and Uncle JD were actually related to the two West Virginia and Kentucky families, they entertained Mama and Aunt Jean, nonetheless, by pretending to squabble over land each believed they had rights to.
Smiling, I looked up at Aunt Jean. "Why don’t you ever come back? I mean, Mama would love to see you."
"I know she would, and I do miss her and the old farm. But there isn’t really anything there I care to go back to, Jadean. Other than your mother, that is."
"It’s not like you have to stay, Aunt Jean. Just go and spend a couple of days..."
"It’s not that simple, Jadean."
"Why isn’t it?"
I never understood why she never did, or why it was such an issue with the two of them. Neither one ever wanted to talk about it, other than to say that it was nearly impossible for Aunt Jean to come home. Her work schedule never allowed it, or brought her close enough to come back to the farm.
"We should be thankful for the times when we are together," they’d often say, and this occasion was no exception.
Aunt Jean gave her laundry list of reasons why she hadn’t, and couldn’t return home to Nebraska. Many were attributed to work. She worked as a consultant to several of the casinos here. Her primary responsibility was catering to the high rollers, the multi-millionaires who often came to Atlantic City to gamble thousands of dollars away, often at one sitting. Aunt Jean, as a consultant, was often asked to ensure their every need and desire were meet, even if it meant ordering items as far away as Europe and the Orient.
"But, really, Jadean. Must we go through this time and time again?"
"I just want to understand," I said. "I know something happened that has kept you away. I just don’t know what it is, Aunt Jean. No one ever wants to talk about it."
"Some times, some things are better left alone, Jadean. This is one of them."
Her words stung me like a hand slapping across my face. I wasn’t even here for more than 20 minutes, and I was already being lectured.
"Are you hungry?"
She moved to the kitchen and started rummaging through the cabinets for a frying pan and skillet. "What would you like: eggs, bacon? I have a little of everything."
I couldn’t help but to get caught up in her newly found excitement. She always had a knack of doing that, turning an unpleasant situation into a bright and happy one. This was one thing I loved about Aunt Jean, her ability to do just that.
I often wished I had her outlook; her way of looking at the positive side of things even when everything seemed so bleak. But I didn’t. The kindness of strangers was actually motive for something more sinister in my mind.
This view often led me astray, it was, after all, why I was forced to come East and stay with Aunt Jean and her husband. I got myself into something I couldn’t get myself out of without the help of the legal system.
Now, the man I helped put away was behind bars and I was here, free as a bird. So, why was I the one feeling as though I had been caged?
CHAPTER 3: Gearing Up for A Fall
The feeling lingered. For the next week, I ventured only as far as the nearest convenience store, approximately a mile away. Everything that was of any interest to a young person like myself was not always within walking distance. One had to rely on NJ TRANSIT or hailing a taxi. Both meant waiting, and time wasted. I never before felt so imprisoned. Back home, I had access to our family car. Any time I wanted to use it, I could. Or, else, I called Peyton.
Joe sensed my restlessness. So, one night before dinner, he suggested he and Jean supply me with a car. Aunt Jean questioned it, stating I was new to the community. As such, I wasn’t aware of the traffic laws here, not to mention how to get anywhere on my own. "How is she going to find her way around?"
"She’ll learn, Jean," he replied. "The only way she'll do that if she gets out of this house and drives around on her own. And without us taking her or providing her with directions.
"I'd gladly provide her with maps,and show her how to read them if she doesn't know how," Joe added, indicating how I needed to become more self-reliant. "Even though I have an easier time arranging my schedule, we do have jobs, Jean. We can't always be taking her places, especially when we have other commitments. Eventually, she will, too. Including holding a job and college."
The latter caught my attention, and apparently Aunt Jean’s as well since we both simultaneously said, "college?"
Joe nodded. "I took it upon myself to enroll Jadean at Atlantic Cape Community College.
"I think it’ll do her some good," he added, noting how I was "new" to the area and knew no one other than the two of them. "It’ll give her a chance to get out and meet people her own age, which is something she can’t do around here. Besides, I really don’t think she wants to spend all of her time here hanging around here with us old farts."
The statement brought smiles to each of our lips, and laughter, knowing how accurate it was. Even though I loved my aunt dearly, I did want to get to know other people other than herself and Joe. I needed people – friends – my own age.
