Authors: Rett MacPherson
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The author would like to thank the following people: Everybody at St. Martin's Press, especially my editor, Kelley Ragland, and her assistant, Carly Einstein. My agent, Merrilee Heifetz, and all the people at Writers House. You guys have been wonderful.
My writer's group, the Alternate Historians: Tom Drennan, Laurell K. Hamilton, Martha Kneib, Debbie Millitello, Sharon Shinn, and Mark Sumner for all of their endless support and help, both professional and personal.
To Evelyn Tucker, D.R.E., Sister Florence Wesselmann, SSND, and Father Edward Ramatowski of Assumption Parish, for leading the way and turning on the light. Also, thanks to all of the umpteen doctors who fixed me. (Well, okay, I'm a work in progress!) And Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Green for immeasurable support and help this year.
And a special thank you to my husband, Joe, and to my kids for all of their love and inspiration.
think you have forgotten your promise
I stared at the words on the postcard, all curved and fancy, in ink that at one time must have been black but now had turned a very nice Vandyke brown. The words were written about eighty years ago, according to the nearly illegibly smeared postmark. On the front of the postcard was a photograph.
A great many postcards from the first quarter of the twentieth century were photographs. I have a few in my possession, sent by my great-grandmother Bridie to a cousin of hers in California. On the front of them usually were photographs of my great-grandmother, and on the back, just a few wordsâsometimes just a simple
Compliments of Bridie, Panther Run, West Virginia
One such postcard had a photograph of the Panther Run boardinghouse with all the workers and occupants standing out front. Another was a photograph of Bridie with two neighbors and a cousin, looking simply
in their big hats, lace-up boots, and hemlines that had crept up to their ankles.
This postcard was different. For one thing, it didn't belong to me. Well, at least not until a few weeks ago. I am Torie O'Shea, certified genealogist, which sounds much more important than it really is. Basically, it means I know how to dig around dusty old papers and records and find what people are looking forâand, more often than not, a boatload of things they're not. I'm also a tour guide for the historical society in a little German river town on the Mississippi in east-central Missouri, giving tours in its headquarters, the Gaheimer House.
At least that is who I used to be. Now I am the sole owner of the Gaheimer House and all its contents. I am nearly a millionaire if you count all of the money, property, and houses that my former boss Sylvia Pershing left me. Yes, me. Why, you ask? Hell if I know. I've been trying to figure that out myself.
Sylvia died suddenly a few weeks ago while I was on vacation with my husband, Rudy, and my stepfather, Colin. I say “suddenly,” but Sylvia was 102 years old and some change. I didn't know exactly how old she was until after she was dead. I can't express how much it bothered me that her hundredth birthday had come and gone and nobody had a big celebration. How could we? Nobody had known how old she was, and even if we had, Sylvia would not have liked a big fuss made over her. Still, her death had been unexpected. At least
had been unprepared, since I had been convinced that she would live forever.
The phone rang in my office, a room that seemed terribly cramped and quiet since I had come home from Minnesota. I used to think it was cozy and quaint. Now only the hum of the soda machine could be heard in this ancient two-story house. I answered, “This is Torie.”
“It's your mother.”
“Hi, Mom. What's up?”
“I made fried chicken. Too much even for Colin to eat. You and Rudy and the kids want to come by and eat dinner with us?”
“No, I don't think so,” I said.
“Tor-ie,” she said in her best motherly voice. “You're not hungry? You're always hungry. Especially for food you don't have to cook.”
“Haven't been hungry in weeks,” I said, ignoring the last remark.
“I'm not depressed,” I said. “I'm justâ¦”
“Distracted. AndÂ â¦ and busy. Do you know how much stuff has to be done here? Way too much to take time out to eat,” I said. Which was a lie. Normally I could eat at any time, any place. I'd just order a pizza, eat, and do my work. But since I had watched them put Sylvia in the groundÂ â¦ Well, I'm just not hungry.
“Distracted, my butt,” Mom said.
“I'll send Rudy and the kids over to eat. I wouldn't have time anyway.”
“If I may be so bold,” my mother said.
“I thought that was my line. You're never bold. You're always the perfect lady.”
“You need some help going through Sylvia's belongings,” she said. “Why don't you call somebody to help you?”
“I don't need help.”
“And Rudy won't stop and ask for directions,” she said. “That's how frustrating it is watching you do this by yourself. I know you need help, but you just won't stop and ask for directions.”
