Saturday, November 8, 2008

Chapter Whatever -- Susan(na) and Ti(na) -- Drunk on Flirtinis

Edna drained a can of crushed pineapple in the sink. Last night she had awakened to see Viola sitting on the edge of her bed. Her sister was wearing the blue pima cotton nightgown the hospice worker had put on her the day she died.

"Ain't you supposed to be in heaven?" Edna had asked.

Viola turned her head; her eyes were hot. Heat shimmered through Edna's body. "Now, you go on to heaven, you hear," she told the apparition. "Don't you be no ghost. You know I'm gonna take care of everything."

The next morning, Edna could still feel her sister. Some heavy sensation in the air, like invisible eyes.

Edna dumped the drained pineapple slices in a casserole dish. "I done said I'd take care of it,” she said aloud.

She took out the cheese out of the refrigerator and grated two cups worth over the pineapple. "I'm just going to make this here casserole and I'm going over."

Edna donned her church clothes and the cross her friend brought back from Israel, then stuck her angel pin on her shoulder. She covered the pineapple cheese casserole with tin foil and placed it inside the insulated carrier with her bible on top.


Merri winced, and then regretted it. Wincing hurt. Who’d have thought that Pabst Blue Ribbon could pack such a punch? Of course she’d had four, in little over an hour. And then something DeWayne concocted out of tequila and canned pineapple juice. Oh boy, that had gone down smooth. How many of those had she had? She didn’t remember. So maybe the PBR wasn’t totally to blame.

She put the groceries on the counter, gently, so that the plastic wouldn’t rustle too loudly. She’d bought only the basics at the Piggly Wiggly, just enough to get her through the weekend – milk, eggs, bread, frozen pizza.

A memory niggled at the back of her brain. The futon. What about the damn futon?

She reached into the bag and pulled out a bag of pork rinds. What the hell?!? She frowned. Had somebody else bought these groceries? Why was her brain not working? She shook her head – slowly, very slowly.

What was it with the futon? And why did her lower lip hurt? What memory was struggling to climb out of the depths of her subconscious? Oh god, she didn’t want to know.

Groceries. Focus on the groceries.

She pulled out a can of coffee. Yes. Good. That was definitely hers.

She peeled the lid off the container and the rich dark smell curled into her nostrils, making her feel like she was in one of those Folger’s commercials. It was a nice fantasy, full of warmth and good will, in a world where all was fuzzy and low-lit and right.

The slamming of the screen door jolted her back into reality.

Who the hell was that? Where’s my gun? she thought. Wait, I don’t have a gun, I don’t believe in guns. Dewayne has a gun. Where's Dewayne? Not here, that’s for sure, just her and some stranger breaking in the front door in broad daylight, which could not be a good thing.

Knife, she thought. This is a kitchen. There’s gotta be a damn knife somewhere. She rifled frantically through the drawers. Spoons. Lots of spoons. Serving spoons, slotted spoons, sauce spoons. A freaking ladle.

Aha! A meat fork!

She snatched it up just as the intruder entered the kitchen.

Edna said, “Honey? Why you got Viola’s best meat fork pointed at me?”

Merri felt her heart hammering in her chest, her breath catching in little squeaks. She lowered the fork. “Aunt Edna! You surprised me.”

Edna narrowed her eyes. “Where’s Dewayne?”

“At work. Why?”

“Then why is his truck here?”

Oh great, Merri thought. Another one of those Southern things. If this had been someone from a rational part of the country, she could have told the truth – I took him to work this morning and now I have the truck. But no. This was Sweetwater, and to say that would be like saying, oh yeah, I screwed your grandson all night long and then stole his truck, so now I’m going to hell on the change of premarital sex and grant theft auto.

Oh no, she thought. Did I screw DeWayne? Wait a minute. She rubbed her lower lip. Is this why my lip hurts? And the futon, why did she remember his arms and his smell and the firm pressure of . . . what? She couldn’t remember anything. Wouldn’t she remember hot sex? Wouldn’t she?

Is that incest? Is third cousin sex incest? Oh no, I am going to hell, she thought. Redneck hell.

Edna was staring at her. “Well?”

“Hmmm, I decided to stay at Gram’s for a bit to work on this book I’m writing for my work. And Dewayne lent me his truck so I could move things here. So I took him to work.”

Not bad.

Edna’s eye could have skewered her. She could never lie to Aunt Edna, for a moment she thought she might call her mom.

“So what brings you out here, Edna?” Merri tried to sound casual.

Edna looked down at her feet, “I was on the way to church. And I just came by to see about things.” The vein above Edna’s temple pulsed. She was lying!

What would she be lying about? Merri returned the fork to the drawer and put her hands on the counter and took a deep breath.

“I’m not working on a book, Aunt Edna.” She walked around the counter. “I heard you say that Grams was murdered. And . . .” She paused, choosing her words. Talking to Edna was like navigating a mine field. “And I wanted to know for myself.”

Edna still looked at her shoes. Thinking.

“You see, they found a little girl not a quarter of a mile from her,” Merri began.

“I done knowed it,” Edna said.

“So, what do you think?”

Edna raised her eyes. Merri had never seen them like this before. Edna squinted, taking Merri’s measure. “What are you wearin’ around your neck?”

Merri reached for her pentacle; it was hanging out of her shirt. She started to tuck it in.

“Is that one of them devil signs?” Edna asked.

“No, it's not. Do you really want to know what it is? Will you judge me?”

Edna didn’t answer; she walked over and placed her hand on Merri head, like she was baptizing her. “Jesus done loves you. I can feel it. He is reaching out for you.”

Merri jerked away, like her aunt was one of the self-proclaimed prophets that came to campus to ridicule the students.

“Don’t be afraid, sugar,” Edna said, her voice smooth like a television evangelist. “When the light comes to you, it can be frightening. Like a burning bush.”

And Merri understood this. She knew about fire, she understood how it worked, how it caught and then grew and then took on its own life. And she knew that this woman in front of her – her flesh and blood, for however distant their beliefs, they shared that much – was her strongest ally in her search for answers,

She took a deep breath. “Aunt Edna?” she said. “I don’t understand what you and DeWayne see, but I believe you. And I want to help. Will you let me help?”

Edna rubbed her cross and closed her eyes, like she was praying hard, real hard. The wrinkles at the corners deepened.

“Jesus said, by their fruits, ye shall know them,” she said. She opened her eyes. They were the same color as Gram’s. “So tell me – what did DeWayne see?”

Saturday, October 25, 2008

More Chapter Five -- Tina and Susanna

Dewayne had about twenty minutes of hot water. It poured over his head, eyelids and lips. If he cried here, it didn’t matter.

Red blood in her black hair, blood trickling down her brown thighs.

