It is summer. Eastern Carolina is a sight to behold in the summer, even more so on the coast where the air is like a sultry, sexy Flamenco. It just seeps way down deep into your bones. The light in the early evening is like this living thing. It almost breathes. Deep. It wraps me up – safe and content.
He, the beautiful man of the hard way, is a challenge I am sometimes convinced I can’t meet. Even after all these years. Today, in a quiet moment in the midst of a busy day, I thought about the way his eyes hold mine. There has been fire and light for me in his eyes – for me, for as long as I can remember. Me. His fierceness lights me from the inside out with just one look. In the middle of an everyday moment, I look up to see his eyes on me. And there in that moment when I’m nothing special on my own and living in the mundane, I am all there is in his eyes. I am the only one in a room filled with people.
And then as quickly as he is fierce and passion, strength and fire, he is vulnerable. His tenderness for me still churns my insides like it did from the beginning. In those moments, I think I love him more than I knew was possible. On nights like these when the lightening bugs pop and flash in the approaching night, as we sit quietly on the porch, I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. There is stillness and quiet between us just like it used to be in the beginning, when he said all he needed to without a word spoken. The heat surrounds us in spite of the encroaching darkness. The rising moon isn’t bringing relief from the swelter.
But somehow, in spite of the sweat that trickles, and the air thick, all I can think about is the way fire and heat burn off the dross. We have been tried and tested in the fire. In the quiet, he reaches over and takes my hand in his. Ten years and a handful of days after the first time he did that very thing, it lights me up inside. Still. I close my eyes, lay my head back, and breathe deeply of the contentment that comes from loving him above myself – even when we do it the hard way. Even when we are tested in the fire.
– Flash fiction by Elaina M. Avalos
*I wrote this in 2013. This is a repost from when I started this blog.*
Here’s an excerpt from the novel I’m starting to work on this month (Sea Glass Hearts) and hope to finish in the next eight weeks!
On Saturday afternoon, my Realtor and/or fan girl, Tally, sent me a text message to remind me about the concert at Joe’s. I knew I needed to go. But I spent hours after, convinced it was one of my dumbest ideas yet. I’ve had so many. It’s getting harder and harder to track them. The thing about me is that I know myself well. I knew that if I replied and told her I’d be there, I would – even if I tortured myself all day, filling my day with anxiety and worry. So I replied, five minutes after I read it. “I’ll be there,” I said.
When I was a little girl, I moved from foster home to foster home – never staying anywhere very long. My story isn’t all the unique. There’s almost a half a million just like me, all over this vast country. My belongings were stuffed into a black trash bag each time I moved. I carried it from house to house – until I was five that is. I got my own luggage then, when one foster mom, who had to disrupt the placement because she got cancer, bought me a duffel bag set. I guess she felt bad. I don’t know. I lived with her for nine months. I liked her. I called her mom. She was the first one I called mom. I never called anyone mom, ever again. Not even the woman who adopted me at 16. Most of what I came into foster care with had disappeared over time – except two things. When I entered care, I had a necklace on – it was a little too much for my three-year-old self. I also had a letter, if you can call it that, that my mom had stuffed into my purse. I didn’t know about the letter until I was much older. But I wore the necklace the day my Mom told me to sit on a bench in Heisler Park, near a cliff over looking the Pacific. She said she wanted to buy us ice cream. She never came back. I barely remember her face. She walked away – her hair, blond and wavy, reached her waist. When I was older, I saw a photo of Stevie Nicks circa 1977, in a scrapbook, in one of my foster parent’s homes. I asked, “Who is this lady?”
“That,” my foster mom said, “is the great Stevie Nicks. She’s a singer. One of the best to ever live,” she said.
I replied, barely audible, “Oh. Maybe she’s my mom.” As far as I could tell, she was as close a person had ever come to looking like her. The day she left me in the park, she wore a long flowing white dress, with a lace duster. Most of the time even still, even though I know now what she looks like, I still picture her blond, tangly curls and her white flowy clothes, as she left, instead of her face. Since that’s the last thing I saw, I guess the trauma of it all has kept that memory burned into my consciousness.
