Read the first 3 chapters of When in Gnome right here!
When in Gnome is the first book in the Gnome Sweet Gnome series.
Evie’s side trip to Gnome, Mississippi, was only meant to take a few hours out of her end-of-summer beach vacation. She had no idea that her life was about to change forever.
Evangeline Black makes her way to the small town where she was born - a place that doesn't exist on any map - and learns about her mysterious family. When a complication forces her to postpone grad school and remain in Gnome, a psychic caretaker, a sheriff who practices magic, and a rocker werewolf help her to get her life under control, but could she also find love while she's at it?
Shortly after I set out from Pensacola, the sky darkened, and the clouds took on an ominous appearance worthy of a Poltergeist movie. When I borrowed her car, I had promised my friend Aimee that I would only be gone a few hours. I’d be back by dark, at the latest. However, darkness came early as I made my way toward a small, obscure town by the name of Gnome, Mississippi.
Ever since I received the letter from my mother’s attorney, I had been trying to figure out how to make a trip to Gnome without offending my adoptive parents. The letter, after explaining the difficulty the lawyers had dealt with in locating me, hinted at possessions left to me by my birth mother, and I was itching with curiosity. I was stumped and getting ready to spill the news about the letter to my parents as delicately as possible when my friend Aimee mentioned an end-of-summer beach trip that would put me only an hour and a half away from Gnome. It was scary convenient.
The weekend in Pensacola was our last summer fling with our friends from back home in Tupelo before life took us in different directions—and Aimee and me back to grad school at Ole Miss—but I was too close to the truth not to check it out while I was down here. Right now, learning the truth about my birth parents and why I was put up for adoption was far more intriguing than sticking my toes in the sand.
I thought about what I was probably missing with my friends gathering around the grill and mixing drinks, and I envied their lack of secrets and obscure origins. It had sometimes seemed that my entire life was shaped by this negative space around me and my longing to know what filled it.
What I hadn’t told Aimee was that this trip was more than just finding out who my birth parents were. There were a lot of things about myself that I needed to figure out. Strange things had happened throughout my life. I had shared one or two of them with Aimee at the time when they had happened, but she thought I was just being silly for thinking the events meant anything or that it was a desperate cry for attention. More than anything, I hoped to find out if I was only imagining things or if they had happened for a reason. While there was no guarantee that it had anything to do with my parents, I held out hope to learn more.
I’d never even heard of Gnome before I received the letter, and I couldn’t find it on any map. According to the satellite photos on my GPS app, this area was nothing but swamps, brackish waters, and a large area dedicated as a wildlife preserve. It was as if Gnome were hiding from the world.
I had talked to the attorney very briefly on the phone, and he had directed me to go to a place called Rosewood and said that somebody there would be expecting me. Following the attorney’s extremely vague directions, I had gotten off the interstate around Gautier and was headed back East along Highway 90. (The town was pronounced go-shay, but people who weren’t familiar with it pronounced it like it was a thyroid disease.) I couldn’t find any sign indicating Moss Road as stated in the directions, and what was supposed to be an hour-and-a-half drive took up the entire afternoon as I searched and took the wrong roads for miles before doubling back. The only sign of civilization had been a remote gas station, and I finally gave up and decided to see if the attendant there could tell me where Gnome was. Or where I was, for that matter.
I hoped that the rain might hold off for Aimee’s sake. Personally, I love a good storm, which might explain why my friends are several shades darker than I am—aside from the fact that I’m a natural redhead—and watching a storm over an ocean was thrilling. Apparently, I wasn’t wishing hard enough because swelling clouds blotted out the sun, and then the rain began to fall.
The gas station was backed up to a swamp and advertised live bait, ice, fried chicken, and cold beer in weathered red-painted letters on a plywood background that hadn’t been whitewashed for quite some time. The pumps were old-school, the kind that didn’t accept credit cards, but they were apparently in working order since there was a late model Ford Mustang sitting at the pump. A 1980s Chevrolet truck with faded blue and white two-tone paint was parked at the back of the lot.
I parked in front of the store and made a dash for the covered walk. Rainwater gushed off the corners of the roof and splashed onto the asphalt. I dove through the curtain of rain that poured steadily from the channels in the corrugated metal awning and onto my head.
A brass bell tied to the door handle resounded as I entered the store, which was considerably cooler than outside and reeked of bait and fried food. I remembered that I hadn’t had anything to eat since I left Pensacola around mid-morning. The ham sandwich I had thrown together and gulped down in a hurry that morning was long gone, but any potential appetite for fried chicken was curbed by the smell of live bait.
The sound of crickets chirping mingled with talk radio. The attendant was sitting on a stool behind the counter and looking at an Auto Market magazine. He looked up as I came into the store.
“What can I do for you today?” he asked, setting his magazine aside.