Letisha was eleven. And if Dewayne knew anything–and he was good detective–Letisha had been dead an hour when he found her. Which meant she was dying while Dewayne sat in Athens teasing Merri about her dinner.

Jesus, he hated himself. What the hell is the use of seeing a murder after it’s committed? Nothing, no use at all, no matter what Merri and all her hoo-hoo kind would say. A "gift" they'd call it. But it weren't no gift.

A goddamn curse, that's what it was.

He turned the dial on his shower until the water came down like pellets on his back.

The image of that poor little girl stuck in his head–he couldn’t dislodge it, Everything was so close, he couldn't break his thoughts apart long enough to make any sense, everything coming back to her bleeding, broken head.

When he found the sick son-of-bitch who did it, Dewayne was going to shoot him. He could feel it palatable and heavy in his nerves–the contours of the gun, its heaviness in his palm, the shot and reverb.

He clenched his fist and pounded it against the tile to make it stop shaking.

The emotions, those sick gut feelings were following too fast. He was afraid of himself, afraid of that thing inside him he couldn’t explain.

He leaned his head on the wall, thinking about Meema’s words: Jesus done blessed you, Dewayne, like he made his disciples perform miracles.

There was the other girl too, missing for almost three days now. A seven-year-old white girl named Monica Evans. She lived in the Bethel community, a scattershot grouping of trailers ten miles from the lime sinks and Aunt Voila’s place. He'd passed it on his way to get Merri, and he hadn't felt anything, not then, not earlier, even though he had been walking the cotton fields outside her trailer for two days while crews dragged the retention ponds.

He squeezed his eyes, trying to catch the edge of something. An image or feeling he could grasp and let it pull him deeper. But everything was nebulous and gut deep wrong. Nothing to send him out tonight. Just left here to prowl, impotent, trying find a pattern in all the incoherence inside him.

The water ran lukewarm, then cold. Dewayne turned off the faucet, stepped out of the shower, and toweled himself while looking out the narrow window over the toilet. Down the backyard slope, he could see Merri’s shadow moving about on his boat. He shook his head, but was surprised to find no annoyance rising at her trespass. She knew her way around boats, after all,
having grown up like he did, both feet forever wet with lake water. And he had told her to make herself at home.

She obviously had. And maybe it was better she was here; he couldn’t do anything crazy.

He took some gray sweat pants out of his drawer and an old fraternity mixer shirt and pulled it over his head as he walked to his office. He punched the number for the station on his phone and wedged it between his ear and chin, while he pulled out the futon.

Juanita answered. He liked her. Juanita was an ex-army reservist from Texas who followed a boyfriend to town after her tour in Iraq. The boyfriend left with another girl, but Juanita stayed. Her dark Hispanic eyes missed nothing, and she didn’t say nothing she didn’t need to.

“Hey, it’s Dewayne. Did y’all talk to any of Monica’s Evans relatives? What about that ex-boyfriend over in Greene County? What did you find on him?” Dewayne pulled the spare sheets out off the top of his filing cabinet in the closet.

Juanita talked like she was reading from a list. “Three convictions on meth, Community Service, six months in jails, two years parole. He's got two children, both five. One by an ex-wife, one by an ex-girlfriend. The ex-girlfriend works down at the Health Department. He sometimes baby-sits, even took the kid to his parole meeting two days ago.”

“What about the relatives?”


“Did they ever find the grandfather?”

“Last address was in burnt out trailer in Pensacola, but he’s listed on the Florida offenders list for an assault on a seventeen-year-old at Panama City in 1999.”

Dewayne sucked his curse. Tomorrow was gonna be shit, looking for missing girl and writing up a report on a dead one.

“Anything else?”

“No. Get some sleep,” Juanita said.

“Yeah.” Dewayne hung up. He thought of calling Terrell, but knew that he was probably praying with the Karp family, offering what comfort he could. Dewayne felt an irrational bitter jealousy that he didn't want to examine too closely, so he straightened the sheets on the futon, then headed to the kitchen. He took out a can of opened, flat caffeine-free Coke, poured some into a UGA cup and added Jack Daniels. He took a swig, then another, like medicine. His hands still shook, making little effervescent waves in the brown amber liquid.

He hadn't felt it so bad since his days in Atlanta.

All them ghosts is talkin’ to you. That’s the way Meema explained it. He preferred the expensive doctor’s term: panic attacks. He stood a chance again those. He could cure something he could name.

Out the back screen door, he could see Mary’s dark form. She wore that pentacle and spoke in hoo-hoo terms, but she felt dense and opaque, like nothing could penetrate to her core . . . not
really, not if she didn't want it to. Now that’s the true gift, Dewayne thought as he threw back the rest of his drink. It tasted like hot gunmetal and burned going down his esophagus. He poured another–almost all whiskey this time–then opened the backdoor and walked barefooted down to the water.

His mind was getting thicker. The pain dulling down.

The full moon pulled the tide, gently rocking the boat. Merri's face was pale blue in the light, her dark hair splayed about her. Dewayne always thought his cousin was pretty in that inaccessible way, an intense face and probing eyes. Hard and beautiful, like that modern stuff up at the High Art Museum an ex-girlfriend drug him up to see once.

Now Merri looked at him, her eyes all black and shiny in the darkness. What was that stone? Obsidian? Smooth in the hand, but capable of holding a wicked edge if you whetted it just right. Like an arrowhead.

She narrowed her eyes and examined him. Yeah, Dewayne thought. Obsidian. He wonderedwhat she was about to notch and let fly his way.


"Uh huh?"

"I don’t want to go back to Boston. I mean, not now." She sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. "I’m thinking of staying at Gram’s house.”

So that was it. Bull's eye.

He tipped back another good slug of his drink. "Well now, that IS news. Last I heard you couldn't wait to get back to Yankee Land."

"You heard that from my mother, and she's right, I can't. But I can't go just yet either."

Dewayne stepped up on the boat, rocking it a little. The drink hadn't hit too hard yet—it was just a blurry spreading warmth in his gut—but his tongue felt looser nonetheless. He took a seat next to Merri. He'd have to watch it.

"Is this about what Meema said? That Aunt Viola was murdered?"

Merri chewed her lip. For a second, she looked eight years old again. "Not just that," she said.

"But that's part of it, isn't it?"

She nodded, still not looking at him. He tried to read something in the planes and angles of her face, but she wasn't giving anything away. Only her mouth betrayed her.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Listen to me, Merriweather Abigail Beaugarden . . ."

She smacked him on the knee. "Don't you gettin' all middle name on me, Dewayne Archibald Turner. I know what you're gonna say . . ."

"Then shut up and let me say it already. You ain't got no business . . ."


" . . . making a crime where there ain't one."



"This ain't Murder She Wrote. I know better than foolin' around in police business. Like I said, it ain't just that, but yes, that's part of it. I got to know why Aunt Edna thinks what she thinks."

