For Joan Gray and Peggy Boykin, two of the most extraordinary women I know.
• Chapter One •
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
JUNE 20, 1947
“Murrah?” Rosa Lee’s eyes go wide and she shakes her head at me like I’ve forgotten the rules, but I haven’t. Since before I was born, my parents forbade the servants to speak their native tongue in our house. Offenders were given one warning; a second offense brought immediate dismissal. I say the Gullah word again, drawing it out softly. “Why are you crying?” The hands that helped bring me into the world motion for me to lower my voice.
Rosa Lee’s husband, Desmond, told me my first word was murrah. It was what I called Rosa Lee, until Mother made me call her by name. “My own murrah.” The forbidden words bring more tears. I press my face into the soft curve of her neck and breathe in the Ivory soap Mother insists all the servants use, mingled with Rosa Lee’s own scent—vanilla and lemongrass.
She holds me at arm’s length, trembling, and I know I’ve done it again.
“You got to tell them,” she pleads. “Make them see you can’t go through with this.”
I point to the door that leads to the elegant dining room where my parents are eating their breakfast. “I have told them. Mother refuses to listen, and I’ve begged Father. He says I have to do this.” She looks away. Her body rocks, sobbing violently on the inside. “Rosa Lee, please don’t cry. I can’t bear it.” She shakes her head and swipes at the tears that stain the sleeve of her freshly pressed uniform. “I won’t do it again. I promise.”
“When you’re asleep, your heart takes over. You got no control, and it’s gonna kill you.”
She’s right. Since I graduated and moved home from college two weeks ago, I’ve been sleepwalking like I did when I was a child, but these outings don’t land me snuggled up in the servant’s quarters, between Desmond and Rosa Lee. Most of the time, I wake up and return to bed without incident, but last week Desmond found me trying to leave the house. He said I was babbling about sleeping in the bay, which might not have been so disturbing if I hadn’t been wearing five layers of heavy clothing. I knew what he thought I was trying to do to myself and told him not to worry.
Since then, Rosa Lee has insisted on sleeping on the stiff brocade chaise in my bedroom. Of course, my parents don’t know she’s there or that she’s so afraid I’ll walk to the bay or step off the balcony in my sleep, she’s tethered my ankle to the bedpost with three yards of satin rope she begged from Mrs. O’Doul.
“Maybe it will be different after the wedding.” I love her enough to lie to her. “Father says I’m a Hadley and once it’s over with, I’ll fall in line the way I was born to.”
“But what if Desmond hadn’t caught you?” She threads her fingers in mine and kisses the back of my hand. A part of me wishes her intuition hadn’t sent Desmond to check on me, that he hadn’t found me. “And what are you gonna do when we’re not there?”
“Don’t say that.” My knees buckle, and I melt into a puddle at her feet. Justin has made it clear he’s happy with his staff and has no plans to add “two ancient servants.” But living under his roof and not having Rosa Lee and Desmond with me is unthinkable, another high price of being the last Hadley descendant.
“You think it’s not going to get worse after you’re married? Who do you think’s gonna be there to save you? Mr. Justin?” She hisses the last word. “You think long and hard before the sun comes up tomorrow, because I’m afraid down to my bones that you won’t be alive to see it.”
She collects herself and heads into the dining room to check on my parents. They won’t look into her beautiful brown face and see she’s been crying any more than they see this wedding is killing me, or at least the idea of being yoked to Justin McLeod is. Not because he’s eight years older than me and, other than our station in life, we have nothing in common, and not because of his good qualities, although no one can find more than two: He is a heart-stoppingly beautiful man and the sole heir to the largest fortune in Charleston.
For over a hundred years, Justin’s family and mine have built ships. And while two world wars made us rich, a prolonged peace threatens to weaken our family fortunes considerably. Somewhere in all that, my father convinced Justin a Hadley-McLeod union would position them to take over the world, at least the shipping world. And Father is certain nothing short of a blood union will keep Justin in the partnership.
Rosa Lee pushes through the swinging door and pours the coffee down the drain, her signal that breakfast is over and my parents are no longer close by. I smile, trying to reassure her I’m okay, that I’m going to be okay. She shakes her head and starts to wash one of the breakfast plates in slow motion, barely breathing. I hate those things, and after tomorrow, I’ll own twenty-four place settings of them, part of my dowry. I don’t give a damn about thousand-dollar plates, but I do care for Rosa Lee.
“I can do this,” I say from behind her. My voice sounds sure, steady. “I will do this.”
“You and I both know you can’t walk down that aisle. Dear God in heaven, Vada, tell them.” Her head is down, and she says the last two words like a prayer. “Make them see so they’ll put a stop to this foolishness.”
