فصل 15کتاب: پیش از آنکه مال شما باشیم / فصل 16
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The envelope is surprisingly ordinary. Just the plain manila kind that would be used in an office. The contents feel thin—maybe a few sheets of paper, folded in triplicate. It’s sealed shut, and my grandmother’s name is written on the back in a shaky scrawl that bleeds across to the margin and drops over the edge.
“Granddad’s Parkinson’s gave him quite a bit of trouble toward the end,” Trent explains. He rubs his forehead, frowning at the envelope as if he’s wondering again whether he should have broken the oath by giving it to me.
I know I’d be wise to open it before he changes his mind, but guilt stings. Trent looks as if he’s failed at something. I’m the cause of that.
I understand loyalty to family all too well. It’s the very thing that has driven me here in the middle of the night.
“Thank you,” I say, as if that will help.
He kneads an eyebrow with his fingertips and nods reluctantly. “Just so you know, it may make things worse, not better. There was a reason my granddad spent so much of his time helping to find people. After he and my gran married and took over the family business in Charleston, he went to law school so he could handle his own real estate contracts…but he also did it for another reason. When he was eighteen, he’d found out he was adopted. Nobody had ever told him. His adoptive father was a sergeant in the Memphis Police Department, and I don’t know that they were ever very close, but when Granddad learned he’d been lied to all his life, that was the last straw. He joined the army the next day and never talked to his adoptive parents again. He looked for his birth family for years but never found them. My gran always felt like it might’ve been better if he hadn’t run across his records in the first place. To tell you the truth, she wished his adoptive parents had destroyed them.”
“Secrets have a way of coming out.” That’s a bit of wisdom my father has shared with me many times. Secrets also make you vulnerable to your enemies, political or otherwise.
Whatever’s inside this envelope, I’m better off knowing it.
Still, my fingers tremble as I slip them beneath the flap. “I can see why your grandfather would’ve been passionate about helping other people find information and lost family members.” But how is my grandmother involved?
The adhesive loosens bit by bit as I pull. I work it slowly, like my mother opening a birthday present, taking care not to tear the paper. “Guess there’s no time like the present to find out,” I say. Gingerly, I remove a smaller envelope that has been opened at some time in the past. The papers inside are folded together like a brochure or an electric bill, but I can tell they’re official documents of some kind.
Across the table, Trent looks down at his hands as I lay out the contents.
“I really…” There’s no point in thanking him again. It won’t save him from wrestling with his conscience. “I want you to know you can count on me to do whatever’s best with this. I won’t let it cause some kind of family issue. I respect your grandfather’s concern, given the kind of research he was doing for people.”
“He knew firsthand what could happen.”
A noise in the house causes both of us to turn as I’m flattening the documents on the table. I recognize the sound of little bedtime feet on a sandy floor. I halfway expect to see one of my nieces or nephews standing in the corridor, but instead there’s a three- or four-year-old towheaded boy with sleepy blue eyes and the most adorable cleft in his chin. I know where he got that.
Trent Turner has a son. Is there a Mrs. Turner sleeping back there? The strangest hint of disappointment tinges the thought a faint shade of green. I catch myself checking for a wedding ring before looking back at the little boy and thinking, Stop that. Avery Stafford, what is wrong with you?
It’s times like this that I wonder what really is wrong with me. Why don’t I feel like a woman who has bonded with her soulmate, forever and ever, end of story? Both of my sisters fell head over heels for their husbands and seemingly never had any second thoughts. So did my mother. So did my grandmother.
The little boy eyeballs me as he circles the table, yawning and scratching his forehead with the back of one arm. He’s dramatic about it. He looks like a silent movie actress practicing an exaggerated swoon.
“Are you supposed to be in bed, Jonah?” his dad asks.
“And you’re up because…” Trent may be trying to sound tough, but his face has pushover written on it. Jonah braces both hands on his daddy’s knee, lifts a leg, and begins to climb him like a jungle gym.
Trent hoists the boy up, and Jonah stretches closer to whisper, “Is a peterdactyl in my clod-et.”
“Jonah, there’s nothing in your closet. That’s just the movie the big kids let you watch over at Aunt Lou’s, remember? You’ve had another bad dream about it. A dinosaur wouldn’t even fit in your closet. There’re no dinosaurs in there.”
“Ya-huh,” Jonah sniffs. Clinging to handfuls of his dad’s T-shirt, he swivels enough to study me over a wide-open yawn.
I shouldn’t get involved. I might be just making things worse. I have, however, been through this dinosaur thing during holiday sleepovers at Drayden Hill and vacations with my sisters’ kids. “My nieces and nephews had the same problem. They were scared of dinosaurs too, but do you know what we did?”
Jonah shakes his head, and Trent gives me a quizzical look, sandy-blond brows twisting together. He has a very flexible forehead.
