فصل 19کتاب: پیش از آنکه مال شما باشیم / فصل 20
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The driver in front of me slows down, but I’m so lost in watching two teenage girls trot their horses alongside the road that I don’t hit the brakes until it’s almost too late. The car turns off on a road that leads toward the equestrian events center. I wonder if that’s where the girls might be going with their horses. It’s the right time of year for the derby series. When I was younger, I would’ve been there either watching or competing, but these days I barely have time to lament that grown-up life leaves no time for activities I was once so passionate about, like riding.
Right now, my mind is already several miles down the road, entering May Crandall’s room at the nursing home. I’ve had Ian, the friendly intern, make a few low-key calls to determine her current location and condition. She’s back at the care facility and feeling well enough to give the attendants trouble again.
Behind me, Trent taps his horn and lifts a hand in the air, as if to say, Pay attention up there, but he’s smiling beneath his sunglasses.
If he weren’t in a separate car, I’d say, You insisted on coming along. I warned you that things could be unpredictable.
He’d probably laugh and tell me there’s no way he’s missing this.
We’re like a couple of sixth graders playing hooky from school for the first time. Neither of us is where we’re supposed to be this morning, but after discovering that photo last night in his grandfather’s workshop, neither of us can say no to this journey. Even an early-morning missed call from Leslie and a half-dozen new customer inquiries at Trent’s real estate office couldn’t change the plan we impulsively formed last night. One way or another, we’re going to find out what our grandparents were hiding and how my history and his are tied together…and what May Crandall has to do with it.
I’ve intentionally failed to answer Leslie’s summons, and Trent has slapped a note on the door of the real estate office, and we’re on the lam, after having taken off at first light.
A little over two hours later, we’re in Aiken. We plan to see May Crandall after her breakfast. Depending on what we find out from May, we may go to my grandmother’s house on Lagniappe next.
I try to focus on the driving as we wind through graceful, tree-lined streets, the sleepy magnolias and towering pines slipping their calming shade over the SUV, seeming to say, Why the rush? Slow down. Enjoy the day.
For a moment, I relax into it, persuade myself that this is just any other late-summer morning. But the instant the nursing home appears around the corner, the illusion vanishes. As if to punctuate this, my cellphone rings again, and Leslie’s name is on the screen for the fourth time. I’m inconveniently reminded that, as soon as this visit with May Crandall is over—whatever it yields—I’ll have to check in. The world of present-day issues has come calling. Literally.
At least I know that, if the summons had anything to do with my father’s health, one of my sisters would be phoning me, not Leslie. So it’s definitely business related. Something that has cropped up since I talked to Ian yesterday evening, or else he would have mentioned it then. Leslie probably has a can’t-miss press op lined up, and she wants me to come home early from my minivacation on Edisto. Little does she know, I’m already here.
The idea of diving back into the political stewpot pinches a little. I really don’t want to think about it. Putting my phone on vibrate, I tuck it into my purse without checking the stack-up of texts. There are probably emails too. Leslie does not like to be ignored.
All thoughts of Leslie vanish as I park, grab the folder that holds the antique photos from the bulletin board and the papers from Grandma Judy’s envelope, and get out of the car.
Trent meets me on the curb. “If we’re ever traveling cross-country, I’ll drive.”
“What, you don’t trust me?” A strange little tingle slides down my back, and just as quickly, I shrug it away. Being in Aiken again is a stark reminder that, as much as I find Trent likeable, this will never be anything more than a friendship.
I made sure to slip a mention of my fiancé into the conversation before we left Edisto, just to be fair to all concerned.
“You I trust. Your driving…maybe not.”
“It wasn’t even a near miss.” We banter back and forth on the way up the sidewalk, and by the time we reach the door, I’m laughing without meaning to. The scent of air freshener and the oppressive quiet sobers things up.
Trent’s expression morphs almost instantly. His smile vanishes. “This brings back memories.”
“You’ve been here?”
“No, but it looks a lot like the place we moved my gran into after her stroke. There wasn’t any choice, but it was tough on Granddad. They’d never been separated more than a night or two in over sixty years.”