The thought of attending college caused mixed emotions within me. Back home, I watched my peers go on and earn a higher education while I worked the fields along side Mama and Daddy.
At one time, I did consider going. I thought it would make Mama happy, more proud of me. She had her dreams, believing some college, somewhere, would eventually see my ability and offer me financial assistance. But I knew the truth.
My grades were far from being college material. As well, we weren’t the richest or most influential of people in our part of the world.
So, I settled on something different. That meant running with a crowd Mama and Daddy hated.
They did what they could to keep me from these people. They grounded me, and went as far as to cut off my privileges. But nothing they ever did or said kept me from doing what I had my heart set on.
That is, until now. I realized, in some way, my folks finally won. I was here, and I was just days from embarking on something that none of us had ever imagined I would, even with Mama’s dreams.
That frightened me. Mama was the only one who had higher hopes for me. Daddy just envisioned I’d find a nice, pleasant man. Get married and start a family. In his mind, I would be a homemaker much like my mother had been; if I did work outside the home, the job be a remedial one that required no college education and paid low wages.
I was nearly twenty, which meant I was starting college nearly two years after most young adults did. Would I fit in and make friends? Or would I remain an outcast even in these new and unfamiliar surroundings?
"I hope you don’t mind," Joe began, "but I took it upon myself to choose your classes for the upcoming semester.
I have to admit," he added, "it wasn't easy. ISince we haven't known ech other for very long, I wasn't sure what you liked. So, I just took a chance and enrolled you in Creative Writing, Introduction to Film and photography."
His choice in classes no doubtedly surprised me. I loved movies, and often pointed out the sybolisms I felt being missed, or would be missed even by my own parents. This often irritated Daddy, who just wanted to sit back and enjoy the movie after a long day working in the fields.
“For once in your life, can we just sit back and enjoy the film without you analysing it?” He'd ask. “Jeez…!”
As for my interest in photography, I had to accredit my maternal grandfather. He gave me an old signle reflex camera when I was just 12 years old. I carried that camera with me wherever I went, taking pictures of the fields, some of the animals at Ollie MacDonald’s farm, and downtown. Some of the pictures made it in the annual county fair each year, and I earned a few ribbons. They were mostly honorable mentions, but I didn’t care. It still made me feel good; it made me believe in myself, even though it further alienated me from many of my peers.
“Look at Jadean!” The girls would rave and rant. “She thinks she’s the next Andy Warhol!” They would all then turn and walk down the Main Street, laughing as they looked back at me from time to time to catch my angered and teary-eyed face.
Their sneers drove me futher into becoming an introvert. I rarely showed my true emotions, except for rage and anger. Those I didn't show, like love, fear, and happiness --if they at all existed – into poetic verses and prose.
Few people actually knew I dabled with poetry and prose. My friends did, but it was purely by accident. I tripped one morning going up a flight of stairs at school. My books flew out of my hands as I braced for the fall against the steps, scuffing my shin in the process. I felt tears burning just below my eyelids as blood trickled from the wound. Traces of blood began to seep through my blue jeans.
Carrie Hathaway, who was walking beside me at the time, helped me to gather my books. By chance, one of the books she retrieved was a notebook that had much of my writing. When it fell out of my hands, it landed on the floor, open to a page of poems I had written.
"Did you write this?" She asked, staring down at the page.
I felt mortified that my secret had been unveiled. I tried to backpaddle, claiming that the poems were actually written by someone else. I liked it and copied it down into the notebook.
"Jadean Louise McCoy. Don’t even try pulling wool over my eyes. I know you wrote this; so, don’t even try and lie," she demanded.
That was one thing I wasn’t counting on; Carrie and I knew each other since we were kids. Her grandfather, Ollie MacDonald, owned the adjoining farm to ours. She was one of the few people I knew who knew how terrible a liar I was; she saw right through it, and called me on it!
"Why didn’t you tell me that you write?" She asked. "This is soooo good," she went on, not even waiting for a reply. "I can’t believe you aren’t writing for the school paper, or for the literary magazine."
