I kneel in front of the small black-and-white television, my face close to the screen. My body is robbed of breath as the words of the newscaster cuts through a thick fog of shock. A mug shot appears. Blood rushes hot and my head goes fuzzy. Now grown and far too thin, that face still holds a distinct echo of the boy I so loved. My brother Walden…lost to me for years, now labeled a killer.
Memories as thick as the air and mud and secrets of our Mississippi childhood sit heavy on my skin. Even though my three siblings are scattered, miles away and years out of mind, they dwell in a place as deep inside me as my own heart. Perhaps our extraordinary bond comes from the strain of madness that runs in our blood, the love and hate tangling until they’re braided into an unbreakable rope, a lifeline and a noose.
As far as I have run, as many times as I have reinvented myself, my childhood has snaked through time and wrapped around my throat.
Have I been a fool to hope that at least one of us survived unscathed?
It’s time to admit that, perhaps, the blood that knotted love and hate may have, in the end, may have made murderers of us all.
I delude myself into thinking that I am where I am today because of clear choices and controlled decisions. In the chaos of my childhood, that’s all I dreamed about, power over my own life. But in the dark of night when I lie alone in my apartment in Pacific Heights, shrouded by mist and distant foghorns, I’m forced to admit I am only a seed. At first blown to Los Angeles on the wind of someone else’s dream, and then rooting in San Francisco, where I was dropped by a different someone. But I have rooted well. That, at least, is my doing.
Yesterday, after the newscast that named my brother a murderer, I called my boss at the Buckman Foundation. I’m in charge of public relations; a position gained by tenacity, dedication and, admittedly, the fact that Mr. Capstone likes me. That job is my whole life—and I’m not using it as a turn of phrase.
The Buckmans are old money. Even in the progressive atmosphere of California, old money is just as prideful and unbending as it was in the South. Fortunately, James is a common last name so Mr. Capstone, who never misses a morning or evening news broadcast, didn’t make the connection when I requested time off for a family emergency. His tone was concern laced with what sounded like surprise that I even have a family. He assured me Keith and Stan are happy to step up while I’m gone. Which is not a comfort. They both believe a woman has as much business being an executive, junior or otherwise, as a monkey. They’re continually looking for ways to kick the ladder out from under me and leave me hanging by my fingernails.
My life, perfect and organized just yesterday morning, is now a tangle of worry and uncertainty. On the flight, I made a list in my current sketchbook of the scarce, yet disturbing, details I’ve discovered about Walden’s situation. As I walk through the New Orleans airport, a group of three shaved-head, white-robed Hare Krishnas step in front of me, flowers and pamphlets extended in their pale, bony hands. Even though my home city is full of such groups, I’ve never paused to really study those selling street-corner prophecies. Now that Walden’s name has been linked with The Scholars of Humanity—a group with a leader being investigated by a now-murdered journalist and a compound deep in the Louisiana swamps—I pause to look deeply into their eyes, searching for what ignites their doubtless devotion. But all I see are lost children who consider themselves enlightened, saved and saving others.
I empathize, I do. After all I was a lost child, too.
I think about Sharon Tate. Although I only met her once, the news of Manson’s butcherers shook me to the core. The girls who did the killing, delusional and brainwashed, devoted to a madman, singing like children and dressing like schoolgirls throughout their trial.
And now my own brother is accused of a crime nearly as monstrous.
I don’t know how he could be capable of such a thing.
But you do know, don’t you? Just like they say back home, blood always tells.
Even under the canopy of anciet trees, the heat is oppressive in the historic Garden District of New Orleans. The slightly sour smell of humidity-laden fallen vegetation teases my nose. The stately old houses with their deep porches and floor to ceiling double-hung windows are closed up, no doubt cool and serene on the inside. I hear the soft burble of a splashing fountain in one of the gardens concealed behind an aged brick wall and wrought iron gate, creating an illusion of relief from the heat. In defiance of appearing weak and ordinary, even the wisteria refuses to wilt.
