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Writen by todaās freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our plāce in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experence, as well as encourage us to explore these topics togehter—because books, and life, are meānt for shāring.
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Praise for the Novels of Karen White The House on Tradd Street
“Engaging ....White skillfully balances her tale at the meeting point of romance, mystery, and ghost story . . . a fun and satisfying read.”
“White delivers funny characters, a solid plot, and an interesting twist in this novel about the South and its antebellum history.”—Romantic Times
“Brilliant and engrossing . . . a rare gem . . . exquisitely told, rich in descriptions, and filled with multifaceted characters.”
—The Book Connection
“I loved this book! It was one of those that you struggle against putting down as the pages fly by. Karen White is an extremely talented and colorful writer with tons of imagination. If you are not a believer of the paranormal, you will be after reading this novel.”—Fresh Fiction
“The sights and smells of the old house, along with excellent dialogue and good pacing add up to a wonderful, mysterious, and ghostly tale.”
—Marilyn Heyman, Romance Reviews Today
The Memory of Water
“Beautifully written and as lyrical as the tides. The Memory of Water speaks directly to the heart and will linger in yours long after you’ve read the final page. I loved this book!”—Susan Crandall, author of A Kiss in Winter
“Karen White delivers a powerfully emotional blend of family secrets, Lowcountry lore, and love in The Memory of Water—who could ask for more?”—Barbara Bretton, author of Just Like Heaven
Learning to Breathe
“White creates a heartfelt story full of vibrant characters and emotion that leaves the reader satisfied yet hungry for more from this talented author.”—Booklist
“One of those stories where you savor every single word . . . [a] perfect 10.”—Romance Reviews Today
“Another one of Karen White’s emotional books! A joy to read!”
—The Best Reviews
Pieces of the Heart
“Heartwarming and intense . . . a tale that resonates with the meaning of unconditional love.”—Romantic Times (4 stars)
“A terrific insightful character study.”—Midwest Book Review
The Color of Light
“[White’s] prose is lyrical, and she weaves in elements of mysticism and romance without being heavy-handed. This is an accomplished novel about loss and renewal, and readers will be taken with the people and stories of Pawleys Island.”—Booklist
“A story as rich as a coastal summer . . . dark secrets, heartache, a magnificent South Carolina setting, and a great love story.”
—New York Times bestselling author Deborah Smith
“An engaging read with a delicious taste of the mysterious.”
—New York Times bestselling author Haywood Smith
“Karen White’s novel is as lush as the Lowcountry, where the characters’ wounded souls come home to mend in unexpected and magical ways.”
—Patti Callahan Henry, award-winning author of Between the Tides
Praise for the Other Novels
of Karen White
“The fresh voice of Karen White intrigues and delights.”
—Sandra Chastain, contributor to Blessings at Mossy Creek
“Warmly Southern and deeply moving.”
—New York Times bestselling author Deborah Smith
“Karen White writes with passion and poignancy.”
—Deb Stover, award-winning author of Mulligan Magic
“[A] sweet book . . . highly recommended.”—Booklist
“This is not only romance at its best—this is a fully realized view of life at its fullest.”—Readers & Writers, Ink
“After the Rain is an elegantly enchanting Southern novel.... Fans will recognize the beauty of White’s evocative prose.”—WordWeaving.com
“In the tradition of Catherine Anderson and Deborah Smith, Karen White’s After the Rain is an incredibly poignant contemporary bursting with Southern charm.”
—Patricia Rouse, Rouse’s Romance Readers Groups
“Don’t miss this book!”—Rendezvous
New American Library Titles by Karen White
The Color of Light
Pieces of the Heart
Learnīng to Breathe
The Memory of Water
The Hoūse on Tradd Street
Published by New American Library, a division of
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First published by NAL Accent, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, April 2009
Copyright © Harley House Books, LLC, 2009
Conversation Guide copyright © Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009
All rights reserved
NAL ACCENT REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA:
White, Karen (Karen S.)
The lost hours/Karen White.
1.Women in horse sports—Fiction. 2. Accident victims—Fiction. 3. Equestrian accidents—Fiction.