“It’s so hard when you reach the point where there aren’t any good options.” He knows about Grandma Judy’s situation. It came up last night while we were sitting on the porch of the little cabin talking about the photos and what they might mean.
An attendant in colorful scrubs passes by. She greets us, appearing to wonder if she recognizes me. Then she moves on. I’m glad. The last thing I need is anyone picking up on the fact that I’m here. If this gets back to Leslie and my father, there will be an intense round of questions, and I haven’t a clue what I’d say.
At the doorway to May Crandall’s room, I suddenly realize I’m not sure what I plan to say to her either. Should I just burst in there with the photos and ask, Who were you and my grandmother to one another? How was Trent Turner, Sr., involved?
Should I try to lead into it more subtly? From my short association with May, I have no idea how she’ll react to our coming here. I’m hoping that Trent’s presence may work a bit of extra magic. May did, after all, most likely know his grandfather.
What if it’s all too much for her, the two of us showing up? She has been sick. I don’t want to cause her any more problems. In fact, being back here nudges me toward the realization that I should do something to help her. Maybe I could talk to Andrew Moore at the seniors’ rights PAC. Perhaps he could give me some suggestions about organizations that serve seniors like May whose families live far away.
Trent stops at the door and motions to the nameplate. “Looks like we’re here.”
“I’m nervous,” I admit. “I know she’s been sick. I’m not sure how strong she’ll—”
“Who’s hovering around out there?” May puts my uncertainty to rest before I can finish voicing it. “Go away! I don’t need anything. I won’t have you whispering about me!” A slipper flies through the small opening between the door and the frame, and then a hairbrush sails past and clatters across the hall.
Trent recovers the discards. “She’s got a good arm.”
“You leave me be!” May insists.
Trent and I share uncertain looks, and I lean close to the door, avoiding the line of fire just in case May has more ammo at hand. “May? Just listen a minute, okay? It’s Avery Stafford. Remember me? We met a few weeks ago? You liked my dragonfly bracelet. Do you remember?”
“You said my grandmother was a friend of yours. Judy. Judy Myers Stafford? You and I talked about the photo you had beside your bed.” It seems as though my whole world has changed since that day.
“Well?” May snaps after a moment. “Are you coming in or not?” Beyond the door, there’s the sound of a body shuffling and bedcovers moving. I don’t know if she’s preparing to greet us or loading up to take another shot.
“Are you finished throwing things?”
“I don’t suppose you’d leave if I weren’t.” But there’s a note of anticipation in her voice this time. She’s inviting me in, so I enter, leaving Trent safely in the hall.
She lies propped up in bed, wearing a blue housecoat that matches her eyes. Even with a stack of pillows behind her, there’s something regal about the way she watches me, as if she was accustomed to service in bed long before her nursing home years.
“I was hoping you’d feel well enough to talk with me today,” I venture. “I asked my grandmother about you. She mentioned Queen…or Queenie, but that was about all she could remember.”
May seems stricken. “She’s that bad?”
“I’m afraid so.” I feel terrible for being the messenger. “Grandma Judy isn’t unhappy. She just can’t remember things. It’s hard for her.”
“And hard for you too, I would imagine?”
May’s sudden insight leaves me floundering emotionally. “Yes, it is. My grandmother and I were always very close.”
“Yet she never told you about the people in my photograph?” Beneath the question, there is the insinuation that this woman knows my grandmother intimately. I’m not sure I’ll be able to resign myself to it if I never find out the truth—if May won’t tell me.
“I have a feeling Grandma Judy would now, if she could. But I’m hoping that, since she can’t, you will.”
“It has nothing to do with you.” May turns her shoulder away from me, as if she’s afraid to have me look directly at her.
“I have a feeling it does. And maybe…”
Her attention shifts toward the door. “Who is that out there? Who else is listening?”
“I brought someone with me. He’s been helping me try to figure out what my grandmother hasn’t been able to tell me. He’s just a friend.”
Trent steps inside and crosses the room with his hand outstretched, flashing the sort of smile that could probably sell snow cones to Eskimos. “Trent,” he says, introducing himself. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Crandall.”
