Read Ashes to Ashes Online

Authors: Melissa Walker

Ashes to Ashes

BOOK: Ashes to Ashes
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Dedication

For Tommy Walker, my favorite nephew

One

I WAKE UP WITH A JERK,
not certain what startled me. I was having a good dream, the kind you want to hang on to after you wake up, and I try to re-create everything that was happening. I think Mama was there, but I can't get the details clear in my head.

Wanting to recapture them, I snuggle down deeply into the warmth and comfort—

The alarm blares.

The warmth and comfort beside me bucks. “Geez, Callie! Why the alarm? It's summer.”

Horrified, I quickly slam the Snooze button, then twist around and shake my boyfriend, who's already drifting off again. “Nick, you gotta go. Dad's up.”

That jars him out of his drowsy haze. He bolts out of bed and starts searching frantically for his shoes. His brown hair sticks up in all directions and his eyes are sleepy.
Adorable
. I bring the covers up to my chin, trying to keep the warmth cocooned around me, to delay having to deal with the unnatural chill of the morning as long as possible.

Nick snatches up his sneakers and drops down onto the edge of my bed to put them on.

“So what did you want to talk to me about?” I ask. Late last night, he snuck in through my bedroom window like he has a hundred times before. We watch TV, talk, gorge on honey barbecue Fritos and mini peanut butter cups. We kiss, make out, but always, always stop short of going all the way, even though I'm more than ready.

Nick once told me, “If your dad catches me spending the night, he'll kill me. If he catches me and thinks we've done more than sleep, he'll kill me slowly.”

He glances back over his shoulder, his brown eyes softening. “Later.”

He said the same thing when he arrived a little after midnight and realized I was snuggled beneath the blankets, having my own private
Walking Dead
marathon. He crawled into bed with me and got caught up in the story. With his arms wrapped securely around me, I fell asleep first. At some point he must have turned off the television.

I hear Dad's heavy step across the kitchen tiles below, and I wait for the clink of his coffee cup in the sink. When it comes, I know it'll be exactly twenty-seven minutes before he leaves for work—that's how long it takes him to read the paper, which he does
after
coffee so that he can fully concentrate.

Clink.

“We still have a few minutes if you're going to sneak out before Dad leaves,” I tell Nick. “Give me a hint.”

“Not enough time for even that.”

He leans over and gives me a quick kiss, but I put my hand on the back of his neck and pull him closer.

“I gotta go,” he whispers. Reluctantly, I release him.

He bounds toward the window as I throw off the covers. A blast of coldness sends a chill through me.

Perched on the window seat, Nick raises the window. He clambers onto a sturdy branch of the oak tree.

I rest my folded arms on the windowsill. “I love you.”

“Same here.” Reaching out, he tucks my hair behind my ear. “Just remember that.”

Something sad touches his eyes, and a sense of foreboding rushes through me. “Nick—”

“See you tonight.”

Then he's gone. I watch him scramble down the tree, then dash across the front yard. I know he parked his car down the block, just to be sure that Dad doesn't discover he was here when he wasn't supposed to be.

I close the window and wrap my arms around myself, listening as my dad walks over to the hall closet and pulls out his shoes. He shined them last night, like he does every night, in front of some History Channel documentary about bombs. It's not like his shoes have to be perfect—he's a professor now, head of the physical science department at the Citadel, not a full-time military man anymore. But the spit shine—like his precisely timed morning and his insistence that my alarm go off at seven a.m. even when I'm on summer vacation—is something that has stuck with him from his days as a naval officer.

I wonder if any of Nick's warmth is still in my bed. I want to curl back up beneath the covers, but Dad has no tolerance for a daughter who doesn't get up and get going. I stomp into the hallway and check the AC. Dad has it set to sixty-two degrees. It's sweltering outside, as it always tends to in the Charleston summer, but do we have to keep the inside of our house set to morgue temperature? I turn it up to seventy and jump into the shower.

