Read The Guests on South Battery Online
Authors: Karen White
But that didn't explain why he and Rich Kobylt, my plumber, foundation repair technician, general handyman, and even erstwhile counselor, would be there so early in the morning. I remembered my conversation with my father the previous evening, his asking me when I planned to leave for work. As if he'd been secretly scheduling something with Rich Kobylt that he didn't want me to know about.
Probably because Rich's presence upset me. Not because of his penchant for low-slung and overly revealing pants, or even the sound of fluttering dollar bills and the ringing of a cash register I usually heard right after he showed up on my doorstep. His presence upset me because Rich had the uncanny ability to uncover things that I'd preferred not to deal with. Like foundation cracks and crumbling chimney bricks. And buried skeletons.
I looked with longing at the carriage house, where my Volvo station wagon was parked next to Jack's minivan, wanting nothing more than to pretend that I had no idea I had visitors and head into work as planned. But I was an adult now. The wife and mother of three. I was supposed to be brave.
Mentally girding my loins, I headed down the recently rebricked pathway to the rear garden, past the silent swing hanging from the oak tree, and the fountain, recently relieved of two skeletons, burbling in the chill winter air. I stopped when I reached the back corner of the house. I must have made a noise, because both my father and Rich turned to look at me.
They were standing in the rear garden, where the famous Louisa roses had been blooming for almost a century. But where there had once been rosebushes there was now only a deep, circular indentation on the ground.
My father took a step toward me, as if trying to block my view. “Sweet peaâI thought you'd be at work.”
I frowned at him, then directed my attention toward Rich, quickly
averting my eyes when I saw he was squatting at the edge of the indentation, his back to me. “What's happened?”
Thankfully, Rich stood. “Good mornin', Miz MiddletonâI mean Miz Trenholm.” His cheeks flushed. “I think with all this rain we've been having, this part of the yard sank. Looks like there might be some kind of structure underneath.” He squatted to look more closely into the fissure and I turned my head. There are just some things you can't unsee.
“A structure?” I waited for him to say the word “cemetery.” I'd seen
, after all. And it wasn't as if that sort of thing hadn't happened before in Charleston. The recent construction of the new Gaillard Auditorium had unearthed a number of graves that had been there since the Colonial era.
“I'm sure it's nothing, sweet pea,” my father said as he took another step toward me. I made the mistake of meeting his eyes, and knew he was also thinking about the anonymous letter that had been sent into the
Post and Courier
and printed right after the twins were born by intrepid reporter and staff writer Suzy Dorf. Something about more bodies to be found on my property.
I hadn't realized until now that I'd been holding my breath ever since, waiting for just this moment, and knowing that even though I claimed to be done with spirits and the dead, they would never be done with me.
I sidestepped them both to stand near the deep indentation that looked like a navel in my garden, old bricks now visible through the soggy earth and ruined rosebushes. My phone began to ring again, the old-fashioned telephone ring that didn't exist on my phone. I ended the call, then turned off my phone, knowing I'd hear only empty space if I answered it. Somehow this chasm in my garden and the phone call were related. And the clocks in my bedroom, all stopped at the same time. I didn't know how, but I suspected that I'd eventually find out whether I wanted to or not. There was no such thing as coincidence, according to Jack. And when my phone began to ring again, I had the sinking feeling that he was right.
espite the cold January air and shoes that felt like vises, I decided to walk the few short blocks to Henderson House Realty on Broad Street. I had hopes that the bright blue sky and the sun that shone valiantly despite the frigid temperature might clear my head. By the time I reached my old standby, Ruth's Bakery, my head was clear of all thoughts, but only because my feet were screaming at me, overriding any coherent thinking.
I smiled with surprise at Ruth, who shoved a folded-over bag and foam cup across the counter, just like old times. “How did you know I was starting back at work today?”
She smiled, her gold tooth winking at me. “That sweet girl, Nola, just called me. She's so thoughtful and caring, isn't she?” Ruth's hand patted the bag, and I felt my heart sink.
“Nola?” I asked, staring in horror at the bag, knowing it wouldn't contain my favorite cream-filled chocolate-covered doughnuts. “What's in the bag? Dirt and cardboard or grass and tree moss?” I wasn't completely joking. During my pregnancy, both Nola and Sophie had done their best to sabotage my food choices just because my ankles had been
a little bit swollen. And Ruth had been a willing participant in their subterfuge.
Ruth threw back her head and laughed, her dark eyes shining as if I'd just made a joke. “No, ma'am. This is my new spinach and goat cheese in a chickpea flour wrap. Your friend Sophie gave me the recipe and I said I'd try it. Not that I'd eat it myself, but I figured being a businesswoman I should cater to my health-conscious customers, too.”
“Of which I'm not one,” I said. “I'm one of your taste-conscious customersâdon't forget about us.” I indicated the cup. “Is there at least lots of whipped cream and sugar in that?”
She made a face. “In green tea? No. Just good-for-you tea. Still nice and hot.”
“I'm sorry you went to all that trouble, but I'd like my usual, please.” I looked at her hopefully.
Instead of taking back the bag and cup, she let her gaze wander down the length of my maternity dress. “You sure about that?”