"The school paper and literary magazine are for know-it-alls. The spoiled rich kids who have nothing better to do than ridicule me," I said. "I don’t have the time for that, nor do I want anyone to know about this, Carrie. Promise me...promise me you won’t say a single word about this, to anyone!"
"But why, Jadean? From what I can tell, you have tremendous talent. Why not show it off, putting those busy buddies finally in their place?"
"Why bother, Carrie? They'll just find a new reason to make fun of me, and you while they're at it, and you know it," I said, snatching the notebook from her and making my way up to the second landing. "And I don’t want to."
I was determined not to have this revealed to the rest of the school, even though, looking back, I should have known better with Carrie. She wasn’t one to keep secrets or promises for very long. Yet, I made it a point; I made it clear to her that, "under no circumstance, do I wish anyone to know about this, especially any of our teachers. Do you understand me?"
She said she did; yet, as I’ve stated, I should have known better than to trust her. By the end of the week, I had several teachers approach me, asking me, "is it true?"
Susbequently, when I arrived home that afternoon, Mama and Daddy were in the kitchen, waiting. I froze in the doorway when I entered. It was rare that both of them would be home that early in the day. Daddy was usually in the fields still and wouldn’t be home until dark, when supper was ready and mama would come calling.
"Okay...what’s going on here?" I asked. "What did I, or didn’t I, do this tme?"
"We got a call from your school today," Daddy replied, taking a sip of his coffee. "Is there anything you’d like to share with us?"
Placing my books on the counter, I sat down at the table, staring at the two of them. "I swear it," I swore. "Whatever they said I did, I didn’t do it. I didn’t!"
"Jadean, dear, you’re not in trouble," Mama responded. A smile emerged from her lips. "That call was from your english teacher, informing us that she'd like to show your poems off in this year’s showcase..."
"Showcase? What are you talking about?" Then, it struck me. Carrie. She must have gone to our teachers; we were in many of the same classes. One of our teachers ran the annual student showcase.
But how? The poems she saw were still in the notebook she picked up when I fell. Or were they?
I went to my books, and took out the notebook that had my poems in it. Sure enough, several pages had been ripped out. Some of the paper remained connected to the metal spiral. "I’m going to kill her," I whispered just low enough for my parents not to hear.
"You got this all wrong," I told Mama and Daddy as I spun around. "There must be a misundertanding. A mix up...yeah, that’s what happened..."
"This is a big honor, honey," Daddy asked. "It would have been nice to have heard it fromyou instead of from one of your teachers."
"But it’s all a big mistake," I insisted. "There’s been a big understanding. I’m not showcasing any of work."
"Why not, dear? Ms. Ingals said..."
"I know what she probably said, but, this has been a terrible misundertanding. A mistake. You see..." I went into an elaborate fabrication, telling them how Carrie came across some doodling I had in the notebook; she took it as my own words and showed it to the teachers, including Ms Ingals. "I had asked her not to, but Carrie went against me and did it anyway."
"My word. I don’t know why Carrie would do such a thing. She seems like such a nice and honest girl," Mama said as Daddy said, "Maybe, someone should have a word with her grandfather. Ollie isn't one to tolerate lies, especially coming from his granddaughter. He’d nip it in the bud.."
"No! No, you can’t do that," I said. "You can’t tell him that!"
They both sat there, staring at me in total confusion.
"Jadean, if Carrie is telling lies about you, it needs to be addressed," Daddy argued.
"Please....please, can’t you just let it go?”
"Okay. Okay...Carrie isn’t the one who lied. I am."
"But why? Why on earth would you do such a thing?" Mama asked.
"Because I didn’t want to make a big about my writing poetry. I told Carrie I didn’t want anyone to know; I made her promise, but what did she do? She told everyone, including the very teachers I didn't want to know."
Mama said she still didn't understand, citing how proud she and Daddy were of me. I hated lying to her, but I didn't see what I wrote was anything worth showing. They were just some lame attempts at releasing what I felt inside, and couldn't say verbally.
"Let us be the judge of that...you heard me. Let’s take a look at your poems."
I did as Daddy asked. I handed over the notebook, turned to the page of poems I had written just that week.
After several moments, they both looked up. Mama had a tear in her which she wiped away. "I can’t believe my little girl is such a wonderful writer."
"Jeez. This is exactly what I didn’t want," I said vehmently.