There’s no point. I’ve begged my parents, told them I can’t marry Justin, because I don’t love him. I’ve told them I feel nothing for him, not love, not even hate. Even after I told my father about the other women, he shrugged and said I was being ridiculous. “There are no fairy-tale marriages, Vada. Know your place, your purpose. Marry. Procreate. Continue the lineage. That’s your job.”
This archaic arrangement is not the job I want or the one I applied for. My heart races at the thought of how furious my parents would be if they knew my favorite professor recommended me for a teaching position, not in a posh boarding school but a two-room schoolhouse near a tiny crossroads community. Mother would fume silently while Father would remind me that no Hadley woman has ever worked.
But it’s 1947 for goodness’ sake. What did they expect when they sent me away to college, that I would learn everything except how to think for myself? The swell of defiance is snuffed out by Justin’s testy voice in the foyer. “Well, I am here now, madam. What do you want?”
I can’t make out what my mother is saying and slip behind the dining-room door. From where I peer at them through the crack between the jamb, she looks tiny compared to him, but she emanates such presence. Justin has the posture of a rebellious teenager.
“It’s about Vada, and I am not talking about this here.” She points toward the study. He eyes her for a moment, knowing full well the drawing room is a woman’s place, the study a man’s domain for brandy and smelly cigars.
I can hardly breathe as she leads Justin into the study. Maybe she did listen. Maybe she’s finally going to tell Justin the wedding is off. The door to the study is slightly ajar. I slip off my shoes and tiptoe across the foyer to hear her say the words I’ve longed for since I was fourteen and learned about this horrible arrangement.
“You have me up before noon for this?” Justin is glaring at her, but she’s so strong, so beautiful. She’s not intimidated in the least.
“You must understand that Vada is a young girl, barely twenty. I heard the things she told her father. Your carousing.”
“My carousing?” He laughs and runs his hands through his short dark hair.
“Yes. The parties. The women. After the engagement, I thought you would change, settle down. Surely you don’t expect to carry on as usual after the wedding.”
Justin is no longer amused. His face is red, the veins in his forehead pronounced. “Let me remind you, madam, after tomorrow, I may be your daughter’s husband, but I’ll carry on at my own discretion, not yours, not your husband’s, and certainly not your Vada’s.”
Their standoff is palpable. Mother throws her hands up in disgust. “I shouldn’t even have to have this conversation with you, Justin, but Vada is extremely unhappy, and the very least you could do is try to be more accommodating.”
“Just tell me, what is it going to take?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your price. To be a proper husband. Doting. Monogamous.” She draws the last word out.
“Trust me, madam, you don’t have enough money.” He stands and straightens the sleeves of his suit. “We’re done here.”
“Justin.” My mother grabs his arm. He towers over her. “Don’t hurt her.”
Her steely look is returned with amusement. “My dear Mrs. Hadley, for Vada or me to get hurt, one of us would actually have to care about this union. Tomorrow we marry together two fortunes for the greater good. Nothing more.”
“But you expect her to be a proper wife?”
“Of course. Why shouldn’t she?”
“Your level of arrogance is remarkable, Justin, even for you. Get out of my house.”
He makes an exaggerated bow. “Good day, Mrs. Hadley.”
The door opens, and Justin stands there for a moment, looking at my tearstained face. He sighs and pushes past me. “Really, Vada, after tomorrow, I’ll expect you to be more presentable in the mornings.”
I’ve honored Mrs. O’Doul’s refusal to talk about Darby for three years now, but with the wedding looming, the loss feels fresh, and I can’t help myself. “I miss her.”
Mrs. O’Doul gives me a hard look to remind me of our silent agreement not to talk about her daughter, my best friend. She nods curtly as she scrutinizes my dress, which she’s had to take in, again, for the rehearsal party. “You’ll be a good wife. You’ll make your ma and da proud.”
I shake my head at my reflection and the exquisite design that looks funny with my bare feet. “Maybe it’s best Darby’s not here. She’d be so ashamed of me.”
“Who knows where that girl is now? And, to be sure, she’d be ashamed if she showed her face around here, but not because you’re marrying Justin McLeod, I can tell you that.”
“She’s your daughter. You can’t still be mad at her.”
Another stern look reminds me Mrs. O’Doul lost more than a daughter when Darby was run out of town for her tryst with Mr. McCrady. But Mrs. McCrady didn’t stop there. She made sure Mrs. O’Doul’s wealthy clients boycotted her dressmaking business. Darby’s mother lost everything: her daughter, her shop, her apartment. My parents fussed when I insisted on Mrs. O’Doul altering my trousseau, but Mrs. O’Doul said it brought some of her customers back, the only good thing that has come from this wedding plan.
