Àâòîðèçàöèÿ
×

Before We Were Yours / Äî òîãî, êàê ìû áûëè âàøèìè (by Lisa Wingate, 2017) - àóäèîêíèãà íà àíãëèéñêîì

×òîáû óáðàòü ðåêëàìó ñäåëàéòå ðåãèñòðàöèþ èëè àâòîðèçóéòåñü íà ñàéòå

Before We Were Yours / Äî òîãî, êàê ìû áûëè âàøèìè (by Lisa Wingate, 2017) - àóäèîêíèãà íà àíãëèéñêîì

Before We Were Yours / Äî òîãî, êàê ìû áûëè âàøèìè (by Lisa Wingate, 2017) - àóäèîêíèãà íà àíãëèéñêîì

Ðèëë Ôîññ âñåãî äâåíàäöàòü ëåò, à îíà óæå âûíóæäåíà ìûñëèòü êàê âçðîñëàÿ äåâ÷îíêà. Åùå íåäàâíî îíà æèëà âîëøåáíîé æèçíüþ âìåñòå ñî ñâîèìè ÷åòûðüìÿ ìëàäøèìè áðàòüÿìè è ñåñòðàìè ó ðåêè Ìèññèñèïè. Îäíîé áóðíîé íî÷üþ âñå èçìåíèëîñü. Îòåö ñ ìàòåðüþ îòïðàâèëñÿ â áîëüíèöó, îñòàâèâ Ðèëë îòâåòñòâåííîé çà äåòåé.  äîì âîðâàëèñü íåçíàêîìöû, ÷òîáû çàáðàòü âñåõ ÷àä Ôîññ è îòïðàâèòü â äåòñêèé äîì â Òåííåñè. Äî ïîñëåäíåãî äåòè áûëè óâåðåíû, ÷òî âñêîðå îíè áóäóò âîçâðàùåíû ñâîèì ðîäèòåëÿì, íî îñîçíàíèå íåèçáåæíîé ó÷àñòè ñèðîò ñòàëî ãîðüêîé è òåìíîé ïðàâäîé. Ïî ìèëîñòè æåñòîêîãî äèðåêòîðà Ðèëë áûëà âûíóæäåíà áîðîòüñÿ, ÷òîáû óäåðæàòü ñâîèõ ñåñòåð è áðàòà âìåñòå â îäíîé ðîäñòâåííîé ñâÿçêå â ìèðå îïàñíîñòè è íåîïðåäåëåííîñòè. Ñïóñòÿ ãîäû èñòîðèÿ íå îñòàíåòñÿ çàáûòîé. Ðîæäåííûé â áîãàòñòâå è ïðèâèëåãèÿõ, Ýéâåðè Ñòàôôîðä, êàæåòñÿ, èìååò âñå: óñïåøíóþ êàðüåðó ôåäåðàëüíîãî ïðîêóðîðà, êðàñèâîãî æåíèõà è ùåäðóþ ñâàäüáó. Íî êîãäà Ýéâåðè âîçâðàùàåòñÿ äîìîé, ÷òîáû ïîìî÷ü îòöó ïåðåæèòü êðèçèñ çäîðîâüÿ, ñëó÷àéíàÿ âñòðå÷à îñòàâëÿåò ñ íåóäîáíûìè âîïðîñàìè è çàñòàâëÿåò îòïðàâèòüñÿ â ïóòåøåñòâèå ïî äàâíî ñêðûòîé èñòîðèè ñâîåé ñåìüè.  êîíå÷íîì èòîãå èñòîðèÿ ïðèâåäåò ëèáî ê îïóñòîøåíèþ, ëèáî ê èñêóïëåíèþ.

Ðåéòèíã:
Ïðîñìîòðîâ: 2 341
Íàçâàíèå:
Before We Were Yours / Äî òîãî, êàê ìû áûëè âàøèìè (by Lisa Wingate, 2017) - àóäèîêíèãà íà àíãëèéñêîì
Ãîä âûïóñêà àóäèîêíèãè:
2017
Àâòîð:
Lisa Wingate
Èñïîëíèòåëü:
Emily Rankin, Catherine Taber
ßçûê:
àíãëèéñêèé
Æàíð:
èñòîðè÷åñêàÿ ôàíòàñòèêà
Óðîâåíü ñëîæíîñòè:
upper-intermediate
Äëèòåëüíîñòü àóäèî:
14:29:49
Áèòðåéò àóäèî:
32 kbps
Ôîðìàò:
mp3, pdf, doc

Ñëóøàòü îíëàéí Before We Were Yours / Äî òîãî, êàê ìû áûëè âàøèìè àóäèîêíèãó íà àíãëèéñêîì ÿçûêå:

Ñêà÷àòü òåêñò êíèãè â ôîðìàòå .doc (Word) ïî ïðÿìîé ññûëêå lisa_wingate_-_before_we_were_yours.doc [1.09 Mb] (cêà÷èâàíèé: 32) .
Ñêà÷àòü òåêñò êíèãè â ôîðìàòå .pdf ïî ïðÿìîé ññûëêå  lisa_wingate_-_before_we_were_yours.pdf [1.69 Mb] (cêà÷èâàíèé: 44) .
Ñêà÷àòü audiobook (MP3) áåñïëàòíî ñ ôàéëîîáìåííèêà.


Ñëóøàòü àóäèîêíèãó â ñìàðòôîíå ÷åðåç òåëåãðàì: https://telete.in/before_we_were_yours


×èòàòü êíèãó íà àíãëèéñêîì îíëàéí:

(×òîáû ïåðåâîäèòü ñëîâà íà ðóññêèé ÿçûê è äîáàâëÿòü â ñëîâàðü äëÿ èçó÷åíèÿ, ùåëêàåì ìûøêîé íà íóæíîå ñëîâî).


“Did you know that in this land of the free and home of the brave there is a great baby market? And the securities which change hands…are not mere engraved slips of paper promising certain financial dividends, but live, kicking, flesh-and-blood babies.” —FROM THE ARTICLE “THE BABY MARKET,” The Saturday Evening Post, FEBRUARY 1, 1930 “They are, [Georgia Tann] said repeatedly, blank slates. They are born untainted, and if you adopt them at an early age and surround them with beauty and culture, they will become anything you wish them to be.” —BARBARA BISANTZ RAYMOND, The Baby Thief PRELUDE Baltimore, Maryland AUGUST 3, 1939 My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon. The room takes life only in my imaginings. It is large most days when I conjure it. The walls are white and clean, the bed linens crisp as a fallen leaf. The private suite has the very finest of everything. Outside, the breeze is weary, and the cicadas throb in the tall trees, their verdant hiding places just below the window frames. The screens sway inward as the attic fan rattles overhead, pulling at wet air that has no desire to be moved. The scent of pine wafts in, and the woman’s screams press out as the nurses hold her fast to the bed. Sweat pools on her skin and rushes down her face and arms and legs. She’d be horrified if she were aware of this. She is pretty. A gentle, fragile soul. Not the sort who would intentionally bring about the catastrophic unraveling that is only, this moment, beginning. In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt anyone. It is merely a terrible by-product of surviving. It isn’t her fault, all that comes to pass after that one final, merciless push. She produces the very last thing she could possibly want. Silent flesh comes forth—a tiny, fair-haired girl as pretty as a doll, yet blue and still. The woman has no way of knowing her child’s fate, or if she does know, the medications will cause the memory of it to be nothing but a blur by tomorrow. She ceases her thrashing and surrenders to the twilight sleep, lulled by the doses of morphine and scopolamine administered to help her defeat the pain. To help her release everything, and she will. Sympathetic conversation takes place as doctors stitch and nurses clean up what is left. “So sad when it happens this way. So out of order when a life has not even one breath in this world.” “You have to wonder sometimes…why…when a child is so very wanted…” A veil is lowered. Tiny eyes are shrouded. They will never see. The woman’s ears hear but cannot grasp. All slips in and slips away. It is as if she is attempting to catch the tide, and it drains through her clenched fingers, and finally she floats out along with it. A man waits nearby, perhaps in the hallway just outside the door. He is stately, dignified. Unaccustomed to being so helpless. He was to become a grandfather today. Glorious anticipation has melted into wrenching anguish. “Sir, I am so terribly sorry,” the doctor says as he slips from the room. “Rest assured that everything humanly possible was done to ease your daughter’s labor and to save the baby. I understand how very difficult this is. Please offer our condolences to the baby’s father when you are finally able to reach him overseas. After so many disappointments, your family must have held such great hope.” “Will she be able to have more?” “It isn’t advisable.” “This will be the end of her. And her mother as well, when she learns of it. Christine is our only child, you know. The pitter-patter of little feet…the beginning of a new generation…” “I understand, sir.” “What are the risks should she…” “Her life. And it’s extremely unlikely that your daughter would ever carry another pregnancy to term. If she were to try, the results could be…” “I see.” The doctor lays a comforting hand on the heartbroken man, or this is the way it happens in my imaginings. Their gazes tangle. The physician looks over his shoulder to be certain that the nurses cannot hear. “Sir, might I suggest something?” he says quietly, gravely. “I know of a woman in Memphis….” CHAPTER 1 Avery Stafford AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA, PRESENT DAY I take a breath, scoot to the edge of the seat, and straighten my jacket as the limo rolls to a stop on the boiling-hot asphalt. News vans wait along the curb, accentuating the importance of this morning’s seemingly innocuous meeting. But not one moment of this day will happen by accident. These past two months in South Carolina have been all about making sure the nuances are just right—shaping the inferences so as to hint but do no more. Definitive statements are not to be made. Not yet, anyway. Not for a long time, if I have my way about it. I wish I could forget why I’ve come home, but even the fact that my father isn’t reading his notes or checking the briefing from Leslie, his ?ber-efficient press secretary, is an undeniable reminder. There’s no escaping the enemy that rides silently in the car with us. It’s here in the backseat, hiding beneath the gray tailored suit that hangs a hint too loose over my father’s broad shoulders. Daddy stares out the window, his head leaning to one side. He has relegated his aides and Leslie to another car. “You feeling all right?” I reach across to brush a long blond hair—mine—off the seat so it won’t cling to his trousers when he gets out. If my mother were here, she’d whip out a mini lint brush, but she’s home, preparing for our second event of the day—a family Christmas photo that must be taken months early…just in case Daddy’s prognosis worsens. He sits a bit straighter, lifts his head. Static makes his thick gray hair stick straight out. I want to smooth it down for him, but I don’t. It would be a breach of protocol. If my mother is intimately involved in the micro aspects of our lives, such as fretting over lint and planning for the family Christmas photo in July, my father is the opposite. He is distant—an island of staunch maleness in a household of women. I know he cares deeply about my mother, my two sisters, and me, but he seldom voices the sentiment out loud. I also know that I’m his favorite but the one who confuses him most. He is a product of an era when women went to college to secure the requisite MRS degree. He’s not quite sure what to do with a thirty-year-old daughter who graduated top of her class from Columbia Law and actually enjoys the gritty world of a U.S. attorney’s office. Whatever the reason—perhaps just because the positions of perfectionist daughter and sweet daughter were already taken in our family—I have always been brainiac daughter. I loved school and it was the unspoken conclusion that I would be the family torchbearer, the son replacement, the one to succeed my father. Somehow, I always imagined that I’d be older when it happened and that I would be ready. Now I look at my dad and think, How can you not want it, Avery? This is what he’s worked for all his life. What generations of Staffords have labored for since the Revolutionary War, for heaven’s sake. Our family has always held fast to the guiding rope of public service. Daddy is no exception. Since graduating from West Point and serving as an army aviator before I was born, he has upheld the family name with dignity and determination. Of course you want this, I tell myself. You’ve always wanted this. You just didn’t expect it to happen yet, and not this way. That’s all. Secretly, I’m clinging by all ten fingernails to the best-case scenario. The enemies will be vanquished on both fronts—political and medical. My father will be cured by the combination of the surgery that brought him home from the summer congressional session early and the chemo pump he must wear strapped to his leg every three weeks. My move home to Aiken will be temporary. Cancer will no longer be a part of our lives. It can be beaten. Other people have done it, and if anyone can, Senator Wells Stafford can. There is not, anywhere, a stronger man or better man than my dad. “Ready?” he asks, straightening his suit. It’s a relief when he swipes down the rooster tail in his hair. I’m not prepared to cross the line from daughter to caretaker. “Right behind you.” I’d do anything for him, but I hope it’s many more years before we’re forced to reverse the roles of parent and child. I’ve learned how hard that is while watching my father struggle to make decisions for his mother. My once quick-witted, fun-loving Grandma Judy is now a ghost of her former self. As painful as that is, Daddy can’t talk to anyone about it. If the media gets clued in to the fact that we’ve moved her to a facility, especially an upscale one on a lovely estate not ten miles from here, it’ll be a lose-lose situation, politically speaking. Given the burgeoning scandal over a series of wrongful death and abuse cases involving corporate-owned eldercare facilities in our state, Daddy’s political enemies would either point out that only those with money can afford premium care or they’d accuse my father of warehousing his mom because he is a coldhearted lout who cares nothing for the elderly. They’d say that he’ll happily turn a blind eye toward the needs of the helpless if it profits his friends and campaign contributors. The reality is that his decisions for Grandma Judy are in no way political. We’re just like other families. Every available avenue is paved with guilt, lined with pain, and pockmarked with shame. We’re embarrassed for Grandma Judy. We’re afraid for her. We’re heartsick about where this cruel descent into dementia might end. Before we moved her to the nursing home, my grandmother escaped from her caretaker and her household staff. She called a cab and vanished for an entire day only to finally be found wandering at a business complex that was once her favorite shopping mall. How she managed this when she can’t remember our names is a mystery. I’m wearing one of her favorite pieces of jewelry this morning. I’m dimly aware of it on my wrist as I slide out the limo door. I pretend I’ve selected the dragonfly bracelet in her honor, but really it’s there as a silent reminder that Stafford women do what must be done, even when they don’t want to. The location of this morning’s event makes me uncomfortable. I’ve never liked nursing homes. It’s just a meet-and-greet, I tell myself. The press is here to cover the event, not to ask questions. We’ll shake hands, tour the building, join the residents for the birthday celebration of a woman who is turning one hundred. Her husband is ninety-nine. Quite a feat. Inside, the corridor smells as if someone has turned my sister’s triplets loose with cans of spray sanitizer. The scent of artificial jasmine fills the air. Leslie sniffs, then offers a nod of approval as she, a photographer, and several interns and aides flank us. We’re without bodyguards for this appearance. No doubt they’ve gone ahead to prepare for this afternoon’s town hall forum. Over the years, my father has received death threats from fringe groups and minutemen militias, as well as any number of crackpots claiming to be snipers, bioterrorists, and kidnappers. He seldom takes these threats seriously, but his security people do. Turning the corner, we’re greeted by the nursing home director and two news crews with cameras. We tour. They film. My father amps up the charm. He shakes hands, poses for photos, takes time to talk with people, bend close to wheelchairs, and thank nurses for the difficult and demanding job they pour themselves into each day. I follow along and do the same. A debonair elderly gentleman in a tweed bowler hat flirts with me. In a delightful British accent, he tells me I have beautiful blue eyes. “If it were fifty years ago, I’d charm you into saying yes to a date,” he teases. “I think you already have,” I answer, and we laugh together. One of the nurses warns me that Mr. McMorris is a silver-haired Don Juan. He winks at the nurse just to prove it. As we wander down the hall to the party for the hundredth birthday, I realize that I am actually having fun. The people here seem content. This isn’t as luxurious as Grandma Judy’s nursing home, but it’s a far cry from the undermanaged facilities named by plaintiffs in the recent string of lawsuits. Odds are, none of those plaintiffs will ever see a dime, no matter what kind of damages they’re awarded by the courts. The moneymen behind the nursing home chains use networks of holding companies and shell corporations they can easily send into bankruptcy to avoid paying claims. Which is why the uncovering of ties between one of these chains and one of my father’s oldest friends and biggest contributors has been so potentially devastating. My father is a high-profile face upon which public anger and political finger-pointing can be focused. Anger and blame are powerful weapons. The opposition knows that. In the common room, a small podium has been set up. I take a spot off to the side with the entourage, positioned by the glass doors that look out onto a shady garden where a kaleidoscope of flowers blooms despite the beastly summer heat. A woman stands alone on one of the sheltered garden paths. Facing in the other direction, she’s seemingly unaware of the party as she gazes into the distance. Her hands rest on a cane. She wears a simple cream-colored cotton dress and a white sweater despite the warm day. Her thick gray hair is braided and twisted around her head, and that, combined with the colorless dress, makes her seem almost ghostlike, a remnant of some long-forgotten past. A breeze rustles the wisteria trellis but doesn’t seem to touch her, adding to the illusion that she isn’t really there. I turn my attention to the nursing home director. She welcomes everyone, touts the reason for today’s gathering—a full century of life is not achieved every day of the week, after all. To be married most of that time and still have your beloved by your side is even more remarkable. It is, indeed, an event worthy of a senatorial visit. Not to mention the fact that this couple has been among my father’s supporters since his days in South Carolina’s state government. Technically, they’ve known him longer than I have, and they’re almost as devoted. Our honoree and her husband hold their thin hands high in the air and clap furiously when my father’s name is mentioned. The director tells the story of the sweet-looking lovers perched at the center table. Luci was born in France when horse-drawn carriages still roamed the streets. It’s hard to even imagine. She worked with the French Resistance in the Second World War. Her husband, Frank, a fighter pilot, was shot down in combat. Their story is like something from a film—a sweeping romance. Part of an escape chain, Luci helped to disguise him and smuggle him out of the country injured. After the war, he went back to find her. She was still living on the same farm with her family, holed up in a cellar, the only part of the house that remained. The events these two have weathered make me marvel. This is what’s possible when love is real and strong, when people are devoted to one another, when they’ll sacrifice anything to be together. This is what I want for myself, but I sometimes wonder if it’s possible for our modern generation. We’re so distracted, so…busy. Glancing down at my engagement ring, I think, Elliot and I have what it takes. We know each other so well. We’ve always been side by side…. The birthday girl slowly pushes herself out of her chair, taking her beau’s arm. They move along together, stooped and crooked and leaning. The sight is sweet and heart tugging. I hope my parents live to this ripe old stage of life. I hope they’ll have a long retirement…someday…years in the future when my father finally decides to slow down. This disease can’t take him at fifty-seven. He’s too young. He’s too desperately needed, both at home and in the world. He has work to do yet, and after that, my parents deserve a retirement with quietly passing seasons and time to spend together. A tender feeling settles in my chest, and I push away these thoughts. No overwhelming displays of emotion in public—Leslie’s frequent reminder. Women can’t afford it in this arena. It’s seen as incompetence, weakness. As if I didn’t know that already. A courtroom isn’t much different. Female lawyers are always on trial in more ways than one. We have to play by different rules. My father salutes Frank as they meet near the podium. The man stops, straightens, and returns the gesture with military precision. Their gazes meet, and the moment is pure. It may look perfect on camera, but it’s not for the camera. My father’s lips press into a tight line. He’s trying not to tear up. It isn’t like him to come so close to letting it show. I swallow another swell of emotion. A breath shudders past my lips. I press my shoulders back, turn my eyes away, and focus on the window, studying the woman in the garden. She’s still standing there, gazing off. Who is she? What is she looking for? The boisterous chorus of “Happy Birthday” seeps through the glass and causes her to slowly turn toward the building. I feel the tug of the song. I know that the cameras are likely to sweep my way, and I’ll look distracted, but I can’t quite extricate myself from staring at the path outside. I want to see the woman’s face, at least. Will it be as blank as the summer sky? Is she merely addled and wandering, or has she skipped the festivities on purpose? Leslie yanks my jacket from behind, and I snap to attention like a schoolgirl caught talking in line. “Happy birth— Focus,” she sings close to my ear, and I nod as she moves off to gain a better angle for snapping cellphone photos that will go on my father’s Instagram. The senator is up on all the latest social media, even though he doesn’t know how to use any of it. His social media manager is a whiz. The ceremony continues. Camera flashes erupt. Happy family members wipe tears and take videos as my father presents a framed congratulatory letter. The cake is wheeled up, a hundred candles blazing. Leslie is delighted. Happiness and emotion swell the room, stretching it like a helium balloon. Any more joy and we’ll all float away. Someone touches my hand and wrist, fingers encircling me so unexpectedly that I jerk away, then stop myself so as not to cause a scene. The grip is cold and bony and trembling but surprisingly strong. I turn to see the woman from the garden. She straightens her humped back and gazes up at me through eyes the color of the hydrangeas back home at Drayden Hill—a soft, clear blue with a lighter mist around the edges. Her pleated lips tremble. Before I can gather my wits, a nurse comes to collect her, taking a firm hold. “May,” she says, casting an apologetic look my way. “Come along. You’re not supposed to bother our guests.” Rather than releasing my wrist, the old woman clings to it. She seems desperate, as if she needs something, but I can’t imagine what it is. She searches my face, stretches upward. “Fern?” she whispers. CHAPTER 2 May Crandall AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA, PRESENT DAY On occasion, it is as if the latches in my mind have gone rusty and worn. The doors fall open and closed at will. A peek inside here. An empty space there. A dark place I’m afraid to peer into. I never know what I will find. There’s no predicting when a barrier will swing wide, or why. Triggers. That’s what the psychologists call them on TV shows. Triggers…as if the strike ignites gunpowder and sends a projectile spinning down a rifle barrel. It’s an appropriate metaphor. Her face triggers something. A door opens far into the past. I stumble through it unwittingly at first, wondering what might be locked inside this room. As soon as I call her Fern, I know it’s not Fern I’m thinking of. I’ve gone even further back. It’s Queenie I see. Queenie, our strong mama, who marked all of us with her lovely golden curls. All but poor Camellia. My mind skitters featherlight across treetops and along valley floors. I travel all the way to a low-slung Mississippi riverbank to the last time I saw Queenie. The warm, soft air of that Memphis summer night swirls over me, but the night is an impostor. It is not soft. It does not forgive. From this night, there will be no returning. Twelve years old, still thin and knobby as a front porch post, I dangle my legs under the rail of our shantyboat, watching for a gator’s eyes to catch the amber flicker of lantern light. Gators shouldn’t stray this far upwater on the Mississippi, but there’s been gossip about sightings around here lately. This makes looking for them a game of sorts. Shantyboat kids take their entertainment where they can find it. Right now, we need a distraction worse than usual. Beside me, Fern climbs the rail and searches the woods for fireflies. At nearly four years old, she’s learning to count them. She points a stubby finger and leans out, mindless of gators. “I seen one, Rill! I seen ’im!” she cries. I grab her dress to pull her back. “You go fallin’ off, I ain’t jumping in after ya this time.” Truth told, it probably wouldn’t hurt her if she tumped over. It’d teach her a lesson. The boat’s tied up in a nice little backwater across the river from Mud Island. The water is only hip deep on me off the Arcadia’s stern. Fern might could touch the bottom on her tiptoes, but all five of us swim like pollywogs anyhow, even little Gabion, who can’t talk a full sentence yet. When you’re born on the river, you take to it as natural as drawing breath. You know its sounds and its ways and its critters. For river rats like us, the water’s a homeplace. A safe place. But something’s in the air just now…something that’s not right. A spat of gooseflesh runs up my arms and needles my cheeks. There’s always been a knowing in me. I’d never tell a living soul of it, but it’s there just the same. A chill settles through me in the airless summer night. Overhead, the sky is thick, and the clouds are ripe as melons fair to bursting. There’s a storm coming, but what I feel is something more than that. Inside the shanty, Queenie’s soft groans come faster now, mindless of the midwife woman’s molasses-thick voice: “Now, Miz Foss, you gots to stop pushin’, and you gots to stop now. This ’ere child come out wrong sided, he ain’t gon’ be long fo’ this world, and you ain’t neither. That’s it now. You jus’ quieten down. Be easy.” Queenie gives a low, wrenching sound that’s like a boot sucking out of thick bayou mud. She’s birthed the five of us with hardly more than a heavy breath, but it’s taking so much longer this time. I rub the sweaty chill off my arms and feel like something’s out there in the woods. Something evil. It looks our way. Why is it here? Did it come for Queenie? I want to scamper down the gangplank and run along the shore and yell, “You git on now! You git away! You can’t have my mama!” I’d do it. I’m not afraid there might be gators. But instead, I sit still as a killdeer bird on a nest. I listen to the midwife’s words. She’s loud enough, I might as well be in the shanty. “Oh, lands! Oh, mercy. She got more’n one inside. She do!” My daddy mutters something I can’t hear. His boot steps cross the floor, hesitate, cross again. The midwife says, “Mista Foss, ain’t nothin’ I can do ’bout this. You don’t git this woman to a doctor quick, them babies ain’t gon’ set eyes on this world, and this be their mama’s dyin’ day too.” Briny doesn’t answer right off. He pounds both fists hard against the wall so that Queenie’s picture frames rattle. Something slips loose, and there’s the clink of metal against wood, and I know what it is by where it falls and how it sounds. In my mind, I see the tin cross with the sad-looking man on top, and I want to run inside and grab it and kneel by the bed and whisper mysterious Polish words, the way Queenie does on stormy nights when Briny is away from the shantyboat, and the rainwater flows over the roof, and waves pound the hull. But I don’t know the strange, sharp language Queenie learned from the family she left behind when she ran off to the river with Briny. The few Polish words I have would be a mouthful of nonsense if I strung them together. Even so, if I could grab Queenie’s cross in my hand just now, I’d say them to the tin man Queenie kisses when the storms come. I’d try pretty near anything to help get the birthing over with and see Queenie smile again. On the other side of the door, Briny’s boot scrapes the planks, and I hear the cross clatter over the floor. Briny looks out the cloudy window that came from the farmhouse he tore down to build the boat before I was ever born. With Briny’s mama on her deathbed and the crops droughted out for another year, the banker was gonna get the house anyway. Briny figured the river was the place to be. He was right too. Time the Depression hit, him and Queenie were living just fine on the water. Even the Depression can’t