فصل 13کتاب: قبل از اینکه برای تو می بودیم / فصل 14
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The cottage is quiet and filled with moonlight as I swing open the door. I fumble for the light switch and brace my cellphone against my shoulder as I wait for my Uncle Clifford to answer the question I’ve just asked. He’s put me on hold while he orders food at a drive-through window.
I’m consumed by the strongest memory of arriving here after dark for a visit, just my grandmother and me. The cottage was exactly like this, moon spears fanning over the floor in the shape of palmetto fronds, the air smelling of salt water, and sandy carpets, and lemon oil, and furniture that has lived long by the sea.
I wiggle my fingers. I can almost feel her hand wrapped around mine. I must’ve been about eleven or twelve—that awkward age when I’d quit holding her hand in public, but here in our magic place, it was okay.
Standing in the entry now, I reach for that sense of comfort, but this visit is pungent with opposing tastes. Bitter and sweet. Familiar and strange. The tastes of life.
Uncle Clifford comes back on the line. After a long walk along the beach and supper at the Waterfront Restaurant, I’ve decided that my uncle might be the only means of making progress in my quest, for now. Trent Turner ditched me by taking off in a jeep with the guy in the uniform. I waited around in my car, but the Turner Real Estate office remained closed all afternoon.
So far, this trip is looking like a bust.
“What was it that you needed, Avery? What about the Edisto house?” Uncle Clifford wants to know.
“So, I’m just wondering if you and Dad came here much with Grandma Judy? When you were little, I mean.” I’m keeping it casual. Trying not to tip him off to anything. Uncle Clifford was a federal agent in his younger years. “Did Grandma Judy have friends she met here or people she came to see?”
“Well…let me think….” He ruminates for a while, then simply says, “I don’t guess we went there all that much, now that you mention it. We visited more when I was young. Once we were older, we liked Granny Stafford’s place on Pawleys Island better. The house was bigger, and the sailboat was there, and more often than not, we had cousins around to play with. Usually, Mama went to the Edisto cottage by herself. She liked to write there. You know, she dabbled in poetry a bit, and she did the society column for a while.”
I’m momentarily dumbfounded. “Grandma Judy wrote a society column?” Otherwise known as the weekly gossip.
“Well, not under her own name, of course.”
“Under what name?”
“If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.”
“Uncle Clifford!” While my dad is straitlaced, Uncle Clifford has always been wild and a bit of a tease. He’s given Aunt Diana a full head of gray hair, which, as any good Southern lady would, she colors regularly.
“Oh, let your grandmother’s secrets stay secret.” For a minute, I think there’s a hidden message in that, but then I can tell he’s just toying with me. “So you’re down at the Myers cottage, huh?”
“Yes. I just decided to get away for a few days.”
“Well, drop a line in the water for me.”
“You know I don’t fish. Yuck.” Being saddled with girls, my poor father worked hard to form an avid angler from at least one of us.
Even Uncle Clifford knows it was a lost cause. “Well, now see, that’s one way you don’t take after your grandmother. She loved to fish, especially down on Edisto. When your dad and I were little, she’d take us there to meet up with somebody who had a little jon boat. We’d go up the river and spend half the day fishing. Don’t remember who it was we went with. A friend, I guess. He had a little blond-headed boy I liked to play with. Name started with a T…Tommy, Timmie…no…Tr…Trey or Travis maybe.”
“Trent? Trent Turner?” The current Trent Turner being Trent the Third, his father was a Trent too, and he’s around my uncle’s age.
“Could’ve been. There some reason you’re asking? Anything wrong?”
Suddenly, I realize I’ve gone one question too far and inadvertently unlocked the detective’s office. “No. No reason. Being on Edisto just started me thinking about things. I wish I’d come down here more with Grandma Judy. I wish I’d asked questions while she could still remember things, you know?”
“Well, that’s one of the paradoxes of life. You can’t have it all. You can have some of this and some of that or all of this and none of that. We make the trade-offs we think are best at the time. You’ve accomplished a lot for a girl—I mean, a woman just thirty years old.”
Sometimes I wonder if my family doesn’t see more in me than is really there. “Thanks, Uncle Clifford.”
“That’ll be five bucks for the session.”
“The check’s in the mail.”
After we hang up, I think through the conversation as I unpack the single sack of groceries I’ve picked up at the BI-LO, which I remember as the Piggly Wiggly.
Were there any clues in what Uncle Clifford said?
