Twenty years later
I won’t cry. I absolutely, positively will not cry.
Liliana Howe silently repeated the mantra as she rang the doorbell of her parents’ home in Norman, Oklahoma. She still had a key to the house, but her arms were full with two large white paper bags of her father’s favorite Tex-Mex from the taqueria over by Oklahoma University.
Brian and Stephanie Howe met at home for lunch every day, but it was rare for Lili to join them. She usually worked through lunch. But then, today was not a usual day, was it?
Her father answered the door. His gray eyes rounded in surprise. “Lili? Did we forget a lunch date?”
“No, Dad. I was in the neighborhood. Thought I’d surprise you with lunch from Miguelito’s.”
“Well, that’s nice.” He opened the screen door. “Come on in. Let me help you with those bags.”
He led her through the house back toward the kitchen. “That smells wonderful. This is a real treat, Liliana. Your mother doesn’t let me have Mexican too often.”
“It’s been too long since I’ve seen you guys.”
They walked into the kitchen to find her mother seated at the table staring intently at her computer. Typical Stephanie Howe. Always working. Without looking up, she said, “Stevenson has the best rating, but—”
“Look who’s here, honey,” Lili’s father interrupted.
Stephanie Howe finally glanced up, her thoughts obviously somewhere else, because she gazed at Lili as if she didn’t recognize her. Lili waved her fingers. “Surprise.”
“Oh.” Stephanie gave her head a little shake. “Lili. Hello. Did we forget a lunch date?”
Inwardly, Lili sighed. “No. I was in the mood for Mexican and I thought of Dad.”
“It’s not good for his cholesterol.”
“No, but once in a blue moon won’t hurt him. Dr. Derek told me that himself.”
She unloaded the bags, setting tacos, cheese enchiladas, refried beans, guacamole, and tortilla chips in the center of the table. Her mother brought plates and silverware from the cabinet. “Nevertheless, it’s nice to see you. It’s been too long. How are you, Lili? Have you recovered from tax season?”
“It’s definitely behind me,” she replied with a wry twist of her lips.
They all filled their plates. Not anxious to spill her own beans, Lili took an extra spoonful of refried and asked, “So, what do you hear from Derek?”
Her parents spent quite a bit of time talking about their renowned heart surgeon son. Nerves caused Lili to make a pig of herself on chips and guacamole, and she didn’t miss her mother’s judgmental frown.
Finally, after extolling Derek’s most recent peer recognition award, her father asked Lili what was new with her work and the moment was at hand.
She sipped her water, wished it were a beer, and summarized the sequence of events that had led her to this crisis point. Then she waited for them to react.
And she waited.
Her parents shared one of those long, hard-to-read looks that made Lili’s stomach do a bit of a sick flip. Her father cleared his throat. “It’s an incredible tale.”
Her mother nodded. “Unbelievable.”
Lili sucked salt off her bottom lip. She hadn’t expected them to jump to their feet and vow to make the villains pay, but she’d thought they’d be angry on her behalf. Not . . . reserved.
Deep within her, despair kindled to life. They were her parents. She was counting on them. Nevertheless, she pressed ahead, calmly and logically laying out the approach she wanted to take and the assistance she needed from her mother and father.
Again, her parents shared one of those inscrutable looks. Lili’s heart began to pound. “I don’t know, Liliana,” her father said, rubbing the back of his neck. “It would be hard to fight them. They’re powerful people. I hate to say it because it’s not the way this country was supposed to work, but if a Normal Joe tries to go up against powerful people, most often he loses.
“I don’t want to see you get involved with making a charge against the police. That could turn nasty real fast. This cop . . . you said you think your bosses might have threatened him, too? He might be in an even tougher position than you.”
“But he lied, Dad! He falsified records.”
“But you have no proof of that, do you?”
“Just my word.” Isn’t that enough, Dad? At least for you?
“Maybe you should let things lie for a while. Give it some time. See how things work out. I think it’s simply too soon to call the governor and ask for a personal favor.”
That, Lili knew, was a no. A no and a verbal punch to the gut. After her father’s heroic efforts during Central Oklahoma’s most recent tornado outbreak, hadn’t the governor given Brian Howe her direct phone number and instructions to call if he ever needed help with anything? Lili could think of only one reason why he denied her request, and it made her want to toss her guaco.
“Maybe later on when everything settles down we can look at the situation again.”
He didn’t believe her. He didn’t believe in her. Neither did her mother. Lili’s heart twisted. She knew her parents. They wouldn’t come right out and say it, but she saw the significant looks they’d exchanged. Noticed the way they wouldn’t meet her eyes.
They believed she’d been driving drunk last night and the DUI was legit. They did not believe that she’d been set up.
They thought she’d lied.
Hurt like nothing she’d ever known washed through her. Lili had never been a liar. Even as a child she’d been frightfully honest. Hadn’t that been her way of attempting to gain favor with her parents? Her brilliant older brother spun stories that had fooled her equally brilliant parents, but eagle-eyed little sister often knew the truth. And tattled. But always with the truth.
