So I may or may not have mentioned I’ve been stretching my writing bone. I write a lot of articles for Columbia Metropolitan Magazine. It is SO fun to learn new things and meet new people. But I also write fiction. Here’s a short story I wrote for a contest (I didn’t win, but hey, I showed up!) Let me know what you think!
A week ago I thought having a broken arm, bruised ribs, and a not-so-voluntary vacation from the Bureau constituted a bad day. The injuries were courtesy of a budding domestic terrorist named Lucien Bigsby. Rather than play it cool when when my FBI colleagues and I knocked on his northeast DC apartment door, he took off out the back, leaving his spaghetti cooking on the stove and U2 wailing about a bloody Sunday. I chased him as he plowed through the Master Liquor store near the corner of D and 18th, yanking bottles from the shelves as he ran. Fortunately for me, a stack of boxes at the rear door slowed him just enough. I tackled him from behind with all one hundred ten of my pounds, slamming him into the brick wall in the alley. He was much bigger and mean as a snake, throwing punches and kicking me like I was a bag at the gym. But, he was no match for my anger. No way was I going to let that traitor piece of shit get the best of me. I sacrificed my left arm to one of his blows, then used my right to slam him over the head with a bottle of Captain Morgan. He went down hard. It’s a wonder I didn’t kill him, or so my superiors said, and it explains why I’m in Charleston, South Carolina digging a hole in my parents’ yard.
My father offered to help, especially given my injuries, but I refused. I need to do this myself. The hole in front of me grows larger, one little bit at a time. I’m kneeling at the right corner of the back yard, shaded by an ancient live oak. No one can see the tears rolling down my face. Beside me, wrapped in a Care Bear towel, is the body of my best friend in the world, Sadie. From the morning of my fourteenth birthday, we were inseparable. We rode all over South of Broad together; me on my bike and Sadie in the front basket, her paws hanging off the front, spaniel ears flapping, muzzle in the wind. She was with me from high school through law school, and loved living in DC. This morning, three days after arriving home for our exile, her big heart broke, shattering mine along with it. A few scrapes and getting suspended by the FBI is nothing to this. This is a bad day.
The grave finally ready, I gather Sadie up as gently as I can, hug her one last time, and nestle her into an old boot box. My tears fall as I tuck another towel in around her and close the lid. I push the box down into the hole. Just as I start shoveling dirt on top, I catch a glimpse of gold at the side of the grave. What the heck is that? I poke at the spot with my trowel until the corner of a small wooden box emerges. It is packed in tight, so I begin chopping at the topsoil, digging down until I can pull it free. My fingers brush away the dirt. Remnants of decorative paint emerge, once-fine workmanship ruined by the elements long ago. Shiny gold still glimmers on the sides, though. Gold leaf? For a moment, I resist opening it. God forbid I find the remains of someone else’s long dead pet inside – that’s the last thing I need right now. However, curiosity gets the best of me, as it always does. When I open the box, I find several yellowed letters inside. On top of them is a round, clear glass pendant containing two locks of hair intricately intertwined. One is fine and blond. The other is black and very coarse.
I carry the box inside and find my parents in the family room off the kitchen. They are snug in their chairs, jazz playing softly the background. Dad’s nose is in a thick book. Daniel Silva, if I were to guess. Mama is flipping through a day planner bursting with clippings and sticky notes about heaven only knows what social function she’s planning next. Both turn their attention to me when I walk in. Losing Sadie was a blow to all of us, but especially me, so I’m sure they’re puzzled to see me looking so energized.
“Simms, dear, are you all right?” Mama asks.
“I’m fine, Mama. Look at what I found!”
I hold out the box to each of them in turn; first with the lid closed, then with it opened so they can see inside.
“Where in the world did that come from?” asks Mama.
“It was in the ground, right beside where I buried Sadie.”
“Wonder how long it’s been there? It looks old,” my father observes.
“Dad, you’ve never seen a box like this before?” Like many families South of Broad, our house has been in our family for over a hundred years. It previously belonged to my Great-Uncle Matthew who died the year before my parents married.
“Never.” My father’s attention strays back to his book. “You should ask Jeannie. She’ll be here in the morning.”
Jeannie is our housekeeper. She started working for our family when my father was in elementary school. She helped Mattie, my grandmother, raise my father. Then, when my parents got married and had me, she helped raise me as well. In my surly teens, I grouched to my friends that I had three parents, not just two. Crossing Jeannie was every bit as treacherous as crossing my real parents, sometimes more so. Today, she and I share a special bond. If I have to be in occupational time out, at least I can be here with her.
The next morning, I find her in the kitchen cutting up vegetables. She puts down her knife, wipes her hands on her apron, and wraps me in her ample arms.
“I’m sorry ‘bout yo puppy, chile. Immo miss that sweet thang.”