When my mom told me we were going to the park, I could not have been more excited. As always, I lived for the adventures we went on, especially after we were homeless. I mean, I didn’t know we were homeless. I just loved camping. We slept in the canyons and near the beach, moving when necessary. I loved sleeping in the campgrounds in Orange County – with their oak trees and sycamores. Their branches created cool shapes in the soft orange glow of the campground lights. When we had to leave a campground, we would sleep near the rich people beaches and then find our way back to another campsite. The day I bought my house in the hills above Laguna, just blocks from the park bench where she abandoned me, I thought I’d finally arrived. Maybe I did? The problem was, I didn’t have any real sense of victory though I’d hoped and prayed it would feel that way.
When we left Trabuco Canyon, we were in Dwayne’s car. He was her boyfriend. At least one that had been around for a little longer than the others. There were lots of them. I’d never forgotten his first name – though my trauma prevented me from even remembering my mom’s full name. Dwayne drove us down the winding canyon roads to Laguna, with the windows down and classic rock blaring. When we sat down on the bench, I had a small bag with me. I called it my purse. She said, as she got up, “You hold that purse tight and don’t let go, okay?” That wouldn’t be a problem because I carried it with me everywhere I went. I was eventually picked up by the police and taken to the social services agency in the city of Orange, I didn’t know what they’d found in there. They kept it with my file until I was old enough to really talk with my caseworkers. What they’d found didn’t help me understand. It didn’t help me grasp why she’d left me there. I didn’t know my story. I didn’t know from her scribbled and cryptic words, why. I didn’t know who she was or where she came from. What I knew for sure? She may not have ever been in her right mind. Her words were jumbled nonsense. I know her first name, Willow. But beyond that and her tangled mess of curls and flowing dress, I don’t know her story – or mine.
In the letter, she wrote, in one long run-on sentence, the sea is carrying me away i tried to stay above the surface for her but the current is carrying me away she needs you more than she needs me. And then, here she is my mermaid child I have to return now. Who knows what in the actual hell she meant. She scribbled numbers on the back of the note. I always dreamed as a pre-teen, once they’d handed over her letter to me – as if it wasn’t mine in the first place, that maybe I’d find some meaning in the numbers. But all these years later, based on everything else I’ve uncovered in the intervening years, there’s no meaning to them. There is one other thing she wrote on the back of the note, I’m still certain it is a piece of the puzzle that will make sense someday. She wrote one word, and then underlined it many times, creating creases in the paper. The creases made reading her note on the front side, harder. The word? Jade. Now that I’m here, in the place that birthed both of us, I hope to understand.
As for the other thing I was left with – my necklace – it’s a small piece of turquoise sea glass – with a small mother of pearl dangling alongside it. I’ve lived in some rough places over the years. But I hung on to that necklace like it was a part of my own body – like one of my arms or legs. When I was 12, I got kicked out of a foster home for beating up my foster sister. She’d tried to take the necklace from me. It didn’t matter to my foster parents. They didn’t care that it was all I had of her. They sent me back to social services like I was a shirt you’d return because it doesn’t fit. I don’t wear the necklace much anymore. But it’s always with me. It will never not be with me.
As I got dressed for Joe’s, I thought long and hard about the necklace. I stared at myself in my full length mirror. My brown hair is piled on my head with curly wisps of unruly locks falling all around my face, emboldened to be wilder than usual, in the humidity of a Carolina summer. The easy choice would be to slip it into my purse, where I usually kept it – when it didn’t fit the moment. But today felt dangerous, in an entirely enticing way. I have an entire family in this beach side town. And not a damn one of them tried to find me. Chew on that for a minute. The scrappy twelve year old in me, that beat up the sweet church kid when she tried to steal her necklace, is the one that raised an eyebrow, grabbed that necklace off the dresser, and put it on. I knew, in that moment, there’d be no turning back.
Joe’s was quite the scene. Situated at the end of the boardwalk, it sat in a mostly residential part of the town which explains, in part, why it may not have been frequented by the tourists – who probably stuck to the section of town that was easy walking distance from the handful of hotels and Bed and Breakfasts that lined the strip along the boardwalk – all leading to the fishing pier. The pier, as I’d discovered on my first very long walk, jutted out into the Atlantic in, what I am certain is a taunting and enticing way, for the hurricane season. Yet, it still stands – defying Mother Nature in a way I can respect.
