Whoever said you can’t go home again, forgot to pass that message on to Declan Jones. He called Lacey Mays three days ago. Scarlett Montgomery James, her grandmother, had passed away – quietly, in the home she’d shared with her husband for six decades. It had probably been the only time in her life she had stayed quiet longer than her six-hour a night sleep routine. When she didn’t show up for her hair appointment, a weekly ritual kept for thirty-years, almost without fail – her friends at The Style Bar called Declan in a panic. He drove the thirty-five-minutes from his office, to find her slumped over in her favorite chair. She may have been dead, but she was a Montgomery for heaven’s sake, so she dressed in her best to see her girls – her Hermes handbag in her lap. Of course, she never made it to get her hair washed and dried, but she sure did look good and that’s all that mattered.
“You need to come home,” Declan said to Lacey, quiet and earnest.
“I can’t,” Lacy said, the tension already building in the pit of her stomach, where it always did. “Work is – it’s crazy right now. I can’t.”
“Lacey – Sugar – you need to come. You need to bury your grandmother. There are things to take care of with the estate. You need to come home. It would have meant so much to Miss Scarlett. She talked constantly about your success and -”
“I understand,” Lacey said, the slightest warmth rising in her cheeks. There’s a tinge of connection shared, that only comes through the deep ties of biology, that can’t hide in moments like these. But she answers from the depth of her cynicism – cynicism whose foundation rests in decades of loss that she’d long hoped were buried the day her dad shot himself.
The last time she been in Pamlico County, she had been nineteen and as lost as a soul could be. Heading into her 20th birthday she mustered up the strength Donna James Mays never could. Lacey had longed for a way out of that place, her entire life. So when she’d sobered up long enough to make a few things right, things she hoped were now buried with her grandma, she disappeared into a new life. Lacey handled her business the best way she knew how. And she’d handled it well enough that she didn’t need a single penny of her grandparent’s fortune.
She had reasoned that her success meant that she had not become her parents. That fact soothed the ache of loss – so why go back? Lacey didn’t need parents. She didn’t need history. She didn’t need a family home and all that it brought with it. She had created a whole new world for herself.
Before Lacey left North Carolina, her name floated on the edge of gossipy whispers and shaking heads. Most everyone thought she’d turn out just like Donna. They clucked and judged and wrote her story for her – as if they themselves were God Almighty. Her favorite critique had always been that she just needed to mature. But Lacey didn’t need to mature. She’d done that long ago, covered in blood and stroking her daddy’s hand, on the hardwood floor of a dilapidated house deep in the darkest corners of Pamlico County. She’d wisely left. She didn’t think she should return. But no one had asked her what she wanted – ever. It took her mama disappearing into the woods to make her grandparents finally stand up for her. She’d never forgiven them for leaving her with her parents until that moment.
Lacey didn’t want to go back to the land where nothing changed. Literally nothing at all. “I understand,” she continued. “But I just can’t. I don’t have the kind of job I can just walk away from. You of all people should understand.”
“I just won’t take no for an answer. You are needed here. Come home. Even if it’s just a few days. I’ll get everything ready for you to make this as easy as possible. Come home,” Declan Jones said, his accent, dripping in his signature Lenoir County drawl. “Your grandparents did everything they knew to do for your mama. They knew they failed her. But they didn’t fail you. Look at where you are now. They are – they were – so proud. Come home. It’s time.”
And just like that, Lacey knew going home couldn’t be avoided. She closed the door of her office to avoid prying eyes, booked her flight, and did her best to talk herself into a calm indifference about returning to the one place in all of the world she never wanted to see again. From the 5th floor of her Newport Coast office, Lacey felt the tension tighten into a bigger knot. Nausea gripped her then. It grew by the moment until she couldn’t hold it back. She raced for her trash can, sitting next to her desk, throwing up – over and over again until her body, shaken and weak, couldn’t take anymore. She laid down on floor and reached for the cell phone, now lying behind her – having dropped it earlier, as the first wave of sickness shook her body. She tapped her way through a few screens until she reached the photo that she kept with her always. She took a deep breath and saw her own eyes staring back at her. She kept this photo in her phone at all times. Then again, she saved it everywhere – in her cloud, on her computer, and on flash drives – and on every photo website she had ever run across.
Every living soul in the town of Seaside and its surrounding farms and communities, had long ago decided why Lacey Mays stayed away. But they had no idea. Gripping the phone to her chest, Lacey curled into the fetal position and let the tears fall. Nearly sixteen years after leaving the agony behind, she would pay the piper now.
The long dirt driveway, lined with live oaks, that lead to Scarlett and William James’ home, is exactly the same as sixteen years ago. It is as breathtaking as always, with ancient live oaks towering as a tunnel above and covered in Spanish moss. The sun’s beams shine through the trees in streaks. There’s a quiet dance of light and dark in the south – the warm of the golden light, the heat and steamy temps during the long summer months, and all of those supposed gentle manners. But it’s also dark with past sins, handed down through generations, rolling and roiling under the surface of what is supposedly polite society. Lacey rolls down the front seat windows of her rental car – she can’t help herself. The air is thick, hot, and sweet with the scent of jasmine that grows along the fence line. There’s a brisk breeze off the Pamlico sound and it blows through the car, blowing Lacey’s hair every which way. The memories she has long locked away are unavoidable now.
