فصل 21کتاب: قبل از اینکه برای تو می بودیم / فصل 22
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When the Stafford camp circles the wagons, we’re a formidable force. For almost three weeks now, we’ve been hunkered down behind the barricades fighting off the press, whose main goal is to paint us as criminally elitist because we’ve engaged premium nursing home care for my grandmother, who can afford it, by the way. It’s not as if we’re asking the public to pay her fees…which is what I really want to say to every reporter who accosts us with a microphone as we make our way to and from public events, meetings, social commitments…even church.
Driving into Drayden Hill after accompanying my parents to church and a Sunday brunch, I spot my sisters in one of the broodmare paddocks with Allison’s triplets. In the riding arena, Courtney has a sweet old gray gelding out for a canter. She’s riding bareback, and as I park, I imagine the rhythm of Doughboy’s strides, his muscles tightening and releasing, the rise and fall of his broad back.
“Hey, Aunt Aves! Want to go out on the trails with me?” Courtney calls hopefully as I walk to the fence. “You can take me home after.”
I’m about to say, Let me go grab a pair of jeans, but Courtney’s mom beats me to the punch. “Court, you have to get ready for camp!”
“Awww, man,” my niece whines, then canters off on Doughboy.
I slip through the paddock gate and totter across the broodmare pasture in my high heels. Along the far fence, the boys are delighting themselves by poking flowers and spears of grass between the slats for this year’s foals to nuzzle. Allison and Missy snap rapid-fire photos with their iPhones. The boys’ little seersucker shorts and bow ties don’t look quite as pristine as they did in church.
Missy squats down and snuggles one of the boys while helping him pull a wildflower. “Awww…I miss these days,” she says wistfully. Her teenagers are away at the Asheville summer camp we attended throughout our childhood. Court leaves tomorrow for a shorter stay.
“These three hooligans are up for rent anytime you want.” Allison’s eyes widen hopefully as she tucks her thick auburn hair behind her ear. “I mean anytime. You don’t even have to take all three. Just one or two.”
We laugh together. It’s a nice moment of stress relief. The last few weeks have tied everyone in knots.
“How was Daddy at the brunch?” As usual, Missy steers back to practical matters.
“Okay, I think. They stayed after, chatting with some friends. Hopefully Mama will make him go kick up his feet once they’re home. We have a dinner to go to later.” My father is determined to keep up the pace, yet the controversy over Grandma Judy is wearing him down. The fact that his mother has become a target in this latest political scuffle is hard for him to bear. Senator Stafford can handle the shots across his own bow, but when his family is caught in the cross fire, his blood pressure skyrockets.
On days when he has to wear the chemo pump strapped to his leg, he looks as though he might collapse under the additional weight.
“We’ll go ahead and scoot out of here before they show up then.” Allison glances toward the driveway. “I just wanted to get a few pictures of the foals and the boys while we still had the church clothes on. Leslie thought some baby-animal-baby-Stafford pics would be a good distraction on the social media pages. Something innocuous and cute.”
“Well, they’d distract me.” I kiss one of my nephews on the head, and he reaches up and sweetly pats my face with his grassy little palms.
“Hey, Aunt Aves, check this out!” Courtney takes Doughboy over a tiny jump.
“Courtney! Not without a saddle and a helmet!” Allison yells.
“She’s a girl after my own heart,” I say.
“She’s way too much like you.” Missy shoulder nudges me.
“I can’t imagine what you’re talking about.”
Allison’s ski-slope nose scrunches. “Oh, yes you can.”
“Come on, Al. Let her stay and ride.” I can’t help intervening on Court’s behalf. Besides, I have some free time, and a ride sounds nice. “I’ll bring her home in an hour…or two. She can pack for camp then.”
Court takes Doughboy over another jump. “Courtney Lynne!” Allison scolds.
I’m about to protest that they’re just little jumps and, besides, Courtney sits a horse like a Mongolian nomad, but I’m distracted by a car pulling up to the barn. I recognize the silver BMW convertible immediately. A ten-pound barbell lands on my chest.
“Bitsy’s here?” Missy asks.
“This can’t be good.” I shouldn’t say it, especially of my future mother-in-law, but the last thing I need today is more wedding-planning harassment from Bitsy. She means well, but she’s been after me every chance she gets.
The weight lifts when someone else steps from the car—someone tall, dark, and decidedly handsome.
