Authors: Karen White
She was rubbing her ankle. “I think so. But my ankle's hurt.”
Thomas carefully removed her shoe and began gently pressing on her ankle. “Doesn't seem to be broken, but I'm taking you to the hospital to be completely checked out. You hit your head pretty hard on the landing wall.”
“Really, that's not necessaryâ”
“Yes, it is. Both professionally and personally. If my mother found out that I witnessed a pretty woman fall down the stairs and didn't take her to the hospital, she'd hit me with a frying pan.”
Jayne's cheeks flushed as she lifted her lips in a half smile, then looked back up the stairway. “That was the weirdest thing.Â .Â .Â .”
“What?” I asked uneasily. “How you tripped?” I felt like a liar, knowing full well she hadn't tripped.
Jayne shook her head. “No. I should be more seriously hurt than just a twisted ankle. But it was as if I had a little cushion each time I hit a step or the wall.”
“That is weird,” I said, shrugging as if that sort of thing happened every day. Which it did in my world, but I didn't want to tell her that. But I'd felt it, too, the softer presence that wasn't afraid of whatever other spirits still lingered between the old walls. There were battling forces in this house, and something was keeping me from seeing the whole picture. But there was one thing I was sure of: I couldn't let Jayne Smith back in the house until I knew whatâor whoâdid not want any guests.
Thomas leaned down and picked Jayne up, her arm sliding around his shoulders, her cheeks a dark scarlet. “Can you grab her purse and shoe? You can toss them into the back of my car.”
“I'll go with youÂ .Â .Â .” I said as I ran after him.
“I'm off duty and you've got a husband and two babies to get home to. We'll be fineâI'll call you and let you know what's going on.”
“Your shampoo smells nice,” Jayne said to the side of Thomas's head. “Or is that your deodorant? I'm glad you wear deodorant.”
I rolled my eyes as I threw her stuff into the back of Thomas's sedan, then watched as Thomas carefully buckled Jayne's seat belt. She sent me a thumbs-up and I reciprocated, still holding up my thumb as I watched his car pull away.
I realized I hadn't locked up the house and was almost to the front door when it slammed in my face, the rusted key scraping against the decrepit lock from the inside of the house, and leaving me with the distinct impression that I wasn't welcome.
checked the mailbox on the front gate as I came home for lunch the following day. I always made a point of dumping anything we didn't need into the outside recycling bin before it even made it into the house. Jack was forbidden from getting the mail because it always ended up in a pile on the kitchen counter that would stay there until the next millennium if I didn't take charge. He'd thanked me for taking over this chore with a grin that had showed all his teeth. It was nice to be appreciated.
I stood at the back door, going through the mail piece by piece, dropping all except a bill from Rich Kobylt's business, Hard Rock Foundationsâfor the restoration of the kitchen window as well as two dining room window frames that had rotted throughâand a heavy linen envelope addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Jack Trenholm. It was thick, like a wedding invitation, and before I turned it over to see the return address, I ran through my head anybody I knew who'd be getting married. With the exception of octogenarian librarian Yvonne Craig, I didn't think I knew anybody still single.
The return address was engraved onto the back of the ivory-colored envelope. There was no name, but the address was in New York City.
I opened the back door and smelled something wonderful cooking on the stove, Mrs. Houlihan gently stirring a pot's contents with a wooden spoon. The three dogs were in their individual monogrammed beds. Nola swore they could read and that was why they always ended up in the right bed. I had my doubtsânothing that cute could also be that smart. It worked against the laws of nature.
I gave them each a scratch behind the ears, then turned to Mrs. Houlihan expectantly. “That smells divine. What is it?” I reached to lift the lid from the pot, but the older woman slapped gently at my hand.
“It's a vegan meat sauce for the whole wheat spaghetti you're having for dinner tonight. It's from the cookbook Dr. Wallen-Arasi gave you for Christmas.”
“I thought I told you to donate that to Goodwill.”
“Did you? I must have forgot. I must say, I've been making some of the recipes at home and my clothes are fitting much more loosely.”
I narrowed my eyes at her, wondering if she was trying to say something else, but she busied herself with sorting spices on the rack on the counter.
My interest and appetite having fled, I carefully hung up my coat in the small closet we'd had added to the butler's pantry, checking each pocket carefully and making sure the lapels of all the coats were facing the same way. Nola had learned quickly, but there were two of Jack's coats that I had to fix.
I slid open the kitchen drawer where I kept the letter opener. That was another thing I'd told Jack I'd take care ofâthe opening of mail. I'd shown him several times the correct use of a letter opener, even shown him where ours was kept, but it was as if he refused my instruction, and if an unopened envelope accidentally fell into his possession, he'd open it like a hungry bear at an overstuffed garbage can.