She smooths her hands down the seams of the ivory bodice and inspects a tiny pucker. “Damn beads.” She works the seam with her fingers until it lies flat, then steps back and inspects the dress. Her smile is thin, almost sad. “I remember every dress I ever made for you. And now look at you, wearing couture since you were sixteen. Getting married tomorrow in the finest dress I’ve ever seen.”
She’s right. I’ve always had a shameless love for beautiful clothes, even more so for shoes. But when Mrs. O’Doul made something for me, it meant going to Habberman’s on King Street. She always said Darby and me went together like grits and gravy, she couldn’t very well take one of us shopping without taking the other. While she selected the perfect material for my dress, we played hide-and-seek among the tall bolts leaned against the walls. Sometimes we sorted through bins of loose buttons or rhinestones and talked about what our lives would be like when we grew up.
As I got older, I worried that Darby would be jealous of the dresses her mother made for me. I know I would have been. But Darby said she didn’t care—they were just dresses, and we were best friends, the grits-and-gravy kind.
The other girls Darby grew up with wanted nothing to do with her after I went away to college. She gave up a lot to be my friend, and how did I repay her? I didn’t make time to phone her or return her letters. I was so wrapped up in things that didn’t matter, I forgot about the one person who mattered most to me. And by the time I heard Darby had been banished from Charleston, I was too ashamed of what I’d done, of the way I treated her, to try to find her, to tell her how very sorry I was.
“You’re a stunning young woman, Vada Hadley, and that dress—”
“The clothes you made, they were just as beautiful, and they meant something to me.”
She scoffs and puts her tools away, satisfied that my dress looks the way Jacques Fath intended when he designed it. “You’ll not find the likes of this fabric on King Street, I can promise you that. And if you did, I wouldn’t know where to begin to make something this . . . perfect. And your wedding dress? Even grander, Vada. Really.” She pushes a strand of hair behind my ear. “You’re going to be a beautiful bride.”
All through the rehearsal and this ridiculous party, everyone has said those words to me, like somehow the way I look will determine the outcome of this union. But nothing changes the fact that this is a mistake.
The canvas of the massive white tent billows a little, and the night air is damp and thick. Well-wishing men dab at their foreheads with handkerchiefs, and little beads of sweat line the lips of pretty women who are sweltering in the late-June heat. But even their intrusions can’t hold my attention from the Ashley as it flows past Middleton Place. I can’t stop looking at the river, thinking about it. Where does it go? To Edisto? To Savannah? Does it matter? It’s free, unencumbered by family and duty.
“Tears of joy?” Justin’s famous second cousin, Josephine, dabs at my face. I shake my head and turn my attention back to the river. “Middleton Place is stunning. And while I do have El Dorado, in my bones I know this plantation shouldn’t have ended up with the McLeods, least of all Justin. But the gods split the lot the way they saw fit. Perhaps they intended for it to be your consolation prize.”
“Does it console you, Miss Pinckney?” I ask.
“Words console me.”
“Of course they do, your books. The movie.”
She laughs and shakes her head. “Yes, the movie. Well, I don’t think Three O’Clock Dinner will ever make its way to the theater, my dear. I hear Lana Turner’s off again, to Mexico this time, vacationing with Tyrone Power, and who knows who it will be next? Those Hollywood folks don’t know what they want, not really. Besides, I don’t need a consolation prize. But you? I’m not so sure.”
Most of the women here would kill for Josephine Pinckney’s lineage alone, much less her present status as the darling of the literary world. They comfort themselves with catty remarks and whisper that she’s plain and was never beautiful. But even in the moonlight, there’s something about her knowing look and those piercing eyes that make her stunning and powerful.
“Walk with me?” she says.
I nod and step toward the grassy steps that lead to the river and away from the party. Breaking a heel is the least of my worries, but instinctively I tiptoe across the boards that stretch out across the water, and Miss Pinckney does the same. The river makes a swishing sound and cuts hard around the posts that anchor the dock into the muddy bottom, and the waxing crescent of the palmetto moon dips low across the marsh grass. A fish skips like a stone over the top of the silvery black water, and for the first time tonight, I feel like I can breathe.
“Run out—run out from the insane gold world, softly clanging the gate lest any follow.” I’m not sure if she’s quoting her books or one of her poems, but even in my hopelessness, I feel her silent prodding.
“I don’t want this.”
She’s quiet for a beat. “What do you want, Vada?”
“What I can’t have.”
“Something you can’t have. Really? The only child of Matthew and Katherine Hadley? I speak from experience as an only child born into the pinnacle of this caste system we live in, there’s nothing you can’t have.”
