The Guests on South Battery (36 page)

I handed Jack my phone so he'd have a flashlight, then gave him a
fast kiss before he ran down the hallway, his footsteps echoing on the stairway long after his shadow disappeared.

The storm continued to batter the roof and structure of the old mansion, matching the barometric pressure dropping inside, the walls creaking and swelling with the stress. An unholy tremor shook the foundation, shoving me into my mother's side. I pretended it was an accident so she wouldn't know how petrified I was.

I swallowed, trying to gain control of my voice. “I hope that means Jack managed to open the door. Let's trust he was right about the diversion.” I turned the knob and watched with surprise as the attic door easily opened inward, but I resisted moving forward. “Why can't ghosts hide out in bright sunrooms in the middle of the day?”

Ginette tugged on my hand and, with her phone flashlight guiding the way, led us up the stairs.

The frigid air blew into my lungs, stinging my eyes and skin, and for a moment I couldn't breathe. “Anna's here,” I whispered, mostly to make sure my voice still worked.

“Jayne?” Ginette called out.

A groan came from the bed. Ginette aimed the beam in that direction, illuminating the figure of a woman curled into the fetal position. We took a step toward the bed, stopping when we hit a wall of frigid air.

My mother's hand trembled. “That's from Jayne—she's blocking everything now, to protect us. But she's growing weak.”

An odd yet familiar fluttering rose from the hidden stairs, overwhelming the noise of the storm. It was flies, hundreds and hundreds of flies, hurtling their small, rigid bodies at the walls, swarming in the small space. “Jack?” I yelled into the opening.

“I'm here,” he shouted, but it sounded as if he was out of breath. “I can't get out—something's holding me down.” He coughed, and I thought of the flies blocking his airways, slowly suffocating him. “The flies are . . . everywhere.”

I pulled on my mother's hand to drag her with me to Jack, but she pulled me back. “No. It's a trap. We need to make sure Jayne's all right first.” She squeezed my hand. “And then we fight.”

I called down the steps, shouting to be heard over the buzzing, “Jack—hang on!”

With rapid, careful steps we moved into the middle of the room. A swishing sound came from above our heads and we looked up. Long strips of sheets swirled from the rafter, undulating like a human form. I grabbed my mother's hand and ran toward the bed and the still figure lying in the middle.

Ginette tossed the phone on the bed near me and began stripping off her gloves, putting her fingers on a vein in Jayne's neck. “Hold the flashlight, and take Jayne's hand. She's weak from fighting, but her pulse is strong. Hold tight, and don't let go no matter what happens.”

I sat on the edge of the bed, then watched as she took Jayne's other hand. She grew rigid, like a divining rod finding water. A surge of electricity traveled from my mother's body and through Jayne, tingling across my palms and up through my fingertips. Jayne's body began to tremble, then shake, her fingers slipping from mine.

“Don't let go,” Ginette shouted just as the phone slipped from my grasp and fell facedown, leaving us in complete darkness.

I found Jayne's hand again and grabbed, determined not to let it go again.

“Melanie? Are you here?” From the pressure on the bed near where I sat, I was aware of Jayne digging in her heels against the mattress, trying to sit up against the headboard.

“Yes, Melanie's here. And so am I,” Ginette said, her voice intense. “You've been fighting Anna by yourself. Let's show her now what the three of us can do.”

We stood with our hands gripped together tightly, the whir of sheets tumbling in the air and filling the space between raindrops and thunderclaps.

My mother's voice was quiet at first, and then seemed to gain strength from some unknown source. I felt the power through our clasped hands, the untapped strength of this delicate-looking woman. “Anna, release Hasell so she can move on to a better place. To a place where she can rest and find peace. If you ever loved her, let her go.”

The darkness around us vibrated with an unknown entity, a dark emotion I'd yet to experience and knew I never wanted to. The sheets above us whipped at the ceiling and the wall, seeking something. Someone.

My mother continued, her fingers icy cold in mine as if she were directing all her energy to communicating with the dead. “We know you didn't mean to kill her, Anna. That it was an accident. Was it your guilt that made you hang yourself in this room? Was it? You can find no forgiveness for what you did. But we forgive you. We know the truth now, and there's no reason to keep Hasell here. We forgive you, so you can move on, too. Move on, Anna. Move on from this house and let Jayne live here. It is her rightful home. Let her be.”

A frigid wind whipped past us, a long strip of sheeting wrapping its ends around and around my neck, gradually getting tighter and tighter. I knew my mother was watching, could feel her hold on me tighten. “We are stronger than you,” she chanted. “We are stronger than you.”

Jayne joined in. “We are stronger than you. We are stronger thanyou.”

I was gasping and choking the words, but I managed to speak them, feeling the strength of my mother and sister surge through me.