When I was two houses down from Joe’s, I stopped. The Beach Music floated up above the crashing waves. When I did my research about Seaside – which as an author is way more fun than writing – I learned a lot about the Beach Music culture of the Carolinas. When you grow up in the coarse sand of Newport and Huntington Beach, in the 80s and 90s, beach music is U2, Jesus Jones, and Depeche Mode. Or basically anything that’s playing on “The World Famous KROQ.” When I finally traced my origins back to the strip of barrier island off the coast of North Carolina, I learned everything I could, including how drastically different beach culture here can be from the only home I’d ever known. Beach music, as I’d soon learn, was deeply rooted in R&B. This blew my mind. As the music wafted up into the air, along with the intoxicating scent of what I imagine is mouth watering local seafood, I needed a second to gather myself.
Before I open my eyes, Tally’s voice reaches me. In spite of her loud appearance, her voice and deep Carolina drawl are about as soothing as a voice can be – as if she speaks in songs and poetry. I adore it – but promise myself not to let her know she’s my new best friend. “There you are! I started to worry you’d changed your mind,” she said, as she rushes to my side, looping her arm through mine. Like the day I’d met her in person for the first time, she is wearing bright, almost fluorescent colors and jewelry that might as well have been bigger than her head. She is a tiny little thing. Which I suppose makes her presence, bright clothing, and huge jewelry, particularly charming. Or jarring. One of those. “You look divine,” she says. “You could charm the dew right off the honeysuckle.” I stifle my laugh until she says, “Don’t try to pretend you didn’t just mentally write that in your little author notebook. I know that’ll show up someday in a novel. I’m downright full of this bullshit. I’ll warn you before I throw one out that I really want you to remember though,” she says, as she steers me to Joe’s, as if I have no say in the matter.
She pulls me along until we reach what might as well be her throne high atop the Tally Court – a rickety outdoor couch – surrounded by a group of her courtiers. She introduces me, as she motions for me to have a seat with a sway of her arm, “This – this my friends – is a true celebrity right here. This is Allison Whiting! Can you believe it? In Seaside!” I don’t even bother stifling a laugh this time. Tally pats my hand, like I’m a pet. “Just ignore her, she doesn’t quite understand who she is,” she says. Truer words have never been uttered about me.
A chorus of welcomes and nice to meet yous, meet me as I smile my best fake smile. It’s the one I use when I sign books for hours on end and when the talk shows act interested in my latest book – even though they really don’t care a wit about a single thing I write. “Thank you for the warm welcome. So what should I order? Tell me all the things about the food and drinks,” I say, hoping to quickly distract from the embarrassing introduction.
“Easy,” a man, with a bushy grey beard and the reddest cheeks I’ve ever seen, says, “Shrimp burger. Get the shrimp burger. It’s an Eastern Carolina tradition,” he says, to the agreement of the rest of the crew.
“Well shrimp burger it is,” I say.
Tally whispers in my ear, “They don’t come to us. You have to go to the bar to order. They don’t take cards, by the way. Cash only.”
“Well that’s quaint,” I say.
“I’ll try not to be insulted by that,” Tally says, winking. “Go get you some food and an adult beverage and come on back. By the way, as soon as I find your neighbors, I’ll make the intro.”
“Thanks,” I say, with a thumbs up, as the heat rises in my face. If there were more lights on around here, I’d probably be red as a beet. Honestly, I might as well be on fire, as the anxiety takes over. I walk across the bar, packed with people, keeping an eye out for my grandparents as I go. I’m certain I’ll know them when I see them. The first photo I’d found of them on the Internet, from a local charity event, is old – twenty years, at least. But I have another, from the Seaside fishing tournament, maybe ten years after that. That one gets me a little closer to what they probably look like now. I’ve studied both photos for hours upon hours, hoping to find myself in them and preparing for the day I show up on their doorstep.
When I finally get through the wait at the bar, I sit at a newly opened barstool and wait for the bartender to maker her way to me. I take in the place, watching everyone. If there was a job description for writers – people-watching would be a requirement. I’m instantly overwhelmed at the thought that people in this room could be related to me.
