Prologue and Chapter 1
So, now you know even more about the infamous Stella Gale, probably more than you wanted to know. I warned you, and I may live to regret this, but what’s done is done. When you first came here, you said you were seeking revenge and I can understand why. Well, this could be your opportunity. However, before you jump on it—and you’ll need my cooperation if you do—I suggest you put together as many pieces of this complicated story as you can by whatever means necessary, and once you’ve put them all together, see how you feel then. Frankly, I doubt revenge will be foremost in your mind, or maybe it will. After all, what do I know? Not much. I mean look at me—you can’t say “crazy” hasn’t crossed your mind a few times during these two years you’ve known me, and understandably so. Here I am, in a cabin far away from all of it, desperate for glimpses of who I am, who I was meant to be—wondering if they are one and the same and trusting only my three dogs—and now you. Obviously, I don’t care about appearances—I don’t even own a mirror. I shoot cans from the same tree branch every day at the same time, run half naked through the woods with my dogs when it’s warm enough, play “Reveille” in the morning, “Taps” at night, listen to music, read books, and write letters I never send to a little girl I once met. Oh, there are more than a few moments I’d like to cut Stella from my heart as quickly and easily as a paper doll from a flat page, and toss her away, but it’s just not that simple, not by a long shot.
By the way, you once asked me why I only ever wear overalls and T-shirts, even in the cold, underneath the layers. I told you it was strictly for comfort and you accepted that. Truthfully, it’s my “wrestlin’ with the devil outfit,” something Bobby taught me about. You just might want to think about getting the same for yourself.
- 1 -
The First Time Annie Left Georgia
The shotgun blast, not fifteen feet from her bed, followed by the screeching litany of abuse from Stella’s mouth, sent Greta, aka Annie Evans, scrambling from a dead sleep to speeding out of the winding driveway in Bobby’s pickup, nearly crashing into trees as she went. In a matter of minutes, her twelve years with Stella and Bobby had come to an end. She couldn’t have predicted it, not ever, and yet knew instinctively to get as far away as she could. All she had were the clothes on her back, her purse, and a few thousand dollars in the bank.
She pressed the gas pedal to the floor. She knew Stella would be fast on the track of making her withdrawal of funds impossible. Just how she would do that was a complete mystery to her, because it was a personal account. However, Stella could make things happen, or not, using means that were beyond what most people would think of
Annie could barely see the road. What happened? Her mind was racing. She was desperate for an explanation. She had seen Stella cruel—absolutely, and often—but never like that. It makes no sense. The kennel’s going well, the boys are successfully off on their own—there’s no reason I can think of…
She was visibly shaking as she gripped the steering wheel and sped up the ramp onto the highway. What now? She had nowhere to go. The only family she’d known for the past twelve years was ten miles back and had just run her off with a shotgun.
She looked around wildly as cars honked and swerved to her left and right. The rage she’d seen in Stella’s eyes was nothing she’d ever seen in her before.
Yes, I was wildly confused, to say the least. I had been living and working with her for half my life. I was the “best girl” in our business, meaning, as she would say in a variety of ways, “You are the official billboard, as in the best damn advertisement we have! Hell, we can stroll you damn near anywhere on this earth, then come home and I’d have to get me a hundred Bobbys to beat the dreamin’ and droolin’ men off our doorstep.”
See that? I speak Stella fluently. She’s a part of me and always will be. How that will look next year, ten years from now, I don’t know. How it’s been is intense and complicated
Anyway, unlike the other girls, the most I had to do was ride on an arm for a night. I never had to trick, except when I felt like it, which was for reasons that had nothing to do with the business. And, unlike the others, I lived with Stella.
The truth of the matter is, within my first months with her we were partners. She had the real world smarts, as she liked to point out constantly, and I had the book smarts, plus, as she would also say, “You have exactly what we need to pull in all them rich foreigners”—meaning my language skills.
I was crazy about her—I was.
You know, she was my mother and my big sister—AND we needed each other, truly we did. Even knowing what I know now, I still know that to be true. I can only imagine how that sounds to you or anybody who wasn’t in my shoes, or hers. But I’m not concerned about that, not anymore. If I were I wouldn’t be able to speak the truth—something I’ve already not been able to do more than once in my life, not without painful consequences—nuff said. You may learn more than you care to learn and want to shove it away. I did. I tried like crazy to make everything that was me disappear when I got here to Wisconsin. I managed, day to day, not without tremendous difficulty—but I did it.
Then the day came when I couldn’t do it anymore, something I’ll tell you more about later.
