I lived in a gorgeous antebellum house. Not too large. Certainly not too small. The white columns out front were tasteful, even though they had chipped in places. The porch was welcoming, if a little weathered. Over the years, my family had sold the estate around the house, piece by piece, so that the sprawling peach orchard and even the grand front drive had given way to tidy bungalows lining the long road to the main house.
Grandma had said it made gossip travel even faster, the way they built houses so close together these days. I always told her that the good citizens of Sugarland, Tennessee needed no help.
Still, I loved the place.
And I absolutely despised letting it go.
“Anyone home?” my best friend Lauralee called from the front of the house. “Verity, are you in here?” She added a few knocks on the front door, out of politeness rather than practicality, since the door already stood open.
We’d endured a stifling hot afternoon, and I couldn’t afford to run the air conditioning. I needed any breeze I could get.
“In the back parlor,” I called. “Mourning,” I added, since there was nothing left in the once-stately room, save for my cooler filled with ice, my tea jug, and a lopsided futon I inherited from a roommate back at Ole Miss. The pink-papered walls and elegant wood accents appeared so strange without rugs and furniture, like a queen stripped of her jewels.
The estate sale was yesterday and the place had been picked clean. The vultures.
“I’m sorry.” Lauralee’s voice echoed in the empty room. She let her purse and a cloth grocery sack slip from her shoulder to the floor, then she wrapped an arm around me and squeezed, the curled end of her ponytail tickling my cheek.
I gazed up at the ugly black hole where the crystal chandelier had hung for more than one hundred years. “Thanks.” I’d come to terms with this. I really had. I turned and looked her straight in the baby blues. “I’d live in a paper bag if it meant I didn’t have to marry that bastard.”
My friend drew back and tucked a lock of my hair behind my ear. “Seems like he’s trying to make you good on your word.”
“True. But I’m not done yet.” I refused to even entertain the thought.
This past May, I’d scandalized the town when I’d jilted the most eligible bachelor in three counties—at the altar, no less. It was a disaster. Two old ladies fainted straight out of the pew reserved for the Southern Heritage Club. Then Beau’s own mother collapsed, taking down a lovely hydrangea arrangement. I secretly wondered if Mrs. Leland Herworth Wydell III didn’t want to be upstaged, even at her own son’s ultimate humiliation.
Truth was, he’d brought it upon himself, lock, stock, and barrel. But I suppose it was quite shocking if you didn’t know the details.
I hadn’t told a lot of people. I’d wanted to spare my sister.
Lauralee chewed on her lip as she surveyed what little remained in my home. “Tell me you at least made some decent money yesterday.”
“I did.” I’d sold everything I could lay my hands on and kept only the absolute necessities, namely my futon, my grandmother’s pearl wedding ring, and my three favorite sundresses. It had hurt like a physical pain. I’d had to remind myself that it was only furniture, clothes. Stuff. I still had my health. And my friends. Not to mention my family. I brought a hand to my throat, where I used to wear my Grandmother’s cross from when she was about my age. The delicate gold and silver filigree antique now belonged to my not-quite-mother-in-law. “I still owe more than twenty thousand dollars.”
I gazed across the once-grand, now empty back parlor turned family room. I tried to ignore the hollow place in my stomach. Tomorrow, my family home would go on the market. I let out a ragged sigh. “It’s dumb, but I keep hoping for a miracle.”
A hidden treasure in the attic. Gold under the stairs. Stranger things had happened, right? All I knew was that I couldn’t lose this house. I just couldn’t.
Lauralee wrapped an arm around my shoulder and gave me a squeeze. “You’ll make it. You always do,” she said, in a way that made me think she actually believed it. She took in the fourteen-foot ceilings, the crown moldings. “With the money you have left over from the sale, you can make a fresh go of things.”
A new start. I certainly needed something to change.
And yet… “I can’t believe it’s all gone.” What had taken more than a century to accumulate was fractured history in the space of a day. “Except for that,” I said, pointing to a godawful vase on the mantle.
My friend made a face. “I never even noticed that before.”
It would have been hard to ignore. “It was in the attic,” I explained. “Where it belongs.” The green stones that circled the top were sort of pretty. But a crude, hand-painted scene marred the copper exterior and a healthy dent gouged the lower half. The dotty old relic looked completely out of place on a gracious stone mantel with flowers and hummingbirds carved into the corners.
