In the sweltering little town of Belle Helene, Alabama, Carmen Taylor keeps her weaknesses, her frustrations, and her tears to herself. She's too busy shouldering the burdens of her troubled friends, like Desiree Lucienne, the petite, pampered daughter of a doctor who tries to beat the wildness out of her. But it doesn't stop Desiree from trawling for men whenever she can, and trying to drag Carmen along with her.
It's not that Carmen hasn't had her share of boozy pick-ups. She has, but they just can't compare to the one steamy night she spent with the man she's loved since they were both kids. Now a local cop, Chester Sheffield, with his Barry White voice and his all-too-fine body, keeps showing up in Carmen's life, wanting to do something about the feelings they obviously have for each other. But that would mean abandoning her "boyfriend" Burl Tupper and that's something Carmen just can't do.
Ever since Burl ended up in a wheelchair because of a foolish teenage prank she played on him, Carmen's promised herself that she'd spend the rest of her life making it up to him. When Carmen doesn't take her chance with Chester, Desiree does, and when she learns that she's pregnant with Chester's child, it's almost more than Carmen can bear. Still, her loyalty to Desiree goes back a long way, and she's not about to let a man get in the way of their friendship--even when Desiree starts stepping out on Chester.
Then, on a sultry, reckless moonlit night, Carmen commits a desperate crime of passion, and, with Desiree, hits the road running. But she can't run from the truth she's avoided for years--and in a seedy hotel in the middle of nowhere, she confronts her demons head-on. Now Carmen has two choices--a life on the lam, or a full circle return to Belle Helene, the place where it all began. . .and the only place in the world she can lay down her burdens and seize her one true chance at love and redemption.
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GONNA LAY DOWN MY BURDENS
By MARY MONROE
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2002 Mary Monroe
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJanuary 2001
I had just stepped out of my hot shower when a mysterious gust of ice-cold air blew against the left side of my face and made me shiver.
The small window above my shower, covered in steam, was closed, and it was warmer than normal for Alabama this time of year. There was no explanation for what had just happened to me. Looking back on it now, I think of it as the wind of misfortune that blew into my life that night. But even before that night, I had already lost my way.
Still shivering, I stumbled toward my living room, a large towel in one hand, my pink terry-cloth bathrobe in the other. My wet hair felt like vines against the sides of my face as I wrestled myself into the bathrobe, clutching the towel between my teeth, then wrapping it around my head like a turban.
I had been home from work for two hours and my telephone had not rung once. I couldn't believe that during the ten minutes I had just spent in the shower, my answering machine had recorded six messages.
As I rubbed the spot on my face where the strange wind had assaulted me in my bathroom, my heart started beating a tattoo against the inside of my chest, and my head started aching on both sides. A large framed picture of a Black, woolly-haired Jesus on the wall directlyabove my big-screen TV offered a little comfort, but not enough to calm my nerves.
The only painkiller in the house was some leftover margarita in the refrigerator. I made my way to the kitchen. In the dark I drank straight from the blender, licking the last few drops as it trickled down the side of my trembling hand.
I returned to the living room. Before I could rewind the tape on the answering machine, the telephone on the end table next to my living room sofa rang again. I lifted the receiver with caution before the answering machine clicked on, knocking a stack of old Essence magazines off the end table to the floor.
Before I could say anything, a female voice whispered, "Carmen, he's going to kill me.... Come get me." Then the phone went dead. I had cancelled caller ID and I was too afraid to hit *69, but I had a good idea who it was. As soon as I hung up, the phone rang again.
"Carmen, did you get my messages? Where were you? I've been calling and calling!" Just as I had thought, it was Desiree Lucienne, my best friend and the one with the most baggage. That Desiree. She was a beautiful person inside and out. She was intelligent and her heart was in the right place, but she represented the dark side of the African-American dream. She was weak, serf-centered, and foolish. Every time her bad choices got her in trouble, I was the broom she used to sweep up her mess.
"Desiree? What's the matter?" I asked in a labored voice. The noisy neighbors in the apartments on both sides of me were both blasting Whitney Houston. I heard a car backfire outside and then the scream of a siren. Peeping out of the window behind my sofa, I saw a dog running around in circles chasing his own tail under the yellow glow of a dim streetlight. A storm that had started right after I left work had intensified. The wind was howling and blowing the branches on the sumac tree outside my living room window against the side of my building so hard, I could barely hear Desiree, even though she was yelling at the top of her lungs.
"Carmen, Chester knows!" Desiree told me between raspy sobs. There was some static on the telephone line that made her voice seem even more irritating.
"Knows what?" The towel that I had wrapped around my wet hair had come undone. I took a deep breath, braced myself, and held the towel in place with both hands. I pressed the telephone between my shoulder and chin as I eased down on the sofa and crossed my legs.
