The Guests on South Battery (24 page)

“Anything but what you were thinking. Mellie. You are the most beautiful woman to me, just the way you are. I married you because I
want to spend the rest of my life with you, and raise our children together. There is nobody else I want to do that with.”

My eyes prickled with unshed tears. “I'm sorry, Jack. I'm so sorry. I just, well, I guess I still have abandonment issues that I'm trying to work out. I'm trying, though. I really am.”

I turned to face him, admiring the way the moonlight skipped across the strong bones of his face, making him look like a marble statue. But when I put my hands on his chest, there was nothing cool or marble about him.

“I love you, Mellie. Despite all reason and sanity, I find that I can't live without you. All I ask is that you trust me.”

I leaned forward, pressing my body against his. “I do,” I whispered against his lips. “Although I think you could have said that in a nicer way.”

With a quick movement, startling General Lee enough to make him leap to the relative safety of the floor, Jack had me pinned on the bed. “Maybe I can convince you in other ways.” He bent his head to my neck and began to kiss his way up to my ear.

I grinned. “I'd like to see you try.”

My cell phone began to ring again and I grappled for it on the nightstand. Without looking at the number, I turned it off and tossed it across the room, eager to test out my mother's theory about make-up sex.

CHAPTER 22

I
waved good-bye to my mother as she dropped me off in front of Henderson House Realty. She'd taken me to Gwyn's in Mt. Pleasant to shop for a dress for Marc's book launch party after she insisted that sewing two old bedspreads together and cutting holes for my head and arms would not be an appropriate gown for the occasion.

I entered the reception area, eager to immerse myself in work so I could forget about the whole episode of trying on dresses, or the reason why I'd been forced into it. Apparently, none of the dresses in my closet actually fit, according to my mother, even if I did manage to get a zipper all the way to the top without any tearing noises. I had no idea when she'd become such a fashion expert, but she seemed to believe that Kim Kardashian–tight was not a good look for me. I wouldn't have minded the comparison if I hadn't caught sight of myself in the mirror from behind and realized that Kim and I had a lot more in common than I ever could have imagined.

“Mamamamama!”

I took off my sunglasses and looked in surprise to where Jack stood in the lobby with the stroller and both children, who were now bouncing
excitedly upon seeing me, which did more for my ego than a closet full of great-fitting dresses ever could.

After kissing them both, I turned to Jack, who took his time kissing me hello, and who would probably have extended it if Jolly Thompson hadn't cleared her throat from behind the receptionist's desk.

“Oh, I'm sorry, Jolly. I got . . . distracted.” I looked back at Jack. “Was I expecting you?”

“No. And we just got here. Jayne's meeting me here in fifteen minutes to get the children, but I was hoping you had a little bit of time for me to show you something. And then I'm heading to City Lights Café to try to get some work done.”

“What's wrong with your office at home? Don't you like the desk your mother and I picked out for you? And your sweater and slippers?”

“I love all of that, I do. I just . . .” He shrugged. “It's like the whole creative side of my brain shuts down whenever I'm in the house—anywhere in the house. I've tried writing in the kitchen, and the dining room. I've even tried writing in the bedroom.” He winked. “Although I don't think it's too much of a stretch to figure out why I'm distracted when I'm trying to write in there.”

Jolly cleared her throat again and he became serious. “Anyway, I've found that if I write in a café, or a park bench or really anywhere else, I can get into the writing zone pretty easily.”

I frowned. “You didn't have this problem before, did you?”

He shook his head. “No. It all started a little over a month ago—which coincided with when I found out about Marc's movie deal, which could have something to do with it.”

“Probably.” I turned to Jolly. “I don't have any appointments until one, right?”

“That's right.” She smiled at the babies. “If you'd like me to keep an eye on them so you can talk without any distractions, I'd be happy to. Everybody's out at lunch, so it's pretty quiet right now.”

“That's very nice, thank you,” I said, and watched with fascination as she crossed something off one of her lists.

“What was that?” I asked, always interested in other people's methods of organization.

“Every day on my to-do list, I write ‘Do something nice for somebody.' So thank
you
.”

“You're welcome,” I said slowly.

“They've just been fed and diapered, so they should be good to go,” Jack said. “They love to be sung to and they're not too particular. Unless you're Mellie—that usually makes them cry.”

