Charlie Ann breathed in sharply. She hadn’t expected she’d have to talk to Bennett herself.
Suddenly there was a knock on the door.
“One minute, Cindi,” she said into the telephone receiver, then covered it with her hand. She rushed downstairs and looked through the dull, textured windows framing the door. She swung the door open to find Rick standing outside. “Rick! Bennett’s on the phone!”
“I know, he called me about ten minutes ago. I was coming to let you know. All he asked was what’s going on, and I said he’d have to talk to you about that.”
“Apparently he’s turned up at my old neighbor’s apartment,” she said, turning to Rick.
“Why?” Rick asked, evidently shocked.
“I don’t know! Look, I can’t talk to him. I... er, do you mind if I just hand it over to you?”
Rick looked at her skeptically. “all right.”
“Cindi? Put him on.” She smoothly passed the phone to Rick.
“Ben? Yeah, I know, but just let me try to explain. What? Yeah, it’s your dad. He’s trying to get more money, this time out of your ex’s aunt. Yeah, we’re at her house now. No. Yeah. Well, no, she’s not sure who to believe. Yeah, your dad’s got quite a story. She doesn’t... no, she’d rather not. No... OK, here, let me ask.” Rick looked over at Charlie Ann. “He says he really needs to talk to you.”
“Whatever he wants to say to me, he can say through you, or else I don’t want to hear it,” Charlie Ann said, knowing that would put a stop to any private matters Bennett wanted to discuss.
“C’mon, Charlie, just hear him out.”
“Why does he need to talk to me so badly?”
Rick sighed, and put the phone back to his ear.
“She’s pretty adamant on this. I tried. Well, what is it? Why can’t you tell me? You know you can trust me. Hey, don’t bring that up. That was in high school, man! Ben, dude, she wasn’t into you. No, she didn’t. Then why’d she ask me? Ha! In your dreams! She--”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” Charlie Ann cried and grabbed the phone from Rick.
“What is it?”
“Charlie? Charlie Ann? Is this you?” His voice shot like icicles through her eardrum. He sounded so far away. It had been so long since she’d seen him, heard from him. Definitely not long enough, though.
“Yes, it’s me! It’s only been a few months; can you seriously not recognize my voice anymore?!”
“What’s wrong with you? You wouldn’t talk to me!”
“Well, I’m talking to you now so take advantage and tell me what the hell’s going on!” She looked down, wondering why her palm hurt, and slowly unclenched her fist.
“Hey, I know about as much as you do! You tell me what’s going on.”
“Bennett! I don’t have time for this! I’m trying to run a garden shop and have a life! Just spill it already!”
“I swear, I don’t know anything! Fill me in.”
“Fine. Basically, my aunt lost fifty grand and it was either for your bail or your dad conned it out of her for some reason.”
“My bail? For what?”
“I don’t know! How would I? What did you do?”
“Nothing! I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“I... you... you’re not in trouble? You’re not running from the police?”
He laughed loudly. “No! I don’t know what the fifty grand was for, but I’m doubting it was for some imaginary bail.”
“Well, then that leads me to another question. Did your father ever con $20,000 out of Glenda?”
Silence met her question. “Bennett? Ben?” she asked.
“Rick told you about that.” She heard a sigh. “Listen, you can’t tell anyone, OK? I can’t do that to my mom.”
“What do you mean?”
“Listen, I know it’s crazy because I know she’s gone, but she made me promise not to tell. It mortified her. It shamed her that she had ever fallen for someone as slimy as Jasper. She loved me, and once told me the only thing she would change about me was who my father was, because I deserved better.”
“Then why’d she marry him?”
“She’d lost all her money! She needed some way to support herself and me. The only way to have some money was to marry Jasper. What’s mine is yours and all that.”
“But she never saw the money again.”
“She didn’t know he’d spent it ‘til after she married him.”
“Then why’d he marry her?”
“Would you believe, in his own twisted way, that he loved her?”