"Why? So you can investigate?" He laced the last word with contemptuous emphasis.

Merri ignored the insult. "Because it's Gram, and nobody on this planet knows Gram like your Meema did. So I gotta take that seriously. I gotta be true to her blood, which I have tried to do my whole life, whether you believe me or not. And that means taking your Meema seriously, as seriously as I'd take you if you'd ever tell me shit. You know what I mean?"

Dewayne knew exactly what she meant. He also noticed that over the course of the conversation, she'd dropped her careful enunciation and was now elongating her vowels, sliding right over her g's, getting all singsong in her cadence and rhythm. She seemed to notice too, because she made an exasperated sound and stared at the treeline.

"I'm gonna do this thing with or without you," she said. "It's that important to me."

Dewayne took another sip of his drink. "Yeah. I know."

"So it's all right if I go talk to your Meema?"

"Like you said, you're gonna do it anyway, so why ask?"

"'Because askin' matters."

Dwayne sighed. "Fine then, little cousin. It don’t matter none by me, as long as you realize there ain't nothing there to talk about. Good luck with Meema, though. She thinks you're a turkey butt."

Merri looked shocked. Dewayne laughed. She shook her head and smacked him again.

"I swear," she said. "Sometimes . . ."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chapter Five Continued -- Susanna

Dewayne lived in Uncle Jimmy’s old house. Merri knew this from some phone conversation with her mother–a casual, passing comment when Merri asked what was news in Sweetwater.

Merri’s memory of Uncle Jimmy’s house was immobile, like a snapshot: long wooden slants, porch, tin roof, lake in the back. She couldn’t really remember the interior, except thinking as a young child how the dull, stained thin planks running from the floor to the high ceiling resembled neglected teeth, and how the bugs flew around a single bulb hanging from a chain in the ceiling.

Mostly she remembered the water. The loose jello-like feel of the lake water around her tanned, skinny pre-adolescent limbs. The squishy mud bottom and the slimy grass blades between her toes as she waded out with her tractor inner tube while the grown ups drank tea up on the porch.

Merri was at Northwestern in graduate school when Uncle Jimmy died. Her cousin Ruth had brought a caramel cake to the family dinner after the graveside service. That was all her mother said about the funeral. (Her mother is jealous of the seemly unconquerable homemade caramel cake, the pinnacle of southern pastry skill.)

Merri didn’t remember Uncle Jimmy’s being so far out. They drove twenty minutes down a narrow road cutting through the tall pine trees. Merri didn’t see another car. Occasionally the headlights would capture the tail of deer disappearing into the woods or the pink glowing eyes of a possum. The soft grind of the tires on the road, the whish of breeze against the truck, and Dewayne spitting tobacco in his bottle, all harmonized in some comforting rhythm.

They pulled off the paved road into a field of evenly spaced of pecan trees. The truck bounced on the two ruts cut in the earth. Merri could see the old house from behind the shadows of the leaves, just beyond it the round, white moon reflected like white glass on the lake. The house was over one hundred years old, built fifty years before Corp of engineers flooded the shallow valley making Lake Thurman.

Dewayne pulled the truck into Uncle Jimmy’s barn, now painted white. Before he killed the headlights, she could see rusted tractor accessories hanging on the walls. Dewayne kept his wrist over the top of the wheel and let out a breath, as if he was about to speak, but he didn’t.

“I haven’t been out here in years.” Merri said, just to say something.

“It’s a mess. I’m supposed to be fixin’ it up, but I ain’t found the time.”

Merri followed him around to the front of the house. It was that dense humid air, filled with lightening bugs and mosquitoes. Amorous crickets sawed their legs and bullfrogs croaked in the tall grass by the lake.

Their motion set off a light on the porch. It was a bright white porch; the planks ran wide and straight, not thin and bowed like most old porches. Dewayne must have torn off the original.

Merri felt those warm tears collecting again in her eyes. She didn’t know why, something about Dewayne’s strong back, bent over, as he hammered each plank, side by side, refusing to let the old house succumb. Up in Boston, her colleagues brag about the old farmhouses they and their significant others had restored to spend their weekends, but down here, old places were left to die.

Inside, the thin pieces of wood running vertical along the walls and ceiling were the same stark white as the porch. Heavy wood doors with crystal doorknobs. An old mantel with a leaded, hazy mirror. No furniture except for a modern black leather sofa.
“There’s a futon in the office,” Dewayne said.

Merri was supposed to speak–say something– but her throat contracted. She and Dewayne were blood. Their only connection was shared experiences: weddings, funerals, and family get-togethers. They moved around each other, casually polite, never penetrating through the other’s shell. Class jock, class intellectual, loved, loner, state college, private college, wanting to stay, wanting to leave. Like old folks say: they were just like that. Now Merri had run out of her polite, casual words and her own words–true words–hurt to say.

She could see Dewayne’s Adam’s apple working. “I’m gonna to take a shower. Hep yourself to the fridge.” A brittle hardness was evident in his low voice.

“Thank you, Dewayne”

He nodded then went up the stairs.

Watching his retreating back, Merri felt her insides ease. She always felt more comfortable, alone, in places she knew little or nothing about, than the familiar spaces she called her homes. Certainly, not in the surveillance of her parent’s home where she had to dam everything up, careful not to let some small part of herself slip under her mother’s internal magnifying lens.

She passed through the empty dining room to the kitchen in the back. It hadn’t been renovated, except for evening floor. Food was stored in plastic bins, a dorm size refrigerator hummed on the corner. She wondered how many women Dewayne brought to his house. If they kissed him, while mentally picking out kitchen cabinets or measuring the windows for curtains.

These thoughts angered her, because they didn’t seem important, yet as she stood here, other such thoughts popped up like brain weeds. She opened the back door and followed the moon over the uneven earth to the lake’s edge where Dwayne’s boat had been tied up to a stump. A sports boat with a large bar off the back to hold water-skiing ropes. Mary took off her scandals, rolled up her jeans, and pulled herself over the edge of the bow.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Chapter Five -- Tina

The ride home was uncomfortable. The truck seemed to catch every pothole, every rut. Merri stared out the window. Dewayne kept his eyes on the road.

"You can tell me about it," she said.

He didn't reply.

She sighed. "Fine. So don't trust me, see if I care."

"Not about trust."

"What's it about then?"

He just shook his head.

She turned her gaze back to the window. The moon rolled along beside them. Three-quarters waxing, fat and white, like a slice of new potato.

"I don't want to go back to Mama's," she said. "She's having her Red Hat Ladies over. There will be sandwiches and sherbet punch and hats and I swear by all that I hold holy, Dewayne, I might just collapse on the floor after this day, I might just start crying and not stop."

"You'll always stop," Dewayne said. "It just doesn’t feel like it."

