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Excerpt for The Lost Hours

 CHAPTER 1 
 

      When I was twelve years old, I helped my granddaddy bury a box in the back garden of our Savannah house.  I didn't ask him what was in it.  The box belonged to my grandmother so I didn't care.  Long before the Alzheimer's got her mind, a fear of living had taken hold of her spirit, convincing me that my grandmother had no stories worth listening to. 

      I squatted by the edge of the shallow hole in the middle of my grandmother's peonies, smelling sweat and summer grass as I dug my fingers into the dark earth and held up my handfuls of dirt briefly before opening my clenched hands, the clods raining shadows onto the box below.  The dirt struck the tin with soft patters like little fists against the sealed box, demanding the release of its secrets.  I yawned and turned away, the box and whatever it might contain forgotten by the time the screen door of the back porch slammed shut behind me.

       I hadn't thought about that hot afternoon for over a decade; a non-event in a busy life filled with friends, parties and my never-ending quest for accolades and excitement in the saddle on the back of a high-jumping horse.  I had thought myself indestructible, immune to the fears and disappointments that had stolen the color from my grandmother's face the same way the setting sun creates a world of shadows. 

      My delusion was understandable to my grandfather who knew the source of it.  After all, he was the one who'd told me that being the sole survivor in an accident that took the lives of both my parents meant that God was saving me for something important.  I took this to mean that I had already experienced the greatest tragedy of my life and nothing bad would ever happen to me again.  My grandmother claimed I was merely tempting the devil.  But I was content to exist in my make-believe world where I was infallible until the day came when I was forced to realize how very wrong I'd been.  Life is like that, I suppose; always slapping you in the face when you least expect it.

      The doorbell rang, erasing the smells of summer grass and damp earth.  I rose slowly from my chair in the front parlor, scanning my eyes over the worn furniture with the eyes of a person who hadn't become accustomed to its growing shabbiness for over twenty years.  The house still smelled of flowers although the last of the wilted funeral arrangements had been put out at the curb the previous evening with the rest of the garbage.  I had hoped that keeping the flowers in the house would help me feel the grief I knew was living somewhere under my skin.  I had done enough grieving in my life by the age of six that I guess my body figured I just couldn't do it anymore. 

      The doorbell rang again and I walked stiffly to the door, my back and right knee protesting every step.  Humidity hung over Savannah in the summer like a veil, antagonizing my injuries as much as any cold weather would.  I'd long since reached the conclusion that there was no climate that would coddle my bruised bones so I might as well stay in this ancient city and old house that had been in my mother's family for four generations.

      I swallowed back my disappointment as I pulled open the door and revealed my granddaddy's lawyer, a man about ten years younger than the grandfather I had just buried.  His skin was tinged grey like the color of dried marsh mud and he had down-turned eyes that always seemed to look anxious. 

      “Mr. Morton,” I said, stepping aside to allow him through the doorway.  “This is a nice surprise.”  I had hoped it would be one of my old friends from my equestrian days, the friends whose visits had trickled down to a slow drip in the last years.  They'd got tired of asking me when I was going to ride again, and stopped visiting as if whatever I'd contracted that kept me on the ground might be contagious.  I had no classmates, having been homeschooled for most of my life, and my friendships had centered around the show circuit.   A few had made an appearance at the wake, but that was all.  Even Jen Bishop, my oldest friend and closest rival, had merely sent a flower arrangement and a note.

      Mr. Morton grunted and led the way to the parlor.  I indicated for him to sit only a moment after he'd taken his place in my favorite chair, the same chair my grandmother had sat in each evening with her endless knitting.

      “Can I get you something to drink?”

      “Why don't you get me something to drink, dear?”

      I paused, wondering if it would be polite to suggest he put in his hearing aid.

      “What would you like, Mr. Morton?  Tea or lemonade?”  I watched as he ran his finger across the dust on the side table, etching out a single line of accusation about my lack of housekeeping skills.  “Or maybe arsenic?” I added softly.

      He blinked slowly up at me, and for a horrible second I wondered if he'd actually heard me.  “A Co-Cola would be nice.  It's a hot day.”

      I left the room and returned with two glasses of Coke filled two-thirds with ice.  I'd only had a partial can and rather than try to go through the motions of explaining this to Mr. Morton, I figured it would be easier to just go with what I had.