starve the river, he says every time he tells the story. The river’s got her own magic. She takes care of her people. Always will. But tonight, that magic’s gone bad. “Mista! You hear me talkin’ at you?” The midwife turns mean now. “I ain’t havin’ they blood on my hands. You git yo’ woman to the hospital. You do it now.” Behind the glass, Briny’s face pulls tight. His eyes squeeze shut. He hammers a fist to his forehead, lets it fall against the wall. “The storm…” “I don’ care if the devil hisself is dancin’ by, Mista Foss. Ain’t nothin’ I can do fo’ this gal. Nothin’. I ain’t gon’ have it on my hands, no, suh.” “She’s never…had trouble…not with the others. She…” Queenie screams high and loud, the sound whirling off into the night like a wildcat’s call. “?’Less’n you fo’got to tell me somethin’, she ain’t never had two babies at once befo’ neither.” I shift to my feet, and take Fern around, and put her on the shanty porch with Gabion, who’s two, and Lark, who’s six. Camellia looks my way from where she’s staring in the front window. Closing the gate across the gangplank, I trap them all on the porch and tell Camellia not to let the little kids climb over. Camellia answers with a frown. At ten years old, she’s got Briny’s muley streak along with his dark hair and eyes. She doesn’t like being told what to do. She’s stubborn as a cypress stump and twice as thick sometimes. If the little ones go to fussing, we’ll be in a bigger fix than we already are. “It’s gonna be all right,” I promise, and pat their soft, golden heads like they’re puppies. “Queenie’s just havin’ a hard time is all. She don’t need nobody botherin’ her. Y’all stay put now. Old rougarou, he’s rootin’ round tonight, I heard him breathin’ minute ago. Ain’t safe to be out.” Now that I’m twelve, I don’t believe in the rougarou and the buggerman and Mad Captain Jack of the river pirates. Not much anyhow. I doubt if Camellia ever did swallow Briny’s wild tales. She reaches for the door latch. “Don’t,” I hiss. “I’ll go.” We were told to keep out, which Briny never says unless he means it. But right now, Briny sounds like he’s got no idea what to do, and I’m worried about Queenie and my new baby brother or sister. We’ve been, all of us, waiting to see which one it’d be. It wasn’t supposed to come yet, though. This is early—even earlier than Gabion, who was such a little thing, he came sliding into the world before Briny could get the boat to shore and find a woman to help with the birthing. This new baby don’t seem much inclined to make things so easy. Maybe it’ll look like Camellia when it comes out and be just as stubborn. Babies, I remind myself. It sinks in that there’s more than one, like puppies, and this ain’t normal. Three lives lay half-hidden by the bed curtain Queenie sewed from pretty Golden Heart flour sacks. Three bodies try to pull themselves apart from each other, but they can’t. I open the door, and the midwife is on top of me before I can decide whether to go in or not. Her hand locks onto my arm. It feels like her fingers go around twice. I look down and see the circle of dark skin against pale. She could snap me in two if she’d a mind to. Why can’t she save my baby brother or sister? Why can’t she pull it from my mama’s body and into this world? Queenie’s hand grips the curtain, and she screams and tugs, arching up off the bed. A half-dozen wire hooks rip loose. I see my mama’s face, her long, corn-silk blond hair matted to her skin, her blue eyes, those beautiful, soft blue eyes that have marked all of us but Camellia, bugging out. The skin on her cheek stretches so tight, it’s crossed with lacy veins like a dragonfly’s wings. “Daddy?” My whisper comes on the end of Queenie’s scream, but still it seems to upset the air in the room. I don’t ever call Briny Daddy or Queenie Mama unless something’s real wrong. They were so young when they had me, I don’t think they even thought to teach me the words Mama and Daddy. It’s always been like we were friends the same age. But every once in a while, I need them to be a daddy or a mama. The last time was weeks ago when we saw the man hung in the tree, dead, his body bloated up. Will Queenie look like that if she dies? Will she go first and then the babies? Or will it be the other way around? My stomach squeezes so tight I don’t even feel that big hand around my arm anymore. Maybe I’m even glad it’s there, holding me on my feet, keeping me anchored to the spot. I’m afraid to go any closer to Queenie. “You tell him!” The midwife shakes me like a ragdoll, and it hurts. Her teeth glare white in the lantern light. Thunder rumbles not far off, and a gust of wind hits the starboard wall, and the midwife stumbles forward, taking me with her. Queenie’s eyes meet mine. She looks at me the way a little child would, like she thinks I can help her and she’s begging me to do it. I swallow hard and try to find my voice. “D-Daddy?” I stutter out again and he still stares straight ahead. He’s froze up like a rabbit when it senses danger nearby. Through the window, I see Camellia with her face mashed to the glass. The little kids have climbed up on the bench to look in. Lark’s got big tears rolling down her fat cheeks. She hates to see any living creature hurting. She throws all the baitfish back in the river if she can get away with it. Whenever Briny shoots possums, or ducks, or squirrels, or deer, she carries on like her best pal’s been killed dead right there in front of her. She’s looking at me to save Queenie. They all are. There’s a spit of lightning someplace off in the distance. It pushes back the yellow coal-oil glow, then goes dark. I try to count the seconds before I hear the thunder, so I’ll know how far off the storm is, but I’m too rattled. If Briny doesn’t get Queenie to the doctor soon, it’ll be too late. Like always, we’re camped on the wild shore. Memphis is all the way on the other side of the wide, dark Mississippi River. I cough a lump out of my throat and stiffen up my neck so the lump won’t come back. “Briny, you gotta take her across-water.” Slowly, he swivels my way. His face is still glassy, but he looks like he’s been waiting for this—for somebody besides the midwife to tell him what to do. “Briny, you gotta carry her off in the skiff now, before that storm comes in.” It’d take too long to move the shantyboat, I know. Briny would realize that too if he could think straight. “You tell him!” the midwife eggs me on. She starts toward Briny, shoving me ahead of her. “You don’ get that woman offa this boat, this child’s mama be dead befo’ mornin’.” CHAPTER 3 Avery Stafford AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA, PRESENT DAY “Avery! We need you down here!” Nothing takes you from thirty years old to thirteen faster than your mother’s voice rebounding up the stairs like a tennis ball after a forehand slice. “Coming! I’ll be right there.” Elliot chuckles on the other end of the phone. The sound is both familiar and comforting. It calls up a memory trail that stretches all the way back to childhood. Between Elliot’s mother and mine giving us the hawkeye, we never had a prayer of stepping out of line, much less getting away with the sorts of miscreant deeds other teenagers were guilty of. We were more or less doomed to be good. Together. “Sounds like you’re on, sweetheart.” “The family Christmas picture.” Leaning toward the mirror, I brush blond corkscrews away from my face only to have them fall again. My quick walk down to the stable after returning from the nursing home event has brought out the Grandma Judy curls. I knew it would, but a broodmare foaled last night, and a new baby is more than I can resist. Now I’m paying the price. No hair straightener known to man is a match for the water-laden breeze off the Edisto River. “Christmas pictures in July?” Elliot coughs, and I’m reminded of how much I miss him. This business of living so far apart is hard, and we’re just two months into it. “She’s worried about the chemo. They told her that Daddy wouldn’t lose his hair with this kind, but she’s afraid he will.” There’s really no doctor on the planet who can comfort my mother about Daddy’s colon cancer diagnosis. Mama has always been in charge of the world, and she’s determined not to abdicate now. If she says Daddy’s hair will thin, it probably will. “Sounds like your mother.” Elliot laughs again. He should know. His mother, Bitsy, and mine are cut from two corners of the same cloth. “She’s just scared to death of losing Daddy.” I choke a little on the last word. These past few months have rubbed us raw from the inside out, left each of us silently bleeding beneath our skins. “Of course she is.” Elliot pauses for what seems like an eternity. I hear computer keys clicking. I remind myself that he has a fledgling brokerage firm to run and its success means everything to him. He doesn’t need his fianc?e calling in the middle of a workday for no particular reason. “It’s good that you’re there, Aves.” “I hope it’s helping. Sometimes I think I’m adding to the stress rather than reducing it.” “You need to be there. You need the year in South Carolina to reestablish your residency…just in case.” Elliot reminds me of the same thing every time we have this conversation—every time I’m fighting the urge to catch a flight to Maryland and return to my old digs at the United States Attorney’s Office, where there was no need to worry about cancer treatments, early Christmas pictures, constituents, and people like that desperate-looking woman who grabbed my arm at the nursing home. “Hey, Aves, hang on a minute. Sorry. Things are crazy here this morning.” Elliot puts me on hold to answer another call, and my thoughts drift back to this morning. I see the woman—May—standing in the garden, wearing her white sweater. Then she’s beside me, her face barely at the level of my shoulder, her bone-thin hands clenched over my wrist, the walking cane dangling from her arm. The look in her eyes is haunting, even in retrospect. There’s such a sense of recognition there. She’s certain she knows who I am. Fern? I’m sorry? Fernie, it’s me. Tears frame her eyes. Oh, dear, I’ve missed you so. They told me you were gone. I knew you’d never break our promise. For a second, I want to be Fern, just to make her happy—to give her a respite from standing by herself gazing into the wisteria. She seemed so very lonely out there. Lost. I’m saved from having to tell her that I’m not the person she’s looking for. The attendant intervenes, red-faced and clearly rattled. I apologize, she whispers just to me. Mrs. Crandall is new here. She wraps an arm firmly around Mrs. Crandall’s shoulder and drags her hand from my wrist. The old woman is surprisingly strong. She surrenders inch by inch, and the nurse says quietly, Come on, May. I’ll take you back to your room. I watch her go, feeling as if I should do something to help, but I don’t know what. Elliot comes back on the line, and my mind snaps to the present again. “Anyway, stiff upper lip. You can handle it. I’ve seen you take on the big-city defense attorneys. Aiken can’t be too much of a problem.” “I know,” I sigh. “I’m sorry for bothering you. I just…needed to hear your voice, I guess.” A blush rushes up my neck. I’m not usually so dependent. Maybe it’s a by-product of Daddy’s health crisis and Grandma Judy’s issues, but a painful sense of mortality clings to me. It’s thick and persistent like fog off the river. I can only feel my way through it, blind to whatever might be lurking. I’ve lived a charmed life. Maybe I never understood that until now. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Elliot’s voice turns tender. “It’s a lot to deal with. Give it some time. You can’t solve anything by worrying ahead of yourself.” “You’re right. I know you’re right.” “Can I have that in writing?” Elliot’s joke pulls a laugh from me. “Never.” I grab my purse from the bureau, looking for something to tie back my hair. A dump-out on the bed scores two silver bobby pins. Those will do. I’ll pull back the front and do a wavy look for the picture. Grandma Judy will love it when she sees the photo. It’s her hair I’m working with, after all, and she always wore it curly. “That’s the way, Aves.” Elliot greets someone who’s just entered his office, and we say a quick goodbye as I do my hair and give the mirror a final glance, straightening the green sheath dress I’ve pulled on for the photo. I hope my mother’s stylist doesn’t do a label check. The dress is a store brand from the mall. The hair actually looks decent, though. Even the stylist will approve…if she’s here…and she probably is. She and Leslie are in agreement that I need a bit of work, as they put it. There’s a knock at the door, just a little one. “Don’t come in. I’ve got an octopus locked in the closet!” I warn. My ten-year-old niece, Courtney, pokes her curly blond head in the door. She’s a throwback to Grandma Judy too. “Last time you said there was a grizzly bear in there,” she complains, rolling her eyes to let me know that, while this little joke may have been cute when she was nine, it’s lame now that she has officially reached the double digits. “A shape-shifting mutant grizzly bear, thank you very much,” I say, taking a poke at the videogame she’s way too obsessed with. With a set of surprise triplets occupying the household, Courtney is left to her own devices much of the time. She doesn’t seem to mind the new freedom, but I worry about her. She puts a hand on her hip and gives me attitude. “If you don’t get downstairs, you’re gonna need that grizzly bear, because Honeybee’s gonna sic the dogs on you.” Honeybee is my father’s pet name for my mother. “Ohhhh, now I’m scared.” The Scottish terriers here at Drayden Hill are so pampered, they’d probably expect an intruder to come equipped with designer goodies from the dog bakery. I ruffle Courtney’s hair and slip past her. “Allison!” I yell down the stairs, and start running. “Your daughter is holding up the family picture!” Courtney squeals, and we race to the lower landing. She wins because she’s an agile little thing and I’m wearing heels. I don’t need the extra height, but mother will not be happy if I show up for the Christmas photo in flats. In the formal receiving room, the staff and the photographer are on a mission. Christmas photo mania ensues. By the time we’re done with the shoot, my eldest sister’s teenagers are exasperated, and I’m ready for a nap. Instead, I grab a toddler and start a tickle war on the sofa. The others quickly join in. “Avery, for heaven’s sake!” my mother protests. “You’re making a wreck of yourself, and you’re supposed to leave with your father in twenty minutes.” Leslie cocks an eye my way, showing her iguana-like ability to focus in two directions at once. She wags a finger at the green dress. “That’s too formal for the town hall forum, and this morning’s outfit isn’t formal enough. Wear the blue pantsuit with the cording around the bottom. Very senatorial but not overstated. You know the one I mean?” “Yes.” I’d rather wrestle with the triplets or talk to Missy’s kids about their plans to be junior counselors at summer camp, but nobody’s offering me those options. I kiss my nieces and nephews goodbye and hurry upstairs to change. In short order, I’m sharing another limo ride with my father. He pulls out his cellphone and scrolls to the recorded brief for this afternoon’s events. Between Leslie, numerous aides and interns, the staff here and in D.C., and the newspapers, the man is always well informed. He needs to be. In the current political climate, there’s a very real danger of a change in the senatorial balance should his bout with cancer force him to step down. Daddy would go to his deathbed before he’d let that happen. The length of time he ignored his symptoms and remained in D.C. for the congressional session is proof, as is the fact that I have been called home for grooming and reestablishment of residency, as Elliot put it, just in case. In South Carolina, the Stafford name has always trumped political dividing lines, but the publicity about the nursing home scandal has everyone sweating like tourists on a Charleston summer afternoon. There’s a new story breaking every week—residents who’ve died after bedsores were left untreated, care facilities with unlicensed staff, places that were far from complying with the federal regulations requiring at least 1.3 hours of care per day for each patient yet were still allowed to bill Medicare and Medicaid. Devastated families who believed that their loved ones were in competent hands. It’s heartbreaking and horrible, and the slim connection to my father has provided his political enemies with endless emotionally charged ammunition. They want everyone to believe that if the pockets were deep enough, my father would use his influence to help a friend profit from human suffering and escape prosecution for it. Anyone who knows my father knows better. He isn’t in a position to insist that supporters and campaign contributors offer up their balance sheets, and even if he were, the truth would be hidden beneath layer upon layer of corporate entities that look fine at a glance. “Better brush up,” Dad says, and hits play on the voice memo. He holds the phone between us and leans my way, and suddenly I’m seven years old again. I get the gushy, warm feeling I always had when Mom walked me through the hallowed halls of the Capitol, stopped outside my father’s door, and allowed me to go in alone. Very quietly, with great gravity, I’d march to the secretary’s desk and announce that I had an appointment with the senator. “Oh, well, let me confirm that,” Mrs. Dennison would say each time, lifting an eyebrow and restraining a smile as she picked up the intercom. “Senator, I have a…Miss Stafford here to see you. Shall I send her in?” After I’d successfully been admitted, my father would greet me with a handshake, frown, and say, “Good morning, Miss Stafford. Wonderful of you to come. Are you prepared to go out and greet the public today?” “Yes, sir, I am!” His eyes always twinkled with pride as I twirled to display that I had dressed for the occasion. One of the best things a father can do for his daughter is let her know that she has met his expectations. My father did that for me, and no amount of effort on my part can fully repay the debt. I’d do anything for him, and for my mother. Now we sit shoulder to shoulder, listening to the details of the day’s remaining activities, the topics that should be covered and the issues that must be avoided. We’re given carefully spun answers to questions about care facility abuse and foiled lawsuits and shell corporations that magically go bankrupt before damages can be paid out. What does my father intend to do about this? Has he been leaning on people, shielding political contributors and old friends from the long arm of justice? Will he now use his office to help the thousands of older adults who struggle to find quality care? What about those still living in their own homes, dealing with damage from the recent historic flooding, forced to choose between taking care of repairs, eating, paying the electric bill, and refilling medications? What does my father think should be done to help them? The questions go on and on. Each comes with at least one well-scripted response. Many have several options we can use depending on the context, plus possible rebuttals. This afternoon’s town hall forum will be a carefully regulated press op, but there’s always the remote possibility of a mole sneaking to the microphone. Things could get heated. We’re even told how to respond should someone manage to dig up the issue of Grandma Judy. Why are we paying for a facility that costs over seven times the per-day amount that low-income seniors are allotted by Medicaid? Why? Because Grandma Judy’s doctor recommended Magnolia Manor as our best option given my grandmother’s familiarity with the place. One of her childhood friends lived on the estate before it was converted, and so it’s like going home for her. We want her to have whatever will comfort her, but we’re also concerned for her safety. We, like many families, find ourselves confronted with a complex and difficult issue for which there is no simple answer. Complex and difficult issue…no simple answer… I commit those lines to memory verbatim in case I’m asked. I’ll be better off not trying to ad-lib when such deeply personal issues are involved. “Good op at the nursing home this morning, Wells,” Leslie comments when she slips into the car during a coffee stop a few blocks from the venue. “We’re on our way to nipping this thing in the bud.” She’s even more intense than usual. “Let Cal Fortner and his team try to make mileage off this business about senior care. They’re only putting out the rope we’ll hang them with.” “They’re putting out plenty of rope.” Dad’s joke falls flat. There’s a well-thought-out attack plan in the opposition’s camp, a systematic strategy of painting my father as an out-of-touch elitist, a Washington insider whose decades in D.C. have left him blind to the needs of the people in his home state. “More for us to work with,” Leslie answers confidently. “Listen, slight change of plans. We’ll be coming into the building from the back. There’s a protest under way across the street from the entrance.” She shifts focus to me then. “Avery, we’ll bring you onstage for this one. We’re doing the forum with the senator seated across from the host, for a casual feel. You will be beside your father on the sofa, to his right, the concerned daughter having moved home to look after his health and manage the family’s business concerns. You’re the one who’s single and not busy raising children; you have a wedding to plan here in Aiken, et cetera, et cetera. You know the drill. Nothing too political, but don’t be afraid to show your knowledge of the issues and the legal ramifications. We’re looking for a relaxed, unscripted tone, so the opportunity may arise to filter a question of a more personal nature your way. Only local news outlets will be present, which makes this a perfect chance for you to gain a little face time without too much pressure.” “Of course.” I’ve spent the last five years with juries scrutinizing my every move and defense lawyers breathing down my neck. Participants in a carefully monitored town hall meeting do not scare me. Or so I tell myself. For some reason, my pulse is racing, and my throat feels rough and dry. “Game face, kiddo.” Daddy sends me what we sometimes call “the million-dollar wink.” It oozes confidence like warm honey, thick and irresistible. If only I had half of my father’s charisma. Leslie moves on with the briefing for the event. She’s still talking when we arrive at the hall. Unlike the nursing home appearance earlier, there’s security this time, including local DPS officers. I can hear the commotion out front, and a squad car sits at the end of the alleyway. Leslie looks like she’s ready to punch someone’s lights out as we’re hustled from the limo. A nervous sweat beads under my conservative navy suit. “Honor thy father and mother!” a protester shouts above the din. I want to hang a right turn, march to the curb, and tell these people off. How dare they! “No concentration camps for seniors!” That one follows us through the door. “What are these people, nuts?” I mutter, and Leslie gives me a warning look, then shrugs covertly toward the police officers. I’m being told to keep my opinions to myself in public, unless they’re preapproved. But now I’m fighting mad…which may be a good thing. My pulse slows resolutely, and I feel my game face settling into place. The minute the door closes, things calm down. We’re met by Andrew Moore, the program coordinator for the hosts of today’s forum—a seniors’ rights PAC. Andrew seems surprisingly young to be in such a position. He can’t be past his mid-twenties. The neatly pressed gray suit combined with slightly askew necktie and haphazardly bunched shirt collar make him seem like a boy whose clothes were laid out for him in the morning but who had to get into them himself. He tells us that he was raised by his grandparents, who made huge sacrifices to provide for him. This is his way of giving back. When someone mentions that I was a federal prosecutor, he eyes me and quips that the PAC could use a good attorney on staff. “I’ll keep that in mind,” I joke. We make a bit more small talk while we wait. He seems likeable, honest, energetic, and committed. My confidence that this will be a fair discussion of the issues ratchets upward. Other introductions quickly take place. We meet the local reporter who will act as our moderator. We slide microphones under our jackets, clip them to our lapels, and hook the transmitter boxes over our waistbands. We wait in the wings while the host takes the stage, thanks the organizers, then reminds everyone of the format for today’s forum before finally introducing us. The crowd applauds, and we ascend the stage, waving cheerfully at the audience. Everyone is well behaved, though looking out at the group, I see quite a few faces that seem concerned, skeptical, and somewhat unfriendly. Others eye the senator with what could only be classified as hero worship. My father does a reasonable job of responding to the simple questions and deflecting a few inquiries that can’t be answered in a soundbite. There are no easy solutions to the problem of funding retirement years that last much longer than in previous generations or the issue of fractured families and the cultural shift toward relying on professional care rather than tending to senior relatives at home. Despite the well-thought-out replies, I can tell that he’s a little off the mark today. He’s a bit slow when a young man asks, “Sir, I’d like to hear your response to Cal Fortner’s accusation that the goal of corporate-owned senior care chains is to warehouse the elderly in the cheapest way possible so as to increase profits, and that your repeated acceptance of campaign contributions from L. R. Lawton and his investment partners indicates your support of this profits-over-people model. Do you acknowledge that in these facilities seniors were tended to by minimum-wage workers with little or no training, if they were seen to at all? Your opponent calls for federal legislation to hold anyone who profits from a care facility or its holding companies personally accountable for the care provided there, as well as any damages awarded in lawsuits. Fortner is also calling for taxes on wealthy individuals such as yourself to fund an increase in benefits for our poorest senior citizens. In view of recent events, would you support this in the Senate, and why or why not?” I can almost hear Leslie gnashing her teeth behind the curtain. Those questions weren’t anywhere in the script, and no doubt they’re not on the index card the guy is holding. My father hesitates, appearing to be momentarily bewildered. Come on, I think. Sweat drips down my back. My muscles tense, and I clutch the armrest of my chair to keep from fidgeting. The silence is agonizing. Minutes seem to pass, but I know it’s not that long. My father finally launches into a lengthy explanation of the existing federal regulations on nursing homes and the taxes and federal trust funds that pay for Medicaid. He seems competent and unruffled. Once again in charge. He makes it evident that he is not in a position to single-handedly alter Medicaid funding, the tax code, and the current state of senior