Merri looked at him then, in profile against the night, his face lit by approaching traffic, and she understood that he knew what that feeling was like, and that he wasn't ashamed of it.

"So don't make me go through that tonight," she said. "Let me stay at your place."

"Merri . . ."

"Just till eleven or so. And then I'll go home."

"You don't have your car. I'll have to drive you, and I'm too tired . . ."

"So let me stay on the sofa. All I need's a blanket."

"Merri . . ."

"I'll take you to work in the morning. And pick you up in the afternoon."

"Merri . . ."

"Please, Dewayne. Please."

He didn't say no. She took that for a yes.

He spat more tobacco juice into his little soda bottle, didn't look her way. "What you got against your mama's friends anyway?"

"I'm not in the mood for a lecture on how uppity I am."

"Just a question, Merri, you're the one fillin' in the motivations."

She tried to explain. "I don't have any common ground with them, and they know it, and everybody's polite about it -- excruciatingly polite -- but they look at Mama and you can see the pity in their eyes, only it's mixed with gratitude too -- like, thank the Good Lord I don't have that child -- and it's a superior gratitude -- like they're patting themselves on the back for raising their own kids right, like my mama failed somehow. And I can't hack it tonight, Dewayne, not tonight, not after today."

He slid a sideways glance in her direction. "Well, damn. Guess you been thinking about this after all."

But all she could think was how uppity she'd sounded. "Yeah well," she said.

And he almost laughed, would have laughed perhaps, if the day still weren't hanging on him, like a thick coat of dust he couldn't shake off. Merri was usually so good with words; she's staked her life on them, after all. Such a response was amusing, because it was inarticulate. A contradiction. But coming from a woman skilled at wielding words, talented at parsing and analyzing them, it was also honest, for it faced the ultimate failure of language in the face of the concrete.

The failure of all symbols, really. And still her fingers sought her pentacle.

Dewayne noticed. "It's the same, you know. That necklace of yours. Those casseroles. The red hats. All the same. You know that.."

"So do you," she said, waving at his badge, hidden once again, out of sight but never out of mind.

"I guess I do," he said. Then he looked at her square on. "Why'd you come back? 'Cause your mama said to?"


He wasn't expecting that response. "Why does that matter to you?"

"Because it does."

"What about the rest of it, all your questions about Meema, about how she thinks Gram was murdered? Why are you so curious?"

"Because I am."

He kept his eyes on her. The road seemed to unspool before him, as if it were laying itself down right at the edge of his headlight, just beyond what they could see, in the dark space.

"That's answer enough," he said. He spat into his bottle again, turned his eyes back to the road. "You drink regular or decaf?"

She settled into her seat and let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Regular."

"Good. I gotta be at work by 7. That means leaving 6:30 sharp."


"And I don't feel like talkin', you hear me?"


He exhaled. "But I might tomorrow. Maybe."

She just nodded. She felt tears pricking behind her eyes, and she was washed inside and out with gratitude.

Dewayne nodded too. "All right then."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tina and Susanna Chapter Four

The sun burned through the windshield, and Merri thought of her sunglasses, forgotten on her dashboard. The wind from the opened windows tossed her hair and slapped her face like thin whips. The truck flew down the old two-lane road stretching from Athens to Sweetwater, riveted with holes and faded to the color of Merri’s oldest denim jeans. Those falling barns and gracious southern homes painted white with wrapped porches sat on the side of the road, their empty windows watching like old folks outside on the rockers at nursing homes.

The truck blew by. This road was so damn lonely, she thought, like some strange, southern version of Edward Hopper paintings, the starkness and stillness. Merri remembered many midnights flying down this spooky road at the same racing speeds, nineteen and fresh from some party in Athens, hoping some bastard cop hadn’t parked along some concealed side road with his radar out the window. The years when you were invincible, cops were bad, and death seemed impossible. Now it waited at the end of the trip, with cops speeding to that shadowy, scary place everybody else turns away from.

Dwayne reached into his glove compartment and pulled out some tobacco. Not a muscle in his body moved, except those to drive the truck. Just chewing, chewing, chewing then spitting into an empty Coke bottle, screwing the cap back on every time, opening it two minutes later. His eyes looked straight ahead.

As they passed the sign for Sweetwater fifteen miles, Dwayne slammed the steering wheel. “Fuck!"

"What? What's wrong?"

He didn't answer; he just shook his head, the tendons in his neck taut, like the strings of a fiddle. Merri reached out to touch him on the shoulder, and all his muscles contracted under her tentative fingers. She could feel the electricity driving those muscles, that strange, animalistic fear that surged at encroaching danger. It jolted through her, a low primitive burn, and her own body echoed it so fiercely she had to pull her hand away or be turned to ashes.

"Dwayne, talk to me for crissakes!"

"Not now."

"Dwayne . . ."

"I said not now!"

His voice carried command in it, and she responded to its authority instinctively. That was his cop voice, she thought. He's using his cop voice on me.

Dwayne pulled off the highway, and the truck rumbled down the backroads. The road had been worn down hard and waved like a washboard. The truck bounced and the small round brown rocks pelleted the sides. She could see Gram's house over the fields, framed by arching oak trees. It looked so safe suddenly, but that was an illusion, a powerful one, as pretty as a mirage. But an illusion nonetheless.

Merri swallowed. She could feel the house, feel Dwayne. These strange senses overcoming her. The house was waving like a hot road, and her heart felt heavy. She clutched the door handle, wanting to call out to Dwayne to stop here. But she didn’t. She watched the old house with the rusting metal Adirondacks on the porch pass, and she could almost hear some strange whisper, like the house knew everything.

They turned the corner onto a county road with white sand and a barbwire fence. A dark blue Lincoln had pulled over on the side of the road by a metal fence opening to a pasture. A black man with a large head and heavy jaw stepped out of the car and waved them down.

Dwayne stopped the truck with an abrupt lurch and shot out, not even closing the door behind him . Merri watched the man put his hand around Dwayne’s neck. The two spoke, Dewayne’s head down, nodding at the other man’s words. The conversation muted to a low, rumbling whisper as it passed through the hot stagnant air to Merri’s rolled down window.

Her fingers went to her pentacle, only it wasn't a nervous gesture this time. It was a tangible prayer, a please-please-not-what-it-seems desperate prayer. From her fingers to the universe, bypassing words, bypassing conscious thought even.

Dwayne opened the gate, and waved at Merri to pull the truck forward. She switched to the driver's seat, her hands shaking as she tried to adjust the seat. She remembered to press the clutch in when switching gears and through sheer luck got the truck into first gear with no grinding or lurching. It moved like a slow bulky cow over the washed out ditch and into the field.

Dwayne closed the gate and got in beside her. She started to switch back with him, but he waved her forward, and she responded once again to his authority. He was all cop then, his eyes straight ahead, but she'd registered a tremble in his hands, the slightest tremor. She cast a glance his way, and wasn't surprised to see nothing wavering about him at all anymore. He was a walled city. A citadel.