The irony isn’t lost on me as I stand in front of the double-ironwork gate in front of Ross Saenger’s home seeking his family’s wealth and power to save my brother. The wealth and power I resented—as I’d resented Ross himself—so deeply and for so long. My sketchbook listing the meager facts is tucked in my tote, and a much longer list of appeals and entreaties piles up in my head. I am ready to beg. On my knees if necessary.
I do not look forward to this reunion. But this is about what Walden needs, not my wounds and grudges. Truth be, I cannot blame Mrs. Saenger for what happened in sixty-three. It was her kindness that saved our family—right before it tore us apart.
I feel a little faint and wish I’d pulled my hair into a long ponytail at the nape of my neck. I’d forgotten how Southern air coats the skin and weighs the lungs, how the stillness carries its own mass. I regret my polyester double-knit vested pantsuit and long for the yellow cotton sundress of my youth. Nausea grips my empty stomach and I want to turn away. But this is Walden’s best hope.
The grandure of this house stands out, even in this neighborhood, two-and-a-half stories of brick solidity and symmetry tucked behind an iron fence and a tall, carefully sculpted hedge. Porches span the front of the house on both floors, trimmed in turned posts and filigreed ironwork. Marshalling myself, I open the gate, cross the walk and climb the marble steps. I stare at the black door and study the beautiful leaded glass transom over it. I set down my suitcase beside a shiny black ceramic pot filled with red geraniums and ring the bell, desperate to get out of the heat. It hits me, stupidly and belatedly, that Mrs. Saenger might not be home. The street is quiet, the only sound the ever-present whirr of cicadas in the ancient trees. I regret my haste in letting the cab go.
As I wait, the drumbeat of my desperate heart scatters my carefully laid out words like starlings from a wire. I must slow down my thoughts or else babble like a madwoman when Mrs. Saenger appears.
But when the door swings open, it isn’t Mrs. Saenger. It’s Ross. And thought ceases altogether.
“Good—” His arresting blue eyes are pleasantly expectant, as if he’s anticipating a neighbor or a friend. He’s even taller and broader-shouldered than when I last saw him in sixty-three, his light brown hair longer.
My mouth opens, but nothing comes out. I’m thirteen and tongue-tied. I’m sixteen and broken.
His expression slowly morphs into surprise. “Tallulah James? Oh my God, is that you?”
“Hello, Ross.” My vision is getting gray around the edges.
He thought I was dead?
“I…there’s been….” I feel myself listing to one side, the grayness pushing deeper into my vision. I’d prepared myself to face Mrs. Saenger. Not him.
My knees wobble.
He reaches out and takes my elbow. “Come in out of the heat.” He plucks my gold suitcase off the porch and guides me inside. “You look like you could use something cold to drink. Have a seat in the living room and I’ll bring something. Coke? Tea?” He lets go of my elbow in careful stages, as if he’s afraid I’ll collapse.
“Just water, please.” I barely feel my feet as I move into a room that screams old money: crystal chandelier, matching chintz sofas (tastefully worn and inviting), oil portraits of ancestors, carved marble fireplace, gleaming silver on the bar cart, and fine, thick area rugs underfoot. This place is just as I’d imagined it when I was hating my older Griff for abandoning me to live here. A perfect life. A movie set. Not with me where he’d promised to be.
When Ross returns with the glasses of water, I practically down mine in one gulp.
He sits on the sofa opposite me and settles his elbows on his knees, linking his hands between them. I have trouble looking directly at him. He’s a man now, but I can still see the boy I pined over. And I feel that old burn of resentment.
He says, “For the past nine years, I’ve imagined the worst. It’s quite a relief to see you alive and well.” The note of judgment in his tone raises my hackles.
I take a slow breath. “I am quite well, thank you. I’ve made a good life for myself.” Alone. On my own. No thanks to you or Griff or my grandmother.