“Let her go,” my mother shouted. “Move on from this place. You are forgiven. Go seek your judgment.”

The sweet, pungent smell of pipe tobacco wafted over us, my brain clinging to the scent as bright bubbles of light popped in front of my eyes while the sheet grew tighter and tighter.

“Sumter's here, Anna. To show you the way. He loved you. It was always you. I know you didn't believe it—couldn't believe it—but it's true. And now he's here. He wants to help you. To guide you. Please, Anna, let him. Give us all peace.”

“Let us go,” Jayne said. “Don't let your anger bind you to this place of sorrow and regret. Go be with your husband and daughter. Be together again.”

. The word wasn't spoken out loud, but I felt it inside my head, and surrounding me. The sheet around my neck loosened slightly and I gulped a lungful of air.

Mama. I love you. Come with us now.

The sheet slipped from my neck as Ginette and Jayne gripped my hands to keep me standing. The entire room crackled with static, my hair lifting and hovering around my head like a halo. A glow formed in the corner where the snow globes had been, a small pinprick of blue-white light growing and expanding until it encompassed the entire room. Before it disappeared completely, I saw three people, a man and a woman with a little girl between them, holding hands. They were facing away from us, but they glanced back once before they disappeared completely.

The lights flickered on and I felt a surge of power as if the entire house had suddenly become alit. My mother and Jayne tried to guide me to a chair to sit down, but I was focused on the doorway to the hidden staircase, only allowing myself to truly breathe when Jack appeared at the top, holding a notebook upon which rested an assortment of small bottles and syringes.

He set it down carefully on a low chest and ran to me. It was only then that I allowed myself to let go, to relax into his arms, and believe that everything was going to be all right.

“Hello? Is anybody up here?”

We all looked in surprise as Detective Riley appeared at the top of the stairs, his head nearly brushing the top of the doorframe as he stepped into the attic. “I know you're going to find this hard to believe, but someone using the landline from this house kept calling my cell and hanging up. I figured I'd better come over and check.”

Maybe it was the fear and exhaustion, but I started to laugh hysterically, soon joined by Ginette and Jayne. Thomas looked at us in confusion until Jayne raced over to him and threw her arms around his neck. “You're a sore for sight eyes,” she said, burying her face under his chin. She pulled back and shook her head. “I mean, it's good you're not there. You're . . .” She clenched her eyes, her forehead creased in concentration. “Here,” she finished.

And before she could say another word, Thomas bent his head and kissed her, and I knew I hadn't imagined the soft sigh of relief from everyone else in the room.


stood next to Nola, frosting the two small birthday cakes, both with dark chocolate icing. Despite the fact that the twins had inherited just about every characteristic from Jack, their love of chocolate was all mine.

“That's not vegan,” I said to Nola, catching her licking a finger.

“Pretend you didn't see that,” she said. “Or this.” She stuck the knife in the remnants of the frosting still clinging to the glass bowl and licked it.

The doorbell rang. I looked at the kitchen clock, relieved to see it was back to telling the actual time. “It's a little early for guests, isn't it?”

“I'll get it,” Nola said, giving her hands a quick wash in the sink. I wondered at her enthusiasm at the early arrivals until I saw her smooth her hair behind her ears. Alston and Cooper were expected to attend the twins' first birthday party, what Nola had dubbed “the social event of the season.” I told her to hold that thought until we threw her sixteenth birthday blowout, not to mention Jayne's first birthday party, since she now knew the actual date of her birth. Thomas was already helping me to plan it.

Jack passed her on his way into the kitchen. He smiled and moved in front of me. “You have chocolate icing on your mouth,” he said.

He held back the hand I'd started to lift and instead gently licked my lip. “Not as good as vanilla, but it will do.”

I locked my hands behind his neck. “Are we good, Jack?”

His eyes darkened as he studied me. “If you mean have we passed our first marital hurdle, I'd say yes. If anything, I think we've learned that we each need to work on trusting the other to share the bad stuff. It's a heck of a lot easier dealing with it up front than being run over by the consequences.”

“You're not getting any argument here.”

He followed my gaze out the window to where my father was putting the final touches on the back garden, where we were having the party despite the hole and caution tape. Nola had strung helium balloons—donated by a contrite Rich Kobylt for speaking out about the hole instead of simply filling it in—along the length of the tape in an attempt to disguise it as being part of the decorations, and my father had moved all pots and containers along the periphery to keep guests from tumbling inside. The only child guest was Blue Skye and I was sure either Sophie or Chad would be wearing her in a pouch and therefore not likely to be toddling past the barriers.