I carefully slid the letter opener into the corner of the envelope, then gently moved the blade to the other corner, leaving a clean, precise opening the way Mother Nature intended. I pulled out an engraved invitation on heavy cardstock without an envelope or RSVP cardâthe way etiquette sticklers did it.
I stared at the elegant script, and I suddenly felt light-headed. It wasn't a wedding invitation at all. It was an invitation to a book launch party. I read over it a couple of times just to make sure I wasn't misinterpreting it, then shoved it back into the envelope and when I stacked the mail, I put it under the bill in the hope that Jack would overlook it and I could pretend I'd never seen it. It did occur to me that I could shred it in the paper shredder in Jack's office and no one would be any the wiser. It was what the old me would have done. But I was a mature married woman now, and it would be up to Jack to notice the invitation and respond.
A heavy thump and then the sound of something being dragged upstairs brought me out of the kitchen. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and listened, thinking it was from Nola's room, which at the moment was practically vibrating with loud music that sadly wasn't the ABBA album I'd given her for Christmas.
I heard JJ laugh and I smiled as I took the stairs two at a time to reach the nursery. I opened the door and paused, my own smile quickly fading as I took it all in. Jayne sat in the rocking chair with her foot resting on the ottoman, her ankle wrapped in a bandage. Both of my children sat on her lap holding a brown paper lunch bagâdefinitely not one of the educational toys that lined the room and the bookshelvesâand laughing each time one of them squeezed the bag and made a crinkling noise. Jack, his button-down shirt discarded on the side of Sarah's crib, wore only his sweat-soaked T-shirt. But the most disconcerting sight of the entire scenario was the furniture, all moved into a new position and ignoring the feng shui design created by the interior designer I'd hired to help set up the nursery.
Jack grinned at me as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. “What do you think? Jayne suggested that the room would be more functional this way, with more play room, and I agreed.”
Sarah smashed her paper bag between two fists, causing both children to start chortling with glee. I looked down at the beautiful handmade rug that had been a gift from Jack's mother, the primary color design of building blocks with the children's initials on each one, now completely hidden by the bucket of toys upended in the middle of it.
Jack approached to kiss me hello, but I stepped back, citing his sweat as my main reason. “Looks like you've been busy,” I said.
“We have,” Jayne exclaimed. “Sarah and I were building all sorts of structures with the blocks, and JJ was having a blast knocking them down. That's when I realized that they needed more room, so I asked Jack to help.”
I stared pointedly at the wrap on her ankle. “I thought the doctor told you that could come off in a day.”
“It hasn't been a full day yet, but Jack said I should rest it as long as I could and to keep it on at least until tomorrow morning. I think he was just looking for an excuse to play with the children.”
“Probably,” I said, my lips feeling brittle.
“I guess since all the heavy lifting is done I'll go take my shower and then we'll go see Yvonne.” Without warning, he kissed me on the cheek and left.
“You forgot your shirt,” I called after him.
“I'll put it in the laundry chute,” Jayne offered.
Sarah clambered off her lap, then crawled to a corner of the rug where the large, chunky Duplo blocks had been snapped together to make what resembled a house, complete with a roof, two chimneys, and a front porch that looked as if a chubby fist had taken out a chunk. I noticed that she and JJ were in matching outfitsâif you considered white onesies and diapers outfits. She picked up a Duplo girl with yellow hair and began to pound it against the side of the house.
I waited for Jayne to tell Sarah that people used doors, but she didn't say anything, preferring to study her as if my daughter were an anthropological experiment. With a frown, I squatted down next to Sarah and looked into her sweet face that at the moment was scowling at me. “Sweetheart, people use doors to go inside the house.”
“Uhhh,” she grunted as she resumed banging the poor plastic girl against the fluorescent yellow wall.
In a gentle voice, I said, “Sarah, can I please have the little girl?”
She continued to hammer the girl against the house like a weapon,
ignoring me. Jayne placed JJ on the floor, then knelt in front of Sarah. “She's been doing this all dayâit's like she's made up her mind that girls going through walls is the right way.” Jayne held out her hand. “May I please have the girl? I'll put her to bed inside so that she's all rested for tomorrow.”
Sarah solemnly dropped the toy into Jayne's outstretched palm. With an apologetic glance at me, Jayne said, “Like I said, we've been doing this all day. She has a very firm belief in the way things should be.”
“I wonder where she gets that from,” I said, curious as to which branch of Jack's tree that particular trait might have fallen out of. I thought of his parents and figured it had to go further back than that.
Jayne was looking at me oddly. “Yeah. I wonder. So, Melanie, could I ask you something?”