Nothing jumps out at me. Nothing that leads anywhere. If the little boy in the jon boat was named Trent, that tells me that my grandmother had some sort of personal connection to the elder Trent Turner, which I’d already guessed. But if they spent time out fishing together with the children, that also pokes holes in my blackmail theory. You don’t go fishing with a blackmailer, and you certainly don’t take your little boys. You also don’t bring children with you if you’re having an illicit affair. Especially not children who are old enough to remember the outing.
Maybe the elder Trent Turner was nothing more than a longtime friend. Maybe the envelope merely contains photos…something totally innocent. But then, why the deathbed pledge between grandfather and grandson that the packets wouldn’t be passed along to anyone other than their owners?
I form theories as I carry my things to the bedroom, open my suitcase, and settle in. I throw darts at the theories, just the way I would if we were gathered in the war room at my old office.
The darts hit their marks, and there’s really nothing left. The day is catching up with me anyway. I’m ready for a shower and a good night’s sleep. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have a stroke of genius…or maybe I’ll catch up with Trent Turner III and wrestle the truth out of him.
One possibility seems about as likely as the other.
It’s not until I’m letting the shower run and realizing that there seems to be no hot water in the cottage that I zero in on something Uncle Clifford said. My grandmother came here to write.
Could any of her writings still be here? Could there be a clue in them?
I’m back into my clothes in a flash. The cold shower really didn’t sound so good anyway.
Outside the cottage windows, the sea oats sway over the dunes, and the moon rises above the palmetto thicket. Waves thrum the shore as I rifle through drawers and search closets and blanket chests and wardrobe cabinets. I’ve almost surrendered to the obvious conclusion that there’s nothing here to find when I come up from checking beneath my grandmother’s bed and realize the small piece of furniture beside it isn’t a desk or a vanity table but a typewriter stand. There’s an old black typewriter hanging upside down underneath the center panel. Having grown up in family homes filled with vintage furniture, I more or less know how this thing works. It doesn’t take me long to release the right combination of latches and swivel the hinges. The typewriter flips upright with an impressive wallop.
I run a finger over the keys. I can almost hear my grandmother pecking away at them. Leaning close, I study the black rubber roller that pulls the page through. The keys have left tiny indentations behind. If this were a computer, perhaps I could pull something off the hard drive, but no words remain legible here. It’s impossible to tell what’s been written or when.
“What do you know that I don’t know?” I whisper to the machine as I rifle through the drawers. There’s nothing in the stand but assorted pens and pencils, yellowed typing paper, a box of carbon sheets, and strips of correction film, chalky white on one side and slick on the other. The top sheet bears the impression of letters. Holding it to the light, I can easily make out the mistyped-then-corrected words, Plmetto Blvd, Edisto Island…
My grandmother wrote letters here apparently, but either accidentally or on purpose, she cleaned up her tracks. There are no partially used pieces of paper, and the carbon sheets are pristine, no ghosts of words left behind. Strange, because in her desk back home, there was always a folder filled with paper that could be reused for small projects, crafts, or children’s drawings.
I push a typewriter key, watch the hammer swing up and strike the roller, leaving behind only the faint, shimmery impression of a K. The ink on the ribbon is dry.
The next thing I know, I’m bent over the black metal housing, wrestling it loose so I can get to the spools. It’s surprisingly easy. Unfortunately, the ribbon is mostly unused. Only a few inches of it might contain the stamped-out impression of whatever was typed last. Unrolling it and holding it against the light, I squint to make out,
It’s gibberish at first, but I’ve been around Grandma Judy long enough to know how a typewriter ribbon works. It rolls as the keys strike. The letters have to be in some sort of order.
The first letters on the top line suddenly take on meaning. Judy. My grandmother’s name spelled backward, right to left, the way it would have ended up after being typed. Another word rises from the muddle, Society just after—or before—the period.
Three more capitalized words precede it: Tennessee Children’s Home.
Grabbing a pencil and paper, I sort out the rest.
…frustrated and wondering what else might have been in the records of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Perhaps we will never know, Trent, as desperately as we might wish it.
I stare at my own handwriting, trying to piece together the rest of the story. Children’s homes are for orphans and babies given up for adoption. The young woman in May Crandall’s photo was pregnant. Was she a relative of my grandmother’s—one who found herself in trouble?
Events come to life in my mind—a starry-eyed girl from a good family, a man of dubious reputation, a scandalous elopement—or worse yet, no marriage at all. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Perhaps her beau abandoned her, and she was forced to return to her family?
Back in those days, girls were sent away to have their babies and quietly sign them over for adoption. Even now, women in my mother’s social circles occasionally whisper about someone who went to stay with an aunt for a time. Perhaps that’s what Trent Turner is keeping hidden.
