We’re almost there, folks, with this tangled love story across time. This portion contains one of the most challenging and humbling themes (i.e., racism) for me to deal with as a writer and as a human being. But, without further ado, the next-to-last part of the serial story slash novella is below. I will post Section C later today, after you’ve had time to digest and critique or enjoy or abhor (or ab-joy?) this part.
*By the way, the book titles here, as are all the characters and town, are fictitious.*
Undelivered Valentines, PART 4, Section B
by Leigh Ward-Smith
“Good morning! How are you? Let’s have a great day!” Jamie sang as she pinned back the black curtains.
Now who’s got a saccharine habit, Emily thought. She groaned. Rusty moved excitedly from Emily’s bed to Jamie and from Jamie back to the bed, his nose aimed half-skyward part of the time, jousting one in the thigh and the other in the side.
“You’re getting the covers wet, Rustbucket,” Emily called to the dog. He sat, and the floor became a bass drum with a canine beater-tail providing the attack.
“It’s 9 already, so we’d better get our day started. D’ja need to shower?” Jamie prodded.
“Mom, it’s soooo early.” She sat up and threw the explanation in her mother’s direction. “I didn’t want to mention it, but I had a kinda rough night.” She rubbed at her eyes with the bottom of her palm.
Jamie frowned with her whole face. “You did? What happened?”
“Nothing but your typical, everyday haunting,” came the reply.
She knew her mom’s skepticism, sometimes decaying into a modern version of cynicism, guided her. Diogenes and his lamp, she’d always reminded the girl as she grew up. She had no idea of the symbolism then, wondering whether that guy’s tendency for dodging knees had anything to do with the lamp.
“Well, regardless of what happened, we really should get moving. We can talk about it over breakfast, which I already have going downstairs. Waffles, eggs, and fruit sound good to you?”
“Only if I can have coffee,” the teen rejoindered.
“Okay, but it’s decaf for you today.”
Sadie greeted Jamie at the door. “Gram’s still napping upstairs. Sometimes we’re able to get her to rest, other times, no such luck. She gets up at a god-awful time, pre-dawn nowadays most of the time. Says her dreams are gone but that she’s still ready for sleep. I don’t get it, honestly.” She shook her head vigorously sideways.
The women moved to sit in the living room Wilma had kept up so diligently but that was beginning to surrender some tatters. The giant floor rug under the navy-blue Phyfe-style Federalist sofa bulged near two of its floral corners, fraying along the edges of the same. Jamie wondered how long ago Wilma’s house had been built, if they’d lived there for 70 years already.
Jamie began an apology. “I’m sorry my daughter Emily, uh, couldn’t make it today. She was still getting ready when—”
A hesitant knock came at the door, and Sadie walked over to open it. Orangey weaved in through a teenager’s legs and made a beeline to the kitchen.
“Hello. I’m Emily; my mom was supposed to come over here . . .”
After a split-second hug that left Emily looking at her mom uncertainly as she stood on the doorstep, Sadie beckoned her in with a “please come right on in.”
“C’mon, Em. We were just getting started. Glad you were able to make it. Did you deal with the Rusty issue?” Jamie asked.
“Yeah, Mom. He’s resting in his kennel. I think he’s calm now.” She stood at the side of the couch and wrung her hands nervously, thinking how fancy it was and wondering if she should sit.
To Sadie, Jamie turned and said: “Our dog was unexpectedly sick this morning. He’s a nervous dog sometimes, so we were both a little delayed.”
“Oh, it’s no problem.” Sadie patted Jamie’s hand.
She turned to the girl and extended her hand for a formal greeting, drooped somewhat elegantly at the wrist. “Emily, please call me Sadie. I’m sort of new in town here, too.”
Sadie must have noticed the teen’s gaze already becoming glued to her own shoes, a ragged pair of Asics gels that looked like they’d been through a wood chipper and mud puddle all at once, because she thought to add “I have some cinnamon rolls and juice in the kitchen, just out of the oven. I mean the rolls, obviously,” Sadie giggled.
“Care to have some, Emily, Jamie?” Sadie’s blue-eyed gaze leapt from the standing girl to the seated woman.
“Yes, um, Sadie. I didn’t eat much breakfast before coming, so I’d love some rolls.”
“Brilliant move, Sadie,” Jamie whispered aside to Sadie as she got up. “We all know the fastest way to a teen’s chameleon heart is through sugar and fats.” Another giggle bubbled up, then was quickly deflated.
Jamie could hear Emily’s eye-roll rather than see it, for she knew the girl had heard her. But something different occurred to her in that millisecond. Am I being too dismissive of Emily? I don’t mean to be harsh, just funny. To lighten the mood and puff away the clouds, as it were.
“Yeah,” Sadie began, “Gram told me some more about your dilemma, Jamie.” Jamie quirked an eyebrow. “What I meant is, I heard you’ve found a letter of some kind and need some help finding out who it belonged to or was meant for. She said a Gladys was mentioned. Any leads so far?”
“Here,” let’s go sit on the couch now that we’re replenished with goodies,” Sadie motioned for them to follow out of the kitchen.
The young woman whom Jamie guessed to be about 24 years old was nothing if not inquisitive. And sunnily persistent with her opinions.
The comfortable couch sank down only a little as they all sat on it, with only the slightest eeek. “Well, Em and I are still putting the blocks together. It’s a tricky thing, when you don’t know many people in town and have to approach this situation blind. I’m afraid our realtor was no huge help.”
Sadie just nodded as if she knew the story already, pausing to sip a hot beverage from a mug with the “#1 Grandma” emblazoned in red on its side.
Jamie began. “You said something last time about strange experiences at the house or it being a pesthouse in the past . . .?”
Suddenly there came a tapping, as of a small hand tentatively rapping.
“Who could that be?” Sadie moved to the door just as the doorbell rang twice hesitantly.
A small shadow moved, as if bouncing from foot to foot, behind the door, which Jamie could see out the delicately curtained window on the door. It then merged with another.
“Who’s that at the door on a Sunday?” Wilma called from up above as she ambled slowly downstairs. Jamie noticed for the first time that a motorized chair to carry sitting people, presumably Wilma, up the stairs had recently been installed. In fact, it looked unused, the way its metal parts still gleamed and a yellow bow hung from the armrest.