“Well, look who’s here to see his ladylove. I didn’t know your fella was in town.” Missy grins at me, then waves toward the barn. “Hi, Elliot!”
I’m dumbstruck. “He didn’t…He never told me he was going to be in Aiken. When we talked yesterday, he was in D.C. for a meeting and he had to fly out to California today.”
“I guess he changed his mind. How romantic is that?” Allison pushes me toward the gate. “You’d better go give that man a hug.”
“And a kiss,” Missy chimes in. “And whatever else comes to mind.”
“Y’all stop.” Maybe it’s all the childhood years Elliot and I spent deflecting my sisters’ taunts about us being boyfriend and girlfriend when we weren’t, but my neck and cheeks heat up as Elliot waves and starts toward the paddock gate. He looks good in his smooth-fitting gray suit. He’s definitely dressed for business. Why is he here?
Suddenly, I can’t wait to find out. I kick off my shoes and run across the grass and throw myself into his arms. He lifts me off my feet, then sets me down and gives me a quick kiss. Everything about it is wonderful. It feels familiar, and sweet, and safe, and I realize that’s exactly what I need right now.
“What are you doing in Aiken?” I’m still shocked by his sudden appearance—thrilled, but shocked.
His deep brown eyes glitter. He’s pleased with himself for having pulled off a surprise. “I changed my flight so I could lay over here for a few hours before I fly out to L.A.”
“You’re flying on to L.A. yet today?” I hate to sound disappointed, but I’d already started making plans in my head.
“This evening,” he answers. “Sorry I couldn’t fit in a longer visit. But hey, it’s better than nothing, right?”
I hear a car coming up the drive, and I pull him toward the barn. That could be Dad and Honeybee returning from the luncheon. If they see us, we’ll never get any alone time. “Let’s go for a walk. I want to have you all to myself.” Hopefully, the folks won’t notice the extra car parked next to Allison’s SUV.
Elliot frowns at my bare feet. “Don’t you need your shoes?”
“I’ll grab some muck boots from the tack room. If I go up to the house, everyone will know you’re here, and Mama will want you to stay and chat.” The words have barely cleared my lips when a dose of reality hits. “Does your mother know you’re in town?” Bitsy will kill us both if Elliot comes and goes and doesn’t spend time with her.
“Relax. I’ve already been by to see her. We had a late breakfast together.”
That explains why Bitsy wasn’t at the brunch earlier. “Your mother knew you were coming, but you didn’t tell me?” I hate to be jealous, but I am. Elliot shows up in town, and the first person he spends time with is Bitsy?
He pulls me to his side and kisses me in a way that lets me know who he really likes best. “I wanted to surprise you.” We amble along the stable aisle together. “And besides, I wanted to get Mother out of the way. You know how that can be.”
“I see your point.” As always, he’s handled the situation with Bitsy in the best possible way. And he’s spared us from having to visit her together, which would have turned into an intense wedding discussion. “Did she harass you about nailing down our plans?”
“Some,” he admits. “I told her you and I would talk about it.”
I refrain from pointing out that We’ll talk about it means Yes, we’ll do whatever you want in Bitsy’s vernacular. Really, the last thing either one of us wants to focus on is his mother.
He opens the tack room door for me and hangs his jacket on a hook. “How’s your dad doing now?”
I give him the latest rundown on Daddy’s health while I find a pair of muck boots about the right size, slip them over my feet, and tuck my slacks inside.
“Nice,” he teases, studying my outfit when I’m done. Elliot isn’t a muck-boots-with-slacks kind of guy.
“I could go up to the house and find something better while Honeybee talks to you about spring weddings….”
He chuckles, rubbing his eyes, and I can tell he’s tired. That makes it even sweeter that he detoured to come here. “Tempting but…no. Let’s walk awhile, and then maybe we can sneak out for a little drive.”
“Sounds perfect. I’ll text Allison and Missy and ask them not to tell the folks you’re here.” I send a quick message while we start toward the riding trails. As always, Elliot and I fall into easy conversation. His hand slips over mine, and we talk about business, family issues, his trip to Milan, politics. We catch up on everything we haven’t had time to discuss on the phone. It feels good, like coming home after a long journey.