When I get downstairs, I catch Dad leaning against the counter and reading the Features section of the
Post and Courier
, which means he's almost ready to go. He always reads news, then sports, then business, then features.

This morning the paper was riveting enough to provide Nick with a chance to slip away undetected. As I pass by, I lift up on my toes and give Dad a quick kiss on the cheek. Usually he doesn't react, but today he homes his gaze in on me, like a sniper lining up his sights.

“What?” I ask, guilt gnawing at me because maybe he knows that Nick was here.

He nods toward a small, perfectly wrapped package next to the always empty ceramic cookie jar that's there just for show, to give the impression that we have someone here who might bake. The white marble countertop is gleaming. Our housekeeper, Carla, comes every other day to keep our lives spotless.

Last week I got a letter informing me of my acceptance into a visiting students summer program at the University of North Carolina, a few hours north of Charleston. Dad was flatlined, as usual—no high five, no down low, no fist bump—but I could tell he was really proud. They don't take many high school kids. I was a little unsure about whether or not I'd really go—the program starts in two weeks. I knew I should, for my transcript, for summer enrichment, blah, blah, blah, but I had a difficult time with the fact that I'd be away from Charleston—and Nick—all summer.

Dad talked me into it, though, with one very big promise.

“Oooh.” I pick up the package, tug on the black bow, and open the lid of the cream-colored box.

Keys.

On a BMW key chain.

The note says, “For Callie May. From your loving father.”

The formal tone is so Dad. Breaking into a smile, I throw my arms tightly around his neck and release an excited scream. “Is it outside?”

“Yes.” Dad pushes back from the counter, away from me, and straightens his tie. I'm bursting with anticipation, but I know rules are definitely coming. “Callie, this is for you to drive up to Chapel Hill this summer. It is not for cruising around with your friends; it is
not
for joyriding.” His voice is gruff.

I nod obediently. “Yes, sir.”

“One other thing: no one drives it but you.”

My father taught me to drive with military precision. I had to learn on a stick shift, and before I got my license, he required me to pass an exam of his own creation, which involved things like pulling my right front tire within one inch of a puddle ahead of me and parallel parking into a space that left me with less than half a foot around each bumper. It was way harder than the DMV's three-point turns and stop-on-red test.

I nod again, too excited to
sir
him right now. “Thank you, Daddy! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

He gives me a quick pat on the shoulder before picking up his briefcase. “And don't let Carson talk you into burning any oregano or doing voodoo in the backseat—that new-car smell is half the joy of it.”

I jiggle the keys in my hand. “Do you have time for a spin?” I ask, knowing that he doesn't. He's always at work at exactly “0800 hours.”

But he surprises me this morning. “Just once around the block.”

I grin and run upstairs to get my shoes—the sneakers my dad insists I wear when driving, for safety.

In thirty seconds, we're out the door, and I'm eyeing the sleek silver two-door 3 Series convertible and running my hand appreciatively along the driver's side door. “Thank you,” I gush again. And I picture this scene in my head: a father and daughter, a new convertible just in time for her sixteenth summer. But there's a reason my father spoils me, and it's not because he's superwealthy or because I'm an entitled snob. It's because my mother's dead.

We cruise slowly around our sleepy neighborhood, and I revel in the fact that Dad is going to be late for work this morning—for me. We don't talk; we don't turn on the radio. Even though it's already nearly eighty degrees outside, I open my window to feel the air, and my father does the same. I watch his face relax as we listen to the bird tweets and hissing sprinklers and lawn mower engines over the BMW's soft purr. I've gotten good at seeing my father out of the corner of my eye, and I take advantage of any opportunity to do it, because when he thinks I'm not watching, he's more himself, more like the Dad I remember from before. It's like he believes that showing any emotion around me will make me sad. But I see him now, letting the warm air hit his face and ruffle through his military buzz cut, and I can sense a softening in him.

We pass Carson's bungalow-style house and her mother's prize roses, then the Sullivans' place with their carefully staked tomato plants. With my father in the car, I won't travel over twenty-five miles per hour. I watch the speedometer needle carefully, knowing that he's aware of it, too, and we're going so slowly that I have time to glance around for once. It's almost like we're walking.