Merri drove down the ruts cut into the cotton field past a cluster of pines trees to a series of sandy indentations sunk into the earth. The landscape looked very much like the terrain of UFO landings in movies. Only something out of place, something not right, not natural. She squinted into the sun, then gasped, her foot instinctively hitting the brake. The truck lurched, choked, slammed to a stop

In the beautiful white sand, she saw something inert, a lump of something human tossed like a discarded doll into the dirt. Blue jean shorts with lace fringe, a pink shirt and the long thin shiny legs of a girl. Princess sneakers. Dried dark blood seeped around a braid.

Merri reached for Dwayne’s hand. "“Oh Dwayne, no no no.”

He squeezed her fingers hard and fast, then pulled free from her grasp. But she'd registered it anyway, the tremor, the chill.

“You go on home now,” he said and stepped out of the car. He turned back then, as she thought for a wild brief moment he was going to speak to her, reach for her, tell her it would be okay, that he'd take care of it, and Lord and Lady help her, she would have believed him. She'd have done whatever he said to make that so.

But he didn't meet her eyes. He just retrieved his phone and turned to leave.


“I said, go home.”

She shook her head. “I can’t. I can’t leave you.”

"Terrell’s here, now you go on home.”


His jaw tightened. “I’m not being polite here. You have to go.”

Merri felt hot tears build in her eyes. “Who is she?”

“Go home!” he shouted.

Merri turned the ignition and pulled the truck out of the field. She couldn't see to drive, she was shaking all over, cold and hot at the same time, like a rising fever. The braid with blood, the braid with blood, the braid with blood. The image circled in her head -- it was all she could see. Dizzy and sick, not just to her stomach but all the way to her middle, she took the only road to refuge she could imagine.

She pulled the car into Gram's driveway. The oak tree lines up on either side like sentinels, and in her broken beaten imagination, they seemed to make way for her.

She barely remembered getting out of Dwayne's truck, but there she was suddenly, on trembling legs that felt alien beneath her, standing on Gram's porch. She didn't try the door. She knew the house was all locked up, and she didn't have a key.

So she sat in one of the old Adirondacks, drew her knees up to her chin and rocked. She remembered playing on this porch over a decade ago, she and Dwayne and the other cousins, the sing-songs tag games they played in the warm, damp evening air -- "There ain’t no bogeymen out tonight, Grandpa shot them all last night!” And then collapsing in laughter against a background of fireflies and a darkness so soft and natural and complete it was like being tucked in.

She stayed there a long time, watched the road as more police cars came, their sirens blaring, taking the road at that burning midnight pace. She was nineteen again, and it was midnight again, and she was thinking how late it was, speeding against the lateness, as if she could overcome it. She thought she could, then, she thought she could flat outrun time and anything else. But she never could, and they couldn't either, no matter how like lightning they took those turns. They were too late.

Too late.

Across the street, the metal screen door to a trailer continually opened and closed, whapping the frame. The trailer’s inhabitants, a young blonde mother with two toddlers, came in and out of the house. The mother would hold the youngest on her hip and walk past two parked pickup trucks to the end of her gravel drive, shade her eyes and try to look over the fields while talking on a cell phone wedged between her mouth and her shoulder. Merri could feel Sweetwater stirring around her. She could mentally see the news “there is a bunch of cops up at the limesinks” spreading like the red infected area in a CDC infectious disease animated graphic.

Four hours later the last light of dusk was coming down over the fields, silhouetting the neighbor’s trailer. The blue sedan drove slowly down the road, its lights on. She could see Dewayne next to the Reverend Terrell. Their faces were hard and somber, like pall bearers.

She didn't expect the car to turn down the driveway. She didn't expect Dwayne to get out, and then, after one final conversation with the Reverend, to come up the steps and come to stand in front of her. She expected none of this, and so he didn't seem real to her, which was calming. She was easier with ghosts and shadows than the real things she'd seen.

But then he spoke, and he was the realest thing she could imagine.

"I come to get you," he said.

She looked up at him and unfolded her legs to the dusty floor. "You knew I was here before you ever saw me on this porch."

It was a statement. He nodded.

Her voice was so calm. "You know lots of things, don't you, Dwayne? You always have."

He nodded again. "Come on home, Merri. Let’s go back home."

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Chapter Three Continued -- Susanna

There is never any damn parking spaces in downtown Athens so Dewayne had to park his truck two blocks away from the restaurant by the Methodist church playground.

Playground. What the hell about the playground? His thoughts began to crackle in his head like static-y AM waves from a far away radio tower.

He tried to temper his long strides. Merri trotted beside him, refusing to be anywhere but in his face. She kept her eyes tight on his as if to burrow into his brain.

His black F150 waited between the neatly painted lines on a small hill, looking down to a sandbox where two unkempt, tired moms conversed while their toddlers waddled about, shoving fistsful of sand into their curious mouths. All this blood dripping out of their fat baby lips.

No, that's not right! No blood in their mouths! What the hell?

“Dewayne, are you alright?”

His hands shook so bad, he could barely press the remote to unlock his truck.

“I’m fine, honey.” He sounded off-tune, like his old man, drunk on Mad Dog, stumbling over the metal baby playpen Mom had kept in the den and loaded with the laundry she didn’t put up.

“You’re not. What was that phone call about?” Merri said, hurrying around the truck. She climbed inside, dropped her purse on the floor. Her pentacle flashed in the light coming through the windshield.

Dewayne turned the ignition and reached behind her headrest, incidentally trapping her long hair under his arm.

“Ouch, Dewayne!” She pulled her hair free.

It took forever for an entwined college couple, looking very post-coitus, to amble past his truck. Then he ripped out of the space. The tires squealed as he hauled out of the church parking lot. He tried not to look back down at the sand box, but he had to. Heat shot up to the top of his spinal column, a place a college professor once told him was the most primitive part of the human brain. That distant radio signal was breaking through the monotonous roar of air space. Dried blood dripped from her mouth onto the white, soft sand. Sand that a million of years ago shifted on the sea floor.

He fumbled for his phone. It slid off the seat onto the floor beside Merri’s feet.

She snatched it up. “I’ll dial, you drive.”

“Press #8 and ask for Reverend Terrell. Say it’s me.”

Damn Athens and it's grids and senseless one-way streets.

He could hear the phone ring and Annie, Terrell’s assistant, answered, “Jesus has a home for you at Bethel Baptist. Can I help you?”

“Say you want to talk to Terrell!” He shouted, even as Merri was doing just that.

“Yes, it’s Dewayne, well, Dewayne’s beside me, driving. He said to call.”