      “Thank you, Piper,” he said as he took a long sip, then wrinkled his nose before setting it on a coaster. 

      “What can I do for you, Mr. Morton?” I asked loudly, sitting on the worn sofa next to his chair.

      He placed his briefcase on the coffee table in front of him and made a big show of opening and taking out a large manila folder.  “I've got some papers for you to sign concerning your grandfather's estate.”  He slid the stack in front of me and handed me a thick black pen.  “There're also papers regarding the continuation of your grandmother's care that you'll need to look at and sign.”

      I looked up at him, realizing for the first time what my grandfather's death would really mean for me.  Along with the deed to the house, all its furnishings and his 1988 Buick LeSabre, I had apparently also inherited the care of the grandmother who no longer recognized my face. 

      I signed the papers where he indicated and slid them back to him.  With meticulous precision, he stacked the papers and placed them in his briefcase.  But instead of standing up and taking his leave, he sat back in his chair and took another sip of his watery drink and blinked at me through thick glasses.

      “Is there anything else, Mr. Morton? I asked. 

      He looked at me, not comprehending.  Placing his bony hands on his black-clad knees, he said, “There's one more thing, Piper.”

      I didn't bother to reply.

      “As you know, I've been acquainted with your grandparents since I was an errand boy in my father's law practice.  They were good people.”  He looked down for a moment as if to compose himself and I wished that I could borrow some of his grief.

      He continued.  “Annabelle--your grandmother--was a beautiful young woman.  Her father was a doctor of some reputation.  He treated patients regardless of their social class or the color of their skin--a rarity in those days.”  He lowered his head, his bushy eyebrows like avenging hawks in a downward spiral.  “And Annabelle was no different.  Always putting other first and taking care of people.”  His voice softened when he said her name and I glanced up at him, but his eyes didn't give anything away.

      I looked down again, impatient, and curled my toes inside my shoes to keep my feet from tapping as Mr. Morton took his unwanted stroll down memory lane in my parlor.  My gaze strayed through the window to East Taylor Street out front and to Monterey Square beyond it with its statue of Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski.  This view had been my world since the time I was six years old and moved in with my grandparents.  The sound of the bells at St. John's in nearby Lafayette Square mixed with the gentle conversation of my grandparents on the balcony below my bedroom had been my nighttime lullaby.  For a brief while my talent for jumping higher and faster on the back of a horse had taken me around the world.  But my horse was long since gone, and I was back where I started from, staring at the statue in Monterey Square and the implacable face of General Pulaski. 

      “When you first came to live with them, your grandmother planned to give you something that had meant a lot to her when she was a young woman.”  He paused briefly, his brows furrowed with seeming incomprehension.  “I guess she never found the right time to give it to you because your grandfather gave it to me for safe keeping when he put Annabelle in the home.  I thought that you should have it now.”

      I dragged my attention away from the window, aware that he was awaiting a response from me.  I struggled for a moment to capture his last words.  “Something from my grandmother?”

      Mr. Morton took a sealed envelope from the inside of his jacket and handed it to me.  There was a small lump inside and my name had been written with my grandmother's meticulous cursive.  I glanced at Mr. Morton and he nodded his head in encouragement before I dug my nail under the flap of the envelope and ripped it open.

      I peered inside, looking for a letter or a note.  I cupped my hand and tipped the envelope over shaking it until whatever had been stuck at the bottom came tumbling out into my palm.

      Mr. Morton leaned toward me and we both stared at my prize, a gold charm of an angel holding an opened book.  I shook the envelope again, waiting for the chain to fall out, but the envelope was empty.

      “There's not even a note,” I said, turning the charm over in my hand, wondering why she had held on to it for so long without giving it to me and feeling an odd disappointment.

      Mr. Morton took my hand, squeezing it hard enough to almost be painful.  “No, there wouldn't be.  Annabelle had always planned to give it to you in person.  It's a part of your grandmother's history; part of her life she would want you to know.”

      I stood, uneasy with his intensity.  “I'll take good care of it.  And I'll look for the chain, too.  Maybe it's somewhere in her old room.”

      He stared at me for a long moment and I thought he hadn't understood what I said.  While I prepared to paraphrase slowly and clearly, Mr. Morton said, “You do that, young lady.”  He stood and faced me, a concentrated look on his withered face.  “You never know what you'll find.”

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