Yet now, they doubted her? They believed her so irresponsible that she would climb behind the wheel of a car after she’d been drinking, thus risking her life, the lives of others, and her license to practice her profession?
Good grief, did they think she’d embezzled money from senior citizens, too?
Lili swallowed hard. Inside, her heart was bleeding. I will not cry. I will not cry. She couldn’t believe this. What was she going to do now?
The only thing she was certain of was that she needed to leave. Immediately. Before she lost her enchiladas all over her mother’s Italian tile.
But Lili couldn’t make herself stand up. Her knees were too weak.
“I think your father is right.” Stephanie Howe reached over and patted Lili’s hand. “You know, dear, maybe this is for the best. You haven’t been happy in your work for some time now.”
“You never liked accounting,” her father added helpfully. “Perhaps it’s best that you look on this event as an opportunity.”
An opportunity? For what? Prison? Hysterical laughter bubbled up inside her, but Lili swallowed it down.
Lili’s mother rose from the table and removed a glass pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator. She topped off her husband’s glass and changed the subject.
Lili didn’t really care about the plans for their next-door neighbor’s upcoming retirement party. Nor did she give a fig about OU football recruiting rumors. She spent the rest of the meal in a distracted fog.
Finally, having cleaned his plate—twice—Brian Howe set down his fork, wiped his mouth with a napkin, then checked his watch. “I’ve gotta run. I have a one o’clock conference call.”
Standing, he leaned over and pressed a kiss against Lili’s hair. “It was nice to see you, sweetheart. Don’t be such a stranger.”
Minutes later, he walked out the door and Stephanie was preparing to follow. “I hate to rush you, Lili, but I have office hours before my two o’clock lecture.”
Stephanie Howe taught advanced mathematics at OU. “That’s okay, Mom. Why don’t you go on? I’ll stay and load the dishwasher.”
“Thank you. You’ll lock up when you’re done?”
Her mother ducked into the master bedroom and returned a few moments later with her hair and teeth brushed and wearing new lipstick. On the way out the door, she paused. “Lili, things happen for a reason, and often, we don’t know what that reason is. Sometimes you simply need to give it a little time.”
She gave a little finger wave, then exited the house. Lili stood in the center of her parents’ kitchen, her arms hanging limply at her sides. She heard her mother’s car start, then back out of the driveway. Lili was alone. Alone and . . . lost.
Her parents didn’t believe her. Why not? What had she ever done to earn this lack of faith?
Nothing. She might not have been the smartest Howe sibling, but she’d made it a point to be the one who never screwed up. Derek the Favorite couldn’t say that. The time her brother had come within a phone call of getting an MIP, he’d deserved one. He and his trouble-magnet best friend had celebrated the no-hitter Mark had thrown in the regionals of the state baseball tournament by buying a fifth of bourbon with fake IDs and drinking themselves silly in a public park. Neither had gone near a car, but still.
Derek’s good luck was that their father’s administrative assistant’s husband was the chief of police. Dad had called the chief on Derek’s behalf and worked out a deal. Derek would pay the required fine and do the required community service, but it wouldn’t go on his record. Gotta protect the college applications, you know.
He’d called for Derek.
He won’t go near the phone for me.
Pressure filled Lili’s chest. It reminded her of that achy feeling she got when reading a novel where the protagonist discovers that her loved one has betrayed her. At that point in a book, Lili invariably skipped ahead to read the ending. Lili needed happy endings.
Satisfying endings didn’t work for her. She wanted happy-ever-after.
Once she knew the book was a safe read, the emotional grief she experienced eased. Then she invariably read the rest of the book backward. She was weird that way.
She’d never expected to be the wronged character in a real-life novel. Not with her parents cast as the betrayers, anyway. She wished she could skip to the end of this story. Maybe then she’d discover that her parents had believed her and believed in her all along and they had a really good reason for doing what they’d just done.
Yeah. Right. And I’ll win the next season of Who’s Got Talent because of my spreadsheet expertise.
Ordinarily, pity parties were not Liliana’s style. Today as she picked up her father’s plate from the table, she had a star-studded gala going on.
Mom and Dad didn’t believe her.
She took two steps toward the sink, then abruptly stopped. She dropped the plate.
Actually, she threw the plate. With both hands. Hard.
It smashed against the floor, shattering into dozens of pieces. Next she threw his glass and her mother’s plate and her own plate and glass. And Liliana realized she was panting as if she’d run five miles. Tears pooled in her eyes, but she blinked them away.
Then, because she was Liliana, she got a broom and dustpan and cleaned up her mess. About the time her mother would be pulling into the faculty parking lot at OU, Lili exited the house and locked the door behind her. Then she removed her parents’ house key from her key ring and dropped it through the mail slot in their front door.
As she walked down the sidewalk toward the slate-gray sedan she’d parked at the curb, the soon-to-be-retired neighbor drove into his driveway. They exchanged waves and Lili extended a trembling hand toward her car door.
“I absolutely, positively won’t cry.”