The rhythms of conversation and movement are ones we’ve learned over time. We both know where we’re headed—down to a little spring-fed lake, where we’ll sit in the pine-shrouded gazebo that’s been there as long as I can remember. We’ve almost reached it when I find myself spilling the story of May Crandall, the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and Grandma Judy’s strange warning to me about Arcadia.
Elliot stops at the base of the gazebo stairs. He leans against a post, crosses his arms over his chest, looks at me like I’ve just sprouted horns. “Avery, where is all this coming from?”
“All this…I don’t know…digging into things that are ancient history? Things that have nothing to do with you? Don’t you have enough on your plate with your dad, and the hubbub over the nursing home cases, and Leslie always trying to whip you into shape?”
I’m not sure whether to be offended or to take Elliot’s protest as the voice of reason speaking. “That’s just the point. What if it did have something to do with us? What if Grandma Judy was so interested in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society because our family had some connection to it? What if they were involved in the legislation that legalized all of those adoptions and sealed the records?”
“If they did, why would you want to know about it? What does it matter, decades after the fact?” He frowns, his brows drawing together in a dark knot.
“Because…well…because it mattered to Grandma Judy, for one thing.”
“That’s exactly why you need to be careful of it.”
I’m dumbfounded for a minute. Heat rises under the silky sleeveless blouse I wore to church. Suddenly, my fiancé sounds way too much like his mother. Even the intonation of the sentence reminds me of Bitsy. Over the years, she and my grandmother have found themselves on opposite sides of various issues around town, often with Honeybee as a wishbone in the middle. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Maybe Elliot is just tired, and or maybe Bitsy got under his skin about something at breakfast, but I’m shocked when he flips a hand into the air. It falls and hits his leg with a dull slap. “Avery, you know that Judy Stafford has always been too outspoken for her own good. It isn’t any big secret. Don’t act like no one’s ever said it before.” He looks me in the eye with an annoyingly calm countenance. “She came close to ruining your grandfather’s career a few times…and your father’s.”
I’m instantly offended. “She believed in speaking up when something was wrong.”
“Your grandmother relished controversy.”
“She did not.” A pulse pounds in my neck, but underlying it, there’s a teary sensation. I feel slightly betrayed by his hidden opinion of my family, but mostly I’m thinking, Elliot’s finally here, and we’re arguing?
He reaches out, rubs a palm gently down my arm, and takes my hand. “Hey…Aves.” His voice is conciliatory, soothing. “I don’t want to fight. I’m just giving you my honest opinion. And that’s because I love you and want what’s best for you.”
His gaze meets mine, and it’s as if I can see all the way through to his heart. He’s completely earnest. He does love me. And he is entitled to his opinion. It just bothers me that it’s so different from mine. “I don’t want to fight either.”
The argument ends where all of our arguments do—on the altar of compromise.
He brings my hand to his lips and kisses it. “I love you.”
I look into his eyes and see all the years, and miles, and experiences we’ve shared. I see the boy who was my friend, who’s now a man. “I know. I love you too.”
“I guess we should talk about the wedding.” One eye winces shut, and I get the sense that the drill at breakfast was not an easy one. He pulls out his cellphone and checks the time. “I promised Mother we would.”
We migrate to our same old spots in the gazebo and sit awhile, but it’s too hot to stay there very long, certainly not long enough to settle on any details. Finally, we go to our favorite little restaurant downtown to do what we did in childhood, in our teenage years, during college—hash out what we want and try to separate it from what everyone else wants for us.
We really haven’t come to any conclusions by the time Elliot needs to drive back to the airport, but we’re caught up on life, and we’re simpatico with each other, and that’s what matters most.
Honeybee meets me at the door when I return to the house. She strains toward the driveway. Somehow, she’s found out about Elliot’s visit, and she’s disappointed that he didn’t come inside with me.
“He’s busy, Mama,” I say, making an excuse for him. “He had a flight to catch.”
“I would’ve had one of the guest rooms made up for him. He’s always welcome.”
“He knows that, Mama.”
She pauses, tapping a finger while she holds the door open and wistfully watches the driveway. She has probably air-conditioned half the estate before she finally pushes the door shut and gives up on Elliot. “Bitsy called. She said she’d discussed your wedding plans—or your lack of them—with Elliot this morning and he promised that the two of you would talk things over. I just assumed, once you were finished having some time alone, you’d come to the house together.”
“We did chat through some possibilities. We just haven’t come to any decisions yet.”