I sent him a withering glance, but he just smiled back at me because he knew I couldn't argue.

“Will do,” she said, coming around the desk and leaning over the stroller. Sarah immediately reached for her sparkling dragonfly earrings, and JJ reached for her breasts. I quickly diverted their attention by diving into the little toy pouch snapped to the stroller and pulling out two stuffed animals before handing one to each child. “Call us if you need anything, but they're pretty easygoing.”

“Don't you worry. I love babies.”

Judging by the hours I'd already spent while she showed me pictures of her grandchildren on her phone, I figured she had lots of practice.

Jack followed me back to my office and pressed me against the door as soon as I'd closed it. “Too bad we only have fifteen minutes.”

I pushed away from him, too aware that Jolly and our children were only a short hallway away—not to mention any coworkers who might be returning from lunch. “That's what our bed at home is for.”

“Is it? Well, just for the record, I intend to keep our marriage spicy. So expect it when you least expect it.”

I felt my body flush and wondered if I might be having a hot flash. I extricated myself from his embrace and headed to my desk, where I shed my coat, purse, and briefcase. “So, what did you want to show me?”

“Is that a leading question?”

I sighed. “No, it's a real question.” I pointed to his leather satchel he wore over one shoulder. It was vegan leather and stamped with a bright green peace sign, and looked just like the one Sophie's husband, Chad, wore when he was on his bike pedaling to class. It had actually been a
wedding gift from the couple—I had a matching one that I hadn't quite found a way to use yet.

Jack lifted it from his shoulder and pulled out a thick ream of paper before slapping it in the middle of my completely bare desk. It was a point of pride that I wouldn't leave the office without all papers, pens, and pencils being put in their proper spots. Only frames containing photos of Jack, Nola, and the babies were allowed.

“What is that?” I asked, wincing at the uneven edges of the stack of paper.

“Hasell's medical records. Took up half a file cabinet.”

“Those are the actual records?”

“Yes. Lucky for us, Hasell's multiple hospital visits were pre–HIPAA regulations, so her family's private doctor kept all her records in his office, and when he retired he moved them to the attic of his house. Just as we thought, he passed away a few years ago, but his elderly widow still lives in there. She said I could borrow them. Took some convincing, but she eventually caved.” He smiled brightly, and I could only imagine what the poor woman endured in terms of endless charm and flattery. He continued. “I'll probably pull an all-nighter tonight taking notes because I have to return them tomorrow. I've already had a chance to go through them, and it's pretty perplexing.”

We both sat down on either side of my desk as he began to flip through the pages. “The records begin when Hasell was only three months old. She got pneumonia and was responding well to antibiotics and was sent home, but then came back with antibiotic-resistant pneumonia and bronchitis. She stopped breathing several times while at the hospital, but was revived because her mother was there and administered CPR.”

He turned a page so I could read. “This is a note from a nurse, commenting on how Anna, her mother, refused to leave the girl's side and slept on a cot by her incubator for five months until Hasell could go home.”

I thought of my rosy-cheeked babies, full of good health and smiles, and despite what I suspected Anna had done to us in the attic, I felt a stab of sympathy for her. “Did she get better after that?”

Jack replaced the page in the stack and shook his head. “No. Things
got worse. She had recurring bouts of respiratory issues, but she also developed problems with her digestion. Couldn't keep solids down until she was about five years old. Her mother had to feed her with a feeding tube. One of the doctors noted it was the worst case of gastroesophageal reflux disease he'd ever seen in a patient. She was so weak she didn't learn to walk until she was three and even then could walk only short distances without tiring out. By the time she died, she was bedridden.”

I tried not to think of the room with the beautiful mural and snow globes and of the girl who'd once planned to travel the world but never made it past her bedroom door. “But they don't know what she died from specifically?”

“According to her death certificate, no. But I talked to one of my doctor friends who said that her body just gave out, that her organs simply shut down one by one. Her brain would have been the last organ to go, so she would have been aware that she was dying.”

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a freshly laundered handkerchief and handed it to me. “It's hard to hear.”

I touched my face, surprised to find it wet, then dabbed at my eyes with the cloth. “It makes me angry, in a way. That all the advances in medicine couldn't fix what was wrong with her. But that doesn't explain why she's still here.”

“Isn't unfinished business usually the reason?”