Her life hasn’t been normal, to say the least. In the same way that she has, since her father shot himself, Lacey operates out of two sides of her being. She longs for this place in the way an orphan would long for home. And yet, she is repulsed just the same. She pulls up in front of the house, puts the car in park, and sits for a moment. There are no other cars around. At one time, this was a plantation, in the truest sense of the word. Over time, bits and pieces of land were sold off. Now it’s a measly fifteen acres of sound-front real estate in Pamlico County. The nearest town, if you can call it that, is Seaside – about ten miles away. Her Granddad had successfully beat back developers for the last fifteen years. As new luxury housing popped up deeper and deeper into Pamlico County, William James held on tighter to what remained of his family’s roots – telling anyone who would listen that someday his Lacey would make this place home again.
For Lacey, a long string of blurry nights and faces, slowly covered the horrible day her dad died and her mom disappeared. One choice led to another. And then another. Until she couldn’t ignore her worst nightmare, the catalyst for finally helping her get out. But she’d long ago buried this life – deep under impenetrable concrete of her will and determination. Breaking through it would take a miracle. In the rear-view mirror of her parked car, Lacey watched the rising dust of an approaching car. She looked in the mirror to reapply lipstick, and then stepped out, taking the steps two at a time at the front of her grandparent’s home, ready as she’ll ever be to greet lawyer her family’s lawyer.
“Lacey! Is that really you? I can hardly believe it.” Declan steps towards her. She’s perched on her favorite spot, on the top step, her back resting against one of the white columns that tell anyone who happens upon this place, it’s a bonafide slice of the American South. “It’s so wonderful to see you, Shug” he says, reaching out to hug her.
“Mr. Jones, so nice to see you,” Lacey says, holding her hand out to the white-haired, lawyer. She doesn’t succeed in keeping the hug at bay. He wraps her in a hearty bear hug.
“It’s wonderful to see you – actually see you. I’ve followed your career. Well, the Mrs. has more than anything. She keeps me updated and always shows me when you’re in the magazines and such. We’ve taped every episode of every show you’ve ever been on. It’s impossible not to be proud of a Pamlico County girl that has made such a name for herself. We are proud.”
“Well thank you, Mr. Jones.” Changing the subject, Lacey says, “The house looks great. It’s been so long since I’ve been here. Nothing has changed at all. Shall we go inside?”
“Of course. I’m sure you’re tired after your trip. We can get right down to it and then I’ll leave you be.”
Two hours and a rocks glass filled with Bourbon later, Lacey sat on the back porch, looking out at the sound. The sweet scent of clover, seeped up from the hot ground. The clover covered the lawn in a way that would have infuriated her granddad. It comforted her. She hated that it did. But the slight warmth that had flushed her face when Declan Jones had called just 48-hours prior, returned. With a furrowed brow and a determination to keep everything in its proper box, she stuffed the feelings back down and reviewed some of the details from her meeting with Declan Jones.
“The house, the property, and all assets belonging to your grandparents, with one exception, are all yours. The total net worth of the estate is around ten million. If you’re smart about it, you’d never have to work again.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No. Not kidding at all. Your granddad has always been a shrewd business man. He has invested and saved well.”
“Apparently. What about Donna? I’m assuming I inherited all of this because she’s dead. Or in prison.”
“Neither,” Declan said. Lacey’s eyebrows raised. “She’s doing okay. Right now,” he adds quickly – qualifying the statement. “But your Grandparents believed it would be best if you manage the estate and make decisions about whether she should receive any financial assistance.”
“Ah. I see. Well let’s not talk about her. I would, however, like to talk about something else. I’d like to sell the house and land. Before I dive into that, do you have any realtor recommendations? I will head back to California as soon as I can.”
“You’re not going to be able to sell the house.”
“Your grandparents specified that the house and property cannot be sold unless there is a drastic change in the financial status and the funds are needed for you to live off of.”
“It can’t be sold, ever?” Lacey asked, incredulous. “Like ever?”
“Well that’s one way to do it.”
“How’s that?” Mr. Jones asks, looking a little confused.
“Never mind. I can’t exactly run my business and manage this place, too. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they would pull a stunt like this. I’m sure you’re busy, but while I’m here I’ll be looking for someone to take care of the house in my absence. Unless there’s already people doing that? Can you help me with this?”
“There is a staff in place – a gardener, caretaker, and housekeeper. The caretaker and housekeeper have been with your grandparents since around the time you left. They’re very loyal – a married couple – the Wilkins’. They’re retired now, but would love to stay on. It’s your call if you want them to stay, of course. But I took the liberty of scheduling a meeting with them tomorrow at 9:00. You can change the meeting of course. But I thought it might be good to get something on the calendar. The meeting with the funeral home is just after that.”
“Okay, thank you,” Lacey said, stuffing the fear that flashed before her, as far as she could, as quickly as possible. They spent the rest of the meeting going over details. Since starting her Public Relations company, she quickly made a name for herself. Her rise was meteoric. Her clients and the money they represented didn’t intimidate her – not even remotely. And her grandparent’s money certainly didn’t either. Even still, the fear twisted more knots in her gut. This place held every last bit of her most horrible and painful memories, her worst choices, and of the greatest losses of her life. In spite of the beauty of the sound, the Spanish moss-covered trees, and the clean still air, this would never work. She wouldn’t allow it to work.
The only thing that made sense to her had been to sell the house and its contents – literally all she considered had been left of Lacey Mays. Well, almost everything. Clearly her grandparents had other ideas about how she would manage things after they’d gone. She settled deeper into the Adirondack chair, as the fear settled even deeper still. Wiggling out of this didn’t look possible.