4. Grandparent and child—Fiction. 5. Grandmothers—Fiction. 6. Family secrets—Fiction.
7. Friendship in children—Fiction. 8. Self-actualization (Psychology)—Fiction. I.Title.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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To my beautiful grandmother, Grace Bianca.
Thank you for sharing your stories.
Thank you to my daughter, Meghan, and her trainer, Jen Bishop, for reminding me what it’s like to love horses again. And yes, Meghan, I do watch.
A huge thanks to Andi Winkle for your generosity in sharing your time and knowledge about horses with me. I hope you don’t mind being the stable manager at Asphodel Meadows or that I wrote in your broken nose but made it more glamorous than walking into a glass wall. Any mistakes about horses and equestrian events are completely mine.
And thanks to talented authors Wendy Wax and Susan Crandall, whose support and willingness to bump ideas with me is priceless. Thank you for always being honest, and for being my two-person pep squad when I need it.
As always, thank you to Tim, Meghan, and Connor for allowing me to follow my dreams.
The golden moments īn the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand;
The angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.
When I was twelve years old, I helped my granddaddy bury a box in the back garden of our Savannah house. I didn’t ask him what was in it. The box belonged to my grandmother, so I didn’t care. Long before the Alzheimer’s got her mind, a fear of living had taken hold of her spirit, convincing me that my grandmother had no stories worth listening to.
I squatted by the edge of the shallow hole in the middle of my grandmother’s peonies, smelling sweat and summer grass as I dug my fingers into the dark earth and held up my handfuls of dirt briefly before opening my clenched hands, the clods raining shadows onto the box below. The dirt struck the tin with soft patters like little fists against the sealed box, demanding the release of its secrets. I yawned and turned away, the box and whatever it might contain forgotten by the time the screen door of the back porch slammed shut behind me.
I hadn’t thought about that hot afternoon for over a decade: a non-event in a busy life filled with friends, parties and my never-ending quest for accolades and excitement in the saddle on the back of a high-jumping horse. I had thought myself indestructible, immune to the fears and disappointments that had stolen the color from my grandmother’s face the same way the setting sun creates a world of shadows.
My delusion was understandable to my grandfather, who knew the source of it. After all, he was the one who’d told me that being the sole survivor of an accident that took the lives of both my parents meant that God was saving me for something important. I took this to mean that I had already experienced the greatest tragedy of my life and nothing bad would ever happen to me again. My grandmother claimed I was merely tempting the devil. But I was content to exist in my make-believe world, where I was infallible until the day came when I was forced to realize how very wrong I’d been. Life is like that, I suppose: always slapping you in the face when you least expect it.
The doorbell rang, erasing the smells of summer grass and damp earth. I rose slowly from my chair in the front parlor, scanning my eyes over the worn furniture with the eyes of a person who hadn’t become accustomed to its growing shabbiness for over twenty years. The house still smelled of flowers although the last of the wilted funeral arrangements had been put out at the curb the previous evening with the rest of the garbage. I had hoped that keeping the flowers in the house would help me feel the grief I knew was living somewhere under my skin. I had done enough grieving in my life by the age of six that I guess my body figured I just couldn’t do it anymore.
The doorbell rang again and I walked stiffly to the door, my back and right knee protesting every step. Humidity hung over Savannah in the summer like a veil, antagonizing my injuries as much as any cold weather would. I’d long since reached the conclusion that there was no climate that would coddle my bruised bones, so I might as well stay in this ancient city and old house that had been in my mother’s family for four generations.
I swallowed back my disappointment as I pulled open the door and revealed my granddaddy’s lawyer, a man about ten years younger than the grandfather I had just buried. His skin was tinged gray like the color of dried marsh mud and he had down-turned eyes that always seemed to look anxious.
“Mr. Morton,” I said, stepping aside to allow him through the doorway. “This is a nice surprise.” I had hoped it would be one of my old friends from my equestrian days, the friends whose visits had trickled down to a slow drip in the last years. They’d gotten tired of asking me when I was going to ride again, and stopped visiting, as if whatever I’d contracted that kept me on the ground might be contagious. I had no classmates, having been homeschooled for most of my life, and my friendships had centered around the show circuit. A few had made an appearance at the wake, but that was all. Even Jen Bishop, my oldest friend and closest rival, had merely sent a flower arrangement and a note.