“You’re—wrong.” The sob building inside threatens to turn me inside out, so everyone can see the truth that doesn’t seem to matter to anybody. Not my parents, not Justin, and least of all the party lemmings.
“Then what is it?”
I’m shivering in this heat, teeth chattering, unable to answer. All I can do is point to the river as it flows away from this horrible mess and escapes toward the ocean.
“You are wrong, Vada Hadley.” She wraps her silk stole around me and kisses my tearstained cheek. “You can have anything you want.”
• Chapter Two •
Just before midnight, we arrive back at 32 Legare Street. Refusing to eat or drink anything has only left me feeling light-headed, drugged. As Desmond opens the iron gates, my father says something to me, but I don’t answer.
“I’m speaking to you, Vada.” I nod. “As I was saying, my great-great-grandmother’s mother . . .”
“Oh, Matthew,” Mother says, “you’re not going to tell that story now. It’s late, and we’re all tired.”
“Katherine, this is our history, Vada’s history, so yes, the story bears repeating.”
Mother rolls her eyes. She and I know what’s coming.
“Maria Whaley was just fifteen years old in 1829 when she scaled this very gate to marry George F. Morris, and without her parents’ permission, I might add.”
“It’s a legend, Matthew, a fairy tale for the young women to swoon over when 32 Legare was a girls’ school. If it is true, and I highly doubt that it is, Maria Whaley was escaping the premises. That’s hardly a tale to tell your daughter on the eve of her wedding,” my mother says. “Besides, a colonial woman of good breeding, hoisting herself over the Sword Gates? Impossible.”
“My point is, Maria Whaley had only met Morris a few times at dances, parties, and such. She barely knew the man and yet she put her mind to it and learned to love him so very much, and in such a short time, that she made her own miracle.”
“Matthew. Please,” my mother groans and massages her temples. “The story is inappropriate, and worst of all, George Morris was a Yankee.”
Desmond pulls the car around to the piazza and lets us out. My father continues the lesson as I start up the main staircase, past menacing-looking oil portraits of my ancestors that used to terrify me as a child. I stop midway, and my parents push past me, arguing the merits of family history versus silence. Maria Whaley looks back at me, frozen in time with a thin smile. It feels like she’s mocking me, reminding me that she escaped to marry the man she wanted and I’m locked behind these gates in a marriage pact I have no say over. I reach out and touch her face. Whether her story is fact or fiction, there’s something about her that has lasted for over a hundred years. She looks brave, and, like Josephine, very wise.
I throw open the door to my bedroom, and I am immediately assaulted by my wedding dress. It hangs on a hook on the back side of my open closet door. Beside it, the cathedral-length train makes a wide river of white illusion across the room. A perfect pair of white satin Salvatore Ferragamo pumps glisten in the dim light. All of this is Rosa Lee’s doing, a last-ditch effort to show me my future in hopes that I’ll change things before it’s too late.
Three trunks are packed for a monthlong cruise to Europe. The thought of being trapped on a boat with Justin cuts my legs from under me, and I plop down on the floor in the middle of the illusion. There’s a soft knock at my door, and it opens. Rosa Lee stands there in her robe. Her hair, which is usually in a tight bun, is past her shoulders. As she steps into my room, I can see that like me, she’s all cried out. She closes the door behind her and throws a large old suitcase on the bed. One of the latches sticks as she tries to open it, but it finally does, and the suitcase is empty.
“You got no more chances. Come morning, it’ll start up and you won’t be able to stop it, but you can now. Desmond’s dressed and ready to take you wherever you want to go.”
I hang my head and dissolve into the illusion.
“Child,” Rosa Lee hisses, snapping me to attention. “I didn’t raise you to go along to get along. Do you want to marry that boy or not?”
“No.” I’m surprised how strong my voice sounds.
“Well, when folks who are supposed to love you won’t listen, you got to listen to yourself. What’s yourself telling you, child?”
Her words propel me off the floor. I grab four dresses out of my closet and stuff them in the suitcase. I unsnap the trunk that holds my shoes and take no time to labor over picking favorites. Three pairs of sandals and a pair of pumps will have to do. My heart stops when Rosa Lee takes the dresses out of the suitcase and puts them aside.
“Not like this. You’ll be home in a week, and much as I like the sound of that, I know you won’t be happy.” She sets about rolling them up into tight long bundles so that I can have a proper summer wardrobe and two extra pairs of shoes. “I can fit two more dresses, maybe three if they don’t have a crinoline.”