Two identical sets of blue eyes invite my solution to the closet-dinosaur dilemma.
Fortunately, I have one. “We went to the store the next day and picked out flashlights—really awesome flashlights. If you’ve got a really awesome flashlight by your bed, then when you wake up at night, and you think you see something, you can turn on the light and shine it over there and check. And do you know what happens every single time when you turn on the flashlight?”
Jonah waits breathless, his little Cupid’s bow mouth hanging open, but Dad clearly knows the answer. He looks like he wants to palm-thump himself in the forehead, as if to say, Why didn’t I think of this before?
“Every single time, when you shine the flashlight, nothing’s there.”
“Ebry time?” Jonah’s not sure.
Jonah turns to his father for confirmation, and a sweet look of trust passes between them. This is obviously an involved dad. He slays monsters and does tuck-in time. “We’ll go pick out a flashlight tomorrow at the BI-LO. Sound good?”
I notice he doesn’t say, Mom can take you to get a flashlight tomorrow. I also notice that he doesn’t tell his son to be a big boy or insist on hustling the poor kid back to bed. He just shifts Jonah to one shoulder and lays a palm on the table, the fingers pointing toward the documents pressed beneath my hand.
Jonah pops a thumb into his mouth and snuggles against his dad’s chest.
I look down at the papers, surprised that they temporarily left my mind. Jonah is irresistibly cute.
The top page is a grainy photocopy of some sort of official form. HISTORY SHEET, the heading reads in bold, black letters. Below, the subject has been given a number of record: 7501. AGE: inf. SEX: male. The baby’s name is listed as Shad Arthur Foss, church relationships unknown. The corner of the form is stamped with a date in October 1939 and was apparently filled out at a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. MOTHER’S NAME: Mary Anne Anthony. FATHER’S NAME: B. A. Foss. The address for both parents is listed as indigent, river camp. Both the father and mother were in their late twenties when the baby was born.
The official responsible for the form, Miss Eugenia Carter, has explained the infant’s situation in a few short words under clinical-sounding headings. CAUSE FOR RELEASE TO T.C.H. SOCIETY: Born out of wedlock—unable to provide. HOW RELEASED: Surrender signed by mother and father at birth.
“I don’t recognize these names,” I mutter, separating the sheet from the others and setting it quietly on the table. Granted, we have a lot of relatives, but I’ve never seen a Foss or an Anthony on a wedding invitation or met one at a funeral. “I can’t imagine how any of this could be connected to my grandmother. This might’ve been around the year she was born, I guess.” Grandma Judy’s age changes every time you ask her. She admits to nothing and considers it gauche for anyone to inquire in the first place. “Maybe Shad Arthur Foss was someone she knew in school later? Could she have been trying to help a friend track down birth information?”
The next page is a copy of a case history sheet on Baby Boy Foss.
BIRTH DATE: September 1, 1939
BIRTH WEIGHT: premature—4 lbs.
PRESENT WEIGHT: 6 lbs. 9 oz.
BABY: Baby arrived prematurely, weighing only four pounds at birth. He has developed normally in every way. Kahn was negative, Wasserman and smear on mother were negative. Has had no childhood illnesses or immunizations.
MOTHER: 28 years of age, American born, of Polish-Dutch extraction. High school education, blue eyes, blond hair, about 5 ft. 6 in. tall. Weight 115 lbs. Protestant in religion. Considered very attractive and intelligent.
FATHER: 29 years of age, American born, of Scotch-Irish and Cajun-French extraction. High school education, brown eyes, black hair, about 6 ft. 1 in. tall. Weight about 175 lbs. No church affiliation.
No inheritable diseases exist on either side among the families, and despite extramarital errors of these young individuals, both maternal and paternal families are hardworking and well respected in their own communities. None have interest in custody of the children.
I pass the second document across the table to Trent, who’s looking at the first one. The third page reads:
Parent’s or Guardian’s
HELP A CHILD FIND A HOME IS OUR MOTTO
Baby Shad’s sad story is told again in uneven type on dashed lines beside questions like Healthy? Robust? Deformed? Crippled? Diseased? Is child ruptured? Is child feebleminded?
Fit to be placed in a home?
Baby Shad is signed, sealed, witnessed, and delivered. He’s transferred to the Memphis Receiving Home for observation and placement.
“I really haven’t a clue what any of this means.” But I do know there’s no way my grandmother would have come here to Edisto repeatedly to meet with Trent Turner, Sr., if it weren’t important. I also find it hard to believe that she would have gone this far to help a friend. She had some personal investment here. “Are there more of these packets? Did your grandfather leave anything else?”
Trent looks away as if he’s trying to decide what to tell me, struggling with his conscience again. Finally, he offers, “Just a few other sealed envelopes with names on them like that one. Most of the papers Granddad was able to give to the owners before he passed on. The packets that were left he pretty much figured were for people who’d died without his knowing it.”
