***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Karen White
Georgetown, South Carolina
I am dead. Yet I smell the blooming evening primrose and hear the throaty chirps and creaky rattles of the purple martins flitting home across the marsh. I see their sleek iridescent bodies gliding against the bloodred sunset sky, through the blackened Corinthian columns and crumbling chimneys of Carrowmore. The house is named after a legendary thin place, far away in Ireland. I can hear Ceecee’s voice again in my head, telling me what the name means, and why I should stay away. But as with most things Ceecee has ever told me, I didn’t listen.
Carrowmore and I are both in ruins now, with wrinkles in our plaster and faults in our foundations. It’s oddly fitting that I should die in this house. I almost died here once before, when I was a little girl. I wonder if the house has been waiting for its second chance.
The thrum of Ellis’s 1966 Mustang rumbles in the distance. If I could move, I’d run out the front door and down the walk before he can honk the horn and irritate Daddy. There’s nothing Daddy dislikes more than Ellis’s long hair and that car.
But I can’t move. All I remember is stepping on a soft spot in the old wooden floor, then hearing the splintering of ancient, rotten wood. Now I’m lying here, broken in so many pieces.
My brain reminds me that Ellis has been gone forty years. His precious car sold before he shipped out to Fort Gordon in 1969. Still, the acrid scent of exhaust wafts over me, and I wonder with an odd hopefulness whether it’s Ellis, coming for me after all this time.
There’s something soft and silky crumpled in my fist. My fingers must have held tight when I first felt the ancient floor give way beneath my feet.
A hair ribbon. I’d pulled it from Larkin’s dresser drawer. My sweet baby girl. The daughter who’d always desperately wanted to be just like me. Almost as desperately as I wanted her to be different. I wanted her to be happy. Not that Larkin is a girl anymore. She’s too old for ribbons, but I kept everything in her room just the same as she left it, hoping one day she’d come home for good. Decide it was time to forgive all of us. To forgive herself.
I remember now using a black marker to write down the length of the ribbon, the letters bold and big, shouting my anger with silent strokes. But that’s the only clear memory I have. I can’t feel that anger anymore. Nor remember the reason for it. I must have driven here, but I don’t remember. Just me writing on that ribbon, and then here, falling. My brain is playing tricks on me, recalling things from long ago with the clarity of hindsight, yet leaving what happened only thirty minutes ago in a dark closet behind a locked door.
Bright pops of air explode inside my skull. Streaks of light like shooting stars flit past my line of vision. I think they’re the purple martins of my past, constant as the moon and stars in my memories. And then the pain comes, white-hot and precise, settling at the base of my head, then traveling upward, a large hand slowly constricting my brain.
Then darkness covers me like a mask, and everything fades away. Except for the engine fumes of an old car, and the raucous chirp of a thousand martins coming home to roost.
The introductory notes to an old song distracted me for a moment, causing me to glance up from my computer and look around with an oddly satisfying appreciation. I loved my desk. Not because it was beautiful or rare—it was neither—but because of its simple functionality.
It was no different from the metal desks of the other copywriters at Wax & Crandall, the ad agency where I’d worked for the past five years, except mine was devoid of all personal effects. No frames, no kitschy knickknacks or rubber-band balls. Nothing tacked up on the walls of my cubicle, either, or mementos of my four years spent at Fordham earning my undergraduate degree. My one concession to my past was a gold chain with three charms on it that I never removed but kept tucked inside my neckline.
I loved that nobody asked me why I seemed to have no past. This was New York, after all, where people seemed to care only about where you were going, not where you’d been. They just assumed that I had no husband or significant other, no children or siblings. Which was correct. The people I worked with knew I was from somewhere down south only because every once in a while, a long consonant or dropped syllable found its way into my sentences. I never mentioned that I was born and raised in Georgetown, South Carolina, or that if I closed my eyes long enough, I could still smell the salt marshes and the rivers that surrounded my hometown. My coworkers probably believed that I hated my home and that was why I left. And in that assumption, they’d be wrong.
There are reasons other than hating a place that make a person leave.
I turned to see Josephine—not “Jo” or “Josie,” but “Josephine”—standing at the entrance to my cubicle. The lack of a door meant people had to improvise when they wanted to enter. She was one of our account executives, a nice enough person if she liked you but someone to avoid if she didn’t.
“Are you busy?” she asked.
My fingers were at that moment poised above my keyboard, which made her question unnecessary, but Josephine wasn’t the type to notice such things. She was one of those women who commanded attention because of the way she looked—petite, with sun-streaked brown hair, and perpetually tanned—so it had become customary for her to get what she wanted with just a smile.
I was streaming Pandora on my computer, and the song playing would distract me until I could name it. It was an old habit I’d never been able to break. “Dream On.” Aerosmith. I smiled to myself.
“Excuse me?” Josephine said, and I realized I’d spoken aloud.