“Hello. We’re selling cookies, candy, and other stuff for our school, Washington Elementary. As you know, funding has been cut . . . ” A girl and a boy, about 11 and 7 or so, respectively, stood on the doorstep. The boy looked down at his high-top shoes. One untied lace protruded tongue-like.
“Well, how nice and mature you both are,” Sadie enthused. “Can you come in and let me have a look at what you’ve got there?”
“N’ma’am,” the boy stepped forward and spoke. “Our mom and teacher said we shouldn’t go into strangers’ houses.”
“You know what,” Sadie said as she bent to get equal to his eye level, “your momma and teacher are right.”
By then, Wilma had shuffled down the foyer and toward the opened front door that faced away from her view. At first, Jamie thought nothing of Sadie tossing a nervous glance backward, then subtly attempting to move the conversation outside to the porch.
What happened, happened in an instant, as Jamie and Emily waited for Sadie’s helpful, or at least interesting, information about their home.
“Who’s there, Sadie? You out there?” Wilma moved toward the closing door and reached for it. Sadie had no choice but to let her open it, as she didn’t want to get in a door tug-of-war with a 90-plus year-old woman she loved.
Wilma looked out and saw the children on her doorstep, then squinted over their heads to the driveway. A car sat outside at the curb waiting, presumably for the children. Jamie and Emily couldn’t see Wilma’s expression, her nose sliding derisively into the center of her face in a vortex that called to mind quicksand.
“We don’t want any,” Wilma attested, doing a literal brush-off with her right hand as she audibly huffed. She then summarily turned and walked away, her back to the children and her own great-granddaughter, who had begun to blush at the ears and cheeks, her mouth partly agape.
Emily also couldn’t help but hear the old woman, whom she’d not yet met. Wilma mumbled, “what do those people mean, coming here on the Lord’s Day tryin’ to sell me something? This ain’t no robber’s den.”
Jamie had overheard, too, because she softly gasped. She moved back in her seat, as if the comment had arrowed her in the chest or she wanted to get away. Emily’s eyes turned to plead with her mother. What do we say? they questioned, with raised brows.
“Uh, well,” Jamie began as she sprang up from the sofa, now flooded with decisiveness. “I guess we should get going now. We have lots to do. C’mon, Emily.” She pulled the girl’s hand.
Wilma looked mortified. “Where are you going, dears? You just got here, and I was so looking forward to chatting with you today about cold-frame gardening and various and sundry other things.” She called to Jamie’s back.
Jamie only half-way turned and shook her head. “No, we’re going to have to pass. We, uh, we . . . for now, we have some things we need to do.”
The elderly woman was crestfallen, but almost oblivious. “Oh, you mean what I said about those little burrheads bothers you? Aww,” she almost growled, “like it or not, they’re used to that. Besides, this is my house and I say what I damn well want.”
Who knew the formerly sweet old lady could be polite-as–peach cobbler, then turn arctic.
Jamie didn’t have to continue dragging Emily by her hand to the door and past Sadie, who was now rooted in place looking at the shrinking backs of the kids walking down the driveway as they hung their heads.
Had those kids heard her slurs and savagery, too? Jamie wondered.
“We’ll talk later, Sadie,” Jamie was trying to brush out the door when Sadie stopped her. She quickly retrieved a canvas bag from the adjacent closet and pressed the straps into Jamie’s hands.
“Here, this might explain a lot. I hope. I’ll get Gram settled down.”
Jamie and Emily brushed out the door with the bag and two minds brimming with conflict.
With her back jutting uncomfortably into the door, Sadie thought of the unpleasant task ahead.
I’ve just got to keep telling myself, she matured in a different era, almost a time-traveler. A stranger in land that’s very strange. To her, at least.
“That went well,” Emily offered sarcastically as they trudged down East Sycamore Street dejectedly.
“I’m sorry you had to hear that, Sweetie. Wilma was not like this the other time I sat with her.”
“It’s a good thing she didn’t know Dad’s momma was African-American.”
“Yeah, I s’pose so,” was the deepest commentary Jamie could muster, and they spent the next few minutes with only the sound of their footsteps, one slow and dragging the gravel, the other quick and brittle.
Sadie finally got the flummoxed old woman to sit down. Just after Jamie and Emily had left, she had insisted on going in the kitchen and polishing some of the silverware, then the area around the sink and backsplash got the toothbrush treatment. And Sadie had just let her go to town on it. At first.
It wasn’t her place, she felt, to question her grandmother. Most of the time. What good would it do at this point, she wondered.
She stalled by pretending she didn’t know how to get the ceiling fan adjusted before going to sit at the table, literally pulling her chair so it scraped up next to her grandmother’s.
“I know what you’re going to say already, girl. And I don’t want to hear it. I’m too old to be lectured by a sprout like you.”
So Sadie sat with her hands folded on the table.
Wilma made to noisily open the newspaper and spread it out on the table to stomp on further conversation.
“Let me get us a cinnamon roll and juice, Gram,” Sadie said, rising again. “There’s still a few left over from breakfast.”
“I guess that’s alright,” Wilma agreed, although she grumbled to herself that biscuits would have been better.
Sadie turned and spoke over her shoulder while getting the plates and drinks. “You know, Gram, I’m wondering if you remember something that happened when I was young.”
“What e’zackly yew talkin’ ’bout?” Wilma had slipped seamlessly back into her drawl.
“Well, that time when I was about eight and playing with the Allens’ grandkids and they hit me with the baseball and broke my glasses.”
“Unh-hunh, what about it?” She looked down at the cinnamon roll Sadie had placed on top of her newspaper as if she were perplexed by it.
“I was mad as a hornet thinking they had done it on purpose, but you know what you told me? You reminded me of something important. You may not realize it, but I still remember it.”
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Sadie rested her hand gently on her grandmother’s arm and rubbed it as she spoke. “You urged me to forgive Stephanie, to love her, and to not try to get even with her or hold a grudge against her.”