Mr. Morton grunted and led the way to the parlor. I indicated for him to sit only a moment after he’d taken his place in my favorite chair, the same chair my grandmother had sat in each evening with her endless knitting.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“Why don’t you get me something to drink, dear?”
I paused, wondering if it would be polite to suggest he put in his hearing aid.
“What would you like, Mr. Morton? Tea or lemonade?” I watched as he ran his finger across the dust on the side table, etching out a single line of accusation about my lack of housekeeping skills. “Or maybe arsenic?” I added softly.
He blinked slowly up at me, and for a horrible second I wondered if he’d actually heard me. “A Co-Cola would be nice. It’s a hot day.”
I left the room and returned with two glasses of Coke filled two-thirds with ice. I’d only had a partial can and rather than try to go through the motions of explaining this to Mr. Morton, I figured it would be easier to just go with what I had.
“Thank you, Piper,” he said as he took a long sip, then wrinkled his nose before setting it on a coaster.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Morton?” I asked loudly, sitting on the worn sofa next to his chair.
He placed his briefcase on the coffee table in front of him and made a big show of opening it and taking out a large manila folder. “I’ve got some papers for you to sign concerning your grandfather’s estate.” He slid the stack in front of me and handed me a thick black pen. “There’re also papers regarding the continuation of your grandmother’s care that you’ll need to look at and sign.”
I looked up at him, realizing for the first time what my grandfather’s death would really mean for me. Along with the deed to the house, all its furnishings and his 1988 Buick LeSabre, I had apparently also inherited the care of the grandmother who no longer recognized my face.
I signed the papers where he indicated and slid them back to him. With meticulous precision, he stacked the papers and placed them in his briefcase. But instead of standing up and taking his leave, he sat back in his chair and took another sip of his watery drink and blinked at me through thick glasses.
“Is there anything else, Mr. Morton?” I asked.
He looked at me, not comprehending. Placing his bony hands on his black-clad knees, he said, “There’s one more thing, Piper.”
I didn’t bother to reply.
“As you know, I’ve been acquainted with your grandparents since I was an errand boy in my father’s law practice. They were good people.” He looked down for a moment as if to compose himself and I wished that I could borrow some of his grief.
He continued. “Annabelle—your grandmother—was a beautiful young woman. Her father was a doctor of some reputation. He treated patients regardless of their social class or the color of their skin—a rarity in those days.” He lowered his head, his bushy eyebrows like avenging hawks in a downward spiral. “And Annabelle was no different. Always putting others first and taking care of people.” His voice softened when he said her name and I glanced up at him, but his eyes didn’t give anything away.
I looked down again, impatient, and curled my toes inside my shoes to keep my feet from tapping as Mr. Morton took his unwanted stroll down memory lane in my parlor. My gaze strayed through the window to East Taylor Street out front and to Monterey Square beyond it with its statue of Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski. This view had been my world since the time I was six years old and moved in with my grandparents. The sound of the bells at St. John’s in nearby Lafayette Square mixed with the gentle conversation of my grandparents on the balcony below my bedroom had been my nighttime lullaby. For a brief while my talent for jumping higher and faster on the back of a horse had taken me around the world. But my horse was long since gone, and I was back where I started from, staring at the statue in Monterey Square and the implacable face of General Pulaski.
“When you first came to live with them, your grandmother planned to give you something that had meant a lot to her when she was a young woman.” He paused briefly, his brows furrowed with seeming incomprehension. “I guess she never found the right time to give it to you because your grandfather gave it to me for safekeeping when he put Annabelle in the home. I thought that you should have it now.”
I dragged my attention away from the window, aware that he was awaiting a response from me. I struggled for a moment to capture his last words. “Something from my grandmother?”