I thought back to her question. “Actually . . . ,” I said, but as I began, the vague feeling of disquiet that had been hovering over me since I’d awakened exploded into foreboding.
Ceecee would have said it was just somebody walking over my grave, but I knew it was the dream I’d remembered from the night before. A dream of falling, my arms and legs flailing, waiting to hit an invisible bottom.
Ignoring my body language, Josephine stepped closer. “Because I wanted to ask you about a dream I had last night. I was running, but it felt as if my feet were stuck in glue.”
I let my wrists rest on the edge of my desk but didn’t swivel my chair, hoping she’d take the hint. “You can Google it, you know. You can find out a lot about dreams on the Internet. It’s handy that way.” I kept my hands poised near the keyboard.
“Yes, I know, but I just thought it would be quicker if I asked you. Since you’re the expert.” She beamed a smile at me.
With a sigh, I turned around to face her. I wasn’t an expert—only well-read on the subject after years spent trying to analyze my mother’s dreams in an attempt to understand her better. As my delusional childhood self, I’d thought knowing what was in my mother’s head would help me unlock the reasons for the sadness and restlessness behind her eyes. I’d hoped she would be so grateful, she’d include me in her various quests for peace and beauty. I’d failed, but in the process, I’d discovered an avid interest in these windows into our subconscious. It gave me something to talk about at the rare parties I attended, a parlor trick I could pull out when conversation faltered.
“There are probably a million interpretations, but I think it might mean that some ambition in your life, like your career or love life, isn’t progressing as you’d like it to be, and you feel as if something were holding you back.”
Josephine blinked at me for several seconds, and I wasn’t sure whether she either didn’t understand or was in complete denial that anything could ever hold her back. “Thanks,” Josephine said, smiling brightly again, any self-doubt quickly erased. “You going with the group from sales to the Hamptons for the weekend?”
I shook my head, eager to get back to work. I was at the gym every afternoon at five thirty, meaning I had to leave at five. Though it kept me in shape, the habit didn’t allow for much after-hours socializing. Not that I didn’t like my coworkers—I did. They were a fun, creative, and young group, including a smattering of millennials who didn’t act too much like millennials. I just found that I preferred socializing with them in an office setting, making it easier to escape back to my desk if any question went beyond which apartment I lived in and whether I preferred the subway or cabbing it.
“No,” I said. “I think I’ll stay in the city.” It never ceased to amaze me that people who complained about the crowded city always seemed to gravitate toward the same beaches at the same time with the same people from whom they were trying to escape. “The water will be ice-cold, anyway. It’s still only April.”
Josephine scrunched up her nose, and I noticed how nothing else wrinkled. She said she used Botox only as a preventative measure, but from what I could tell, she was well on her way to looking like one of the gargoyle women I saw shopping in the high-end stores on Fifth Avenue. As Ceecee would say, it just wasn’t natural.
“Not any colder than usual,” Josephine insisted. “Come on. It’ll be fun. We’ve got a huge house in Montauk. There’re two queen beds in my room, if you don’t mind sharing with me. You could analyze everyone’s dreams.”
I was tempted. I’d never been part of a group or hung out with girls who rented houses together and took trips on the weekends. For a brief time in elementary school, I’d had a cluster of friends my age, but by the time we reached middle school, they’d formed their own smaller groups, none of which included me. I’d always had Mabry and her twin brother, Bennett, though. Our mothers were best friends, and we’d been bathed in the same bathtub when we were babies. That right there made us best friends, whether or not we ever acknowledged it. At least until our senior year in high school, when we’d stopped being friends at all.
The memory made it easier for me to shake my head. “Thanks for the invite, but I’ll stay home. I might rearrange my furniture. I’ve been thinking about it.”
Josephine gave me an odd look. “Sure. Oh, well, maybe it’s for the best. I don’t want to be the one standing next to you wearing a bikini—that’s for sure.”
“For the record, I don’t own a bikini.” I was more a T-shirt-and-boy-shorts type girl. “But thanks for asking. Maybe next time, okay?”
My cell phone buzzed where it lay faceup on my desk. I didn’t have a picture or a name stored in the directory, but I didn’t need to. It was the first cell phone number I’d ever memorized. When I didn’t move to pick it up, Josephine pointed to it with her chin. “Aren’t you going to get that?”
It was oddly telling that she didn’t excuse herself to give me privacy. I reached over and silenced it. “No. I’ll call him back later.”
“Him?” she asked suggestively.
“My father.” I never took his calls, no matter how many times he tried. When I’d first come to New York, the calls were more frequent, but over the past year or so, they’d tapered down to about one per week—sprinkled across different days and times, as if he were trying to catch me off guard. He wasn’t giving up. And neither was I. I’d inherited the Lanier bullheadedness from him, after all.
“So, you have a father.” Josephine looked at me expectantly.