“Oh, I know where you’re going with this now. The Bible also says to honor thy father and mother and a lot of other things.” She shook her head vigorously. “What you think is that I’m a racist old woman, but what you don’t know is, I saw a lot of history, bloody days, diseases, wars, pass before me, including in my own family. . . . My soul is old, so old. . . .”
Her clouded blue eyes seemed to bubble up in a few tears, which she tamped down with a tissue from her pocket.
She sniffled, then began again. Yet her face was unable to look anything but red and puffy.
“Aunt Gladys and I never talked about it much, but we was originally a family of seven. Mom, Dad, and a kit and caboodle of us youngins.”
She shook her head as if affirming the truth of long covered-over memories.
“Our brother William died in infancy, oh, summer of 19-aught 2. The pox took him and very nearly Gladys. Middle sister Ada died of the pellargy before she was 10; it deformed her in body and spirit, it did.”
She blinked blear from her eyes before continuing. “The last baby of the family, James, died of Spanish flu in 19 and 19.”
“So, there was just you and Aunt Gladys left?” Sadie hadn’t known the extent of the family’s early miseries.
“Your momma knew the stories, prob’ly from her momma if not from me,” Wilma said as if reading Sadie’s thoughts.
Sadie leaned in closer. “I’ll have to ask her about that sometime, but, Gram, what I wanted to say was—”
“Girl, I know what you want to say. You think I’m wrong. You think I’m a bigot, but I ain’t. And even if I was,” she said, forcing her gnarled digits flat-palmed on the table and pushing herself up unsteadily, “it’s sundown already, the cows are-a meanderin’ home.”
Wilma toddled out of the kitchen, and Sadie sat there for several minutes, bewildered.
Grasping at the straws of an inborn positivity, Sadie forced herself to look at the bright side, even if it was dimmer than she liked.
I sure do hope Jamie finds something helpful to her in Aunt Gladys’ papers.
After giving Rusty some one-on-one people time and having a lunch of leftover pizza and salad, Jamie quickly forged an agreeable deal with Emily. She would stay home and go over the materials, about four or five inches thick of papers and other materials in several bundles, while Emily met her new friend, as Jamie called him with emphasis, at the library.
“Maybe you can even get there a little early,” Jamie suggested, “ . . . so you can do some research on the Lincoln house?” Jamie winked at the girl.
Still, Emily got the feeling Jamie wanted her out of the house so she alone could open the previously barred doors to the cellar of Gladys’ life. Maybe even get the inside scoop on whether this Gladys was the same Gladys in their found letter. It’s my letter, though. I’m the one who found it. Why be so secretive? What horrors could Gladys’ story have within that I shouldn’t see? I’m almost 16.
All the real-world thoughts of mystery and mayhem were extinguished as she readied her unruly hair. For the fifth time. The backpack was stuffed with notes and copies, even as her chest was rife with expectation. She took a deep breath, hugged Rusty and kissed the auburn top-knot of his head, and was out the door at a near-gallop.
Rusty got up suddenly in that statue-dog posture of alarm. His ears were perked, his tail the head of a question mark. About five seconds later, Jamie heard a loud thump downstairs. It was a Sunday and the paper had already been delivered, so it wasn’t that.
Rusty reached the front door, probably taking the stairs two or four at a time, long before she did and was squeak-whining at the opening under the door, sniffing it periodically. It was always odd and amusing to hear such a tall, large dog of 75 lanky pounds squealing like a guinea pig without the whistle. Jamie wondered if he thought he was a tiny teacup Chihuahua, minus the chutzpah.
She cautiously opened the heavy door, which needed some repair to get the doorbell functional again. It was on the to-do list, and she hoped to move it onto the triumphant tah-dah list before classes started.
Slowly, she stepped out and Rusty finally bounded out after her, sniffing all around in the yard. He must have heard footsteps on the front porch, Jamie speculated, from whoever had left the object now at her feet. She gently moved it forward and away from her with one big toe. It scraped on the wooden porch, so it was something heavy.
An onion-skin series of plastic bags, mostly Kmart, tied into knots again and again finally yielded a rueful red brick with a note written in black all caps, ink bleeding through its bandages, probably with a permanent marker. She found it difficult to overlook the misspellings and other grammar gaffes. After all, she was a professor of literature.
Your a foreiner here. Stop being nosy if you know whats’ good for you and your girl Emily.
We can see her at night in the 2nd floor east window. Not a word to any one about this note.
Had Jamie just stepped out of Indiana and into Cabot Cove, Maine, the fictional town with equally made-up stand-in detective Jessica Fletcher? Who would want to threaten Jamie? And why? Just for the sake of some long-dead love affair?
If Jamie had known the sole town cop, she probably still wouldn’t have contacted him. Yet.
Despite her reticence in certain matters, she was a silverback when it came to her one and only child. She’d nursed the instinct for going on 16 years, and its essence was steeped in a familial dysfunction stew. So, the magma of anger that flowed within could be tapped and vented to great effect in the direst situations. A personal pahoehoe of sorts.
She vowed get to the bottom of who Thomas was, who Gladys was, what kind of mine her house was perched on, and how best to help Emily and herself move forward. As they must.
All of that, however, after she opened up the yellow pages, walked her fingers down to S, and began to call security companies to see if any were open on a Sunday afternoon.
No harm in taking extra precautions.
Emily arrived early, around 1:40, and discovered the library had opened at noon. She figured she could roam around, maybe in the reference section, until it was time to meet Jud at 2.
A lady she’d never seen before approached her and asked if she needed help. Perhaps because Emily began their conversation with “I’m kinda new in town, from out-of-state, and I’m doing some . . . background reading about the town so I can learn more and get ready for school,” the woman settled into helpfulness rather than the sometimes-present small-town provincialism and close-lippedness with respect to outsiders. There, that sounds harmless and vague enough, Emily thought.
The woman whose nametag read Sandy, directed her to a special, if small, section ensconced within the reference section at the back corner of the room, placarded only with an index card taped to the metal bookend corralling the section together. It read local and Indiana history. She’d missed it in her earlier search.
