The Guests on South Battery (32 page)

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
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I'd had visions of her moving into my bedroom, so at least that was one thing I could stop torturing myself with.

“The dogs miss you.”

I gave her a half smile. “I can't believe I'm saying this, since my official stance is that I'm not a dog lover, but I miss them, too. Maybe you can walk them by the house sometime and knock on the door?”

“I guess.” She looked down at her cuticles, and I noticed she'd begun biting her nails, too. “I miss you, too, Melanie. I really want you to come back.”

I heard the tears in her voice, and I felt my heart break into one more piece. It must have resembled pulverized glass at that point, each shard representing every disappointment and loss since the night of the launch party.

I lifted my hand to stroke her hair, thick and dark like her father's. “I can't. I don't think I can live with your father after . . .”

“After what? Nobody will tell me anything! How are we supposed to move forward if nobody's talking about what happened?”

“Exactly,” my mother said through tight lips. “It's refreshing to hear something mature for a change.” She stooped to pick up the babies. “I'm going to settle them down for a nap and come back with a nice after-school snack for Nola. Be back in a few.”

Eager to change the subject, I reached for the bag and unzipped it. “What did you bring me? I hope you brought my slippers—my feet have been freezing.”

“I did. And your favorite sweater with the deep pockets to hide food.”

I looked up at her in surprise, and she grinned. “I'm not blind, Melanie. And the crumbs on your chin are usually a clue.”

For the first time in days, I felt both sides of my mouth lift in a smile. I dug through the contents of the bag, amazed at how thorough and accurate her selections were, down to the thick ski socks I liked to sleep in. I was about to zip up the bag when my fingers hit something hard. Pulling it out, I found the framed photo of Button and her brother, Sumter. I held it up, turning it to face Nola. “Why'd you bring this?”

Nola stilled. “I didn't. Last time I saw it, it was on my dad's desk. And I certainly didn't pack it. Maybe it was in your drawer and I just didn't notice when I reached in and grabbed something?”

I shook my head slowly, my focus drawn to the hand linked through Sumter's, the only part visible of the woman cut out of the photo, part of her arm and her hand. It was the hand that drew my attention. It was long and slender, with narrow tapered nails that looked a lot like my own. But what really caught my gaze was the long oval ring on the middle finger that looked like onyx, with a small sparkling diamond in the middle.

“That's the ring you wore to the party,” Nola said.

“Yeah, I think you're right.”

She took the frame from me and read the date from the front of the photograph. “March seventeenth, 1984. Were you alive back then?”

I knew she was joking, but I was too fixated on watching her flip it onto its back and open the clips that held the picture to the frame. “Look, Melanie—the photograph wasn't cut to fit the frame. It was folded over.” She flattened the picture on her knee and looked at it for a long moment, before slowly turning back to me. “I think that's Ginette.”

I took the photo and studied the original picture of three people, a stark white demarcation line where it had been folded and tucked inside a frame for three decades. I stared at the newly revealed image of the woman next to Sumter, watching it fade in and out of focus until I blinked. My mother's face, a younger version than the one I knew now, stared out at me from the photograph, her hand now seeming possessive where it rested in the crook of Sumter's arm. But it wasn't just the fuller face, or softer cheeks, or even the absence of gloves that riveted me and made my suddenly dry tongue stick to the roof of my mouth. It was the obvious fact that my mother was very pregnant in this picture, taken almost a full decade after I was born.

A thud sounded behind us, and we twisted to see a small ball rolling on the rug before coming to a stop by my foot. It was the saltshaker from Lake Jasper, the printed date, May 30, 1984, faceup. My eyes met Nola's. “I didn't pack that, either,” she said, her voice shaky.

I picked it up and held it in the palm of my hand, the ceramic icy cold to the touch. “I didn't think you did,” I said just as all the clocks in my mother's house began to chime four o'clock.