So, Stella, Bobby, and the boys were my family. It was that simple. When Stella went off to prison, I stayed on. Not as a favor to her, not because I was told to, but because I loved them—and we needed each other.
And, by the way, I could have gone to prison with her, but she didn’t allow that to happen. What she told the authorities, so she says, was, “The Greta you is lookin’ for is gone. That Greta ran like the chickenshit she is and, no, I never did know her for-real name or where she came from. I don’t give a rat’s ass. But I will tell you Annie Evans ain’t that person. Now, I know they look a lot alike, which is what you might call an amazin’ coincidence. Truth is, they is nothin’ alike, ’cept on the outside. ’Course, if you’re lookin’ for the official Greta that was my daughter, you already know how that story ended.”
Do I believe she said that? No, not really, because I was never in danger of being arrested. Stella was always careful that my name stayed far away from anything related to the money she was laundering. And I know you probably think it was for selfish reasons, which is what most people will think, but that wasn’t the case. It’s far more complicated than that. So, even though she most likely never said any of that to the authorities—still, she protected me.
So, let me continue.
For the two years after she got out of prison, I helped get Galestorm Kennel off the ground. It was an exciting time and, frankly, one of the least chaotic times we’d ever had together, which is what made that day she burst into my room such a shock. It wasn’t until much later that I came to understand why that happened.
But I think I should back up a bit and tell you how Stella and I met. I was seventeen and she was thirty-one when she found me. I say “found” because that’s what it felt like. No one had ever known the truth of me, until I met Stella. At times I actually believe I was meant to meet her—you know, my destiny, my raison d’être. It’s funny, I know, but I wouldn’t even think such a thing if there wasn’t some truth to it—do you understand what I mean? Well, maybe you don’t.
And, just as an aside, you know how people can be completely uninteresting to one person and fascinating to another? Well, Stella is rarely uninteresting to anybody—but I think you already know that.
Anyway, at the time she found me, I was already a third of the way through college. I’d skipped a year in elementary school, another year in high school, and entered college at barely sixteen—one of the top colleges in the country. The point being, I was painfully smart, which according to educators meant I could handle “this kind of advancement.” Painful is what I called it, “ahead of your peers” is what they called it. Well, they didn’t know me at all, nobody did, as I have already said—but Stella did. And so, needless to say, when she found me I dropped everything to be at her side.
It was during winter break and I had decided to drive fifteen hundred miles to New Orleans on my own. It was one of my personal dares. You see, I was always pushing myself to do things that seemed as though they might be unbearable, as in unbearably lonely, unbearably scary, unbearably sad—anything, it just had to be unbearable, that was the only criteria. It was how I kept myself intact, strong and special, or so I thought!
I also didn’t have any friends, because it was unbearable to not have friends. I know it sounds nuts, but it wasn’t, not to me.
So, there I was, sitting in one of the thousands of bars in the French quarter in New Orleans when two obnoxious smarmy men started hitting on me—yet another thing I had to deal with routinely, being hit on all the time. You see, unbearability was even in my genetic make-up, as in I was unbearably smart and unbearably attractive no matter what I wore or what time of day it was. I never said that to myself and I never felt it. I simply heard it all the time.
Well, suddenly a vibrant husky voice broke from behind those two men. “You boys need to step aside, unless of course you’re holdin’ five thousand apiece in cash, and that would be just to stand next to her, in which case we can talk.”
Both the men turned, and there she was—small, strikingly beautiful, with a Herculean presence. Stella had something that when it was turned on it cleared a room, filled a room, destroyed a room—whatever her intention was, it simply happened. The men apologized and moved on.
She proceeded to sit down beside me with a familiarity I’d never experienced. She snapped her fingers at the waitress. “Two margaritas, please.” She was utterly mesmerizing and not because she was beautiful, which she was, but we’ve all seen beautiful a thousand times. She was, in my completely non-intact mind, the Goliath I longed to be—the person who could make the unbearable go pale.
Annie Evans, soon to become Stella’s Greta, was facing her nemesis and had no clue. And the irony is, Stella was also facing her nemesis and had no clue. It makes me shudder, even now.
Anyway, after she ordered our margaritas, she looked at me and said, “I can tell you’re not from around here and that’s just how you want it. I know the feelin’, honey, trust me. When I was your age, which I’m guessin’ is about seventeen or eighteen, I was already married, had me a kid and was livin’ two thousand miles away from anybody and everybody who knew me. It was called survivin’ a bad situation. You and me, we have a lot in common.”
And she was right. We did have a lot in common, which was that neither one of us was intact and neither one of us knew it.