After thanking the woman and adding, “this is just perfect,” Emily began to browse. Although only about fifteen books were squeezed in, if she could hit on just one key book, chapter, or even paragraph or sentence, she would be happy. She hoped it would placate her mother. Emily felt she couldn’t afford to waste what remained of the summer on this project alone. This ghost business was in danger of sucking up the last crumbs of her hard-won teenage freedom.
This time, she heard Jud coming around the tables before she saw him.
“Was I that loud?” He grinned, arms spread out in surrender.
“No, not really. I was just expecting you this time. Did you come looking for me? It’s only 1:54.” She glanced at the clock just above the tables.
“Yeah, I was impatient to get started,” he said. She wanted to take that as a positive sign. She had to hold onto this guy, before school started and he discovered the fathomless depths of her uncoolness.
“Oh, and I also managed to write down the microfilm locations of some 1910-1912 or so of the Dunharrow Democrat as well as the Potawatomi and Shawnee newspapers. I thought this might streamline your search a bit, if you hadn’t already looked at those . . . that way, we can goof off more.”
That winsome broad-cheeked smile whisked through her senses. Again.
Better not be too tongue-tied. Gotta play it smooth.
“Thanks, that sounds cool. Let’s get started then, shall we?” she said, simultaneously rising and stuffing Indiana in the Civil War: Revolution and Reconstruction, 1860-1920 and Cotton, Corn, and Contagion, as well as her notes, into the sack and zipping it shut resonantly.
He offered her his arm politely, and she soon found herself hooking her arm in his, thrilling at the happenstance ciliation of their arm hairs.
Is this guy true or an illusion? God, please don’t let another carefully constructed, brimming bubble burst.
Caution would have to wait until tomorrow’s winds blew in. No security company in either north or central Indiana was operating on a Sunday, apparently.
Instead, Jamie hovered over Gladys’ papers, some presumably in Gladys’ own hand. They were studded with studious swirls; hadn’t Wilma said her sister was an unmarried schoolteacher?
The papers comprised what appeared to be a part-handwritten, part-typed pastiche of memories in a rainbow of penmanship colors later on in the document, possibly even by a different writer. Or, for lack of a different word, it was a memoir. At random, the pages would be stuffed with a photograph or letter or even a hand-drawn sketch, some unfortunately taped. Gladys’ notes in red pen on the cover page suggested a title.
Love & Labors Long Lost: The Lonely Life of a Cotton-Mill Kid (?) it read, question mark and all.
Gladys definitely seemed a devoteé of both alliteration and the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Although she felt a bit like a plundering invader, the fact that Gladys had suggested a title seemed to Jamie to mean that Gladys’ wish had been that the book would someday be published, in some form. Even if only a one-off, small-run, private printing kind of thing.
Jamie had gotten through Gladys’ early years, through about age 11, by skimming more than reading. And eyeballing text more for content and context than for enjoyment. That could come later. Post-mystery. Post-being a heroine to her teen daughter. If that was even possible.
She glanced up at the clock on the microwave. 4:17 glowered in blocky red script.
Emily should be sauntering in between 5 and 5:30. She had given the girl a loose come-home time as a sort of test and an acknowledgement that her once-little daughter was already, at least partially, a responsible teenager. Although her “sweet sixteen” birthday didn’t officially arrive until November 11th, at 23:08 to be exacting, Emily was in some ways older, Jamie thought. Her father’s death, whose details Jamie had not been entirely forthcoming with her about, had forced a metamorphosis. And those tended to be painful, although natural and necessary.
Page 57 began to jut up in eye-catching stalagmites, as it were. “This could be it! Yessssss,” she squealed aloud and pumped her fist, startling Rusty. Jamie’s shovel had struck some figurative treasure: an answer of sorts. She couldn’t wait to share the new details—and any yet to spool out—with Emily, which she hoped would ignite some fruitful mother-daughter discussions, too. Then, perhaps they could continue on a path to putting this ghost issue to rest. Although Jamie did not believe that Emily had seen an apparition—for apparitions were empirically untestable and unproveable, hence emphatically unreal—the historical character revealed in the letter as Thomas was nonetheless becoming less amorphous and more a flesh-and-blooded human being. And Jamie was more than determined to help Emily regain her footing in THIS world, not some nether place or ’nother.
In Gladys’ presumably nonfiction book, a young man she disclosed only as the initials TT emerged from the dust of the cotton mill. He, too, was a young laborer at the mill when he met Gladys. She was 14 years old, chronologically, and he was almost 17 at the time.
This initialed man whose only photo showed a curled cowlick of dark hair nevertheless became focused through the lens of the memoir, which sculpted fulgent flesh back onto time-denuded bone.
As she read on in wonderment, Jamie thanked her luck at meeting Sadie, in assembling this mosaic of a man, or what then passed for a man rather than a fuzz-faced boy, from 80-odd years ago. She only needed to determine whether the TT of Gladys’ book matched the Thomas of the letter, perhaps creating linkages where there were none, but it was a good mother-daughter adventure if nothing else.
Now, what to do about Wilma? And should anything be done? She’d registered her protest, and she wasn’t Wilma’s relative, after all. Questions, dilemmas, quagmires, and crises. At least the little town of Dunharrow wasn’t as boring as Emily and Jamie both had presumed. Jamie guessed that this novelty was worth something.
She found Wilma sitting in her sun room pruning a small lemon tree with only her fingers, affectionately dubbed Lyla by the old woman. Although she hummed, it seeped sorrow rather than joy.
“Can I sit with you a while, Gram?” Sadie broached.
“Do as you please,” was all she said, without looking at the younger woman.
Sadie noticed that Wilma looked tired. Her glasses were on, whereas usually she didn’t like to fuss with them, but they had slipped down her nose, lending a careless or tired air to her face that was uncharacteristic. Her skin also had seemed to sallow in the few hours or so Sadie had let her alone.
“Lyla’s looking strong today,” Sadie ventured.
Silence rippled through the sun-soaked room in invisible drifts.
“You will take care of all this for me, when I’m gone,” Wilma began, pointedly staring at Sadie now as she swept her hand in a palm-upturned half-moon arc in front of her. It trembled more than usual.