She accepts the greeting and imprisons his hand in both of hers, holding him slightly bent over the bed while she turns back to me. “Just a friend, you say? I doubt that.”
I draw back a little. “Trent and I only met a few days ago, when I went down to Edisto.”
“Lovely place, Edisto.” She focuses on Trent, her eyes narrowing.
“Yes, it is,” I agree. Why is she studying him that way? “My grandmother spent quite a bit of time there over the years. Uncle Clifford told me that she liked to write at the cottage. It seems that she and Trent’s grandfather may have done some…business there.” Just as if I were working a witness on the stand, I watch for changes in her demeanor. She tries to hide them, but they are there, and they’re obvious—more so with each sentence.
She’s wondering how much I know.
“I don’t believe I caught your last name.” She blinks at Trent.
The air in the room seems to tighten as she awaits the answer, but when he offers a more formal introduction, she nods and smiles. “Mmmm,” she says. “Yes, you do have his eyes.”
I get the little tingle I always have when I know a witness is about to crack. Often, it’s this very thing that does it—the surprise appearance of the face that’s familiar, a tie to something hidden in the past, the fringes of a secret that’s been kept too long.
May’s trembling fingers lift away from Trent’s hand. She touches his jawline. Moisture mats her lashes. “You favor him. He was a looker too.” She offers a closed-lipped smile that tells me she was probably quite the flirt in her day, a woman who had no difficulty operating in a man’s world.
Trent even blushes a little. It’s cute. I can’t help enjoying the exchange.
May wags a finger my way. “This one’s a keeper. Mark my words.”
It’s my turn to blush. “Sadly, I’m already committed.”
“I don’t see a wedding band, yet.” May grabs my hand and makes a show of examining my engagement ring. “And I know a spark when I see it. I should know. I’ve outlived three husbands at this point.”
A puff of laughter spills past Trent’s lips, and he ducks his head, sandy-blond hair falling forward.
“And I had nothing to do with any of their deaths, in case you’re wondering,” May informs us. “I loved each of them dearly. One was a teacher, one was a preacher, and the last was an artist who found his calling later in life. One taught me to think, one taught me to know, and one taught me to see. Each inspired me. I was a musician, you understand. I worked in Hollywood and also traveled with big bands. That was back in the glory days, long before all this digital foolishness.”
My phone buzzes in my purse, and she frowns toward it. “Those infernal things. The world would be better off if they had never been invented.”
I silence the phone completely. If May is finally ready to tell me the story of that photo on her nightstand, I want nothing to distract us from it. In fact, it’s time to redirect the witness right now.
I open the envelope and slide out the pictures from the cabin at Trent’s. “Actually, it’s these we were wondering about. These, and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.”
Her face instantly hardens. She flings a fiery look my way. “I could do without ever hearing those words again.”
Trent cups her hand in both of his, looks down at their intertwined fingers. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Crandall…if we’re dredging up painful memories. But my grandfather never told me. I mean, I knew he was adopted when he was fairly young, and I knew he broke ties with his adoptive parents after he found out. But I didn’t know much about the Tennessee Children’s Home Society—not until recently. Maybe in passing I’d overheard people mention it to my grandfather over the years, when visitors would stop by. I was aware that my grandfather helped those people in some way, and that he felt the need to conduct those meetings in private—in his workshop or out on the boat. My grandmother never liked any kind of business talk in the house, real estate or otherwise. I didn’t know anything about my grandfather’s hobby, or side business, or whatever it was, until I helped him take care of the remaining files before he died. He asked me not to read the papers, and I didn’t. Not until Avery came to Edisto a few days ago.”
May’s mouth falls open. Tears rim her eyes. “He’s passed, then? I knew he was very ill.”
Trent confirms that he lost his grandfather months ago, and May pulls him close for a kiss on the cheek. “He was a good man and a dear friend.”
“Was he adopted from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society?” Trent asks. “Was that why he was interested in it?”