Annie said something then there was a shuffling noise and Terrell’s prerecorded voice came on, “Jesus loves you. Lay your troubles, your burdens down before Jesus and let him give you peace in the goodness of his word-“

“Dewayne?” the same deep, reassuring voice answered.

He grabbed the phone from Merri. “I need help Terrell. I cain’t talk much now.”

Merri’s blue eyes widened, then narrowed. She fiddled with that pentacle of hers.

“Where are you?” Terrell asked.

“I’m driving back from Athens. I got a call there’s—shit, I cain’t talk.”

“The Karps called me a few minutes ago. Little Letisha is missing. I’m praying for them now.” Terrell offered up what Dewayne couldn’t say.

Dewayne cut his eyes to Merri. “I done seen her,” he said carefully, “or someone. I done seen a little girl.”

Terrell let out a deep guttural breathe, like he was leaning forward in his seat. Dewayne could almost see him clasp his powerful hands together. The same hands that use to throw a straight, hard pass into a receiver's hands in the inzone of Texas A&M. “What did you see?”

Dewayne looked at Merri. She quickly averted her eyes. But she was still listening. “Not much. Sand. White sand. Low, like downhill, but it ain’t a ditch. It’s open like.”

“Nothing else?”

Dewayne didn’t say blood, he couldn’t with Merri beside him. A beat of silence and Terrell understood.

“Some dried river bed maybe?” Dewayne thought aloud. “What’s out there by the Karps?”

“The limesinks,” Merri said. "Where we used to play quicksand behind Gram's house."

Friday, August 29, 2008

Chapter Three -- Tina

They chose a diner not too far from the University, a place that had the stone-ground grits that Merri remembered from her college days. Every country restaurant in Athens had grits, but these were creamy and slow-cooked and flecked with gold bits of corn. When they were seated at the little booth in the corner, Merri picked up the menu and tucked her pentacle into her blouse.

Dwayne leaned forward. "You know you don't have to hide that around me," he said. "I don't care what kind of jewelry you like."

Merri didn't take her eyes off the menu. "I'm not sure the waitress is so open-minded."

"So what if she isn't? We're not in Sweetwater. Don't nobody know us here."

Merri cocked her chin at his pocket. "You're one to talk -- you tucked that badge away right fast, before we even got out of the car."

"I'm not on duty."

"And I'm not in circle."

Dwayne crooked his mouth at her this slow drawl of a smile. She resisted the urge to smile back. She was serious about this thing.

"Fine," he said. "On the count of three."

Merri put her hands to the pentacle. Dwayne reached under the table to where his shield was pinned to his belt.

"One. Two. Three."

Merri untucked the silver pentacle and let it swing free. Dwayne clipped the badge to the top of his shirt pocket. Not a single person glanced in their direction, not even the waitress, who brought their sweet teas without a glance at either of them.

Dwayne got a hamburger platter with grits instead of fries. Merri got a salad and a bowl of grits topped with red-eye gravy. Dwayne laughed at the bizarre combination -- she ignored him as best she could. He was hard to ignore sometimes, with that deep rich laugh that spread in a circle around him, catching people's ears. Grits and salad was what she wanted, though, and she'd eat it if he cackled at her all night.

"So why don't you want people to know you're a cop?" she asked.

"People start acting funny," Dwayne replied. "They do things like ride over with casseroles in their mama's car, then ask me impertinent questions."

Merri wiped her mouth. "Ah. Wondered when we'd get to that."

"You say that like you're surprised, like I'm the one with the agenda. You were the one suggested dinner out of town. I'm just being a gentleman."

"How do you reckon that?"

Dwayne looked at her like he hadn't expected the word "reckon" to fall out of her mouth. She knew he though her somewhat high-falutin', to use her mama's term. But such opinions were always buffered with a genuine concern for her and her family, and a gentleness that she'd always found . . . not surprising, that wasn't it. Just gruff. A gruff, bearish kindness. She knew that was the reason he'd become a detective -- so he could deliver that kindness part and parcel with truth and justice and all those other silver dollar ideals.

He sipped at his sweet tea. "I reckon I'm being gentlemanly 'cause I'm not telling you to mind your own sweet business about this whole mess."

Merri stiffened. Had she been thinking he was kind? He was obviously as rude as . . . as . . . She seethed as her metaphors failed her. In her mind, pictures flashed of surly busboys and banty roosters and that guy on Red Level Road who'd pulled his tractor in front of her and gone ten miles an hour . . .


"What?" she snapped.

"Kidding," he replied. "Sort of. Stop staring at me like that -- you look like a wet cat. What I'm trying to say is this -- Meema thinks what Meema will think, and it's my duty as her grandson to listen."

"What about your duty as an officer of the law?"

Dwayne signed. "You know that's ninety-five percent of my job. Listening. People just want to be heard, and Meema is no exception. Now, if I hear something that makes me think I need to start asking questions, then that's what I do. But until then, I just listen."

Merri shook her head. "I got all that, I really do. But my question for you is this -- are you listening to her as her good-boy grandson? Or are you listening to her as the law?"

He examined her, his jaw working, not replying right away. It was a good sign, because it meant he was taking her seriously. But then he frowned.

Not a good sign.

He pulled out his cell phone, and after a quick glance at the readout, answered it immediately. Also not a good sign. Dwayne was too well-mannered to chat on his phone at the table. But this was no chat, just a terse series of "yes" and "no" and "ah hell," which was as salty as his language got around a woman, even his high falutin' girl cousin who swore like a sailor.

Merri cocked an eyebrow at him. He snapped the phone shut.

"Forget the grits," he said. "You're coming with me."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Chapter Two continued - Susanna

Dewayne’s neck ached and a heated flush covered his body. He could just catch the edge of a sick, putrid feeling–death nearby. But it wasn’t clear yet, just hazy blobs in his head he tried to arrange. He hated this part–knowing but unable to act. Vulnerable. Like inside the fun house at the fair, waiting for the scary barker fellow to pull the lever and the floor to start moving.

Three days ago, he had been combing the Bethel community, looking in every field and drainage pond for a seven year old girl, and then Meema goes and says Aunt Voila was killed.

Now Meema sat in her glider amid her collection of Virgin Marys, her head back, sucking long breaths, and saying silent prayers. Like years ago, when Joe Bridges went missing. There was signs with Joe’s face posted at the pharmacy and beauty parlors downtown but one no knew anything. One summer morning, the sheriff came out to Meema’s as Dewayne sat watching Scooby Doo in his pajamas. The sheriff had a yearbook opened to a black and white picture of Joe in shorts and a Panthers jersey. Joe’s long, skinny arms stretched to the Basketball rim for the hook. Meema told Dewayne to start praying. Then she, Dewayne, and the sheriff got into Grandpa’s big Oldsmobile with the green velvet seats and drove out to the abandoned black school on Old Thurman Highway. A spring had flooded the school’s basement with murky water and there was Joe’s bloated back and long arms floating amid the trash.