She stuffs my makeup bag and my lingerie under the dresses, and when she thinks I’m not looking, pulls a little pouch out of her bosom and tucks it into the suitcase. “No, Rosa Lee, this is your tredjuh.” Even though my parents are sound asleep in the opposite wing of the house, I whisper the Gullah word and try to give her treasure back to her.
“Child, I love you, but you don’t have the first idea of how to make it out there in the world. You don’t know what it’s like, trying to make two ends meet.” She closes my hand over the pouch and shakes her head. “Lord, I’m going to worry myself to death, so you take this money. I wish it was more, but it’s all I’ve got, and you gonna need it.”
I try to give the pouch back again, but she won’t hear of it. “You fit in, you hear? You make whatever you do work to your good,” she says through tears, “and if you don’t need this, I want you to have it anyways. You’re my child. Always gonna be my child.”
Another soft knock at the door makes me freeze. “Rosa Lee?” She opens the door and pulls Desmond into my room. He looks at me and smiles. “Well, looks like we’re going someplace after all.”
I hug them both. My heart is racing like a hummingbird as Desmond picks up the suitcase. “Wait.” They both look at me, afraid that I’ve lost my nerve. I grab a blue A-line dress out of my closet and dash behind the antique screen. I slip out of my gown and into the dress I bought before I graduated.
Rosa Lee zips me up and unhooks my grandmother’s necklace. “Take this for sure, but keep it hid. You hear?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I drop the necklace into the small satin pouch the garters for my wedding came in.
“Don’t you keep that necklace anywhere but in your bosom. And nobody better be getting it there.” She straightens my Peter Pan collar and tucks in my tag. “Sears. I knew you had the gumption all along.” She turns me around to face her and is trying to look stern, but the tears and her quivering chin give her away. “Please, child, I beg you, promise me you’ll watch for the signs like I taught you. Make them work to your good.”
“I promise.” I hug her close one last time.
She holds me at arm’s length. “You’ll be fine. You hear? I love you, child. I love you.” My heart breaks as she sputters out the words. “Desmond, y’all best go. And hurry.”
Going down the stairs, Desmond bumps the suitcase, and I freeze. “This house is so big, they won’t hear a thing,” he says and bumps it again to prove it.
We walk around to the back gate to the old truck Desmond sometimes borrows from his brother. He throws my suitcase into the back, and I’m in the truck before he can open the door for me. “Know where you’re going?”
“The bus station.”
“No, ma’am, you’re not.” He shakes his head at me. “Besides that and the train station is probably the first place they’ll look.”
“Please, Desmond, I’ll take the first bus out.”
“I’m not saying the man behind the desk is going to recognize you, but he’ll remember your pretty face. Your daddy will track you down for sure if you leave by bus or train.”
“I’m not going to get you in trouble. What if Mother or Father needs you to drive them and you’re not there?”
“Middle of the night?” His hands knead the steering wheel, and he stares straight ahead. “That hasn’t happened since the night you were born. You came so fast into the world, right as we were pulling in to the hospital. If Rosa Lee hadn’t caught you, you would have plopped right onto the floorboard.” He looks at me. “You stole our hearts that night, and if you think I’m gonna drop you off at some bus station, you got another thing coming.”
“But there’s an even greater risk—” He shakes his head. If something happens, if the wrong people see me with Desmond, it could cost him more than his job. It could cost him his life. I grab my purse and open the truck door. “I’ll drive myself.”
“Your shiny red Cadillac will for sure get everybody’s attention. Now I’m gonna drive you and that’s that.” He puts his hand on my arm. “And don’t you worry about me. No risk is too great. Now you close that door this minute and tell me where to.”
He gives me an incredulous look but starts up the truck, and we escape past the Sword Gates into the palmetto moon night.
A little over an hour later, we roll into a crossroads community so small, it doesn’t even have a road sign. The boardinghouse is there, just like my professor said it would be. Nothing fancy, but grand compared to the half dozen or so houses around. There’s a long clapboard building that claims to be a diner, a general store, and a post office.
Desmond kills the engine. “I was thinking if you were running away, you might want to go a little farther from Charleston than fifty miles.”
“There’s a job here.” I can’t believe this is really happening. “A teaching job.”
“Well.” He looks around the place. “When your daddy starts looking for you, I can guarantee this is the last place he’ll look.”
I throw my arms around him and breathe in the sweet scent of pipe tobacco one last time. “You need to go before someone sees us.”
“No, ma’am. I’ll wait until this joint opens.”
“No, Desmond. It’s dangerous enough that you’ll be driving back to Charleston so late. Look, there’s a porch swing. The sun will be up in a few hours; I’ll be safe there. Please, Desmond. For me.”