A somber nod answers. “Yes, indeed he was. And I was as well. That was where we met. Of course, he was just three years old then. He was such a cute little thing, and sweet. His name wasn’t Trent at the time. He didn’t change it to that until years later, when he found out who he really was. He had a sister who was separated from him during our stay at the home. She was two or three years older, and I think he always hoped that using his real name might help her to find him. But that’s the irony of it. The man who aided so many of us in reconnecting with one another again never was able to locate his sister. Perhaps she was one of those who didn’t survive. There were many….”
Her voice cracks and trails away. She pushes upright in the bed, clears her throat. “I was born on the Mississippi River in a shantyboat my father built. Queenie was my mother and Briny was my father. I had three little sisters, Camellia, Lark, and Fern, and a brother, Gabion. He was the youngest….”
She closes her eyes, but I can see them moving under thin, blue-veined lids as she continues her story. It is as if she’s dreaming, watching the images float by. She talks about being taken off the boat by the police, ending up in the children’s home. She describes weeks of uncertainty and fear, workers who were cruel, separation from her siblings, horrors like the ones Trent and I have read about.
The story she tells is heartbreaking yet mesmerizing. We stand on either side of the bed, barely breathing as we listen. “I lost track of my other three siblings at the home,” she says at the end. “But Fern and I were fortunate. We were kept together. Adopted.”
She stares out the window, and for a moment, I wonder if she’s told us all she intends to. Finally, she returns her attention to Trent. “The last time I saw your grandfather as a child, I was afraid he would be one of those who wouldn’t survive the home. He was such a timid little thing. Always in trouble with the workers without meaning to be. He was practically like a little brother by the time I left. I never thought I’d see him again. When a man named Trent Turner contacted me years later, I assumed he was a fraud. I didn’t recognize the name, of course. Georgia Tann habitually gave new names to the children—to help prevent their birth families from finding them, no doubt. I can tell you that I remember her as a horrible, cruel woman and that I believe the extent of her crimes may never be fully told. Few of her victims were able to do what your grandfather did—reclaim a birth name and a heritage. He even found his biological mother before she died, and he reunited with other relatives. He became Trent again, but when he was little, I knew him as Stevie.”
Her attention wanders again, her mind seeming to travel with it. I shift the photo of the four women just a bit, make a few inferences. In court, this would be leading the witness, but here it’s just helping to uncover the story. “Are these your sisters in the photo with you and my grandmother?”
I know the three women on the left must be sisters or cousins. It’s obvious enough, even with the hats shading their faces. I’m still troubled by their similarities to my grandmother. The hair color. The pale eyes that seem to reach beyond the photo. But the facial structures, at least as much as I can see of them, are different. The features of the three sisters are substantial, perfectly chiseled. They have wide, square chins, and ski-slope noses, and almond-shaped eyes that slant upward slightly at the edges. They are beautiful. My grandmother is lovely as well, but her features are thin and birdlike, her blue eyes almost too large for her face. They are luminous, even in black-and-white.
May takes the photo and holds it in her shaky hands. Her study seems endless. I have to force myself not to prod. What’s going on in her mind? What is she thinking of? What is she remembering?
“Yes. The three of us—Lark, Fern, and me. Bathing beauties.” She gives a quick, wicked giggle and taps Trent’s hand. “I think your grandmother worried a bit whenever we came around. But she needn’t have. Trent loved her dearly. We were so grateful to him for helping us to find one another. Edisto was a special place for us. It was where we were first reunited.”
“Was that where you met my grandmother?” I crave a simple answer to all of this. One I can live with. I don’t want to find out that my grandmother was somehow paying penance for our family’s involvement with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society—that my grandfathers were among the many politicians who protected Georgia Tann and her network, who turned a blind eye to atrocities because powerful families did not want her crimes revealed or their own adoptions nullified. “Was that where the two of you became friends?”
Her finger traces the white frame on the photo. She’s looking at my grandmother. If only I could climb inside her mind or, better yet, inside the picture. “Yes, yes it was. We’d crossed paths at society events before I ever knew her, though I will say, I had a completely wrong impression of her prior to making her acquaintance. She grew to be a dear friend. And she was so very generous to loan my sisters and me the cottage on Edisto from time to time, so we could get away together. That photo was taken during one of our trips. Your grandmother joined us there. It was a lovely late-summer day on the beach.”