“Thank you, Jeannie. Me, too.”
I step out of her embrace and wipe my eyes with my uninjured hand. “Ugh, it’s like God hates me or something. First the FBI benches me, and now this.”
“Dontchu say no such thing, now. It’ll be all right.”
Jeannie picks up her knife again as I slide onto a stool opposite her, set the box down, and push it across the countertop.
“Look at what I found yesterday,” I say, grabbing an apple from the bowl in front of me.
Jeannie stops chopping and eyes the box, her features furled into a scowl.
“Lawd. Where’d you fin’ dat?”
“Buried in the back yard, right beside where I put Sadie.”
Jeannie is still staring at the box like she suspects there’s a snake inside when my grandmother lets herself in the kitchen door calling, “Mornin’ all!” She kisses me on the cheek and gives my shoulders a little squeeze. Then she spies the box.
“Whatcha got there?” Mattie walks over and picks it up. Jeannie sidles up next to her. “This looks like it was beautiful once upon a time.”
“Open it,” I say.
When Mattie and Jeannie see the contents, their expressions turn puzzled.
“Oh, it’s a love knot.” Mattie says, turning the pendant in her hand. “I haven’t seen one of these in years. Have you read the letters?”
“Not yet. I was waiting on Jeannie.” I smirk. “I know how she loves a good mystery.”
Jeannie harrumphs and goes back to her chopping. Mattie helps herself to coffee and settles in beside me as I pull out the first letter and read aloud.
“‘E, Meet me by the big triple oak in White Point Garden after the moon is full. Yours, G.’” I fold the letter back up. “Well, that was short and sweet.”
I pull out the next one. “‘E, I know it seems impossible, but we must stay strong and believe in each other. We will be together. Yours, G.’”
“G ain’t got much to say,” observes Jeannie. Mattie laughs.
I grin and pull out the last letter. “One more. ‘E, I fear my father suspects something. Be cautious, my love. Yours, G.’”
The three of us eye the box.
“Who could this belong to?” I ask. “Dad didn’t recognize it. It’s obviously been in the ground a long time.”
Mattie takes a sip of her coffee. “Well, it pains me to say it, but there’s only one person on this peninsula nosy enough to know the answer to that question.”
“Who?” I ask.
“That insufferable knowitall, Cecil Talley!”
I raise an eyebrow at my grandmother as Jeannie chuckles.
“Mattie, when are you going to stop acting like you hate Cecil? He’s one of your oldest friends!” I nudge her with an elbow. “In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d think the two of you were a little sweet on each other.”
Mattie’s eyes bulge as she chokes on her coffee. “The devil you say, girl,”she sputters. “What a notion.”
Jeannie and I hide our smiles.
Later that afternoon, I pack the box in a canvas tote and make my way over to Cecil’s house on Legare Street, two blocks west of my parents’ home. I unlatch the ornate iron gate and let myself into his beautiful English garden. As I admire the plantings, his drawl drifts down from the porch.
“Call the ‘thorities, I have an intrudah on my propahty.”
“Don’t you belong up north with the Yankees?”
“They kicked me out.”
“From the looks of all that bandagin’, they musta kicked you further than that.”
“Ha ha,” I say. “You should see the other guy.”
“Whatevah. Wanna drink?”
We sit in matching rocking chairs on Cecil’s wide porch enjoying the breeze of the ceiling fans and sipping single malt. The daylight fades to a colorful sunset in Cecil’s garden. Finally, I pull out the box.
“My, oh my. I haven’t seen this thing in a month of Sundays,” says Cecil.
“You recognize it?”
“Oh, yes. It belonged to the people in the house next to yours. I was young, but I remember playing with it when I was a boy. My mother and the lady who lived there liked to have tea together every Wednesday, so they’d let me play with this while they visited. Back then it had old coins and toy soldiers in it. But it disappeared one day. Such a shame. The paint on top is ruined.”
Cecil paws through the box, picking up the necklace to get a closer look.
“These love-knot things were all the rage once upon a time,” he says. “Looks to me like what you have here is evidence of a forbidden love affair. One person was white, with the blond hair. The other one with the black hair was African-American. As you know, relationships between the races weren’t looked on too kindly back in the day. Hell, in these parts they’re barely tolerated now.”
“And you wonder why I live in DC.” I sigh and rock in my chair. “Still, I’m curious to know what happened. It’s so strange that this stuff would be buried in our yard. Like someone was hiding it and planned to dig it back up one day, but never did. I don’t know where to begin.”
“Can’t just be on vacation, can ya,” he says, setting the box on the table and picking up his drink. “Always gotta be chasin’ somethin’ down. Nosy thing.”
“Takes one to know one, old man,” I retort. “I do wonder what happened to them, though.”
“I don’t know,” Cecil says. “But you can bet it wasn’t good. Here’s what I’d do. I’d talk to your next door neighbors.”