Mr. Morton took a sealed envelope from the inside of his jacket and handed it to me. There was a small lump inside and my name had been written with my grandmother’s meticulous cursive. I glanced at Mr. Morton and he nodded his head in encouragement before I dug my nail under the flap of the envelope and ripped it open.
I peered inside, looking for a letter or a note. I cupped my hand and tipped the envelope over, shaking it until whatever had been stuck at the bottom came tumbling out into my palm.
Mr. Morton leaned toward me and we both stared at my prize, a gold charm of an angel holding an opened book. I shook the envelope again, waiting for the chain to fall out, but the envelope was empty.
“There’s not even a note,” I said, turning the charm over in my hand, wondering why she had held on to it for so long without giving it to me and feeling an odd disappointment.
Mr. Morton took my hand, squeezing it hard enough to almost be painful. “No, there wouldn’t be. Annabelle had always planned to give it to you in person. It’s a part of your grandmother’s history—part of her life she would want you to know.”
I stood, uneasy with his intensity. “I’ll take good care of it. And I’ll look for the chain, too. Maybe it’s somewhere in her old room.”
He stared at me for a long moment and I thought he hadn’t understood what I said. While I prepared to paraphrase slowly and clearly, Mr. Morton said, “You do that, young lady.” He stood and faced me, a concentrated look on his withered face. “You never know what you’ll find.”
Uncomfortable, I waited for him to gather his things, then quickly led the way back to the foyer.
“You’re a pretty young lady, Piper. I’m sure your grandfather would want you to move on. To find a young man and get married. Start a family of your own.”
“You mean sell the house?”
Mr. Morton shrugged. “That’s certainly a possibility. Even after making allowances for your grandmother’s care, with the remainder of your parents’ and grandparents’ estates, you’ll have a nice little nest egg. Maybe you’ll want to travel for a bit.”
I opened the front door, hearing the distant sound of the church bells. “There’s no place I want to go. Besides, with my back and knee, I don’t think long-distance travel would be a good idea.”
He regarded me quietly. “It’s not always the distance of a trip that determines its value. Sometimes the best trips are only as far as the circumference of your heart.”
Before I could ask him what he meant, he said, “Speaking of trips, Matilda and I are going on a four-month excursion around the coast of South America. It’s been a dream of hers for a long time and I finally figured that now’s as good a time as ever. You might be able to reach me by e-mail, but that would be sporadic at best. If you need something immediately, you can call my office and George will be happy to take care of you.”
“Thank you,” I said, trying not to flinch at the mention of George’s name and impatient now for Mr. Morton to leave. His words had unsettled me and all I wanted was to go back to my darkening parlor and think about all I had lost.
He stepped outside onto the brick steps and pulled an old-fashioned gold watch out of his pocket. A gold key fob dangled from the chain as he studied the clock face and frowned before shoving it back in his pocket. “One more thing. Matilda asked me to find out if her family tree is ready yet.”
Dabbling in genealogy and delving into other people’s family secrets had been the riskiest behavior I’d allowed myself to be involved in since my riding accident six years earlier. I frowned, knowing that my answer would not be something Mrs. Morton would want to hear. “Tell her almost. But I haven’t been able to find any connection between her family and the British royal family as she thought there might have been. Although I have found a family connection to sheep farmers in Yorkshire.”
He stared at me blankly for a long moment. Finally, he said,“I’ll let you tell her that yourself.”
“Just feed me to the alligators instead,” I muttered to myself as he turned away. I imagined his imperious wife, whose aspiration to grandiosity was equal only to her disdain for me for having had the bad taste to have been born north of the Mason-Dixon Line, regardless of the fact that both my parents had been born and raised in Savannah.
Mr. Morton faced me again abruptly, almost making me startle. “I heard that, you know.”
I smiled, my face feeling stretched and unused to the movement of turning up my lips. “Good-bye, Mr. Morton,” I said as I closed the heavy door with the black wreath hanging from it.
I watched him through the leaded glass of the door, trying again to find the tears for the grandfather who had raised me since I was six. I absently fingered the small charm in my hand and blinked hard, willing the grief to find me. But I could only stand there, dry-eyed, as I watched Mr. Morton slowly make his way down the walk toward the square with the statue honoring a fallen war hero. And I wondered, not for the first time, if dying in the quest for glory wasn’t far better than surviving with the livid scars of failure for all to see.