Daddy said he didn’t see why not. "They’re extremely well written, Jadean.
"Granted, I am no writer. No poet myself," he added. "But you definitely have a way with words, and you should be very proud of that."
I didn’t share his sentiment; in fact, I believed quite the opposite, and disputed Ms. Ingals’ insistance to have my poems shown during the annaul showcase. "It’s not like I’m Emily Dickinson or Maya Angelou."
"No, you’re probably right on that," Daddy said,though I knew he didn't mean it as an insult. He wasn't much of an avid reader, especially of poetry or modern novels. When he did read, it was Farmer's Almanac. Nonetheless, Daddy still urged me to reconsider Ms. Ingals’ request. "Think of your mother and me. It would be such an honor for both of us to see your work displayed like that."
I didn’t say I would, or I wouldn’t. Instead, I said I would seriousily think it over and let Ms. Ingals know in a day or two, which appeased them. They continued to talk about my writing, marvelling how neiher one of them were writers. Yet, here I was with the talent.
"Who in our family does she get it from?" Mama asked. "I know she didn’t get it from me, or even from you, Michael."
That made Daddy laugh. "She definitely didn’t get it from me; that’s for sure. I can’t even draw a stick figure.
"But didn’t you say your dad’s brother had some writing ability," he then asked.
"My dad’s brother....? Oh! You mean Uncle Ed. I totally forgot about that." Mama smiled, reminscing about Uncle Ed. I never knew the man, but remembered the stories she used to tell me about his ability to take pictures. "My sisters and I used to help him with developing," she recalled, telling Daddy that the camera Granddad had given me was actually Uncle Ed's thirty-five millimeter. "Boy, how I had forgotten about all of that!"
She smiled again, her eyes glimmering as she looked up at me. I saw a tear emerge at the corner of her eye before she wiped it away with her hand. "What a grand and splendid thing to learn about my daughter," she said. "I knew...I knew, Jadean. There was something about you; I never lost that hoped you’d find your calling, and this is it. Don’t ever lose that....
"I’m sorry. I don’t mean to get so worked up about this," she added, apologetically. She rose from the table. "I really don’t."
She went to the hallway, but not without stopping at the doorway and looking back at me and Daddy. "I am sooo very proud of you." Again, she smiled, then ran off to call Aunt Jean. From where we remained, we heard Mama pick up the phone, dial and ask her sister.
That still didn't explain how Joe knew. Even though it was possible -- even conceiveable --that he eavesdropped on Mama and Aunt Jean's conversation, it was equally likely that Aunt Jean told him but didn't remember. For, upon hearing what Joe had done, Aunt Jean said she was surprised that he even knew what I remotely liked. "I don’t recall ever telling you about Jadean’s writing ability, or her picture taking."
He just shrugged, stating she must have told him in passing. "Or, else, I'm just a good judge of character."
"Nonetheless, Jean, that doesn’t mean she’ll like what I’ve chosen for her," he admitted. "If it turns out that she doesn’t or they’re too difficult for her, she hates the professor, or it’s just not ‘her cup of tea,’ Jadean can always drop and add a course," he explained.
"But that doesn't explain how you enrolled her." Aunt Jean insisted. "Doesn't she need to sign something, or provide a social secutiry number?"
Joe frowned and ran his hand through his flaxen hair. "Okay. Okay. You got me on that one. But to be honest, I actually pulled a few strings to have her enrolled without her singature. But I had her social security number. I called Michael and asked him for her social, her birthdate, etc.
"And like I said, it doesn't mean she'll like what I had chosen for her. She can always drop and add a course.
"And one last thing. She starts Monday."
"Monday," Aunt Jean and I said in sync.
"How is she supposed to get there," Aunt Jean added. "You and I both have to work on Monday. And we haven’t explain to her the bus routes..."
"I did take that into consideration, my dear Jean, and I came up with a solution."
"Uh-huh." Joe placed his hand into his pocket and brought out a set of keys. "It’s parked outside."
The vehicle was a recent model convertible, a cherry red with a black pin stripe that ran around the perimeter of the car.
"So, what do you think?"