"He knows I am planning to leave him. He knows everything. He even knows that you are the one who hid his gun!"
"Shit! How did he find out?"
Even with all of the windows in my living room cracked open, I started sweating profusely. I untied the belt to my bathrobe to keep it from sticking to my naked body. I let the bathrobe fall open, fanning myself with the tail.
"I don't know how he knows, but he knows." Desiree's voice changed from pleading to demanding. "You have to come get me. I need for you to bring my stuff to the house and get me out of here. Now."
"Where is Chester now?" I asked firmly, still fanning myself. A trickle of sweat slid from my face and dropped into my lap. I licked my lips, trying to savor the margarita I had splashed.
"He just left. He ran out of here when I locked myself in the bedroom. I don't want to be here when he gets back. When I tried to leave, he stretched out on the ground in front of my car. Oh-I've never seen him this mad."
"Listen to me. Calm down," I advised, holding up my hand. "Chester is not crazy. I know him better than you do. He's mostly talk," I added, as I roughly wiped my face with the sleeve of my bathrobe.
"Carmen, he said he was going to kill me. I have to get out of Alabama tonight." Desiree's voice had risen to a howl.
"Tonight? Girl, I'm getting married tomorrow. You're supposed to be my matron of honor," I reminded her. "You guys been drinking?" I leaned over to pick up the magazines that I had knocked over and placed them on the coffee table next to a bowl of brown bananas and bruised apples.
"I haven't had a drop, but he's had a few. He's gone crazy, Carmen. You can even see it in his eyes!"
"Calm down," I insisted, holding the telephone away from my face for a brief moment.
"Calm down? How can I calm down with a crazy man on the loose?" Desiree hollered. "Threatening to kill me!"
I sighed and held the phone closer to my ear. "Let me call you back in a few minutes. I just got out of the shower and I'm still wet. Let me dry my hair and put on some clothes. I promise, I'll be there in half an hour."
"Half an hour? Girl, I don't have that kind of time. I got to get up out of here now," Desiree wailed impatiently.
"Well, I can't fly and it'd take me at least ten minutes to get there anyway." I snatched the towel off my head and hurled it across the room. It landed on top of my TV, covering part of the large screen like a curtain. I had turned off the TV. A news break had interrupted a Cosby rerun to report a late-breaking story about some fishermen stumbling across the nude body of a dead young Black woman. I didn't want to have to deal with anybody's death on the eve of my wedding. "Listen, catch a cab and come on over here until Chester cools off."
"I don't want to catch a cab. I want you to come get me and take me to the airport in Meridian."
"Airport? In Meridian, Mississippi? What's wrong with you, girl?" I had a hard time getting my words out without choking on them. "You're not going to be around for my wedding?"
"I won't be around for your wedding or anything else if I don't get out of this house and out of this state before Chester gets back."
This was not the first time Desiree had disappointed me. Though it didn't surprise me, it saddened me to know that of all things, my wedding was being upstaged by her latest dilemma. But she was my best friend, and though I had never burdened her with my problems, she had been a good friend for seventeen years. And even though it was with hesitation, I accepted part of the blame for her being so quick to turn to me when she needed help. I had allowed our friendship to come to this. I couldn't remember one single time when I hadn't come through for Desiree-and just about everybody else for that matter.
"I know I can count on you, Carmen. I always did. Girl, you are so good to me. I hope that one of these days I can do something for you," Desiree added, speaking in a much calmer voice now. But then she broke down and cried like a baby for a full minute. "I ... I'm sorry, Carmen," she rattled. She sniffed and cleared her throat.
"Just hang on a little while longer. Everything's going to be all right. I'll be there as soon as I can get dressed." I sighed and sucked in my breath before continuing. "Desiree, this is the last time I'm getting involved with you and Chester. I can't keep bailing you out of one mess after another. Shit." My words surprised me as much as they surprised Desiree. I heard her gasp.
"You won't have to after tonight," she said distantly, clearing her throat. "Chester is going to be out of our lives for good. Carmen, I am so sorry I won't be with you tomorrow. I don't know how or when, but I will make this up to you. I know how you must be feeling."
Desiree didn't have a clue about the painful things I hid behind my smile, and I didn't want her to. I was the poster girl for strong young Black women. I kept my tears and my weaknesses to myself. I had carried my burdens alone all my life, twenty-nine years now. I was tired of the way things had been, but not tired enough to say no to Desiree that night.
I bit the side of my bottom lip before responding. "No, you don't, Desiree," I said, talking between quivering lips. I had to blink hard to hold back my own tears.
As soon as I hung up, the telephone rang again. This time it was Regina Witherspoon. Before Desiree had roared into my life, Regina had been my best friend. Desiree, the spoiled daughter of a doctor, and Regina, a proud ghetto princess, didn't care that much for one another. I fell somewhere in between. They tolerated one another just to please me.
