فصل 17

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CHAPTER 17

Avery

If you have to kill time, Edisto Island isn’t a bad place to do it.

The breeze off the water sifts through the screens and teases the hem of the simple wrap dress I’ve slipped on after whiling away the day. I forgot to grab my cellphone charger before leaving home. Now the battery is at half-mast, and there’s not a compatible charger available anywhere on the island. Rather than answering email or scouring the Internet for anything pertaining to last night’s revelations, I’ve been forced to entertain myself the old-fashioned way.

Kayaking the ACE Basin was worth a second barely lukewarm shower and getting a pair of shorts permanently stained by the blackish mix of mildew and pluff mud from the seat of the rental kayak. I feel as if I’ve rediscovered my childhood self.

The paddle trip brought back long-lost memories of a sixth-grade excursion to Edisto with my dad. I’d been working on a science-fair project about the black-water ecosystems in the Lowcountry. Being the driven little perfectionist that I was, I’d wanted to collect my own samples and take my own photographs rather than just pulling things from books. My dad had obliged. Our overnight visit here yielded one of our few exclusive father-daughter moments that wasn’t tied to a horse show or a press op. The memory is still golden, even all these years later.

I also remember that it was Elliot who helped me put together the massive backdrop for my exhibit. We’d salvaged the parts from a closet full of old campaign materials, then painted over the signs and argued at length over how to make the huge pieces of cardboard stand up on their own. Neither of us was very handy with tools.

I don’t know why you didn’t just buy something, he’d complained after our second epic failure. By then, it was late at night and we were still in my father’s horse barn, up to our elbows in paint smears and poorly nailed lumber.

Because I want to put it in my paper that the exhibit was built from recycled materials. I want to be able to say I made it myself.

I don’t see what the difference is….

The rest of the argument has been, quite fortunately, lost to the sands of time. I do remember that it got loud enough for Dad’s stable manager to venture in with a set of heavy wooden standards used for horse jumps. He added a big box of zip ties and some duct tape. Elliot and I took it from there.

The science-fair memory makes me laugh. I glance at my watch thinking I’ll call Elliot and share, but I don’t want to be tied up on the phone when the call from Trent Turner comes in. Worry creeps up as I think about the time. It’s after five, and I haven’t heard from him. Maybe he’s working late this evening?

Maybe he’s changed his mind about letting me see the rest of his grandfather’s records.

Another half hour ticks by. I’m as anxious as a hamster in a very small cage. I sit. I stand. I move around the cottage checking my cell to make sure it has reception.

I finally surrender to the urge to slip down to the beach and covertly scan for signs of life at Trent’s cottage. When the phone rings, I’ve inched at least halfway there, peeking around dunes and sea oats.

I’m so startled by the ringtone that I jump, lose my footing in the sand, and end up juggling the cell.

“I was about to give up on you,” Trent says when I finally pick up. “I knocked three times, and nobody answered. Thought maybe you’d changed your mind.”

I try to keep my eagerness from showing, but it’s hopeless. “No. I’m here. I was just out back.” Did he say knocked? He’s at my door?

“I’ll come around.”

I look toward the Myers cottage and realize how far away I am. He’ll know what I’ve been doing. “I think the gate has poison ivy growing over it.”

“Nope. Doesn’t look like it.”

I spin around and bolt for the backyard, but I’m running in sand, the long wrap dress clinging around my legs, my flip-flops slapping. I catch the flash of a blue shirt near my grandmother’s palmetto hedge just in time to put on the brakes and act casual coming up the boardwalk.

Even so, Trent reacts with a quizzical look. “You look a little fancy…for digging around in my granddad’s shed. I told you it’s a mess in there, right? And it’s hot.”

“Oh…this?” I glance down at the wrap dress. “It’s the last thing I had in my suitcase. I took a kayak out this morning and trashed a set of clothes. I’m a wreck.”

“You don’t look like a wreck.” I try to decipher whether he’s just being nice or flirting, and I can’t quite tell. I can see why he’s successful in the real estate business. He oozes charm. “Ready?” he adds.