One thing is for certain—the last note written on this typewriter was to a Trent Turner, and though I can’t tell how recent it is, there’s little doubt that whatever’s in the mysterious envelope will answer a lot of questions.
Or create more.
Without rethinking it, I hurry across the house, grab my phone, and dial Trent Turner’s number, which I now know by heart.
The phone rings three times before I glance at the clock and realize it’s almost midnight. Not at all a proper hour to be calling a near stranger. My mother would be aghast.
If you want to win the man’s cooperation, this isn’t the way to do it, Avery has just gone through my head when a thick, drowsy “?’Ello, Nrent Nnurner” confirms that I have, indeed, rousted him from bed. That’s probably why he answered the phone without checking to see who it was.
“Tennessee Children’s Home Society,” I blurt out, because I calculate that I have about 2.5 seconds before he comes to his senses and hangs up.
“The Tennessee Children’s Home Society. What does it have to do with your grandfather and my grandmother?”
“Miss Stafford?” Despite the formal form of address, his thick, sleep-laden tone makes the greeting sound intimate, like pillow talk. A heavy sigh follows, and I hear bedsprings creaking.
“Avery. It’s Avery. Please, you have to tell me. I found something. I need to know what it means.”
Another long exhale. He clears his throat, but the voice is still deep and drowsy. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
I glance sheepishly at the clock, as if that somehow excuses my bad behavior. “I apologize. I didn’t notice until after I’d dialed.”
“You could hang up.”
“I’m afraid if I did, you’d never answer again.”
A little chuckle-cough tells me I’m right. “True enough.”
“Please listen to me. Please. I’ve been digging around the cottage all evening, and I found something, and you’re the only one who can tell me what it means. I just…I need to know what’s going on and what I should do about it.” If there’s a scandal somewhere in our family’s past, it’s quite possible that it no longer matters, except perhaps to a few well-preserved members of the Old Guard Gossip Brigade, but there’s no way to judge that until I know what I’m dealing with.
“I really can’t tell you that.”
“I understand your promise to your grandfather, but…”
“No.” He suddenly sounds wide-awake—wide-awake and in control. “I mean, I can’t tell you. I’ve never looked in any of the envelopes. I helped Granddad get them to the people whose names were on them. That’s all.”
Is he telling the truth? It’s hard for me to imagine. I’m the type who carefully peels the tape off the wrapping paper and peeks at the Christmas presents the minute they show up under the tree. I don’t like surprises. “But what were they about? What did it have to do with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society? Children’s homes are for orphans. Could my grandmother have been looking for someone who was given up for adoption?”
As soon as I suggest it, I’m afraid I’ve said too much. “That’s just a theory on my part,” I add. “I don’t have any reason to think it’s true.” I’m better off not opening the door to a potential scandal. I don’t know that I can trust Trent Turner, though it takes a man of integrity to live with sealed envelopes for months on end. The elder Mr. Turner must have known that his grandson was made of solid stuff.
The phone goes silent and stays that way so long that I wonder if Trent has abandoned the call. I’m afraid to speak, afraid anything I say might tip the balance one way or the other.
I’m not terribly accustomed to begging, but finally I whisper, “Please. I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot this afternoon, but I don’t know where else to go from here.”
He takes in air. I can almost see his chest filling. “Come over.”
“Come over to the house before I change my mind.”
Stunned silence is all I can manage in response. I’m not sure whether I’m excited or scared to death…or if I’m crazy for even thinking about visiting a stranger’s house in the middle of the night.
On the other hand, he is a reputable and well-known businessman on the island.
A businessman who now knows that I’ve unearthed at least some part of a secret.
His grandfather’s deathbed secret.
What if there’s a sinister intention behind this midnight invitation? No one will even know where I am. Who can I tell?
I can’t think of anybody I’d want to let in on this right now.
I’ll leave a note…here in the cottage….
No…wait. I’ll send myself an email. If I go missing, that’s the first place they’ll check.
The thought feels melodramatic and silly, and then again, it doesn’t. “I’ll grab my keys and—”
“You won’t need your car. I’m four cottages down.”
“You’re right in the neighborhood?” Parting the kitchen curtains, I try to see through the wall of yaupon and live oak. All this time, he was practically next door?
“It’s quicker by the beach. I’ll turn the back-porch light on.”
“I’ll be right there.”
I rattle around the cottage looking for a flashlight and batteries. Fortunately, whatever relatives have been using the place did leave the basics. My phone rings as I’m thumb-typing an email to myself, documenting my whereabouts and my time of departure. I jump at least three feet, then land hard in a pit of dread. Trent changed his mind already….