Trent pauses to shift Jonah, who’s falling asleep on his shoulder. “Some cases he kept up with for fifty and sixty years, ever since he started doing the research. How he decided which ones to take on, I don’t know. I never asked him. I vaguely remember clients coming to him with pictures and sitting at the table in the little cottage outside, crying and talking, but it didn’t happen all that often. He did most of his business at the office in Charleston. The only reason I ever saw any of it was that I came here to Edisto with him every chance I got. Once in a while, he’d meet with people here—for privacy, I think. I have a feeling he dealt with some pretty high-profile clients on occasion.” He gives me a meaningful look, and I know he’s lumping me into that category. My skin suddenly itches, and I squirm under my T-shirt.
“I’m still at a loss as to what this has to do with my grandmother. Is there anything in your grandfather’s papers having to do with a woman named May Crandall…or maybe even someone named Fern…or Queenie? I think they might’ve been friends of my grandmother.”
He rests his chin on Jonah’s downy head. “The names don’t sound familiar, but like I told you earlier, I didn’t go back and read any of the documents after Granddad died. I locked his workshop, and I haven’t been in there since.” A shrug indicates the tiny cabin slumbering beneath the glow of a yard lamp. “I just took charge of the envelopes, like he asked me to. Whatever else was left out there, I assumed he didn’t think was important anymore. He had a lot of respect for people’s privacy, given what he went through when he found out the truth about his parents. He never wanted to take the responsibility of altering someone else’s history that way. Not unless they asked for the information.”
“So that means my grandmother definitely came to him?”
“Based on what I know about my grandfather’s work, yes.” He worries his bottom lip contemplatively. I catch myself focusing in on it, almost losing track of what he’s saying. “If someone else had been looking for your grandmother—a lost relative, say—Granddad would’ve given them the paperwork and closed out the file once he’d found your grandmother. He always let his clients make the final decisions about getting in touch. The fact that he hadn’t closed this file and that he’d left it marked Judy Stafford means that your grandmother was looking for someone…a person he wasn’t ever able to find.”
My mind is in hyperdrive now, despite the late hour. “Is there any way I could see the rest of it?” I know how bold it is to request this now, but I’m afraid Trent may change his mind once he’s had time to think about things. A lesson from trial law. If you need your witness to switch tracks, ask for a recess. If not, keep driving hard toward whatever you’re after.
“Believe me, you don’t want to go out there at night. That building is an old slave cabin that was moved onto the property, so it’s not exactly sealed up tight. There’s no telling what might be living in there at this point.”
“I grew up in horse barns. I’m not afraid of much.”
His mouth quirks, bringing out a dimple. “Why does that not surprise me?” He shifts Jonah on his shoulder again. “Let me tuck him back in bed.”
Our gazes tangle, and for a moment, we’re just…looking at each other. Maybe it’s the dim lighting from the vintage fixtures or the quiet intimacy of the cottage, but I feel something I don’t want to feel. It winds through me, languid and warm, noticeable like a tide pool on a summer evening after the air has cooled.
I swirl a toe in the waters, laugh softly, feel myself blush and look down, then steal another glance at Trent. The other side of his mouth curves upward into a smile, and a strange sensation travels all the way to my toes. It’s like lightning crackling far off over the water—something unpredictable and dangerous.
It stuns me for an instant, and I forget where I am and why I came here.
Jonah’s head rolls off his dad’s shoulder, and the spell is broken. I awaken from it like an early-day medical patient coming out of an ether sleep. My mind dawdles. My wits take a moment to line up properly and force me to look away. Somewhere in the process, I glance past my ring finger where, right now, my engagement ring is missing because, before my evening took such a wild track, I removed it so I wouldn’t get lotion on it after my shower.
What is going on? I’ve never had something like this happen to me. Ever. I don’t do mental lapses. I’m not easily taken in by people. I don’t behave improperly with strangers. The paramount importance of not doing those things has been impressed upon me since birth, and law school was a good reinforcement.
“I should go.” As if on cue, the cellphone in my pocket vibrates, the real world breaking in. My chair squeals as I push back. The sound seems to stop Trent unexpectedly. Was he really thinking of letting me into the workshop tonight? Or was he thinking of something…more intimate?
I ignore the phone and thank him for giving me the envelope, then add, “Maybe we could meet tomorrow?” In the bright, clear light of day. “Look at whatever else is left?” I’m taking a risk either way I play this. By tomorrow, Trent may have rethought everything. But here, tonight, there are risks of a different kind. “I’ve imposed on you way too long. It was incredibly rude of me to call this late. I’m sorry…I’ve just been so…desperate to figure things out.”