She chews her lip, her brows knotting. “I don’t want everything that’s going on to be a…distraction for you two. I don’t want you to feel that you have to put off your future.”
“Mama, we don’t feel that way.”
“Are you sure?” The disappointment and desperation on her face hurt. An upcoming wedding would be happy news, something to create forward focus. It would also mean the type of public announcement that could subtly indicate the Stafford camp is confident enough to do business as usual.
Maybe Elliot and I are just being self-serving by holding everyone in suspense. Would it kill us to plan a time and a venue, maybe even the azalea garden in spring? That would make everyone in the family so incredibly happy. And if you’re sure you’re marrying the right person, what does it matter where or when it happens?
“We’ll decide something soon. I promise.” But in the darkest corner of my mind, there are those words, Avery, you know that Judy Stafford has always been too outspoken for her own good. It isn’t any big secret. What Elliot doesn’t realize—or maybe doesn’t want to face—is that my grandmother and I are so very much alike.
“Good.” The worry wrinkles soften around Honeybee’s eyes. “But I’m not pushing you.”
She lays cool hands on either side of my face, looks at me adoringly. “I love you, Peapod.”
The childhood nickname makes me blush. “I love you too, Mama.”
“Elliot is a lucky man. I’m sure he realizes that every time you two are together.” She tears up a little, which makes me tear up too. It feels good to see her so…happy. “Go on. You’d better go change or we’ll be late to the choral fundraiser tonight. The concert portion starts at seven with a children’s choir from Africa. I hear they’re fabulous.”
“Yes, Mama.” I promise myself that I’ll talk to Elliot about the wedding again as soon as he’s back home from L.A. The fact that tomorrow is my day to go visit Grandma Judy at Magnolia Manor only reinforces my determination. I want my grandmother to share the wedding celebration with us. Since childhood, I’ve imagined the day with her in it. There’s no telling how much more time we have.
I mull over various ideas while the evening passes. I try to form mental pictures of a garden wedding. Elliot and me, several hundred friends and acquaintances, a perfect spring day. It could be truly lovely, a modern version of an old tradition. Grandma Judy and my grandfather were married in the gardens at Drayden Hill.
Elliot will agree, no matter how much he instinctively resists the idea of his mother or mine running our lives. If a garden wedding is really what I want, he’ll want it too.
In the morning, I drive to Magnolia Manor with a new agenda in mind. I’ll ask Grandma Judy for details about her special day. Maybe there are some favorite moments we can re-create.
As if she senses that I’ve come with important business this time, she greets me with a bright smile and a look of recognition.
“Oh, there you are! Sit right here next to me. I have something to tell you.” She tries to pull the other wing chair close but can’t. I drag it forward a bit, then perch on the edge, so our knees are touching.
Grabbing my hand, she looks at me so intensely I’m pinned to the spot. “I want you to destroy the contents of my office closet. The one at the Lagniappe house.” Her gaze strains into mine. “I don’t suppose I’m ever getting out of here to take care of it myself. I wouldn’t want people reading my daybooks after I’m gone.”
I steel myself against the inevitable sting of grief. “Don’t say that, Grandma Judy. I saw you in exercise class the other day. The instructor said you were doing great.” I play dumb about the daybooks. I can’t stand the idea. It’ll be like saying goodbye to the busy crusader she once was.
“There are names and phone numbers there. I can’t have them falling into the wrong hands. Start a fire in the backyard and burn them.”
Now I wonder if she has slipped away again, yet she seems lucid. Start a fire in the backyard…on a city street filled with meticulously preserved old homes? The neighbors would call the police in 2.5 seconds.
I can picture how that would look in the papers.
“They’ll only think you’re burning leaves.” She smiles and gives me a conspiratorial wink. “Don’t worry, Beth.”
It’s suddenly very clear that we’re not in the same place. I have no idea who Beth is. I’m almost relieved that Grandma Judy doesn’t know who she’s talking to. It gives me an excuse not to abide by her closet-clearing request.
“I’ll look into it, Grandma,” I say.
“Wonderful. You’ve always been so good to me.”
“That’s because I love you.”
“I know. Don’t open the boxes. Just burn them.”
“The ones with my old society columns. It won’t do for me to be remembered as Miss Chief, you know.” She covers her mouth and pretends to be embarrassed about her days as a gossip columnist, but really she’s not. That’s evident in her face.
“You never told me you wrote a society column.” I wag a finger, scolding.