“I am.”

I close the back gate, and we stroll down the beach together. He apologizes for getting home late. “A little excitement at Aunt Lou’s today. Somehow—none of the cousins really want to confess the details—Jonah poked a Cocoa Puff up his nose. I had to stick around and help with the extraction.”

“Did you get it out? Is he okay?”

Trent grins. “Black pepper. The obstruction was cleared via compressed air from inside the nasal passages. In other words, he sneezed. Whether Aunt Lou gets a confession out of the cousins as to who’s responsible remains to be determined. There are seven of them. All boys, and Jonah is the youngest by three years, so he learns life lessons the hard way.”

“Poor little guy. I can sympathize. Being the baby isn’t easy. Our family is all girls, though, and that was bad enough. If you need to go get him…”

“Are you kidding? I’d have a mutiny on my hands if I did. He loves it there. Two of my mother’s sisters and a cousin live on the same street, and my mom and dad are usually here part of the year, so the food and the action are constant, and there’s always someone to play with. That was the biggest reason I moved here and bought the real estate office after Jonah’s mother died. I needed to cut my working hours back to something reasonable, but I also wanted Jonah to have family around. I didn’t want him to grow up in an apartment with just me.”

Questions rush through my mind. Most of them seem far too personal. “Where did you live before?” I already know the answer. I researched him back when I was following the blackmail theory.

“New York.” Given the khakis, polo shirt, casual boat shoes, and slight Texas accent, it’s hard to picture him in the buttoned-up basic black of a New York professional. “Commercial real estate.”

I feel an unexpected sort of kinship with Trent Turner. We’re both adjusting to new surroundings, new lives. I envy his. “Big change, huh? Do you like it here?”

There’s a hint of something, a little regret. “It’s a lot slower pace…but yes. It’s good.”

“I’m sorry about your wife.” I wonder at the details, but I’m not going to ask. What I thought might be flirtation on his part is probably just the kind of loneliness that would be natural only a few months after such a loss. I don’t want to lead him on in any way. I’m wearing my engagement ring, but it’s a princess-cut emerald, so people don’t always realize it’s not just decorative jewelry.

“We weren’t married.”

I blush instantly, feeling like a ninny for making assumptions. These days, you never know. “Oh…sorry. I mean…”

His smile puts me at ease. “It’s okay. It’s complicated, that’s all. We were co-workers…and friends. She and I crossed some lines we shouldn’t have after her divorce. I suspected Jonah was mine, but Laura said he wasn’t. She was moving upstate to give it a try with her ex-husband again. I left it alone. I didn’t know the truth about Jonah until after her car wreck. Jonah had internal injuries, and he needed a liver donor. Her sister got in touch with me because they hoped I’d be a match. I was, and that was that.”

“Oh…” is all I can come up with.

He catches my gaze. We stop walking before turning onto the path toward his house, and I know the rest of the story is coming. “Jonah has two half brothers he almost doesn’t remember anymore. It doesn’t look like he’ll get the chance to know them unless they decide to reconnect as adults. After the custody hearing, their father wouldn’t let them have anything to do with Jonah, or me. That’s not the way I want it, but that’s the way it is. I understand the people my granddad helped better than you might think.”

“I can see why you would.” I’m surprised by his openness. The depth of his pain and disappointment are obvious. He doesn’t even try to conceal the fact that he’s conflicted about his decisions or that a past error in judgment resulted in a situation filled with difficult choices. Those realities will affect Jonah for the rest of his life.

I come from a world where we would never openly admit to such things, certainly not to someone who’s practically a stranger. In the world I know, a polished exterior and an unblemished reputation are paramount. Trent makes me wonder if I’ve become too accustomed to the constraints that go with upholding public appearances.

What would I do if I faced a situation like his?

“Jonah seems like a really great kid,” I say.

“He is that. I can’t imagine any other kind of life now. I guess every parent feels that way.”

“I’m sure.”