He takes his hat off and fiddles with it. “Guess this is good-bye.”
I nod and press a piece of paper into his hand. “For emergencies.”
He stares at the paper, smiling. “Well now, you did plan this out.”
“I had bits and pieces of a plan, but when I came home I stopped believing this was possible. I don’t know what I would have done if Rosa Lee hadn’t come to my room tonight, if you hadn’t brought me here. I owe you both so much, thank-you seems puny.”
He looks at the boardinghouse address and phone number I’ve written down, rips the bottom half of the page off, and scribbles his brother’s address. “You need me or Rosa Lee, just let Charles know, and he’ll pass on the message. And don’t you worry none. Your secret’s safe with us.”
It’s just before three when Desmond pulls away. I lean my back against the arm of the porch swing, ball my knees up to my chest, and pull the store-bought dress down over my ankles.
The night air is thick and humid. Claire Greeley stands by the open window, bouncing her three-year-old boy back to sleep. She alternates between watching the two figures in the truck in the driveway and glaring at her older sons, Daniel and Peter, who are sound asleep in the twin bed next to hers. They look angelic in the bed they share with their baby brother, Jonathan, but right now, she’d love to pinch their heads off for telling the poor little guy stories about the boogieman.
Jonathan makes a little grunt, like he used to when he was a baby. The sound makes Claire feel lonely and reminds her of everything her husband has missed. She breathes into the crook of the boy’s sweaty little neck, wishing she could catch a whiff of his baby smell just one last time. But at three, the scent is long gone, and when the child is awake, his sole focus is being a big boy like his brothers.
The idea of Claire’s boys growing up leaves her exhausted, something she’s grown accustomed to since her husband died in the war. She isn’t exactly sure when the feeling set in, but she’s felt this way for so long, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like not to feel this way. At first, the exhaustion came from the grief, then anger, but at some point during the past four years, it’s come from sheer worry. While she worries about normal everyday things, like who those two figures are in the truck and what they want at this ungodly hour, mostly she worries about her boys.
How long can they share this small room? One tiny bed? How long will she be able to make them follow all of Miss Mamie’s ridiculous rules? Up until now, it’s been easy to keep them in line. The fact that they’re all terrified of the old bat helps, but what about when they get older? The worst question doesn’t just keep Claire up at night; it follows her around every second of every day. How can she possibly make up for her boys not having a father?
She hears the truck doors open and pulls back the curtain to get a better look at the two people below. There is just enough light from the slight moon to see one is a white woman, the other, dark, maybe colored. Jonathan’s breath stutters a little. Claire turns her attention away from the window and holds him a little closer. His gangly limbs bounce against her, reminding her how big he is, how big Daniel and Peter are, too.
The woman hugs the dark figure and then takes her suitcase up the front steps. The man gets into the truck and drives away. Claire puts Jonathan beside his brothers, who lie straight and tall like sleeping soldiers. She goes back to the window.
She wonders who the woman is and why she came here in the middle of the night. From the window, Claire can’t see the porch, but she can hear the old swing creaking slower and slower, until it stops. She imagines the woman has fallen asleep. Her intuition tells her the woman isn’t trouble. Hopefully, knowing who she is and why she came to Round O tomorrow will confirm that. Her heart flutters a bit as she crawls back into bed. Claire hopes the woman is kind and maybe close to her age. It’s been so long since she had a friend, a true friend, it’s almost too much to hope for.
Something hard jabs at my ribs, and I awake to see an old woman poking me with a broom handle. “No vagrants here. Move along now or I’ll call the county sheriff.”
I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, and the gray woman gives me another poke for good measure. “Oww. Stop that.” I push the broom away. “I’m no vagrant.”
The boxy gray-haired woman glares at me. “Who are you and what do you want?” The crusty tone of her skin matches her gray dress and shoes.
“I’m Vada Hadley,” I say in a huff, stupidly, without thinking. This may be the shortest stint for a runaway in the history of runaways. I pause for a beat. My name means nothing to her. Elation bubbles up. My name means nothing to her.
She looks at my suitcase and mumbles something about it being a beat-up old piece of grip. “If you’re here for a room, I’ve got none. Move on.”
“But your sign says you do have a vacancy.”
“You on my doorstep like a boxcar orphan first thing this morning? Who knows what kind of riffraff you are. I got a room, but not for you, missy.”
“I know this may not look proper, but my father dropped me off early this morning, before you opened up. He didn’t want to leave me here alone, but he had to get back to go work. I told him this looked like such a fine establishment, I was sure I’d be okay.”
She starts to jab me again in the ribs, and I push the broom away. “I said, move on.”