She pretends to be innocent of keeping secrets. “Oh? Well, it was a long time ago.”
“You didn’t say anything in those columns that wasn’t true, did you?” I tease.
“Why, of course not. But people don’t always take well to the truth, do they?”
Just as quickly as we got on the track of Miss Chief, we’re off it again. She talks about people who have been dead for years, but in her mind, she’s just lunched with them yesterday.
I ask her about her wedding. In answer, she offers up a mishmash of memories from her wedding and others she has attended over the years, including those of my sisters. Grandma Judy loves weddings.
She won’t even remember mine.
The conversation leaves me sad and hollow. There are always just enough sparks of lucidity to get my hopes up, but the waves of dementia quickly sweep them out to sea.
We’re floating far from shore by the time I kiss her and tell her goodbye and that my father will be by today, hopefully.
“Oh, and who is your father?” she asks.
“Your son Wells.”
“I think you must be mistaken. I don’t have a son.”
As I walk out of the building, I desperately want to talk to someone and unload all of this. I pull up my favorites list, then stop with my finger over Elliot’s number. After what he said about Grandma Judy yesterday, it seems almost disloyal to tell him how much she’s slipping.
I don’t realize until my phone rings and I see the name on the screen that there is someone I can talk to. I think of the expression on his face when he spoke of those difficult last promises to his grandfather, the promises that kept May Crandall’s secrets and my grandmother’s, and instinctively I know he’ll understand.
Something in me rushes headlong across the distance, even though we haven’t spoken since that day at the nursing home several weeks ago. I told myself I wouldn’t get in touch with him again, that it was better to leave things be and move on.
As soon as I answer, he seems unsure of why he’s called. I wonder if he’s been thinking the same thing I have—there’s no place for a friendship between the two of us. Our parking lot encounter with Leslie proved that point. “I just…” he says finally. “I’ve seen some of the press about the nursing home exposé. You’ve been on my mind.”
A warm, pleasant sensation rushes through me. I’m completely unprepared for it. I will it not to show in my voice. “Ohhhh, don’t remind me. If this keeps up much longer, I’m liable to go all Ninja Turtle on someone.”
“No you aren’t.”
“You’re right, I guess. But I’d like to. It’s so incredibly…frustrating. I understand that my father is in public office, but we’re still human, you know? You’d think some topics would be off the table…like cancer for one. And watching your grandmother struggle to remember anything about who she is, for another. It feels like people will poke a spear in anyplace they can draw blood these days. It wasn’t that way when I was growing up. Even in politics, people had some…” I search for the word, and the best thing I can come up with is “decency.”
“We live in an entertainment-driven world,” Trent says soberly. “Everything’s fair game.”
I open my mouth to further vent about the attacks on my family and then think better of it. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to unload on you. Maybe I need another trip to the beach.” It’s not until the words are out that I realize how flirty they sound.
“How about lunch instead?”
“I just thought I’d see if you were free, since I’m in Aiken. I’ve been doing a little digging around in my granddad’s papers and talking to people who helped him with his searches. One of them is a man who was a courthouse worker in Shelby County, Tennessee, back when all the adoption records were still sealed. From what I can tell, he funneled quite a bit of information to Granddad.”
Instantly, I’m back in the thick of it. The scents of that tiny Edisto cabin tease my senses. I smell pipe tobacco, old newspaper clippings, dried-out bulletin boards, peeling paint, faded photos. “You mean so that your grandfather could help adoptees find their relatives, right? So…you’re taking up where he left off then?”
“Not really. I was nosing around for May Crandall. Thinking maybe I’d uncover something about the little brother she never found, Gabion.”
I’m momentarily stunned. This guy is genuine to the core. He’s also a better person than I am. I’ve been so obsessed with family problems, I’ve been delaying calling the seniors’ rights PAC about May’s situation. Now I realize that I’ve been brushing this task aside on purpose. I’m afraid to have anything to do with her, given all the controversy after the “Aging Unevenly” article. If word got out that I was helping her, our political enemies would accuse me of using her to prop up our bruised public image.
I can’t be seen having lunch with Trent either. I can’t possibly go, but I can’t quite make myself say no, so I continue the sidetrack. “That’s really nice of you. What did you find?”
“Nothing significant so far. There was an address in California in the court paperwork. I wrote to it just to see if they might know anything about a two-year-old boy adopted from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in 1939…or possibly even just who lived at that address in the late thirties. It’s a long shot, though.”