Maintaining her composure, she slid into the driver’s seat and calmly buckled the safety belt. She started her engine, shifted into drive, and slowly pulled away from her childhood home. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t curse. She wouldn’t break any more dishes or squeal her tires in a fit of temper.
Lili wasn’t reckless. She didn’t act rashly and seldom lost control of her temper or emotions. She was logical and deliberate and controlled.
And honest. Totally honest.
Just the way a good accountant should be.
The faintest of sobs escaped her at the thought.
She’d broken her mother’s Fiesta. And yes, she had goosed the gas on her practical sedan, though not enough to squeal the tires. She wasn’t certain that her engine even had enough power to do it.
Her landlady’s voice echoed through her mind. I think this car’s get-up-and-go got up and went before it ever left the showroom floor.
“I bought it used,” Lili had defended.
Patsy Schaffer clicked her tongue and shook her head. “Oh, honey. Of course you did.”
Buying this car had been a good decision, Lili told herself now. A practical purchase. Cars lost value the moment they were driven off the lot. The last thing she needed was a big car payment.
Especially since as of today, she didn’t have a job.
She sucked in a shuddering breath. What am I going to do?
“Fight.” That’s what she needed to do. That’s what she’d come to her parents’ house to do. To gather her resources. To prepare for war. This injustice could not be allowed to stand!
So fine. She’d go into battle by herself. Work from the bottom up instead of the top down. She could do it. She was a grown-up. She didn’t need her parents to fight her battles. She was accustomed to doing things alone, wasn’t she?
She’d go back to the office. Today. Now. What could it hurt? They couldn’t fire her again. She’d demand to speak to Fred Ormsby, the other founding partner. She’d outline her case and demand that the situation be investigated by an independent party. Then she’d go to the police and do the same thing with them.
She could do this. She was strong.
She was scared.
By the time she pulled onto I-35 headed north to her office building in downtown Oklahoma City, she’d lost the battle to hold back tears. Soon she’d soaked four tissues and was on to drowning her fifth.
Then, just as she signaled her intention to take the upcoming exit, a motorcycle screamed by, passing on the right. Only by the grace of God did she avoid hitting him.
In that instant, the blaze of Lili’s temper evaporated her fears. If she’d had another dinner plate, she’d have thrown it at the fool. She was furious that the rider had endangered himself by riding recklessly without a helmet. She was incensed at her former friend and mentor in the firm and at his criminal connections in the police department who were able to create false DUI charges out of nothing.
And her parents . . . Lili swallowed hard. Her parents. For them, she had no words.
Downtown, she found a parking spot two blocks from her building, so she took it. She grabbed a fresh tissue, flipped down the visor mirror, and wiped away mascara tracks. She blew her nose, put on fresh lipstick, and pinched some color into her wan cheeks.
Drawing two calming, bracing breaths, she stepped outside and prepared to go to war.
Lili marched up the street. You can do this. You can do this. Right is on your side. Justice will prevail.
She was halfway to her building’s front door when the problem occurred to her. They’d taken away her credentials. She wouldn’t be allowed upstairs.
They’d taken her credentials. They’d taken her reputation. They’d taken her license. A great yawning sense of despair opened up inside her. I’m powerless.
The door to her building opened and her former mentor and the firm’s other founding partner stepped outside. Okay. Okay. Her luck was turning. Here was an opportunity. Approaching them on a public street wouldn’t be her first choice, but the fact that they’d come out of the building right at this particular moment was a sign, was it not?
She took one more step forward, then stopped abruptly. A third person had joined them. A third person smiled and laughed and flirted up at the two men old enough to be her father.
When Tiffany had followed Mark Christopher to the University of Hawaii, Lili had hoped Norman, Oklahoma, had seen the last of her. Instead, Tiffany had come home with an MBA and a “broken” heart quickly healed by a prominent banker. Now Tiffany was on the prowl again, and she’d started working at the firm late last year as a consultant. She knew everyone of consequence in town— maybe the entire state—and she’d quickly weaseled her way into visiting the corner offices. Often.
Lili watched the trio turn the other direction and stroll up the sidewalk, arm in arm, and she had no doubt that she was looking at Ormsby, Harbaugh, and Stole’s newest partner.
The guacamole in Lili’s stomach made a threatening rumble. “Oh yes,” she murmured. “Talk about a sign.”
She could possibly face the powers that be at the firm. She might even be able to hold her own while presenting her case to the cops. But Tiffany Lambeau? Forget about it.
Some parts of high school a girl simply couldn’t leave behind.
Lili pivoted and returned to her car. She thumbed the lock, opened the door, slid inside, and calmly fastened her seat belt. She sat with her hands on the wheel for a full five minutes, the events of the day running through her mind like a bad movie. How many times today had she asked herself, What am I going to do?
Now, finally, at—she glanced at the clock on her dash— 2:27 p.m., she knew the answer. “That’s it. I’m done. I quit.”
Lili switched on her ignition, shifted her car into drive, and spoke her life-changing decision aloud. “I’m going to join the Tornado Alleycats.”
Copyright © 2017 by Emily March and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.