Page 79 of Bayou Hero

“Do you know how many people are just waiting for a chance to buy a Saint Charles Avenue mansion?”

He was sure there were plenty. The Saint Charles name had always been special in the Garden District. As far as he was concerned, any one of them could have it. But he didn’t want it. “You have good memories of the house,” he said carefully. “I don’t. As Jeremiah started telling me when I was about six, I wasn’t cut out to be a Jackson. I’m certainly not cut out to live in the Jackson mansion.”

Whatever lightness had made its way into her expression slipped away, leaving her melancholy and regretful. “Landry, he set terribly strict standards for you, and he was wrong. He never acknowledged that you weren’t like him and never would be, and that was unfair of him. But if he’d known he was going to die, he would have mended things with you. I know he would.”

She looked so hopeful, trying to convince herself that it was true. Of course Jeremiah had known he was going to die someday, but he’d still never shown any interest in Landry. His son had written him off, and by God, Jeremiah had erased him from existence in his world.

Geneva took away the salads, though neither of them had eaten more than a few bites, and served the meal on plates translucent with age: shrimp-stuffed chicken breasts, squash casserole and green beans fresh from someone’s garden. Mary Ellen thanked her with a fond smile, picked up her fork, then set it down again.

“I miss him so much, Landry,” she whispered, tears glistening in her eyes. “Mama, too, of course, but Daddy...I was with him the night before he died, and he was happy and healthy and so strong, and then... It breaks my heart the horror they went through.”

At least Landry had got a taste of Geneva’s squash casserole before Mary Ellen finished talking. Now there were knots in his stomach, and his heart was breaking, too, for his sister’s denial, for her continued insistence that their parents had deserved love and respect, for himself because he couldn’t share her delusion.

They were dead, for God’s sake—killed for their sins. Somewhere inside her, Mary Ellen had to know that. Couldn’t she acknowledge it even a little? If not, if the memory was that deeply buried, couldn’t she at least keep it to herself?

Immediately he felt guilty. Grief should be shared, not hidden away in shame. Maybe he didn’t feel love or respect or even regret for their father’s death—and not much for their mother’s—but he loved Mary Ellen. He owed her support if nothing else.

Abruptly her fork clattered to the plate, her fingers trembling, twitching. “How can you not miss them, Landry?” The sorrow was gone from her voice, replaced by something flatter, cooler. Something...angry? “They were your parents. Your mother. Your father. Without them, you never would have existed. How can you sit there without even a single tear of sympathy or grief for them?”

The emotion caught him off guard—both hers and his, because that was definitely anger simmering inside him, just underneath the indifference, the uncaring that bothered her so much. Setting his silverware down, he pushed the plate back a few inches, then folded his hands in his lap.

He schooled steadiness into his voice. “I did my crying for them, because of them, a long time ago, Mary Ellen. I cried so damn hard and so damn often that I ran out of tears.”

“Things never had to get so bad.” Her tone, her smile, her very self, seemed brittle as if the slightest jostling might break her. “Daddy was hard on you, but all he wanted you to do was try. Go along. Make an effort now and then to be the son he wanted you to be. But that was too much to ask, wasn’t it? You had to do things your way, even if it meant destroying our family. You moving out, me being sent off to that horrible place, Mama and Daddy brokenhearted—all because you couldn’t bear to let him win. Well, you know what, Landry? It was never a game! There weren’t any winners. Just losers. Even you lost out on having parents who loved you in your life.”

Ice pumped through Landry’s veins. Denial must be a cozy, snug place. He would have loved to live there for a while, but he’d never been able to turn his memories off long enough to settle in.

Rising from the chair, he dropped the napkin on the table before facing her. “It’s been a hell of a week, Mary Ellen, and I’m not going to fight with you. You believe what you want, I’ll believe what I know and neither of us will try to change the other’s mind. Deal?”

He turned with a squeak of his flip-flops and headed for the front door. He’d reached the foot of the stairs when her steps click-clicked on the floor, when she called his name and threw herself into his arms the instant he turned.