"I don’t know what to say." I truly didn’t. Back home, most of the things we ever had were hand-me downs, or things Daddy fixed up on his own, traded or bartered for. He rarely bought new. There was never reason to since money was often scarce.
"How about taking it for a spin?"
"At this late hour?"
"Jean, really. It’s not like we’re sneaking out in the middle of the night. It’s only 5:30."
"Okay. Okay. You win. But I don’t want to be out too long."
"We won’t," he promised. "Just a spin around the block."
"Some spin around the block," Aunt Jean snapped when she realized where we were going.
"Would you have come, if I told you," he asked.
"You know I wouldn’t, Joseph Westcoat!" she explained. "You know I have to be at work first thing in the morning! How could you?"
Joe smiled, and laughed with satisfaction. "Your aunt has a thing about getting enough sleep before a full day of work. Not much of a party girl anymore, are we?"
"I can party hardy like the best of them, Joseph. Surprises, on the other hand, I don’t handle well."
"If I may interrupt," I began. "Where on earth are we going? I have no clue..."
"Oh, I’m sorry, Jadean. We forgot..."
"What’s this ‘we’ stuff," Aunt Jean interjected. As Joe laughed again, he replied, "I stand corrected. I forgot to include you in this charade."
The area, according to Joe, was often referred to as "The Wildwoods." "It consists of three primary communities: North Wildwood, the city of Wildwood and Wildwood Crest. There's also West Wilwood.
"For marketing purposes, for the most part, that the area is clled the Wildwoods," he noted. "Trying to get the most out of little spending money from each of the communities to mrket the region. But it seems to be working, no less. Hundreds of people come down during the sumemr months, and, even during the off season, they try to lure visitors by having monster trucks o the beach, kite flying, marble contests, car and craft shows, etc.
"When we actually get there, though, we will be driving into and parking in North Wildwood," Joe concluded as Aunt Jean remarked, "I can’t believe you had her drive all of the way down here."
"Oh, come on, Jean. You’ve got to live a little! Be spontaneous!"
I had to laugh. Seeing my aunt and Joe like this, I wondered what actually drew them together. Did opposites really attract?
Seeing the Jersey coast was equally impressing. When I first arrived a week earlier, tall office buildings hid the Atlantic Ocean from view. And there wasn’t time to venture down there. As soon Joe found me, we were on our way to his and Aunt Jean’s.
North Wildwood wasn’t like that. More single family dwellings lined its streets. And, once we parked and went up to the boardwalk, I could see the ocean for the first time.
"Look at how wide that beach is. Are all of them like that here," I asked.
Joe shook his head. "There isn’t a beach throughout New Jersey like the ones here."
"Do people actually walk it?"
"Afraid so," Aunt Jean said, while Joe suggested we do so.
"For Jadean, Jean," he explained when Aunt Jean protested. "She’s probably never been to the beach before, or had her feet in the ocean. Isn’t that right, Jadean?"
I nodded, and, within moments, we were ankle deep into fine, white sand. I was amazed by the warmth of the sand. Joe said it usually got hotter than that during the day. "Since it's so late in the day, it's a lot coller and easier to walk through."
"Joe's right," Aunt Jean said. "If we were here earlier in the day, we wouldn't be doing this without our shoes on."
At this late in the day, few people were on the beach. Some were packing up their umbrellas, chairs and blankets for the long trek back to their cars. In the distance, I saw children running to and fro, catching Frisbees or playing catch.
"Why don’t you take your shoes off and let the sand go through your toes for awhile," Joe suggested. "Don’t be afraid to jump in the water, either."
"Go on, Jadean," Aunt Jean urged. "Have some fun."
Nodding, I kicked off my shoes and ran off toward the water. It ran over my toes, sending a sharp, cold pain up my legs. I thought that the water would have been warmer; it was only mid-August. I had to think that, too, had something to do with the hour we were there, or else the winter that had kicked up since we arrived.
Twenty minutes passed before I realized how wet and exhausted I was from diving into the waves. Joe and Aunt Jean weren’t that far from where I had been waddling in the water. Joe waved the moment I came out of it.
"This is so great," I roared as I sat down next to them. "What are we doing next?"
Joe laughed, and then took a look at Aunt Jean. "Up for walking on the boards for awhile?"