“Yeek.” Lauralee crossed the room for a better look. She attempted to lift the monstrosity, and then changed her mind. It was heavier than it looked, wider at the top and tapered down to a flared base at the bottom. In fact, it reminded me more of an antique Grecian urn. She turned to me. “Is it a spittoon?”
“I think it’s a vase,” I said, joining her. “Beau gave it to me. He called it an historic heirloom. Looking back, I think he just needed to get rid of it.”
In the beginning of our relationship, Beau had given me heartfelt gifts—a pressed flower from the picnic we took on our first date, a little notebook with one of our private jokes written on the inside cover. Later, it was last-minute gas station flowers.
And objects like this.
“It’s hideous,” Lauralee said.
“A true monstrosity,” I agreed. Or else he would have let me return it when I gave him back the ring. “You want it?” I asked, turning the dented side toward her.
My friend let out a snort. “Not unless I can thunk your ex over the head with it.”
I shot her a conspiratorial grin. “You’d do that for me?”
She raised her delicate brows. “Nothing would give me more pleasure,” she said in a sweet, Southern tone that would make you think I’d offered mint juleps on the verandah.
“I suppose I could toss it,” I said. I still had one trash can left.
She waved me off. “Keep it out. It’s a focal piece. The only one you have. Here.” She scooted it over toward the pale shadow where my mother’s crystal swan used to be. “It’ll draw people’s eyes to the fireplace instead of that hideous futon.”
“Way to remind me that I’m sleeping in the parlor.” No way was I going to try dragging a futon up a flight of stairs.
She crossed over to the opposite wall to retrieve her hemp grocery bag from the floor. “Maybe this will help you forget,” she said, holding up a bottle of malbec.
“Mine,” I said, on her in an instant. Although I’d have to tell her Beau took the stemware.
She handed me the bottle and the opener, then pulled out a pair of plastic wine glass tops from her bag. “My kids used the bottoms to play flying saucer frisbee, but I didn’t think you’d mind.”
I wound the opener into the cork. “Who won?”
“Who knows?” She held out both glasses and I poured.
It was well past cocktail hour in the old south. In fact, the sun was beginning to set.
“Should we retire to the floor?” I asked, a bit punchy with the unreality of it all.
Lauralee handed me a glass. “We might end up there anyway,” she said as we both took a seat.
I smelled lemon polish and old wood as I stretched my legs out over the floor I’d lovingly scrubbed. We leaned our backs against the plaster wall and sipped our wine as the shadows lengthened over the room.
It’s not like I had any lamps.
“You ever think what might have happened if I didn’t come back home?” I asked her.
I could have gone to the big city after graduating art school. My father died when I was in fifth grade, my mother had long since remarried. My sister had been bouncing around from college to college. I could have found a job at an advertising firm, or at a large company with an in-house graphics department. I wouldn’t have been around when Beauregard Buford Wydell decided it was time to take a wife.
This place would have sat empty, but at least it would have stayed mine.
“You belong here, Verity,” she said simply, as if it were the only truth.
She had me pegged. I cherished this town and my home. There’d been no other choice for me. I couldn’t imagine giving up my roots and my family’s heritage. Without them, I’d be adrift.
I’d always loved my home’s big open rooms and sprawling backyard. Grandma knew. It was why she left the house to me when she died. The rest of the estate went to my mother, who bought an RV and embraced adventure with my stepfather; and to my sister, who used her portion to pay for her various semesters abroad and half-finished degrees.
But, truly, this place had been mine even before Grandma made it legal.
I took an extra large sip of wine as Lauralee’s phone chimed. She handed me her glass and pulled the smart phone from her back pocket. The glowing screen lit her pixie face and what she saw made her frown.
“Trouble in paradise?” I asked as she checked her text messages.
The faint lines around her eyes crinkled at the corners and she sighed. “It’s Big Tom. Tommy Junior got his head stuck in the hallway bannister again.”
I should have faked some sympathy, but it happened at least once a month. The kid was forever getting stuck in something. “Do you have to leave?”
“No.” She took her wine back from me. “Big Tom has it handled.” She held her glass like a diva at a cocktail party. “Heck, if I was home, I’d be calling him. He’s better at prying the railings off.”
I tried to imagine it and failed. “I’m starting to think you need the wine more than I do.” She had four children under the age of seven—all boys.