He waits for me to start along the path, then follows. A spiderweb catches me in the face when we enter the yard, and then a second one. Now I remember why my cousins and I always fought about who’d be first on the trails when we rode horses in Hitchcock Woods back home. I pick off the silk and grab a dried-up palm frond to swish the air ahead.

Trent chuckles. “You’re not as urban as you look.”

“I told you I grew up in horse barns.”

“I didn’t really believe you. I thought Granddaddy’s workshop might scare you away when you saw it.”

“Not a chance.” When I glance over my shoulder, he’s grinning. “Were you hoping it would?”

The path opens into the yard, and he sobers as we cross to the small, low-roofed cabin and climb the steps. “I’m not sure. I wish my granddad were here to make these decisions for himself.” Concern draws deep lines over his tanned forehead as he fishes the keys from his pocket and bends to look at them.

“I understand. I really do. I’ve wondered more than once if I should be digging around in my grandmother’s past, but I can’t help myself. I feel like the truth matters more.”

He slips the key into the dead bolt and opens the lock. “Spoken more like a reporter than a politician. You’d better watch out, Avery Stafford. That kind of idealism will come back to bite you in the political world.”

I bristle at that. “Spoken like someone who’s dealt with the wrong kind of politicians.” He’s not saying anything that Leslie hasn’t said to me already. She’s afraid I’m too highbrow and not realistic about what a Senate run could mean. She forgets that all my life I’ve had to listen to random strangers offering their opinions about everything from our clothes to the tuition costs of the private schools we attended. Actually, not just strangers but friends. “In my family, public service is still public service.”

His face is impassive, so I can’t tell whether he agrees with me or not. “Then you won’t like what you’re about to find out in relation to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. It’s not a pretty story any way you look at it.”

“Why?”

“The place was incredibly well respected, and the woman who ran it, Georgia Tann, operated in powerful circles, socially and politically. She was well thought of publicly. People admired what she was doing. She changed the general perception that orphans were damaged goods. But the reality is that the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis was rotten to the core. It’s no wonder Granddad never wanted to talk about what he did in this little building. The stories are sad, and they’re gruesome, and there are literally thousands of them. Kids were brokered. Georgia Tann made money by charging huge fees for adoptions, transportation, delivery out of state. She took children from poor families and sold them to celebrities and people with political influence. She had law enforcement agencies and family court judges in her pocket. She duped women in hospital maternity wards into signing surrender papers while they were still under sedation. She told people their babies had died when they hadn’t.” He pulls a folded piece of paper from his back pocket and hands it to me. “There’s quite a bit more than that. I printed this off today between appointments.”

The paper is a printed scan of an old newspaper story. The title pulls no punches. It reads, “Adoption Matron May Have Been Most Prolific Serial Killer.”

Trent stops with his hand on the doorknob. He’s waiting for me to look over the article. “Nobody ever came out here but my grandfather and, occasionally, clients—not even my grandmother. But she didn’t share his interest in the topic either. I told you that she felt that the past should have been left in the past. Maybe she was right. My grandfather must have felt that way in the end too. He told me to clean this place out and destroy whatever was still here. Just be warned before we go in. I have no idea what’s on the other side of this door.”

“I understand. But I am…was a federal prosecutor in Maryland. Not much shocks me.”

Yet just the title of the article is shocking. I can tell that Trent’s not letting me through the door until I’ve read the story—until I’ve been warned. He wants me to understand that what lies inside won’t be warm and fuzzy stories about lonely orphans finally finding homes.

I turn back to the article, and begin scanning the text:

Once heralded as the “Mother of Modern Adoption” and consulted by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt in efforts to reform adoption policies in the United States, Georgia Tann did, indeed, facilitate the adoptions of thousands of children from the 1920s through 1950. She also guided a network that, under her watch, allowed or intentionally caused the deaths of as many as five hundred children and infants.

“Many of the children weren’t orphans,” said Mary Sykes, who, along with an infant sister, was stolen from the porch of her unmarried mother’s home at only four years old and placed in the care of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. “Many had loving parents who wanted to raise them. The children were often literally kidnapped in broad daylight, and no matter how birth parents tried to fight in court, they were not allowed to win.” Mrs. Sykes would live for three years in a large white house operated by Georgia Tann and her network of helpers.

