The story so far:
The house stood dark and aloof, feet above the other houses on the block: a queen peering down on her subjects. Her, Leigh thought. The house felt like it had a female spirit inhabiting it. It used to host anyone in the neighborhood that needed a meal or her Grandmother’s sage advice. Neighbors would bring bushels of feisty blue crabs or bags of plump shrimp, heads and antennae still intact, as homage for an audience with the queen. The door was never locked until everyone went to bed. If you needed a few dollars until payday, or the name of a good plumber, or someone to watch your baby while you went for a job interview, you came to Miss Annie.
Unless you were white. Miss Annie was a generous woman, but no white person was allowed in her house, unless you were doing work for her. Even then, she supervised the entire process. Miss Annie cursed for the first time the day a truck full of them threw cups of hot coffee on her new white uniform as she walked to work. Laughing, they sped away, yelling obscenities. Indignant, she marched to the police station to report the offense. After standing in the “Colored Only” line for almost an hour, she was told that she must have provoked them somehow. “You know how boys are. Go on to work now. You don’t wanna get fired.” Laughter followed her to the street.
Miss Annie never forgot that humiliation and made sure all in her family never forgot it either; she decided who got to be the recipient of her good will and who was excluded. After a severe stroke, Leigh’s mother cared for her Grandmother for thirteen years: administering countless tablets, changing soiled linens, picking her up when she fell to the floor. Leigh shared the chores until a job offer in Charlotte gave her an opportunity to escape and she fled gratefully. Now, she wished she had helped her mother more. Lord knows, her aunts never did. They always had an excuse as to why they couldn’t leave their manicured lawns to give her mother a reprieve.
Even so, Miss Annie wouldn’t show any favoritism towards her dedicated daughter; she willed the house to all three daughters and they decided to sell. After Miss Annie’s death, her mother took her portion of the money and bought a small condo on the Ashley River, leaving Leigh to handle the details involved in clearing out the aged behemoth. She always said she didn’t want to be a burden to her only daughter. She wasn’t even close. It would be another three weeks before she returned from her cruise.
Leigh understood her Mother for possibly the first time. The prime of her life was spent taking care of her Grandmother; she considered all debts to her paid in full. She deserved her peace of mind. Aunts, uncles and various cousins had already come in and cleared out most of the rugs, furniture, china and silver. Her steps echoed as she walked the halls. She sat at the bar in the ravaged kitchen, rocking the stool with the torn seat back on its hind legs into her favorite musing position.
Lightning? The night was clear a few moments ago. But one never knew with Charleston. She stepped onto the front porch into the sultry mist, the scent of dogwood beneath the late night shower. The light at the end of the walkway created a soft halo into which the fat drops disappeared. Sitting on one of the old ironwork rockers made her shiver as the chill crept through the fabric of her shorts. The iciness evaporated quickly in the summer heat. She spread her thighs and pressed them firmly on the cool iron before reaching down to rub the imprint the metal left on her flesh. The thud of shoes on pavement reached her. She jerked her hand away before she saw him.
A runner came through the darkness, rain saturating a thin tee shirt. As he passed the light, his shirt seemed part of him, moving as he breathed deeply, easily. He must have sensed her presence, because he looked up as he passed. Startled, Leigh looked into bright, reflective eyes. A smothering sensation covered her in that instant. Fire. Oil. Then the cool bliss of darkness.
Warm water caressed her neck and shoulders. She lay in its soothing embrace, the level of the water rising until it reached her lips where it lingered and lapped with its moist heat. Leigh opened her mouth to let the rolling warmth flow over her tongue.
He jerked away at her response, staring at her still parted lips before putting more distance between their bodies. His gave off an enormous heat; Leigh could almost see his heart beating through the sweat dampened cloth. She lay prone, tingling, waiting for her own heartbeat to return to normal. Maybe then she could explain why she’d been kissing a strange man on the front porch like a hussy.
An arc of light crossed the sky and she saw that those reflective eyes were, in fact, blue. They stared at her in wonder; his hand coming up to wipe the dampness from his lips. It halted and changed direction; choosing instead to pushed back soaking hair from his face. Suddenly, a shade fell over those baby blues, replacing the look of wonder with one carefully guarded.
“You fainted. Are you alright?” He spoke slowly and precisely, as though she were dull-witted.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” Leigh visibly shook herself to clear her head and winced.
“I can call an ambulance.”
“At least let me help you inside. It could be dangerous if you have ahead injury.” He reached toward her and she stiffened.