CHAPTER 30

A
fter Nola left, I took a quick shower and changed into yoga pants and my favorite sweater. I even brushed my teeth. I took my time, trying to prepare myself for the conversation I needed to have with my mother. Thankfully, my father was gone all day at a garden show in Savannah, so that at least was one conversation I could postpone or avoid altogether.

Before heading downstairs, I emptied the bag, wanting to mentally prepare myself for a lengthy stay by putting my things away in drawers. At the bottom of the bag I was surprised to find the grocery bag containing the snow globe bottoms. I quickly texted Nola to see if she had actually packed them and was relieved when I received her response saying that she had because they'd become one of Sarah's favorite games and Nola thought she might want them. I shoved them in the back of my dresser drawer where hopefully Sarah would never know they were there, then went slowly down the stairs, carrying the baby monitor with me.

I found my mother in her garden, sipping hot tea and reading a novel, looking elegant and poised. She looked up at me and smiled. “You're looking better, dear. Nothing like what a shower and a fresh
change of clothes can do for a person.” She indicated the seat next to her and I sat. “Would you like some tea? And I just took some homemade shortbread out of the oven, so it's still warm.”

“No, thanks,” I said, placing the monitor on the table and making sure the volume was up.

“Something must be really wrong if you're saying no to sugar.” Her soft laugh faded quickly when she saw that I hadn't joined her. “What is it, Mellie? Did Nola say something that upset you?”

I shook my head. “No. But this was in the bag she brought over, although she swears she didn't pack it.” I took the saltshaker out of the sweater's deep pocket and held it up in front of her to show her the word
Lake Jasper
on one side and the handwritten date on the other. I didn't expect her to touch it without her gloves, and she didn't.

Her face paled slightly when she read the date. As if it meant something to her. “Where did that come from?”

“Button's house. Jack borrowed it, so it was on his desk, and then managed to find its way into the overnight bag that Nola packed for me.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the photograph, sliding it on the table toward her. “And so was this.”

She looked down at the photograph, and her hand started to shake. I took the teacup from her fingers and placed it on the saucer. “That's you,” I said. It wasn't a question. “In 1984. Which I can't understand because I was always led to believe that I was an only child.”

She placed both hands over her mouth and I wanted to tell her it was too late to keep this secret. Clenching her eyes shut, she slowly lowered her hands to her lap. “You are,” she said, then opened her eyes. “You are my only child. The baby didn't survive childbirth.”

I wasn't prepared for that answer, and a sharp stab of what felt like grief nudged me between my ribs. “Was it a girl or a boy?”

The tears fell freely down her cheeks. “I don't know. They didn't tell me, saying it would be easier for me to forget. As if I ever could. They never even let me see my baby.”

“Who? Who wouldn't?”

After only a brief pause, she said, “Button. And the midwife. And a psychiatrist they said they consulted—all agreed that it would be easier for me to get past the trauma if I didn't know. If I couldn't picture the child in my head, or name it. So I didn't. Not that it made it any easier, of course.” She pressed a knuckle into her eye to try to block the tears. “It was a very difficult birth—they said I almost died. I was half out of my mind with grief and pain and fear and eventually I stopped asking, and accepted it.”

“And the baby?” I asked. “Where was it buried?”

“At the lake house. I agreed to keep it a secret—there were too many people who could be hurt if they knew the truth, including your father. We knew of the plans to flood the lake, so even though I knew it was illegal, I thought it was somehow okay if the grave would soon be underwater. I couldn't go say good-bye—I was so ill and weak, and didn't get out of the bed for two weeks. But I did select the Bible verses I wanted Button to read, and the flowers—lilies—I wanted placed on the grave. And then Button packed my bags and put me on a plane to New York so I could resume my life. When they flooded the lake and covered the grave the following year, it made it easier to pretend that none of it had happened. But I never really forgot. A mother never forgets her children.”

I sat back in my chair, trying to digest what I'd just been told. “Sumter . . . ?” The question hung in the air between us.