“Get some help.”
“Who? Helen has her own business to run, Charity's babysitting her brother's twins, Collette is busy with her own careerâeverybody I can think of is too busy,” I said.
“How about your sister?”
I hadn't thought of that. Stephanie had found out she was pregnant and decided to take a leave of absence from her teaching job. Maybe she would be available for a few weeks. “I'll call her.”
“Good,” she said. “You shouldn't be in that stuffy home all by yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.” I guess she was proof that once a mother, always a mother. I actually found a bit of joy in that thought. I would get to drive my children crazy until I was old and shuffled off this mortal coil. Something to look forward to.
“I'll send home leftovers with Rudy.”
“Sure,” I said.
We said our good-byes, and I hung up the phone and fingered the postcard in my hand. It was addressed to Sylvia, but there were no words on the postcard other than
I think you have forgotten your promise
No signature. Nothing. Just those seven words. I couldn't explain why that bothered me so much. I couldn't help but think about what the promise could have been and why she hadn't kept it. Or maybe she had kept the promise once she received this gentle reminder. Had this postcard made her spring into action? Or had she just left the promise unfulfilled?
I found it difficult to believe that Sylvia would not have kept her word.
Sylvia was a hateful, cantankerous spitfire, but she was an honorable person. Maybe that's why this bothered me so much. I didn't want to believe that Sylvia hadn't kept her word. And there was nobody to ask about this mystery. Her sister, Wilma, had died about two years ago, and her brother had died years and years ago. The only people left would have been her brother's descendants and most of them were entirely too angry at the fact she didn't leave them anything in her will to speak to me.
So I supposed I would never know. And for me, that's just not acceptable. There are tons of things that I don't know in this world, but I am unaware that I don't know them, and therefore don't care. But thisâwell, this would drive me crazy.
To make matters worse, the image on the front of the postcard was of a small child, about three or four years old, dressed in a tattered winter coat, striped leggings, and shoes with a big hole in the toe of the left one. I assumed the child was a girl because of the leggings and the hatâand the fact that she had a doll, with only one eye, tucked under her arm. The girl stared back at the photographer with contempt andÂ â¦ defiance.
I stood and stretched, grabbed some change out of a bowl on my desk, and stepped into the hallway for a soda. I automatically looked to my right, nearly expecting to see Sylvia standing in the kitchen, steeping tea. She wasn't there, of course. She would never be there. I was surprised by how much I missed her. Or maybe it was guilt. All those times I spewed venom about her, and here she left me the Gaheimer House, everything in it, three hundred thousand in cash plus a life insurance policy, and several homes throughout town and even out of town.
The Dr Pepper was sitting in the bottom of the machine, waiting for me to pick it up. I didn't remember hearing it drop. I went back to my office with the soda in hand and picked up the phone and dialed my sister.
“Hey, Steph,” I said, popping the can open. “It's Torie. I've got a proposition for you.”
New Kassel, Missouri, is my favorite place in the whole world. All that I hold dear resides within its boundaries. It's hard to explain, really, but for me, New Kassel is almost a person. She has her own personality, her own moods, her own rhythms, and definitely her own voice. She speaks to me quite often. I love the Mississippi that rolls along and, for the most part, gently caresses the edges of town. The Mississippi can, however, remind us who's boss, and has on a few occasions. From my bedroom window I can see the tugboats and barges coming and going along the river. I wait eagerly every spring for the lilacs to come into bloom, and for Tobias Thorley's prizewinning roses to make an appearance every June.
I walked along River Pointe Road and entered the Lick-a-Pot Candy Shoppe, where Helen Wicklandâanother lifelong residentâwas scoring her latest batch of fudge. The smell of sugar was so heavy it made my mouth water. I felt like an experiment by that Pavlov guy.
“What kind did you make?” I asked.
Helen looked up and over the rim of her glasses. “Torie, hey,” she said. “Peanut butter.”
“Oooh, give me a pound,” I said. It sounded good. It smelled good. Now, if only I could remember to actually eat it.
“You look like you're losing some weight,” Helen said.
“Really?” I asked and looked down at myself. “Burning the candle at both ends.”
“A lot to do?” she said and gestured in the general direction of the Gaheimer House.
“Tons,” I said.
Helen was a decade or so older than I was, with heavily frosted short hair and a pleasant smile. She was usually the person who filled in for me at the Gaheimer House and, indeed, had been doing my tours when Sylvia died.