She agreed, easier than I expected her to. "But we need to get Jadean out of those wet clothes," she insisted.
"There’s plenty of shops. I’m sure we’ll find something," Joe added.
Nearly an hour passed before we settled on a pair of shorts, a sweatshirt and a bikini swimsuit.
"She has to wear something underneath," Aunt Jean explained. "Besides, she could always use the suit if she so chooses to return to the beach."
"I couldn’t agree with you more, my dear," Joe said as we walked out of the store, having paid for the items. "Now, let’s get something to eat! I’m famished!
“Famished? How can you be hungry,” Aunt Jean asked, surprized. “We had a big meal before we left.”
“All this walking, my dear,” Joe responded with a twinkle in his eye. “Watching Jadean splashing around and the salt air, all of it has made me hungry.
"How does pizza sound," Joe continued the moment we left the store. "There’s a great pizzeria just down here."
“I can’t believe you’re hungry. You must have a wooden leg.”
The comment made Joe laugh hilariousily; it reminded me of a small child thinking he had just said something funny. “Maybe,” he said. “Afterall, I’m still a growing boy.”
He then grew serious. “Besides, think about Jadean. Don’t you think, after all that splashing around in the water and looking for some new, dry clothes, didn’t make her hungry?”
Aunt Jean admitted she hadn’t thought about that. Or, at least, didn’t look at it from that perspective. "You should have said something, dear."
"I didn't want to impose on you both any more than I have tonight," I said. "I could have waited..."
"And pass up a chance at eating the world's best pizza?"
"Oh, pahleeease, Joe," Aunt Jean said. "Don't you get started on that pizza! We'll never get you to shut up!"
"The more reason to go there," he said, smiling and drawing her near.
We made our way down to the pizzeria Joe recommended; we didn’t have to go very far, much to my surprise. The pizzeria was only a few yards down from where we purchased my new clothes. Upon ordering, we took to a nearby booth and conversation prevailed.
"What should we do next," Joe asked. "Check out some of the amusement rides before we head back?"
"I...I really don’t know," Aunt Jean began, sounding hesitant. "It is getting late, and I —"
"Oh, come on, Jean. Have a little fun. Where’s your spontaneous nature?"
"Yeah, Aunt Jean," I said, hoping to help Joe with persuading her. "Mama often told me how wild and crazy the two of you were at my age. Why — or how has that changed?"
She laughed out loud. "We grew up; that’s how!
"Even though some people refuse to grow up, most of us do, Jadean. Behaviors we once had as children no longer seem important. And, as such, we become more reserved. More responsible people."
Joe and I were relentless. Never giving up, we kept pleading, begging Aunt Jean until she finally gave in. I wasn't ready to leave yet; I was having too much fun.
“Okay. Okay. But just for a few rides; after that, we really must be getting back,” she said.
We both agreed, and, after Joe paid the bill, we were off toward the amusements. Joe reminded me of a small child. He ran up to the ticket booth and then ran back to us with an arm full of tickets.
“Joseph Westcoat,” Aunt Jean exclaimed the moment she realized the number of tickets Joe purchased. “We’re going to be here all night with that many tickets!”
He laughed. “No, it won’t. If we all go on the rides together, we’ll use them all up in a matter of a couple of hours. Come on!”
Deciding which rides to go on first wasn’t easy; there were so many to choose from. Many were not for the light hearted, taking passengers hundreds of feet into the air before plunging back down toward the ground below.
I couldn’t contain myself, but being asked which of the rides I wanted to go on first only made me agonize over it more. “I don’t know; I don’t know,” I kept repeating.
“Oh, come on, Jadean. There must be one ride you always wanted to go on and your folks never allowed you to.”
I had to think. There weren't many amusement parks nar us. The county fair would come on an annual basis, but that was about it. And that was merely pony rides, the fun house and the typical rides that come with county fairs.
It wasn't, by no means, like Six Flags. I had gone there once, to its Great America amusement park. Aunt Jean had taken Mma and me there during one of her visits.
Mama was hesitant, but was eventually persuaded when Aunt Jean insited.
"MaryBeth, it's not a big deal," she said. "Think of it as myu way of giving back to the family for everything I've put you all through.
"Additionally, think of Jadean. She may never get this chance again."