“Sure,” I said, hoping she was about to suggest replacing the furniture where it had been.
“I don't want to go back to that house on South Battery until it's fully renovated. I find itÂ .Â .Â . unsettling.”
I struggled to keep my expression neutral. “All right. I understand. You did tell me that you didn't like old houses, so I'm not surprised. Are you saying you changed your mind about keeping it?”
She shook her head. “No. I agreed to keep the house for now out of respect for Miss Pinckney's wishes and to see if the house's aura changes any with the renovations. But she didn't say I had to live in it. For now, I really have no desire to cross the threshold in the foreseeable future.”
I hoped she didn't see my relief. “That's not a problem. I spoke with Sophie today and she'll be happy to lead the restoration, determine if any grants might be available, and if she can use parts of the work as curriculum. She'll figure out the numbers so she can discuss them with you, and any major decisions will have to be signed off by you. I'm sure for the sheer happiness of working on the house she won't mind being in charge.”
“What about the doll?”
I shuddered, remembering the doll standing by the opened attic
door. “Sophie spoke with her friend the doll expert and he's eager to take a look. He's stopping by tomorrow to pick it up and says it will take a few weeks before he can get back to us.”
“Tell him to take as long as he needs.”
I smiled. “Will do. Well, then, we'll see you in a couple of hours. Hopefully we'll find something in the archives that will tell us more about the house. Maybe even something about the family.”
I kissed the children good-bye, then turned toward the door. Jayne called me back.
“Nola's friendâLindsey. Do you know her well?”
I shook my head. “I met her the first time when you did. She says her mother and I went to college togetherâI don't remember her. I need to pull out my yearbook to see if I recognize her. Why?”
JJ reached his arms to be picked up again and Jayne lifted him, her eyes focused on his little face. I couldn't help wondering if she was using him as a reason to avoid eye contact with me.
“I'm not sure,” she said. “It's just, well, you know how some people seemÂ .Â .Â . haunted?”
“A little,” I said, glad her focus was on JJ.
“Well, that's the sense I get from her. As if she's being dogged by something.”
“Because she brought the Ouija board?”
“No,” Jayne said, finally looking at me. “I think because she reminded me a little of myself when I was that age. All alone, even in a roomful of people.”
I nodded, unwilling to admit that I knew exactly what she was talking about. It hadn't been that long ago that I'd felt the same wayâbefore Jack, and before I'd reconciled with my mother and father. There was something about being raised with absent parents that made a permanent scar in a person's psyche.
I pondered my next question for a moment. “Since you're kind of a
child-rearing expert, do you think I should limit Nola's association with her?”
Jayne shook her head. “Nola's pretty grounded, which is a tribute to both her own strength and the parental guidance she's received from you and Jack. I think she and Lindsey could be good for each other.”
I nodded. “Thanks. And I'm not going back to the office when we return, so you can have the rest of the day and evening off.”
“Thank you.” She looked up at me. “I'm kind of hoping you don't find anything in the archives.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“I don't mean to sound ungrateful. Really, I don't. My lawyers have explained that there's enough money in the estate to do the restorations, which will allow the house to be sold for a pretty hefty sum. I won't have to worry about money after that, which is a nice thing to know.” She paused. “It's justÂ .Â .Â .”
“It's justÂ .Â .Â .Â ?” I prompted.
“Do you ever think that it's just easier ignoring bad stuff in the hopes that it will go away?”
I thought for a moment, debating whether I should tell her that I'd cut my teeth on that very same philosophy. And remembering the invitation downstairs that I'd tucked beneath a bill, hoping it might get overlooked and forgotten. I decided that as her employer and the mother of two, I needed to come up with a more mature response. “It probably is easier,” I said. “But in my experience, the bad stuff isn't like a mosquito biteâyou know, leave it alone so it disappears instead of scratching it and making it worse. Usually the things you don't want to deal with get worse the longer you wait.”
She contemplated me for a long moment. “Do you believe inÂ .Â .Â .” She stopped suddenly, and I wondered if she'd also felt the temperature in the room drop. JJ continued to babble, but Sarah looked up, then stared at the door expectantly.
“Do I believe in what?” I asked, remembering Jayne being pushed down the stairs the previous day. And her opposition to the Ouija board.
Sarah began whimpering and Jayne bent to her eye level, her answer lost as she soothed my daughter and I took the opportunity to look around the room. But all I could sense was that dark curtain again, pulling tightly closed and blocking my view.
I bent to kiss the top of each baby's head, then retreated to the door. “We'll be back soon.”
We said good-bye and I closed the door behind me. I walked slowly down the stairs, fairly certain I knew what she'd been about to ask me, and still unsure I knew how to answer.