“So you drove here to tell May that?”
“Nah…I don’t want to get her hopes up unless something comes of it. I actually came here for jelly. When I left you last time, I went by to visit my aunt outside Aiken. She was putting up blackberry preserves. They’re ready now.”
A little laugh puffs out of me. “Two and a half hours is a long way to drive for jelly.”
“You’ve never tasted my aunt’s blackberry preserves. Besides, Jonah loves to go there. Uncle Bobby still has a mule.”
“So Jonah’s with you?” Lunch suddenly seems a possibility if it’ll be the three of us. Even if we were seen, no one would think twice about it with Jonah there. I rush through my mental queue of the afternoon’s plans, trying to calculate whether I can rearrange a few things and sneak away long enough. “You know what? I’d love to have lunch with you two.”
“I think I can tear Jonah away from Uncle Bobby and the mule. Tell me when and where. Any particular place you’d like to go? We’re pretty flexible…as long as it’s not during naptime. That can get ugly.”
Again, his comment makes me chuckle. “When’s naptime?”
“All right, then. How does an early lunch sound? Maybe about eleven? Is that too soon?” I don’t have any idea how far out of town his aunt’s house is, but if there’s a mule involved, it isn’t close to where I am right now. No one has farmed around Magnolia Manor for years. The estates here are pristine. “You pick the place, and I’ll meet you there. Nothing too upscale, though, all right? Something kind of out of the way would be good.”
Trent laughs. “We don’t do upscale. We’re actually into eateries with playscapes. Know one of those, by chance?”
My mind skips back in time and lands on a nice memory. “Actually, I do. There’s an old drive-in with a little playground not far from my grandmother’s house. She used to take us there when we were kids.” I give him directions, and we’re set. Best of all, if we meet at eleven, no one will even miss me at home.
I am an adult, I rationalize, navigating a U-turn and starting toward Grandma Judy’s neighborhood. I shouldn’t have to feel like a teenager sneaking out just because I make lunch plans with a…a friend.
I do have a right to some sort of life of my own, don’t I?
I lose myself in my mental debate for a while, my thoughts turning corners along with the car. Maybe I’ve gotten spoiled up in Maryland, living in my own little anonymous world, working a job that was mine and only mine, not tied to a support staff, to offices in D.C. and the home state, to constituents, contributors, and an entire political network.
Maybe I never realized how much being a Stafford is an all-consuming thing, especially here in our native territory. The collective identity is so overwhelming, there’s no room for an individual one.
Once upon a time, I liked that…didn’t I? I enjoyed the perks that came with it. Every path I stepped on was instantly smoothed down before me.
But now I’ve had a taste of climbing my own mountains my own way.
Have I grown beyond this life?
The idea splits me down the middle, leaving half of my identity on each side of the divide. Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me? Do I have to sacrifice one to be the other?
Surely this is only a…a reaction to all of the stress lately.
Pausing at a stop sign, I look down Grandma Judy’s street, past the dip in the road where we kids splashed in puddles when it rained, past the neatly trimmed hedge and the mailbox with the iron horse head atop.
There’s a taxi sitting in my grandmother’s driveway. In a town the size of Aiken, it’s not a typical sight.
I hesitate at the intersection and watch the cab a moment. It doesn’t back away and leave. Maybe the driver is unaware that nobody lives there anymore? He must be waiting in front of the wrong house.
Turning down her street, I fully expect him to be leaving when I pull in, but he’s not. In fact, he seems to be…dozing in the driver’s seat? He doesn’t move when I drive past him and get out of my car.
He looks young, almost like a teenager, but he must be old enough to have a commercial driver’s license. There’s no passenger in the backseat and no one around the house as far as I can see. I’d suspect that this was related to some sort of hideous news exposé, a reporter skulking around snapping photos to show how the other half lives, but why would someone like that travel by cab?
The driver jumps about a foot when I knock on the half-open window. His mouth hangs open as he tries to blink me into focus.
“Ummph…guess I fell asleep,” he apologizes. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“I think you’re in the wrong place,” I tell him.
He glances around, stifles a yawn, flutters his thick, dark lashes against the bright late-morning sunlight. “No…no, ma’am. The reservation’s for ten-thirty.”