Charlie Ann thought for a moment of the Jasper he described. She then wondered if Bennett loved her, too, in his own twisted way. “No.”
“Yeah, me neither. I think he probably hoped she had some more money stashed away, and once they were married he’d have access to it. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he did love her. Or maybe he felt bad for her. Maybe he felt bad for me,” Bennett said bitterly.
Trying to avoid sympathizing with her ex-husband, Charlie Ann quickly changed the subject. “But what did he need the money for?”
“Debts is all I’ve ever heard. I don’t know for what specifically. Maybe he was just greedy. I don’t know,” Bennett said almost apathetically, resignedly, as though he was tired of talking about it.
“Either way, what he did was inexcusable,” Charlie Ann replied, matching his dispassion with her anger. “He can’t do it again, especially not to my aunt. I won’t let him.”
“That’s my girl,” Bennett said quietly.
Charlie Ann glanced at the receiver, unsure of how to respond. I’m only twenty-five years old, she thought. I should not be having an a conversation with my ex-husband about how to solve my aunt’s financial issues. I should not have an ex-husband. I should not be taking on my aunt’s financial issues.
“Charlie? So what are you going to do now?”
Collecting her thoughts, she spoke slowly and clearly into the phone.
“I’m going to get Jasper away from Aunt Shug. I’m going to confront him about this, find out where the money went. I’m going to get it back, and then I’m turning him into the police, if they’ll even take a scumbag like Jasper Ragsdale.”
It was time to stop sitting around. It was time to do something.
“Just be careful. Jasper doesn’t exactly have the best temper, and you never know when he might run.”
“Rick can help me,” Charlie Ann said, giving Rick a weak smile.
“That’s not necessary. You can handle it. Or maybe get a cop or something,” Bennett said quickly.
“Wish me luck!”
“Oh... and Ben?” She spoke seriously. “I’ll find out what happened to your mom’s money, too.”
“Thanks, Charlie,” he said sincerely.
“I’m not doing it for you!” she said, maybe a little too loudly.
“Just so we’re clear.”
“You’re doing it for Glenda,” he said decidedly.
“For Glenda. Well, good luck, be careful and keep me posted, okay?”
“all right, I will. Bye,” she said, wondering when the next time would be that she’d speak with her ex-husband.
“Wait! What was that about a garden shop?” Bennett said. She could almost hear the sarcastic smile seeping through his voice, despite the grim circumstances.
“Bye, Ben.” Charlie Ann snapped her cell phone shut. She thought for a second. If he wasn’t running from the law, why had Bennett traveled all the way from California to her old apartment? She shook the thoughts from her head and turned to Rick. “Come with me. We’ve got an agenda.”
She explained her plans to Rick as they headed outside, where Jasper had ushered her Aunt. They discovered Aunt Shug sitting alone on the porch steps, gazing absently up at the sky and gnawing her lip.
“Aunt Shug? Where’s Jasper?” Charlie Ann said, panic rising in her chest.
“He said he had to leave, had to go immediately. Said he’d be back,” her aunt replied, confused by Charlie Ann’s panicked expression.
“When did he leave?” Rick asked.
“Only a moment ago. You can still see his car down the road,” Aunt Shug pointed to a cloud of rising red dust about half a mile down the dirt road, below the slowly setting sun.
“Rick, hand me your car keys,” Charlie Ann ordered, holding out her hand.
“Why?” Rick and Aunt Shug asked simultaneously.
Charlie Ann looked at them, at Aunt Shug who she had known seemingly forever and at Rick Taylor, who she had only known a few days. They were just people, like her, who had been dragged into Jasper’s schemes. She felt a hatred bloom inside her, like a rose covered in thorns.
She looked carefully from Aunt Shug to Rick, and then pointedly at the road in front of them. “Do you really need to ask?”
Jackie Mohan, 17, is a junior at Nation Ford High School. She writes fiction and poetry and is an intern at the Fort Mill Times, where she has contributed several news and feature stories.