Dewayne and Meema didn’t say nothing, neither did the sheriff. Words didn’t make no sense.

Dewayne pulled the keys to grandpa’s tractor from the rows of keys hanging on Meema’s refrigerator and went out back to the barn. The grass cutter was already hitched up, so DeWayne turned the ignition and the old engine sputtered to life. The tractor vibrated fiercely under his body, humming so loud he couldn’t hear his thoughts. He drove it in straight lines, curving around the pecans trees, his head turned to watch the cutter blaze neat trails in the grass.

Coming up the road was his Cousin Della’s silver LS, a cloud of dust in its wake like a tail of a comet. Della wasn’t driving ‘cause she drove slow down the dirt roads, fearful one small rock would mar the paint job. Merri must be back in town. She slowed just enough to take the turn by the mailbox, then flew down the long drive. She didn’t wave or look at him; her eyes straight ahead, intent on some thought in her head. Guess that’s what them college professors do–see only the split infinitive and miss the entire essay.

He turned off the tractor and stepped down. Dirt dusted his skin. He removed his UGA hat and shook off the sweat.

She opened the car door and looked at him from over the car roof. Dark sunglasses concealed her eyes.

He waved, hearing his own sigh. Merri was one hard chick to deal with.

“Hey there, Merri. Thought you were back in Boston?”

She smiled–a fast, sassy city smile. “Mom said I needed to come back.”

“Ain’t you teachin’ up there?”

“In three months.”

Then they didn’t say nothing. Dewayne could see the sliver chain of the necklace Merri was hiding under her shirt. A pentacle like them mysterious Goth types. He had seen it slip out of her blouse at the funeral parlor last week.

“Listen, I hoped we could talk,” she said, taking her sunglass off. Her blue eyes squinted in the sun.

“You can always talk to me.”

“Somehow I think you say that to everyone.” He started to reply, but he wasn’t fast enough. She flicked her hand in a quick, dismissive wave. Inside the car, he could see a large thermos of coffee in the driver’s cup holder.

“Does Aunt Edna really believe someone killed Gram?”

He wasn’t about to explain nothing, especially to some skeptic professor type–pentacle or not. “Now, you know how Meema is. She gets idears in her head. Don’t you worry about it.”

She gave him a hard, accessing look. Dewayne went blank inside. He refused to give her what she was seeking.

She started again with a different tack. A soft smile lifted the edges of her lips–like she was still from the south. It looked uncomfortable on her face. “Maybe we could drive to Athens and get something to eat tonight?”

“Yeah, that’d be nice,” Dewayne said. He wished he could say no. But Merri was blood, even if she was a pain in the ass. Merri, her mother, and that whole side of the family always thought Meema weren’t right, ‘cept for Voila.

“Hey, I brought a potato casserole for Aunt Edna.”

“Well dang Merri, thanks for thinking us. I didn’t know you cooked? I bet you're one of them fancy-type cooks.” I bet you don’t where your kitchen is.

“Oh, mom made it.” She laughed all breezy-like.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Chapter Two -- Tina

"It needs more cheese," Della Beaugarden said, making a squinchy face. When she did that, the laugh lines at the corners of her eyes deepened, making her look even more like her own recently departed mother. She had salt-and-pepper hair clipped at her nape in a silver barrette, and bifocals perched on her forehead. She was still wearing her Sunday dress, but had slipped into her bedroom shoes.

Meriweather put her hands on her hips. "Mama, that is a potato casserole. The main ingredient should be potato."

They were cooking in the enormous square kitchen that Meri had grown up in, wearing aprons that Gram herself had sewn, only Meri's covered up jeans and a black t-shirt. It was a formality, the apron, since Meri didn't actually participate in cooking. She'd skipped church, as always, and her mother was put out, as always

"Edna likes cheese," Della said, and went to the refrigerator, where she got out a block of red-waxed cheddar and took it to the grater for another go round.

Meri snorted. "She called me a turkey butt. Why should I care what she likes?"

"Don't be that way. You know how bad hospitals scare your aunt. You can't hold that against her."

"Tell that to the poor lab tech, the one she chucked the pudding at."

"He deserved it," her mother pronounced.

And he had, Meri admitted to herself. A careless oaf, he'd stuck her aunt's soft white arm with abrupt callousness. Edna had called him worse than turkey butt, then flung her chocolate pudding in his face, and Meri had laughed as the guy sputtered and fumed. But then she'd glimpsed the tears in her aunt's eyes, and she'd felt bad. Needles weren't funny, especially not inexpertly wielded ones.

Her mother was right about one thing, though -- Edna was scared, only it wasn't of the hospital. The hospital she could handle. The fear Meri had glimpsed that first night was bigger than ordinary fear, deeper too, and less containable. More like fear's feral cousin.

It had calmed under Dwayne's shushing and hand-holding, which had surprised Meri not one bit. Dwayne was the most solid person she knew, soft-spoken and sturdy. She told him once he was too normal to be a detective; detectives were quirky and eccentric and dark around the edges, she explained, like on TV or in the movies. Dwayne had laughed heartily at that.

Della tidied up the bright yellow haystack of cheese shreds and dumped them on top of the casserole, then popped it into the oven. Then she turned the light on and looked at it, like it was a naughty child she couldn't trust to behave. She'd been cooking since Gram's funeral, a totally unnecessary chore since the house was still full of sliced ham and macaroni salad and multiple baked goods. They'd had pineapple cake for breakfast, and there was still food coming, stews and casseroles and salads, all in containers with the owner's named taped to the bottom.

Grounding and centering, Meri knew. She did the same thing in ritual, with cakes and ale. Only she didn't bake them herself -- she got the nice lady at the bakery on the corner to do that. She thought about trying to bake her own sometimes, had even bought a cookbook. But she'd never opened it. It was as pointless as an apron in her world.

Looking at her mother, she wondered if perhaps the earthing quality of food came from someone actually getting their hands in the flour and sugar and butter. In the cheese, even.

Not Velvetta though. Meri was pretty sure Velvetta was an affront to the Goddess.

"Mama?" she said. "Did they ever figure out what Aunt Edna was talking about? When she kept saying Gram had been killed?"

Her mother frowned. "The doctors think her blood sugar went too low or something. Your grandmother wasn't killed -- she had a heart attack, pure and simple."

They didn't talk further, even though they both knew that Edna's sugar had been fine -- all her tests had been fine. Lucid as a summer day, Edna was. Dwayne had checked her out of the hospital that morning and taken her back to her house, this sprawling ramshackle place over by Lake Thurmond. He'd promised Meri and her mother he'd fill them in as soon as possible on what was going on. He said it with his eyes averted, which didn't mean that he was lying -- Dwayne never lied. It just meant he wasn't quite ready to share the truth.