“Lord no, child. The Lewises barely just got here fifty or sixty years ago. They’re neophytes. You’re looking for the people who owned the house before the Lewises. I should know who they were, but now I don’t rightly remember.”
“You’re slipping, Cecil,” I tease.
“Bite yer tongue,” he snaps. “The man was a real jerk of a fella, I do remember that.”
He sits and rocks a minute. Then he says, “You know, I heard tell that the Lewis house is haunted.”
My eyes roll. “So what, Cecil? Half the houses South of Broad are supposedly haunted.”
“Of course they are. But only that house has a female ghost who walks the floors at night and cries.”
After a night spent dreaming of ghosts, I walk next door to the Lewis house the following morning. I’ve always admired its beautiful, double-bowed facade. If it were mine, I’d put a library in one curved room and a baby grand piano in the other. At my knock, Lilly Lewis opens the door with her ever-present, infectious smile.
“Why, Simms! I haven’t seen you in so long. How are you? Come in! Would you like a glass of ice tea?”
Lilly chats away as she leads me to the back of the house into a sunroom overlooking her impeccable garden. I patiently answer her questions about my broken arm and my unplanned vacation. Pleasantries finally aside, I get to the point, showing her the box I found in the yard.
“I’m just really curious about it, Miss Lilly. Cecil Talley remembers one like it belonging to the people who lived here before you. He also mentioned your ghost.”
“That Cecil! He knows everything,” Lilly laughs. “I call her Sassy, which I know she doesn’t like because every time I call her that she hides something from me.”
“She hides things?”
“Oh yes, she’s quite mischievous. She’ll take my glasses or a pair of shoes and hide them. Later, I’ll find them somewhere in the house I haven’t been in months. You probably think I’m crazy.”
“No, ma’am,” I assure her. “I’ve heard too many stories about the houses around here to think there isn’t truth to them. I can’t imagine living with a ghost, though. Isn’t it scary?”
“Oh, no. Sassy and I live quite comfortably together. It’s almost like having company after Herbert died. Knowing someone is around, looking after you in a way. If anything, I feel bad for her sometimes.”
I watch the smile slide from Lilly’s face as she focuses on the wall above my head. Her fingers tug and twist her rings. “Sometimes at night I can hear her cryin’, like someone stole the heart right out of her chest. It’s so sad. After awhile I can’t take it anymore and I’ll say, ‘Sassy, stop cryin’, now. It’s gonna be OK.’ And she’ll stop.”
Her eyes snap back to mine. “I can prove I have ghosts, if you’re interested.”
I look at her in astonishment. “How in the world would you prove that?”
She jumps up from her chair. “Come with me. And bring your cell phone.”
I leave the box on the coffee table and follow her down into a basement that smells of dank and dust.
“Now, turn on the video on your phone and let me know when you’re ready. I’m going to turn off the lights.”
I do as I’m told. Lilly flips a switch and the room goes black. I look through my phone’s screen and, at first, I see nothing. Then, a little ball of light zooms by, soon followed by another one. Then another. Then another. Dozens of orbs cavort in front of my phone like they’re having a party. One keeps flying at my screen like it’s an angry bee whose nest I’ve disturbed.
“Do you see them?” Lilly’s voice is in my ear.
“Yes, ma’am, I sure do.”
I’m glad to get back upstairs to the bright sunroom where there are no spirits flying around, at least none I can see. Lilly settles back into her chair, sunny smile on her face again, sipping her ice tea like seeing ghosts flying around her basement is a normal thing.
“What do you know about the people who lived here before you, Miss Lilly?”
“That would be the Riverses. His name was James or Gerald or something. I never really talked to him. Herbert handled all that.”
“Where were they moving to, do you remember?”
“I do. The son killed himself not long before they put the house up for sale. They were quite distraught, as you can imagine. I’m sure they needed a change of scenery. They moved to the family’s house out on Wadmalaw Island. Bohicket Plantation.”
“Wow, sad story.”
“Yes,” agrees Lilly. “He was a teenager, poor thing. Hung himself right out there in the garden. I try never to think about it. Herbert actually deeded that part of the yard to your uncle because I couldn’t bear the thought.”
I stare at her. “Where exactly was that, Miss Lilly? Can you point it out to me?”
“Of course, dear.” She stands up and walks to the floor length windows, motioning for me to join her, then points to the left side of her yard. “See that big oak tree just to the other side of the fence there? They say he hung himself from one of those limbs.”
I stifle the shiver that threatens to run down my spine. I buried Sadie under that tree just yesterday.
And that’s where I found the box.
That afternoon, I take the beautiful drive out Highway 17 to Wadmalaw Island. Huge live oaks tunnel the road, Spanish moss dripping from their limbs like hair. Looking at them, I can easily imagine myself in another time, one with hoop skirts and carriages and ugly things like slavery.