care but that these issues will have his foremost attention in the next Senate session. The forum then returns to a more acceptable script. A question eventually comes my way, and the host looks at me indulgently. I give the prescribed response about whether or not I am being groomed for my father’s Senate seat. I don’t say yes, and I don’t say, Never in a million years. Instead, I end with “In any case, it’s premature to even think about it…unless I want to run against the man himself. And who would be crazy enough to do that?” The audience chuckles, and I follow up with the signature wink I inherited from my dad. He’s so pleased, he looks ten feet tall as he responds to a few more simple questions and the discussion wraps up. I’m ready for pats on the back from Leslie as we exit the stage. Instead, she catches me with a worried look and leans close as we walk out the door. “The nursing home called. Apparently you lost a bracelet there?” “What? A bracelet?” Suddenly, I remember putting one on this morning. There’s no movement on my wrist, and yes, the bracelet is gone. “One of the residents was found with it. The director looked at her cellphone photos from the event and determined that it was yours.” The woman in the nursing home…the one who grabbed my hand… Now I remember the tiny gold legs of three little dragonflies raking down my wrist as May Crandall was pulled away. She must have ended up with my jewelry. “Ohhhh, I know what happened.” “The director apologized profusely. The patient is new and struggling to adjust. She was found two weeks ago in a house along the river with her dead sister’s body and a dozen cats.” “Oh, how horrible.” My mind takes flight, and I see the dismal, gruesome scene, even though I don’t want to. “I’m sure it was an accident—the thing about the bracelet, I mean. She grabbed my hand while we were listening to Daddy. The nurse sort of had to peel her off.” “That shouldn’t have happened.” “It’s okay, Leslie. It’s fine.” “I’ll send someone to pick it up.” I remember May Crandall’s blue eyes, the way she regarded me with such desperation. I imagine her coming away with my bracelet, examining it alone in her room, draping it over her wrist, and admiring it with delight. If it weren’t an heirloom, I’d just let her keep it. “You know what? I think I’ll go back and get it myself. The bracelet was my grandmother’s.” The day’s agenda calls for my father and me to part ways from here. He’ll be spending a little time at his office before having supper with one of his constituents while my mother hosts a DAR meeting at Drayden Hill. “Is there someone who can drive me? Or can I take one of the cars?” Leslie’s eyes flare. I’m afraid we’re about to lock horns, so I add a more compelling excuse. “I should run by and have tea with Grandma Judy while I’ve got a little time anyway. She’ll enjoy seeing the bracelet.” The town hall forum has left me feeling guilty that I haven’t visited my grandmother in almost a week. Leslie’s jaw twitches as she acquiesces, making it clear that she finds my silly whim disturbingly unprofessional. I can’t help it. I’m still thinking about May Crandall and remembering the plethora of newspaper stories about nursing home abuse. Perhaps I just want to make sure that May didn’t come to me because she’s in some sort of trouble. Perhaps my curiosity has been piqued by her sad, macabre story. She was found two weeks ago in a house along the river with her dead sister’s body…. Was her sister’s name Fern? CHAPTER 4 Rill Foss MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE, 1939 Queenie is as pale as skimmed milk, her body tight and hard as Briny lays her on the edge of the shanty porch and goes after the skiff, which is tied up to a drift pile downwater. Queenie cries and screams, out of her head, her cheek pushed to the smooth, wet wood. Lark backs herself into the night shadows by the shanty wall, but the little ones, Fern and Gabion, sidle closer on hands and knees. They’ve never seen a grown person act this way. Gabion leans down to see, like he’s not sure this thing in Queenie’s pink flowered dress is even her. Queenie is light, and laughter, and all the old songs she sings with us as we travel along from one river town to another. This woman with the bared teeth and the cuss words and the moans and sobs can’t be her, but it is. “Wiw, Wiw!” Gabion says, because, at just two, he can’t say my name, Rill. He grabs my skirt hem, tugging it as I kneel down to hold Queenie’s head. “Keenie owww?” “Hush up!” Camellia slaps at the little kids’ hands as Fern stretches to stroke Queenie’s long, gold curls. It’s the hair that first caught Briny’s eye and made him set his sights on her. Don’t your mama look like a princess in a storybook? he asks me sometimes. Queen of Kingdom Arcadia, that’s your mama. That makes you a princess sure enough, don’t it? But my mama’s not beautiful now, not with her face sweat streaked and her mouth twisted in pain. The babies are busting her open. Her stomach clenches and bulges under the dress. She grabs hold of me and hangs on, and inside the cabin, the midwife wipes her hands, gathering her birthing tools in a grass basket. “You gotta help her!” I scream. “She’s dyin’.” “Ain’t havin’ nothin’ else to do wit’ this bidness,” the woman says, her heavy body rocking the boat and making the lantern sway and sputter. “No mo’. Fool, river trash.” She’s mad as a camptown dog because Briny wouldn’t pay her cash money. Briny says she promised to deliver a baby, which she didn’t, and she oughta be glad he’s letting her take the two fat catfish he pulled off the trotlines earlier in the day plus some coal oil for her carry lamp. She’d get back at us if she could, but she’s still blacker than tar, and we’re white, and she knows what could happen if she gives us trouble. The catfish was supposed to be our dinner, which leaves us with nothing but one little cake of cornpone between the five of us. That spins through my mind with a half-dozen other things. Should I gather up clothes for Queenie? The hairbrush? Her shoes? Has Briny got enough money to pay a real doctor? What’ll happen if he don’t? What if the law nabs him? Once before, when we were hustling pool halls in river towns, he got snagged. Briny’s a good hustler. There’s nobody can beat him at a game of eight ball, and he can play a pool hall piano good enough that people will pay him to do it, but this Depression has made cash hard to come by. Mostly now he hustles pool and plays for things he can trade off to get what we need. Is there money hid somewhere? Should I ask Briny when he comes back? Remind him he might need it? How’ll he make the trip across-river in the dark with the storm already lifting whitecaps on the water? The midwife turns sideways to get out the door, her basket slapping her behind. Something red hangs out the top, and I know what it is, even in the dim light—Queenie’s pretty velvet hat with the feathers on top, the one Briny won in a pool game in a dirty little place called Boggyfield. “You put that back!” I say. “That’s my mama’s!” The woman’s dark eyes fold up in her face, and she wags her chin at me. “Done been here all day long, and I ain’t gonna be takin’ no two fish. I gots me enough fish. I take this hat.” She looks around to see where Briny’s at, and then she starts for the gangplank at the side of the porch. I want to stop her, but I can’t. On my lap, Queenie screams, thrashing around. Her head lands on the deck with a hollow thud, like a watermelon. I grab her with both hands. Camellia hurries ahead of the woman and stretches herself across the gate, her thin arms stretched from rail to rail. “You ain’t takin’ my mama’s hat nowheres.” The woman moves another step, but if she knew Camellia, she wouldn’t. My sister might be only ten, but she didn’t just get Briny’s thick black hair; she got his temper to go with it. When Briny gets mad, he’s blind-fool mad, Old Zede calls it. Blind-fool mad is the kind that’ll get you killed on the river. Zede’s warned my daddy of that more than once when our boats have been tied near each other, and a lot of times they are. Zede’s been Briny’s friend since Briny first took to the river. He taught Briny the way of things. “You li’l saucy thang. Sass mouth.” A big dark hand clamps over Camellia’s arm, and the woman yanks her up, and Camellia clings on to the rail so hard, I think her shoulder bone’s bound to snap from the socket. Two seconds don’t pass before Camellia whips around and sinks in her teeth. The woman howls and stumbles back, rocking the boat. Queenie screams. Thunder rumbles far off. Lightning flashes, and the night turns to day, then puts on its black veil again. Where’s Briny? Why’s he taking so long? A bad thought hits me. What if the skiff broke loose and Briny can’t find it? What if he’s gone to borrow one off somebody in the shantyboat camp? Just for once, I wish Briny wasn’t so stuck on keeping to himself. He never ties up in the river camps, and folks who know our boat know not to come calling unless they’re invited. Briny says there’s good folks on the river and folks you can’t trust, and it’s best to figure out who’s who from a distance. Queenie kicks and knocks Gabion over, and he bangs his arm and howls high and long. Lark bolts inside the cabin to hide now that the midwife is clear of it. Queenie’s dying right here in my arms. She’s gotta be. At the head of the gangplank, Camellia ain’t budging. The sneer on her face dog-dares the woman to try her again. Camellia would just as soon fight something as look at it. She’ll catch snakes barehanded and scrap with the boys in the river towns and not think twice about it. “You leave my mama’s hat!” she yells over Gabion’s squalling. “And you don’t need no fish neither. Just git off our boat ’fore we go on and find the po-lice and tell them some colored woman done trieda kill our mama and steal us blind. They’ll hang you up a tree, they will.” She lets her head go slack and lolls her tongue, and my stomach turns heavy. Just two weeks ago Wednesday, we saw the man hung in the tree downriver. Big colored fella in overalls. There wasn’t a house round for miles, and he’d been there long enough the buzzards had got after him. Only Camellia would use something like that to try to get her way. It makes me sick just thinking about it. Maybe that’s why Queenie’s in a bad way now, a voice whispers in my head. Maybe it’s all because Briny didn’t stop and cut that man down and find his people so’s they could bury him proper. Maybe it’s him lookin’ on from the woods now. Queenie begged Briny to go up to the shore and take care of the body, but Briny wouldn’t. We got the kids to think about, Queen, he said. No tellin’ who did that to him or who’s watchin’. We best get on down the river. The midwife snatches Queenie’s red hat from her basket, throws it down, and walks over it, her weight rocking the deck as she wobbles down the gangplank, then grabs the lantern she left onshore. The last thing she does is take the stringer with the two catfish. Then she wanders off, cussing us all the way. “And the devil can come get you too!” Camellia echoes back at her, hanging over the porch rail. “That’s what you get for thievin’!” She stops short of repeating the woman’s naughty words. Camellia’s eaten enough soap to clean up the inside of a whale in her ten years. She’s practically been raised on it. It’s a wonder bubbles don’t pour out her ears. “Someone’s comin’. Hush up, Gabion.” Grabbing Gabby and slapping a hand over his mouth, she listens into the night. I hear the sound of a motor too. “Go look if it’s Briny,” I tell Fern, and she hops up to do it, but Camellia shoves Gabby at her instead. “Keep him quiet.” Camellia crosses the porch and leans over the waterside rail, and for the first time, I hear relief in her voice. “Looks like he’s got Zede.” Comfort wraps me like a quilt. If anyone can make things all right, it’s Old Zede. I didn’t even know he was here around Mud Island, but Briny probably did. They always keep track of each other on the river one way or another. Last I’d heard, Zede was inland, seeing after a sister who had to move to a sanatorium because she had the consumption. “Zede’s here,” I whisper to Queenie, leaning close. She seems to hear, maybe settles a little. Zede will know what to do. He’ll calm Briny’s wildness, push the clouds from my daddy’s eyes, and get him to think. “Zede’s here, Queenie. It’s gonna be fine. It’s gonna be fine….” I repeat it over and over until they’re pitching the line to Camellia and climbing the gangplank. Briny crosses the porch in two steps, falls to his knees beside Queenie, and scoops her up, bending his head low over hers. I feel her weight leave me, her warmth vanishing from my skin. The night dew closes in, and all of a sudden, I’m cold. I stand up and turn the lantern higher and wrap my arms tight around myself. Zede squats down close, looks Queenie in the eyes, unwraps the sheet a little, and there’s blood everywhere. He lays a hand on her belly, where a watery red stain rises up her dress. “Miz Foss?” His voice is steady and clear. “Miz Foss? You hearin’ me now?” She lets out what might be a yes, but the sound dies behind clenched teeth, and she buries her face in Briny’s chest. Zede’s mouth turns grim inside his thick gray beard. His red-lined eyes hang loose in their sockets. His breath sucks in through wide, hairy nostrils, then pours out between tight lips. The smell of whiskey and tobacco hangs heavy, but it’s a comfort. It’s the one thing about this night that’s like always. He locks eyes with Briny and shakes his head a little. “Queenie girl, we’re gonna git you offa the boat, ya hear me? Gotta carry you on down to the hospital in the Jenny. Be a rough trip, across-water. You be a brassy gal fer me now, ya hear?” He helps Briny lift her from the floor, and her screams tear the night like the women shredding funeral veils down in New Orleans. She goes limp in Briny’s arms before they can even get her in the boat. “Hold her now,” Zede tells Briny, and then he looks at me and points the crooked finger that was broke in the Spanish War. “You take the young’uns in the shantyhouse, and you git ’em all to bed, sis. Stay inside. I’ll hist on back ’ere, ’fore mornin’ if’n the storm holds off, but if’n it don’t, the Lizzy Mae’s tied up downwater just a bit. Yer skiff’s there. Got a boy on the Lizzy with me. He’s a rough looker just now—tried hoboin’ the train, and the railroad bulls got after ’im. He won’t hurt you none, though. Told ’im to row on up here come mornin’ if’n he didn’t hear elsewise from me.” He cranks the Waterwitch motor, and it rumbles to life, and I stare at the sludge churning in the lantern’s glow. I don’t want to see Queenie’s eyes closed and her mouth hanging slack that way. Camellia casts off the line, and it lands neatly in the jon boat’s bow. Zede points a finger Camellia’s way. “You mind yer sister, li’l spitter. You don’t do nothin’ without askin’ Rill first. You savvy?” Camellia’s nose scrunches up so tight the freckles on her cheeks run together. “You savvy?” Zede asks again. He knows which one of us is most likely to wander off and roust up trouble. “Mellia!” Briny’s clouds clear a minute. “Yessir,” she agrees, but she ain’t happy about it. Briny turns to me then, but it’s like he’s begging me, not telling me. “You watch over the babies, Rill. Keep care of everybody, till we get back—Queenie and me.” “We’ll be good. I promise. I’ll look after everybody. We won’t go nowhere.” Zede turns the tiller handle and cranks up the throttle, and the Waterwitch carries my mama away into the dark. All five of us hurry to the rail and stand there side by side, watching until the blackness swallows the Jenny whole. We listen while the hull slaps over whitecaps, rising and falling, the kicker roaring and quieting and roaring again. Its voice gets a little farther away each time. Off in the distance, the tugs blow their foghorns. A boatswain’s whistle sounds. A dog yaps. The night turns quiet. Fern wraps around my leg like a monkey, and Gabby wanders inside the cabin with Lark because she’s his favorite. Finally, there’s nothing more to do but go in the shanty and figure out how we’re gonna eat. All we’ve got is the one cornpone cake and some pears Briny traded for over in Wilson, Arkansas, where we stayed three months and went to school until it let out for summer. By then, Briny had the itchy feet again. He was ready to take to the water. Any normal time, he’d never bring us to shore nearby a big city like Memphis, but Queenie’d been complaining of cramps since day before yesterday. Even though it was sooner than she figured it should be, after five babies, she knew we’d better tie up the boat and stay put. Inside the Arcadia now, everyone’s whiny, and worried, and hot, and cranky. Camellia complains because I’ve shut the door instead of just the screen, and it’s sticky hot, even with the windows open. “Hush up,” I hiss, and get the dinner ready, and we sit in a circle on the floor, all five of us, because it doesn’t seem right to be at the table with two spots empty at the end. “I ’ungee.” Gabion’s lip pooches out after his food is gone. He eats faster than a stray cat. I tear off a scrap of my cornpone slice and twirl it close to his mouth. “You gobbled yours up too quick.” He opens up like a bird every time I get near, and finally I pop the bite in. “Mmmmm,” he says, and rubs his tummy. Fern plays the game with him, and so does Lark. By the time it’s all over, Gabby’s gotten most of the food. Except Camellia’s, because she eats all of hers. “I’ll run the trotlines in the mornin’,” she says, like that makes up for her selfish streak. “Zede told us to stay put,” I say. “When Zede gets back. Or the boy comes. Then I’ll do it.” She can’t run the trotline by herself, and she knows it. “The skiff ain’t even here. Briny rowed it down to Zede’s boat.” “It will be tomorrow.” “Tomorrow, Briny’ll be back. And Queenie with the babies.” We look at each other then—just Camellia and me. I feel Lark and Fern watching us, but it’s only us two that understand enough to share the worry. Camellia looks toward the door, and so do I. We both know that nobody’s gonna walk through it tonight. We’ve never stayed alone in the dark before. There’s always been Queenie, even when Briny was gone hunting, or hustling pool halls, or gigging frogs. Gabion topples over onto Queenie’s braided rug, his eyes closed, long sandy-brown lashes touching his cheeks. I still need to get a diaper on him for overnight, but I’ll do it after he’s out cold, just like Queenie does. Now that Gabby’s using the potty during the day, he gets mad if we come at him with a diaper. Outside, thunder booms and lightning flashes, and the sky starts to spit out mist. Did Zede and Briny make it across-water with our mama? I wonder. Is she someplace where the doctors can fix her, the way they did Camellia when her appendix went bad? “Batten down the windows that’re toward the river. No sense rain comin’ in,” I tell Camellia, and she doesn’t even argue. For the first time ever, she’s lost. She’s not sure what’s best. The problem is, I’m not either. Gabion’s mouth falls open, and he starts to snore. That’s one of the little kids, at least, who won’t be raising a fuss tonight. Lark and Fern are another matter. Lark’s big blue eyes fill up, and she whispers, “I wa-a-ant Queenie. I’m skeered.” I want Queenie too, but I can’t tell them that. “Hush up, now. You’re six years old. You’re not a baby. Close the windows before the wind starts blowin’, and get your nighty on. We’ll change the big bed and sleep there, all of us. Just like when Briny’s gone.” My body’s boneless and weary, but my mind is running crazy. It can’t think a clear thought; it’s just spinning up nonsense words, like the Waterwitch turning the shallows, stirring leaves and twigs and bait grubs and muck. It keeps on so that I don’t hear all the whining and complaining and sniggling and sniffing and Camellia egging it on by calling Fern a ninny and Lark a baby and another dirty word she ain’t even supposed to say. Last thing, once they’re all in the big bed and I turn the lanterns down, I take the tin man’s cross off the floor and hang him back on the wall where he belongs. Briny hasn’t got any use for him, but Queenie does, and tonight he’s the only one here to watch over us. Getting on my knees before I climb into bed, I whisper every word of Polish I know. CHAPTER 5 Avery “I’ll only be a little while,” I tell Ian, Leslie’s intern, as he parks under the nursing home portico. He stops halfway out the driver’s side door. “Oh…okay. I’ll just sit here and take care of some email, I guess.” He seems disappointed that no escort is needed. I feel his curious gaze following me as I exit the car and make my way through the lobby. The director is waiting in her office. Grandma Judy’s bracelet lies on her desk. The dragonflies’ gemstone eyes glitter as I slip the lost treasure back onto my wrist. We chat a bit about the day’s event before the director apologizes for my trouble. “We’ve had quite a time with Mrs. Crandall,” she admits. “Poor thing. For the most part, she doesn’t speak to anyone. She just…wanders the halls and the grounds until lockup at night. Then she stays in her room, unless the volunteers are here to play the piano. She does seem to love music, but even at the sing-alongs, we can’t persuade her to engage with the other residents. Grief and a change of location can often be more than the mind and body can handle.” Immediately, I imagine someone saying the same thing about Grandma Judy. My heart aches for this poor woman, May. “I hope she isn’t upset. I’m sure she didn’t take the bracelet on purpose. I would’ve let her keep it, except it’s been in the family for so long.” “Oh, goodness, no. It’s best that she gives it back. One of the things our residents sometimes have difficulty accepting is that many of their belongings haven’t come here with them. They tend to see things around the facility and think someone has made off with their possessions. We return heisted goods quite often. Mrs. Crandall is still adjusting to leaving her house. She’s confused and unsettled right now, but it’s natural.” “I know that’s a hard transition.” My grandmother’s estate on Lagniappe Street is still closed up with everything inside it. We haven’t been ready to decide what should happen to a lifetime of mementos and countless family heirlooms. Eventually, the house will pass down to the next generation, as it always has. Hopefully, one of my sisters will move in, and most of the antiques can stay. “Does Mrs. Crandall have family who come to visit?” I purposely don’t mention the story about the dead sister. I already feel guilty talking about this woman as if she’s some sort of…case study. She’s a person, like Grandma Judy. The director shakes her head, frowning. “No one locally. Her son passed away years ago. She has grandchildren, but it’s a remarried and blended family, and none of them live nearby, so it’s complicated. They’re doing their best, and to be honest, Mrs. Crandall hasn’t been making it any easier. She was taken to a facility closer to her home to begin with, and she tried to run away. The family moved her here thinking that a bit of distance might help. She has attempted to leave us three times in two weeks. Some amount of disorientation and difficulty isn’t unusual for new residents. Hopefully, she’ll improve once she has adjusted a bit. I’d hate to see her transferred to the Alzheimer’s Unit, but…” She clamps her lips over the sentence, apparently realizing that she’s not supposed to be telling me all of this. “I’m so sorry.” I can’t help feeling as if I’ve made a bad situation worse. “Could I see her…just to tell her thank you for returning my bracelet?” “She didn’t return it…exactly. The nurse found her with it.” “I’d at least like to tell her I appreciate having it back.” Mostly, I’m just concerned that the director seems so…clinical about all of this. What if I’ve stirred up trouble for May? “The bracelet was one of my grandmother’s favorites.” I look down at the ornately fashioned golden dragonflies with their garnet eyes and multicolored spines. “We don’t restrict our residents’ visitors here, but it might be better if you didn’t. Mrs. Crandall most likely wouldn’t speak with you anyway. We’ll let her know the bracelet was returned and everything is fine.” We end the conversation with a bit of pleasant chatter about the birthday party earlier, and then we part at her office door. On the way back to the entrance, I pass a hallway sign with names and room numbers neatly arranged in metal slots. MAY CRANDALL, 107. I turn the corner. Room 107 lies at the end of the hall. The door is open. The bed in the front half of the room is empty. The curtain in the middle has been drawn. I step in, whisper, “Hello? Mrs. Crandall?” The air smells stale, and the lights are off, but I hear the raspy sound of someone breathing. “Mrs. Crandall?” Another step, and I can see feet protruding from the blankets on the other bed. The feet are shrunken and curled. As if they haven’t borne weight in a long time. That must not be her. I study the area that is undoubtedly Mrs. Crandall’s. It’s small and bland and somewhat depressing. While Grandma Judy’s new mini-apartment is outfitted with a sofa, a chair, and a game table, and adorned with as many favorite photos as we could fit, this room looks as if its occupant has no intention of staying. Only one personal item sits on the bedside table—a photo frame with a faded, dusty velvet stand on the back. I know I shouldn’t be nosy, but I can still see May looking up at me with her robin’s-egg-blue eyes, seeming to need something. Desperately. What if she’s tried to run away from this place because someone is mistreating her? As a federal prosecutor, you can’t help being aware of horrible elder-abuse cases. When federal crimes such as telemarketing fraud, identity theft, and the pilfering of Social Security checks are involved, the cases fall under our jurisdiction. There are too many instances where young people are just waiting to get their hands on the older folks’ money. Mrs. Crandall may have perfectly wonderful grandkids, but it’s hard to imagine why they would leave her alone here in this condition instead of moving her to someplace where one of them could monitor her care. I just want to be sure, I tell myself. There is, inbred in me, the Stafford sense of duty. It makes me feel responsible for the well-being of strangers, especially those who are helpless and marginalized. Charities are my mother’s full-time, unofficial second job. The ornate frame is turned toward the wall, unfortunately. It was molded from the sort of pearlescent ivory celluloid that would have matched ladies’ powder jars and brushes, combs, and buttonhooks back in the thirties and forties. Even leaning over, I can’t see the photo. Finally, I just do it. I turn the frame. Sepia-toned and bleached white around the edges, the image is a snapshot of a young couple on the shore of a lake or pond. The man wears a battered fedora and holds a fishing pole. His face is difficult to make out—dark eyes, dark hair. He’s handsome, and the way he stands with one foot propped on a fallen log, his slim shoulders cocked back, speaks of confidence—defiance almost. It’s as if he’s challenging the photographer to capture him. The woman is pregnant. The wind catches her floral dress, outlining a stomach