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The Angel Whispered Danger
By Mignon F. Ballard
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Mignon F. Ballard
All rights reserved.
"I saw an angel today," Josie announced.
"Really?" I glanced at the ten-year-old in the passenger seat beside me. My daughter was sometimes given to flights of fancy, but since these were the first words she'd spoken to me in over an hour, I jumped in feetfirst. "And where was that?" I said.
"On the beach this morning. Walked right out of the water — had on a dress."
"She was wearing a dress in the ocean? What kind of dress?"
"I don't know ... a wet one, I guess."
I looked to see if my daughter was teasing, but her expression didn't change. "Looked kinda brownish-green. Junglelike," she added.
"Did she have wings? How do you know she was an angel?" I asked.
Josie looked out at the green expanse of a cornfield on our right: shoulder high in early July and rinsed tender with last night's rain. The car window was down and wind ruffled her soft butterscotch bangs. "I just know," she told me, adjusting the fluorescent pink-rimmed sunglasses on her sunburned nose. "But I don't think I was supposed to see her."
I smiled. "Why not?"
She shrugged. "Because ... when I looked back, she was gone."
We could use an angel, I thought. A whole passel of them. How did you count angels? A bevy? A flock? A band? I remembered the stirring refrain from the opera Hansel and Gretel I'd learned as a child, something about fourteen angels guarding sleep. Fourteen might get a bit crowded, but we could surely make room for one or two.
I slowed to make a turn and glanced at Josie, who had grown silent again, and now sat stiffly, arms folded. Stubborn to the core, even to her taffy-colored curls that went this way and that and wouldn't stay put if you slicked them with "bear grease," as my mama liked to say. Just like mine, only lighter. But my eyes were blue; Josie's were like her dad's — warm and brown with flecks of light, like the sun on Buttercup Creek, where my sister and I used to wade.
At least she had my imagination. I hoped it was only imagination. Had Ned and I driven our child to hallucinating?
The two of us were on our way to a family reunion at Bramblewood, my great-uncle's sprawling place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and Josie had made it clear from the first that she didn't want to go. The reunion was an annual event, and the three of us: Ned, Josie and I, usually looked forward to attending, combining it with a visit with my parents, since Bramblewood was just outside Bishop's Bridge, the town where I grew up. This year the festivities were to last several days to mark the fiftieth year Uncle Ernest had hosted the affair. And for the first time, Ned would not be accompanying us.
For the last couple of years, life together had not been all that pleasant for my husband and me, and so at the beginning of the summer, without a whole lot of discussion, we'd decided to try it apart. To appease our daughter, I had just spent what seemed like the longest week of my life in a "borrowed" cottage in Isle of Palms, South Carolina.
"Now, look here, Kate McBride, I'm not taking no for an answer. The time away will do you good," a friend had insisted, pressing the key to her family's beach house into my hand. "Walk on the beach, build sand castles with Josie, relax. You need this time together."
But guilt had led me to invite Josie's friend Paige along for the trip, and the longest conversations the two of us had were over what television shows they certainly were not going to watch. I had been more relaxed during the process of a root canal.
"Paige seemed to have a good time," I said to Josie's stony profile. "Did you two have fun together?"
My daughter's lip stuck out far enough to ride to town on. "I don't see why you wouldn't let me stay at Paige's. Her mom said it was okay. Why couldn't you just leave me there until that old reunion's over?"
Josie had been pouting since we had dropped off her friend back in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
"Because, Josie, this is a family reunion, and you happen to be my family."
"Dad's your family, too," she said with a question in her voice.
"Yes, of course he is, but he's busy getting ready for that seminar in California. You know that, honey."
"Are you and Daddy getting a divorce?" Josie stared into her lap, and the catch in her voice was barely noticeable. But I noticed it, and it was all I could do to keep from stopping the car, pulling my hurting child into my arms and kissing her doubt away. Lately, however, my daughter had become an untouchable: no good night kisses, no impromptu hugs, and the lack of them was peeling away at my emotions a little at a time. If emotions could bleed, I'd be a big red puddle. A Band-Aid wouldn't help either of us.
"Your dad and I just need to take a little time to work things out," I said, trying to speak in a steady voice. "This training session's important, and he needed extra time to prepare for it. That's why he couldn't go to the beach."
I wished that were the only reason. The truth was that things hadn't been right between my husband and me since we lost our baby during the third month of my pregnancy over two years before. Over a period of time, my once warm and lovable husband had turned into an unapproachable stranger. Ned hadn't been invited to go to the beach, and from all indications, wouldn't have accepted if he had, but I was already in the dump heap as far as Josie was concerned, so why pile on more?