“I’m trying to find Gnome,” I said.
He stood up. “New in town?”
“No, I just misplaced it.” Normally, I would have at least smiled at my own joke, but I was tired and lost. Being lost was quickly advancing to the top of the chart of my least favorite events. I was miles from nowhere and surrounded by swamps and strangers. Beneath the calm exterior, I was on the edge of panic. And tears. I had lived a pretty sheltered life, and tears had solved a lot of problems thus far.
The attendant laughed, and my state of panic lowered a fraction of a notch. A stranger with a healthy sense of humor is a good thing. “Well, you found it. Almos’. Go right down the highway an’ take a left. That’s Moss Road. Someone done plowed through the street sign, so look for the ‘For Sale’ sign. About a mile or so down, you’ll see Underwood Road. Turn right. It’ll take you right into town.”
“Thank you,” I said, writing it down on the back of a receipt I found in my purse. “I’m looking for Rosewood. Would you happen to know where that is?”
“Sure do. You gon’ keep goin’ past Underwood Road about two or three miles an’ turn right on Kitchens Road, just pas’ a long bridge with steel beams over it. Take Kitchens about five miles, an’ you should see a turn-off on the right. That’s actually the drive. It’s a gravel drive, so you may have to look for it. If you come to the fruit stand, you done gone too far. The fruit stand’s about half a mile up the road from the turn-off.”
I thanked the attendant, and he went back to his magazine. Turning around, I ran straight into a very solid chest that was attached to a guy only a little older than I was. Clutching a Mountain Dew and a bag of chips, he was good-looking, tall with broad shoulders, and neither skinny nor bulky the way guys who worked out tended to be. His light brown hair was damp and curling slightly over his ears and along his neck. During the split second that we made eye contact, I saw that his eyes were green like mine.
“Sorry,” I said, as my face heated up in embarrassment.
“My pleasure,” he said with a smile. He had a nice smile, and it made me feel good to be the recipient of such a smile.
I stepped around him, and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him turn to watch me leave the store.
In the blinding rain, I drove at a snail’s pace along the highway so I wouldn’t miss my turn, which was just a slightly lighter black than the black ditches on either side of it. The road was pocked with potholes. As the rain pounded into my windshield, guilt rattled around in the pit of my stomach. My parents would freak if they knew I was off in the middle of nowhere by myself. I hadn’t worked out the details concerning what to tell them afterwards. I had intentionally blotted it out of my mind. I’d cross that bridge when I got there. At least I had my cell phone, and Aimee hadn’t called demanding her car back. Yet.
The rain cut the visibility down to only a few feet. I was crawling down the road, which was flooded with water gushing from the ditches. I strained to see through the rivulets streaming down the windshield before the worn wiper blades had time to make another slap-dash pass.
My stomach unclenched slightly as I crossed the bridge that the attendant had mentioned. Just ahead, I saw the green sign identifying Kitchens Road and turned. After about four miles, I spotted the gravel road, and I knew in my gut that this was it. The property on either side was surrounded with a barbed-wire fence that had gradually become crowded with trees, vines, bushes, and weeds seemingly intent on blotting out the hideous excuse for a fence. A steel gate, apparently disused, sagged to one side and was also being claimed by nature. Leaning against the fence were the remains of a rotting wooden sign that bore the name Rosewood. Trees encroached on either side of the gravel road with their branches laced tightly together overhead.
As I carefully turned into the drive, my heart hopped around in my chest cavity. While I was still not out of the woods, large oaks were arranged symmetrically on either side of the road. Heading up the drive, I strained to see the first glimpse of Rosewood through the gray sheet of rain. Then the road dipped down and turned, but I missed the turn part.
I tapped my brakes, and the car slipped out of control. Steering was futile. The car gently glided along the mud, water, and gravel before submitting to the magnetic attraction of the ditch. I was slightly jarred as the car abruptly came to a halt.
The good news was that I didn’t hit anything. Shifting gears, I alternated between trying to move the car forward and trying to back out, but I only succeeded in planting a tire.
I popped open the glove compartment and fumbled around for a flashlight. On TV, there would always be a flashlight, and, most likely, a gun, or possibly even a controlled substance, depending on which TV show you were watching. However, this glove compartment held a manual, a receipt for an oil change, and a scratched David Bowie CD, which I was betting Aimee’s older brother had been missing for at least a decade. I wished I’d discovered that little jewel earlier when I couldn’t find anything on the radio that didn’t feel manufactured. I checked the floorboards but came up empty. Not even an umbrella. I let out a long sigh.
The rain wasn’t letting up. Tired of hearing the wipers beating against the faux-chrome trim, I switched them off. I turned the key, and the engine shuddered to a stop. For a long moment, I sat listening to the rain and watching it move over the windshield in a translucent silver sheet. Intermittent flashes of lightning revealed trees in various shades of gray with limbs bowing low over the long gravel drive.