“Gram, you needn’t even ask. Of course I will. Orangey can live with me—or Mom. Lily would thrive in the sunny open area of my apartment next to the skylight and bank of windows . . . ”
Scooting her wicker chair closer, Sadie grasped Wilma’s hand now as it rested in her lap. Wilma didn’t move away this time.
“What were you humming just then?”
Puzzled but for a moment, Wilma said, “Oh, you mean when you first came in? That was a hymn called ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’ It’s one of my favorites.”
“It was beautiful. Just like you, Gram. You know I love and respect you very deeply . . . and I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to do, but there’s something you might not know, about Aunt Gladys, that I think she wanted you to know and, she hoped, someday accept.”
“Girl, my heart ain’t what it used to be—” Wilma began in protest.
“No, Gram. It’s not. It’s even better.” She stretched her arms around her great-grandmother, realizing perhaps for the first of many times that her lion-hearted Gram hid frail-feathered shoulders whenever she could. This time they were under a thick blouse and scarf. Perhaps Wilma had even tried to convince herself that time had no effect on her. She wanted to be the unerodable rock for her family, as she had been for so long.
“Aunt Gladys was writing a book about her life. All her life, good and bad. It was finished, she said, but not edited, when she died. She gave that book to me for safekeeping.”
Sadie let the reality sink in with Wilma.
“She said she wanted you to read it. To know everything that had happened to her, who she had loved and lost, how much she loved you, how your mother’s death affected her . . .”
Wilma shook her head slowly, as if in a mildly begrudging agreement, before she spoke.
“Life taught me some things are best unknown. I knew she was writing something long, but I didn’t know what. She was a born storyteller, that girl. She worked so hard at the mill, saved away every penny she could, and then Eugene and me helped her go to teacher college.”
“Gram, she knew you loved her, too.” Sadie bit her bottom lip in thought, then stopped and began again.
“Gram, there was this boy she knew at the mill . . . She was in love, did you ever know that?”
“Youngin, this all’s ancient water under the bridge. Done gone stagnant. You don’t need to un-dam it on my account.”
Sadie noticed that the hand she’d let go moments earlier wavered even as it gripped the chair’s arm hard. “But I do. She wanted you to know. She wanted your blessing, of sorts. I know you don’t believe it, but I think that the . . . problems our neighbor Jamie’s having over at the Lincoln house are somehow related to Aunt Gladys’ lost love.”
“You ain’t making a lick of sense now. What problems?”
“Gram, there’s an apparition, a spirit, a somethin’ unexplainable in that house. I saw it myself one time, and I felt it. And I ain’t crazy. It was not too many months before Aunt Gladys died.”
Wilma fell silent, and Sadie began anew. “I was only a teenager, of course, but you’ve always said I have good horse sense. And I wasn’t ever big on sassin’ or tall-tailin’, ’specially to you. I didn’t want a whooping for a serious offense like fibbin’.”
“You better believe it, missy,” Wilma concurred, slightly smiling.
“I saw what I saw, Gram. A couple kids and I snuck in there. You know that house was abandoned for a long time after the bad fire. No one wanted to live there.”
She emulated the townspeople’s voices, both male and female. ‘The pox was there,’ ‘I don’t wanna live in no pox house,’ and ‘repaired or not, that place is durn creepy, no thanks.’ ”
Wilma again smiled, this time at her grand-daughter’s mimicry.
“That’s true. It was a sort of hospital for the sicker ones. We called ’em plague houses or pest houses back ages ago. Moldy oldies, I always use’ta joke about my history stories. Maybe I ought’n call it herstories instead.”
The determined clamp to Sadie’s bottom lip seemed to prod Wilma farther into the past.
“I ’swan, I guess Gladys did know a boy from the mill. She said he had a lot of ambition, like her. To get out of this here ‘backwards’ town, they called it. He was smart and eager, so she taught him Shakespeare from her book, handed down through the family. One of our gold mines we brung with us ‘up North’ to Indiana.”
She laughed softly.
“I was helpin’ out momma at the time, with the children. She was ailin’, but we didn’t know what. You know, I reckon it’s funny, Gladys was in such an all-fire hurry to get out, then she got educated and she ended up back to town and taught school. She related she hoped by givin’ them an education, she was helping to save other children from a life in the mill or some other sorta turr-ble life.”
Wilma sighed the heaviest sigh Sadie had ever heard in her young life.
“Well, I said it once, at least, today. And I’ll say it again.”
It was Wilma’s turn to take Sadie’s hand, which she pressed between her two cardboard-feeling ones.
“It’s too late for me, Sugar. I am what I am. My heart is what it is. I cain’t change my stripes now.”
“Gram, it’s not too late. It’s never too late. Auntie believed you could. She had faith. In you. If you loved her—and she said she believed with all her heart you did—then you could accept and love . . . everybody.”
“I don’t want to talk about this no more. Now, I’m fixin’ to do more pruning before I rustle up our supper.”
Sadie reached deep for a long breath. “Gram, I’ve got dinner covered. But . . . if you want to talk some more, I’m here. I believe in you. You taught me how people are more alike than we are diff’rent and how we got to work together to make this world spin! Your generation fought for the vote, and got it in 1919.”
Wilma didn’t interrupt this time, when Sadie got going with her version of a history lesson. “Women were ‘second-class’ citizens until then, you said. But what about people of color, whether Native Americans or black or Asian or whatever? The times are changing, Gram. You have a big heart with an amazing capacity for love. Don’t lose sight of that, whatever you do.”
After another pregnant silence, Sadie said, “I’ll leave you alone now. I’m gonna get dinner squared away for us. My treat tonight.” She got up and hurried out of the room before Wilma could protest.
Have I prayed lately, even in the last 10 years? Probably not.
Praying was a pastime best left to the young, Wilma held. Those with oodles to lose besides years, calling on a higher power to electrify their life, getting rid of the negatives as Bing and the Andrews Sisters reminded people of a certain era.
Could she even pray at this point? Did God care about the ravings of a crazy old bat set in her ways, as she sometimes thought of herself?
“Lord, my heart has hardened to the world. To all your people,” she began, meekly laying a palm on the diaphanous-seeming greenhouse window.
She pressed the knuckles of her right hand to her lips, not caring one whit if she spoke out-loud.