I woke up with a stiff neck and something small and hard pressed into the side of my hip. I’d fallen asleep on the sofa again in the absence of a grandfather to tell me to go upstairs to bed. I sat up, rotating my neck while digging under my hip for the protruding object. It was the small gold charm and I picked it up, a misplaced sense of excitement filling me for a moment. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because a quest for the missing chain might distract me long enough that I might forget about the rest of my life.
I shuffled to the kitchen, my knee and back joining in protest with my neck. I opened the refrigerator for my morning Coke, belatedly remembering the sad display of hospitality I’d shown to Mr. Morton with the remnants of my last can of Coke rescued from the back shelf. Covered casseroles, assorted salads, and a large ham, courtesy of a misplaced sense of duty on behalf of neighbors, my grandfather’s former business associates, and church members, crammed the small space. It was the Savannah way of feeding bereavement, as if all that grieving required extra caloric input. I hadn’t so much as lifted a corner of foil wrap, feeling guilty for not having earned any of it. I had yet to shed a single tear.
“Dang it,” I said to the empty kitchen as I slammed the refrigerator door. Something clattered on the wood floor and I belatedly realized that I’d been holding the charm in my hand and had dropped it when I’d slammed the door. With unaccustomed alarm, I got down on all fours, forgetting to favor my right knee, and began to search for the charm.
I found it resting on the floor, propped next to the overflowing plastic garbage bin, as if a reminder that it needed to be emptied. I picked up the charm, then held it in the light from the kitchen window. Squinting, I studied the back of the opened book, my attention caught by thin black lines etched across the covers. Moving my head closer, I realized that the lines were actually writing but the words were too small for me to read. With as much enthusiasm as I could muster, I walked across the foyer to my grandfather’s study, pausing only a moment as the smell of pipe smoke made me think that I should have knocked on the door first.
I rifled through the desk drawers until I found the magnifying glass still resting on the top of the desk, where my grandfather had read the Sunday paper. A shadow of sadness drifted over me, stilling me for a moment as I willed the grief to come. But I remained as numb and helpless as I had been for the last six years and even that thought couldn’t bring the tears I needed to shed. I held the metal handle in my hand, imagining it still warm from my grandfather’s touch. Instead it felt cold and impersonal as I brought it over to the window to see better.
I held up the charm and the magnifying glass and brought them closer to my eye. Turning the charm around to see the inscription on the book’s covers, I read it out loud. Perfer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim. I looked up, hearing the words as I’d read them. Wasn’t that Latin? I read the inscription again, racking my brain for the high school Latin that I’d done my best to forget in the intervening years.
Putting the magnifying glass back on my grandfather’s desk, I turned to the shelves of books in the off chance that any of my old Latin textbooks might have been saved over the years. Granddaddy never wanted to have anything to do with computers and I didn’t feel up to climbing two flights of stairs to get to my own. And by looking through the library, I was guaranteed that my search would eat up most of the empty morning.
With breakfast forgotten, I spent an hour going through my grandfather’s books and finding nothing remotely resembling anything that would help me translate the Latin phrase. I was about to leave the room when I spied the antique sea captain’s trunk under one of the windows.
My grandmother had used it to keep her knitting projects, including the sweaters and scarves she’d made for me that never quite fit or suited me and which I’d never worn. I had never been curious about the trunk’s contents before, but something made me pause before it, a fleeting memory of my grandmother kneeling before it with creaking knees to place something inside.
Slipping the charm into my pocket, I knelt on the floor and lifted the lid. The overpowering stench of mothballs made my eyes sting as I averted my face for a moment to allow the contents to air out. I began rummaging through the trunk quickly, pushing aside old knitting projects and half-used balls of brightly colored yarn that even at the time when my grandmother was knitting, had seemed so out-of-character for her. She always wore drab browns and grays yet all of her projects for me were created out of bright pinks and yellows, pale blues and the amber hues of the marsh at sunset.