I wasn’t sure how far down the road I would have to walk, but I felt like Rosewood had to be close by. I looked at my phone. The charge was getting low, but I had one signal bar. Deciding to walk a little ways to see if I was actually here, I put my phone in my purse to keep it dry and grabbed the keys. Afterwards, I’d make the call. I wanted to find out what I could and not be obligated to “sit tight, don’t go anywhere, and we’ll come get you,” once I made the call. To be so close only to have the answers jerked right out of my grasp. My friend Mike often said that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. I don’t know who came up with that idea, but it was convenient advice at the moment. I opened the door and plunged into the rain.
As soon as my ballet slipper-style shoes hit the ground, they did exactly what they were supposed to do according to the packaging: they slipped.
I landed on hands and knees in the ditch. The flowered skirt I wore was covered in mud, and my blouse was soaked. I stood up, shut the car door, and pulled my long hair out of my face.
The road was a long, dark tunnel of overlapping shadows, stretching out to embrace me as I took a few tentative steps. I felt the car—the only fragment of my known world in these woods—tugging at me as if I were a dog testing the limits of my leash. Another ten steps, and the car’s hold weakened. A few more, and I’d broken completely free. The glimmering metal form dissolved into darkness, and I was a ship at sea with no port in sight.
I kept moving forward as the lightning continued to reveal the path and saved me from walking into a tree or falling in the ditch. Even after walking for about five minutes, every tree looked pretty much the same, and there was no indication of a clearing up ahead. I stepped cautiously, starting whenever I heard anything that didn’t sound like rain falling through trees. Around me, the entire woods felt alive, as in having a presence and being capable of manipulating me. Not that I believed that, but I was getting pretty creeped out.
I had walked for about ten minutes when I saw the dark figure bearing an umbrella and advancing toward me. I thought about turning and running back to the car. After all, what kind of person would be out here in the dark in the rain? That is, besides me.
Then a streak of lightning illuminated the road for a brief second, and I was able to see a man walking toward me, slightly hunched over. I could hear the whisper of his windbreaker as he carved a jagged path through the rain. He almost made little hops over the deeper puddles. I hesitantly shuffled toward the umbrella as it came near, but I was mentally braced to run if I had to. I have a fantastic imagination, but in emergency situations—when the “fight or flight” kicks in—I tend to be as practical as they come, meaning that “run like hell” was an entirely reasonable plan.
The umbrella came close, and a rapid succession of lightning lit up the whole place as bright as day for a brief moment and enabled me to glimpse the face beneath it.
He was an African-American. I thought the hair going white on the sides probably put him over forty, but, beyond that, it was hard for me to pin an age on him. He flashed a brilliant smile of straight, white teeth. Besides that, I couldn’t make out much in the dark except to make sure that he wasn’t holding a weapon.
“You must be Evangeline Black.” His voice was kind and polite.
At the mention of my name, my skin prickled. “How did you know my name?”
“I was told you might be coming today.” He reached out to put the umbrella over me. “Name’s Daniel Jackson,” he continued. “I’m the caretaker at Rosewood.” He held out his hand for me to shake.
I accepted his hand as I wondered where I could possibly run to if things went badly.
He squinted as fat drops of rain splattered on his face. “Let’s get you out of the rain. That car’s not going anywhere tonight.”
I frowned. “How did you know about my car? You can’t see it from here.”
I was talking to his back as he had already begun walking. The trees slashed black shadows across his windbreaker. He turned, and another flicker of lightning revealed an expression of patience and understanding. “Wild guess. I know you didn’t walk all the way here.”
Neither of us made a move, and I hoped that my iPhone wasn’t getting soaked in my purse. The only sound was the rain plinking on the leaves and sizzling on the ground around us and the rolls of thunder overhead.
A strange calmness settled over me as we stood there in the rain. I didn’t even mind the fact that I was soaked to the skin. I could have been standing in the ocean and listening to the waves crashing around my ankles. In a detached way, I noticed that I wasn’t even worried about the car. I knew that we’d get it out, even if it was tomorrow. I was sure it wasn’t hurt, just a little stuck. If I left now—not like that was really an option, but it made me feel better to think that it was—I may never find out about the place where I was born, about my parents, or about myself. I had come here to find answers. Was I going to let fear of what I might find keep me from learning the truth? I took a deep breath and let it out. Another wave of calm washed over me as soft and smooth as warm bath water.
He seemed relaxed, as if he had all of the time in the world. The umbrella twirled nonchalantly on his shoulder as he stood there with his other hand resting casually in his pocket.
“You’re right,” I said. “We could be having this conversation in a much drier place.”