The explanation soothes me, and I’d like to stop there, but it doesn’t explain why the words Tennessee Children’s Home Society were on the typewriter ribbon in my grandmother’s cottage…or why Trent Turner, Sr., was in communication with my grandmother.
“Trent’s grandfather left an envelope for my Grandma Judy,” I say. “Judging by her daybook, I think she was making plans to pick it up before she got so sick. Inside the envelope, there were documents from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Health assessments and surrender papers for a baby boy named Shad Arthur Foss. Why would she have wanted those?”
I’ve caught May off guard now. There is more to this story, but she’s biting down hard on it.
Her eyelids flutter and descend. “I’m so very…so very…tired all of a sudden. All this…this talking. It’s more than I usually…do…in a week.”
“Was my grandmother involved with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society? Was my family involved?” If I don’t find out today, I have a feeling I never will.
“You’d have to ask her about that.” May presses into the pillows, draws an exaggerated breath.
“I can’t. I told you that. She isn’t able to remember things. Please, whatever it is, just give me the truth. Arcadia. Does it have anything to do with this?” My grip tightens around the bed rails.
Trent reaches across and lays a hand over mine. “Maybe it’s better if we quit here for today.”
But I can see May withdrawing into herself, the story vanishing like chalk art on a rainy day.
I scramble after the running colors. “I just want to know if my family was…responsible in some way. Why did my grandmother have such an intense interest in this?”
May pats along the railing until she finds my fingers. She squeezes them reassuringly. “No, of course not, dear. Don’t fret. At one time, Judy was helping me to write my story. That’s all. But I thought better of it. I’ve found in life that bygones are a bit like collard greens. They tend to taste bitter. It’s best not to chew on them overly long. Your grandmother was a fine writer, but it was so difficult for her to hear about our time in the home. Her talent was meant for happier tales, I believe.”
“She was helping you write your story? That’s all?” Could this really be the sum total of it? No big family secret, just Grandma Judy using her abilities to help a friend, to shed light on an old injustice, the effects of which still lingered? A sense of relief washes through me.
It all makes perfect sense.
“That’s everything there is,” May confirms. “I wish I could tell you more.”
That last part tickles my senses like a stray puff of smoke from a fire that’s supposedly been put out. Witnesses who aren’t telling the truth have a hard time stopping on an absolute yes or no.
What does she wish she could tell me? Is there more?
May finds Trent’s hand, squeezes it, then lets go. “I’m so sorry about your grandfather. He was a godsend to many of us. Before the state’s adoption records were opened in ’96, we had little means of discovering where our relatives might be—who we really were. But your grandfather had his ways. Without him, Fern and I would never have found our sister. They’re both gone now, of course—Lark and Fern. I would appreciate it if you’d refrain from disturbing their families, even so…or mine, for that matter. We were young women with lives and husbands and children by the time we were brought together again. We chose not to interfere with one another. It was enough for each of us to know that the others were well. Your grandfather understood that. I hope you will respect our wishes.” She opens her eyes and turns my way. “Both of you.” Suddenly, all signs of exhaustion have faded. The look she gives me is intense, demanding.
“Of course,” Trent says. But I can tell it’s not Trent’s answer she’s after.
“I didn’t set out to bother anyone.” Now I’m the one tap-dancing around the issue…which is that I shouldn’t make promises I can’t keep. “I just wanted to know how my grandmother was involved.”
“And now you do, so all’s well.” She punctuates this with a resolute nod. I’m not sure which one of us she’s trying to sell on this—me or herself. “I have made peace with my past. It is a story I hope never to tell again. As I said earlier, I thought better of sharing the whole thing with your grandmother even. Why release such ugliness into the present? We all have difficulties. Mine may be different than some, but I have come through them, as did Lark and Fern and, I would assume, though we were never able to find him, my brother as well. I prefer to hope it was so. He was my one true reason for wanting to have the story written, years ago when I coaxed your grandmother into helping me with the project. I suppose I thought a book or a newspaper article might somehow reach him if he was still out there, and if he was one of the many who’d simply vanished under the care of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, it would provide a memorial for him. Perhaps for my birth parents as well. There are no stones to lay flowers upon. None that I would know how to find, in any case.”