She gave me the old pish-posh as she leaned against the wall. “It’s the first two kids that get you. After that, you’re broken in.”
I’d take her word for it.
A beam of slanting sunlight caught the ugly vase and shone through the dust in the air around it in a way that reminded me of dozens of mini fireflies. The copper itself didn’t gleam a bit.
“Oh my God…” Lauralee, said, leaning forward, glass in hand “It’s dirty,” she said with relish.
“I saw the dust,” I told her. I’d give it a good scrubbing before the open house tomorrow.
But she was already halfway to her feet. “No. The painting on it is dirty. As in sexy time.”
“No way,” I said, practically leaping off the floor to get a look.
“It’s so bad it’s brilliant,” she said, as I pulled the vase from the mantel. “I don’t know why I didn’t notice it before. Now that I see it, I can’t not see it.”
“Where?” I asked. Yes, there were some highly styled, almost art-deco swirly bits. They were hard to make out. It looked like people dancing. Maybe.
My friend rolled her eyes. “Has it been that long since you got laid?”
“I plead the fifth,” I said, as I carried the vase over to a beam of fading sunlight by the window. I traced a finger over the crude painting. Then I saw it—a girl, and a boy…and another boy. Now how did that work?
“They’re getting lucky,” Lauralee said, crowding me to get another look. “It’s a lucky vase.”
I stifled a snicker. “Can you see Beau’s mother displaying this in her parlor? Maybe she knows what the girl is doing with two boys.”
“And I think there’s a goat,” Lauralee added.
“No.” I said, yanking it closer to see.
“Made you look,” she laughed.
Did she ever.
“Wait till the old biddies see this,” I said. And they would. We’d have plenty of gawkers tomorrow.
Lauralee gave me a loving punch to the arm. “You might have to point it out to them. They’ll gasp and moan but they’ll secretly love it. The LeFleur’s are your first showing, right?”
I nodded. “Maybe Myra won’t be wearing her reading glasses.”
My friend’s phone chimed again. She looked, and this time her sigh was heavier. “Rats.”
She held up her phone to show me a text photo of her five-year-old son, sitting next to a pile of debris, grinning. “Hiram got hold of a screwdriver and took apart the hall clock while Tom was working on the bannister. I’d better go.”
Typical day in the Clementine household. I folded her into a hug. “Thanks for the help.”
She squeezed hard. “Thanks for the laugh.” She smiled as she pulled back. “I love you, girlie.” She tilted her chin down. “And I, for one, am glad you came home.”
She was a true friend, and for that I was grateful. “Me, too.”
After she left, I took that vase off the mantle and traced my finger over it. Boy, girl…and that really could be a goat. I smiled to myself. Lauralee was right. I would make it through this, despite Beau and his mother and every damned one of them.
I’d be strong. Free. Maybe not quite as free as those happy fun time people etched on the vase, but I’d be a new woman all the same.
I wet the pad of my thumb and used it to wipe the dust from the rim. As I did, something shifted inside of it. Strange. I lifted the small bronze lid and peered into the vase. What I saw shocked me.
There were at least three inches of dirt.
Well, no wonder.
Nobody had cleaned the thing or showed it any love in ages.
No problem. I’d take it outside and rinse it down with the hose. I might even be able to get rid of the black stains. I could turn the dented spot toward the wall and this little piece of faded glory might pass for something worth buying.
Now would also be a good time to track down Lucy. That sneaky little skunk would spend all night outside terrorizing the neighbors if I’d let her.
I pushed past the screen door and saw she wasn’t in her bed out on our sprawling back porch. A walk down the steps showed she wasn’t under her favorite apple tree, either —or as she probably thought of it: the place where snacks dropped down from heaven. After a little bit of searching, I found Lucy catching the last bit of sun on the stone pavers lining the rose garden at the back of the house.
As soon as she saw me, she rolled right off the paver and landed on her back in the grass. She gave a chipper, skunky grunt and waddled over to greet me. I loved the way she walked, with her head down and her little body churning with every step. It was the cutest thing ever.
“Hiya, sweetie pie,” I bent down on one knee to greet her. She thrust her entire snout into my palm and then turned her head over for easy petting, making husky, purr-like squawks. She had the softest little cheeks. I stroked her there, then down along the neck and between the ears in the way that made her right back leg twitch. “You enjoying your last day at the house?”