He laughed. It was as deep as my father’s laugh, but somehow richer and more complex, like European wines when you compared them to American. “Now you talkin’! I enjoy a good storm myself, but I’d rather not spend all night out here standing in it.”
I couldn’t agree more. So, I walked beside Daniel—both of us under the same umbrella—up the long drive. We made safe, small talk and saved the heavier stuff for non-threatening light-filled rooms. It was a while before we finally emerged from the woods into a clearing where the drive was flanked with mature crepe myrtles, their vast smooth branches crested with purple blooms. In the dark, the flowers ranged in all shades between lavender and darkest gray. The ground beneath my feet was much firmer here, and the frilly petals carpeted the ground. I had a fleeting memory from my childhood back home—waiting for the school bus, tossing handfuls of the petals in the air, and twirling as they rained down upon my head. The front yard was punctuated with large oak trees with rambling limbs draped in moss. The drive circled around in front of an antebellum home.
My first glimpse of Rosewood, through a glaze of rain and cascades of Spanish moss, stole my breath. She was tragically beautiful. The tin roof was etched with rust. The house stretched tall with two full stories and most likely an attic. A porch and second floor balcony—both supported by huge columns and adorned with black iron lacework—crossed the front of the house. The windows stretched to the floor like large soulful eyes that had taken in everything for more than a century and found it almost too much to bear. White paint peeled back to expose gray wood on the front. The sides were flanked with smooth brick and wide chimneys.
So this is it. This is where my mother had lived.
“Welcome home,” Daniel said.
I flashed him a smile. “It’s lovely.”
“You should see it in the spring when the wisteria’s in bloom.” He trudged toward the steps. “Needs a paint job. I used to be able to get around a lot better.” He let out a long sigh. As if to illustrate his point, he limped slightly as he climbed the steps to the porch.
“But it’s in fantastic shape for being so old,” I pointed out.
He nodded. His eyes roved over the front of the house, and his voice took on a reverent tone. “Houses like being lived in. You take the living out of them, and they fall apart in no time. Guess they like company, too. Come on inside and dry off. I think I hear a pot of tea calling my name.”
The open door frame filled with warm butter-colored light, and an unseen cloud of fragrance unfurled, smelling of rain, wood, ashes in the fireplace, time, coffee, and… something else.
I sniffed, and my stomach growled. “Hey, is that lasagna?”
I had been waiting for this day for years, ever since that day we let the Blacks take her away. Upon the advent of her eighteenth birthday, the attorneys had a difficult time finding the girl. The Blacks kept her completely off the radar, and three years passed before she was finally located where she was attending school in Oxford.
Shortly after the letter was sent, I felt a decision had been made. Then it was just a matter of when. For the first few days, maybe even a few weeks, time seemed to stand still. The day neither got any closer nor further away. I was deadheading the roses when I sensed a shift, like something sliding into place after putting up a fight. Something clear and weightless. I had to stop and look up to see if anything had visibly changed around me. The air was still hot and stifling, but I could feel a promise wrapped up inside the heat, a gossamer thread of autumn that was too strong to be subdued by the boiling heat around it. Everything seemed the same, but I knew change was coming. Then, time seemed to flow again, although sluggish and hardly noticeable at first. Months went by when I knew the day was getting closer, and then I knew it was going to be this month, then this week, and, finally, this day.
You would have thought she was my own child. I sat up reading—or trying to read—in my favorite chair in the living room. The ticking of the clock on the mantle was so loud that I was relieved when the rumble of thunder and drumming of rain on the tin roof finally drowned it out. The weather had been building up all day—too still, too calm. It’s funny how calm things are on the surface when you are waiting for a collision. Inside me was a hurricane of imaginations and emotions, past and future, heat wave with a cold front. I could sense her drawing near, and it was all I could do not to try to go get her, even though I knew that wasn’t possible.
Still, being psychic doesn’t prepare you for everything. When I felt the hour had arrived, I was a mess. I almost forgot the umbrella. My hands were so shaky that it took me three tries to grip the doorknob enough to turn it.
I saw the girl walking toward me in the dark. I have pretty good night vision, which may have something to do with being a seer of sorts, but it can come in handy when you have to get up in the middle of the night to use the facilities. She was pale with light eyes and long red hair. She wore a flowered skirt that came just above her knees and a small summer blouse that had probably started out the day as white. She looked skinny and fragile, but I sensed she was strong. All that’s best of dark and bright.
There was a moment or two when I thought she was going to panic and run like a scared rabbit, and I had to calm her down.
I don’t really like manipulating people. It’s unethical. I was at war inside. I knew I didn’t mean her any harm, but she didn’t know that. Hey, if I came across myself in the woods on a dark night, I’d be suspicious, too; so, can’t say I blame her. I can’t really justify my actions. I wanted her to stay for reasons I couldn’t really understand myself. In order for that to happen, I needed her to realize she belonged here and nowhere else. Anyway, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. I tried to be subtle. If she had any idea, that wouldn’t help things nary a bit.