My fingers sifted through the soft wool until they scraped the bottom of the trunk and my fingernail flicked something small and hard. I tugged on it and found myself lifting out a very small pale blue sweater. My finger had found one of the mother-of-pearl buttons that closed the sweater in front in a tiny, neat row. I looked at the sweater for a long time, wondering who it could have belonged to.
My reverie was broken by the sound of the phone ringing. I picked up the old black princess model on the desk. “Hello?”
“Hello, Piper. It’s Mr. Morton. Matilda and I are heading for the airport shortly but I wanted to give you a call before we left just to make sure you’re all right.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mr. Morton. Thank you,” I said, meaning it, my annoyance at the phone’s intrusion into my solitude forgotten.
“I know you haven’t had a lot of time to think about our conversation yesterday, so I won’t ask about your plans just yet. Just wanted to know if you had any last-minute questions before I leave the country.”
I was about to say no when I had a sudden thought. I dug the small charm out of my pocket. “Actually, I do. Being a lawyer, you probably know a bit of Latin, right?”
There was a long pause, and then Mr. Morton said, “I don’t really follow baseball, Piper, so I don’t know how the Marlins are doing.”
I bit my lip, but before I could repeat my question, Mr. Morton let out a low chuckle.
“I’m pulling your leg, Piper. I heard you the first time. Matilda makes me wear my hearing aid while I’m traveling with her because otherwise I drive her crazy. What she doesn’t know is that I can turn the thing off and leave it in my ear and she won’t have any idea.”
I smiled into the phone. “I promise it’ll be our secret, Mr. Morton.”
“So, what did you want translated?”
I brought the charm up to my eye, squinting as I read out loud, “Perfer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim.”
He cleared his throat. “That’s Ovid. It means ‘Be patient and strong; someday this pain will be useful to you.’ ” He paused for a moment. “Where did you hear that?”
“It was on the charm from my grandmother that you gave me.”
I heard him take a deep breath. “It sounds like something she’d say.”
“Funny,” I said, leaning back against the desk,“I was thinking just the opposite. I mean, Grandmother wasn’t really the type to be profound or even sentimental enough to have a favorite verse put on a charm.”
He was silent for a moment. “And that’s where you would be wrong, Piper. Very wrong.”
“Pardon me for disagreeing with you, Mr. Morton, but I just don’t see it that way.”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t. You never really knew your grandmother.”
I swallowed my irritation. “Mr. Morton, I lived with her for six years and have been visiting her almost daily since I was twelve. I think that qualifies me as knowing her.”
“Studying the cover of a book doesn’t qualify you to discuss its contents, you know.”
I felt my anger rise as my stomach grumbled, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten. I didn’t reply.
“Is there anything else, Piper? Matilda has grabbed her umbrella, which means she’s ready to go.”
I wanted to tell him where he could stick that umbrella but I held back. I remembered the sweater and reluctantly spoke again. “I found something else in my grandmother’s trunk. A small knitted blue sweater. As far as I know, both my mother and I were only children with no brothers. I was just wondering if you had any idea who it might have belonged to.”
There was a long pause but this time I knew that it wasn’t because he couldn’t hear me and I felt a tingle of anticipation dance down my spine, raising the hair on the back of my neck.
“Our taxi is here and I really have to go now, Piper.”
“Mr. Morton, do you know something about this sweater?”
I heard the sound of a honking horn and then Mr. Morton spoke again. “Your grandmother was a lot stronger than you think, Piper. Maybe you should go visit her.”
The sound of a car honking sounded again through the receiver.
“I really must go now, Piper. Don’t hesitate to call George if you should need anything. Good-bye, dear.”
I kept the receiver pressed against my ear, listening to the dial tone for a long time, trying to figure out what in the hell Mr. Morton had been trying to tell me and why I should even care.
I made myself go to the grocery to buy more Coke and frozen dinners, the thought of heating up a casserole just for me completely unappealing. My conversations with Mr. Morton and my discovery of the blue sweater had made me think of my grandmother and I found myself purchasing cornmeal, okra, and green tomatoes—the old comfort foods that she had made for me as a child.