The navigation app on my phone directs me down a tree-lined drive to a double decker white house straight out of a history book. Six broad columns support the roof and a second floor veranda. I imagine Scarlett O’Hara dangling from a porch just like this one, flirting with men and spouting trivialities. To the left of the front door an old man rocks in a chair, his wispy white hair lifting in the breeze. A pitcher of lemonade sweats on the table beside him, accompanied by a cut crystal decanter of brown liquid. The contents of the glass in his gnarled hand are decidedly more brown than yellow.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Rivers,” I call to him as I walk up the porch steps. I put on my most charming Southern girl smile and introduce myself, leaving off the part about being an FBI agent. This isn’t an official visit, and I am, after all, on leave.
The old man’s rheumy blue eyes search mine. His lips bend, the briefest attempt at a smile from a face chiseled with bitterness.
“What can I do for ya?”
“Well, sir, I’m finding myself with a little time on my hands with this injury and all, so I’m chasing down a mystery. I’m hoping you might be able to help me.”
Rivers gestures to the sofa across from him. “Howz that?”
I sit, then reach into my tote bag for the box. When he sees it, I swear his pale face loses a few more shades of color. I set the box in his lap. He is silent as I explain where I found it. At first he doesn’t move a muscle. Then, slowly, he wraps his hands around it, running his fingers up and down the sides. His bony shoulders start to shake, and I’m startled to see tears rolling down his face.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Rivers. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
He ignores me and opens the box, touching the letters with trembling fingers, then picks up the necklace, letting the pendant catch the light. The sun dances off the glass and the blond hair in the love knot.
“His mama’s hair was that color, too, once upon a time,” he says, almost to himself. “It’s turned white now. White as snow. It looks soft, but I wouldn’t know. She hasn’t let me touch her since the day George died.”
“Was George your son?”
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Mr. Rivers.”
Still he doesn’t look at me. His tears come freely now. “I didn’t mean to, you know. Not that it matters much now. But I never meant her any harm. And I surely never meant to hurt him.”
“Who was she?” I ask softly.
Rivers sniffs and straightens up, putting the necklace back in the box and the box on the table. He pours more brown liquid into his glass and takes a long drink. Bourbon. I can smell it now. I’m not sure he’s going to answer me, but finally he looks me in the eye.
“Elsy. Her name was Elsy.” He pulls a well worn handkerchief from his pocket, mops his face, and puts it back. “Her people worked this land for generations before the whole abolition thing took hold. Then, they kept workin’ it for their wages.”
“Was Elsy a maid?”
The old man’s cotton topped head nods slowly. “First here, then at the house on Meeting. Sarah, that’s my wife, took a likin’ to her. Always had her go to the house in town when she stayed there. Boy, could she cook. And she was right pretty. We never thought about George, though. We never thought…”
He glares at me now. “I found this box with these letters and this hair thing, and I knew what it all meant. That sort of thing just wasn’t done, you understand? I couldn’t have it!” The angry, bitter look is back on his face. “George shoulda known better. I told him he’d had his fun, but he had to end it. Then one night I was out walkin’ the dog. I’d had a snoot full and was tryin’ to walk it off ‘cause Sarah didn’t care for my drinkin’. I turned the corner and there they were in White Point Gardens. It was dark and they were in the shadows, but still. I knew it was them. Cavortin’ around like that. In public!” The old man’s face grows red at the memory. “I tossed the dog’s leash at George, then I hauled Elsy back to the house by her arm and threw her into my car. George was right behind us, yellin’ at me about love or some such foolishness, but I wasn’t havin’ it. I told him to take the mutt inside, I was gonna to take care of the mutt in the car.”
His chin starts quivering again, but any sympathy I had for him is long gone.
“You brought her out here, didn’t you, Mr. Rivers?”
He looks down into his drink and nods as a single tear rolls down his cheek.
“I took her about a thousand yards out that way,” his white head bobs to the left. “Down near the marsh. Tied her to a tree. Told her I was leavin’ her there for the gators.” He takes another swig of bourbon and wipes his face again. “Aw, I was drunk. Didn’t mean it. I passed out on that couch right where you’re sittin’. When I came to, it was morning and she was dead. Poor thing died of fright.” His eyes meet mine. “I buried her right there where she died and went back to town. Acted like nothin’ happened. When George asked me about Elsy, I told him I paid her off, that I’d gotten her a job with a friend of mine up in North Carolina. But my boy wasn’t stupid. He knew. Next morning, we found him hangin’ from that damned tree.”
I rise to my feet. “Show me where she is, Mr. Rivers. It’s time to make this right.”
He sits there another moment, sipping at his bourbon. His bloodshot eyes stare out at the past, at his day of reckoning. Grabbing his cane, he struggles to his feet and hobbles out into the yard.