"Carmen, you ready?" Regina always sounded like she was in a hurry. I could hear her tapping her telephone impatiently with the tip of one of her four-inch nails. Tupac was rapping in the background on her end.
"Ready for what?" I asked in a tired, worn-out voice, hoping my tone would encourage Regina to limit her phone call to a minute or less. "What are you talking about?" I snapped. The call from Desiree had put me in a mood I was not particularly proud of. I was sorry to be taking out my frustrations on Regina.
"Well, excuse me," Regina hissed. "But I thought you wanted me to come over to braid your hair for tomorrow." She turned down the volume on her music before continuing. "I canceled another appointment for you," she whined.
"Oh-Oh, yeah. I do want you to come over. But ... uh ... I'll have to call you back. I have to go out for a little while. Desiree's in trouble and I have to go pick her up."
There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence before Regina responded. "Again? What is it this time? She break one of them ten-dollar nails of hers? Somebody stole her credit card?"
I sighed and rolled my eyes. "Well, no. Chester's acting a fool and she wants to get out of the house until he calms down."
"Hmmm-huh. That heifer knew Chester was out of her league when she hooked up with him," Regina snarled, sucking her teeth. "I'm surprised they lasted this long. Why you let her drag you into her mess?"
"She's my friend, Reggie," I answered levelly. "I promised her I'd come get her." I had also promised myself that I would stay out of Desiree's business after the time she had told me to when I interfered in another one of her relationships. It seemed like I had trouble keeping promises to everybody but myself.
"She's just as grown as you and me, and if she can't handle her business by now, shame on her. Shit."
"I know. I know. But I told her I'd come get her. Desiree is my girl, you know." I was tempted to remind Regina about all the times she had leaned on me.
"All right, now," Regina grunted. "That Chester is one big-ass, gun-totin' motherfucker. You better be careful."
"I will," I replied in a low but steady voice. I took a deep, painful breath and looked around my living room. A small mountain of empty gift boxes and wrapping paper sat on the floor at the foot of my TV. I hadn't cleaned up after the bridal shower Desiree had thrown for me three days ago. Regina and Desiree had agreed to clean up my apartment while Burl and I were on the week-long cruise in the Bahamas that we had planned to take after the wedding. And that was only after I told them I'd let them divide everything in my apartment that I didn't want to take with me to the house I had planned to share with Burl.
"Reggie, if I don't call you back in an hour, come over to Desiree's house. And bring your cellular phone in case ... in case we need to call the cops. I have a funny feeling about going over there getting involved," I muttered, blinking my burning eyes. There was more than worry in my voice. I was scared.
There was a moment of grim silence before Regina responded. Instead of speaking in her usual quick, loud manner, she spoke in a slow, crisp voice that was disturbing to say the least. "Don't go over there, Carmen. I know Desiree is your girl and you told her you was comin' to get her, but this is one time I wish you'd listen to me. Don't go over there."
I sat still for a moment, allowing Regina's words to sink in. In the back of my mind I could still hear Desiree begging me to come pick her up before Chester returned.
"And what if Chester hurts Desiree?" I asked in a low, uncertain voice.
"And what if he hurts you?!" Regina screamed. Her shrill voice pierced the air. I had to hold the telephone away from my face and rub my ear. "You my girl, too," she added passionately. "And, you know how I feel about funerals."
"Oh, I am not worried about Chester hurting me," I replied with confidence. "I've known him all my life. He's just a show-off with a big mouth." I paused just long enough to catch my breath. "He doesn't scare me one bit," I lied.
Regina didn't get a chance to finish her sentence before I cut her off. "Regina, drop by the liquor store and pick up a bottle on your way over. A real big one. I have a feeling you, Desiree, and me are going to need to take a serious trip to Margaritaville before the night is over. Bring some Advil, too. I don't want to be too hungover for my own wedding tomorrow." I looked at the telephone for two minutes, trying to decide whether or not I should take Regina's advice. I jumped when it rang again. I prayed that it was Desiree telling me things had cooled off between her and Chester and that she didn't need me to come rescue her. It was Desiree again, and she was more frantic than ever.
"I was just checking to see if you'd left yet," she wailed.
"I-I'm on my way," I told her. I was so nervous I dropped the telephone on my bare foot. The pain was indescribable, but I ignored it.
Ten minutes later, I left my apartment, hopping, more concerned about helping Desiree than helping myself.
Chapter TwoThe drive from my apartment to the house on Carlson Street where Desiree lived with Chester Sheffield normally took about ten minutes. But because of the storm, traffic was heavy and there was an accident at the corner of Carlson and Becker.
Excerpted from GONNA LAY DOWN MY BURDENS by MARY MONROE Copyright © 2002 by Mary Monroe
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.