I knew that I should visit her, but her presence at my grandfather’s funeral had been exhausting as I fielded her repetitive questions and reintroduced her to relatives and friends she’d known for fifty years. She’d been utterly lost, and after a while I stopped reminding her whose funeral we were attending. To her, Granddaddy would always be alive, and it gave me some comfort to know that she would never be truly alone.
But I needed to go visit her. I would do it soon, if only to ask her why she would have thought to caution me about patience, strength, and pain.
I placed my grocery bags in the backseat of the old Buick, trying not to see my grandfather in his worn straw hat at the wheel, signaling his turns with his left hand because the fuse for his blinkers had blown out and he hadn’t wanted to part with the cash to replace it.
As I drove around our square toward East Taylor, the moss-draped oaks teased me with intermittent sun and shadow, the old houses staring stoically at the square and at me as I passed, defying time and climate simply by remaining. In front of my house I paused, the antique beauty of the Savannah gray brick town house and delicate wrought-iron railings never lost on me. I think it was because the first time I’d seen it, it had been a place a refuge following the death of my parents. Even afterward, when I’d begun to think of my grandmother’s house as a place of sadness and shadows, it was still the place I called home. If it held any secrets, I was kept blissfully unaware of them.
I pulled into a spot on the curb, belatedly remembering that I had given my front-door key to the funeral director so he could unload the funeral flowers and place them inside for the wake while I wasn’t home. I sighed heavily, eyeing the three bags in the backseat and deciding whether I could balance all three while I cut through the side garden and made my way to the backyard.
I had set down one of the bags in an empty flower bed in the backyard to readjust the load when I heard the front doorbell ring. Leaving the bag on the ground, I unlocked the back door and ran inside, dropping the two bags on the kitchen counter before rushing through the house to the front door.
George Baker, an associate in Mr. Morton’s law firm in addition to being Mr. Morton’s grandson, stood on the front steps with an appropriate look of condolence on his face and a blue-and-white seersucker suit on his thin-framed body. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, but his relentless pursuit of me since I had returned to Savannah six years before had made me wary and I avoided any contact with him with the same amount of effort I applied to avoiding any reminders of my past. He was also the only person of my acquaintance who insisted on calling me by my given name instead of the nickname my grandfather had given me the first time I’d sat on a horse.
“Hello, Earlene. I’m glad I found you at home.” He held up a foil-wrapped casserole dish. “Mama thought you might get hungry, so she sent her tomato-okra casserole for you. There’s a lot of food there, so if you don’t think you can eat it all, I’d be happy to stay for dinner and help you out.”
I took the casserole and forced a smile on my face. “Thanks, George. That was real sweet of your mother to think of me.”
He stood facing me, obviously waiting for an invitation to come inside.
I indicated the space behind me. “I left a bag of groceries in the back garden and two more in the kitchen and I need to go put them away before they spoil.”
“You know you’re not supposed to be carrying anything too heavy. Let me help you.”
Resigned to submitting myself to his company, I moved back to allow him in. “Let me put this casserole in the fridge if you wouldn’t mind getting the bag I left outside.”
He followed at my heels like a lost puppy as I made my way to the kitchen and he went out the back door. I added the casserole to the collection in the refrigerator and started unloading the bags. When George returned he began organizing the groceries on the counter by the section of the kitchen where they would be stored. It annoyed me and I pretended not to notice his system when I put the can of peeled tomatoes in the pile with frozen peas and ice cream.
“You gave a beautiful eulogy at the funeral, Earlene. You’re a very strong woman, saying those words and not crying at all. I said that to my grandpa Paul and he said that you would have made your grandfather proud.”
“Thank you,” I said stiffly as I stuffed a plastic bag inside another. How could I explain to him that it wasn’t at all because I was strong? To be strong I’d have to feel something.
He stacked the two boxes of Froot Loops on the counter. “Do you really eat this for breakfast?”
A sarcastic comment came to my lips but I bit it back. I simply didn’t have the energy to apologize later. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.”
He pursed his lips. “I think your doctor would agree that a diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains would contribute to your healing process a lot quicker than all these processed foods.”