When I turned 16, my last set of foster parents, adopted me. The Russell family will always have my deepest gratitude. I love them dearly. Mama Russell – what I still call her to do this day – never tried for one second to convince me to give up my dreams of finding my family. Nor did she make me try to fit into theirs – as if I’d somehow forget I likely had an entire family out there somewhere. She seemed to understand this need in me. She never pressured me. I will always love her, even though I’ve never been able to call her, “Mom,” as I’m sure she’s always wished. I expect, if I should ever get free from the trauma that is my childhood and marry – it will be Bo Russell that walks me down the aisle – with Mama Russell there in the front row. They were good to me. They are the best kind of people God makes, if God exists, that is.
Perhaps unfortunately, blood and the ties that bind us, are stronger. My foster care agency used to say that family is more than blood. It is. It truly is. But maybe only those who are left alone in the world, without clear ties to their past, understand how desperately we long for connection to those who share our DNA. In the midst of my introspection, in this noisy bar, someone taps me on the shoulder. I look to my right, in the direction of the tap. The guy next to me is pointing toward the bartender – who I now realize is standing in front of me, staring at me like I’ve got two heads.
Who knows how long she’s stood there. Her hair is bright purple and her arms are covered with tattoos. She’s wearing the shortest skirt I have ever seen and her shirt is cut way too low. She’s not subtle. I notice in a flash, as I size her up, that she has a scar on her wrist and what looks like a burn mark just above it. “I’m sorry,” I say.
“Well what do you want?” she asks, apparently annoyed.
“I’ll take a shrimp burger and bourbon on the rocks,” I say.
“What side, hon?”
“Oh. I don’t know. What do you have?” I ask, what I think is a seemingly innocent question.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No, dude,” I say. “What was your first guess?” I ask, my famous attitude making its first appearance, since I arrived in North Carolina.
She raises her right eyebrow. From the looks of her, I’d guess her and I could go a couple of rounds out back. She’s probably fought off some meth heads and abusive boyfriends in her day. In other words, she’s just like me – but you can’t see my tats or scars. “I like you,” she says. “We’ve got slaw, fries, or our world famous mac and cheese. We’ve got a partial menu at night in the summer. Makes things easier on Joe. What can I get you?”
“I’ll take the mac and cheese,” I say.
“Good call. Can I get your name for your order?”
“Sure. It’s Ellison. Ellison Whiting.”
She stops mid-reach, before taking the twenty-dollar bill I’ve handed her. “Ellison, eh?”
“Interesting. We have a bunch of Ellisons down here. They’re everywhere. Kind of like sand fleas. Sadly, my mama is an Ellison.”
“I’m from Orange County, California,” I say. She raises that eyebrow at me again. She’s skeptical. I like her.
“Well wherever the hell you’re from, welcome. I’ll have your drink in a minute and someone will bring your food to your table. I saw you come in with Tally.”
“Thanks,” I say. I fully notice as I do, the gentlemen next to me, though he’s picking at the label on his beer bottle, he’s been watching me the whole time. From my peripheral vision, he smiles. He’s been following my every move. I turn to face him. “Appreciate the tap,” I say. I was just remembering all of the things I need at the grocery store,” I say – hand out stretched. He takes my hand.
“Ryan,” he says, extending his hand out to meet mine. “California, eh? What are you doing out here?”
I don’t detect even the slightest of accents – which I’ve so far heard from most everyone I’ve met the last few days. “Nice to meet you, Ryan. And, yep -California. Most recently Napa. But I spent most of my life in Southern California.”
“I lived there for big chunks of my life. San Diego. Great town.”
“It is. Friendly city – compared to the rest of SoCal anyway. What were you doing out there?”
“Marine Corps and Navy. Navy parents – Marines for me. Spent my enlistment at Pendleton.”
“Gotcha. Are you originally from Seaside? Or close by?” I ask, taking a second to study his weathered face. His trucker’s ball cap sits over a mess of unruly blond hair. It’s long enough that you’d never guess he’s ex-military. I bet you one thousand actual bucks that he surfs and has a half-pipe in his backyard.