An apartment just wasn’t going to be the same for Lucy. I’d found a place that accepted exotic pets, but believe it or not, people around here held a certain bias against skunks. It wasn’t enough that I’d had little Lucy’s scent glands removed. They wanted her to stop being who she was.
I’d have to make some adjustments as well after we moved. Our new home, The Regal Towers was basically an old six-family flat down by the railroad tracks. So close, in fact, that the windows rattled every time a train went by. The doors were made of plywood. I wasn’t even sure that was legal, not that management cared. Morton Davis, slumlord extraordinaire, had offered to save it for me, on account of the fact we’d attended grades K through eight together at Stonewall Jackson Elementary. I knew it was available because no one else wanted it.
There had to be a way out of this.
Lucy snuggled up to me and tried to climb my leg to get closer. Silly girl.
“You want to help?” I asked, making sure I reached clear of Lucy as I dumped the contents of the vase over Grandma’s rose bushes. She gave it a sniff and sneezed.
“You said it.” The dirt was loose and dry, which I was glad to see. I heard that sort of thing was good for the roots.
It certainly couldn’t hurt.
When the last of the fine dust had settled down out of the air, I hosed out the vase and poured the water on the roses as well. They needed it. I’d been neglecting them lately.
“How do you like that?” I asked my climbing vines.
A chilly breeze whipped straight up my spine and shot goose bumps down my arms. It startled me, and I dropped the vase. Lucy darted away.
“Nice work, butterfingers,” I mumbled to myself, retrieving it. I spotted a stubborn patch of dirt down in the base and rinsed it off again, but the stuff wouldn’t budge.
The rose bushes shuddered. It had to be the wind, but this time, I didn’t feel it.
For the first time, I felt uncomfortable in my Grandmother’s garden.
It was a strange feeling, and an unwelcome one at that. “It’s getting late,” I told myself, as if that would explain it. And, well, I simply needed to hear a voice. The sun would be completely down soon. And it’s not as if this were any ordinary night.
Quick as I could, I reached for the rose snippers I kept under the hose. I cut a ripe red bloom, with a stem as thick as my finger, and popped it into the vase with a dash of water. Then I hurried back toward the house, careful not to spill a drop.
“Lucy,” I called, half-wondering if the skunk wasn’t the source of the strange rustling in the rose bushes behind me. “Come on, girl.”
She came running from her hiding place under the porch. Something had scared her too.
The house had never been what you’d call ordinary. We had fish in the pond, each one big as a cat; and more often than not, fireflies in the attic.
But this was unusual, even for my ancestral home. I didn’t like it at all.
Especially when the windows rattled.
“What the hey, girl?” I asked Lucy. And myself.
She turned around and headed back under the porch. Darn it all. She tended to snuggle under my covers at night and I didn’t want her all dirty.
You have no idea how hard it is to give a skunk a bath.
A low creaking came from inside the house. The hair on my arms stood on end. Perhaps Lucy was the smart one after all. Unfortunately, there wasn’t room under the porch for me.
Instead, I took the steps slowly and crossed the threshold into the darkened kitchen.
My throat went dry as I opened the back door. My eyes strained against the shadows.
Not for the first time, I wished I’d kept at least one light.
With shaking fingers, I lit the big, orange three-wicked candle I’d been using for the last few days. The house seemed darker than usual, unnaturally so. I found myself unwilling to leave the kitchen.
The house stood still, quiet as the grave. Almost as if it were waiting.
“Is it you, Grandma?” I asked on a whisper. “Are you mad I’m selling?”
If she’d been watching down on me at all—and I knew she did—Grandma would understand I’d been given no choice in the matter.
“Oh no,” said a ghostly male voice. “You’re staying put, sweetheart.” With shock and horror, I realized it was coming from the vase. I dropped it.
The door slammed closed behind me. The bolt clicked, locking on its own as the vase spun and rattled to a stop on the floor.
A chill swept the room. I retreated until my back hit solid wood. I’d never seen a ghost or heard a ghost although I watched Ghost Hunters on television so I certainly believed in them and sweet Jesus I was trapped.
I couldn’t feel my fingers, or my limbs for that matter. My entire body had gone ice cold. “What do you want?” I asked, voice shaking. Seeing as I hadn’t dropped dead on the spot from a heart attack, this had better well be my salvation. A girl could hope. “Why are you here?”
The voice laughed, as if it were honest-to-God amused. “I’m here because you chiseled me, princess.”