that seems too large to be carried on her long, thin legs. Her thick blond hair hangs in long spirals almost to her waist. The front of it is pulled up in a bedraggled bow, like a little girl’s. That’s the first thing that strikes me about her—she looks like a teenager dressed up for a role in a school play. The Grapes of Wrath maybe. The second thing that strikes me is that she reminds me of my grandmother. I blink, lean closer, think of the photos we carefully hung in Grandma Judy’s room not long ago. There’s one in particular—an image from her high-school graduation trip. She’s sitting on a pier at Coney Island, smiling for the camera. I’m probably just imagining the resemblance. Judging by the clothing, this photo is too old to be of Grandma Judy. My always-fashionable grandmother would never have been dressed that way, but right now all I can think as I peer through the glass is That could be her. I also see the resemblance to my niece Courtney and, of course, to me. I whip out my cellphone and try to get its camera to focus in the dim light. The camera’s crosshairs weave in and out. I snap a photo. It’s blurry. I shift toward the bed, try again. For some reason, turning on the lamp feels like stepping over the line, and if I use the camera flash, it’ll just glare off the glass. But I want a photo. Maybe my father can tell me if he recognizes these people…or maybe, once I get home and look again, I’ll realize I’m overthinking the resemblance. The picture is old, and it’s not that clear. “It’s rude to invade someone’s space without being invited.” I jerk upright before the camera snaps again. And the phone slips loose. It tumbles end over end, and I’m like a cartoon character moving in slow motion, grasping at air. May Crandall makes her way through the door while I retrieve my phone from under the bed. “I’m so sorry. I just…” There is no good explanation for this. None. “What are you up to exactly?” When I turn, she draws away, surprised. Her chin turtles into her neck, then slowly pokes out again. “You came back.” Her visual sweep takes in the picture frame, telling me that she knows it’s been moved. “Are you one of them?” “Them?” “These people.” A hand flits through the air, indicating the nursing home staff. She cranes closer. “They’ve got me in prison here.” I think of the story Leslie told me—the house, the dead sister’s body. Maybe there’s more than just grief and disorientation involved here. I really know nothing about this woman. “I see you have my bracelet.” She points at my wrist. The director’s words come to mind. For the most part, she doesn’t speak to anyone. She just…wanders the halls and the grounds…. But she’s talking to me. I catch myself pulling the dragonfly bracelet close, holding a hand over it, pinning it against my chest. “I’m sorry. The bracelet was mine. It must have slipped off when you held my wrist earlier…today…at the birthday party?” She blinks at me as if she hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about. Maybe she’s forgotten the party already? “Did you have one like it?” I ask. “A party? No, of course not.” Her resentment boils just below the surface, potent and acidic. Maybe the nursing home director has underestimated this woman’s problems? I’ve heard that dementia and Alzheimer’s can manifest in paranoia and agitation; I’ve just never experienced that behavior. Grandma Judy is confused and sometimes frustrated with herself, but she’s as sweet and kindhearted as ever. “Actually, I meant, did you have a bracelet like this?” “Why, yes, I did…until they gave it to you.” “No. I was wearing it when I came here this morning. It was a gift from my grandmother. It was one of her favorites. Otherwise, I would’ve…” I stop before saying, Otherwise, I would’ve let you keep it. It seems like it would be disrespectful, as if I’d be treating her like a child. She stares long at me. Suddenly, she seems completely lucid, acute even. “Perhaps I could meet your grandmother, and we can iron this out. Does she live nearby?” There’s an abrupt change in the atmosphere of the room. I feel it, and it has nothing to do with the vent kicking on overhead. She wants something from me. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible. I wish it were, but it’s not.” In truth, I would never expose my sweet grandmother to this strange, bitter woman. The more she talks, the easier it is to imagine her holing up with her sister’s body. “Is she gone then?” Suddenly, she seems crestfallen, vulnerable. “No. But she’s had to move out of her house and into a care facility.” “Recently?” “About a month ago.” “Oh…oh, what a shame. Is she happy there, at least?” A beseeching, desperate look follows the words, and I’m hit with a penetrating sadness for May. What has her life been like? Where are the friends, the neighbors, the co-workers…the people who should be coming to see her now, out of duty if nothing else? Grandma Judy has at least one visitor per day, sometimes two or three. “I think she is. To tell you the truth, she was lonely in her home. Now that she’s at the facility, she has people to talk to, and there are games days and parties she can attend. They do craft projects, and there’s a library with plenty of books.” No doubt, they offer some of those options here. Maybe I can gain a little mileage with May Crandall—encourage her to give her new life an honest try and stop battling the staff. The shift in our conversation is leading me to suspect that she’s not as addled as she’s been pretending to be. She smoothly ignores my implication and changes the subject. “I believe I knew her. Your grandmother. We shared bridge club, I think.” She points the knuckle of a bent, craggy finger in my direction. “You favor her quite a bit.” “People say so. Yes. I have her hair. My sisters don’t, but I do.” “And her eyes.” Things turn intimate. She looks through me to the very marrow of my bones. What is happening here? “I—I’ll ask her about you when I see her. But she may not remember. She has good days and bad days.” “Don’t we all, though?” May’s lips twitch upward, and I catch myself chuckling nervously. Shifting, I hit the bedside lamp with my elbow, then catch it, knocking the frame this time. I grab it before it can fall, hold it, and try to resist taking a closer look. “They’re always bumping that. The girls here.” “I could put it over on the dresser.” “I want it close to me.” “Oh…okay.” I wish I could sneak a new phone photo. At this angle, there’s no glare, and the face looks even more like my grandmother’s. Could it be her…maybe dressed up for a play? She was president of the drama club in prep school. “I was wondering about this, actually, when you came in.” Now that we’re on friendlier terms, it seems permissible to ask. “The woman in the picture reminds me of my grandmother, a little.” My phone buzzes, still on silent from the town hall forum. I’m reminded that I’ve left Ian waiting in the car all this time. The message is from my mother, though. She wants me to call her. “Same hair,” May Crandall agrees blandly. “But that’s not so uncommon.” “No, I suppose not.” She doesn’t offer any more information. Reluctantly, I put the frame back on the nightstand. May watches my phone as it buzzes a second time, my mother’s text message demanding acknowledgment. I know better than to leave it unanswered. “It was lovely meeting you.” I attempt to excuse myself. “Do you have to go?” “I’m afraid I do. But I’ll ask my grandmother if she recognizes your name.” She moistens her lips, emits a small cluck as they part. “You’ll come back, and I’ll share the story of the photo then.” Pivoting with surprising agility and without using her cane, she starts toward the door, adding, “Perhaps.” She’s gone before I can answer. I grab a better shot of the picture, then hurry off. In the lobby, Ian is scrolling through emails on his cellphone. Apparently, he gave up on waiting in the car. “Sorry that took so long,” I say. “Oh, hey, no problem at all. It gave me the chance to sort my inbox.” The nursing home director walks by and frowns, probably wondering why I’m still here. If I weren’t a Stafford, she’d undoubtedly stop and ask questions. As it is, she pointedly looks away and moves on. Even after two months back in South Carolina, it’s still strange, getting the rock-star treatment just because of my family name. In Maryland, I often knew people for months before they even realized my father was a senator. It was nice having the chance to prove myself as myself. Ian and I proceed to the car, and we’re quickly bogged down in road construction traffic, so I use the time to call my mother. There will be no getting answers from her at home, with the DAR meeting being hosted there. After it’s over, she’ll be busy making sure every china plate and punch glass is back in its rightful place. That’s Honeybee. She’s an organizational whiz. She also never forgets a name. “Do we know a May Crandall?” I ask after she has requested that I “happen by” the DAR gathering so as to make an appearance, shake hands, and score a few points with all the right wives. Get the women, and you’ve got the vote, my father always says. Only foolish men underestimate their power. “I don’t think so,” my mother muses. “Crandall…Crandall…” “May Crandall. She’s around Grandma Judy’s age. Maybe they played bridge together?” “Oh, goodness, no. The women Grandma Judy played bridge with are friends.” By friends, she means long-term acquaintances of the family with ties that are generations old for the most part. People of our social circle. “Lois Heartstein, Dot Greeley, Mini Clarkson…they’re all people you already know.” “Okay.” Perhaps May Crandall really is just an addled old woman with a headful of jumbled memories that bear only a partial resemblance to reality. That doesn’t explain the photo on the nightstand, though. “Why?” “No real reason. I met her today at the nursing home.” “Well, how sweet. That was kind of you to chat with her. Those people get so very lonely. She probably just knows of us, Avery. Many people do.” I cringe and hope Ian can’t hear my mother’s end of the conversation. It’s embarrassing. The question of the photograph still nibbles at the corner of my brain. “Who’s going by to see Grandma Judy tonight?” “I was planning to. After the DAR meeting, if it’s not too late.” Mom sighs. “Your father won’t be able to.” Unfailingly, Honeybee holds down the family responsibilities when Dad’s job prevents him from doing so. “Why don’t you stay home and rest after the meeting?” I suggest. “I’ll go.” “But you’re coming by the meeting first?” Mom presses. “Bitsy is back from her trip to Lake Tahoe. She’s dying to see you.” Suddenly, I have the horrible, desperate feeling a wild animal must experience when the door swings shut on a cage. No wonder my mother wants me to come by her DAR get-together. Bitsy is back in town. Given the party attendees, I can count on a multipronged interrogation about whether Elliot and I have set a wedding date, selected china and silver patterns, talked about a venue and season—indoor, outdoor, winter, spring. We’re not in any rush. We’re both really busy right now. We’re just waiting to see what feels right isn’t what Bitsy wants to hear. Once she and the DAR ladies have me cornered, they won’t let me go until they’ve used every tool in their arsenal to get the answers they’re after. I have a sinking feeling I might not be making it by Magnolia Manor this evening to ask Grandma Judy about the photo after all. CHAPTER 6 Rill In my dream, we’re free on the river. The Model T engine Briny fixed to the back of the boat drives us upwater easy, like we haven’t got any weight at all. Queenie sits up top of the cabin like she’s riding an elephant. Her head’s tossed back, her hair flowing out from under her feathery red hat. She’s singing a song she learned from an old Irishman in one of the shanty camps. “Ain’t she pretty as a queen?” Briny asks. The sun is warm, and the song sparrows sing, and the fat bass jump out of the water. A flock of white pelicans flies over in a big old arrow shape pointing north, which means the whole summer’s still ahead of us. There’s not a paddle-wheeler, or a flatboat, or a tug, or a barge in sight anywhere. The river is ours. Only ours. “And what’s that make you?” Briny asks me in my dream. “Princess Rill of Kingdom Arcadia!” I yell out. Briny sets a honeysuckle flower crown on my head and pronounces it so, just like the kings in the storybooks. In the morning when I wake, there’s a sweet taste still in my mouth. It lasts until I open my eyes and think about why we’re all five in Queenie and Briny’s bed, flopped across the mattress like a fisherman’s catch, sweaty and slick. Queenie’s not here. It barely gets through my head before I know what’s pulled me from my dream. Somebody’s knocking on the door. My heart jumps up, and I jump with it, tugging one of Queenie’s shawls over my nightgown while I cross the shanty floor. It’s Zede on the other side of the door, and even through the window glass, I can see that his white-whiskered face is long and sad. My gut turns into a slipknot. Outside, the storm’s gone. It’ll be a nice day. The morning air’s turned warm and steamy, but I open the door and step outside and feel cold right through the old cotton nighty Queenie sewed a ruffle to because I’d gotten so tall. Queenie said a girl my age hadn’t oughta have her legs showing so much. I pull the shawl tighter over my chest, not because of Zede or because I’ve got any woman parts to hide—Queenie says that’ll happen when it’s time, and it just ain’t time yet—but because there’s a boy in Zede’s jon boat. He’s a skinny thing, but tall. He’s got dark skin like a Cajun or an Indian. Not quite a man yet, I’d say, but older than me. Maybe fifteen or so. Zede’s always got somebody under his wing. He’s the grandpappy of the whole river. The kid hides his face under a raggy newsboy cap, looking at the bottom of the boat, not at me. Zede skips the introducing. I know what that means, but I wish I didn’t. Zede’s hand feels heavy on my shoulder. It’s meant for a comfort, but I want to run away from it, scat off somewhere down the bank, my feet flying so fast they barely leave tracks in the washed-up sand. Tears shove up my throat and I swallow hard. Fern’s face presses against the window behind me. Figures she’d wake up and follow along. She never lets me get far. “Queenie’s babies didn’t make it.” Zede’s not one to chase round the bush with his words. Something dies inside me—a little brother or sister I was planning to hold like a new china doll. “Not either one?” “The doc said no. Couldn’t save neither of ’em. Said it wouldn’t of made no matter if’n Briny’d got yer mama to the hospital sooner. The babies just wasn’t meant for this world, that’s all.” I shake my head hard, trying to wick those words out of my ears like water after a swim. That can’t be true. Not in Kingdom Arcadia. The river is our magic. Briny always promised it’d take care of us. “What’d Briny say?” “He’s pretty broke up. I left him there with yer mama. They had some hospital papers to sign and whatnot. They hadn’t told her ’bout the babies yet. Reckon Briny will when she’s woke up good. She’ll be all right, doc said.” But I know Queenie. She won’t be all right. Nothing makes her happier than a brand-new, sweet baby to cuddle. Zede tells me he figures he’d better go back to the hospital. Briny wasn’t in a good way this morning. “I was gonna see if’n there wasn’t a woman down in the river camp who’d come look after y’all young’uns, but the pickin’ was sparse. Been some trouble with the police, and most all the shanty folk done took to the river. I brung Silas to watch out over ya till I can git yer daddy back home.” He motions to the boy in the boat, who looks up, surprised. He didn’t know that Zede meant to leave him, I guess. “We can look after ourselves all right.” Mostly, I just want Queenie and Briny to come home and get us on down the river. I want that so bad, I hurt for it deep underneath the knot in my belly. “We ain’t got nothin’ to feed him.” Camellia is in the door now, offering up her two cents. “Well, good mornin’ to you, Miss Rosy Ray a’ Sunshine.” Zede calls Camellia that all the time on account of she’s the exact opposite of that very thing. “I was gonna go gig us some frogs.” She announces it like she’s been made captain of the Arcadia. “No, you ain’t,” I tell her. “We’re not supposed to leave the boat. None of us.” Zede points a finger at my sister. “You kids stay put.” He narrows an eye back toward the river. “Don’t know what’s spooked the folks out of Mud Island camp. It’s good y’all are over in this li’l backwater by yerselves, anyhow. Just keep quiet. Don’t be callin’ any attention or nothin’.” Something new weighs on my chest. Something heavy. Worry scratches a setting spot inside me and takes up nesting. I don’t want Zede to leave. Fern sidles over to hang on my leg. I pick her up and snuggle her wild curls under my chin. She’s a comfort. Gabion comes out, and I pick him up too, and their weight pins my feet to the floor. Queenie’s shawl binds tight around my shoulders and squeezes into my skin. Zede puts me in charge again, and he brings the boy, Silas, onto the Arcadia. Unfolded, Silas is taller than I thought. He’s skinny as a rail, but he’d be handsome if it weren’t for the busted lip and the shiner. If he was hoboing trains, like Zede said, he’s lucky the railroad bulls didn’t do worse to him. He hikes himself up on the porch rail, like that’s where he means to stay. “You watch after them now,” Zede tells him. Silas nods, but it’s clear enough he ain’t happy about it. A Cooper’s hawk flies by looking for prey, and he watches it pass, then keeps his face pointed toward Memphis. Zede leaves food behind—a bag of cornmeal, a bundle of carrots, ten eggs, and some salt fish. Silas watches as Zede climbs into his boat and disappears. “You hungry?” I ask him. He turns my way, and it’s then I remember I’m in my nighty. I feel the sticky air touching my skin where the neck pulls low from the babies on my hips. Silas looks away, like he noticed. “Reckon.” His eyes are dark as midnight on water. They reflect everything he looks at—a heron bird fishing nearby, branches drooping from a half-broke tree, the morning sky with its foam-white clouds…me. “You cook?” The way he says it makes it sound like he’s already decided I can’t. I lift my chin, square up my shoulders. Queenie’s shawl cuts in deeper. I don’t think I like Silas much. “Yeah. I can cook.” “Pppfff!” Camellia spits. “You hush up.” I set down the little kids and push them toward her. “And watch after them. Where’s Lark?” “Still in bed.” “Look after her too.” Lark can slip off quick and quiet as a whisper. One time, she laid up in a little clearing by a creek and fell flat asleep, and it was a whole day and half the night before we found her. Scared Queenie clean outa her mind. “Reckon I better make sure you don’t burn the place down,” Silas grumbles. I decide it right then: I don’t like this boy at all. But when we go through the door, he looks my way, and his split lip turns upward on one side, and I think maybe he ain’t so bad. We light a fire in the stove and cook the best we can. Between Silas and me, neither of us knows much. The stove is Queenie’s territory, and I’ve never cared a thing about it. I’d rather be outside watching the river and its animals and listening to Briny spin stories about knights, and castles, and Indians out west, and far-off places. Briny’s seen the whole world, near’s I can figure. Silas has seen a bit himself. While we cook and sit down to eat, he tells tales about riding the rails, and thumbing his way across five states, and scratching up food in hobo camps, and living off the land like a wild Indian. “Why ain’t you got a mama?” Camellia asks as she finishes the last of a hoecake that’s just a little bit burnt on the edges. Lark nods, because she wants to know too, but she’s too shy to ask. Silas waves a fancy silver fork that Briny dug up in the sand by the wreck of an old riverboat. “Had a mama. Liked her all right, till I was nine. Then I left and ain’t seen her since.” “How come?” I look hard at Silas to see if he’s teasing. As much as I miss Queenie already, I can’t imagine being away from your mama on purpose. “She married a fella that liked drinkin’ whiskey and handin’ out whippin’s. I took me a year of that, and I figured I was better off makin’ my own way.” The sparkle leaves his eyes for a minute, and there’s nothing left but dark. But quick as it’s there, he shrugs and smiles, and the little dents come back in his cheeks. “I struck off with a harvest crew that was movin’ through. Went clear up to Canada, pickin’ apples and combinin’ wheat. After that was over, worked my way back south again.” “When you was just ten?” Camellia smacks her lips to let him know she’s not believing a word of it. “You done all that? I just bet.” Smooth as a cat, he turns in his chair, lifts up the tail of his faded-out shirt, and shows us the scars across his back. All five of us jerk away from the table. Even Camellia hasn’t got a smart-mouthed answer now. “Be glad if you got a nice mama and daddy.” Silas looks hard at her. “Don’t ever get it in your head to leave them behind, if they’re good to you. Some sure enough ain’t.” We all go quiet for a minute, and tears build in Lark’s eyes. Silas sops up the last of his egg and drinks a swig of water. He looks at us over the rim of the tin cup and frowns like he can’t figure what we’re so long faced about. “Say, li’l bit”—he reaches out and tweaks Lark’s nose, and her lashes flutter like butterfly wings—“did I ever tell you about the night I met Banjo Bill and his dancin’ dog Henry?” Just like that, he’s off on another story and then another. Time goes by in a wink while we finish the last of the food and then clean up the mess. “Your cookin’ ain’t half bad.” Silas licks his lips after we’re done washing dishes in the pail on the porch. By then, Fern’s got her dress on wrong side out, because she’s changed herself out of her nighty, and Gabion’s running around half-naked, looking for somebody to clean him up after he sneaked to the outhouse off the back of the shanty all by himself. It’s a good thing he didn’t fall right through into the river. There’s no bottom on a shantyboat outhouse, just the water. I tell Camellia to take him on the porch and dunk his rear in the river and then dry him off. It’ll be easiest. Camellia’s nostrils flare. The only thing that scares her in the whole wide world is poop. Which is exactly the reason I’m making her go clean Gabby. She deserves it. She hasn’t helped with a thing all morning. “Mellia! Mellia!” our baby brother cheers as his fat little legs wobble him toward the door, bare bottomed. “I metsy!” My sister sneers at me, then whips open the screen and drags Gabion out, pulling him up by one arm, so that he stands on his tippy-toes. “I’ll do it,” Lark whispers, hoping to end the fight. “You let Camellia see after it. You’re not big enough.” Silas and I look at each other, and he smiles a little. “Ain’t you ever gonna get dressed?” I look down and realize I never did change and never even thought about it, I was so caught up in Silas’s stories. “Guess I better,” I say, and laugh at myself and get my dress down from the hook, then stand there holding it. “You gotta go outside, though. And no peeking.” There’s been a funny little thought in my head while Silas and me been cooking and taking care of the babies. I’ve been play-pretending like I was the mama and Silas was the daddy and this was our house. It’s helped me not think about Queenie and Briny still being gone. But there’s no way I’d get undressed in front of him, or anybody. I’ve come up big enough this past year that I dress behind the curtain in the shanty, like Queenie does. I wouldn’t stand still for somebody seeing me in the altogether any more than I’d let somebody whip me across my back and leave scars. “Heck,” Silas says, and rolls his eyes, “why’d I be lookin’? You ain’t nothin’ but a kid.” My skin goes hot from head to toe, and my cheeks boil. Outside the screen door, Camellia laughs. I blush harder. If I could, I’d knock her and Silas both off into the water right now. “And take the little kids out with you,” I snap. “A woman needs privacy.” “How would you know anythin’ about that? You ain’t no woman. You ain’t nothin’ but a li’l curly-headed Kewpie doll,” Silas teases, but I don’t think it’s funny, especially when Camellia can hear. On the porch, she’s lined up with Fern and Lark, enjoying the show. Every muscle in my body goes stiff. I don’t get mad easy, but when I do, it’s like a fire inside me. “Well, you ain’t nothin’ but a…a stick! A stick boy. The wind don’t even have to slow down to blow around you. That’s how skinny you are.” I square up on him, hateful as I can, and poke my fists into my hips. “Least I don’t got hair that’d do to mop a floor with.” He grabs his hat off the hook and stomps out the door. From someplace near the gangplank, he yells, “You oughta join the circus. That’s what you oughta do. You could be a clown!” I get a look at myself in the mirror on the wall, and there’s blond curls flying everywhere, and my face is red as a woodpecker’s head. Before I can even catch hold of how I look, I’m running to the door to holler out, “Well, you can just keep walkin’, Silas…Silas…whatever your last name is, if you got one. We don’t need you anyhow, and…” Onshore, he drops down to a squat all of a sudden and bats a hand at me. I can’t make out his face under the hat, but it’s clear enough there’s trouble. He’s seen something in the woods. The heat in my skin changes direction and sucks inward. “Yeah, you can just keep walkin’!” Camellia shouts, jumping into the wrangle. “Git off our boat, stick boy!” Silas glances over, shoves his palm at us again. The brush closes around him as he scoots in. “You ain’t hidin’! I see you there!” “Hush, Camellia!” I whip open the screen door and yank Fern and Lark inside. Camellia gives me a crosswise frown. She’s bent over the rail, dangling Gabion by his arms. His bottom swirls in the water while he kicks and giggles. Camellia pretends to drop him, then catches his arms again, and he lets out a squeal before I can get to them. “Come on inside.” Leaning out, I reach for my brother’s arm, but Camellia swats me away and lets Gabby dangle by one hand. “He’s havin’ fun. And it’s hot inside.” Her thick, dark hair falls forward, the tips reaching to the water, touching it like a spill of ink. “You wanna go swimmin’?” she asks Gabby. For a minute, I think she’s gonna climb into the water with him. Onshore, Silas pokes out of the brush and puts a finger to his lips, trying to throw quiet our way. “Somethin’s wrong.” I catch Gabion’s hand and swing him up like a wishbone, bringing my sister with him. “Owww!” She’s mad when her elbow hits the rail. “Get inside!” Down shore, the leaves shiver apart, and I see black—a man’s hat maybe. “Somebody’s out there.” Camellia snorts. “You just want that boy to come back.” She can’t see Silas, but he’s probably not ten feet from where a branch snaps and a raven takes off, cawing out complaints. “There. See?” Camellia catches sight of the black. It’s somebody coming, for sure, but instead of going in the door, Camellia slips around toward the other side of the boat. “I’ll sneak off the back and check who it is.” “No,” I hiss, but the truth is I’m not sure what to do. I want to toss off