I stuck out an ankle, back to its trim prepregnancy size. “See? No more swollen ankles! I can eat what I like now.”
Still, she didn't move. I caught sight of the clock on the wall behind her. Not having time to argue, I grabbed the bag and cup and slid a few bills across the counter. “Fine. But tomorrow, I'd like to go back to our regularly scheduled program. Don't make me turn to Glazed Gourmet Donuts on King. It's out of my way, but I need my doughnuts in the morning and can't be responsible for my actions if I'm deprived of them.”
Ruth stopped smiling and I realized that my voice had risen an octave. Without breaking eye contact, she reached over and grabbed a single sugar packet and placed it on top of my cup. “Sounds like somebody's having withdrawal. Tomorrow we'll try half a packet.”
I narrowed my eyes. “We'll see about that.” I made my way to the door.
“You bring those sweet babies in, you hear? I'm sure they're getting so big. And with that Mr. Trenholm as their daddy, I just can't imagine how beautiful they must be.”
I was torn between a mother's pride over her babies and resentment over how everybody completely overlooked the fact that I was the one who had not only carried the babies for nine months, but also given birth to them.
I backed out of the door. “Well, then. Maybe we can come to some sort of a deal.”
She raised a dark eyebrow, and I did the same before turning around and letting the door close behind me.
I hobbled the few blocks to my office, my blistered feet almost completely numb by the time I opened the door into the reception area with its tasteful leather furniture and pineapple motif evident in the lamps, art, and throw pillowsâall in an attempt to appear “old Charleston.”
“May I help you?” said a voice from behind the reception desk.
I stared at the stranger. She had a mop of dark, curly hair and bright green eyes. She was one of those older women whose age was impossible to determine because of a lifelong avoidance of the sun and an expensive skin care regimen. A brilliantly colored enamel dragonfly pin sat gracefully on the lapel of her pale blue jacket. “Where's Joyce?”
“She's moved to Scotland to immerse herself in her knitting. Wanted to be closer to the source, she said. She trained me for about a month and now I'm going solo while I study for my real estate license. I'm Mary Thompson, but everybody calls me Jolly.” She beamed and I noticed her sparkling earrings that matched her pin, with no golf motif in sight. I still missed Nancy Flaherty, my favorite receptionist who'd been here before Joyce, but she'd followed her love of golf and Tiger Woods and moved to Florida.
“Oh,” I said. “It's nice to meet you.” I hadn't expected a big welcome-back celebration, but a familiar face would have been nice. Especially since I was in the middle of an alarming sugar low. “I'm Melanie MiddletonâI mean Trenholm.” I still wasn't used to saying that. “I'm back from maternity leave.”
The woman's smile broadened. “Oh, yes. I've heard all about you.” She paused, leaving me to try to guess what she'd heard. “You used to be the number-one salesperson here. We have a new leaderboard
nowâit's no longer a chalkboard. Do you think I'll need to have a nameplate made with your name on it? Lots of competition for that number-one spot, and you've been gone awhile.”
Maybe it was my blistered feet, my lack of sugar and caffeine, or the absence of my babies, but I was sure I was about to cry.
Jolly smiled sympathetically. “It's always hard coming back.” She brightened. “I guess word has got around that you're back, though.” She slid three pink message slips toward me. “These came in this morningâand there's someone waiting for you in your office.”
Jolly nodded. “She's a walk-in, but she asked for you by name. I told her I wasn't sure when you'd be inâMr. Henderson said you're usually here much earlierâbut she said she didn't mind waiting.” She slid a clipboard around to face her. “I made her sign in. She said her name is Jayne SmithâJayne with a Yâand she's relocating here from Alabama.”
“Alabama,” I repeated. It had been so long since I'd shown homes to anyone that I was searching through my fuzzy head for what I was supposed to do next. And where Alabama was. I'd hoped to have the first week to get my bearings again, but the thought of a prospective client did manage to stir my adrenaline a bit.
“Yes,” said Jolly. “And, Melanie? May I call you Melanie?”
She pulled out a notebook with a photograph of an alligator glued to the front cover, and opened it. Very carefully, she picked up her pencil and crossed off the first two items on a very long list. I peered at the notebook and, reading upside down, read,
Give Melanie her telephone messages. Let her know a client is waiting in her office.
I'd started to read the third item,
Find recipe forÂ .Â .Â .
Jolly slammed the notebook shut. With a guilty smile, she said, “I'm a habitual list maker. Pay me no mind.”
I found myself relaxing for the first time that morning. “I think we'll get along just fine, Jolly.” I turned toward the corridor that led to the small offices and cubicles of the various agents. I supposed I should have been grateful that Mr. Henderson had allowed me to keep my
office, a perk to only the top-selling agents. I hoped that meant he was confident I'd be at the top of the leaderboard soon, assuming that I'd be given a name tag.
I paused and faced the new receptionist. “Yes, Jolly?”
“Since we're going to be working together, there's something you should know about me.” She paused, her blue-painted fingernails playing with the dragonfly pin. “I'm a psychic. I do readings for people at fairs and festivals on the weekends, but since we're going to be coworkers, I'll give you a discount if you're interested in a reading. Just let me know.”