I check my watch. “You’ve been here for almost a half hour…sitting in the driveway?” Who would’ve directed a cab to my grandmother’s house? “You must have the wrong address.” Some poor customer is probably pacing the floors about now.
The driver doesn’t seem worried in the least. Straightening in his seat, he glances at the console. “No, ma’am. It’s a standing reservation. Every Thursday at ten-thirty. Prepaid, so my dad…I mean my boss says come here and sit, since it’s already paid for.”
“Every Thursday?” I cycle through the schedule—what I can remember of it—from the time when Grandma Judy was still living here with a full-time caretaker. The day she ended up lost and confused at a shopping mall, she was in a cab. “How long have you been doing this—coming here every Thursday?”
“Ummm…maybe I should…call the office, so you can talk…”
“No. It’s okay.” I’m afraid the office won’t answer my questions. The kid behind the wheel doesn’t seem to know any better. “When you picked my grandmother up on Thursdays, where did you take her?”
“Over by Augusta, a place on the water there. I only drove her a few times, but my dad and my grandpa did for…maybe a couple years. We’re a family company. Four generations.” The last part sounds sweetly as if he plucked it straight from the billboard.
“Years?” I’m so confused, the word doesn’t even begin to describe me right now. There was nothing in my grandmother’s daybooks about a standing Thursday appointment. She had no standing appointments, other than bridge circles and beauty shop visits. And Augusta? That’s thirty minutes or so each way. Who in the world would she have been visiting regularly in the Augusta area? And in a cab? And for years?
“And she went to the same place every time?” I ask.
“Yes, ma’am. As far as I know.” He looks extremely uncomfortable now. On the one hand, he realizes I’m grilling him. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to lose what has obviously been a long-standing fare. I can’t imagine what the price for the trip to Augusta might be.
My hand settles over the top of his window. It might be silly, but I want to make sure he doesn’t try to flee the scene while I sort out the barrage of information. A place on the water there…
Something completely unexpected pops into my mind. “A place on the water. You mean on the river?” The Savannah River runs through Augusta. When Trent and I talked to May, she mentioned Augusta. Something about going home and drifting down the Savannah River.
“Well, yeah, the place could be on the river. The gate’s all…kinda overgrown like? I just drop her off there and wait. I don’t know what happens after she goes in.”
“How long did she usually stay?”
“A few hours. Pop used to walk down to the bridge and fish while he waited. She didn’t care. She’d come out and honk on the cab horn when she was ready to go.”
I just stand there gaping at him. I can’t even begin to reconcile all of this with the grandmother I knew. The grandmother I thought I knew.
Was she writing May Crandall’s story after all? Or is there more?
“Can you take me there?” I blurt out.
The cabby shrugs. He moves to exit the car so he can open the back door for me. “Sure. Yeah. The fare’s paid for.”
My pulse inches upward. Goosebumps dot my arms. If I get in this car, where will I end up?
My phone buzzes, reminding me that I was headed someplace before this detour. It’s a text from Trent telling me he and Jonah are holding down a table for us. The hamburger stand is already crowded this morning.
Instead of texting back, I slip away from the cabby and call Trent. I apologize for not being there and ask, “Can you…could you…come with me to do something?” The explanation of where I am and what’s happening sounds even more bizarre when I voice it out loud.
Fortunately, Trent doesn’t decide that I’ve lost it. Actually, he’s intrigued. We make plans for the cab to swing by the restaurant so Trent and Jonah can follow in their car.
“Meantime, I’ll grab a burger to go for you,” Trent offers. “World-famous shakes here. Jonah’s giving it the thumbs-up already. Want one?”
“Thanks. That sounds good.” But I’m not sure I could eat a thing at the moment.
On the short ride to the restaurant, I can hardly stay focused, I’m so on edge. Trent is waiting in the parking lot with Jonah already buckled in. He hands me a sack and a shake and tells me he’ll be right behind me.
“You okay?” he asks. Our gazes catch for a moment, and I’m lost in the deep blue of his eyes. I find myself relaxing into them, thinking, Trent’s here. It’ll be all right.
The thought almost lifts the mass of dread that’s growing inside me. Almost.
Unfortunately, I understand the feeling well enough to know I shouldn’t ignore it. It’s the sixth sense that always comes alive when I’m about to learn something practically unthinkable about the players in a case I’m working on—the trusted neighbor was responsible for the child’s disappearance; the innocent-looking eighth grader was stocking up on pipe bombs; the clean-cut father of four had a computer full of disgusting pictures. That sense is preparing me for something; I just don’t know what.