Jayne, in sensible flats and khakis, worked next to my father, laughing at something he said as he stood and reached for her hand to pull her up. He had not taken the news about Jayne easily, just as Ginette had predicted. My mother had always insisted, and still did, that he was the only man she'd ever loved, although the fact that Jayne even existed seemed proof enough that this wasn't true. I placed my head on Jack's chest, listening to his heartbeat. That was the thing with marriage, I thought. There would always be leaps of faith we'd be expected to make, whether we liked where we were supposed to land or not.

We watched as my mother approached, and I saw the way my father's face brightened, the way his body turned toward hers. She stood on her tiptoes to kiss him, a second too long to be called perfunctory, and Jayne smiled. She had finally found the family she'd always longed for, and in a way she'd probably never expected. But she had a mother and sister, and even a father, two nieces, and a nephew. My dad had
asked her to call him Dad if she was comfortable with it, and she'd taken to it surprisingly easily.

I felt a little ping around my heart as I watched my parents put their arms around Jayne, but it wasn't jealousy, exactly. It was more like the feeling of loss. Like that of a firstborn on the day her parents bring a sibling home from the hospital, suddenly dethroned from the halcyon days of only-childom. I'd only just found my parents again, discovered new relationships I'd never had, and it was hard to give it up. As Jack said, I wasn't giving up anything, and accepting the new changes would just take time. Like learning to stop labeling every blessed thing in the house (his words, not mine).

I liked Jayne, and even enjoyed admitting our resemblance to each other, especially since she'd dyed her hair back to brunette. And because people thought we were a lot closer in age than we were. She'd moved back into the house on Tradd Street while the renovations continued on her house—moving faster now that there weren't any more “disturbances,” according to Rich Kobylt. He'd actually managed to hold on to the same crew for two weeks without anyone running from the house and not returning, even for their tools.

Jayne had promised to stay on as nanny as long as I needed her, or until I could find a replacement. Jack had made some comment about her blocking off her calendar for the next eighteen years, and they'd both laughed. I hadn't.

Jack kissed the top of my head, and I snuggled into him, realizing anew how precious our relationship was, and how easily we almost let it go. There was no pointing fingers of blame—we were both culpable, each of us holding back the truth for fear of rippling the waters. And in so doing, almost creating waves big enough to capsize the boat.

“How's the writing going?” I asked. It had been a subject I'd avoided, understanding now the precarious situation his career was in. He'd been disappearing into his study on a regular basis for the past week, and I figured that if we were going to keep everything in the open between us, I needed to ask.

“It's going great, actually. And so is Nola's music writing. Your
mother thinks it had to do with Jayne putting on a mental block so spirits wouldn't bug her. She's apparently very strong-minded, and her block spilled over into other creative processes. Now that she's aware of it, she's using it more carefully.”

He kissed the top of my head. “They've agreed to let me write the book, by the way—both Jayne and your mother. All of it. I'm even allowed to use their names. I think Ginette is hoping for a movie deal so we can show up Marc Longo.”

I looked up at him in surprise. “I thought you'd decided not to ask—that we would find another way to get the money to remain solvent.”

“I did. And then your mother and Jayne approached me and told me not to be stupid. They both said that they're too old to worry what people think, and they want Hasell's story told. She had a short and tragic life and if it can be used as a lesson to help others, then it needs to be out there.

“And I promised them that I would be gentle with Anna's story. Munchausen-by-proxy is a mental illness, borne out of her own personal abandonment issues brought about by her parents' neglect. She knew it, too. And still blamed herself. I think that's why she hanged herself.”

“Poor Anna. Despite what she did, it's hard not to feel compassion for her. Even after she tried to scare the living daylights out of me.”

“You should have taken your labeling gun after her—now, that might have scared her away.”

I elbowed him in the ribs. “Very funny. Somehow I think it took my mother, Jayne, and me to make her see the light. Literally. She was such an unhappy soul. I hope she's found peace. And poor Button. She must have suspected something. Enough to cause her to do something as drastic as faking a baby's death just so she could keep the baby away from Anna. Knowing Anna as she did, she would have assumed that Anna would have tried to find a way to influence the baby's care, perhaps even insinuating that my mother's abandonment of me meant she was an unfit mother, and perhaps then Jayne's raising would have gone to Anna by default.”

“Such a sad, sad story.” Jack kissed the top of my head. “Why do you think Anna stayed earthbound? Because she couldn't forgive herself?”

“Partly. And also because she didn't want anyone to know what she'd done—that's why she repressed Hasell's spirit, while Hasell stuck around to try to diminish her mother's internal rage that she misdirected toward the rest of the world. And to let everyone know the truth about her death. Not to cast Anna in a bad light, but maybe shine some understanding instead of condemnation for mental illness. I don't know if we would have found the evidence in the stairwell if it hadn't been for Hasell. Or her cat.” I shuddered. “I can't believe I didn't know it was a ghost. But because Jayne saw it, it never occurred to me.”

Jack kissed my nose. “Don't beat yourself up. Your cluelessness is one of your more endearing attributes.”