My earlier optimism quickly evaporated. I wasn't exactly sure how I should respond, so I just smiled and nodded, then made my way back to my office.
Jayneâwith a Yâhad her back toward me when I reached the door. She faced the credenza, where she was carefully organizing my magazines and journals, making sure that each was spaced apart the same distance, and that the edges lined up in a perfect parallel to the edge of the furniture. I frowned. They might be out-of-date, considering I hadn't been into the office in a long time, but I always kept them tidy, organized by date, and with the title and issue of each volume clearly visible. And I'd left strict instructions that they weren't to be disturbed in my absence. I found it vaguely annoying that she'd mess with my magazines, and wondered if she might be nervous.
“Good morning,” I said as I placed my bag and pink slips on the top of the desk.
The woman turned and smiled, then held out her hand to me. “Hello,” she said, shaking my hand in a firm grasp. “I'm Jayne Smith.” Her accent was definitely Southern, but not Charlestonian. Her hand felt bony, matching her thin wrists. And the rest of her body I noticed as I stepped back. The woman looked practically emaciated despite the fact that there were distinctive powdered sugar crumbs on her upper lip.
“Melanie Trenholm,” I said, trying to ignore the crumbs, but
wondering how I could let her know without any awkwardness. When I dropped my hand I surreptitiously flicked my index finger over my own lip. Her green eyes widened in understanding as she reached into her purse and, after removing several candy bar wrappers, found a napkin to wipe her mouth.
“I guess that's what I get for giving in to temptation,” she said. “There's this wonderful bakery down the streetâRuth's Bakery, I thinkâand I could smell the doughnuts from the sidewalk. I've never been able to turn down sugar.”
My own smile faltered as I thought about my ex-favorite bakery, imagining I could smell the sweet aroma of baking doughnuts. Feeling more than a little bit hurt, I reached for the paper bag from Ruth's and dropped it in the wastebasket, then resisted the urge to ask Jayne for her candy wrappers to throw away so I could bury my nose in them later.
I indicated for Jayne to take the seat in front of my desk while I sat down across from her. She was younger than me, early thirties, I thought, and her hair was blondâdyedâbut her eyebrows were dark. She was attractive in an all-American way, with long legs and a wide smile. Despite her thinness, she had the kind of chest I'd always wanted yet had attained only when I was pregnant and nursing. Or wearing a padded bra. My breasts were still bigger than they had been, but had somehow managed to migrate to new positions on my chest since the children were born.
“I'm sorry to just drop in. I can reschedule if you have other appointments,” Jayne said.
I was about to pretend to check my calendars when I paused. There was something oddly familiar about her smile, and the way the light through the office window lightened her eyes to a pale green.
“Have we met before?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Probably not. I've never been to Charleston before. Never been much farther than Birmingham before now, actually.” She smiled again, but the light behind her eyes had dimmed somewhat. “I think I have one of those faces that look like a lot of other people's.”
“That must be it,” I said.
The sound of magazines slipping off the credenza and slapping against one another as they hit the floor had us both jumping from our chairs. Jayne quickly moved to pick them up, stacking them as neatly as they'd been before. “I must have put these too near the edge.”
“Oh, okay.” But they hadn't been. They had been five inches from the edge, and there was no way they could have slid on their own. I frowned. There was another presence in the room, someone I couldn't see and could barely feel. Not even a shadow, or a shimmer of light. I could tell that whoever it was
me to see them, but something was preventing me. I could almost see a curtain that had been pulled across my sixth sense, forcing me to use only the five senses everybody else had.
I sat down suddenly, confused and irritated.
wanted to call the shots regarding my inherited ability or disabilityâdepending on how I was feeling about it at any given timeâand something I couldn't understand was blocking me. I recalled how during my pregnancy my ability to see dead people had disappeared and how I'd found myself oddly missing it. I couldn't help wondering whether motherhood had somehow had the same effect. Maybe that was the reason I'd been undisturbed for so long. Maybe.
Jayne returned to her seat and smiled, but there was something different about her expression. Like a painting where the artist was still a few brushstrokes away from completion. “I'm looking for a Realtor. And when I was walking by the agency this morning, I felt compelled to stop. I saw your photo in the window and you lookedÂ .Â .Â .”
She paused, not sure I wanted to hear what she had to say. I was notoriously unphotogenic, as my driver's license photo could attest. I had visions of it pinned to a bulletin board in the DMV's break room as an example of their best work.
“Approachable,” she finished. “Like you'd understand what it was I needed.”
Feeling pleased and not a little relieved, I pulled out a notepad and pencil and regarded her. “So, what can I help you with?”
“I need to sell a house. And buy a new one.”
“I only work in Charleston. So if you have a house in Birmingham to sellÂ .Â .Â .”
She shook her head. “I've inherited a house, here in Charleston. It's an old houseâI've walked by it a few times. I want to sell it and buy a new one.”
I sat back, not completely understanding. “Have you been inside the house?”
“No. I don't need to. I don't like old houses as a rule, so there's no reason for me to go inside.”