Meri wiped her clean hands on her clean apron. She would have liked to have written the whole episode off as grief-related stress. But from the way Dwayne had gone all quiet as he listened to Edna's story, she knew that wasn't going to be the case, not this time.

"Have you heard from Dwayne?" she asked.

Della shook her head. "Have you?"

"No." Meri chewed her lip. "He's at Aunt Edna's, right?"


"So maybe I should give him a call? See if he's got this situation under control yet?"

Della pulled on a hot mitt and removed the potato casserole from the oven. "So maybe you should go over there and take this food with you. And then you can see for yourself."

Thursday, August 7, 2008

More Chapter One - Susanna

A full orange moon had crested over the lake when Edna drove home from Antioch Baptist church’s prayer circle. A Tupperware container of half-eaten broccoli salad (with bacon) and a bible covered in yellow quilted fabric lay beside Edna in the Buick.

It was an unlit, rural route with only the yellow line of the road and bugs drifting off the Lake Thurmond visible in the headlights. Edna slapped a mosquito on her neck, thinking how bad they were this year when a little girl appeared in the lights. The wind blew her brown hair, gathered in a white bow, so big on her head it looked like a cartoon sketch. Tiny bare feet poked out from her faded cotton dress. The highlights glared on her face, she didn’t flinch, her eyes were round and dilated and blue in the high beams. The only thing Edna could see was that blue, like the girl’s eyes had exploded inside Edna’s brain. Like when the Virgin Mary explodes inside her. Edna’s body heated and tingled.

She slammed the breaks, but the car flew through the girl, like she won’t there. Didn’t make no sound, just glided through her. The car skidded and spun, jolting Edna in her sit. Then all as still and quiet. She sat there, panting, old, out of shape.

She didn’t hear no bump she reminded herself. She didn’t hit nothin’, cause there was no bump. Her diabetes medicine was messin’ with her mind.

Then she saw the girl again, she weren’t hit but walking to the lake, right through the tall grass the county ain’t mowed in months.

Edna let the passenger’s window down two inches. “Honey you need some help?”

The girl turned and put her finger to her lips, then giggled, waving Edna towards her with a chubby hand. Just like at church camp sixty years before.

Esther grabbed the bible and slammed the gas, “Hep me Jesus, Hep me Jesus,” she prayed until the first sign of lights at the lonely Circle K. The Buick jumped the sidewalk and rammed the Polar ice freezer.

Edna rolled down the window. "Hep! Somebody done kilt my sister!" Then she fainted on the horn.

When she woke up, she recognized the white, cork-like tiles on the ceiling of the Greater Sweetwater Regional Hospital. That specialist woman who had helped Edna's late husband after his stroke pulled up a chair beside her. Against the wall, her country club niece sat in a chair, her leg bouncing impatiently over her knee. She had a tight tan face and blonde highlighted hair. Even in her pink floral shirt, she looked harsh, like her wrinkles had been tucked just a few times too many.

The specialist took Edna’s hand and pressed it like they do them frail, bony things over at the nursing home. “Edna, do you know the name of the President?”

Edna looked sharply at her niece. “You cain’t put me in a nursing home, you skinny turkey butt. Where’s my grandson?”

“Edna, do you know the name of the President?” The specialist asked again.

“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ until my grandson done gets here. Give me that phone. I’m gonna call Dewayne.”

The door opened and a tall, redheaded young man with sunburned freckled skin strode in. He wore khaki pants. His stomach protruded slightly through his white Tshirt with a big image of teeth-bared, droolin' bulldog -- the University of Georgia’s mascot. Clipped in his pants pocket was his detective’s badge.

He came to kneel beside Edna, his green eyes relaxed and unconcerned, cause he knew nothin’ was wrong with Edna. Her grandson could sniff trouble in folks like a dog to a squirrel.

“Mema, I’m so dang sorry. I’s in Athens at the game when they done called me on my cell.” He had that soft, slow voice, like a preacher coaxing rattlesnakes.

Edna clutched his hand, pulling him close to her mouth. “Dewayne. The gift came real hard. Somethin’s bad wrong.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Chapter One -- Tina

"Don't trust ghosts," Gram always said. "They're stupid. Can't even get being dead right."

Meriweather watched the clouds pass below, watched the silver wing spin contrails like will-o-wisps behind her. The man next to her snored robustly. At least she had this small slice of privacy -- a window and the great blue yonder ahead, with Sweetwater, Georgia far behind, far below.

"And don't truck with no middlin' spirits either," Gram warned. "That Ouija board nonsense. Any spirit that's got nothin' better to do than spell out stuff letter by letter is not a spirit with high quality information."

Meri smiled, then started to cry, then made herself stop. Gram would have pinched her for getting so sloppy about the funeral -- if Gram hadn't been the one in the casket.

"Dust," she would have said. "Fancy box full of dust. And only two people with sense enough to send plants with roots, and one of them your Aunt Edna, of course."

Score one for Edna, Meri thought. Her grandmother's sister had brought a spearmint plant to the funeral home, an explosion of tangled green tendrils that looked ridiculous amid the mums and roses and unnaturally pink carnations. But Gram would have loved the wild and weedy plant, even if Edna had stuck a ridiculous red bow on it. It was a real thing, a living thing, not a showy used-to-be thing that would wilt and go brown.

Meri sent a gardenia in a pot. Love, peace and healing.

But now it all was behind her -- black dresses and visitations and that sad dry grass at the cemetery -- and she was headed home, back to Boston, back to the crisp comfort of a real fall. She looked forward to sweaters again, to breathing air that wasn't heavy with moisture. To her book club, which was doing The Left Hand of Darkness at the new tea shop. And to her altar -- she missed her crystals and her candles and her tarot cards. It was a relief to wear her pentacle untucked from her blouse again, silver against her skin, obvious once more. She traced a finger over its contours.

So why did she have this tender achy spot, just below her breastbone, when she thought of home receding behind her? She rubbed the spot with her fingers, but it didn't abate. Squash casserole, she told herself. Too much Velveeta in it, which she shouldn't have had, not on top of the fried chicken and biscuits, not with such copious amounts of sweet tea.

Heartburn, she decided. Pure and simple.

Back in her apartment once again, she sat down her suitcase and stood in the dark. Such a relief, her apartment. All hers, all quiet. Tasteful and elegant, as befitting a newly hired English professor at a suddenly interesting university that US News and World report called "emerging." Well, soon enough anyway, she reminded herself, once spring semester started. Less than three months left to plan, to buy clothes, to finish decorating the large-ish closet that was to be her office . . .

She took a deep breath. There was time. Plenty of time.

The phone rang, startling her. Her palms tingled. She frowned and shook them violently, as if they'd fallen asleep, and picked up the telephone.

It was her mother. "You'd best get yourself back here," she said. "Your Aunt Edna's done gone off the deep end."