It’s not difficult if you have the ability. I just stood there thinking calm thoughts and projecting them at her. A gentle breeze. Standing in the ocean and letting the salt water at your feet and in the air wash away all of your troubles, which was one of my favorite childhood memories. For me, it’s the easiest trick in the book once I give in to it. I always feel like I’m unleashing a monster, the most selfish part of me that can make others believe that my will is actually their own. I always feel a bit tainted when I reel it back in and tamp it back down into that cramped space deep inside, and that dirty feeling is what helps me keep myself in check. I can look in the mirror and see a sixty-year-old man or a power-drunk monster. Any day that I see a sixty-year-old man is a good day.
I carved her out a slab of lasagna and set it on a Blue Willow plate. “Miss Leela sent this over today. I know how to make four things: coffee, sweet tea, pancakes, and sandwiches. The ladies around town like to drop off dishes when they are having something at the church, which is all the blame time. I imagine they are looking for a husband, and it seems I’m Gnome’s most eligible bachelor. Never been married and don’t plan to, but you won’t catch me complaining about their cooking.”
We were standing in the kitchen, one of the few rooms I actually use. The kitchen is bright with a huge cast iron sink and a big farm table in the middle of the room. I put the kettle on to boil and then went to look in my tea cabinet. I had boxes of iced tea, jasmine, spiced chai, bergamot, chamomile, and a special concoction that Ben brought over weeks ago. He’d been experimenting with different herbs he was growing. He called this one “Manifest Destiny” and said it was supposed to help lower inhibitions and make it easier to access natural abilities. He meant magical abilities. When I saw it sitting on the shelf next to the jasmine, I was overwhelmed with the urge to try it out. I figured it couldn’t hurt. However, just to be fair, I fixed myself some, too.
“It smells good,” Evangeline said, holding the china tea cup up to her nose. I used my same ol’ stoneware mug. “What kind is it?” She shoveled spoons full of sugar into her cup. I thought I’d better tell Julius to bring a few more sacks of sugar. Every week. I just used a squirt of local honey from the plastic bear-shaped container.
“My friend Ben grows his own herbs and mixed it up. I think he said it’s got rose petals, lemon balm, catmint, and whatever else he was growing at the time, probably. But don’t worry… It’s all legal. Ben’s the sheriff here, but he’s clean.” I wondered if she caught my sarcastic joke. Being psychic doesn’t make you a mind-reader.
She raised her eyebrows. “Your sheriff grows herbs and makes his own tea?”
I smiled. “Yeah, he does. Ben’s part Native-American, and I think he likes to explore his heritage a bit. He’s a good guy. Speaking of Ben, I should go ahead and give him a call about the car. He’ll take care of you.”
“I’m sorry for the trouble,” she said.
“It’s no trouble. He comes by almost every day anyway. It’s kind of a ritual.”
And I did call Ben because I knew that it would make her feel better, even though nothing would be done tonight. I didn’t actually have to make the call, but I did it as a courtesy. Ben had barked at me once about feeling inexplicably compelled to rush over when he was in the middle of something and had asked me, as a friend, to refrain from pushing him.
Ben had ranted, “You may not realize that Chloe and I are trying to have a baby and… and this is so awkward!” In frustration, he crushed his cowboy hat—with the badge on the front—back on his head. His hair was long, straight, and black, and, beneath the hat, his face had looked extremely young.
A little embarrassed, I had obliged. “You’re right, Ben. No more pushin’.”
“Yeah, don’t push me.” He had been breathing hard from rushing over in a panic, followed by his rant.
Then my imagination had taken over, and my serious expression shattered. I had fallen over laughing until Ben was laughing, too.
As I set the receiver back in the cradle, I asked, “Did you need to call anyone who might be worried?”
I could tell by her expression—current thoughts sliding off her face—that it had slipped her mind. “Oh! Yeah, I can do it on my phone. I’d better do that now before they send out a search party.” She took her purse and stepped into the living room to make the calls.
I wrapped up the lasagna while projecting calm and soothing thoughts to all parties concerned. I knew from experience that the push worked over the phone. Like I said, I don’t like to manipulate people, but when I needed the power company to come fix the lines that the trees brought down in a storm and went without power for almost a week, I got frustrated and resorted to desperate measures. Not to mention, if not for pushing, I’d still be waiting to get DSL.
A huge clap of thunder shook the house. I heard Evangeline squeal a little in the next room and then burst out laughing at her friend on the phone. When she returned, she was smiling. She gripped the ladder-back chair at the end of the table.