"So, when's he coming home?" she wanted to know.
Please don't ask, because I don't know! "The seminar lasts several weeks," I said, "and your dad's conducting one of the later sessions, but he'll phone, Josie. You know he won't forget you. Your daddy loves you, and so do I."
Something that sounded very much like a snort came from the seat beside me. "Hey, how about some ice cream?" I offered, seeing a fast-food restaurant ahead. "Been a while since lunch."
"I'm not hungry," Josie said.
How could somebody one-third my age who didn't even come to my shoulder aggravate me so? I found myself grinding my teeth. "Come on now, Josie, you have camp to look forward to this summer — why, just think, in a couple of weeks you'll be swimming and canoeing — all that good stuff, and when we get back from Uncle Ernest's, you'll have a brand new bike to ride." Since he would be away for her birthday, Ned had given our daughter her present early.
"I don't want to go to Uncle Ernest's! It's creepy there. Darby says you found a dead man in those woods. And there's an old graveyard back there, too. He says it's haunted."
"Josie, your cousin's just trying to scare you. There used to be a church adjoining Uncle Ernest's property, but it burned years ago. The cemetery behind it has been neglected, I'm afraid, but it certainly isn't haunted. When did Darby tell you that?"
"When we were there at Christmas. He said I wasn't supposed to tell you."
I wondered who had told Darby. My cousin Marge's boy was not much older than Josie, and both were impressionable.
"Well, did you?" she persisted. "Did you really find a dead man? Darby said he'd been murdered!"
"That was a long time ago, honey," I said. "I wasn't much older than you." So why did it seem like yesterday? To this day, I avoided that section of the thicket behind Bramblewood.
"Weren't you scared? Was it somebody you knew?"
Scared wasn't the word. Every time I thought of that day, I felt again icy flames leap in my belly. The man, a vagrant, had been dead for at least twenty-four hours, we learned later. His blue eyes stared at nothing and dried blood matted his hair. He lay across a fallen log close to the trail that meandered along a tributary of the Yadkin River at the far end of my uncle's property, and the cigarettes that had probably dropped from the pocket of his blue denim shirt were scattered on the ground.
"Of course I was scared. We were all scared, but that's not going to happen again. He was somebody just passing through, and even after we learned his name, nobody knew who he was or why he was killed."
Tobias King. The name still sent a spike of fear right through my middle. My friend Beverly, who had been with me that day, experienced nightmares for years, and my cousin Grady won't talk about it to this day.
"How do you know that whoever killed him won't come back?" Josie asked, glancing over her shoulder as if the murderer were in hot pursuit.
"I don't know why he would. That was almost twenty years ago," I said.
"What if he never left?" Her brown eyes were accusing, as if I were to blame for allowing a murderer to run loose.
"Josie McBride, I'm not going to let anything happen to you! We've gone to Bramblewood every year since you were only a few weeks old. Just remember to stay out of those woods unless an adult is with you and you'll be fine."
"Darby and Jon go back there all the time. They say that place is haunted."
"What place?" I knew my cousin Marge would skin her two boys if she knew they were wandering that close to the river.
"You know — down where that raft washed up a long time ago, but they never found those people who were in it — the ones with the funny names. They drowned, Darby says, and their spirits are still there; he says they're doomed to look forever for their bodies in the river because they did something bad."
"Then their spirits must be shy because I never met them," I said. "And that happened way before I was born."
"Oh, Mom!" Josie rolled her eyes. She didn't think much of anything happened before I was born, except maybe the discovery of fire.
"No, really. And I don't know how bad they were, although people said they did a bad thing. They were supposed to have robbed a grocery store somewhere up near Dobson, but I don't know if it's true."
They were a young couple — hippies, my mother said — and they'd stolen the raft from somebody's vacation cabin several miles upriver. The girl's name had something to do with the moon — Waning Crescent, or something like that. Marge used to laugh and say her father must've been a weatherman. And the boy called himself Shamrock — only it looked as if his luck had run out.
Earlier we had skirted the city of Charlotte and the land began to rise gently as we approached Statesville. Soon we would be in the foothills, and then the mountains themselves, where cold streams boiled and twisted alongside the spiraling road. In another hour or so we would reach Bishop's Bridge and home. I still thought of it as home even though I had lived away for more than ten years. Ned and I had married during our senior year in college, and Josie arrived a few weeks before our first anniversary, just in time for the family reunion. I smiled, remembering how excited we were the first time we brought her home to show her off.
"Uncle Ernest is grouchy," my daughter said, scratching a scab on her knee.
"Uncle Ernest is a bachelor — or as good as one; he's not around children a lot, and you know he doesn't hear so well ... and don't scratch that, Josie, you'll make it bleed."