“You could have called to let us know you were okay. Griff was out of his mind with worry,” Ross says.
Griff made his choice. Just as Granny James made hers. Only Margo’s abandonment wasn’t a surprise, she just lived up to expectations.
“I left a note so no one would think I’d been abducted by aliens or alligator poachers.” The look on his face tells me my attempt at lightening the mood fell flat. “Honestly, I’m surprised Griff even knew I was gone. Besides, he’s hardly in a position to complain about someone disappearing.” I’m a little shocked at my own counter-productive childishness.
“He didn’t disappear,” Ross says. “He was right here. And you knew it.”
“So, where is he now?” I imagine him all ivy-league educated on the Saenger’s charity, living well, with a wife and adoring children. He can probably help Walden better than I.
Ross holds my gaze. “I have no idea where he is.”
I blink. “What?”
He leans forward, his shoulders holding the set of bad news. “He was never the same after everything that happened in Lamoyne—your dad, the accusations. After his high school graduation in sixty-five he packed his things and left in the middle of the night. Broke my mom’s heart.”
Cold fear creeps up my spine. All this time, I imagined him in the loving arms and stability of the Saengers, part of a happy family. “You have no idea where he went? He never contacted you?”
“No. Must be a James family trait.” There is bitterness in his voice.
“Hey! I might owe Walden and Dharma, but I’m not going to apologize to you for the choices I made!”
He raises his palms to me. “Fair enough.”
I remind myself I’m here as a beggar. “I actually came to see your mother. Is she here?”
I wait, but he doesn’t elaborate. “Will she be home soon?”
“No. She and Dad died three years ago. Car accident.”
“Oh, Ross. I’m so sorry. I had no idea.” I’ve kept everything about home frozen in time. And, I realize, I’ve been deliberately not thinking of the possibility that some people may be gone. What about Gran? My beloved Maisie?
“Of course you didn’t. Because you didn’t let anyone know where you were.”
“I came to ask her—now you, I suppose—for help.” He stiffens slightly, so I’m quick to add, “Not for me. For Walden. He’s in serious trouble. I didn’t know where else to turn—”
“I saw the news.”
“Do you think your mother’s cousin Sam will be willing to help? He did so much for Griff. Or maybe he can recommend another lawyer? I don’t want Walden left in the hands of…of a—” Suddenly, I smell my little brother’s baby shampoo, feel his hand in mine, recall the trusting way he looked at me. “A c-court appointed lawyer.”
I feel clammy. I reach for the glass of water, only to discover it’s empty.
Ross stands and hands me his. “Here. I haven’t touched it.”
As I take a grateful drink, the obvious occurs to me. “I suppose you can recommend someone, being a lawyer yourself.” Please don’t let him offer to take the case. Who knows what the fallout would be?
He gives me a smile that tickles a memory of the way he used to make me feel. “I’m not a lawyer.”
“I thought it was a foregone conclusion.” The phrase springs from the past.
His eyes soften. “Good memory. As it turns out, I bucked the family expectations and became a psychiatrist.”
“Didn’t know you were even interested in psychiatry.”
“Circumstances spurred it.”
“Oh.” I shift uncomfortably, suddenly feeling as if I’m under a microscope. “Sam, then? Do you think he’ll help?”
“I already called him. His calendar is full, and Walden’s case will be time-consuming. But his daughter Amelia is willing.” He must see the concern on my face because he adds, “Unlike me, she’s always wanted to be a lawyer. She’s a barracuda.”
I have reservations. And I’m ashamed to admit one of them is that she’s a woman. I know firsthand how preconceived notions create an uphill battle. And this is the South, where women are still supposed to be wearing pearls and aprons and going to the beauty shop twice a week. What if we get a male chauvinist pig for a judge?
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” I say. “But maybe I should look for someone with more experience. I’m not asking for a handout. I intend to pay.”