“I know you can do anything, but can I? I ain’t no . . . what do the kids like these days? . . . Wonder-Woman, but I want to be a better person, older than Methuselah tho’ I am. Will you show me the way, dear Lord, if I’ma worth your time? Please open my heart. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
It was simple enough. She asked, and either He would answer or He wouldn’t.
In the meantime, she reached down to the glass-top table at her chairside and picked up the plastic spray bottle to bathe her Cherokee purple tomato plant in collected rainwater and a spritz of muffled sobs.
The door swung open with a prolonged grunt that quivered in timbre, from dim to lit.
“Mom, Dunharrow’s listed,” Emily called across the room.
“Hey, Mom! Where are you?”
The tintinnabulation of tags on a dog’s collar instead greeted her, as well as a bracing black.
Rusty only squeaked, his tail oscillating from the foyer table to the cushioned hall seat where you could stash hats, remove shoes, and hang a couple coats. Emily had often wondered if the dog had any, or just weak, nerve endings in his appendage. Swirls of russet hairs did a dervish on the darkened wood planks of the floor, to the syncopation of the thump-thump-thump.
“Where’s Mom? Where’s Mom?” Emily effervesced her voice to enlist Rusty’s help. “Go get Mom! Go get Mom!” She ruffled his neck and patted his head as he contorted his body into a red horseshoe and canine smile.
Then the clicking ensued. He stopped at the stairs, sat, and looked back. She was following.
Jamie was sprawled on the bed in her room with a maelstrom of papers, a few letters, and what looked like several photographs. Her long, mostly brown ringlets grazed some of them, whereas other ephemera the hair seemed to tentacle around protectively. She’d probably been propped up reading and fallen asleep. The papers crinkled as she moved and began to wake. A cold canine tongue on the face didn’t help her stay in the land of Nod.
A partially sipped glass of white wine waited for her attention on the nightstand, along with a folded-over copy of Poets and Writers.
“Mom,” Emily gently put her hand on Jamie’s sloped shoulder after she found an open section to sit on, “you okay?”
“Whu-, oh, yeah, I’m just tired I guess,” she spoke through steepled hands, her cheek turned away from the dog’s licks. “I think I came up her to read and . . .” Yawwwwwwn.
Emily reached for and grabbed Jamie’s eyeglasses, which curled around the wine glass.
“Oh, thanks, Em.”
Mindful to not be too loud, she began again. “Mom, I’ve got great news.”
Jamie sat up on the papers now. “He asked you out on a ‘real’ date, for which you need my approval?”
“No, not that.” (It did happen, she wanted to add, but she saved that best for last.) “I found a February 1911 paper that might give us some clues,” she said, digging through her bag hurriedly.
Puzzled, Jamie said, “Wait, I thought we were thinkin’ the original letter to Gladys said 2 at the end of the year. 1912 we thought.”
“Yeah, but it seems like we were wrong. That letter was pretty damaged, ya know, parts of it, anyways.”
Jamie accepted the girl’s plausible explanation and, with a nod, urged her onward.
A grin began to stretch out on Emily’s lips, which Jamie noticed had taken on a darker hue, almost plum. Lip-gloss was unusual for Emily. “Here it is,” she shoved a couple copies excitedly forward as if she’d just gotten Nobel notification.
“Look at that headline and story, Page 1A!” She nearly shouted. She tapped the readouts three times before handing them over, imparting a resonance the papers alone lacked.
Jamie scanned the page marked 1A, then read some of the relevant bits aloud:
CAUGHT RED-HANDED!” screamed the three-deck headline. The middle deck continued: “Injun, Colored Man, Other Infected Patients Captured after Illegal Escape.”
Letting her eyes travel farther down the page, Jamie hit upon further details. “Tillson, 17, and Freeman, 18, broke out of the Lincoln House quarantine four days ago.”
Have we found the unknown, previously invisible letter-writer? Jamie thought, scanning feverishly up and down the columns.
“Cyrus Freeman, son of Beulah and Bertrand Freeman, was being treated for smallpox by Dr. Rhodin. Thomas Tillson, who came from the nearby Indian reservation and worked at the mill, is the son of Isa and Dale ‘Rides a Dun Horse’ Tillson. He was being treated for pellargy and was also suspected of smallpox.”
Jamie’s deep-brown eyes dilated, calling to mind an agape mouth. “Holy cow, Em! You don’t realize it, because I’ve got the journals here, but, yeah, it looks like we can now confirm that the Thomas in this news story seems to be one and the same with our neighbor’s sister Gladys. Thomas was her boyfriend!”
“Yeah, and that explains why his ghost is hanging around this house and my room,” Emily added.
Jamie didn’t particularly want to keep up what she perceived as the myth of life after death, but she also didn’t want to argue with the girl now.
Neither had noticed rain-stippled pavement outside or the approaching passel of bulging clouds coming in from the west side of the home, for this room faced east, like Emily’s.
“And did you get a load of the words, Mom? Not only were these oldsters bigots, big-time, but they treated sick people like, like . . . prisoners or criminals!”
Now Jamie could only nod sadly, bracing her chin in her left hand.
“What I couldn’t find, though, Mom was a follow-up story. It just says the two were being transported back to Dunharrow and were expected to arrive on ‘tomorrow’s evening train from Chicago,’ eighty-ish years ago.”
Everyone went quiet, even Rusty, who had lain down with a drawn-out hmpphhh at the bedside, between bed and door, several minutes earlier.
A muffled roll of thunder announced its presence, although neither had seen any lightning, distant or otherwise. Not much rain had fallen yet, and the sun was still pitching battle with angry clouds in parts of the sky.
“Guess we’re in for another stormy night,” Jamie quirked her head to the window. Emily had risen and gone to stand by the window, peeking from the curtain but still looking contemplative. Yet Jamie was eager to chug on.
“Em, let’s go over some of our notes and compare them, and you can tell me more about Jud, too, before we grab some chow downstairs,” she beckoned.
“Oh, yeah, Mom. Sounds good,” the girl ricocheted out of her introspection and let the curtain fall back into its partly open position.
“Maybe we can even have a girls’ night with movies and popcorn tonight since you don’t have school yet.”