There’s no place else to go, no hotel, not even a motel. And the town isn’t really a town at all—just a spot where two country roads crisscross. A few tiny clapboard houses are scattered about, along with a lone church and some kind of business that claims to be a diner, a general store, and a post office all rolled into one. I look at the sign again, Miss Mamie’s Boarding House—VACANCY. Okay, Vada, vinegar or honey? Honey or vinegar? Decide.
“Miss Mamie, I’m interviewing for a teaching position at the school on Monday.”
“I don’t care. You’re not staying here.”
“I’d greatly appreciate if I could stay until I have the interview. I’d pay you, of course, and if I get the job, I’ll pay you three months in advance.”
She looks at Rosa Lee’s suitcase again and narrows her eyes. “I don’t think you have that kind of money, but make it six months and you can stay. Twenty dollars a month, five a piece for tonight and Sunday. No job, no room, and you move on like the vagrant I’m sure you are.”
“Agreed.” I reach to shake on it, but she turns on the heels of her awful shoes and goes back inside.
“Room’s at the top of the stairs. No drinking. No smoking. Breakfast is at seven,” she yells over her shoulder before disappearing down the hallway. “If you’re not there, you don’t eat.”
I open the screen door and step into a large parlor with drab burgundy furniture. There are no pictures over the fireplace and no personal items that might make the house look like a home. A telephone table is to the left of the stairs, with a cardboard sign that says, BOARDERS MAY NOT USE THE PHONE. From the clatter, I’m guessing the hallway from the living room leads to a kitchen and, maybe, a dining room. I take my suitcase upstairs, looking for some clues about Miss Mamie, something I can use to butter her up, but there is nothing.
The room she assigned me is fine, really, although the bed looks more like a cot. There’s a basin to wash up with and at least one bathroom that I saw in the hallway. Yes, this should do just fine, but I can’t decide if unpacking is confident or bad luck, so I put the suitcase on the luggage rack and lie down. Just for a moment.
“Pretty.” I hear a child’s voice and awake to see three lovely boys inspecting me. The youngest, who is maybe four, strokes my hair again. “Pretty.”
I prop up on my elbows and smile at them. “Hello, my name is Vada.”
The serious one nods and grabs the little boy’s hand. “I’m Daniel. These are my brothers, Peter and Jonathan.”
“Jonathan,” the little one echoes.
“It’s nice to meet you boys.”
“You missed breakfast and lunch,” Daniel says. “Our mother told us to get you up for dinner. Her name is Claire. You’ll like her.”
“I’m sure I will.” He nods and punches the middle brother, who said something under his breath. “What did you say, Peter?”
“I’m sorry, he was being rude.” Daniel gives Peter another shot in the arm.
“Owww,” he whines and hits his brother back. “I said you don’t look like a reprobate, and you don’t.”
I laugh. “Good to know.”
For three young children, they’re awfully quiet as they make their way down the stairs. A lovely woman dressed in black, not much older than me, pokes her head out of the doorway. “You met my boys.”
“Yes, they’re adorable.” I straighten my dress, which looks like a disaster after being slept in. It slips off of my shoulder and I push it back up. “I must look a mess. I’m Vada.”
“Claire Greeley.” Her smile is friendly. “You’re very beautiful, Vada. I’m sure Daniel’s already head over heels for you. He is at the age where he’s noticing girls.”
“What does his father think about that?”
Her smile fades and she looks at the floor. I say I’m sorry, but she shakes her head like she can’t bear another apology that won’t bring her husband back. She pinches at the shoulder seam of my dress and laughs when it falls down my arm again. “I could fix that for you, if you want.”
“I take in sewing, alterations mostly. I’m happy to take your dress up, maybe after the boys go down for the night.”
“Thank you, Claire, you’re so kind.”
“And so grateful to have another woman in the house.” Besides the horrible Miss Mamie. We look at each other like twins, amused at identical unspoken thoughts. “Better come to supper, though. Miss Mamie normally doesn’t care if we miss meals, but after you missed breakfast and dinner—”
“She says if you miss another meal, she’s going to throw you out for being sick.”
“Can she do that?”
“I respectfully told her you’re no Typhoid Mary, but it is her place. She does anything she wants.”
Claire has a sweet face full of a thousand questions she is too polite to ask. “Thanks for telling me.”
“Of course. I look forward to getting to know you, Vada.”
The door closes behind Claire. In her absence and without the thrill of convincing the old bat to let me stay, I see the room for what it really is. The gray flowered wallpaper looks like it might have been lavender at one time. Wild roses meander in an intertwining pattern with plump cherubs, and I’m certain Miss Mamie was not the decorator. But if she wasn’t, who was? When I sit up on the edge of the bed, the mattress dips into the slats that are too far apart. I run my hand over the small bedside table that smells sweet, almost like bourbon, and open the drawers. There’s nothing but a dark brown stain, most likely evidence of how the last poor boarder survived, or the reason they were expelled.