But the phone number is Elliot’s. I’m too wound up to calculate what time it is in Milan right now, but no doubt he’s working. “I was tied up when you called yesterday. Sorry,” he says.
“I figured. Busy day?”
“Rather,” he says vaguely, as usual. In his family, the women aren’t interested in business. “How are things on Edisto?”
Honestly, the grapevine in our family is better than microchip tracking. “How did you know I was here?”
“Mother told me,” he sighs. “She’d been over to Drayden Hill to get a baby fix, since your sister and Courtney and the boys are visiting. Now she’s on the grandkid kick again.” Elliot is understandably frustrated. “She reminded me that I’m thirty-one already, and she’s fifty-seven, and she doesn’t want to be an old grandmother.”
“Uh-oh.” I wonder sometimes what it’ll be like to have Bitsy as a mother-in-law. I love her, and she means well, but she makes Honeybee look subtle.
“Can we book your sister and the triplets to go stay at Mother’s for a few days?” Elliot suggests ruefully. “Maybe that’ll cure her.”
Even though I get the joke, it stings. I adore the triplets, even if they are little wild men. “You could ask.” Despite the fact Elliot and I have only talked about kids as an eventual part of our life plan, he’s already concerned that multiple births run in my family. He doesn’t think he could handle more than one at a time. Every once in a while, I worry that having kids someday might be never for Elliot. I know we’ll work these things out as we go. Don’t most couples have to?
“So how long are you at the beach?” he says, changing the subject.
“Just a couple days. If I stay any longer, Leslie will send someone to hunt me down.”
“Well, Leslie is looking out for your best interests. You need to be seen. That’s the reason you moved home.”
I moved home to look after my dad, I want to say, but with Elliot, everything is a step toward something. He’s the most achievement-oriented person I’ve ever met. “I know. But it’s nice to have a little breather. You sound like you could use one too. Get some rest while you’re over there, okay? And don’t worry about your mother and the grandkid thing. She’ll be focused on something else tomorrow.”
We say goodbye, and I finish the precautionary email to myself. If I’m never heard from again, someone will eventually check there. Midnight Tuesday evening. I’m going four doors down from the Edisto cottage to talk to Trent Turner about something involving Grandma Judy. Should be back in an hour or so. Leaving this message just in case.
It feels dorky, but I send it anyway before slipping out the door.
Outside, the night is quiet and deep as I walk the path through the dunes, shining my flashlight to keep a lookout for snakes. Along the shore, most of the cottages have gone dark, leaving only the glow of a full moon and a smattering of lights that seem to float over the watery horizon. Leaves and sea grass whisper, and on the beach ghost crabs scuttle sideways through the sand. I sweep the light over them, taking care not to ruin the feeding frenzy by stepping on someone.
The breeze slides along my neck and through my hair, and I want to walk and relax and enjoy the soothing song of the sea. I own meditation music that sounds like this, but I seldom take time for the real thing. Right now, that seems like a shame. I’d forgotten how heavenly this place is, a perfect meeting of land and sea, undisturbed by giant high-rises, or bonfires and ATVs.
I come to Trent Turner’s cottage before I want to. My pulse quickens as I slip along a well-worn trail through shrubbery and cross a short boardwalk to a leaning gate. His cottage is of about the same vintage as Grandma Judy’s. It sits on short stilts on a large lot, with a small outbuilding in the side yard. A stone path leads to the porch steps. Overhead, moths flutter in circles around a single bulb.
Trent answers the door before I can knock. He’s wearing a faded T-shirt with a tear along the neck and sweats that sag around his hips. His suntanned feet are bare, and he’s sporting an impressive case of bedhead.
Crossing his arms, he leans against the doorframe, studying me.
I’m suddenly all hands and feet, like an adolescent on a first date to the middle-school dance. I don’t know what to do with myself.
“I was starting to wonder,” he says.
“Whether I was coming, you mean?”
“Whether the phone call was just a bad dream.” But his lips curve upward, and I gather that he’s joking.
Even so, I blush a little. This is such an imposition. “I’m sorry. I just really…I need to know. What was your grandfather’s association with my grandmother?”
“Most likely, he was doing a job for her.”
“What kind of job?”
He looks past me toward the tiny cabin tucked beneath the trees in the side yard. I sense the struggle in him. He’s wrestling with whether or not he’s betraying the deathbed promise. “My grandfather was a finder.”
“A finder of what?”
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