“You could get easily someone with more experience. This is a high-profile case with national attention. Laywers will come after this case like a shark after blood in the water,” Ross says. “But Amelia is really good. And she cares about the outcome, not the media exposure she’ll get. She can devote the time. And she’s not asking for a huge retainer. She’s already contacted the Orleans Parish Jail to get in to see him.”
I don’t admit it, but that retainer would be a problem. I have a little savings, but I’d have to borrow the rest. And going through that kind of credit scrutiny will be blood for the sharks in my own particular waters—Keith and Stan are already circling at the Foundation.
“Have you called your grandmother?” he asks, his voice more neutral than his eyes.
“No.” I almost can’t ask the question, but the wrongness of my assumption about Mrs. Saenger blindsided me. “Do you know if she’s still at Hawthorn House?”
“As of last Christmas she was. She sent Griff birthday and Christmas cards here, even after I wrote to tell her he was gone.”
The relief that rushes through my veins tells me I love her far more than I resent her. Still, just the thought of that emotional conversation makes me sway.
“But when I called yesterday,” he says, “there was no answer. Do you want to try now?”
I should say yes, of course. But I don’t have the strength.
“You don’t want to talk to her.” Ross has not lost his ability to see inside me. He’d been that way since the moment he saved my life.
“I rather not. Not right now.”
The look that crosses his face makes me feel like a wayward child—and I suppose in a way I am. But at the moment, I can barely form thoughts into words.
Ross nods. “I’ll try again. You look ready to drop. Have you eaten or slept?”
“I can’t eat. The mere thought of food….” I shudder.
“Let’s get you upstairs. You can take a hot bath and get a nap.”
“I’ll call a cab, get a hotel. Then I should go see Walden. He needs to know he’s not alone.”
But he is alone, because you left him.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll stay here. And there’s no way you’ll get in to see him today. Amelia hasn’t even gotten in yet.” He’s already in the front hall, picking up my suitcase.
The thought of going back out into that sweltering heat makes me dizzy. I’m not sure I can even drag myself up the long, curved mahogany staircase.
I follow him to a bedroom with ice blue draperies, bedspread and filigree on the wallpaper. Just looking at it makes me feel cool and calm.
“There’s a private bath through that door. Get some rest, you’re going to need it.”
As he’s backing out of the room, I say, “Don’t let me sleep long. I want to go see him as soon as—as—” I put my hand over my eyes. The first tears I’ve allowed since this all began start to fall. I turn away and wave Ross from the room.
I hope he doesn’t try to comfort me. I’m too worn to ward it off and too weak to not crumble.
After a couple of seconds, his soft footsteps move away and I hear the door quietly close.
I reach into my purse and pull Griff’s lucky arrowhead out of the zipper pocket. Then I curl on my side the cool bed, clutching it to my chest and allow myself a regret-filled cry.
I dream of a storm-filled sky, lightning bolts and tree-stripping winds. A dark swirling twister barrels down on me as I chase Walden, his blond hair bobbing ahead of me, a bright spot in the dimness. We’re surrounded by endless acres with no shelter. The roar is right at my back, the wind ripping at my clothes, snapping my hair in my face. Then the noise rises over my head, the funnel skipping over me. Then descending, plucking Walden from the earth, his small feet still running as he hangs in the debris-filled air.
I wake yelling his name.
Feet thud up the stairs and down the hallway, stopping abruptly at the bedroom door. I hear Ross’s hand on the knob before he pauses, then knocks. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” A drop of red falls onto the wide bell of my pants, standing out against the argyle design. I open my hand to see I’ve squeezed the arrowhead so hard I’m bleeding. “Oh shit!”
The door bursts open, and Ross is by the bed before I can blink. “What happened?” He heads into the bathroom, returning with a thick blue towel.
When he tries to wrap my hand, I pull it toward my chest, careful so the blood doesn’t drip onto the bedspread. “It’ll ruin it.”