the lines, and push the Arcadia out of the sand, and take to the river. The water’s still and calm this morning, so it’d be easy for us to put her out, except I wouldn’t dare try it. With nobody but Camellia and me and maybe Silas to keep the Arcadia from hitting a bar or getting plowed through by a barge or a paddle-wheeler, there’s no telling what could happen to us on the river. “Let’s get inside,” I say. “Maybe he’ll think the boat’s empty and move on about his business.” But who’d have business down this little backwater where there’s nothing around? “Maybe it’s just somebody out squirrelin’,” Camellia says hopefully. “Maybe he’d give us one for dinner if we’re nice.” She knows how to be sweet when she wants to, when somebody’s got sugar candy to hand out or fry cakes to share around a campfire. “Zede told us to keep quiet. And Briny’d tan us good if he found out.” Briny’s never tanned any one of us, but he threatens it sometimes. The idea worries Camellia enough that she hurries across the porch with me, and we go inside. We bar the doors and climb up in the big bed and pull the curtain and wait and listen. I think I can hear the man walking onshore. Then I think he must’ve left. Maybe he was just a hunter or a hobo— “Hallooo, the boat!” “S-s-shhhh.” My voice trembles. Wide, worried eyes turn my way. You grow up on the river, you know to be mindful of strangers. The river’s a place men take to sometimes when they’re running from the bad things they done someplace else. Camellia leans close. “That ain’t Zede.” Her whisper ruffles the fine hairs on my neck. The hull rocks a little. Someone’s trying the plank. Lark scoots close, and Fern crawls into my lap, her cheek pushing against my heart. The Arcadia sways toward shore, tipped by the man’s full weight. He’s big. Whoever he is, Silas isn’t any match for him. I push a finger to my lips. The five of us freeze the way fawns do when the doe leaves them behind so she can go feed. The man is on the porch now. “Halloo, the boat!” he says again. Go away….There’s nobody here. He tries the door, the handle turning slowly. “?’Loo, in the boat?” The door hits the bar and can’t go farther. A shadow hovers in the square of window light on the shanty floor. A man’s head, the outline of a hat. There’s a stick or a bat in his hand. He taps it against the glass. A policeman? I’m afraid it is. The police come after shantyboat folk when they feel like it. They raid the camps, rough up the river rats, take what they want, send us on our way. That’s one reason we always tie up by ourselves unless Briny’s got some particular need for other people. “I help you, Officer?” Silas’s voice stops the stranger as he crosses to the other window to look in. Their shadows stretch along the floor together, one a head longer than the other. “You live here, son?” “Nope. I’z just out huntin’. My daddy’s over yander a ways.” “Some children live here?” The voice isn’t hateful, but it means business. What if Silas gets himself arrested for lying? “Don’t reckon I know. I just now seen the place.” “That so, is it? Think you might be handing me a fib there, little river rat? I heard you talking to somebody on this boat.” “No, sir.” Silas sounds sure as sunrise. “I seen these people go off in a skiff…oh…couple hours ago maybe. Must’ve been somebody down in the river camp you’z hearin’ just now. Sound goes a long ways on the river.” The man takes a quick step toward Silas. “Don’t tell me about the river, sonny boy. This is my river, and I been hunting these kids half the mornin’ on it. You get them to come out, so I can take them into town to their mama and daddy.” When Silas doesn’t answer, the officer bends close, their shadows connecting at the face. “Sonny boy, I’d sure hate to see you land yourself in trouble with the law. How’d you get that shiner on your eye anyhow? You been into somethin’ you shouldn’t be? You got folks lookin’ after you, or you a stray?” “My Uncle Zede. He looks after me.” “I thought you said you came out here hunting with your daddy.” “Him too.” “You lie to a policeman, you’ll find yourself in jail, river rat.” “I ain’t lyin’.” I hear other voices nearby now. Men yelling in the woods and a dog barking. “Tell the kids to come on out. Their mama and daddy sent us after them.” “What’s their daddy’s name, then?” Camellia and me look at each other. Her eyes are big as walnuts. She shakes her head. She’s thinking the same thing I am: Briny wouldn’t send the police here, and if he did send them, they would’ve known right where to find the boat. What does this man want with us? We stare out the gap in the curtain as the big shadow lifts the little one up by the shirt collar. Silas coughs and gags. “Don’t you sass-mouth me, boy. I didn’t come for you, but you gimme any more trouble, we’ll just take you with us. You’ll see where scrawny little guttersnipes like you wind up in this city.” I’m out of the bed before Camellia can latch on and try to stop me. “No! Rill, no!” She grabs at my nighty, but it slips through her fingers. When I open the door, the first thing I see is Silas’s feet dangling six inches off the deck. His face is purple. He tries a punch, and the officer just laughs. “You want at me, boy? How about we put you under that water a minute or two and cool you off.” “Stop! Don’t!” I can hear other men coming. There’s some onshore, and off the starboard there’s a motorboat rumbling up. I don’t know what we’ve done wrong—other than being river gypsies—but we’re caught for sure. It won’t help for Silas to get himself killed or hauled off with us. The officer drops Silas all at once so that he lands against the shanty wall, hitting his head hard. “Go on, Silas,” I say, but my voice shakes so bad the words are barely anything. “You go home now. You ain’t even supposed to be here. We want to go see Mama and Daddy.” I figure it’ll go better if we cooperate. By myself, I might be able to jump off the porch and get away to the woods before the men could catch me, but with my little sisters and Gabion, there’s no way it’d work. One thing I know about Briny is he’d want us to stick together, no matter what. I straighten my back, look at the police officer, and try to be as grown up as I can. He smiles. “That’s a good girl now.” “Is my daddy okay?” “Sure he is.” “And my mama?” “Real fine. She asked for you to come visit.” I don’t even have to see in his eyes to know that’s a lie. It ain’t possible that Queenie’s real fine right now. Wherever she is, she’s heartbroke about the babies. I swallow hard and feel it go all the way down, sharp like a piece of ice chipped fresh off the block. “I’ll get the other kids.” The officer steps up, grabs my arm like he means to stop me. “Ain’t you a pretty little river rat?” His tongue slides across his teeth, and for the first time, he’s close enough that I can see his face under the shiny hat brim. His eyes are gray, and they’re mean, but they’re not cold like I thought they’d be. They’re interested, except I don’t know why. His look moves from my face down my neck toward the shoulder that’s hanging out of the nightgown right now. “Somebody oughta feed you up a little.” Behind him, Silas wobbles to his feet, blinks, and staggers. He settles a hand on the axe that’s standing by the woodpile. No, I try to say without saying it. Doesn’t he hear the men down shore and the motorboat coming closer? From inside the shanty, there’s a soft, high squeak, just loud enough that I catch it. The outhouse door. Camellia’s trying to sneak away through the back. Do something. “M-my little brother just got off the pot. I need to clean him up before we go, or there’ll be poop everywhere. Unless y-you wanna do it.” It’s the only thing I can think of. Men don’t like messy babies. Briny won’t touch one at all except to dunk it in the river if Queenie or Camellia or me aren’t there to do it. The officer curls his lip, lets me go, and turns to listen over his shoulder. Silas jerks his hand away from the axe, stands with fists gripped at the ends of his skinny arms. “Better hurry along.” The policeman’s lips spread into a smile, but there’s no kindness in it. “Your mama’s waitin’.” “You go on now, Silas. Just git.” I stop in the doorway, stare at him, thinking, Go. Run! The officer looks from me to Silas. He reaches toward his belt, toward the gun, the club, the black metal wristlets. What’s he planning to do? “Go on, git!” I yell, and give Silas a shove. “Briny and Zede wouldn’t want you here!” Our eyes lock. He shakes his head a little. I nod mine. He closes his lashes real slow, then opens them again and turns and runs down the gangplank. “There’s one in the water!” another policeman yells from the riverbank. The men in the motorboat holler, and the kicker throttles up. Camellia! I spin around and rush inside, the officer’s heavy footsteps coming after me. He shoves me, and I land against the cookstove, and he thunders to the back, where the stern door is hanging open. Fern, Lark, and Gabion are clustered along the rail. The man throws them back inside, hard, and they land in a pile screaming and crying. “Mellia! Mellia!” Gabion wails, and points toward the outhouse, where our sister has shinnied down the privy hole into the river. She’s slogging her way toward shore now, her wet nightgown clinging to her long, sunbrowned legs. A police officer runs after her, and the men in the motorboat follow along in the water. She climbs a drift pile, as quick and nimble as a doe. Gabion lets out a high-pitched scream. The policeman on the back porch yanks his pistol from its holster. “No!” I try to lunge forward, but Fern’s got my legs. We land on the floor, toppling Lark with us. She lets out a sharp cry, and the last thing I see before the woodbox blocks my view is the man onshore leaping over a branch, stretching out a hand, and catching Camellia by her long, dark hair. When I come up again, she’s fighting like crazy, kicking and screaming and growling. Her arms and legs flail as the policeman holds her away from his body. The guys in the motorboat throw their heads back and laugh like drunks at a pool-hall fight. It takes three of them to get my sister in the boat and two to hold her down once she’s there. When they pull up to the Arcadia, they’ve got Camellia pinned on the floor. They’re muddy and mad because she smells like the bottom of an outhouse, and she’s gotten it on everybody. The officer on the Arcadia stands himself in the doorway, crossing his arms and leaning like he’s comfortable there. “You get your clothes changed real nice now…out here where I can see. We’re not gonna have anybody else running off.” I’m not about to get dressed in front of him, so I take care of Gabion, Lark, and Fern first. Finally, I just put my dress on over my nighty, even though it’s way too hot for that. The policeman laughs. “All right, if that’s the way you want it. Now you come on real sweet and quiet, and we’ll take you to see your mama and daddy.” I do what he says and follow him from the shanty, pulling the door closed behind us. I can’t swallow, or breathe, or think. “Good thing the other four weren’t so tough,” one of the policemen says. He has Camellia stuffed to the floor of the motorboat with her arms pinned up behind her. “This one’s a wildcat.” “Smells more like a wild hog,” the other officer in the boat jokes. He helps us settle in, lifting Gabion and then Fern and then Lark in and telling them to sit on the floor. Camellia gives me a wicked look when I do the same. She thinks this is my fault, that I should’ve fought back and stopped it somehow. Maybe I should’ve. “She’ll like these, all right,” one of the men hollers as the motor kicks up and pushes us away from the Arcadia. He puts his big hand on Lark’s head, and she ducks away, crawling up against me. Fern does the same. Only Gabion doesn’t know enough to be scared. “She likes the blonds, don’t she?” The officer who came on the Arcadia laughs. “Not sure what she’ll do with li’l stinky there.” He wags his chin at Camellia, and she hocks up a wad of spit and sends it at him. He lifts a hand like he’ll swat her, but then he just laughs and wipes the mess on his trousers. “To the Dawson Warehouse lot again?” the man running the motor asks. “Last I heard.” I don’t know how long we’re on the water. We travel across the river, then toward the channel where the Wolf pours into the Mississippi. When we round the tip of Mud Island, Memphis comes into full view. The big buildings stretch toward the sky like monsters waiting to swallow us whole. I think about jumping out into the water. I think about making a run for it. I think about fighting. I watch boats pass by—tugs, and paddle-wheelers, and fishing boats, and barges. Even a shantyboat. I think about yelling and waving my arms and calling for help. But who would help us? These men are the police. Are they taking us to jail? A hand settles on my shoulder, like someone’s been reading my thoughts. It stays there until we finally dock. Up the hill, I can see more buildings. “You be real good now, and keep your brother and sisters out of trouble,” the officer from the Arcadia whispers against my ear. Then he tells the other men to hold the wildcat back a minute, till she’s seen the four of us. We march up the boardwalk in a line, me carrying Gabion on my hip. The clang-clang-swish of machines and the smell of hot tar catch me, and I lose the scents of the river. We cross a street, and I hear a woman singing, a man yelling, a hammer striking metal. The loose fluff from cotton bales floats in the air like snow. In a scrappy bush at the edge of a parking lot, a cardinal sings his sharp song. Weep, weep, weep. There’s a car nearby. A big car. A man in a uniform gets out and walks around to the back door and opens it so a woman can heave her way out of the seat. She stands looking at us, squinting against the sun. She’s not a young woman or an old woman but someplace in between. She’s thick and heavy, her body settling in rolls inside her flowered dress. Her hair is short. Some of it’s gray, and some of it’s brown. Her face makes me think of a heron bird. That’s the way she watches while the policemen line us up. Her gray eyes move quick and jerky, tracking everything that’s going on. “There should be five,” she says. “The other’s coming, Miss Tann,” one officer says. “She was a shade more trouble. Tried to get away in the river.” Her tongue clicks against her teeth, tsk, tsk, tsk. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?” She fingers Fern’s chin and leans down until they’re almost nose to nose. “You wouldn’t be a bad girl, would you?” Fern’s blue eyes go wide, and she shakes her head. “What a lovely little bunch of foundlings,” the woman—Miss Tann—says. “Five precious blonds with curls. How perfect.” She claps her hands and folds them under her chin. Her eyes crinkle at the corners, and her mouth presses tight, so that she’s smiling but her lips are gone. “Only four.” The officer nods toward Camellia, who’s coming up from the river with a policeman holding her by the scruff of the neck. I don’t know what they’ve told her, but she’s not fighting anymore. Miss Tann frowns. “Well…that one didn’t get the looks in the family, did she? She’s rather common. I suppose we’ll find a taker for her, though. We almost always do.” She pulls back, putting a hand over her nose. “Good heavens. What is that smell?” Miss Tann isn’t happy when she sees up close what a mess my sister is. She tells the officers to put Camellia on the floorboard of the car and the rest of us on the seat. There are two other kids on the floorboard already—a blond-headed girl about Lark’s age and a boy who’s a little bigger than Gabion. Both of them look at me with big, scared brown eyes. They don’t say a word or move an inch. Miss Tann tries to take Gabion out of my arms before I climb in. She frowns when I hold on. “Behave yourself,” she says, and I let go. Once we’re all in the car, she holds Gabion in her lap, standing him up so he can see out the windows. He bounces and points and babbles, excited. He’s never been in a car before. “My, my, look at those curls.” She slides her fingers along my baby brother’s head, pulling his corn-silk hair upward, so it has peaks on the top like the baby dolls at the county fair. Gabion points out the window, cheering. “Ohsee! Ohsee!” He’s spotted a little girl having her picture made on a black-and-white pinto pony in front of a big house. “We just need to wash the stench of the river from you, don’t we? Then you’ll be a fine little boy.” Miss Tann’s nose crinkles up. I wonder what she means by that. Who’s going to clean us up and why? Maybe the hospital won’t let us in this way, I tell myself. Maybe we have to wash up first…to see Queenie? “His name’s Gabion,” I say, so she’ll know what to call him. “Gabby for short.” Her head turns quick, the way a cat’s does when it’s seen a mouse in the pantry. She looks at me like she forgot I was in the car. “Restrain yourself from answering questions unless you’re asked.” Her arm snakes out, fleshy and pale, and surrounds Lark, pulling her away. I look down at the two scared kids huddled together on the floor and then at Camellia. My sister’s eyes tell me that she’s figured out what I already know, even though I don’t want to. We’re not headed to the hospital to see our mama and daddy. CHAPTER 7 Avery The retirement home lies bathed in soft morning sunlight. Even with the newly added parking lot on what was once a sprawling front lawn, Magnolia Manor speaks of a bygone era—of the elegance of afternoon teas, and glittering cotillions, and formal dinners at the long mahogany table that still stands in the dining room. It’s easy to picture Scarlett O’Hara fanning herself beneath the moss-draped live oaks that shade the white-columned veranda. I remember this place’s former life, if only a tad. My mother brought me to a baby shower here when I was nine or ten. Driving over, she shared the story of attending an important cocktail reception here for a cousin who was running for the South Carolina governorship. A college girl at the time, my mother had anything but politics on her mind. She wasn’t at Magnolia Manor for thirty minutes before she noticed my father across the room. She made it her business to find out who he was. When she learned that he was a Stafford, she set her cap. The rest is history. A marriage of political dynasties. My mother’s grandfather had been a North Carolina representative before his retirement, and her father was in office at the time of the wedding. The story makes me smile as I climb the manor’s marble steps and punch the code into the incongruously modern keypad beside the front door. Important people live here still. Not just anyone is allowed to enter. Sadly, not just anyone is allowed to exit either. Behind the manor, the expansive grounds have been carefully fenced in decorative iron too tall to climb over. The gates are locked. The lake and reflecting pool can be looked at but not reached…or fallen into. Many of the residents must be protected from themselves. That’s the sad truth of it. As they decline, they move from one wing to the next, slowly progressing to higher levels of delicately provided care. There’s no denying that Magnolia Manor is more upscale than the nursing home May Crandall lives in, but both places face the same underlying challenge—how to provide dignity, care, and comfort as life turns difficult corners. I wind my way to the Memory Care Unit—here, no one would even think of crassly calling it the Alzheimer’s Unit. I let myself through another locked door and into a salon, where the television plays a rerun of Gunsmoke turned up loud. A woman by the window stares at me blankly as I pass. Beyond the glass, the climbing roses are dewy and fresh, pink and filled with life. The roses outside Grandma Judy’s window are a cheery yellow. She’s sitting in the wingback chair admiring them when I walk in. I stop one step inside the door and steel myself before drawing her attention from the plants. I prepare for her to look at me the same way the woman in the lounge did just now—without a hint of recognition. I hope she won’t. There’s never any telling. “Hi, Grandma Judy!” The words are bright, and loud, and cheerful. Even so, they take a minute to garner a reaction. She turns slowly, leafs through the scattered pages in her mind, then in her usual sweet way says, “Hello, darling. How are you this afternoon?” It’s morning, of course. As I’d predicted, the DAR meeting ran late last night, and try as I might, I couldn’t get away from the wedding interrogation. I was like a hapless grasshopper dropped into a henhouse. My head is now full of suggestions, dates I shouldn’t plan on because someone important will be out of town, and offers to loan china, silver, crystal, and linens. “Wonderful, thank you,” I tell Grandma Judy, and cross the room to hug her, hoping the moment of closeness will draw a memory from her. For an instant, it seems to. She looks deep into my eyes, then finally sighs and says, “You are so very pretty. What lovely hair you have.” Touching it, she smiles. Sadness expands in my chest. I came here hoping for answers about May Crandall and the old photograph on her nightstand. That doesn’t look very likely now. “There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead.” My grandmother smiles up at me. Cool fingers with paper-thin skin stroke my cheek. “And when she was good, she was very, very good,” I add. Grandma Judy always greeted me with this poem when I visited her house on Lagniappe Street as a child. “And when she was bad, she was horrid,” she finishes, and grins and winks, and we laugh together. It’s just like old times. I sit in the chair across the little round table. “I always loved it when you teased me with that rhyme.” In Honeybee’s home, little girls were expected to be anything but horrid, but Grandma Judy had always been known for having a spunky streak that bordered on impropriety. She’d spoken out on issues like civil rights and education for women long before it was acceptable for a female to have an opinion. She asks if I’ve seen Welly-boy, her pet name for my father, Wells. I fill her in on yesterday’s press op and the town hall forum, then the long, long, long DAR meeting at Drayden Hill. I skip over the wedding chatter, of course. Grandma Judy nods with approval as I talk, narrowing an eye and offering shrewd comments about the town hall meeting. “Wells mustn’t let those people run riot over him. They’d love to catch a Stafford meddling in the dirt, but they won’t.” “Of course not. He handled it beautifully, just like he always does.” I don’t mention how tired he looked or his seeming mental lapse under questioning. “That’s my boy. He’s a very good boy. I don’t know how he could’ve given rise to a girl who can be horrid.” “Pppfff! Grandma!” I slap a hand over hers and squeeze. She’s actually cracking jokes and drawing connections between us. It is a good day. “I think it skipped a generation.” I’m expecting a quick-witted retort. Instead, she says blandly, “Oh, many things do.” She sinks back in her chair, her hand pulling away from mine. I sense the moment fading. “Grandma Judy, I wanted to ask you something.” “Oh?” “I met a woman yesterday. She said she knew you. May Crandall. Does that sound familiar?” The names of old friends and acquaintances she can often recall with ease. It’s as if her memory book has fallen open, a persistent wind tearing out the most recent pages first. The older the memories are, the more likely they are to remain intact. “May Crandall…” As she repeats the name, I can tell immediately that she recognizes it. I’m already reaching for my phone to show her the photo when she says, “No…it doesn’t ring any bells.” I glance up from my purse, and she’s looking at me very directly, thin white lashes narrowed over seawater eyes that suddenly seem strangely intense. I’m afraid we’re about to have one of those moments where she stops in the middle of a conversation and without warning starts the visit over with something like I didn’t know you were coming by today. How have you been? Instead, she says, “Is there a reason you would ask?” “I met her yesterday…at the nursing home.” “Yes, you said. But many people know of the Staffords, dear. We must always be careful. People look for scandal.” “Scandal?” The word jolts me. “Of course.” The phone suddenly feels cold between my fingers. “I didn’t know we had any skeletons in the closet.” “Gracious. Of course we do not.” I scroll to the photo, look into the face of the young woman who reminds me even more of my grandmother now that I’m right across the table from her. “She had this picture. Do you know the person in it?” Maybe these are woodpile relatives? People my grandmother doesn’t want to acknowledge as part of the family tree? Every clan must have a few of those. Perhaps there was a cousin who ran off with the wrong sort of man and got pregnant? I turn the screen toward her, watch for her reaction. “Queen…” she murmurs, reaching out to pull the phone closer. “Oh…” Moisture wells up in her eyes. It beads and spills over, sketching trails down her cheeks. “Grandma Judy?” She’s a million miles away. Not miles, years. Years away. She’s remembering something. She knows who that is in the photo. Queen. What does that mean? “Grandma Judy?” “Queenie.” Her fingertip trails across the image. Then she turns my way with an intensity that bolts me to my chair. “We mustn’t let people find out….” she says, her voice lowered. She glances toward the door, leans close, then adds in a whisper, “They can never know about Arcadia.” It’s a moment before I can answer. My mind swirls. Have I ever heard her mention that word before? “What? Grandma Judy…what’s Arcadia?” “Sssst!” The sound is so sharp she spits a fine spray across the table. “If they ever found out…” “They? They who?” The doorknob rattles, and she sits back in her chair, folds her hands neatly one over the other. An eye flash silently instructs me to do the same. I pretend to relax, but my head is cluttered with possibilities—everything from a Watergate-style cover-up involving my grandfather to some secret society of political wives acting as Cold War spies. What has my grandmother been involved in? A friendly attendant enters with coffee and cookies. At Magnolia Manor, residents not only have meals, they also have snacks and drinks in between. My grandmother jerks a secretive backhand toward my phone, her head turning to the server. “What do you want?” The attendant isn’t flustered by the uncharacteristically gruff greeting. “Morning coffee, Mrs. Stafford.” “Yes, of course.” Grandma Judy again covertly indicates that I should put the phone away. “We’ll enjoy a cup, certainly.” I glance at the time. It’s later than I thought. I’m supposed to join my father for a luncheon and ribbon cutting in Columbia. A golden opportunity to be seen rubbing elbows in the home state, as Leslie put it. Press will be there, as will the governor. With the recent rumbles about Washington insiders and career politicians, these local events matter. I get it, but what I really want to do is stay with Grandma Judy long enough to see if I can gain some clarity on this May Crandall issue and find out what Arcadia has to do with it. Maybe she’s talking about a place? Arcadia, California? Arcadia, Florida? “I really have to go, Grandma. I’m scheduled to accompany Daddy to a ribbon cutting.” “Heavens, then I shouldn’t be holding you up.” The