Mama relented, but refused to go on many of the rides that would send us around a track upide down or at ungodly speeds. "My feet are meant to stay flat on the ground," she explained. "But you do go on ahead. I'll watch from down here."
Of the rides that we went on, the one that remained fresh was a ride called Free Fall. Five people were strapped into a harness like seat. They were then taken up approximately 25 feet up into the air and then let ago to free fall toward the earth below. Only a cable strapped to the harness prevented the passengers from crashing full force into the ground altogether, but there wasn’t much room for error, especially for those who were as tall as Joe. The cable would snap us back less than a yard from the ground, luring us up toward the sky again but lunging down again. This would continue on for several moments, with each cycle shorter than the one before. Eventually, it would slow down enough to just daggle us; our feet would only be inches away from the boardwalk below.
A ride similar to that was several feet away. Seeing it brought a broad smile to my face, and I said, “That one.”
Joe and Aunt Jean turned.
“You must be kidding,” Aunt Jean said, which sort of surprised me. I thought she would have remembered Six Flags Great America. But she didn't.
"I don't ever recall going there with you," she said. "Or going any of the rides, especially this one. Are you sure about this? Why not something else like the dodger cars?"
I wasn’t budging, and, within moments, each of us were strapped in to three of the five seats available. We were then lifted straight up into the air.
I could hear Aunt Jean begining to think twice about getting on the ride; she recited her Hail Marys repeatedly until the first drop commenced. After that, I was blinded by own devilish howls.
"Don’t you ever do that again," Aunt Jean snarled the moment we exitted the ride. "For as long as I live, don’t you ever try to convince me to go on a ride like that again! Do you hear me? Do you?!"
"What’s the matter, Jean? Too scared for a little old ride like that?" Joe chided.
To say that Aunt Jean wasn’t pleased with Joe’s teasing was an understatement. She gave him a look I had rarely seen her make. Her eyes narrowed; her forehead wrinkled. She also had stopped walking to allow herself to look straight up at Joe; her eyes made contact with his. "Joseph Westcoat, I am too damned old for rides like this," she then said. "Do you want me dead or something?"
He laughed and threw his arms around her, bringing her close to him. "Now, now, Jean. Don’t get yourself so overworked over this. I was just razzing you about it; that’s all. I’m sorry."
"Let this be a lesson for you then," she shot back, and pushed herself from her husband’s embrace. "And don’t ridicule me, Joe."
"Yes, ma’am," he replied, and saluted her like a boy scout which only angered her even more. She gave him a whack to his side with her elbow. He laughed again, and, once more, wrapped his long arms around her, bring her close to him.
Seeing them interact like this made me reconsider my misgivens of Joe. At the time, I couldn’t, and didn’t, understand what brought them together. They were complete opposites from one another. Even though they were, it did appear they loved each other. I couldn’t deny that from the way they were holding onto one another.
Yet, I wasn’t totally sure if he was for real or playing for my sake. There were so many times he’s said things that made me wonder about his motives, in addition to his intentions to keep me safe.For one, he lured us down to the Jersey coast on false pretenses. Even though I had a blast, and I appreciated the time we had in Wildwood, I knew the trip didn't sit well with Aunt Jean. She had to work the next morning, and I had to wonder why Joe didn't take that into consideration when he suggested that we take the car out for a spin. Did he even think about that, or just disregarded it for his own gain?
I did hate second guessing Joe; if Mama or Aunt Jean knew I was, they would only scold me.
"You've got to start trusting people," Mama would advise. "Not everyone as deceitful as you make them out to be."
"And not everyone is like that nephew of mine," Aunt Jean would remind me.
"Just give him a chance," Mama would say, as Aunt Jean would claim, "Joe's a great guy. He might be quite large, and intimdating at times. But he's really a decent guy, with a heart of gold. You'll see, Jadean. Just give him a chance."
I wanted to believe. The last thing I wanted was for Aunt Jean to hate me or to even think I didn't appreicate everything that she and Joe have done for me since I arrived. But I knew that if I didn't come, they wouldn't be fighting. Joe wouldn't have bought me the car; he wouldn't have enrolled me into community college; and he defintely would have brought us to the shore when Aunt Jean had work so early the next morning. So, why did we even come?