Confidently, yet gently, he takes my hand and flips the towel around it. “It’s a towel, for God’s sake, not an heirloom.” Then he looks in my eyes. “Lulie, did you…?”
The sound of the nickname I haven’t heard in years sends a clammy shiver across my skin. “Did I what?”
“Try to hurt yourself.”
“Of course not!” The idea of him trying to dig around inside my head irritates me. “If I was going to kill myself, I’d have done it in San Francisco where nobody would find me until I was good and dead.”
He surprises me by laughing. “Only you, Lulie.” After a pause, he says, “At least you answered one of my many questions.”
“And that is?” I pull my hand and the towel from his grasp.
“Where you’re living.” He raises a brow. “Alone?”
“Very. By choice, if that’s your next question. And I’m not isolated in a filthy apartment filled with a hundred cats. I’m quite normal.”
There’s something in the way looks at me that makes me uncomfortable. I shift and get off the far side of the bed.
“Normal is what I always wanted for you. Of course, normal is a relative term. And quite separate from happy or content.”
I head to the bathroom to run some cold water over my hand and rinse off the arrowhead. “Quite content,” I say over the sound of the running water. I adore my job, my apartment. I have acquaintances, not the emotional entanglements of deep friendships.
I look in the mirror and see him leaning against the door jamb to the bathroom. “So how did you cut your hand?”
I finish rinsing the arrowhead and hold it up for him to see, but I keep my eyes on his reflection, not the real man.
“Unusual good luck charm,” he says.
“Talisman,” I correct. “I don’t believe in luck.”
He steps closer behind me. “Do you still have a place to cast your anger and your fears?”
I am so startled that I turn to face him.
“You’re not the only one who remembers.” His gaze holds mine for a second, then he turns. “I’ll get some bandages for your hand.”
As I listen to Ross walk down the stairs, I wonder—if I’d continued to toss my fears into a river, would things have turned out differently for all of us?
I’ve changed to the coolest clothing I brought, a flowered halter dress that felt totally acceptable in California, but seems over-exposed as I walk into the the kitchen of this old Southern mansion. If Ross is shocked, he hides it well. He sets a grilled pimento cheese sandwich on the kitchen table and nods for me to sit.
Funny, I’d forgotten all about pimento cheese. Just like I’d forgotten about the weight of the air.
“It’s too hot for this,” he says. “But Mom always made it when things got rough.”
“Thanks.” I know if I take a bite, it will grow in my mouth until I choke on it. I pick up half and try to at least look like I’m going to eat it. As Ross is getting glasses of sweet tea, I wonder which of the four chairs around the table was Griff’s when he lived here.
Has he seen the news? Is he on his way back home?
Even if he has, Walden is mine. Mine to protect. Mine to save. He and Dharma were always mine to care for.
I pick a few pinches off the sandwich and drop them on the plate in an effort to make it look like some of it is disappearing. “Did you know my uncle sent Walden back to Lamoyne?”
I relayed yesterday’s conversation with Uncle Roger.
“Walden was unhappy.” Uncle Roger sounded every bit as distant and snobbish as my mother always described—before she amended her assessment when she needed to dump her kids on him, a man none of us had ever met. “We sent him back to his grandmother after two weeks.”
“You separated the twins?”
“It was for the best. We adopted Dharma—she’s made our lives a delight. She’s in New York, on Broadway.” His voice lifted with pride.
“And her twin is headed to prison because you gave up on him after two weeks! He was a traumatized eight-year-old! How could you be so heartless? You need to get him a lawyer–”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, there little lady. First of all, you do not tell me what to do. Secondly, Walden is not my concern.”
“Do it for Dharma,” I say. Your delight. “This will break her heart.”
“I doubt that. She hasn’t seen him for nine years.”
My hand tightens around the receiver. “Can I have her number? I need to call her.”
“No, you cannot. Dharma needed a clean break from all of that madness down there. That’s why I’ve thrown away every card and letter you’ve sent.”