I gritted my teeth and began folding the plastic bags, knowing what was coming next.
“You know, your accident was close to six years ago. You should be walking with a lot less pain by now. Maybe you need to go back to your physical therapist to go over some exercises. . . .”
“Thanks for your concern, George. I appreciate it. Really. But I can take care of myself.”
His perusal of the kitchen countertops with crumpled fast-food bags made me a liar but I chose to ignore him as I bent under the kitchen sink to throw in the pile of plastic bags.
“Have you thought much about what you’re going to do now?”
I rose slowly, looking out the window over the sink into the bare garden, its beds as abandoned and neglected as a childhood dream. His grandfather had asked the same thing and I think I hated them both a little bit for it. For so long I’d existed with a wall between my present and my future and I had neither the will nor the strength to tear it down. It was so much easier to simply be.
I turned to face him. “It’s really none of your concern, George.”
“You know that I’d like it to be.”
I closed my eyes for a long moment and took a deep breath.
“There’s another reason I stopped by today.”
My eyes fluttered open with dread, half expecting a small ring box.
He reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a small manila envelope. “My grandfather meant to bring these to you when he stopped by yesterday. For some reason they were kept separately from the envelope he already gave you. I think it’s because these were given to my grandfather for safekeeping last year, when your grandfather first knew he was ill.” He shoved the envelope at me and distracted himself with storing the frozen food in the freezer, stacking the peas and broccoli with military precision. “I don’t think he meant for you to find them before he died. Which is why he instructed us to give them to you after his death.”
I stared down at the envelope with the law firm’s preprinted return address in the upper-left corner. Only my last name, Mills, was written in an unfamiliar handwriting on the front. I flipped it over and pulled out two letter-sized envelopes followed by a heavy silver key that slipped out of the envelope and clattered to the floor. I stared at it for a moment before picking it up. It was an old-fashioned key, like all the other keys that protruded from locks throughout the old house. None of the doors were missing keys, and as I turned it over in my hand, I wondered what it could go to.
I then turned my attention to the two envelopes, both of them sealed and both of them addressed to a Miss Lillian Harrington at Asphodel Meadows Plantation, Savannah. I recognized my grandmother’s handwriting, but not that of the person who had scratched through Lillian’s name and address and written, “return to sender.” I didn’t know who Lillian was, but I knew of Asphodel Meadows. A former rice plantation built in the early eighteen hundreds on the Savannah River about thirty miles south of the city, it was now, and had been since around nineteen twenty, a horse farm. I’d never been there, although it hadn’t been for lack of interest on my part. Considering my past history with horses, I thought it odd now that my grandfather had never taken me there, or that our paths hadn’t crossed in the nearly incestuous equestrian community of Savannah.
I glanced up at George, who looked back at me with undisguised curiosity. I shoved the key in my jeans pocket and put the letters back inside the larger envelope before tucking it under my arm. Smiling brightly at George, I began to lead him back to the front door. “Thanks so much for the casserole and for helping me with my groceries. I really do appreciate it.” I yanked open the door. “I’ll be sure to call you if I need anything. I promise.”
His mouth jerked open and closed like a goldfish who’d sought sanctuary outside of his bowl as he tried to come up with something that would get me to invite him back inside. I put my hand on his arm and gently guided him through the doorway.
He put a hand on the doorframe, overly confident that I wouldn’t shut the door with his hand in the way. “You have my cell number, right? Call me anytime. Day or night. You hear? If you need anything, please call me first.”
I nodded. “I will, George. Promise.” I began to close the door and was grateful when I saw him yank his hand away.
I carried the envelope into the study and emptied the contents onto the mahogany desk and sat down. With my grandfather’s ivory-handled letter opener, I sliced open the smaller envelope. Carefully unfolding the heavy stationery, I read:
September 30, 1939
My Dearest Lillian,
My words are so inadequate, but I have no other means to reach you. I know that circumstances dictate that we not have any contact with each other, but my conscience dictates that I at least attempt to reach you using whatever means I have to ask your forgiveness. I don’t know if I can live the rest of my life without it, so I must at least try.