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Cirmah family since his arrival. Jim is ready to give God credit if Odis suddenly dies from a massive heart attack, and until then he didn’t care to be one of the flock.

      A cattle truck blew a tire and jumped two lanes crashing into a concrete guardrail. A seventy-pound chunk of guardrail fell forty feet below onto another section of interstate smashing the windshield of his mother’s SUV killing her instantly. God’s Will notwithstanding, she was dead, and Jim’s life is about to free fall faster than that block of concrete hurling down to the freeway below.

      The only man in Jim’s life that meant anything to him up to this point is his Grandfather, Denzel. A wealthy rice farmer in Arkansas stern but fair, Denzel took Jim to his farm during summer and winter breaks teaching him how to fish and hunt. Jim was driving a combine at twelve-years old earning money used to buy a sixteen-gauge shotgun and the endless boxes of shells he’d shoot trying to hit ducks flying into rice country by the thousands from Canada.

      The farm and his Grandfather represented good times and tempered the realities of dark things happening at his house in Dallas.

      Jim is quickly hardening to life’s unfairness. When his stepfather quoted the Bible hitting him with a two inch leather belt, his anger toward God and Odis built like a lava field boiling under the surface ready to explode.

      He long ago stopped the incessant complaints about the quick-tempered, alcohol fueled Odis to his mother; there’s only excuses because she’s terrified of being alone. Jim’s real father left the family three years into Jim’s life right after the birth of his younger sister, Brenda. It’s never clear to Jim why he abandoned the family; his mother always drifted off into “life’s not fair” routine when asked. Soon it mattered little to Jim; he didn’t have curiosity or emotion about a man walking away from him and his sister as babies.

      Brenda was an outgoing little girl for the first few years of her life but at age six she became withdrawn and distant when Odis moved into the house. It confused Jim at first; Brenda spent much of the time in her room writing in a diary or deep into school books. Jim is just the opposite, hating the inside of the house and staying outside to play street sports. He’d do anything to get away from the biblical glare of Odis and the Christian shrine covering the house on every wall. Soon he would get the chance to leave it all behind.

      Jim made up his mind to make a stand. That stand came in the form of refusing to go to church with Odis and Brenda three Sundays ago. It’s bravely executed, but Jim knew Odis might beat him half to death for making such a statement without his mother being around.

      Strangely, Odis only yelled obscenities Jim guessed didn’t come from the Bible but calmed down rather quickly. He grabbed Brenda’s hand and went to church without him. The house long ago ceased being a home to Jim, so the last few weeks he looked forward to his Sunday morning freedom defying yet one more position of authority in his life.

      Jim and the Dennis’ twins built a treehouse in a black oak stand of trees only a block away from the house. This Saturday he’s surprised to see Brenda perched in the treehouse when he opens the trapdoor crawling up through the floor.

      She smiles at him and Jim sees a spark of life missing for a while. Jim smiles back but issues a warning. “You know we don’t allow girls in our treehouse.”

      Although this thought had been discussed by the guys, it had never been challenged with the actual appearance of a girl sitting on a milk carton case in their treehouse next to him.

      Brenda has a backpack setting next to her and several books lying around her corner of the treehouse. She starts to gather the belongings to leave.

      Jim looks out the window at the lot below hoping the Dennis’ twins wouldn’t climb the tree and find his sister in the sacred temple they spent many weekends constructing. Her anxiety to obey her brother slid a sliver of guilt down Jim’s back and he immediately gave her a moment of reprieve.

      “You can stay for a while... but if David or Darren show up, you’ve got to go.” He knew he had to draw the line, sister status notwithstanding.

      All Brenda could muster is a second smile and tentative voice. “Thanks, I’ll sure leave shortly,” she concedes. “Nice treehouse.” She tries to regain favor.

      Jim listens to her faint sentence and realizes this is the most he’s heard fall off her lips in several weeks. He didn’t understand the answer to his sister’s withdrawal, and certainly has no idea the tool defining her troubles changing both of their lives forever lies innocently next to her backpack.

      Jim takes the treehouse compliment in stride as if expected, after all it did come from his sister.

      “Yeah,” he brags.

      “We’ve already had two dirt clog battles in the fort with the Wilcox brothers...won both.”

      Brenda looks out the window on her side of the treehouse suddenly turned fort imagining the clay dirt clogs raining down on the local bullies.

      “Don’t doubt it....you could really chunk a dirt clog from up here.” She summarizes displacing a slight smile.

      Jim is impressed with Brenda’s war strategy recognition.

      “You can come up any time the twins aren’t around.” A large concession is made.

      Brenda and Jim enjoy another thirty minutes of solitude twenty feet off the ground before the Dennis’ twins pull up on bikes, and Jim quickly ushered Brenda down the tree to return home and a make believe world. In her rapid haste to leave, Brenda inadvertently pushes an opening to her soul and darkest secrets under the edge of the milk carton case used as a chair. The diary is a habit she penned daily and didn’t have a clue it fell from her backpack.

      After the twins join Jim in the treehouse, the boys get bored shooting rocks using a sling-shot at birds flying into the wrong tree. A decision is made to go to the Dennis’ house for a football throw around. Several more neighborhood boys join the toss around and soon a game of tackle football breaks out and lasts till dark.

      Jim avoids going home whenever possible and when Mrs. Dennis asks him to have dinner, he jumps at the chance. He returns home around 10:00 Saturday night and easily gets by Odis passed out on the living room couch and goes to bed.

      Sunday morning starts down the usual path, Odis put on the same jeans and blazer he wears to church every outing with the exception of a new golf shirt he bought at Target. He wakes Brenda up and together they are at the church thirty minutes early for the first of three services Odis ushers for.

      Jim gets up around 9:30 and goes over to the treehouse knowing the twins would show sooner or later and plans how the day will be set. When he gets there the twins are passing a book back and forth not one of the three Playboys they managed to sneak away from Odis. It is Brenda’s diary. The twins look up at Jim, a mixture of wonderment and fear in their eyes.

      Jim realizes who owns the small book having seen it in Brenda’s tow many times, but the thought of reading its contents never entered his mind. In his eyes, Brenda is the little sister writing about butterflies and unicorns. Darren Dennis hands Jim the diary and the brothers immediately scamper down the tree and head home. Jim senses something is terribly wrong in the diary from their reaction, and sits in the treehouse unwillingly exploring the antics of the child predator he lives with.

      Brenda’s writing isn’t filled with great detail, but leaves little doubt about the ongoing horror her life’s been during the previous four years. The power Odis wields over Brenda is absolute and heightened since their mother’s death. Jim could only read a small portion of the diary before his stomach demands he stop. He knows enough to make a decision altering many lives for years to come. He heads home, a heavy grip on the diary and his heart.

      Odis Staymen is a vile person no matter what angle you assess his personality. The day Brenda lost her diary in the treehouse, he loaded a shopping cart with Grey Goose Vodka and Budweiser. His love for vodka started as a teenager and the affair so intense, he’s in the advance stages of liver disease. He ignores his liver because it remains silent in its distress, but the ulcers in his stomach demand immediate attention screaming pain.

      Placating the strong message in his stomach, he

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