Emily flew for a moment, swan-diving onto the bed, but not upsetting too much of Jamie’s process. In a short time, after a few good hugs and giggles, their heads were literally touching, put together, on the mystery-man case, which had morphed into the “two missing mystery men” case. Now Thomas had a friend, or at least a traveling companion, in young Cyrus Freeman, and it was beginning to seem more as if the two men had been housed along with who knows how many other patients, right there in their own home. Perhaps in that very room. What had been these young men’s fate?
“I’d better get a flashlight,” Jamie said at one point, stretching out to open the night-table drawer, “just in case we lose the light.” She forced it shut despite protesting hinges.
Was it heartburn or heartache? Jamie couldn’t be sure, although certainly the dinner she had shared with Emily—fit for a teenaged aristocrat—didn’t help. Steak-thick French fries, soy burgers for both, a coffee-flavored ice-cream milkshake for Jamie and a double-chocolate shake for Emily. Later, she’d picked at a small Caesar salad and slurped it all down with extra-buttered popcorn and diet soda, while Emily scarfed Skittles, a fizzy pop, and garlic salt–doused popcorn.
Michael had been the chef par excellence of their little trio. There was one catch, however. No one who didn’t know him would ever believe, initially, that he was as talented a cook as he was. “You too skinny ’be such a good cook, boy,” Jamie had heard his momma say at more than one family get-together. His stock response went: “That’s ’cause you and mamaw taught me so well, I couldn’t help but be an expert. Ne’ermind my frame, which God made.”
By way of family stories, Jamie herself had heard that Michael had listened and learned at his grandmother’s and mother’s apron-sides. Once he had mastered such signature family dishes as homemade pie crusts, buttermilk biscuits and cornbread, coconut-crusted shrimp, and battered catfish, he got to enter the sacred-foods fold. She’d seen his momma, even as he’d grown into a tall, if lanky, adult, pinch his high cheekbones in jest. Mike would always be Mrs. Meadows’ boy, her child, until she, too, was gone.
Roy Orbison’s haunted and haunting lament in “Only the Lonely” switched on in Jamie’s mind and several verses soaked in before she felt herself falling into the inviting wingspan of sleep.
In fitful rest, she reached for a warm limb or broad back, but found neither. Only a dark lump of dogflesh doted at her feet. It inched closer to her, although she did not realize it in any rational fashion. She instead felt the bright-orange koi of her consciousness sink into the murk of the dreamscape, only its fluttering tail visible, then a slate of still water. Before long, she couldn’t say where her terminus began and the darkness subsided.
Not exactly cognizant, she’d put the letter in her journal and the journal under her pillow, as if making a fervent and belated wish or leaving a talisman for the tooth fairy. No fay she knew could dredge up the dead and animate them, unless you opted for the horrors of immortality. So Emily avoided bargaining in her mind, with the world, with God or gods, with clergy or laypeople, and with angels, devils, or even necromancers. Anger surfaced now and again about her father’s death, but mostly she’d settled into a kind of tolerable steel-jaw leghold not unlike having a limb shut-down for a painful surgical procedure. Your rationality told you that the pain was still there, waiting to spring back, and you knew it would increase again, but for now the numbness was an acceptable temporary understudy for grief.
Knowing what she did now, Emily felt a sort of sistership spanning the years, from the girl Gladys was all the way to her in the present day. Gladys wasn’t too much younger than Emily when she had met Thomas, according to her papers. She’d carried on her relationship with him in secret, even working with him to improve his reading and writing skills while he’d taught her a few phrasings in his language, which the government’s reservation school had tried to quash; how to ride a horse; the best way to catch, clean, and cook catfish; and so much more. Emily felt it. In the bodies of the words that had whispered off the pages her mother had shared with her earlier that evening. Even in Emily’s own tentative teen bones, she felt the finger-brush of Gladys’ genteel ardor, a pleasant historical sensation for once. The affection was blooming into much deeper feelings, Gladys had written, but Emily surmised it was shortened by a physics not of the couple’s control. It’s so tragic, she’d thought.
Emily’s outlook differed from that of her mom, who was far more practical and tidy in tying up life’s inevitable dangling strings. Now all Jamie wanted best was to return all the materials to Sadie with their thanks. One mystery solved; they were that much more enlightened about the previous inhabitants of their home, the overall town and its history, and their home’s place in it all. Although she hadn’t voiced it, Jamie was of the opinion that nothing further needed to be done. They had done due diligence to the past. Lights off, end of the line, full stop. Yet Emily wanted something more. Thomas’ intricate sketches, Gladys’ very good but still developing ear and eye for metaphor and melody, the photographs, and the original letter . . . she didn’t know what needed to happen, but she felt in her gut that all debts had not been paid. What exactly was the nature or the currency to fulfill those debts, she could only speculate.
In fact, Emily had misjudged Jamie’s connection to the labyrinthine courtship of Thomas and Gladys. Her mother could have gotten lost—thrown herself, headlong and heart-full—in this romance, injecting herself as a modern-day character in this Romeo and Juliet redux, in 1910s Indiana. Jamie wasn’t so far removed in time that she didn’t remember the pulse-pressing essence of what new love felt like, but it was more like a distant spice instilled and wafting through the rooms of her mind, of a person who had already gone, than a fragrance or pheromonal presence that seeped into her pores and permeated the grooves of her mind until she could not be sure of any boundaries whatsoever. Jamie instead stoically shunned what she termed “the lovie-dovies.” Her mouth still couldn’t comfortably form around that forlorn disyllabic baneroot: wid-ow.
Love lost hurt far more than love sought and never gained, in her experience, and she wasn’t in a hurry to revisit the sun-streaked realms of devotion and passion, as she felt it would only further entrench her own loss. She also was not ready to give up one hard-earned grayed hair of sorrow at Michael’s death and move toward a more placid sort of acceptance because, in a very real way, the grief had become a full-fledged soul, a corporeal form in her life and to deny it, supplant it, or bury it would have been like Michael had died again, albeit with her awful foreknowledge and no way to act on it.
Then, earlier, Emily had suddenly appealed to the practical, if supernatural, as Jamie was musing.