“Are they worried about the car? Or you?” I asked from inside the refrigerator where I was arranging the leftovers. Of course, I already knew the answer, but sometimes it seems like I should be asking anyway.
“No, not really. She’s just glad I’m okay and excited to hear what I find out. They’re holed up in the condo watching old television reruns until the weather passes.” She cringed a little and rolled her eyes. “I’m kind of glad I’m not there.”
I nodded, shutting the refrigerator door. “Good, good. Why don’t I show you to your room? Then we can have some more tea and talk some more.”
She came up on her toes. “I have a room?” She followed me from the kitchen.
“Yeah, I’ll go ahead and give you the grand tour. You’ve seen the living room and dining room already. The only other room downstairs, besides the bathroom, is what I call the den. That’s where I stay.” We crossed the big foyer that didn’t contain much else besides a staircase, a chandelier, and an area rug. The room sounded hollow and lonesome. The door to my den creaked loudly when I opened it. Books that weren’t in the shelves formed crooked towers on the floor. At one end of the room was an old oak desk with my computer. On the other end was the bed, a double-size black iron bedstead that looked small in the spacious room. The worn brown carpet and other scattered throw rugs kept the room from feeling too freakishly large. “This is kind of my bachelor pad. I try to keep everything else right, but this is where I let my hair down, so to speak.” I pulled the door shut again. “I don’t venture upstairs much, but I did go ahead and have things cleaned up for you.”
She followed me up the stairs, and we turned on the landing. “Why don’t you use one of the bedrooms?”
“For one thing, my knees don’t really like the stairs these days.” I neglected to mention the other thing, which was because upstairs was where it all had started. Where I’d watched my momma die. Where I’d received the burden of my older brother’s inheritance while he was hanging out at the picture show. Where I’d seen something that made my mind cower and still couldn’t think about today without breaking out in a cold sweat. I forced a cheerful voice, “I had some help come in and try to fix things up for you. There are clean sheets on the bed and clean towels ready in the bathroom.” I pointed across the hall to the bathroom. The door to the last room past the bathroom held my gaze for a moment, but I broke away. It was locked and was going to stay that way, as if that mattered now. I’d shut the gate after the cows had already gotten out. “There are four bedrooms and two baths on this floor. There isn’t a master bedroom. This room has the shortest walk to the bathroom, and it’s yours.” We turned into the first room on the left.
The room was a large room, bigger than most modern living rooms, but it had to be to accommodate the dinosaur of a bed with the canopy that was ten feet high. There were two French doors leading onto the front balcony—not that I’d recommend walking out on it; it had been a while since we’d checked to see if it was structurally sound. The drapes were heavy velvet in a lilac color and would block out the sun if she unhooked the tie-backs. “Miss Alma called the color on these walls periwinkle,” I remembered out loud as I gazed at the shade of soft blue tinged with lavender. “She’d know all about that. I ain’t got a clue myself.” The carpet was a similar hue in a slightly deeper shade. Miss Alma had seen to it that it was thoroughly cleaned and threw down some new fluffy white rugs to brighten it up a bit and cover up some of the worn-out spots. If we replaced the carpet, we’d have needed a major crew just to move the bed. I was thankful that it wasn’t sitting right over my den. The bed looked like a wedding cake. It was a mound of feather mattresses, high thread-count sheets, quilts, pillows, and a bedspread with a lilac pattern on a white background. The furniture was mismatched. On either side of the huge bed of dark wood were matching silver nightstands. The dresser was painted white, and a large armoire with burl wood inlay served as a closet.
Evangeline noticed a small porcelain picture frame on one of the stands and walked dreamily across the floor to look at it. The woman in the photo had darker hair with thick, straight bangs, and bright green eyes. She looked to be completely at ease and sure of herself. Her smile was a mix of humor and mischief. She didn’t look anything like the pale, skinny girl who was standing in the room looking at the photo.
“Is this her?” Evangeline asked. Her voice was little more than a whisper.
I nodded. “That’s her. This was her room. Almost everything in here is the way it was, except for the new bedding and curtains, which Miss Alma picked out.”
“It’s beautiful,” she said. She looked back at the photo. She was really quiet for a long time before she said, “No one ever told me. What was her name?”
For a moment I was speechless. “I’m surprised the lawyers didn’t put that in the letter,” I said.
She looked at least five years younger than she had a moment ago. Her shoulders rose and fell, and the shake of her head was ever so slight.
I cleared my throat. “Marilda. Your mother’s name was Marilda Winter.”
The name danced silently on her lips for a moment. “It’s not a very common sounding name, is it?”
“There might be a story behind it,” I said.
“I don’t look anything like her. Are you sure she’s my mother?”
I nodded. “I didn’t know her personally, but I know people who did. We can talk to them if you want.”