“He was the father. We'd had a fling in New York. Hasell had just died, and he was recently divorced and trying to find a new life. And I was divorced from your father, and separated from you, and I was looking for someone to love.” She wiped her face with her fingers, somehow managing to look elegant. “Even if the child had survived, it would never have worked out between Sumter and me. Because I was still in love with your father, and that would never change.”

“When was this taken?”

She looked down at the photograph, a soft smile touching her lips. “At the lake house. When I couldn't hide the pregnancy anymore, I told my agent I needed a break and Button brought me down to the lake to wait out my pregnancy and find a midwife. Sumter was traveling
so much for work and paid to have the midwife live at the house full-time until the baby was born. That allowed Button to be in Charleston most of the time so Anna wouldn't get suspicious.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Sumter was in London when the baby was born—two weeks early. He didn't get to see our baby, either.”

“Why didn't you marry him? You were both free.”

She gave a delicate shrug. “Sumter wanted to marry, but I kept putting him off, saying we could decide after the baby was born. I knew he didn't really want to marry again—he had loved Anna, at the beginning at least. Button didn't want us to marry, either.”

“But why? You were her best friend. You would be sisters.”

“But there was Anna. Button was afraid of what Anna might do to me if she knew. And the baby. I have to say I was a little afraid of Anna, too. She'd never liked me, and losing Hasell had sent her over the edge. I can't imagine what she might have been driven to if Sumter brought me and our baby back to Charleston. Even if we moved to New York, we could never have kept it a secret from her.”

“And then the decision was taken care of for you.”

She looked down at her hands and nodded. “I would have loved another baby, although I was afraid that I'd have the same problem I had when you were a child—how the restless dead found us to be a bright beacon and wouldn't leave you alone. What if the baby had inherited our gift? Would I make that child's life miserable, too? I confided in Button, and she just said we'd wait and see. She was like that, you know. Always seeing the silver lining. Always believing that everything would all work out. She gave me so much confidence that I'd started to secretly plan on how I'd raise this child in New York, where nobody would care that I didn't have a husband.” She gave a shuddering sigh. “And then the baby died, and I moved back to New York on my own as if I'd never even been pregnant.”

I reached over and took my mother's hands in mine. “I'm sorry, Mother. I'm so sorry. What an awful tragedy for you—and then to have to keep it to yourself all these years. But I'm glad I know now.” I squeezed her hands. “I'm assuming Dad doesn't?”

She shook her head. “What would be the point? The truth is that I never stopped loving him, despite evidence to the contrary. If he knew I'd ever been pregnant with Sumter's child, he'd always doubt it.”

I sat back. “You should tell him,” I said softly. “That's what you'd tell me.”

She lifted her chin and pulled her shoulders back. “I probably would.”

I tapped the saltshaker. “Is there any significance to this date? It's two months after the photograph was taken.”

She took a shuddering breath. “May thirtieth was the baby's birthday—I'm assuming Button painted that on there, because I know I didn't. And the photograph was taken the last time I saw Sumter. He came down for a week in March, and we had a St. Patrick's Day party—just the three of us. Button organized it, saying I was lonely and needed a little party, even if we kept it small. Sumter surprised me—just showed up out of the blue. We had a lovely time—mostly reminiscing about the happy times we'd spent on the lake when we were younger.” She paused for a moment, lost in thought. “When I let my memories take me back, I never allow them to go past that week.”

I was listening to every word, but I was also focusing on the saltshaker and the photograph. They'd been put in the bag on purpose, to show me something. When she'd finished speaking, I asked, “Who do you think put these in my bag?”

She studied the saltshaker for a moment. “I've been wondering the same thing. I'm thinking it was Hasell, since the baby would have been her half brother or sister.”

“Maybe that's her unfinished business,” I said. “She wanted to get the secret out in the open before she moved on.”

My mother looked doubtful. “That could be it—at least part of it, anyway. It would even follow why Anna would want to obstruct that knowledge. Her hatred of me and jealousy over Sumter would not have gone away in death. But the intensity of emotions in that house doesn't match the circumstances. There's something else. Something connected to me. Something bigger.”