“I’m from a little of everywhere,” he says, looking back to his bottle and peeling at it a little more. “Like I said. I was a military brat. We lived all over. But my most formative years were California and Hawaii. Hawaii will probably always be home.”
“Nice. Not a bad place to be from,” I say.
“True story. I’ve called Seaside my permanent home for the last ten years or so, though.”
“Do you like it here?”
“I do. I own a little place up the boardwalk. Plus, I can surf, hike the mountains within a five-hour drive, fish, or backpack in the middle of nowhere here on the coastal plain. It’s an outdoor man’s paradise, if you ask me. Plus, they don’t care if you put up a – gone fishing or surfing sign – on your door.”
“Sounds like my kind of place.”
“What brings you to our little perfect slice of the Southern Outer Banks?” He turns to face me. He smiles for the first time – deep dimples instantly make him endearing. His eyes are deep brown. I’m suddenly reminded of how much I love a man with brown eyes.
“Research,” I say, trying to sound mysterious, but realizing after I say it, I just sound lame.
“What kind of research?” he asks.
“Book research,” pleasantly surprised that he’s the second person tonight that doesn’t know who I am.
“You’re a writer?”
“I am. I write fiction. I have a book to write – so here I am.”
“If there’s anything I can help you with, let me know. I own the inn on the opposite end of the strip. I’m right on the water. You can’t miss us. I run a small diner from the ground floor. It’s a good place to write – with views of the shoals and the wild horses. Stop by sometime. I’ll save you a table. When you write the great American novel, I’ll put a placard with your name on it,” he says. I find the fact that he has no idea who I am, endearing. He continues, “Like I said, let me know if I can help with anything,” he says, as the bartender slides my drink down the bar – from the opposite end. She’s a cheeky thing. I reach out and catch it before it collides with the Old Fashioned my bar-neighbor is nursing.
“Good catch, babe,” she says.
“Well thanks. What was your name by the way?”
“Jade,” she says. “Jade Willis.” I choke as a I take a sip.
“You alright?” she asks.
“Yep. I’m just terribly awkward. Beautiful drink,” I say to her. Though just a bourbon on the rocks, she’s twisted a candied orange peel and if my nose doesn’t betray me, I’m guessing she rimmed the glass with orange, too.
“Thanks. Enjoy. We’ll have the shrimp burger out to you in just a bit,” she says, quickly turning her attention to another customer.
“Well, Ryan – I should probably return to Tally and her buddies or I will never live it down. Thank you for the offer about writing at your place. I just might do that – especially if you have some good local atmosphere for me to soak in.”
“Oh that we do. It was nice to meet you, Ellison.” he says as I stand to my feet. I stumble a little – as if I had more than a few drinks. It’s not the first sip of my drink. It’s the realization that I’ve just met a woman named Jade, in a little bar, in my hometown – a place I’ve never known or seen before. Ryan reaches out to steady me.
“You okay?” he asks.
“I’m good. Thanks. I just got up too fast,” I say. “Thanks again,” I say, as I quickly make my way out of the packed bar, toward Tally. I’ve opened the door now. I can’t turn back. Either I’m leaving this place with answers or I’ll die trying.
I wrote a novel. In June of 2017, my novel Chasing Hope was published. As I approach the four-year anniversary, I thought I would share a bit about the book. You can find it here in Kindle and print format. There is a preview available on Amazon. You can also sign up for my newsletter to read the first chapter for free! You can do that, by clicking here or here. You can also view what some of my readers have written about the book, here.
Here is the book blurb, from the back of the book:
Dr. Ava Cooper has it all. Scratch that – she had it all. The day she buried her daughter was the beginning of the end. With one fell swoop her ex-husband took what was left of the life they created together. All that is left is a demanding boxer, her worldly possessions, and the SUV she bought as a first year resident. With nothing left of the old life, Ava heads south to help out and old friend. In the small and quirky coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina – a tiny hamlet situated on the Southern Outer Banks – Ava quickly learns that her plan to quietly fade into the background to find some semblance of normalcy is not on her new neighbor’s and staff’s agenda for her. As she settles into southern small-town living, she meets a family and a baby in the foster care system that threaten to break through her grief-stricken and heart. Will Ava be able to let hope in long enough to get back the life she desperately longs for?