At his frown, she apologized. “Sorry, I thought you were…” Leigh trailed off, feeling ridiculous.
“Overcome with lust? Yes,” he commented dryly. “Your attire is certainly seductive.”
She looked down. The rhinestones of Hello Kitty’s bow glittered mockingly. “Oh.” Leigh gave him her hands and he helped her to her feet and inside the house. Thunder struck as he crossed the threshold, shaking the house’s foundation and making the faceted crystals on the chandelier twinkle furiously.
He wove his fingers through her mass of crimpy curls, tenderly feeling for any sign of trauma. Leigh’s blood thickened, loping through her body. Her heart doubled it effort as he ran his fingers over her scalp; invoking a shudder that hardened her nipples and quickened her breath. He was searching her eyes and she fell into them, swimming against an unrelenting tide. Her gaze clung to his mouth, as it had to hers moments before. Now his mouth was firmly set, the fullness of the lower lip all that kept it from being a straight line.
He stepped back. “I think you’re okay.”
“I hope you’ve had some medical training.”
“Fifteen years of it. I teach at the Medical University.” Now that he’d removed his hands, he didn’t know what to do with them. He balled them in to fists at his sides, quelling the urge to sink his fingers into that sweet smelling riot of curls. “I’d better go. You lie down and get some rest.”
“Thanks, I appreciate you stopping.”
“No problem. My pleasure.” On the porch, he turned to her once again. “I’ll check on you tomorrow.”
She looked at him blankly.
The lights waxed and waned, making his face seem as though something was moving, bubbling beneath the surface. “You’re my patient now.”
He was off the porch and out of sight before she reacted. “But, who are you?”
Between sleep and wake, she dreamed. She was cozy in her old bed, when she sensed a presence. No, she told herself. Nothing was there. Go back to sleep. Billowing sounded in the otherwise silent room. It’s nothing. Open your eyes and look, there’s nothing there. Leigh cracked her eyelids and saw a white sheet floating down, descending to cover her, choke her, suffocate her. She screamed and bolted upright, throwing off the bedcovers.
The ancient attic looked the same way it had twenty years ago. Dusty cardboard boxes strewn everywhere, creating lurking shadows that the bare bulb overhead couldn’t chase away. Cotton candy insulation showed its tufts through the eaves. A decrepit bookshelf overflowed with her mother’s worn psychology texts. John F. Kennedy’s picture smiled from the torn cover of Profiles In Courage. A military issue cot draped in a faded striped sheet guarded a large trunk. Yesterday coated her throat with each inhale.
Leigh picked up the brittle book and dusted the cover with the hem of her tee shirt before putting it in the back pocket of well worn jeans. “I guess it’s just you and me, sir.” No other family members offered to help her sort through her Grandmother’s belongings after her death. They fled after the funeral, back to the relative safety of their own homes and their own routines. She squared her shoulders and walked deeper into the cramped space. At five foot three, she could barely stand up straight.
Between boxes, Leigh noticed the dark trunk in the far corner of the unlit portion of the attic; its brass lock beckoned. That trunk. She tried to avoid looking at it and shoved her curiosity away with the other memories she had yet to bury. She turned to her task, blinking against the powdery air.
It took less than an hour for curiosity to pick the lock that held it captive. Leigh gave in, making sure to leap carefully from joist to joist as much of the attic’s floor was unfinished. Her slender shoulder against metal cot frame, she pushed gently. Early on in life she’d learned to make as little noise as possible. Her Grandmother ruled the house with an iron voice and will. Once of the rules was that children should be seen and not heard. She could still hear the whistle of the pecan tree switch as it bit into her upper thigh. It was her first and only whipping. One sound smack was enough for her to realize that being good was far better than being bad. It wasn’t until she became an adult that she occasionally abandoned that decision.
Leigh ran a hand over her ponytail, leaving streaks of cobweb. Maybe she didn’t want to know what the trunk contained. Maybe the dead should stay buried. Even in the steamy attic, Leigh shivered. Pull yourself together, girl, and open it. You’ll never forgive yourself for giving it away without knowing. Reassuring calm settled on her once she made the decision to open the chest. She was doing the right thing. Hands itchy with dust and sweat reached for the still shiny lock. Leigh flipped open the clasp and the truck lid sprang open, bringing with it the pungent scent of cedar and wood oil. Immediately, her brain was filled with the sound of angry buzzing. A heavy shove caught her mid-chest, making her lose her footing on the old joists. Screaming, she stepped backwards and fell through the ceiling.