My great-uncle had been married briefly when he was in his midthirties, I was told, but Bramblewood had proved too isolated for his young bride. I heard Cousin Violet telling Mama once that she thought Ernest was too set in his ways to have married.
"And that Ella made me eat lumpy oatmeal one time, and she's always burning the toast," Josie continued, referring to Uncle Ernest's longtime housekeeper.
"Ella's old. Give her a break — and she's Miss Stegall to you. Besides, we're not staying with Uncle Ernest. We'll be at Jo-Jo and Papa's," I said, using the names she called my parents.
"But they're not even going to be there! I wish we could go to England with them so we could see Aunt Sara's baby."
My younger sister, Sara, expected her first child within the next few days, and my parents had flown over to greet the arrival and help out with the new baby. Sara's husband was sales manager of a division of a large electronics firm over there, and they lived in a community on the outskirts of London. Mom, who had never been out of the country, was so excited about the baby, she forgot to be afraid of flying all the way across the Atlantic.
"I wish we could be there, too," I said, "but we just can't afford it right now. Sara's promised to send videos, and they'll be home for Christmas." Also, if I knew my mother, they probably wouldn't be able to get the plane off the ground she'd have so many pictures to bring back. This would be their second grandchild after Josie's birth ten years ago, and it had been a long and frustrating wait, especially after our sad loss.
"I just hope it's not a boy!" Josie said.
"You like Darby and Jon okay, and you've always loved playing with little Hartley." Marge's youngest at three was, according to her, "no bigger than a skeeter bump," but had already managed to climb from the mulberry tree to their garage roof and was a maniac on a tricycle.
"Beats hanging around with that dumb Cynthia," Josie said. "Darby said he bet if she ever had an idea it would bust her head wide open."
"Burst," I said. "And Darby oughta be ashamed talking about his own cousin like that." I hated to admit I had felt the same way about Cynthia's mother, my cousin Deedee, when I was her age.
And she still got under my skin. When we were home just last Christmas, I'd heard Deedee bellowing in the produce department of J & G Groceries, telling Mr. Jim Whitby, who owns the store, that his coconuts didn't slosh. Mr. Whitby's about eighty — deaf in one ear, and can't hear in the other — and the poor thing never did understand what she was saying. I hid behind a pyramid of canned cranberry sauce until she left.
"You don't have to be best friends with somebody in order not to be rude — and she is your cousin," I reminded my daughter — as well as myself. And if you could hear eyes roll, Josie's would've sounded like marbles in a can.
"I have to go to the bathroom," she said a few minutes later as we turned onto Highway 16 on the outskirts of Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
I was glad to see a peach stand next to the gas station where we stopped, and took the opportunity to buy a large basket of peaches, some green beans and a few onions. Although I knew Mom would leave her kitchen well-stocked, I wouldn't be able to count on perishables. And since we would be having dinner with Marge and her family that night, I got a basket for them, as well.
Two men in overalls joked with each other as they rearranged produce on long tables, and while Josie waited in the car I took my time admiring shiny jars of strawberry jam, peach pickles and plastic-wrapped loaves of homemade bread. The only other customers were a woman and a young girl. The older one wore a frothy dress in a splash of sunrise colors that looked oddly out of place in a rural produce stand, and she shook her bright head and held up a warning finger as her younger companion reached for a peach. How odd, I thought, since it was a peach stand. Still, it was a comforting place and I wish I could have lingered longer.
I hadn't enjoyed local peaches since the summer before, and the rosy-ripe smell of them almost made me heady. I didn't know if I'd be able to make it all the way to Bishop's Bridge without biting into one — peach fuzz and all. Josie already had, and now she looked around for a place to put the pit, sticky juice running down her arm, and I thought of the young girl back at the stand who had probably meant to do the same. For the first time since we'd left the beach that morning, my daughter looked almost pleasant. "Good as last year's?" I asked, handing her a wipe.
Josie licked her lips. "Mmm ... maybe even better." She sniffed. "You didn't tell me you bought strawberries, too."
"That's because I didn't. They're out of season now. Don't you remember when I bought some at the farmer's market a few weeks ago, they told me that would be the last of them till next year?" Strawberries were my daughter's favorite fruit, and the ones you bought in the grocery store just didn't taste the same.
"Then why do I smell them?" Josie peered around the back of her seat as if she thought she might find some, like red treasure, hidden there.
"Must be your imagination," I said.
So why did I smell them, too?
Excerpted from The Angel Whispered Danger by Mignon F. Ballard. Copyright © 2003 Mignon F. Ballard. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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