Mom, I just want some quiet, non–ghost-filled nights in my own room in this house, and I feel like this letter . . . there’s something about this letter. It was like . . . like a love note that never got into the beloved person’s hands. An undelivered valentine, in a way.”
So Jamie had finished for her. “And so you think we ought to serve as postal workers eighty years on down the road? I’ll say that that’s quite a feat; posting a letter to the deceased. Now that’s a truly dead letter. As well as a blot on the postal service’s record, if . . . if it even made it that far. You never found an envelope with it, did’ja, Em?”
“Hmmm. So maybe it was supposed to be hand-delivered to Gladys, not ever even put in the mail. Smuggled out of this house . . .”
Emily’s drooping eyebrows rose. “What a tangled story, Mom. Who knew this little town, this one corner of this little town, had so much shenanigans and life-and-death stuff going on.”
She heaved a long sigh. “You said it, kiddo. . . . That’s how history works, I think. The victors may write most of the histories, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be mute. We elbow our way in crossways, sideways, somehow.”
“But really, just get it to stop, Mom. Please. Go away, ghosts!” She elevated her voice and pitched it high at the ceiling, cupping a hand to her mouth to amplify it further.
Within about a quarter-hour after the conversation had subsided, Emily had dissolved into a tired state resembling something like sleep and, after tucking her in like she had regressed to girlhood and unfisting her clenched hand, Jamie had made the hallward trek to her own solitary confinement, save for an occasional canine companion.
She didn’t know how much time had gone under the bridge, but Emily felt a scuffling noise tugging at her mind’s corners. The teen rose up slowly as if a mass of something—water? blanket? dog? nightmare?—were trying to force her back into herself again.
When her eyes flew open on their own as fast as a shade rocketing up to the top of the window, she swore she saw and heard a struggle. Two forms merged on the floor, a kind of absence of darkness where they seemed to be wobbling. And her journal was somehow strewn out and upside down on the floor nearby. The white essence was roiling, even growling, but it was otherwise inaudible and indistinct. She blinked a few times to adjust her pupils to the veiled darkness, but for a slim slice of moon light cutting through the room. Rusty hadn’t even come running in to investigate.
As she watched, in thrall to the ethereality of what served as her current situation, the shapes spun on the floor and separated. One larger shadow seemed to rise, looking human or very like it, and make an undulant move toward the strewn ephemera. Am I seeing someone fighting over my journal? She shook her head side to side, eyelids fluttering, seeking a different answer from the Magic Eight Ball in her cranium. But all that came was: “What do you think?” She could only gasp, for a stricture had clamped on her vocal cords.
As far as her eyes told her, in all honesty, the nebulous mass contained two life-forms, each with four mostly thin appendages, faintly outlined by the blackness around them, ever shifting, and one globular-shaped protrusion at what she figured was the top. A head on shoulders, if you will. She again wondered if the entity that had been visiting her, that had been reaching across time to her, was Thomas and if this whole-new bizarre experience related to him in any way. The back of her neck had broken out in fear-bumps as her stomach lurched and time seemed to stretch, a sort of saltwater taffy. A scream just could not be coaxed out of her, though she felt increasingly that vomit might.
A simultaneous boom and flash-bulb of light went off at Emily’s right, snapping several threads of reality into place. Emily got the distinct feeling that the larger of the two presences of light moved suddenly toward her at that instant, for she involuntarily shivered. At the sound, Jamie was impelled to bounce up and into slippers, fearfully, as Rusty ran toward where the sound had seemed to come: Emily’s room.
Emily! Ohshit, ohshit, not the brick-thrower. Not the brick-thrower! roared a bullet-train through Jamie’s head. By the time she was running into the room, no more than 7 or 10 seconds after the shriek, whatever had seemed to take place had concluded. Jamie ignored the somewhat disheveled room, not truly knowing if it had looked that messy beforehand, and made a straight line for Emily.
What Jamie didn’t know was why Emily looked powder-faced, stiff as an L-shaped board in the now drenched-with-light room. Her dear girl, still in bed and in a long “Miami Vice” pajama shirt that Michael had brought back from a conference in Florida a few years back, couldn’t be shaken to say anything and didn’t seem to even notice a hand arced across her field of vision. Her pallor was visible even in the harsh light.
The instinct to scream reached up from Jamie’s belly and itched in her throat, but she swallowed it. “Dammit, I want my daughter back,” began bubbling like a chant inside of her. She sat down heavily on the bed next to Emily and rubbed the girl, much like she’d have done if she had fallen into an icy pond and was rescued but needed intense drying with towels. First her hands, uncovered still clenched at her sides, with further blanching visible even in the light from the desk. Then her legs, shoulders, and finally face. Jamie caressed errant hairs away from her daughter’s inert face. Only the occasional blink and the fact of her fists balled suggested sentience. Surprisingly, she felt like a 107-pound human heater, and Jamie was thankful that a little ruddiness had returned to the girl.
She eased Emily down into a back-sleeping posture and the girl yawned in such a broad, practiced way that Jamie thought of Japanese Kabuki theater or pantomime, with their measured, almost ritualized movements. But the girl seemed almost automatonic in her actions. Emily rolled onto her side, and it shocked Jamie to see her insert a thumb in her cheek and begin sucking it, eyes yet open. This was a movement she hadn’t seen since the girl was about 12 months old and they’d gotten rid of her pacifier.
But Jamie figured movement—any movement—was progress away from the catatonic, if that was truly a real state of existing. She hadn’t much experience with sick people, and going to the morgue that night to identify Michael’s body had been a sensory revival—an awful, life-rending, and happiness-gutting one, to be truthful.
Let her be. The new mantra went in a pattern with the plea I want my daughter back, looping out into the super-charged night as she walked over and lowered the light, stooping only to pick up Emily’s diary and the papers scattered about. Rusty slumped with a whine next to her feet as she then attempted to get comfortable in the mismatched chair/crash-pad in the corner where Emily sometimes used to read and fall asleep. Jamie drew a conveniently uncloseted rain coat around her shoulders, vowing not to nag the girl to hang up her clothes instead of tossing them everywhere . . . if she’d just come back. Whole and sound. My little grown girl.