She turned suddenly with her eyes wide and interested. “That would be great. Thank you!” She sat the photo back down and scanned the room. “Thank you for everything you’ve done. Your house is beautiful.”
I just mumbled my thanks while I felt a stab of guilt for not telling her the truth right then. At the same time, it wasn’t my place to tell her, I rationalized. I’d leave that to the lawyers.
I turned to make my way out. “And we have central air. The thermostat for this floor is in the hallway in case you need to adjust it. Won’t bother me none. The ceiling fan works, too, if you need the noise or the air stirred.” I stopped and turned at the door. “And if it makes you feel better, there’s a bolt on the door.” I flicked it for emphasis and watched her face register what I meant. “Now, are you ready for some more tea?”
I still had so many questions I wanted to ask Daniel. As I climbed the creaky stairs, each of which had its own unique pitch, the biggest question loomed over my head. What happened to my mother?
I had always assumed she had died in childbirth, but the photo on the bedside table had revealed otherwise. The woman in the picture was holding a tiny, pale baby with a patch of bright red hair. Realizing that I had it all wrong in my head had opened up a whole new can of worms. I was still putting the puzzle pieces in my mind together with slow, stiff arthritic hands.
Taking Daniel at his word, I cranked the thermostat down to “igloo” and stepped into the bathroom.
I had intended to just take a quick shower, but when I spied the huge claw-foot tub, it seemed wrong to deny myself the experience. Looking at the tub, I was reminded of a commercial I’d heard on the radio when vacationing in California one summer with my parents. The speaker had said she had given herself permission to buy an über expensive sports car. As if she had endured months of costly therapy before she was finally able to accept this decision without being riddled with guilt. Dad and I had thought it was really funny and made jokes about it. He had suggested that the majority of similar cases were still attending their biweekly therapy because they still had a pesky little soul burdened with a conscience that would not allow them such an outrageous luxury item. I had added that the woman on the commercial was probably a rare success—one of the lucky few who had responded favorably to therapy. Dad had said that the therapist was probably red with horns and had coerced his patients into giving up their souls while under hypnosis, and confirmation of success was that they made frivolous purchases. We had brought it up again and again for the rest of the trip, and the jokes had gotten lamer and lamer.
I equated this tub to that car, only less mobile, and I gave myself permission to experience it. No therapy necessary.
Wrapping myself in a bath sheet, I washed my clothes in the sink, wrung them out, and spread them over the towel bars. When I finally stepped into the tub, I was afraid I’d never feel inclined to get back out of it. It was a life-altering moment. All of the baths I’d ever experienced paled in comparison.
That’s it. I can never go back. Normal bathtubs are ruined for me. I’ll be forced to take showers for the rest of my life or constantly be reminded of what I once had… and lost.
After wasting far too much time playing with the shower attachment and its various massage settings, I think I actually dozed off a little. When the dropping water temperature finally registered with me, I accepted that the ride was over, peeled myself out of the tub, wrapped up in the big bath sheet, and crossed the hall to my room.
That’s about the time that it dawned on me that I had nothing to wear.
For some people, this may not present much of a problem, but I couldn’t sleep without something over my skin, because, strangely enough, without clothes, I felt naked. Packed in my suitcase at the condo, I had oversized, well-worn t-shirts and soft flannel drawstring boxer shorts, and I missed them terribly. I would have to find something to make do.
I felt like a thief as I went digging through my mother’s drawers. The entire drawer smelled like the tea rose sachet and cedar, but sort of stale. However, the clothes were clean, and they had belonged to my mother. There were many long gowns and a few see-through negligees, but no oversized college t-shirts. I finally found a small silky nightie with a solid front and back, spaghetti straps, and matching bottoms—a little clingier than I’d prefer, but it was the most reasonable option.
The bed was so heavenly that it made getting out of the bath tub worth the trouble. I was so tired that I didn’t even think to close the door, not to mention bolt it. I was able to focus just long enough to lurch back up and plug in the phone charger I kept in my purse. The bed was soft, and the air was nice and cold. I was almost comatose as soon as my head hit the pillow.
* * *
Something was wrong. I sat up, but everything felt wrong. Even the room seemed different, or maybe it was just me. The room was still dark, but a beam of moonlight coming through the open curtains let me know that the storm had passed. The air around me wavered and shimmered like heat rising off hot pavement, but it was cold enough to make ice cubes in here. A tingling sensation rushed over me and the air around me felt spiked with electricity. Something fluttered high in my chest, and I realized that it was my heartbeat.
I looked down to see that I was standing on the bed, but my legs weren’t my legs. They were covered in creamy fur. I was plus two legs and minus two arms. My muscles were tense and jittery as if I had an overabundance of energy that wouldn’t let me sit still. A shiver rippled down my back and hind legs, and I gave in to an overwhelming urge to run.