Even though everyone has heard of Charleston, South Carolina, it still feels like a small town to me. I can't go anywhere without running into people who've known me since I was crawling, which means that a ten-minute errand can take up to an hour, depending on who I run into. Sometimes I resent the intrusions that delay my progress to the next adventure, but when I look around the neighborhood where I've lived my entire life, where Mama lived, I can't imagine leaving.

As we drive under the shadows of Spanish moss, along the slow bend of the Ashley River, I get used to the clutch. It's heavy, and it catches late, but after a couple of false starts I have the hang of it, and it's smooth as silk. Dad gives me a proud smile as I ease the car up the steepest hill in our neighborhood with a quick downshift—he loves that I drive stick—and I flash him a grin.

When we pull back into our driveway, I peer at the clock on the dash—8:17 a.m.

“What was it your mother used to say?” Dad asks me. And I'm surprised for a moment that he brought her up. He rarely does, even though I know we're both always thinking of her.

“You only live . . . once,” he and I say together.

I shake my head as he gets out of the BMW. He's using Mom's motto to justify being half an hour late for work. That's not exactly the kind of “living” that thrills me.

My father gets into his car as I walk back toward the house, and when he pulls out of the driveway, I watch his Mercedes coupe turn around the bend before I race upstairs to change my shoes—it's way too hot for this closed-toe nonsense.

I just tooled around my neighborhood at twenty-five miles per hour, but my foot was itching the whole time. I climb back inside the BMW and smile at the speedometer, wondering how fast my new gift can go from zero to sixty.

The area where I live is a typical, well-kept development with cozy culs-de-sac and two-story houses built in the 1970s, but the heart of Charleston has a history that reaches back for hundreds of years. I pass the old mansions along South Battery and give a nod to the row of oak trees that makes people shiver even in this ninety-five-degree heat. Carson always holds her breath when she goes by the oaks—“So I don't breathe in their bad luck,” she's told me—but I have no time for useless rituals. The story goes that back in 1718, twenty-nine pirates from Stede Bonnet's notorious crew were hanged from those giant oaks, and their eyes stared coldly as their bodies swung, rotting slowly in the hot Charleston wind. I know this tale by heart—everyone in town does. Hanging them right along the water was supposed to scare other pirates who thought about approaching our fair city, but I think it just worked to frighten the people in the mansions, which has always made me smile a little.

Superstitious types like Carson might be afraid to tempt fate in this spot where the horrific hanging happened—everyone says this part of town is haunted. But I don't believe in spooky stories. If there were such a thing as a spirit world, I think I'd be aware of it. The only ghosts I know are the ones that haunt the corners of my dad's mind. The ones that keep him quiet, unable to give me a real hug—instead of just a shoulder pat—on my birthday.

Not that I'm bitter. Dad has his own way of relating to things since Mama died.

I was six when it happened, and I remember little glimpses of her. The honeysuckle smell of her soft blond hair. A favorite blue cotton dress with tiny white flowers on it. Her fingernails—always cut short and painted a pearlescent pink.

I also remember glimpses of him. How he'd tuck me in at night—all the way up to my chin—to make me feel safe and warm. A laugh that rang out like a big brass bell. Arms that would scoop me up onto his shoulders to see what things look like “from the catbird seat.”

“I want my little girl to live life at the top,” he would say.

I guess this BMW is proof that he still wants that for me. But Dad hasn't tucked me in for years, his laugh—on the rare occasions when it rings out at all—is hollow, and he never swoops me into his arms anymore. He's still strong and larger than life; I've never seen him cry. In fact, I haven't seen much emotion at all since Mama got sick, except in moments when he thinks I'm not looking, like this morning when we rolled the windows down and he let the warm wind on his face soften his steely facade. I know he loves me, I know he's there for me, but I wish he'd show it more—it's like he's determined to convince me that he's a rock. Like he's forgotten how to feel anything.

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