Sarah's shrieking on the monitor jerked me out of my seat. I ran into the house and up the stairs, my mother close behind, the shrieks getting louder and louder as we approached the nursery.

The door was shut, just as I'd left it. But the bag of snow globes, which I knew I'd shoved in the back of a drawer in my room, was in the middle of the nursery floor. Sarah was pointing at it and shrieking with what I could now tell was impatience and not fright while she bounced up and down holding to the side of her crib. JJ remained sound asleep on his back, arms and legs splayed, a soft smile curving his lips and looking so much like Jack I wanted to cry.

I picked Sarah out of the crib and smoothed her hair from her forehead. She twisted in my arms so she could see the bag and continued to point. “Mmmmmmmm. Mmmmmmmm.”

“What's in there?” my mother asked.

“The broken snow globes from the Pinckneys' attic. Sarah's fascinated with them. She's not allowed to touch them, but she doesn't seem to want to. She likes to play a little guessing game with them. Personally, I try to avoid any contact with them at all, but Jayne or Nola keeps taking them out for her.”

As if in agreement, Sarah began bouncing up and down. “Mmmmmmmmm. Mmmmmmmmm.”

“Here,” Ginette said, reaching her arms toward Sarah. “Why don't you show me?”

I approached the bag with caution, carefully opening the top until I was satisfied that it held only the bases of seven broken snow globes. I stuck my hand inside and pulled one out at random and held it up. It was the Sacramento base.

Sarah thrust both of her small hands away from her, her head violently shaking from side to side.

“That would be a no,” I said.

She began pointing again at the bag, so I dropped the Sacramento base back inside and pulled out another, this one from Orlando.

She made the same gesture as before, and repeated it two more times until I pulled out the Miami base. She put her head down on my mother's
shoulder and smiled, only growing agitated when I tried to put it back in the bag.

“I don't think she's done,” Ginette said. “Put it up on the dresser and try another one.”

We went through the same steps two more times until I once again pulled out Orlando, but this time it met with Sarah's approval, even eliciting a smile. I put Orlando next to Miami and tried to close up the bag, but Sarah made it clear she still wasn't through. We continued through all seven bases while my mother and I gradually become aware that this wasn't just a game. She—or someone—was trying to tell us something. I found it more than a little unnerving that they were communicating through my daughter.

Sarah relaxed only when we had all seven bases laid out in a row in the order she'd approved: Miami, Orlando, Memphis, Sacramento, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Kalamazoo.

“What on earth is this all about?” My mother approached the bases with Sarah, but the little girl had completely lost interest in the snow globes and seemed more focused on Ginette's black beaded necklace.

I took my phone from my pocket and snapped a picture and was about to text it to Jack when I remembered that I was pretending he didn't exist. And that I didn't care what happened to Jayne or her house and its ghosts, and had even already passed off the listing to my coworker Wendy Wax.

I slid the phone back into my pocket. “Can you watch the children for a little bit?” I began shoving the bases back into the bag, listening to them clank against one another as I dropped each one. “I'm going to put these in Jayne's mailbox. They belong to her and I don't want anything to do with them.”

“We can't leave things the way they are, Mellie. Jayne won't know what to do.”

“Well, then, she can ask Jack for help, can't she?”

My mother's cell phone rang out, her ring tone of Puccini's “Nessun dorma” appropriate but not as wonderful as my ABBA one. She glanced at the screen, then up at me. “It's Jack. Please let me take this.”

“Do what you think best, Mother. Just let him know that you aren't interested in talking to him. And if he asks about me, tell him I died. Or moved to Siberia.” My eyes settled on Sarah, looking up at me with Jack's eyes, and my heart squeezed. “If he wants to see the children, tell him to send Nola over with the dogs and she can bring the children back with her for an afternoon. As long as Jayne's not there.”

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
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