This book holds a special place in my heart for a few reasons – mainly because it’s the first complete novel I’ve written. It’s also one that took me way too long to write. The process was daunting, to be honest. I let so many things distract me and get in the way (like my day job). Rather than be single-minded in my focus on accomplishing my dreams and using the gifts God has given me, I focused far too much on the job that paid the bills. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. However, I didn’t put enough emphasis on my dreams or writing what I believe I’m meant to write. I let work take over my life. I mean, take over.
I worried too much about what people would think. I shied away from writing content on my blog (I had a different blog that had a larger audience and community at one time). Overall, I just let my writing wither away under the weight of what other people would think. That’s just dumb. In years past, I was part of multiple writer communities online. Many of the people I have known in these circles over the years have gotten literary agents, publishing deals, and are cranking out books with traditional publishing houses.
It’s not arrogant to say I think that I could be in their shoes too. The only difference is, I didn’t work for it. Phew, what a sucky realization that was when I first woke up to it. It was all my fault and all of my own choosing. But one day I came to terms with this and decided I wouldn’t let my life go unlived. I wouldn’t let the books go unwritten. And I certainly wouldn’t ignore the dreams I’ve long held in my heart.
Today isn’t Monday Motivation – but we’ll call it Tuesday Truths. The only thing standing in the way of you accomplishing your dreams and goals? It’s you. It’s me. We can make all the excuses we want. But at the end of the day, we are own worst enemy when it comes to going after what we want. I just refuse to live that way anymore. So whatever it is . . . go get it, friends.
I admit it. I started Slightly South of Simple before starting a Reading Challenge in January. The theme for January was a book related to your New Years resolution. Since I don’t do resolutions, I decided finishing a book that was in my Kindle queue or on my bedside table, was close enough to a resolution.
First up was Kristy Woodson Harvey’s first book in the The Peachtree Bluff Series. I started this book during a very chaotic time last summer, as my foster son was preparing to be moved. As much as I love reading, you would have thought it would have been a little self-care. But I couldn’t bring myself to do much of anything but watch comedy specials on Netflix.
As a result, the book sat on my Kindle without being read. I read the author’s first book Dear Carolina, and loved it – especially the ways in which it incorporated Eastern NC – this place I’ve called home for so long. So I knew Slightly South of Simple had to be the first book I read for the challenge.
What did I think of it? I loved the book. But as I’m not a book reviewer, I don’t intend to dive terribly deep into the plot. What I will say is that I find her writing to be honest, heartfelt, and funny. While the book is technically not set in North Carolina, the town Peachtree Bluff is said to be modeled after Beaufort, NC. If you’ve been around a while, or read my book, you know how much I love that quirky, beautiful town.
I think Harvey writes relationships genuinely. She approaches complexities in those relationships in a way that I appreciate as a writer andreader. There were a couple of things I didn’t care for so much in this book. One of which was an obsession that a couple of characters appeared to have with body image/size.
While it rings very true that this might be something women in certain spheres are focused on, it did frustrate me as it didn’t really seem necessary to the plot itself. Who knows? Maybe I’ll come to understand that particular issue better, in the next two novels? That said, it didn’t alter my overall view of Harvey’s writing.
If you’re wondering what my February book is, it’s My Twenty-Five Years in Provence, by Peter Mayle. Mayle was a wonderful writer. He wrote joyfully about his life in France (and about food & wine – my favs). You may have seen a movie made about one of his novels – A Good Year? Mayle passed away recently. I think this is the perfect book for this month’s theme.
Here are the other books in this challenge:
January: Book Related to Your New Year’s Resolution February: Biography or Memoir March: Book in a Series April: Try an Audio Book May: Feels Like Falling! (Obviously… Then Join Us May 15 for a FB Live Discussion) June: Classic Beach Book July: Thriller So Scary You Have to Read on the Beach in Daylight August: Historical Fiction September: Book That Has Been in Your TBR Pile Forever October: New Release Impulse Buy November: One of Your Family Member’s Favorite Books December: Holiday-Themed Book
Here’s another excerpt of my novel about Lacey Mays. You can find the first excerpt, here. You can find my other fiction, here.
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 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 the 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.
“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.” 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’. 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.