“I’m so…I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through.”
Nodding, she closes her eyes again, shutting me out. “I should rest now. Soon enough, they’ll come around to poke me, or prod me, or haul me off to that infernal physical therapy room. Honestly, I’m almost ninety years old. What do I need with muscle tone?”
Trent chuckles. “Now you sound like my grandfather. If he’d had his way, we would’ve put him in a jon boat and let him drift off down the Edisto River.”
“That seems perfectly lovely. Would you be so kind as to arrange the boat? And then I’ll find my way home to Augusta and float away down the Savannah.” She closes her eyes, smiling a bit. Within moments, her breaths lengthen, and her eyelids flutter in their pleated frames. The smile remains. I wonder if she is once again that little girl drifting on the muddy waters of the Mississippi aboard the shantyboat her father built.
I try to imagine having a history like hers, having lived two lives, having been, effectively, two different people. I can’t. I’ve never known anything but the stalwart stronghold of the Stafford name and a family who supported me, nurtured me, loved me. What was May’s life really like with her adoptive parents? I realize now, she never really told that part of the story. She only said that, after a heartbreaking stay in the children’s home, she and her sister had been given to a family.
Why did she stop the story there? Was the rest too private?
Even though she’s answered the question I came here to ask, and she’s requested that we not pry any further, I can’t help wanting to know more.
Trent seems to be feeling the same way. Of course he would. His family history is tied to May’s.
We hover on either side of the bed a few minutes, both of us watching her, lost in our own thoughts. Finally, we take our photographs and reluctantly withdraw from the room. Neither of us speaks until we’re out of earshot.
“I never knew any of that about my grandfather,” he says.
“It must be hard, finding out.”
Trent’s brows fold together. “It’s strange to think that Granddad came through that kind of thing growing up. It makes me admire him all the more—what he did with his life, what kind of person he was. But it also makes me mad. I can’t help wondering what his life would’ve been like if he hadn’t been in the wrong place at the wrong time, if his parents hadn’t been poor, if someone had stopped the Tennessee Children’s Home Society before they ever got to him. If he’d grown up with the family he was born into, would he have been the same person? Did he love the river because he came from it or because the father who raised him fished on the weekends? May said he met some of his biological relatives. How did he feel about that? Why didn’t he ever introduce us to any of them? There are so many questions I’d like to ask him now.”
We wander to a stop just outside the front door, both of us reluctant to part ways and move toward our own cars. Our reason for being together has been swept away by May’s story. This should be goodbye, but I feel as if ties now exist and they’re not meant to be severed. “Do you think you’ll try to find any of them—your grandfather’s family?”
Tucking his hands in his jean pockets, he shrugs, looking down at the sidewalk. “It’s so far back, I can’t see the point. They’d be distant relatives of ours by now. Maybe that’s why my grandfather never bothered. I might do some more research, though. I’d like to know details…for Jonah and my nieces and nephews, if nothing else. Maybe they’ll ask someday. I don’t want any more secrets.”
The conversation wanes. Trent lightly runs his tongue along his lip, as if he wants to say something but can’t quite decide whether he should.
When we start up again, we tumble over each other.
“Avery, I know we—”
For some reason, we both find it funny. Laughter diffuses the tension a little.
“Ladies first.” He gestures my way, as if he’s ushering the words I’m about to say. I really don’t have the right ones. After what we’ve journeyed through these past few days, it seems almost inconceivable that this is the end. We’re bonded, or at least it feels that way.
Maybe I’m being silly. “I was just going to say thank you for all of this. For not sending me away empty-handed. I know that breaking the promise to your grandfather was hard. I don’t…” Our gazes meet. The rest of the sentence vanishes. My cheeks blaze. I’m once again aware of an unexpected chemistry between us. I thought it was the pull of the mystery, but now the mystery has been solved and the tickle of fascination is still there.