I leapt off the bed and through the door, skidded in the hall, and made the stairs in a single, effortless jump that felt so close to flight that I thought I might remain airborne.
I was barely aware of Daniel…
His body rising from the chair where he’d been up reading.
His face floating close to me.
His eyes wide and blurry.
His hand reaching to open the front door.
My feet hit the ground. Never stopping, I was out into the night.
The woods echoed with drips and drops and the occasional skitter of a leaf or snap of a twig as other life moved through the darkness. My reality ripped away, I bounded through, stretching my new limbs and feeling the night air, cooled slightly and still moist from the rain, running through my fur like fingers. I had no idea where I was going or how long the spell would last, but I chased the moon for miles.
When I finally slowed, I found myself surrounded by strange woods where the air was dense, making it difficult to breathe. I paused, panting and listening to the night song of a billion stars dangling from the branches of trees. The trees looked almost human in this part of the woods.
I had worked up an appetite while I was running. I wondered if I would be forced to stalk and eat bunnies. The idea made me slightly queasy. Maybe Daniel would let me in to eat lasagna.
The woods grew quiet and reverent at the same time that a large shadow fell upon me. I looked up to see the bearer of the shadow, his skin the shade of deepest night sky and his eyes of burning coal. He turned his snout toward me, and I felt the weight of millennia bearing down upon me. The creature was massive in size, and I heard a rumble from his chest that might have been several times louder than a lion purring. The rumble caused the ground to tremble, and the leaves shivered in the trees. I felt my own flesh vibrate in response.
The air was thick and scorched. For a second, I contemplated trying to outrun it. It looked like it might be slow, and I had caught my breath. I must have given myself away because the creature rose up to full height and unfurled its wings. Large bat-like wings spread out several yards on either side and sent birds crying up into the air. Crushed by the huge wings, tree limbs broke off in splinters. New moonlight filtering through the trees revealed horns crowning the creature’s head.
Okay, got the memo. So you can flyyyy… We all have wings… Some of us don’t know whyyyy… This was a crazy moment to be thinking about INXS lyrics. So, I nodded with my ears pinned down. Thinking about the song at such a moment made me feel braver. I took a chance and played cute—raising a forepaw into the air. Again, the creature rumbled deeply. I rolled down on the ground and tried to appear submissive. The creature’s neck was long and arched, and his massive head loomed over me. It seemed both bovine and serpentine at the same time. Was that possible?
I’m a dog. Anything is possible.
Ducking his head about, the shadow folded his wings.
He brought himself low and gazed intently at me with first one eye and then the other. I was sure I could literally feel the heat of his eyes. I detected the stench of hair burning and hoped it wasn’t mine. The large snout was uncomfortably close, but I froze and held my breath as he inhaled my scent. Apparently satisfied, he pulled back. I tried to take a shallow breath and sneezed. I think that I may have detected a little sneeze moisture on his snout.
The creature rumbled again, and, unable to interpret the meaning of its grumbles, I was afraid I might have blown this whole cross-cultural communication. He opened his mouth, and I braced myself. Slowly, an incredibly long, black eel-shaped tongue ran out of his mouth and flicked around his snout, washing off the moisture. Watching the tongue slide back in over his black lips and roll around in his mouth as he tasted it, I gagged a little.
After an exceedingly long and tedious moment of intense scrutiny, the shadow form nodded slightly and retreated, knocking down a few trees along the way, shaking the ground, and leaving a trail of scorched air. Gradually, the tremors ceased, and I felt it was safe to stand up.
The woods grew noisy again as woodland creatures came out of hiding from the big winged, horned, fiery-eyed, cow-snake shadow. I wasn’t sure if I was only imagining that a nearby tree let out a deep breath it had been holding. As I was turning—a lot less energetically than when I had arrived—I was starting to feel the effects of the run, and, apparently, I was tender-pawed—to begin to make my way back to the house, I glimpsed a figure stepping out—quite gracefully, I might add—from behind a tree. I looked up to see a man with long tangled hair and eyes the color of sea waves splashing against an emerald shore. His clothing was a strange medley of fabric and armor with bits of nature woven into it. He seemed simultaneously fierce and curious.
For a long moment, we both stood motionless as we silently regarded each other. I was a little unsure who the predator was in this little scenario, but I had a vague inkling that it wasn’t me.
The curious expression on the stranger’s face expanded. As his facial features smoothed out, he struck me as beautiful and feral. His eyes were luminous smooth gemstones. Marbleized—no, liquid ribbons of jade, emerald, and aquamarine. I forgot myself completely as I was captivated by his face and the most amazingly beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. Then he slowly stretched out his hand to me, as if to touch me, and I felt the magic dissolve around me as if whisked away by a gentle breeze. I stood there—a girl again—for one brief second before my trembling legs gave way.