Mary’s infant sister, just six months old when a woman claiming to be a social services nurse took them from the family’s porch, would live in the TCHS facility for only two months.

“The babies weren’t given proper food or medical care,” said Mrs. Sykes. “I remember sitting on the floor in a room full of cribs, reaching through the bars and just patting my sister’s arm. She was too weak and dehydrated to even cry. No one would help her. Once it was clear that she was too far gone to recover, a worker put her in a cardboard box and carried her away. I never saw her again. I heard later that, if babies got too sick or cried too much, they’d set them in the sun in a carriage and leave them. I have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now. I can’t imagine how anyone could do those things to kids, but it happened. We were tied to beds and chairs; we were beaten, held under the bathwater; we were molested. It was a house of horrors.”

Over the course of three decades, children under the care of TCHS are reported to have disappeared en masse, their paperwork often vanishing along with them, leaving no record of their lives. If biological family members came looking for information or petitioned the courts, they were simply told that the children had been adopted and the records were sealed.

Operating under the protection of Boss Crump, Memphis’s notorious political kingpin, Georgia Tann’s network was seemingly untouchable.

The remainder of the article gives details about the brokering of children to wealthy parents and Hollywood celebrities, the grieving birth families left behind, the allegations of physical and sexual abuse. The last lines are a quote from a man who runs a website called The Lost Lambs.

“The Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society had scouts everywhere—at social services offices, at rural medical clinics, in poor neighborhoods and shacktowns. Babies were often given to social workers and officials who might stand in Tann’s way. Adoptive parents were sometimes blackmailed for more money, threatened with having their adopted children taken from them. Georgia Tann cultivated the protection of Boss Crump and the family court system. Ultimately, she enjoyed the freedom to alter lives at her discretion. She played God and seemingly had no regrets. In the end, Georgia Tann died of cancer before she could be forced to answer charges. Powerful people wanted to see the case closed, and so it was.”

“This is…” I pause to search for a word. I’m about to say incredible, but it isn’t the right term. “Appalling. It’s hard to imagine that something like this could happen, and on such a large scale…for years.”

“TCHS wasn’t forced to close until 1950.” Clearly, Trent shares my mix of horror, astonishment, and rage. Mary Sykes’s story of touching her dying sister makes me think of my nieces and nephews and the bonds they have with their siblings. Courtney used to climb into the triplets’ cribs and fall asleep with them if she heard them crying at night.

“I just can’t…I can’t imagine.” I’ve prosecuted abuse cases and corruption cases, but this is so large-scale. Dozens and dozens of people must have known what was happening. “How could everyone have just ignored this?”

It dawns on me then. I have family from Tennessee. They were political, influential. They held various state, judicial, and federal offices. Were they aware of this? Did they turn a blind eye to it? Was that the reason Grandma Judy involved herself with Trent Turner, Sr.? Was she trying to right the family wrongs?

Maybe she didn’t want it to come out that her family had cooperated with these monstrous acts, perhaps even supported them?

The blood drains from my head, and I reach out to steady myself on the wall. My cheeks feel cold despite the warmth of the summer day.

Trent’s face offers concern as he stands poised to open the door. “You’re sure?”

He doesn’t look any more certain than I am. We’re like two kids trying to dare ourselves into forbidden territory. Is he hoping I’ll change my mind and spare both of us whatever details await?

“The truth always comes out sooner or later. I’m of the belief that you’re better off knowing about it first.” But even as I say it, I wonder. My entire life, I’ve been so certain that we were above reproach. That our family was an open book. Maybe that was naïve of me. What if, all these years, I’ve been wrong?

Trent looks down at his shoes, kicks a loose shell off the porch decking. It bounces against a red toy tractor that looks particularly poignant at this moment. “I’m afraid what I’m going to find out in here is that my grandfather’s adoption was something like the ones in that article where it mentions giving kids to government officials to keep them quiet. My granddad’s adoptive father was a Memphis police sergeant. They weren’t the kind of people who would’ve had a bunch of money to fund an expensive adoption….” He trails off as if he doesn’t want to put any more words to the story, but in his eyes there’s a mirror of my own fear. Do we carry the guilt from the sins of past generations? If so, can we bear the weight of that burden?