He stifles a yawn, blinks, and forces his eyelids upward. “It’s not a problem. I’m a night owl.”
“I can tell,” I joke, and a laugh escapes him.
“Tomorrow.” He speaks the word like a promise. “It’ll have to be after work. I’ve got a full day. I’ll see if Aunt Lou can keep Jonah a couple extra hours.”
The commitment is a relief. I just hope he feels the same way after he thinks about this. “I’ll see you in the evening then. Just let me know what time. Oh, and don’t leave Jonah at his aunt’s on my account. I have triplet two-year-old nephews. I love little boys.” Gathering Grandma Judy’s papers and my flashlight, I take a step toward the door, then stop, looking for a pencil and something to write on. “I should give you my phone number.”
“I have it.” He pulls a face. “On my cellphone about…two hundred times.”
That should be embarrassing, but instead we laugh together. He turns toward the hallway. “Let me put Jonah down, and I’ll walk you out to the beach and watch you till you get home.”
My head says no, but I have to force myself to form the words. “It’s okay. I know the way.” Outside the window, the night is alive with moonglow, the water glistening through the palms around the cottage’s backyard. Confederate rose and jasmine stir in the sea breeze. It’s a perfect combination. The kind only the Lowcountry can create.
He casts a look my way. “It is the middle of the night. Let me be a gentleman about it at least.”
I wait while he puts Jonah to bed; then we cross the back porch together and descend the steps. The breeze off the water catches my hair, swirling it into the air, skimming my skin and slipping down my T-shirt. At the bottom of the stairs, I glance at the small slave cabin, study the old wood-paned windows, six of them, that run all the way across the front porch. Are answers hiding behind the salt-hazed glass?
“It dates from around 1850.” Trent seems to be fishing for conversation. Maybe we both feel the awkward pressure of a setting that begs for something more than casual chatter. “Granddad moved it here himself when he purchased the property. He originally used it as an office. This tract was his first real estate deal. He bought the acreage adjacent to the Myers cottage and divided it for this house and the two between.”
Another connection between Trent Turner, Sr., and my grandmother. Obviously, they knew each other a long time. Did she enlist him to help her look for someone because she knew he dabbled in such things? Or did his dabbling lead him to my grandmother? Did she suggest that he buy the property next to the cottage? Is the current Trent Turner really as much in the dark about these family connections as I am? Has one generation lived intricately intertwined lives that were, for whatever reason, hidden from the next?
The questions tie my brain in knots as we stop at the beach path, where sea oats glisten like strings of spun glass in the moonlight. “Nice night,” he says.
“Yes, it is.”
“Watch out. Tide’s coming up. You’ll get your feet wet.” He nods toward the sea, and I can’t help but look. A trail of glistening waves leads to the moon, and a starry carpet glows impossibly bright overhead. How long since I’ve just sat in the dark and enjoyed a night like this? Suddenly, I’m so very hungry for it. I’m hungry for water and sky and days that aren’t divided by the tiny squares in an appointment book.
Did my grandmother feel this way? Was that the reason she came here so often?
“Thanks again…for letting me interrupt your evening.” I take a backward step from grass to sand. Something scuttles past my foot, and I squeal.
“Better turn on the flashlight.”
The last thing I see before surrounding myself with a sphere of artificial illumination is Trent grinning at me.
I turn and walk away, knowing he is watching.
My phone buzzes again, and when I pull it from my pocket, it’s like a gateway to another world. I’m quick to step through. I need something familiar and safe to focus on after that strange moment on the beach with Trent.
But Abby? From the office in Baltimore? Why would she be calling me in the wee hours of the morning?
When I answer, she’s breathless. “Avery, there you are. Is everything all right? I got this crazy email from you a while ago.”
I laugh. “Oh, Abby, I’m sorry. I meant to send that to myself.”
“You have to tell yourself where you’re going now? That’s what the posh life in South Carolina has done to you?” Abby is a no-nonsense D.C. girl, an achiever who pulled herself up from public housing to a law degree. She’s also a fabulous federal prosecutor. I miss having lunch with her and putting our heads together about ongoing cases.
If there’s anyone I could trust with the information about Grandma Judy, it would be Abby, but it’s safer to catch up on things at the office, so I do that instead. “Long story. So why are you awake at this hour?”
“Working. Discovery tomorrow. Laundering and mail fraud. Major case. They’ve hired Bracken and Thompson.”
“Ohhh…big guns.” The legal chatter brings me squarely back home to Baltimore. Whatever nonsense came over me at Trent’s house is quickly eclipsed, and I’m glad because I need it to be. “Tell me what’s happening.” My senses heighten in a way that has nothing to do with the night or a glance over my shoulder that finds Trent still watching me.
Abby launches into the details of the investigation, and my mind homes in. I’m struck by one undeniable fact.
I miss my old life.
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