The phone started buzzing again. I was about to toss it in my drawer, when I noticed it was a different number, another number that I knew and received calls from frequently, but never when I was at work. It was Ceecee, the woman who’d raised my mother, who was pretty much my grandmother in standing. She was too in awe of my working in New York City to ever want to interrupt me during office hours. Unless there was a good reason.
I picked up the phone. “Please excuse me,” I said to Josephine. “I need to take this.”
“Fine,” Josephine said. “Just know that if your body is ever found behind some Dumpster in Queens, we won’t know who to call.”
Ignoring her, I turned my back to the cubicle opening. “Ceecee?” I spoke into the phone. “Is everything all right?”
“No, sweetheart. I’m afraid it’s not.” Her voice sounded thick, as if she had a cold. Or had been crying. “It’s your mama.”
I sat up straighter. “What’s wrong with Mama?” I tried to prepare myself for her answer. Ivy Lanier was anything but predictable. But anything I could have imagined couldn’t have prepared me for what Ceecee said next.
“She’s missing. Nobody’s seen her since yesterday morning. Your daddy said when he got home from work yesterday that she and her car were gone. We’ve called all of her friends, but nobody’s seen her or heard from her.”
“Yesterday morning? Have you called the police?”
“Yes—the minute I heard. The sheriff has filed a report, and he’s got people looking for her.”
My mind filled and emptied like the marsh at the turning of the tides, enough stray bits clinging that I could form my first question. “Where was she yesterday morning?”
A pause. “She was here. She’s been here just about every day for the last month, refinishing her daddy’s old desk out in the garage. She’d come inside—I only know that because she left the kitchen a mess, the drawers yanked out. Like she was looking for something.”
“And you have no idea what?” The thread of panic that had woven into my voice surprised me.
There was a longer pause this time, as if Ceecee were considering the question. And the possible answer. “I thought she might have wanted more spare rags for the refinishing. I keep a bag on the floor of the pantry. It’s empty, though. She must have forgotten she’d used them all.”
“But she was looking through the drawers and cabinets.”
“Yes. When I saw her car pull away, I thought she was just running to the hardware store. But the police have checked—she didn’t go there. Your daddy and I are beside ourselves with worry.”
I closed my eyes, anticipating her next words.
“Please come home, Larkin. I need someone here. I’m afraid . . .” Her voice caught, and she was silent.
“Ceecee, you know Mama is always off in one direction or another. You’ve always called her a dandelion seed—remember? This wouldn’t be the first time she’s run off without explanation.” The words sounded hollow, even to me. My dream returned to me suddenly, jerking me backward as if I’d finally hit the ground, the air knocked from my lungs.
“She always comes back the same day,” Ceecee said fiercely. “They’ve checked all the roads within a hundred miles of here. Your daddy’s driven Highway Seventeen all the way up to Myrtle Beach, as far south as Charleston.” She paused again. “I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I had a dream last night. I dreamed I was falling.”
I stared at the black letters against the white background on my computer screen, lines and symbols that suddenly meant nothing at all. “Did you land?” I asked.
“I don’t remember.” There was a long silence and then, “Please, Larkin. Something bad has happened. I feel it. I need you to come home. We need you to come home.”
I closed my eyes again, seeing the place I was from, the creeks and marshes of my childhood that fed into the great Atlantic. When I was a little girl, my daddy said I bled salt water; it was in my veins. Maybe that was why I didn’t go back more than once a year, at Christmas. Maybe I was afraid I’d be sucked in by the tides, my edges blurred by the water. There was more than one way a person could drown.
“All right,” I said. I opened my eyes, disoriented as I imagined the brush of spartina grass against my bare legs, but saw only my metal desk under fluorescent lights. “I’ll take the first flight I can find into Charleston and rent a car. I’ll call you to let you know when to expect me.”
“Thank you. I’ll let your daddy know.”
“And call me if you hear anything about Mama.”
“Have you called Bitty?” I asked.
Her voice had a sharpness to it. “No. I’m not sure if she’s really needed—”
I cut her off. “Then I’ll call her. If something’s happened to Mama, she’ll want to be there.”
“She’ll just make a fuss.”
“Probably,” I agreed. But despite her own flurried wind, Bitty always helped me find the calm in the eye of whatever storm I found myself. “But she loves Mama as much as you do. She needs to know what’s happened.”
I could hear the disapproval in Ceecee’s voice. “Fine. Call her, then. But please get here as soon as you can.”
As soon as I hit the “end” button, my phone buzzed with another incoming call. I recognized the 843 area code, but not the rest of the number. Thinking it might have something to do with my mother, I answered it. “Hello?”
A deep male voice, almost as familiar to me as the sound of rain in a flood-swollen creek, spoke. “Hello, Larkin. It’s Bennett.”
I quickly ended the call without answering, and put my phone on “silent.” I felt as if I were back in my dream, falling and falling into a dark abyss and wondering how long it would take before I hit the bottom.