Mrs. Houlihan bustled into the kitchen, the dogs following behind her, knowing she was bound to drop scraps while she prepared food for the party. “Out you go, you two. Nola and her friends just brought down JJ and Sarah fresh from a nap, and they look sweet enough to eat.” She smiled, her round cheeks dimpling, and for a moment I could, indeed, imagine her snacking on my children.

“Let us know when you need us to help bring out trays. The tables are all ready in the garden,” I said.

“Will do. But first, if you wouldn't mind, would you please remove that old notebook from the hall table? It's unsightly, and I don't want it to be the first thing guests see when they arrive by the front door.”

Jack sent me a quizzical look. “It was in my study. Why is it on the hall table?”

I gave Mrs. Houlihan a thumbs-up as I took Jack's hand and led him to the foyer. “Don't worry—there's no hocus-pocus here,” I said, using my father's words for anything resembling psychic activity. “I put it there.” Thomas had taken the bottles and syringes for analysis, but had given Hasell's notebook to Jayne, who'd in turn shared it with me.

Hasell had been a gifted artist, her whimsical dreams of exploring the world from the confines of her attic room carefully drawn with
colored pencils on alternating pages. She'd used images from the mural and the snow globes, entwining them with those in her vivid imagination, creating a magical world where she could fly among the clouds and visit the four corners of the earth.

On the facing pages her small, childish penmanship told the stories that went with each picture, except they didn't. They were fairy tales, the characters disguised as animals or fairy-tale creatures, their actions exaggerated, their journeys to happily-ever-after convoluted and difficult to follow. It was only after reading it through more than once that one began to read the story she was trying to tell, a story of a loving mother who slipped up a hidden staircase to poison her daughter. It must have been Hasell's way of trying to solicit help from other adults. Maybe it was her isolation that didn't expose her to enough outsiders, with or without her mother's constant presence, or maybe it was the complexities of the stories that allowed those who did read them to dismiss them as the ramblings of a childish, yet creative, mind. We guessed that Anna had hidden the notebook along with her secret stash of bottles after Hasell's death, and then forgotten about them in their secret hiding place.

When Jayne had given me the book, she cried, grieving for the half sister she'd never known who'd led such a short and horrific life, and had known what was being done to her, yet was powerless to stop it. But she'd still found beauty around her, and in her brilliant imagination. I'd hugged Jayne, assuring her that she still had a half sister, and that if she could ever forgive me for thinking she was having an affair with Jack, I'd be the best half sister she could hope for. As Sophie had suggested, the embrace had been one of comfort after Jack had told Jayne the truth about who she was. My insecurities had led me to jump to the wrong conclusion, a mistake for which I'd be beating myself up for a long time to come.

I picked up the notebook and stuck it inside a drawer. “It's for Cooper. He wants to go to medical school, perhaps specialize in psychiatry. He thought this would be an interesting case study.” I smiled up at Jack. “Just think, we could have a doctor in the family.”

He didn't smile back. “Humph. He'll have to be allowed to date her first, and that's not happening for at least another decade.”

We headed for the drawing room, where we could hear the babies chortling, stopping halfway at the sound of a doorbell. I pulled open the door, surprised not only to discover that the doorbell was working consistently, but also to see Meghan Black, leaning on crutches. She had on an amazing necklace and what I was sure was a dress from Anthropologie, and on one foot she wore a beautiful striped espadrille with a grosgrain ribbon encircling her ankle. On the other foot she wore a cast, which explained the crutches.

She smiled, adjusting a bag from Sugar Snap Pea, my favorite children's clothing boutique. “I'm sorry I'm so early, but Nola told me to get here whenever.” She held out the shopping bag to me, nearly toppling over in the process. I wondered if clumsiness was a regular thing with her, accounting for the X-ray machine falling on her foot. Jack caught her elbow and she blushed. “Thanks,” she said, looking up at Jack and then quickly looking away. I forced myself not to roll my eyes.

“Everybody's with the babies in the parlor. Let's head that way,” I said, taking a step in that direction.

She stayed where she was, a frown on her face. “Actually, before we go in, I wanted to give you something.” She fumbled with her purse, dropping it twice before she finally got the clasp open. “As part of my assignment, I took a lot of pictures of your backyard, to record the work-in-progress. I was printing them out when I came across an interesting anomaly in one of them.”

An ominous prickling sensation crept up my spine. “An anomaly?”

“Well, that's what they call it on that reality haunted house show my mom watches. I don't believe in ghosts or anything like that, but I have to say that this picture kind of weirded me out.”

Despite everything that had happened in the last few months, and my giant strides forward in becoming the new Mellie, my first instinct was to run upstairs and pretend I'd never had this conversation. As if reading my mind, Jack grabbed my hand and held tight.

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