attendant moves in and pours two cups of coffee anyway. “Just in case,” she says. “You could take it to go,” my grandmother jokes. The coffee is in a china cup. “I probably don’t need any more this morning. I’ll be bouncing off the walls. I just stopped by to ask you about May—” “Tsst!” A hiss and a raised finger stop me from finishing the name. I’m given the snake eye, as if I’ve just cursed in church. The attendant wisely gathers her cart and leaves the room. Grandma Judy whispers, “Be careful, Rill.” “W-what?” The intensity is once again startling. What’s going on in that mind of hers? Rill. Is that a name? “Ears”—Grandma Judy points to hers—“are everywhere.” Just as quickly, her mood changes. She sighs, tips up the tiny china pitcher, and pours a dab into her coffee. “Cream?” “I can’t stay.” “Oh, I’m so sorry. I wish you had time for a visit. It was lovely of you to pop in.” At this point, we’ve been chatting for at least thirty minutes. She’s already forgotten. Arcadia, whatever it is, has disappeared into the mist. She gives me a smile as blank as a freshly washed blackboard. It’s completely genuine. She’s not sure who I am, but she’s trying to be polite. “Come again when you don’t have to rush off.” “I will.” I kiss her on the cheek and walk out of the room with no answers and even more questions. There’s no way I can let this thing drop now. I need to find out what I’m dealing with here. I’ll have to unearth some other source of information, and I know where I intend to start digging. CHAPTER 8 Rill The shadow of the big white house slides over the car, swallowing it whole. Tall, thick magnolia trees line the curb, making a leafy green wall that reminds me of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. It hides us from the street, where kids play in yards and moms push prams along the sidewalks. There’s a baby carriage on the front porch of this house. It’s old, and a wheel is missing, so it leans. It’d likely dump the baby out if you put one in it. A little boy squats in one of the magnolia trees like a monkey. He’s about Lark’s size—maybe five or six. He watches us drive in but doesn’t smile, or wave, or move. When the car stops, he disappears into the leaves. A second later, I see him crawl from the tree and squeeze under a tall iron fence that circles the backyard of this house and the place beside it. The little building next door looks like it might’ve been a school or a church once. Some kids are playing on the teeter-totters and swings there, but the doors and windows are boarded shut, and there’s hardly any paint on the wood. Brambles grow over the front porch, which makes me think of Sleeping Beauty again. Camellia stretches upward from the floorboard to see. “This the hospital?” She gives Miss Tann a look to let her know she don’t believe it for a minute. My sister has rested up on the drive, and she’s ready for another fight. Miss Tann turns her way and shifts Gabion, who’s gone plumb asleep on her lap. His little arm flops down, chubby fingers gripping and ungripping. His lips move like he’s blowing kisses in a dream. “You can’t go to the hospital looking like that, now, can you? Stinking of the river and infested with vermin? Mrs. Murphy will take care of you, and if you are very, very good, then we will see about the hospital.” A hope spark tries to catch fire in me, but I can’t find it much tinder. It snuffs out when Miss Tann looks my way. Fern crawls up my chest, her knees poking into my belly. “I want Briny,” she whisper-whines. “Hop to. Time to go inside. You’ll be just fine here,” Miss Tann tells us. “If you’re good. Am I understood?” “Yes’m,” I try to answer for all of us, but Camellia’s not giving up so easy. “Where’s Briny?” She ain’t happy about this whole thing and she’s working up to a blind-mad fit over it. I can feel it like a storm blowing in. “Hush, Camellia!” I snap. “Do what she says.” Miss Tann smiles a little. “Very good. You see? All of this can be quite simple. Mrs. Murphy will take care of you.” She waits for the driver to come around and open the car door. Then she climbs out first, taking my little brother and pulling Lark by the hand. Lark looks at me with wide eyes, but like always, she won’t fight. She’s quiet as a kitten in the hay. “You next.” The woman wants me, and I scoot across, my knees knocking into the brown-eyed boy and girl on the floorboard. Fern wraps her arms around my neck so tight I almost can’t get a breath. “You two, now.” The kids who were in the car before us clamber out onto the driveway. “Now you.” Miss Tann’s voice lowers when she looks at Camellia. She turns Gabion and Lark over to me and stands right at the car door, her legs braced apart, her body blocking the way out. She’s not a small woman. She towers over me and she looks strong. “Come on along, Camellia.” I’m begging her to be good, and she knows what I’m asking. So far, she hasn’t moved an inch. She’s got her hand around behind her back, and I’m afraid she’s planning to try the other door. What use would there be in that? We don’t know where we are or how to get back to the river or find the hospital. Our only hope is that, if we’re good like Miss Tann says, we really will get to see Briny and Queenie. Or that Silas will tell them what happened and our folks will come find us. Camellia’s shoulder jerks a little, and I hear the handle click. The door sticks, and Camellia’s nose flares. She turns around to push, and Miss Tann sighs and leans inside. When she lumbers back out, she’s dragging Camellia by her clothes. “That is enough of that! You will straighten up and behave yourself.” “Camellia, stop!” I yell. “Mellia, no, no!” Fern’s voice is like an echo. Gabion throws back his head and screams, the sound bouncing off the house and floating into the trees. Miss Tann twists her grip so she’s got a good hold on Camellia. “Do we understand one another?” Her round cheeks are red and sweaty. Her gray eyes bug out behind her glasses. When Camellia squeezes her lips tight, I think Miss Tann might swat that look right off her face, but she doesn’t. Instead, she whispers something close to Camellia’s ear, then stands over her. “We’ll be just fine now, won’t we?” Camellia’s mouth still looks like she’s sucked a lemon. The moment teeters like a bottle on the edge of the Arcadia’s deck, waiting to topple down and be swept off in the river. “Won’t we?” Miss Tann repeats. Camellia’s dark eyes burn, but she nods. “Very well then.” Miss Tann puts us in a line, and Camellia marches up the steps with the rest of us. From behind the iron fence, boys and girls of all sizes watch. Not a single one smiles. Inside, the big house smells. The curtains are pulled everywhere, and it’s shadowy. There’s a wide staircase in the front hall. Two boys sit on the top step. One of them reminds me of Silas but bigger, except his hair is red as fox fur. These boys don’t look a thing like the kids in the yard or the boy in the tree. They can’t all be brothers and sisters. Who are they? How many are there? Do they live here? Are they all here to clean up so they can see their mamas and daddies at the hospital? What is this place? We’re taken into a room where a woman waits behind a desk. She’s small compared to Miss Tann, her arms so thin the bones and veins show. Her nose pokes from her glasses, hooked like an owl’s beak. It wrinkles when she looks at us. Then she smiles and stands and greets Miss Tann. “How are you today, Georgia?” “Very well, thank you, Mrs. Murphy. It has been quite a productive morning, I daresay.” “I can see that it has.” Stroking her fingers along the desk, Mrs. Murphy draws trails in the dust as she moves toward us. One side of her lip comes up and an eyetooth flashes. “Good gracious. Where did you unearth these little waifs?” The kids cluster close to me, even the ones I don’t know. I hang on to Fern on one hip and Gabion on the other. My arms are starting to go numb, but I’m not letting go. “Aren’t they a pitiful lot?” Miss Tann says. “I do believe we’ve removed them just in time. Have you space for all of them? It would be the simplest thing. I expect to move some of them quite quickly.” “Look at that hair….” Mrs. Murphy comes closer, and Miss Tann follows. Miss Tann’s bulky body shuffles side to side as she walks. For the first time, I notice that she’s got a bum leg. “Yes, quite something, isn’t it? Four curly blonds all from the same family and…that one.” She snorts and turns an eye on Camellia. “Oh, surely she isn’t one of this batch.” Mrs. Murphy looks at me. “Is this your sister?” “Y-yes’m,” I say. “And her name is?” “C-Camellia.” “Quite a fancy name for such a common little thing. And all those silly freckles. Looks as though the stork dropped you into the wrong nest.” “She isn’t one to cooperate,” Miss Tann warns. “We’ve had trouble with her already. A little black sheep, in more ways than one.” Mrs. Murphy’s eyes narrow. “Oh my. Well, I do expect good behavior in this house. Those who fail to meet my expectations will not be allowed to keep company above stairs with the rest of the children.” She runs her tongue along her teeth. My skin turns cold. Fern and Gabion wrap their arms tighter around my neck. It’s clear enough what Mrs. Murphy means. If Camellia makes her mad, they’ll take her away and put her…someplace else. Camellia nods, but I can tell she don’t mean it a bit. “These other two with the dirt-blond hair were…found along the way.” Miss Tann gathers the boy and girl who rode on the floor with Camellia. Both have long, straight straw-brown hair and big brown eyes. The way the little boy is hanging on to the girl, I’m sure she’s his big sister. “More river rats, of course, although the camp down there was nearly empty. They must have gotten word somehow.” “Such darling faces.” “Yes, truly. These with the curls are almost angelic. They’ll be in great demand, I predict.” Mrs. Murphy pulls away. “But good gracious! They stink of the river. I can’t have that in my house, certainly. They’ll have to stay outside until bath time.” “Don’t let them out until you’re certain they fully understand the rules here.” Miss Tann drops a hand on Camellia’s shoulder, and Camellia’s head twitches so that I can tell the woman’s fingers are digging in hard. “This one is a runner. She tried to bolt from the car, of all things. Those cows along the river bottom do know how to produce them, but not how to teach them to behave. This batch will need some work.” “Of course. Don’t they all?” Mrs. Murphy nods. She focuses on me again. “And your name is?” “Rill. Rill Foss.” I try not to say anything more, but it spills out. I can’t make sense of what they’re talking about, and my heart is pounding. My knees tremble under the weight of my baby brother and sister, but that’s not the only reason. I’m scared to death. Miss Tann plans to leave us here? For how long? “When can we go see our mama and daddy? They’re at the hospital. Mama had a baby, and—” “Hush,” Mrs. Murphy says. “First things first. You will take the children into the hallway and sit them on the floor along the stairwell wall, smallest to largest. Wait there, and I’ll expect no noise and no shenanigans. Understood?” “But…” Miss Tann lays a hand on my shoulder this time. Her fingers squeeze around the bone. “I do not expect to have trouble from you. Surely you are smarter than your sister.” A pain shoots down my arm, and I feel Gabion slipping. “Y-yes’m. Yes, ma’am.” She lets go of me. I hike Gabby up again. I want to rub my shoulder, but I don’t. “And…Rill. What sort of name is that?” “It’s from the river. My daddy gave it to me. He says it sounds pretty as a song.” “We’ll call you something proper. A real name for a real girl. May will do. May Weathers.” “But I’m…” “May.” She shoos me out the door, the other kids dragging along with me. Camellia gets warned again not to do anything except sit quiet in the hallway. The little ones whine and whimper like puppies as I try to skin them off and set them down. Up the stairs, the two boys are gone. Somewhere outside, kids play Red Rover. I know that game from the schools we’ve gone to. When it’s the school year, Queenie and Briny usually try to tie up someplace near a river town so Camellia and me, and now Lark, can go. The rest of the time, we read books, and Briny teaches us arithmetic. He can make a cipher out of almost anything. Camellia’s a whiz at numbers. Even Fern knows her alphabet already, and she’s still too young for school. Next fall, Lark will start the first grade…. Lark looks up at me now, with her big mouse eyes, and a sick feeling bubbles in me like a black-water eddy. It’s got no place to go. It just spins round and round in circles. “Are they takin’ us to jail?” the little girl—the one whose name I don’t even know—whispers. “No. ’Course not,” I say. “They don’t put little kids in jail.” Do they? Camellia’s eyes slant toward the front door. She’s wondering whether she can light out of here and get away with it. “Don’t,” I spit under my breath. Mrs. Murphy told us not to make noise. The better we are, the more chance they’ll take us where we want to go, I figure. “We need to stay together. Briny’s gonna come get us soon’s he knows we’re not on the Arcadia. Soon’s Silas tells him what happened. We’ve gotta be all in one place when he shows up. You hear me?” I sound like Queenie when there’s breaking ice on the water and she won’t let us hang over the rail in case a floe might hit the boat and shake us off into the river. Times like that, she wants us to know she means it when she says no. She don’t get that way too often. Everybody nods but Camellia. Even the other little girl and boy nod. “Mellia?” “Mmmm-hmm.” She gives in and pulls her knees up and crosses her arms and sticks her face in the middle, letting her head bump hard enough to make sure we know she ain’t happy about it. I ask the other kids’ names, and neither one will say a word. Big tears roll down the little boy’s cheeks, and his sister hugs him close. A bird flies into the front-door glass and hits with a thud, and all of us jump. I stretch to see if it got up and flew off okay. It’s a pretty little redbird. Maybe he’s the one we heard by the river, and he followed us here. Now he staggers around, his feathers glittery bright in the long, lazy afternoon sun. I wish I could scoop him up before a cat can get him—we saw at least three in the bushes on the way in—but I’m afraid to. Miss Tann will think I’m trying to run. Lark gets up on her knees to see, her lip trembling. “He’ll be all right,” I whisper. “Sit down. Be good.” She does like she’s told. The bird wobbles off toward the steps so that I have to crawl away from the wall a little to see him. Fly, I think. Hurry up. Fly off before they get you. But he just stays there, his beak hanging open, his whole body panting. Fly away. Go on home. I keep watch. If a cat comes, maybe I can scare it off through the window. Words drift from under the door across the hall. I stand up real careful, tiptoe closer. I catch bits and pieces of what Miss Tann and Mrs. Murphy are saying, but none of it makes any sense. “…surrender papers right at the hospital on the five siblings. Simple and straightforward. The easiest way to sever ties. The most difficult thing was finding the exact location of their shantyboat, actually. It was moored by itself across from Mud Island, the police tell me. The little freckle-faced one tried to swim out through the loo. That’s more than just the river you caught a whiff of.” Laughter twitters, but it’s sharp like a raven’s call. “And the other two?” “Found them picking flowers near a hive of shantyboat vermin. We’ll have their papers issued soon enough. Certainly it won’t be any trouble. They seem quite mild mannered too. Hmmm…Sherry and Stevie. Those should do for names. Best to begin retraining them to them immediately. They are darling, aren’t they? And young. They might not stay long. We’ve a viewing party planned next month. I’ll expect them to be ready.” “Oh, they will be.” “May, Iris, Bonnie…Beth…and Robby for the other five, I think. Weathers should do for the last name. May Weathers, Iris Weathers, Bonnie Weathers…It has a ring to it.” Laughter comes again. It rises high and loud so that it pushes me back from the door. The last words I hear are Mrs. Murphy’s. “I’ll see to it. You can rest assured that they’ll be properly prepared.” By the time they come out, I’ve scooted into my place and checked that everyone is lined real neat along the wall. Even Camellia picks up her head and sits Indian style, the way we do in school. We wait, still as statues, while Mrs. Murphy walks Miss Tann to the door. Only our eyes turn to watch them talk on the porch. The little redbird has hopped to the stairs, but he just sits there helpless. Neither one of them notices. Fly away. I think of Queenie’s red hat. Fly all the way to Queenie, and tell her where to find us. Fly. Miss Tann limps a few steps, almost hitting the bird. My breath turns solid and Lark gasps. Then Miss Tann stops to say something else. When she starts off again, the redbird finally flies away. He’ll let Briny know where we are. Mrs. Murphy comes back inside, but she’s not smiling. She goes into the room across the hall and closes the door. We sit and wait. Camellia buries her face again. Fern lays on my shoulder. The little girl—Sherry, Miss Tann called her—holds her baby brother’s hand. “I’m hungwee,” he whispers. “I ’ungee,” Gabion echoes, way too loud. “Ssshhh.” His hair feels soft under my hand as I rub his head. “We have to be quiet. Like hide-and-seek. Like a game.” He clamps his mouth and tries his best. Being only two, he’s always left out of our “Let’s pretend” games on the Arcadia, so he’s happy to be part of it this time. I wish this was a good game. I wish I knew the rules and what we get if we win. Right now, all we can do is sit and wait for whatever happens next. We sit, and sit, and sit. It seems like forever before Mrs. Murphy comes out. I’m hungry too, but I can tell by her face we’d best not ask. She stands over us with her fists poked into her sides, her hip bones sticking out under her flowered black dress. “Seven more…” she says, frowning and looking up the stairs. A breath comes out and sinks like fog. It smells bad. “Well, there isn’t any choice about it, what with your parents unable to care for you.” “Where’s Briny? Where’s Queenie?” Camellia blurts out. “You will be silent!” Mrs. Murphy teeters on her feet as she moves down the line of us, and now I know what I smelled when she came out the door. Whiskey. I’ve been around enough pool halls to recognize it. Mrs. Murphy stabs a finger toward Camellia. “You are the reason everyone must sit here rather than going outside to play.” She stomps off down the hall, her steps drawing a crooked line. We sit. The little ones finally sleep, and Gabion falls flat out on the floor. A few other kids pass by—older and younger, boys and girls. Most wear clothes that are too big or too small. Not a single one looks our way. They walk through like they don’t notice we’re there. Women in white dresses with white aprons move up and down the hall in a hurry. They don’t see us either. I wrap my fingers around my ankles and squeeze hard to make sure I’m still there. I almost think I’ve turned into the Invisible Man, like Mr. H. G. Wells wrote about. Briny loves that story. He’s read it to us a lot and Camellia and me play it with the kids in the river camps. Nobody can see the Invisible Man. I close my eyes and pretend a while. Fern needs to potty, and before I can figure out what to do about it, she wets herself. A dark-haired woman in a white uniform walks by and spots the mess running across the floor. She grabs Fern up by the arm. “We will have none of that here. You’ll use the bathroom properly.” She pulls a sack towel from her apron and throws it over the mess. “Clean that up,” she tells me. “Mrs. Murphy will have a fit.” She takes Fern with her, and I do what she says. When Fern comes back, her drawers and dress have been washed out, and she’s wearing them wet. The lady tells the rest of us we can go to the bathroom too, but to hurry up about it and then sit down by the stairs again. We haven’t been back in our places long before someone blows a whistle outside. I hear kids clambering around. Lots of them. They don’t talk, but their footsteps echo beyond the door at the end of the hall. They’re in there a while, and then there’s a racket like they’re hurrying up stairs, but not the stairs next to us. Overhead, the boards creak and groan the way the gunwales and planking do on the Arcadia. It’s a home sound, and I close my eyes to listen and pretend I can wish us back aboard our safe little boat. My wish dries up pretty quick. A woman in a white dress stops by and says, “Come this way.” We climb to our feet to follow. Camellia goes first, and we keep the little kids between us, even Sherry and Stevie. The lady takes us through the door at the end of the hall, and everything looks a lot different back there. It’s plain and old. Strips of paper and cheesecloth hang off the wall. There’s a kitchen to one side where two colored women are busy with a kettle on the stove. I hope we’ll get to eat soon. My stomach feels like it’s shrunk to the size of a peanut. Even thinking that makes me hungry for peanuts. A big staircase rises off to the other side of the kitchen. Most of the paint’s rubbed off, like it’s been walked on a lot. Half the bars are missing from the railing. A couple loose ones hang out like the leftover teeth in Old Zede’s smile. The woman in the white uniform takes us upstairs and stands us along a hallway wall. Other kids form lines nearby, and I hear water running in a tub someplace. “No talking,” the woman says. “You will quietly wait here until it’s your turn for the bath. You will take off your clothing now and fold it neatly in a pile at your feet. All of it.” Blood prickles in my skin, hot and sticky, and I look around and see that all the other kids, big and small, are already doing what we’ve just been told to do. CHAPTER 9 Avery “May Crandall. Are you sure that name isn’t familiar?” I’m sitting in the limo with my mother and father, en route to the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Columbia. “She’s the one who found my bracelet at the nursing home yesterday.” I say found because it sounds better than lifted it right from my wrist. “The Greer design with the garnet dragonflies—the one Grandma Judy gave me. I think this woman recognized it.” “Your grandmother wore that bracelet frequently. Anyone who’d seen her in it certainly might remember it. It’s quite unique.” Mom searches her memory banks, her perfectly lined lips compressing. “No. I really don’t recall that name. Perhaps she’s one of the Asheville Crandalls? I dated a boy from that family when I was young—before your father, of course. Did you ask who her people are?” For Honeybee, as with all well-bred Southern women of her generation, this is a natural question upon meeting. Wonderful to know you. Isn’t this a lovely day? Now, tell me, who are your people? “I didn’t think to ask.” “Honestly, Avery! What are we going to do with you?” “Send me to the woodshed?” My father chuckles, looking up from a briefcase filled with documents he’s been reading. “Now, Honeybee, I have been keeping her busy. And nobody could file away all those details the way you do.” Mom swats at him playfully. “Oh, hush.” He catches her hand and kisses it, and I’m pinned in the middle. I feel thirteen years old. “Eeewww. PDA, y’all.” Since coming home I’ve readopted words like y’all, which I had expunged from my vocabulary up north. They’re good words, I’ve now decided. Like the humble boiled peanut, they serve perfectly in many situations. “Do you recall a May Crandall, Wells—a friend of your mother’s?” Honeybee retracks our conversation. “I don’t think so.” Dad reaches up to scratch his head, then remembers that he’s been amply hair-sprayed. Outdoor occasions require extra preparation. Nothing worse than ending up in the newspaper looking like Alfalfa. Leslie made sure I pulled my hair back. Honeybee and I match, actually. It’s French twist day. “Arcadia,” I blurt out, just to see if the word draws a reaction. “Was that one of Grandma Judy’s clubs…or maybe a bridge circle…or did she know someone who lived in Arcadia?” Neither my mother nor my father seems to have any unusual reaction to the word. “Arcadia, Florida?” Mom wants to know. “I’m not sure. It came up in the conversation about her bridge groups.” I don’t tell her that the way Grandma Judy said it left me uneasy. “How could I find out more?” “You’re awfully concerned about this.” I almost pull out my phone to show her the photo. Almost. My hand stops halfway to my purse, and I smooth my skirt instead. The ember of a new worry is clearly visible in my mother’s face. She doesn’t need one more thing to stress about. If I show her the photo, she’ll be certain a nefarious scheme is being perpetrated and May Crandall wants something from us. My mother is a professional worrier. “I’m really not concerned, Mama. I was just curious. The woman seemed so lonely.” “That’s sweet of you, but Grandma Judy wouldn’t be much company for her, even if they did know one another. I’ve just had to ask the Monday Girls not to visit Magnolia Manor anymore. Too many old friends stopping by just frustrates your grandmother. She’s embarrassed that she can’t place names and faces. It’s harder when it’s not family. She worries that people are talking about her.” “I know.” Maybe I should let this go. But the question nags me. It whispers and pesters and teases. It will not leave me alone all afternoon. We chat; we schmooze; we clap when my father cuts the ribbon. We spend time in the VIP lounge at the local country club, rubbing elbows with the governor and talking with corporate higher-ups. I’m even able to offer some free legal advice on the battle over natural gas fracking and ongoing legislation that could throw the doors wide open to it in neighboring North Carolina. Economy versus environment—so often it comes down to those two heavyweights duking it out in the ring of public opinion and, of course, upcoming legislation. Even as I’m discussing the cost-benefit questions, which I honestly do care about passionately, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking of the cellphone in my purse and Grandma Judy’s reaction to the photo. I know she recognized the woman. Queen…or Queenie. It’s not a coincidence. It can’t be. Arcadia. Arcadia…what? In the car on our way back to my father’s Aiken office, I offer up a few innocent-sounding excuses to slip away from my parents for a while—errands and whatnot. The truth is that I’m going to see May Crandall again. If there is something going on here, I’m better off knowing about it. Then I can decide what needs to be done. Daddy actually seems a little disappointed that we’re parting ways. He has a strategy meeting with his staff before finally going home for supper. He was hoping I’d sit in. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Wells. Avery is allowed a personal life,” Mom interjects. “She has a handsome young fianc? to keep up with, remember?” Her slim shoulders rise, and she offers me a conspiratorial smile. “And a wedding to plan. They can’t plan if they never talk.” The end of the sentence rises, singsong with anticipation. She pats my knee and leans close. A meaningful look flashes my way. Let’s get this show on the road, it says. She busies herself with her purse, lets a moment pass, and pretends to be casually switching topics. “The gardener brought in some new form of mulch the other day…for the azaleas…on a recommendation from Bitsy’s landscaper. They put it out last fall, and their azaleas were twice as thick as ours. Next spring, the gardens at Drayden Hill will be the envy of…well…everyone. Around the end of March. It should be just…heavenly.” The phrase perfect for a wedding hangs unsaid in the air. When we announced our engagement, Elliot made Bitsy and Honeybee promise they wouldn’t sweep in and hijack the decision-making process. It’s killing them, really. They’d have this thing all sewn up if we’d just get out of the way, but we’re determined to make plans in our own time, in the way we think is best. Right now, my father and Honeybee should be focusing one hundred percent on Dad’s health, not worrying about wedding arrangements. You can’t tell Honeybee that, though. I pretend not to get the drift. “I think Jason could grow roses in the desert.” Jason has managed the gardens at Drayden Hill since long before I left for college. He’d be thrilled to have the chance to show them off. But Elliot will never go for a wedding idea that originated with the moms. Elliot loves his mother, but as an only child, he’s exhausted by her constant focus on arranging his life. One thing at a time, I tell myself. Daddy, cancer, politics. Those are the big three right now. We pull up in front of the office. The driver opens the door for us, and I slip out, glad that I’m free. One last thinly veiled hint follows me out the door: “Tell Elliot to thank his mother for the suggestion about the azaleas.” “I will,” I promise, then hurry off to my car, where I do call Elliot. He doesn’t pick up. Chances are he’s in a meeting, even though it’s after five. His financial clients are international, so demands come in around the clock. I leave a quick message about the azaleas. He’ll get a laugh out of that, and he often needs it at the end of a high-stress day. A block down the road, I get a call from my middle sister, Allison. “Hey, Allie. What’s up?” I say. Allison laughs, but she sounds frazzled. The triplets are fussing in the background. “Is there any way…any way at all you could pick Courtney up from dance class? The boys are sick, and we’ve been through three sets of clothes today already, and…yeah. We’re naked again. All four of us. Court’s probably standing outside the dance studio wondering where in the world I am.” I make a quick U-turn toward Miss Hannah’s, where I was a ballet and pageant class failure back in the day. Fortunately, Court has real talent. At her spring recital, she was amazing. “Sure. Of course I’ll do it. I’m not even very far away. I can be there to get her in ten.” Allison answers with a long sigh of relief. “Thank you. You’re a lifesaver. Today, you’re my favorite sister.” It’s been a running joke since childhood, the question of who was Allison’s favorite. As the middle kid, she had her pick. Missy was older and more interesting, but I was younger and could be bossed around. I laugh softly. “Well, that’s totally worth an extra trip across town.” “And please don’t tell Mama the boys are sick. She’ll come over here, and I don’t want to take any chances on Daddy being exposed to whatever this bug is. Drop Courtney off at Shellie’s house. I’ll text the address to you. I already called Shellie’s mom. They’re fine with Court spending the night.” “Okay, will do.” Of the three of us, Allison is the most akin to Honeybee. She operates like a four-star general, but since the boys came along, she’s been overpowered by an invading army. “I’m almost at the studio. I’ll text you once I’ve rescued your daughter.” We hang up, and a few minutes later, I’m pulling up to Miss Hannah’s. Courtney is standing out front. She brightens when she sees that she hasn’t been abandoned. “Hey, Aunt Aves!” she says as she slides into the car. “Hey, yourself.” “Mom forget me again?” She rolls her eyes and lets her head sag to one side, a motion that makes her seem way more than ten years old. “No…I was just lonesome for you. I thought we could hang out, go to the park, slide down the slide, play in the play fort, that kind of thing.” “Okay, seriously, Aunt Aves…” It bothers me that she’s so quick to reject the idea. She’s too grown-up for her own good. Wasn’t it just yesterday that she was tugging my pants leg and begging me to climb trees with her at Drayden Hill? “All right, your mom did call me to pick you up, but only because the boys are sick. I’m supposed to take you to Shellie’s house.” Her face lights up, and she straightens in the passenger seat. “Oh, awesome!” I give her the stink eye, and she adds, “Not about the boys being sick, I mean.” I offer an ice cream stop, our favorite activity once upon a time, but she tells me she’s not hungry. She only has eyes for Shellie’s house, so I turn on the GPS and strike out in that direction. She whips out her cellphone to text Shellie, and my thoughts switch tracks. Arcadia and May Crandall overshadow the pangs of watching my niece rush headlong toward teenagerhood. What will May’s response be when I ask her about that word, Arcadia? It’s looking less likely that I’ll find out today. By the time I drop Courtney off, it’ll be supper hour at the nursing home. The staff will be busy, and so will May. I turn off the main road and wind through tree-clad streets lined with stately turn-of-the-century homes surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns and gardens. We’ve gone quite a few blocks before I realize why the trip to Shellie’s house has such a familiar feel to it. Grandma Judy’s home on Lagniappe is not far away. “Hey, Court. Want to run by Grandma Judy’s house with me before I drop you at Shellie’s?” I don’t like the idea of going alone, but it has just occurred to me that there might be some answers to be found among Grandma Judy’s belongings. Courtney lowers the phone, giving me a bemused look. “It’s kinda creepy, Aunt Aves. Nobody’s there, but all Grandma Judy’s stuff is still around.” Her bottom lip pouts outward. Big blue eyes regard me earnestly. It’s hard for the kids to accept the rapid change in Grandma Judy. This is their first real brush with mortality. “I’ll go with you if you really need me to.” “No, that’s all right.” I continue past the turn-off. There’s no reason to involve Courtney. I’ll run over to Lagniappe after I drop Court at her friend’s. She’s clearly relieved. “Okay. Thanks for picking me up today, Aunt Aves.” “Anytime, kiddo.” A few minutes later, she’s trotting up the driveway to Shellie’s house, and I’m bound for Lagniappe Street and the past. Blunt-force grief strikes me as I pull into the drive and step from the car. Everywhere I look, there’s a memory. The roses I helped my grandmother tend, the willow tree where I played house with the little girl from down the street, the Cinderella’s castle bay window upstairs, the yawning porch that served as a backdrop for prom photos, the water garden where the multicolored koi bobbed for cracker crumbs. I can almost feel my grandmother on the Charleston-style piazza along the side of the house. Climbing the stairs, I half expect her to be there. It’s painful to realize that she’s not. I’ll never again come to this place and be greeted by my grandmother. In the backyard, the greenhouse is stale and dusty smelling. The moist, earthy scents are gone. The shelves and pots have been removed too. No doubt my mother gave them to someone who could use them. The hidden key is right where it has always been. It catches a beam of late-afternoon light as I remove a loose brick along the foundation. From there, it’s easy enough to slip inside and turn off the alarm. After that, I stand in the living room thinking, What next? The floorboards crackle beneath me, and I jump, even though it’s an old, familiar sound. Courtney was right. The house seems vacant and spooky, no longer the second home it has always been. From the age of thirteen on, I stayed here during the school year whenever my parents were in D.C., so I could attend classes in Aiken with my friends. Now I feel like a sneak thief. This is silly anyway. You don’t even know what you’re looking for. Photos, maybe? Is the woman on May Crandall’s nightstand in any of the old albums? Grandma Judy has always been the family historian, the keeper of the Stafford lineage, the one who tirelessly pecks out labels on her old manual typewriter and attaches them to things. There isn’t a stick of furniture, a painting, a piece of artwork, or a photo in this house that isn’t carefully marked with its origins and previous owners. Her personal items—any that matter—are similarly stored. The dragonfly bracelet came to me in a well-worn box with a yellowed note taped to the bottom. July 1966. A gift. Moonstones for first photographs sent back from the moon by American exploratory spacecraft Surveyor. Garnets for love. Dragonflies for water. Sapphires and onyx for remembrance. Custom by Greer Designs, Damon Greer, designer. Beneath that, she’d added: For Avery, Because you are the one to dream new dreams and blaze new trails. May the dragonflies take you to places beyond your imaginings. —Grandma Judy It’s strange, I now realize, that she didn’t say whom the gift was from. I wonder if I can find that information in her appointment books. Never a week passed that she didn’t carefully document the details of her days, keeping track of everyone she saw, what she wore, what was served at meals. If she and May Crandall were friends or shared a bridge circle, May’s name will probably be there. Someday, you’ll read these and know all my secrets, she told me once when I asked her why she was so meticulous about writing everything down. The comment seems like permission now, but as I pass through the shadowy house, guilt niggles at me. It’s not as though my grandmother has passed away. She’s still here. What I’m doing amounts to snooping, yet I can’t get past the feeling that she wants me to understand something, that this is important, somehow, for both of us. In her little office off the library, her last appointment book still sits on the desk. The page is open to the day she disappeared for eight hours and ended up lost and confused at the former shopping mall. A Thursday. The handwriting is barely legible. It trembles and runs downhill. It looks nothing like my grandmother’s lovely, curving script. Trent Turner, Edisto is the only notation for that day. Edisto? Is that what happened when she disappeared? Somehow, she thought she was going to the cottage on Edisto Island to…meet someone? Maybe she had a dream overnight and woke up believing it was real? Perhaps she was reliving some event from the past? Who is Trent Turner? I leaf through more pages. There’s no mention of May Crandall among Grandma Judy’s social engagements over the past months. Yet, somehow, May gave me the impression they’d seen each other recently. The farther back I go, the clearer the handwriting becomes. I feel myself sinking into the familiar routines around which I once shadowed my grandmother—events for the Federation Women’s Club, the library board, the DAR, the Garden Club in the spring. It’s painful to realize that seven months ago, before her rapid downward spiral, she was still functioning reasonably well, still keeping up her social calendar, though a friend or two had mentioned to my parents that Judy has been having some lapses. I leaf through more pages, wondering, remembering, thinking about this watershed year. Life can turn on a dime. The appointment book reinforces my new awareness of this. We plan our days, but we don’t control them. My grandmother’s January notes begin with a single line scrawled haphazardly in the margin just before New Year’s Day. Edisto and Trent Turner, she’d written again. There’s a phone number jotted underneath. Maybe she was talking to someone about having work done on the cottage? That’s hard to imagine. My dad’s personal secretary has been handling Grandma Judy’s affairs since my grandfather died seven years ago. If there were any arrangements to be made, she would have taken care of them. There’s one way to find out, I guess. I grab my cell and dial the number. The phone rings once, twice. I start wondering what I’m going to say if someone answers. Ummm…I’m not sure why I’m calling. I found your name in an old notebook at my grandmother’s house, and… And…what? A machine picks up. “Turner Real Estate. This is Trent. There’s no one here to answer the phone right now, but if you’ll leave a message…” Real estate? I’m gobsmacked. Was Grandma Judy thinking about selling the Edisto place? That’s hard to fathom. The cottage has been in her family since before she married my grandfather. She loves it. My parents would’ve told me if we were letting go of the place. There must be another explanation, but since I have no way of knowing, I return to my browsing. In the closet, I find the rest of her appointment books stored in a well-worn barrister bookcase, right where they’ve always been. They’re neatly arranged in order from the year she married my grandfather to the present. Just for fun, I take out the oldest one. The milky leather cover is dry and crazed with brown cracks so that it looks like a piece of antique china. Inside, the handwriting is loopy and girlish. Notations about sorority parties, college exams, bridal showers, china patterns, and date nights with my grandfather fill the pages. In one of the margins, she has practiced signing her soon-to-be married name, the flourishes on the letters testifying to the giddiness of first love. Visited Harold’s parents at Drayden Hill, one entry says. Horseback riding. Took a few fences. Harold said not to tell his mother. She wants us in one piece for the wedding. I have found my prince. Not the slightest bit of doubt. Emotion gathers in my throat. It’s bittersweet. Not the slightest bit of doubt. Did she really feel that way? Did she really just…know it was right when she met my grandfather? Should Elliot and I have experienced some sort of…lightning bolt moment, rather than the relaxed drift from childhood adventures to adult friendship to dating to engagement because, after six years of dating, it seems like it’s time? Is there something wrong with us because we haven’t tumbled in headfirst, because we’re not in a rush? My cellphone rings, and I grab it, wanting it to be him. The voice on the other end is male and friendly, but it isn’t Elliot’s. “Hello, this is Trent Turner. I had a call from this number. Sorry I missed you. What can I help you with?” “Oh…oh…” Every possible icebreaker flies from my mind, and I blurt out, “I found your name in my grandmother’s date book.” Papers shuffle in the background. “Did we have an appointment set up here on Edisto? To look at a cottage or something? Or is this about a rental?” “I don’t know what it’s about. Actually, I was hoping you could tell me. My grandmother has been experiencing some health problems. I’m trying to make sense of the notes on her schedule.” “What day was the appointment for?” “I’m not sure if she had one. I thought she might’ve called you about selling a property. The Myers cottage.” It’s not uncommon around here for properties to be known by the names of people who owned them decades ago. My grandmother’s parents built the Edisto house as a place to escape the hot, sticky summers inland. “Stafford. Judy Stafford.” I prepare myself for the change in tone that almost invariably comes with the name. Anywhere in the state, people either love us or hate us, but they usually know who we are. “Staff…for…Stafford…” he mutters. Maybe he’s not from around here? Come to think of it, his accent doesn’t even hint of Charleston. It’s not Lowcountry, but there is some sort of drawl there. Texas maybe? Having spent so much of my childhood mingling with kids from other places, I’m good with accents, both foreign and domestic. There’s a strange pause. His tone is more guarded afterward. “I’ve only been here about nine months, but I can promise you that no one’s ever called here about selling or renting the Myers cottage. Sorry I can’t be of more help.” Suddenly, he’s trying to shuffle me off the phone. Why? “If it was before the first of the year, my grandfather, Trent Senior, was probably the one she was talking to. But he passed away over six months ago.” “Oh. My condolences.” I instantly feel a kinship that goes beyond his presence in a place I have always dearly loved. “Any idea what my grandmother was in touch with him about?” There’s another uncomfortable pause, as if he’s carefully weighing his words. “Yes, actually. He had some papers for her. That’s really all I can say.” The lawyer in me surfaces. I catch the scent of a reluctant witness who’s harboring information. “What kind of papers?” “I’m sorry. I promised my grandfather.” “Promised what?” “If she’ll come down here herself, I can give her the envelope he left for her.” Alarm bells ring in my head. What in the world is going on? “She isn’t able to travel.” “Then I can’t help you. I’m sorry.” Just like that, he hangs up. CHAPTER 10 Rill The room is quiet and wet-smelling. I open my eyes, shut them real tight, let them come open again slow. Sleep haze hangs over me so that I can’t see too clear. It’s like the river fog came crawling through the shanty windows overnight. Nothing’s where it’s supposed to be. Instead of the Arcadia’s doors and windows, there’re thick stacked-stone walls. The air smells like the closed compartments where we keep crates of stores and fuel. The stink of mold and wet dirt crawls up my nose and stays there. I hear Lark whine in her sleep. There’s the squeak of hinges instead of the soft rustle of the pull-down pallets where Lark and Fern sleep. Blinking, I look up and make out one tiny, high-up window near the ceiling. Morning light pushes through, but it’s dull and shadowy. A bush scrapes over the glass. Its branches raise a soft squeal. A scrappy pink rose hangs down, half-broke. Everything comes back in a rush. I remember going to bed on the musty-smelling cot, staring out the window at the rose as the day faded and my brother and sisters breathed longer and slower around me. I remember the worker in the white dress bringing us down the basement stairs and walking us by the furnace and the coal piles to this tiny room. You’ll sleep here until we find out whether you’re staying for good. No noise and no carrying on. You’re to be quiet. You are not to leave your beds. She pointed us to five folding cots, the kind that soldiers use in their practice camps along the river sometimes. Then she left and closed the door behind her. We huddled quiet on our beds, even Camellia. Mostly I was just glad we were by ourselves again, just the five of us. No workers, no other kids watching with curious eyes, worried eyes, sad eyes, mean eyes, hollow eyes that’re dead and hard. All of what happened yesterday plays in my head like a picture show. I see the Arcadia, the police, Silas, Miss Tann’s car, the bath line upstairs. A sickness runs over me from head to toe. It swallows me like a backwash of stagnant water, hot from the summer sun, poisoned by everything that’s fallen into it. I feel dirty from the inside out. It’s not got a thing to do with the cloudy bathwater that was brown with the sand and soap of all the kids who’d used it before me, including my sisters and Gabion. Instead, I see the worker standing over me while I step into the tub, turning my shoulder to hide myself. “Wash.” She points at the soap and the rag. “We ain’t got time for dallyin’. You river rats ain’t exactly known for bein’ prude anyhow, are you?” I don’t know what she means or how to answer. Maybe I’m not supposed to. “I said, wash up!” she hollers. “You think I got all day?” I know for sure she doesn’t. I’ve already heard her yell the same thing to other kids. I’ve heard whining and whimpering and sputtering when heads got dunked to rinse them off. Luckily, none of us Foss kids mind going underwater. The babies and even Camellia made it through the bath line without much trouble. I want to do the same, but the woman seems like she’s got it in for me, maybe on account of I’m the oldest. I squat down over the water because it’s dirty and cold. She moves to get a better look at me and stares in a way that raises gooseflesh on my skin. “Guess you ain’t too grown-ish to be in with the little girls after all. Won’t be long, though, we’ll have to move you someplace else.” I turn my shoulder even more and wash quick as I can. This morning I still feel dirty from having somebody look me over like that. I hope we’ll be gone from here before it’s time for another bath. I want the little pink rose outside to disappear. I want the window to change, the walls to turn to wood, the cement floor to shift, and melt, and go away. I want old planks worn down by our feet and the river rocking under our beds and the soft sound of Briny playing his harmonica outside on the porch. I’ve come awake at least ten times overnight. In the wee hours, Fern squeezed herself in beside me, the sagging canvas pulling us together so tight it’s a wonder she can breathe, much less sleep. Each time I let myself go under, I’m back on the Arcadia again. Each time I wake up, I’m here, in this place, and I try to make sense of it. You’ll sleep here until we find out whether you’re staying for good…. What’s that mean…for good? Aren’t they taking us to the hospital to see Briny and Queenie now that we’ve stayed the night here and got cleaned up? Are all of us going or just some? I can’t leave the babies here. What if these people hurt them? I have to protect my brothers and sisters, but I can’t even protect myself. Tears turn my mouth sticky. I’ve told myself I won’t cry. It’d only scare the little kids. I promised them everything’ll be all right, and so far, they believe it, even Camellia. I close my eyes, curl around Fern, let the tears come and seep into her hair. Sobs heave through my stomach and push up my chest, and I swallow them like hiccups. Fern sleeps right through it. Maybe her dreams make her think it’s just the river rocking her bunk. Don’t fall asleep, I tell myself. I have to put Fern back in her own cot before anybody comes. I can’t get us in trouble. The lady told us not to leave our beds. Just a minute or two more. Just a minute or two, then I’ll get up and make sure everybody’s where they’re supposed to be. I drift and wake and drift and wake. My heart slams hard against my ribs when I hear somebody breathing nearby—not one of us, somebody bigger. A man. Maybe it’s Briny. No sooner does the thought come than the scents of old grease and green grass and coal dust and sweat sift into the room. It’s not Briny. He smells of river water and sky. Morning fog in the summer and frost and woodsmoke in the winter. My mind clears up, and I listen. Feet shuffle a couple steps in the door, then stop. That’s not Briny’s walk. I pull the covers over Fern’s head, hope she won’t wake up and move just now. It’s still pretty dim, that same faint light coming through the window. Maybe he won’t notice Fern’s not on her cot. When I turn my head, I can barely see him from the edge of my eye. He’s big, taller and fatter than Briny by a lot, but that’s all I can make out. He’s a shadow, standing there. He doesn’t move or say anything. He just stands and looks. My nose runs from all the crying, but I don’t wipe it or sniffle. I don’t want him to know I’m awake. Why is he here? Camellia rolls over in her bed. No, I think. Ssshhhh. Is she looking at him? Can he see whether her eyes are open? He moves into the room. Moves, then stops, then moves, then stops. He bends over Lark’s cot, touches her pillow. He stumbles a little and bumps the wood frame. I watch through the narrow slits of my eyes. He comes to my cot next, looks down for a minute. The pillow rustles near my head. He touches it twice, real light. Then he stops at the other cots and finally leaves and closes the door. I let out the breath I’ve been holding and suck in another one and catch the smell of peppermint. When I throw off the covers and wake Fern, there’re two little white candies on the pillow. They make me think of Briny right off. When Briny hustles money at a pool hall or works on a showboat that’s docked up, he always comes back to the Arcadia with a roll of Beech-Nut Luster-Mints in his pocket. They’re the best kind. Briny plays little riddle games with us, and if we get the answers right, we get a candy. If there’s two redbirds up a tree and one on the ground and three bluebirds in a bush and four on the ground and a big ol’ crow on the fence and an owl in the barn stall, how many birds on the ground? The older you are, the tougher the questions get. The tougher the questions get, the better the Beech-Nut candies taste. The peppermint smell makes me want to run to the door and look out and see if Briny’s here. But these peppermints are another kind. They don’t feel right in my fist when I scoop them up and carry Fern to her bed. By the door, Camellia pops hers into her mouth and munches it. I think about leaving the peppermints on the little kids’ pillows, but instead, I decide it’d be better to pick them up. If the workers come, I’m afraid we might get in trouble for having them. “Stealer!” Camellia talks for the first time since the bath line last night. She’s sitting up in her bed, the shoulder of a too-big nighty sagging halfway down her arm. After the baths, one of the workers rooted through a pile and handed us these to wear. “He gave us each a candy. You can’t have ’em all. That ain’t fair.” “Ssshhh!” She’s so loud, I half expect the door to swing open and we’ll all be in a fix. “I’m saving them for everybody for later.” “You’re stealin’.” “Am not.” Sure enough, Camellia’s back to herself today, but like usual in the morning, she’s in a mood. She don’t wake up easy, even with peppermints. Most times, I’d square off with her, but right now, I’m too tired for it. “I’m saving them till later, I said. I don’t want us to get in trouble.” My sister’s bony shoulders sag. “We already got trouble.” Her black hair falls forward in mats, like a horse’s tail. “What’re we gonna do, Rill?” “We’re gonna be good so’s the people will take us to Briny. You can’t try to run away anymore, Camellia. You can’t fight them, okay? If we make them mad, they won’t take us.” She stares hard at me, her brown eyes squinted into slits so that she looks like the Chinamen who wash river town laundry in big, boiling kettles along the bank. “You think they’ll take us, for sure? Today?” “If we’re good.” I hope it’s not a lie, but maybe it is. “Why’d they bring us here?” The question chokes her. “Why didn’t they just leave us be?” My mind scrambles around, trying to figure it out. I need to explain it to myself as much as to Camellia. “I think it’s a mistake. They must’ve figured Briny wasn’t comin’ back to look after us. But Briny’ll tell them soon’s he finds out that we’re gone. He’ll tell them this is all somebody’s big mistake, and he’ll take us home.” “Today, though?” Her chin quivers, and she pushes her bottom lip up hard, bolts it the way she does when she’s about to pick a fight with a boy. “I bet today. I bet today for sure.” She sniffs and wipes snot with her arm. “I ain’t lettin’ them women get me in that bathtub again, Rill. I ain’t.” “What’d they do to you, Camellia?” “Nothin’.” Her chin pokes up. “They just ain’t gettin’ me in there again, that’s all.” She stretches a hand toward me, opens it. “If you ain’t gonna give them candies to everybody, let me have ’em. I’m starved.” “We’ll save the rest for later….If we get to go outside where the kids were yesterday, I’ll pull them out then.” “You said Briny was gonna come later.” “I don’t know when. I just know he will.” She screws her lips to one side like she’s not believing it for one minute, then turns herself toward the door. “Maybe that man can help us get away. The one who brung us the peppermints. He’s our friend.” I’ve already thought about that. But who was the man? Why did he come in here? Does he want to be our friend? He’s the first one who’s been nice to us at Mrs. Murphy’s house. “We’ll wait for Briny,” I say. “We’ve just gotta be good till then, that’s—” The door handle rattles. Camellia and I fall into our beds both at the same time and pretend we’re sleeping. My heart pumps under the scratchy blanket. Who’s out there? Is it our new friend or someone else? Did they hear us talking? I don’t have long to wonder. A brown-haired lady in a white dress comes in. I watch her through a thin place in the blanket. She’s stout as a lumberjack and round in the middle. She isn’t one of the women we saw yesterday. At the door, she frowns, then looks toward our beds, then at the keys in her hand. “All of you, out of bet.” She talks like the family from Norway whose boat was tied up down the way from ours for a month last summer. Bed sounds like bet, but I know what she means. She doesn’t seem mad, really, just tired. “On your feet, and folt the blankets.” We scramble up, all except Gabion. I have to rustle him from his cot, and he stumbles around and lands on his rear while I take care of the blankets. “Someone else was in this room duringk the night, yes?” She holds up a key pinched between her fingers. Should we tell her about the man with the peppermints? Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be in our room? Maybe we’ll get in trouble if they find out we didn’t tell. “No’m. Not nobody. Just us,” Camellia answers before I can. “And you are the troublemakingk one, I am tolt.” A hard look comes Camellia’s way, and my sister shrinks a little. “No’m.” “Nobody came in.” I have to lie too. What else can I do now that Camellia told a fib? “Unless it happened while we were sleepin’.” The woman pulls the chain on the lightbulb overhead. It flickers, and we blink and squint. “This door shouldt have been lockedt. It was, yes?” “We dunno,” Camellia pipes up. “We was in our beds the whole night.” The woman looks at me, and I nod, then make myself busy with cleaning up the room. I want to get rid of the peppermints, but I’m too scared to, so I keep them stuck in my hand, which makes it hard to fold the blankets, but the lady doesn’t notice. Mostly, she’s just in a hurry to get us out of there. When we leave the room, I see the big man standing there in the basement, leaning on a broom handle next to the fat black boiler stove with slats that look like the mouth on a Halloween pumpkin. The man watches us go by. Camellia smiles over at him, and he smiles back. His teeth are old and ugly, and his thin brown hair hangs down around his face in sweaty strings, but still, the smile is nice to see. Maybe we do have a friend here after all. “Mr. Riggs, if you have nothingk else that must be done, see to the branch that has fallen in the yardt duringk the night,” the woman says, “before the children are goingk out.” “Yes’m, Mrs. Pulnik.” His lips curve up at the edges, and he moves the broom a little as Mrs. Pulnik starts up the stairs, but he doesn’t sweep anything. Camellia looks back over her shoulder, and he winks at her. The wink makes me think of Briny, so maybe I do like Mr. Riggs a little bit. Upstairs, Mrs. Pulnik takes us to the laundry room and gives us some things off a pile. She calls them playclothes, but they’re really not much more than rags. She tells us to get ourselves dressed and use the bathroom, and we do, and breakfast looks a lot like the supper they gave us last night after the bath—a little scoop of cornmeal mush. We’re late getting to the table. The other kids have already gone to play. After we’ve scraped our bowls clean, we’re told to get outside too and not to try leaving the backyard and the churchyard, or else. “Andt you will not be goingk near to the fence.” Mrs. Pulnik grabs Camellia’s arm and Lark’s before we can make it through the door. She leans over us with her round cheeks red and sweat shiny. “A boy tunneledt underneat yesterday. Mrs. Murphy has given him the closet. To be given the closet is very, very bat. In the closet, it is dark. Do you understandt?” “Yes’m,” I croak out, picking up Gabby and reaching for Lark to get her away. She’s standing still as a stump, not a thing moving but the big old tears dripping down her cheeks. “I’ll make sure they mind the rules till we can go see our mama and daddy.” Mrs. Pulnik’s big lips push together and curl. “Goot,” she says. “This is a wise choice for you. All of you.” “Yes’m.” We get out the door quick as we can. The sun feels like heaven, and the sky stretches out big between the poplars and maples, and the bare dirt at the bottom of the steps is cool and soft. Safe. I close my eyes and listen to the leaves talking and the birds singing their morning songs. I pick out their voices, one by one, Carolina wren, redbird, house finch. The same birds that were there yesterday morning when I woke up on our little shantyboat. The little girls grab on to my dress, and Gabby hitches himself back against my arms, trying to get down, and Camellia complains that we’re just standing there. I open my eyes, and she’s looking at the tall black iron fence that circles the yard. Honeysuckle and prickly holly and azaleas grow thick over most of it, higher than our heads. There’s only one gate that I can see, and it goes to the playground behind the run-down church house next door. That’s got more of the same fence around it too. Camellia’s way too big to squeeze under, but she looks like she’s searching for the best spot to try it. “Let’s go over on the swings at least,” she whines. “We can watch the road from there…for when Briny comes to get us.” We move across the yard, Gabion in my arms and my sisters in a tight knot behind me, even Camellia, who usually picks a fight at every school we go to quicker than you can say spit. The kids eyeball us because we’re new. We pretend we don’t notice it. We’re usually good at this game—don’t act too friendly; look out for each other; let them know that if they mess with one of you, they’d better be able to whip the bunch of you. But this time it’s different. We don’t know the rules in this place. There’s no teacher around watching. There’s not a grown-up in sight. Nobody but kids, all stopping their games of jump rope and Red Rover to stare at us. I don’t see the little girl who came with us from the river yesterday. Her baby brother—the one Miss Tann named Stevie—sits in the dirt with a tin truck that’s missing all its paint and one wheel. “Where’s your sister?” I squat down beside him, Gabion’s weight putting me off balance so that I have to brace a hand on the ground to keep from falling over. Stevie’s shoulders lift and fall, and his big brown eyes turn watery. “You can come with us,” I tell him. Camellia grumbles, “He ain’t our problem.” I tell her to hush. Stevie rolls a pouty lip and nods and lifts both arms. There’s a big bite mark on one of them, and I wonder who did it. I scoop him up and push myself back to my feet. He’s older than Gabion, but he weighs about the same. He’s a skinny little thing. Two girls playing with dented tin dishes look our way. They’ve raked the old dead leaves and made a pretending spot in the shade of the well house, like Camellia and I do in the woods sometimes. “You wanna play?” one of them asks. “Bugger off,” Camellia snaps. “We ain’t got time. We’re goin’ over to the churchyard to watch for our daddy.” “You hadn’t oughta.” The girls turn back to their game, and we move on along. At the gate to the churchyard, a big boy pops out from behind the hollies. Now I see they’ve got a tunneled-out spot in the bushes. There’s four or five of them back there with a deck of cards. One’s carving a spear with his pocketknife. He gives me a squinty look and tests the sharp point with his finger. The big redheaded boy stands in the gate, his arms crossed over his chest. “You come down here,” he says, like he’s in charge of me. “They can go over and play.” It’s clear enough what he means. He wants me to clamber up under the bushes with the four of them. Otherwise my brother and my sisters can’t go in the churchyard. My face turns hot. I feel the blood pouring in. What’s he got in mind? Camellia says what’s just gone through my head. “We ain’t goin’ no place with you.” She braces her feet apart and pokes her chin out about even with his chest. “You ain’t the boss of us.” “I ain’t talkin’ to you, mudpuppy. You’re hound-dog ugly. Anybody ever tell you that? I’m talkin’ to your pretty sister here.” Camellia’s eyes bug out. She’s on her way to getting full-out mad. “Ain’t ugly as you, carrothead. Your mama cry when you was born? Bet she did!” I hand Gabby over to Fern. Little Stevie doesn’t want to turn loose. His arms stay locked tight around my neck. If we’re gonna have a fight, I don’t need a baby hanging on me. The redheaded boy is probably more than Camellia and me can handle, and if his chums come out of there, we’re in real trouble. There’s still no workers anyplace in sight, and one of those ugly mugs has a knife. The redhead’s nostrils flare, and he uncrosses his arms. Here it comes. Camellia’s put in a bid we can’t pay this time. The boy stands at least a half foot taller than me, and I’m tall. My mind runs like a squirrel on a spring day, jumping from branch to branch. Think. Think of something. Always use your brains, Rill, Briny says in my mind, and you’ll find your way out of a scrape quicker’n anything. “I got peppermints,” I blabber, and reach into the pocket of my borrowed dress. “You can have the whole bunch, but you gotta let us pass.” The boy pulls his chin back and squints at me. “Where’d you get peppermints?” “I ain’t a liar.” I can barely choke out the four words because Stevie’s hanging on to me so tight. “You gonna let us pass or not?” “You gimme the peppermints.” The other rowdies are already shinnying out of their hidey-hole so they can grab their share. “Those are ours!” Camellia argues. “Be quiet.” I pull out the mints. They’re a little dirty from being stuck to my hand this morning, but I don’t reckon these boys care. The redhead opens his fingers, and I dump the candy in. He lifts it up so close to his face, his eyes go crossed, and he looks even dumber than before. A slow, mean smile spreads his lips. He’s got a chipped tooth in front. “You get these from ol’ Riggs?” I don’t want to bring trouble on the man from the basement. He’s the only one who’s been nice to us so far. “Ain’t your business.” “He’s our friend.” Camellia can’t keep her mouth shut. Maybe she thinks it’ll scare the boys if they know the big man likes us. But the redheaded boy just grins. He leans close to my ear, near enough that I can smell his stinky breath and feel his heat on my skin. He whispers, “Don’t let Riggs get you off by yourself. He ain’t the kind of friend you want.” CHAPTER 11 Avery Spanish moss drips from the trees, as delicately spun as the lace on a bridal veil. A blue heron launches itself from the salt marsh, disturbed by the passage of my car. It flies clumsily at first, as if it needs a moment to become at home in the air, to find its wings. It beats hard, then finally floats into the distance, in no hurry to be earthbound again. I know the feeling. For two weeks, I’ve been trying to sneak away and make the drive to Edisto Island. Between the meetings and press ops that were already scheduled and an unexpected complication with Dad’s health, it’s been impossible. I’ve spent the last six days in doctors’ offices, holding my mother’s hand as we tried to discern why, when the cancer and intestinal bleeding were supposed to have been cured by the surgery, Dad was once again anemic and so weak he could barely stay on his feet. After endless tests, we think the cause has been found. The solution was simple—a laparoscopic surgery to fuse broken blood vessels in his digestive system, a problem unrelated to the cancer. Outpatient. Quick and easy. Except nothing is simple when you’re trying to hide from the whole world, and Dad insists on not telling anyone he has experienced a minor setback in his health. Leslie is completely onboard with that. She’s reporting that my father had a nasty case of food poisoning; he’ll be back to his regularly scheduled activities in a few days. My eldest sister, Missy, stepped in to handle appearances at a couple of charity events that couldn’t be canceled. “You look exhausted, Aves,” she said. “Why don’t you get away for a little while, since Leslie has pretty much cleared the schedule anyway? Go see Elliot. Allison and I can keep an eye on things at Drayden Hill.” “Thanks…but…Well, you’re sure?” “Go. Talk wedding plans. Maybe you can convince him to knuckle under to the mom pressure.” I didn’t tell her that, other than a few rushed conversations, Elliot and I haven’t even discussed wedding ideas. We have too much else going on. “Elliot had to fly to Milan to meet with a client, but I think I’ll go down to the old place on Edisto. Has anyone been there lately?” “Scott and I took the kids for a few days…oh…I guess it was last spring. The housekeeping service keeps the place in such great shape. It should be all ready for you. Go have a little vacay.” I was packing a suitcase almost before she could tell me to say hello to the beach for her. On the way out of town, I paid a long-overdue visit to May Crandall’s nursing home. An attendant there told me May had been hospitalized with a respiratory infection. The attendant didn’t know how serious it was or when to expect May back. Which means that the mysterious packet of papers on Edisto is my one possible lead, at least for now. Trent Turner won’t take my phone calls. Period. My only option is to confront him in person. The envelope he’s holding has begun to haunt my every waking moment. I’m getting a little obsessed, making up stories in which he plays different parts in each scene. Sometimes he’s a blackmailer who has discovered a horrible truth about my family and sold the information to my father’s opponents; that’s why he won’t answer my calls. Other times, he’s the man in May Crandall’s photograph. The pregnant woman he’s holding close is my grandmother, and she had some sort of hidden life before she married my grandfather. A teenage love affair. A scandal that’s been covered up for generations. She gave the baby away, and it’s been living somewhere all this time. Now our dispossessed heir wants a fair share of the family money, or else. All my scenarios seem crazy, but they’re not completely unfounded. I’ve learned things from reading between the lines in my grandmother’s appointment books. My dragonfly bracelet has some sort of deeper history on Edisto. A lovely gift for a lovely day on Edisto, the entry read. Just us. It’s the just us part that niggles at me. Only a page before, she’d noted receiving a letter from my grandfather, who had taken the children fishing in the mountains for the week. Just us… Who? Who was buying gifts for her on Edisto in 1966? My grandmother often came here alone over the years, but many times she wasn’t alone after she arrived on the island. That much was obvious from her daybooks. Could she have been having an affair? My stomach roils as the Dawhoo Bridge rises ahead. That can’t be the case. Despite the pressure of a life lived in public, my family has always been known for rock-solid marriages. My grandmother loved my grandfather deeply. Aside from that, Grandma Judy is one of the most upright people I know. She’s a pillar of the community and a fixture at the Methodist church. She would never, ever keep a secret from the family. Unless that secret is something that could hurt us. And that’s exactly what scares me. It’s also why I can’t have an envelope floating around heaven knows where with my grandmother’s name on it and some sort of clandestine information inside. “Ready or not, here I come,” I whisper into the salt air. “What was it that you wanted with my grandmother, Trent Turner?” While sitting in cars and doctors’ waiting rooms these past few weeks, I’ve tried researching Trent Turner, Sr., and Trent Turner, Jr., the grandfather and father of the Trent I talked to on the phone, who is Trent Turner III. I’ve looked for political connections, criminal records, or whatever might explain ties to my grandmother. I’ve used all my favorite prosecutor tricks. Unfortunately, there is nothing obvious. According to an obit from seven months ago in the Charleston paper, Trent Turner, Sr., was a lifelong resident of Charleston and Edisto Island and the owner of Turner Real Estate. Just an ordinary fellow. Plain and simple. His son, Trent Turner, Jr., is married and lives in Texas, where he owns a real estate agency. Trent Turner III doesn’t seem to be anyone out of the ordinary either. He played basketball at Clemson and was pretty good at it. He was in the commercial real estate business until recently, mostly in New York. A local press release from a few months ago indicates he left the city behind to take over his grandfather’s business on Edisto. Why, I can’t help but wonder, does a man who’s been brokering high-rises suddenly move to an out-of-the-way place like Edisto and start dealing in beach cottages and vacation rentals? I’ll find out soon enough. I’ve looked up his work address. One way or another, I plan to leave the Turner Real Estate office with my grandmother’s envelope and all of its contents, whatever they may be. Despite the nervousness that stirs inside me, Edisto begins to work its magic as I descend the island side of the bridge and continue along the highway, passing small, sea-weathered homes and a few businesses tucked among pines and live oaks. Overhead, the sky is a perfect shade of blue. This place is still so much like I remember it. It has a peaceful, gracious, untraveled feel. There’s a reason the locals have nicknamed the island Edi-slow. The ancient oaks bow low over the road, as if seeking to shield it from the outside world. Moss-laden trees paint deep shade over the small SUV I’ve spirited away from the barn at Drayden Hill for the trip. The back roads on Edisto can be a little rugged, and beyond that, showing up in a BMW didn’t seem like a good idea considering that I’m wondering if the contents of the envelope have anything to do with blackmail. The Turner Real Estate building is easy to find. It’s quaint but not necessarily impressive—the sort of place that’s happy to be just what it is, a seawater-blue vintage cottage on Jungle Road, just a couple blocks from water. Now that I’m here, it does look vaguely familiar, but as a kid, of course, I never had any reason to go inside. As I park and cross the sand-sprinkled lot, I’m momentarily jealous of the man I’ve come here to find. I could work in a place like this. I could live here even. Just another day in paradise, every single morning. From not far away, laughter and beach sounds drift over. Colorful kites fly above the treetops, kept in the air by a steady sea breeze. Two little girls run down the street, trailing long red ribbons on sticks. Three women pedal by on bicycles, laughing. Once again, I’m envious, and then I think, Why don’t I come here more often? Why don’t I ever call my sisters or my mother and say, “Hey, let’s just take off and go sit in the sun awhile. We could use some girl time, right?” Why haven’t Elliot and I ever come here? The answer tastes bitter, so I don’t chew on it very long. Our schedules are always filled with other things. That’s why. Who chooses the schedules we keep? We do, I guess. Although, so often it seems as if there isn’t any choice. If we aren’t constantly slapping new paint on all the ramparts, the wind and the weather will sneak in and erode the accomplishments of a dozen previous generations of the family. The good life demands a lot of maintenance. Walking up the porch steps to Turner Real Estate, I grab a fortifying breath. The sign says COME ON IN. WE’RE OPEN….So I do. A jingling bell announces my entry, but there’s no one behind the counter. The front room is a lobby area with colorful vinyl chairs lining its edges. A watercooler waits with paper cups. Racks display endless brochures. A popcorn machine reminds me that I’ve missed lunch. Beautiful photographs of the island line the walls. The base of the counter across the room is decorated with children’s artwork and photos of happy families posing in front of their new beach homes. The display randomly mixes past and present. Some of the black-and-whites appear to be from all the way back in the fifties. I stand and I scan them, looking for my grandmother. There’s no sign of her. “Hello?” I venture, since nobody seems to be materializing from the rooms down the hall. “Hello?” Maybe they’ve stepped out for a minute? The place is dead quiet. My stomach growls, crying out for popcorn. I’m about to raid the machine when the back door opens. I slap the popcorn bag down and turn around. “Hey! I didn’t know anyone was in here.” I recognize Trent Turner III from the photo online, but that picture was taken from a distance, a full-body shot in front of the building. He was wearing a ball cap and had a beard. It didn’t do him justice. Now he’s clean-shaven. Dressed in khakis, well-worn loafers with no socks, and a nicely fitted polo shirt, he looks like he belongs under an umbrella table somewhere…or in an ad for casual living. He’s sandy blond and blue-eyed, the hair just shaggy enough to backhandedly say, I live on beach time. He moves up the hall, juggling a couple to-go bags and a drink. I catch myself ogling the haul. I think I smell shrimp and chips. My stomach offers another audible protest. “Sorry, I…there was no one here.” I thumb over my shoulder toward the door. “Ran out for some lunch.” Placing the food on the counter, he looks around for a napkin, then settles for swiping up stray cocktail sauce with a piece of printer paper. Our handshake is sticky but friendly. “Trent Turner,” he says with casual ease. “What can I do for you?” His smile makes me want to like him. It’s the kind of smile that assumes people do like him. He seems…honest, I guess. “I called you a couple weeks ago.” No sense starting right off with names. “Rental or buy-and-sell?” “What?” “A place. Were we talking about a rental or a property listing?” He’s searching his memory banks, clearly. But there’s also more than casual interest coming my way. I feel a spark of…something. I catch myself smiling back. Guilt niggles at me instantly. Should an engaged woman—even a lonely one—be reacting this way? Maybe it’s just because Elliot and I have barely talked in almost two weeks. He’s been in Milan. The time difference is difficult. He’s focused on the job. I’m focused on family issues. “Neither one.” I guess there’s no sense postponing this any longer. The fact that this guy is good-looking and likeable doesn’t change reality. “I called you about something I found at my grandmother’s house.” My fledgling friendship with Trent Turner is, no doubt, doomed to be short-lived. “I’m Avery Stafford. You said you had an envelope addressed to my grandmother, Judy Stafford? I’m here to pick it up.” His demeanor changes instantly. Muscular forearms cross over a ripped chest, and the counter quickly becomes a negotiation table. A hostile one. He looks displeased. Very. “I’m sorry you wasted the trip. I told you, I can’t give those documents to anyone but the people they’re addressed to. Not even family members.” “I have her power of attorney.” I’m already pulling it from my oversized purse. Being the lawyer in the family, and with my mother and father preoccupied by the health issue, I am the one designated on Grandma Judy’s documents. I unfold them and turn the pages toward him as he’s lifting his hand to protest. “She’s in no shape to handle her own affairs. I’m authorized to—” He rejects the offering without even looking at the papers. “It’s not a legal matter.” “It is if it’s her mail.” “It’s not mail. It’s more like…cleaning up some loose ends from my grandfather’s files.” His eyes duck away, take in the swaying palms outside the window, evading my probing. “It’s about the cottage here on Edisto then?” This is a real estate office, after all, but why maintain such secrecy over real estate documents? “No.” His answer is disappointingly brief. Usually, when you throw a wrong assumption at a witness, the witness responds by inadvertently giving you at least a piece of the right one. It’s obvious that Trent Turner has been through many a negotiation before. In fact, I sense that he’s been through this very negotiation before. He did say those documents and people, as in multiple. Are other families being held hostage as well? “I’m not leaving until I find out the truth.” “There’s popcorn.” His attempt at humor only serves to stoke the fire in my belly. “This isn’t a joke.” “I realize that.” For the first time, he seems slightly sympathetic to my plight. His arms uncross. A hand runs roughly through his hair. Thick brown lashes close over his eyes. Stress lines form around the edges, hinting at a life that was once considerably more high-pressure than this one. “Look, I promised my grandfather…on his deathbed. And trust me—it’s better this way.” I don’t trust him. That’s the point. “I’ll go after them legally if I have to.” “My grandfather’s files?” A sardonic laugh indicates that he doesn’t take to threats very well. “Good luck with that. They were his property. They’re my property now. You’ll have to be satisfied with that.” “Not if this could damage my family.” The look on his face tells me I’ve struck close to the truth. I feel sick. My family does have a deep, dark secret. What is it? Trent lets out a long sigh. “It’s just…This really is for the best. That’s all I can tell you.” The phone rings, and he answers it, seeming to hope the interruption will drive me away. The caller has a million questions about Edisto beach rentals and activities on the island. Trent takes the time to talk about everything from fishing for black drum to finding mastodon fossils and arrowheads on the beach. He gives the caller a lovely history lesson about wealthy families who resided on Edisto before the War Between the States. He talks about fiddler crabs and pluff mud and harvesting oysters. He pops fried shrimp into his mouth, savors them while he listens. Turning his back to me, he leans against the counter. I return to my original seat by the door, perch on the edge, and stare at his back while he offers an endless litany about Botany Bay. He seems to describe the four-thousand-acre preserve inch by inch. I tap my foot and drum my fingers. He pretends not to notice, but I catch him peeking at me from the corner of his eye. I pull out my phone and thumb through email. If worse comes to worst, I’ll scroll through Instagram or dawdle around with the wedding ideas my mom and Bitsy want me to look at on Pinterest. Trent bends over a desktop computer, looks up information, talks