A random thought comes, completely unbidden, entirely unwanted: Maybe I’m making a mistake…with Elliot. And then I realize it’s not as random as it seems. I’ve only been sidestepping the question until now. Are Elliot and I in love, or are we just…in our thirties and feeling like it’s time? Do we have a deep, long-standing friendship, or do we have passion? Even though we’ve been telling ourselves we won’t be ramrodded by our families, have we allowed it to happen anyway? A bit of Leslie’s savvy political coaching comes back to me. Suddenly, it seems like evidence. If we do need to raise your public profile, Avery, a well-timed wedding announcement could fill the bill. Aside from that, it’s not advantageous for a pretty young thing to be single in Washington, no matter how well she minds her body language in social situations. The wolves need to know there’s officially no availability there.
I try to shake off the thought, but it’s like a sandbur in a horse’s forelock. Strands are twisted all around it. I can’t imagine changing course now. Everyone, everyone is expecting an announcement soon. The fallout would be…unthinkable. Honeybee and Bitsy would be heartbroken. Socially and politically, I’d look like a flake, a person who can’t make up her mind, who doesn’t know her own heart.
“Avery?” Trent’s eyes narrow, and his head cocks to one side. He’s wondering what I’m thinking.
I can’t possibly tell him. “Your turn.” I don’t trust myself to say anything more, considering the wild track my mind has taken.
“Doesn’t matter now.”
“Not fair. What were you about to say, really?”
He surrenders without too much of a fight. “I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot that first day. Usually I wouldn’t talk to a customer that way.”
“Well, I wasn’t really a customer, so you’re excused.” He was actually pretty decent about it all, considering how pushy I was. In the end, I’m a Stafford through and through. I tend to assume that I’ll get what I want.
Which, I realize with a shiver, makes me eerily like the adoptive parents who inadvertently funded Georgia Tann’s business. No doubt some were well-meaning people and some of the children really did need homes, but others, especially those who knew that exorbitant fees were being forked over for made-to-order sons and daughters, must have had some idea of what was happening. They just assumed that money, power, and social position gave them the right.
Guilt stains this realization of mine. I think of all the privileges I’ve been given, including a Senate seat practically prepackaged for me.
Do I have a right to any of this, just because of the family I come from?
Trent’s hands tuck awkwardly back into his pockets. He glances at his car, then turns my way again. “Don’t be a stranger. Look me up next time you’re on Edisto.”
The idea strikes me like the sound of the bugle going off at the beginning of a cross-country hunt, when the horse’s muscles tense and I know that if I just loosen the reins, all that potential energy will be unleashed in one direction. “I’d really love to know what else you discover about your grandfather’s family…if you find anything, I mean. No pressure, though. I don’t want to be nosy.”
“Why stop now?”
I cough, pretending to be offended, but we both know it’s the truth. “It’s the lawyer in me. Sorry.”
“You must be a good lawyer.”
“I try to be.” I swell with the sense of pride that comes from having someone else affirm an accomplishment I care about. One I worked for myself. “I like to see things set right.”
A car pulls up into a nearby parking space. The intrusion reminds both of us that we can’t stand here forever.
Trent takes a last look at the nursing home. “It sounds as if she’s lived quite a life.”
“Yes, it does.” It stings to imagine May, my grandmother’s friend, languishing in this place day after day. No visitors. No one to talk to. Grandkids living far away in a complex blended-family situation. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just a reality. I’ll definitely get in touch with Andrew Moore at the PAC and see if he can suggest any organizations that could help her.
A horn sounds on the street, and nearby a car door closes. The world is still moving, and Trent and I should too.
His chest heaves outward and then relaxes. His breath grazes my ear as he leans in to kiss me on the cheek. “Thanks, Avery. I’m glad I know the truth.”
His face lingers against mine. I smell salt air, and baby shampoo, and a hint of pluff mud. Or maybe I’m only imagining it.
“Don’t be a stranger,” he says again.
From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a woman coming up the sidewalk. White blouse, pumps, black skirt. Her rapid-fire steps feel unwelcome, out of keeping with the day. Heat boils into my cheeks, and I jerk away from Trent so quickly, he gives me a confused look.