Trent opens the door and, perhaps, the mystery.

Inside, the cottage is low-roofed and shadow-filled. The white plank walls are crackled and faded, and window glass hangs crooked in the wooden frames. The air smells of dust and mildew and something else that takes a moment to register. Pipe tobacco. The odor instantly reminds me of my Grandpa Stafford. His office at the Lagniappe house always held this scent and still does.

Trent flips on the light, and the bulb flickers stubbornly in a Deco-era fixture that is out of step with the rest of the place.

We move into the tiny one-room structure. It contains a large desk that looks as if it could have been bought at a library sale, two file cabinets, a small wooden table, and a couple odd chairs. An old, black rotary phone still sits on the desktop. There’s a canister of wooden pencils, a stapler, a three-hole punch, an ashtray that hasn’t been cleaned, a gooseneck desk lamp, an electric typewriter in faded olive green. Shelves along the back wall sag under their load of stacked file folders, aging binders, loose papers, magazines, and books.

Trent sighs, running a hand through his hair. He seems too big for this small space. His head is only about six inches from the rafters, which I see now are hand-hewn with notches in them, most likely salvaged shipwreck timbers.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

He shakes his head, then shrugs, indicating a hat, a vintage umbrella with a dragon carved into the handle, and a pair of blue boat shoes. All three wait by the coat hooks, seemingly in hopes of their owner returning. “It feels like he’s here, you know? He smelled like this place most of the time.”

Trent opens the blinds, illuminating the bulletin boards that line the walls.

“Look,” I whisper, dust catching in my throat.

There are literally dozens of photos, some bearing the bold colors of modern photography, some in the washed-out hues of old Polaroids, some in shades of black and gray with white frames around the edges bearing dates: July 1941, December 1936, April 1952…

Trent and I stand side by side, staring at the wall, each lost in our own thoughts, awed and horrified at once. I take in images—children’s faces juxtaposed with adult faces. The resemblances are evident. These are mothers and fathers and kids, presumably birth families who were separated from one another. The children’s pictures now hang next to more recent photos of the adults they became.

I look into the eyes of a beautiful woman, her smile vibrant, her hip jutting out as she rests a baby on it. An oversized dress and an apron hang loose on her frame, making her seem like a child playing dress-up. She couldn’t be more than fifteen or sixteen.

What could you tell me? I wonder. What happened to you?

Beside me, Trent thumbs a few of the photos. There are even more underneath them, images layered over images. Trent Senior was thorough in his work.

“There’s nothing on the backs,” Trent observes. “I guess that’s why he didn’t worry about asking me to take care of these. You wouldn’t be able to tell who they were unless you knew already.”

Sadness tinges my thoughts, but it’s a vague feeling. My attention is focused on a photo of four women, standing arm in arm on a beach. Even though the picture is black-and-white, I imagine the bright colors of their sixties-era sundresses and broad-brimmed hats. I can see the golden glint of sunlight on their long blond curls.

One of the women is my grandmother. She’s holding her hat in place. The dragonfly bracelet dangles from her wrist.

The other three women bear a resemblance to my grandmother. Same blond curls, same pale eyes, probably blue. They could easily be relatives, yet I don’t recognize any of them.

Each wears a dragonfly bracelet that matches my grandmother’s.

In the background, just out of focus, little boys squat by the tide line, their knees poking upward as they labor over buckets and sand towers.

Is one of them my father?

I reach for the photo, and Trent stretches up to take it down for me. When he pulls the thumbtack, something small and white falls, drifting like a kite losing the wind. It’s familiar even before I bend to pick it up.

A larger version of it rests in a pearlescent frame in May Crandall’s nursing home room.

A voice disturbs the air, but I’m so focused I almost don’t realize I’m the one who’s speaking. “I’ve seen this photo before.”

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