A rickety-looking basin stand is beside the window with two threadbare towels folded over the spindle railing. My old suitcase sits on the luggage rack, a reminder of my old life and Rosa Lee and Desmond’s sacrifice. I’m sure when my absence was discovered, they were lined up with the rest of the staff and interrogated, but if anyone had looked on the Harrington chest in the foyer, they’d have seen the note I’d debated leaving. It was short, but not because I didn’t have time. I’d written it weeks earlier and stashed it in the pocket of my Sears dress. A lengthy explanation would have been a waste of ink and paper.
Dear Mother and Father,
I cannot live in the world you’ve planned for me, and regret circumstances have forced me to leave. Do not worry about me. As you’ve so often reminded me, I’m a Hadley. I will make my mark on the world.
It’s hard not to think about Darby, what leaving must have been like for her. Did Mrs. O’Doul pack her suitcase like Rosa Lee packed mine? Did she hold Darby close and tell her she loved her before she sent her away? Did Darby land someplace dreadful, or was she too heartbroken over what happened with Mr. McCrady to even notice? No. Darby is too Irish not to land on her feet, and too brave not to grab life by the scruff of the neck and shake it until she gets what she wants.
The latches on the suitcase don’t stick this time, and seven dresses rise and expand like fat colorful loaves. The modest chifforobe has the appearance of a pine coffin stood on end and only has four hangers. I loop two sleeveless dresses on each hanger. The tags scream the names I’ve grown to love but will never be able to afford in my new life. Dior, Chanel, Nina Ricci. My thumb skims across the large showy Hardy Amies label before I rummage through the contents of my makeup bag to find the cuticle scissors. My hands shake as my finger slips under the satin squares.
Knowing Darby is out there somewhere and she’s made a brave new life for herself makes me believe I can do it, too. I snip away the small neat stitches that anchor tags to dresses that are so beautiful, they used to make my heart ache. The excitement buzzes in my chest and grows a little stronger as each tag falls onto the scarred pine floor. I keep at it until I’ve cut away my past for good.
• Chapter Three •
Frank Darling moves slower than a two-legged coon dog on a Monday morning. It doesn’t matter that it is Monday, lately his days at the Sit Down Diner are all the same. He knows the feeling comes from the thud in his gut that came when he had to turn tail and come back to Round O, something he swore he’d never do.
When he turned eighteen, he tried to join the Navy to see the world. That was just before the war began, and with no boogiemen like Hitler and Mussolini trying to take over the world, there wasn’t a really high demand for soldiers, but he joined anyway.
The Navy said he had a weak heart, a murmur. Nothing to worry about, the moonfaced nurse had promised as she stamped his file with thick black ink. REJECTED. His next physical, he coughed like he had the pleurisy and not just when he was supposed to. But the Marines, the Army, and the Air Force were all wise to that trick. Even the Coast Guard passed on him.
He was so torn up after that, he did the only thing he could do and came back to Round O. That was ten years ago, and ever since, Frank believes he can hear his defect mocking him. It happens on days like today, when there’s a little breeze in the air, when the sky is fresh out of clouds, and the “Halls of Montezuma” sounds like a real place he’ll never see from this hellhole.
Frank used to wish this place was the real Round O in Texas, but it’s just some Podunk crossroads in South Carolina, a town where people live and die without much in between. Running the diner is as redundant as the name of the town, but Frank would rather die than wallow in public pity. Most days, he wakes up and tries to picture his life different, like if he tries hard enough, he can make it so. Every time he turns an egg or a hoecake on the griddle, he pictures his life turning, changing into something more than six days a week at the Sit Down Diner. Unfortunately, today is not one of those days.
“Two eggs. Spank ’em. Grits, extra butter. Biscuits. Bacon.” Tiny’s booming voice startles him; she seems to get a motherly kind of satisfaction out of getting his mind back on the griddle. “Today’s just like yesterday, shug. Same as tomorrow.” He gives her a dirty look, and she runs her hand through her hair so that only Frank can see she’s giving him the finger. “Who went and stomped on your biscuits this morning?”
Frank nods at the order Tiny puts on the carousel and cracks an egg with each hand; they settle onto the griddle and begin to harden. Tiny pops her gum and raises her eyebrows at him, waiting for a wisecrack, but he’s fresh out of snappy comebacks.
“You better spank those eggs and fry them hard, Frank, or you’ll be doing ’em again.”