Leslie has tracked me down. I should’ve known better than to ask Ian to check on May’s condition for me. Leslie’s chin recedes into her neck as she regards Trent and me. I can only imagine what she’s thinking. Actually, I don’t have to imagine it. I can see what she’s thinking. The exchange she just witnessed looked intimate.
“Thanks again, Trent.” I try to diffuse the impression she must have. “Take care on the drive home.” I step back, clasp my hands one over the other.
His eyes search mine. “Yeah,” he mutters, cocking his head to one side and squinting at me. He has no idea someone is standing behind him or that the real world has come rushing in with gale force.
“We’ve been looking for you.” Leslie makes her presence known without taking time for pleasantries. “Cellphone not working this morning, or are you in hiding?”
Trent moves aside, glances from my father’s press secretary to me.
“I was on vacation,” I say. “Everyone knew where I was.”
“On Edisto?” Leslie retorts with a nip of sarcasm. Clearly, I’m not on Edisto now. She directs another suspicious glare in Trent’s direction.
“Yes…well…I…” My mind scrambles. Sweat beads under the cotton floral tourist dress I bought so I’d have something clean to wear today. “It’s a long story.”
“Well, I’m afraid we don’t have time for it. You’re needed at home.” She means to let Trent know we have business to tend to and he’s not welcome here any longer. It works. He gives me one last quizzical look, then excuses himself, saying he has someone he wants to visit while he’s in Aiken.
“Take care, Avery,” he says, and starts toward his car.
“Trent…thanks,” I call after him. He lifts a hand and waves over his shoulder in a way that says, whatever is going on here, he wants no part of it.
I wish I could run after him and at least apologize for Leslie’s abrupt dismissal, but I know I shouldn’t. It’ll only raise more questions.
“My phone was off, I think.” I preempt Leslie before she can start an inquisition. “Sorry about that. What’s going on?”
She blinks slowly, lifts her chin. “Let’s not talk about that for a minute. Let’s talk about what I just saw when I came up this sidewalk.” She waves a hand toward Trent, and I hope he’s far enough away not to hear her. “Because that was disturbing.”
“Leslie, he’s a friend. He was helping me track down some family history. That’s all.”
“Family history? Really? Here?” Jerking her chin up, she snorts in frustration. “Of what sort?”
“I’d rather not say.”
Leslie’s eyes flash. Her lips squeeze into a thin line. She takes a breath, blinks again, levels a heated gaze at me. “Well, let me tell you something. Whatever I just witnessed there is exactly the kind of scene you cannot afford. Nothing that could possibly be spun, used, or misinterpreted, Avery. Nothing. You have to be pure as the driven snow, and that did not look pure from a distance. Can you imagine how it would have played in a photograph? All of us, the entire team, are putting everything we have into you. In case you’re needed.”
“I know that. I understand.”
“The last thing this family can withstand is one more battle to fight.”
“Point taken.” I paint a layer of confidence over the words, but inside I’m confused; I’m embarrassed; I’m aggravated that I have to deal with Leslie right now. I’m torn between appeasing Leslie and running after Trent. I’m afraid to even look up to see whether he’s made it to his car yet.
The engine starts, and answers my question. I hear him back out and drive away. It’s probably for the best, I tell myself. Of course it is. I had my whole life planned before I went to Edisto. Why would I want to jeopardize that over…ancient family history, things that don’t matter anymore, a man with whom I have no connection other than a story that even those who lived it want to forget?
“There’s been a development.” Leslie’s words take a moment to register even though I’m looking right at her. “The Sentinel just rolled out a massive exposé about corporate-owned nursing care and the responsibility dodge. It’s only a matter of time before the major media pick it up. The article highlighted the South Carolina cases. They have cost comparisons between Magnolia Manor and the kind of care facilities that have been named in some of the injury lawsuits. They have photos of victims and their families. They titled it ‘Aging Unevenly,’ and they headed it up with a long-range picture of your dad and your grandmother walking in the gardens at Magnolia.”
I stare at her, openmouthed, a feverish anger igniting deep within me. “How dare they! How dare…anyone! They have no right to harass my grandmother.”
“This is politics, Avery. Politics and sensationalism. There is no safe ground.”
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