“Sometimes. But what kind of unfinished business could an eleven-year-old shut-in have? Which makes me think that maybe it's not her ghost up in that attic. I mean, the house is more than two hundred and fifty years old. Lots of people have lived and died in that house. She's just one in a long list of candidates.”

His eyes met mine for a moment before returning to the pile of paper. He pulled out a loose sheet from the very bottom and handed it to me. “This might change your mind.” It was a photocopy of a South Carolina death certificate that he'd shown me before. “I was looking at this again to see if there was anything I'd missed, and there it was.” He pointed his finger to a spot on the form.

I squinted, unable to see the really tiny print.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Mellie.” He reached around the desk and pulled out the top drawer. “Just put them on already.”

Feeling chastened, I put my reading glasses on and looked down to see the name Hasell Chisolm Pinckney on the top line, and then moved my gaze to the spot he indicated. I put my hand over my lips, unable to speak. The words “Time of Death” were printed above bold, black numbers typed neatly in the little box: 4:10 a.m.

“That would be a little too coincidental if that weren't Hasell's spirit trying to reach you, don't you think?” Jack asked quietly.

“Even if we did believe in coincidences,” I said slowly, my mind still trying to wrap itself around what he'd just discovered. I thought back to when my alarm clocks had stopped at ten minutes after four, and the phone call came in from a disconnected number. I remembered it had been the first day back at the office. The day I'd met Jayne and learned she'd inherited the Pinckney house, the same house Hasell had lived and died in. That was when Hasell had first reached out to me; I could guess that much. But I was no closer to understanding
why
.

“Which we don't.” Jack was thoughtful for a moment and then began righting the papers, stacking them against the flat top of my desk before returning them to his satchel. “There's something else, too.”

I looked at him over my reading glasses before realizing that I probably looked like my first grade teacher, Mrs. Montemurno, who'd worn muumuus over her ample body and lots of gold clanky bracelets over the crease in her arm where her wrists were supposed to be. She'd looked ancient even back then and I remembered how the bags under her eyes were always accentuated when she looked at me from over her glasses. I hastily took them off. “Go ahead,” I said.

“You mentioned the Pinckneys had once owned a house on Lake Jasper near Birmingham. I'd never heard of it before, but I wouldn't be a writer if I didn't jump at every loose piece of information, so I did some research. The reason why I'd never heard of it before is probably because it doesn't exist anymore. The lake was enlarged in 1985 by the Army Corps of Engineers and the name changed to another, larger lake that was combined with Lake Jasper.”

“So what happened to the Pinckney house?” I asked.

“Oh, it's still there, I'm sure. Just underwater. It happens sometimes—to whole towns, even. It's almost like they're encased in snow globes with the roads, houses, shops, and churches still there, only unreachable unless you like to scuba.”

“That's horrible. And not a little creepy. Remind me to never go boating or swimming there. I can't imagine what sort of angry spirits are probably hanging around.”

“Yes, well, some people say on Sunday mornings, you can still hear the church bells ringing.”

I winced. “That's scary, even to me.” I thought for a moment, remembering something he'd said. “And it was flooded in 1985?”

After he nodded, I said, “Your mother found a salt-and-pepper-shaker set as part of a collection in the Pinckney House. It's from Lake Jasper and somebody had painted the date May thirtieth, 1984.”

He pulled out his notepad and jotted it down. “Just in case it's important. Regardless, the set might be valuable, seeing as how Lake Jasper doesn't exist anymore. Make sure Jayne is aware so she doesn't dump the whole collection at Goodwill before she knows the value.” He replaced the notepad, then glanced at his watch before looking back at me with a wicked grin. “Looks like we have five minutes.”

The intercom on my desk buzzed and Jolly's voice was piped in: “The nanny's here.”

“Hold that thought,” I said as I stood.

The children were squealing with happiness upon seeing Jayne and were too preoccupied to notice Jack or me. At least that was what I told myself. I let Jayne know that I'd added a few things to the children's Google calendar, including their first-year checkup at the pediatrician's. I made sure to let her know that I'd added a note to that event about which matching outfits they should wear. She and Jack, and even Jolly, stared back at me with the same blank expressions, making me wonder, just for a moment, if it was me that wasn't understanding something.

We said good-bye to the children and waved to them and Jayne as they made their way outside to the sidewalk.