“I’m fine,” I say. “I’m just afraid of where this cab is going to end up…and what we might find.”
Trent lays a hand on my arm, and my skin seems to heat up under his fingers. “You want to ride with us? We can just follow the cab.” He glances toward his car, where Jonah is waving madly from his booster seat, trying to get my attention. He’d like to share his fries with me.
“No. But thanks. I need to talk to the driver some more on the way.” Really, I think he’s told me all he knows, but I want to keep the young man busy so he doesn’t check in with the office. His father may have a different opinion of my using Grandma Judy’s fare to transport me to a mystery location. He may be savvy enough to realize this could bring up a privacy issue. “And I don’t want to take any chances on his getting away from us.”
Trent’s fingers trail down my arm as he lets go…or maybe that’s just my imagination. “We’ll be right behind you, okay?”
I nod and wave at Jonah, who gives me a fries-and-teeth grin, and then we’re off. The midday traffic is light on the thirty-five-minute trip, so it’s easy for the driver to chat. He tells me his name is Oz and that when he drove my grandmother she always gave him cookies, or chocolates, or sweets left over from parties and gatherings. Because of that, he remembers her well. He’s sorry to hear she’s in a care facility now. Clearly, he’s oblivious to all the newspaper coverage and controversy. He’s been busy working after having taken over much of the driving for his father, who’s having some health problems.
“I was worried about her the last time I brought her here,” he admits as we leave the highway and wind through rural roads, presumably drawing near our destination. Walls of lowland shrubs, climbing vines, and tall pine trees tighten around us, pressing inward as we turn, then turn again. “She was getting around okay, but she seemed kinda confused. I asked her if I could walk her in the gate, but she wouldn’t let me. She said there’d be a golf cart waiting for her on the other side, like always, and not to worry. So I let her off. That was the last time I drove her.”
I sit silently in the backseat, attempting to conjure the images as Oz talks. I try, but I just can’t fathom the things he’s describing.
“The week after that was my dad’s heart surgery. We had a substitute driver filling in for a month or so. Next time I drove on a Thursday, I came to the house, and there was nobody there. Been that way ever since. The substitute driver didn’t have any idea what happened. Last he saw of her, he let her off at a shopping mall, and she said she’d see him again the next Thursday. We’ve tried calling the number on her bill, but nobody answers, and nobody’s there when I show up. We wondered if something might’ve happened to her. Sorry if we caused a problem.”
“It’s not your fault. Her caretakers shouldn’t have been letting her leave alone in the first place.” Good help is hard to find these days, but my grandmother was also surprisingly adept at convincing her helpers that she was perfectly competent and we were being overly controlling. Obviously, they were allowing her to take off in a cab on Thursdays. Then again, she was the one writing their paychecks, and they weren’t unaware of that fact. She wasn’t above dismissing household help that gave her trouble.
The car bumps over an old WPA bridge with crumbling cement railings and moss-covered arches. The driver slows, but I don’t see any sign of houses or mailboxes. From all appearances, we’re out in the middle of nowhere.
Good thing Oz knows exactly where he’s going. Anyone who didn’t would’ve missed the turn completely. The barely visible remnant of a gravel driveway sketches two scraggly paths through the roadside grass and across a drainage culvert. Just beyond, a massive stone entranceway lies hidden among trumpet vines and blackberry brambles. Heavy iron gates, each perhaps eight feet in height, hang askew, their weight supported by leaves and runners, the hinges long since rusted away. A decaying chain and padlock seem almost like somebody’s idea of a joke. No one has driven through these gates in decades. Just beyond them, there’s a sycamore tree six inches across, its muscular arms reaching through the bars and slowly lifting one gate higher than the other.
“There’s the way in.” Oz points out a narrow path leading to a walk-through entrance beside the main one. It’s obviously functional, the trail beneath it patted down enough that the summer grass hasn’t completely taken over. “That’s where she always went.”
Behind us, a car door slams. I jump and glance back before remembering it’s Trent.
When I turn around again, I’m struck by a strong feeling that the gateway should be gone. Poof. I’ll wake up in my bed at Drayden Hill thinking, Now that was a strange dream….
But the gate hasn’t vanished, and the path is still waiting.
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