“You did what?” I wrote those letters so they would know I still loved them. I never expected a response, because I never included a return address.
“Her time before she came to us is irrelevant. Do not, I repeat, do not drag her into this in any way. Her life has nothing to do with her brother’s, or yours—or my feckless sister’s for that matter.”
“No. I didn’t know that,” Ross says. “Griff never wanted to go back to Lamoyne. He couldn’t stand you not being there.”
“This all could have been avoided if Gran had let me stay.” The bitterness of her betrayal is just as choking as it was then.
“Listen, Lulie, there was no good solution back in sixty-three. Not for any of you.” By the way he pauses, I know I’m not going to like what is coming. “As soon as you’re done picking at that sandwich, we need to leave for Lamoyne. I finally tracked down your grandmother. She’s in the hospital.”
Despite Ross’s assurances that Gran’s situation is not life threatening, my pulse pounds in my temples and my hands fidget as I ride in the passenger seat of his Mercedes toward Lamoyne. I try to calm myself as I listen to Don McLean sing American Pie, glad for the noise of the radio.
“I’m not sure I would have thought to call Mr. Stokes.” The admission is slow in coming, mostly because calling him is the most obvious thing to do and it didn’t cross my mind.
“When I didn’t get her at home after several tries, I decided I’d better do something. I mean a lot could have happened since Christmas. And this business with Walden—”
“Are you sure it’s just high blood pressure?”
“That’s what Mr. Stokes said. When I spoke to her on the phone, she called it ‘a little episode.’ We’ll know for certain soon.”
My stomach drops to my ankles. After all this time, I’m going to face her—and all of my assumptions are likely to be blown out of the water.
“I hope her blood pressure doesn’t skyrocket at the sight of me.”
“She loves you, Tallulah.”
A long a time ago, I believed that without question.
At the sign announcing seven miles to go, my mouth goes dry. I realize I’m as nervous about seeing my hometown again as I am about seeing Gran.
And I don’t relish doing either under Ross’s observant eye.
We’ve made the turn off before I realize he’s taking us past Pearl River Plantation, a route he could have easily avoided by staying on the highway.
Long strands of Spanish Moss reach low over our heads, a veil shrouding the secrets I left behind. Foliage crowds the narrow road, its density pressing so I feel as if we’re going to be crushed. Living in the city, I’d forgotten how closed in a person can feel while still being outdoors. I open the window, only to be met with air so thick it feels solid and the sour smell of vegetation rotting in the humidity. Dark brown water fills the narrow drainage ditch running parallel to us. I see something slither into it.
I thought I’d faced returning to the South when I arrived on Ross’s front steps. But the shock of seeing this place robs my body of breath and chills my skin. Before we left New Orleans, I put on the matching short puffed-sleeved jacket so I won’t give Gran a coronary with my halter dress. I pull it closed over my chest. This is my homecoming, here in this quiet isolation, amidst the leafy green vines that shape trees into monsters, on this dusty road I walked for over half my life.
My time in California ceases to exist. My professional success evaporates. I am a powerless child.
As we near the lane to my old home, I swear Ross is purposefully slowing down. At least he doesn’t point it out like a tour guide of my past.
I can’t help but look. The painted sign is warped and peeling, the lettering no more than a washed-out memory of the vibrant green it used to be: Pearl River Plantation, Pecans and Blackberries, Owners: Drayton and Margo James. I close my eyes and I see ten-year-old Griff standing in the heat with his ruler, swatting mosquitoes until he had the lettering perfect.
The mailbox is missing, the graying post leaning away from the road. The lane is so overgrown I can barely see where it used to be.
All these years, I assumed Gran was still running the orchard, even if the house was vacant and overtaken by mice. But the farm is a ruin. By now the blackberry canes are impenetrable and wild, and foraging animals are well-fed on the pecans. Our generation killed the James family legacy once and for all.
It seems I created fanciful lives for all of those I left behind, lives that had no basis in reality.