One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place. – Emily Dickinson
Beaufort, South Carolina
An unholy tremor rippling through the sticky night air alerted Edith Heyward that something wasn’t right. Like a shadow creeping past a doorway in an empty house, or the turn of the latch on a locked door, the movement outside Edith’s opened attic window raised the gooseflesh along her spine. Her breath sat in her mouth, suspended with anticipation as icy pinpricks marched down her limbs.
Her gaze moved from her paintbrush and the tiny drop of red paint she’d drizzled onto the chest of the doll’s starched white cotton nightgown, to the sea glass wind chime she’d made and hung just outside the window. The stagnant air of a South Carolina summer had stifled any movement for months, yet now the chimes seemed to shiver on an invisible breeze, the frosty blue and green glass twitching like a hanged man from a noose.
She jerked her gaze to the locked door, wondering if her husband had returned. He didn’t like locked doors. The bruises on her arms, carefully placed and easily hidden under long sleeves, seemed to press against her skin in memory. Edith dropped her paintbrush, barely aware of the splatter of red paint on the dollhouse-sized room she’d been recreating, eager to unlatch the door and make it down to the kitchen and her mending basket before Calhoun had cause to wonder where she was.
She’d barely slid from her stool when the sky exploded with fire, illuminating the river and the marshes beneath it, obliterating the stars, and shooting blurry light through the milky glass of the wind chime. The stones swayed with the shocked air, singing sweetly despite the destruction in the sky behind them. Then a rain of fire descended like fireworks, myriad balls of light extinguished as soon as they collided with water into hiccups of steam.
Smaller explosions reverberated across the river where the migrant workers’ cottages clustered near the shore like birds, their roofs and dry postage-stamp lawns easy fodder for the hungry flames that fell from the heavens. A fire siren whirred as Edith leaned out of the window as far as she could, listening to people shouting and screaming and smelling something indiscernible. Something that smelled like the tang of wood smoke mixed with the acrid odor of burning fuel. She recalled the hum of an airplane as she’d been working on the doll, right before she’d thought the earth had shifted, imagined she knew what was now falling from the sky.
A thud came from above her head, followed swiftly by the sound of something heavy sliding down the roof before hitting the gutter. Then the sound stopped and she pictured whatever it was falling into the back garden.
Edith ran from the room, ignoring the shoe-sized bruises on her hips that made it hard to walk, sliding down half the flight of stairs to the second story where her three-year-old son, CJ, lay in his bed, blissfully unaware of the sky falling down around them. She scooped him up along with the baby blanket he’d worn thin but wouldn’t give up, feeling his warm, sweaty skin against her own. Ignoring his whimpers, she moved as quickly as she could with the boy in her arms down to the foyer.
Edith threw open the front door to stand on her wide columned porch and stared past her garden and across the street to where the river seemed to bleed in reverse with rising steam. Her neighbors streamed toward the water, as if all of the trauma was occurring somewhere else and not in their own back yards. She made her way to the street but instead of following her neighbors she turned around to inspect her roof, expecting to see it lit with flames.
Instead, she was met with the same sight she’d been seeing since she’d moved into her husband’s home nearly eight years before, the dark roof outlined neatly against a sky that seemed dwarfed in comparison.
With her little boy tucked against her shoulder, Edith stepped gingerly through the garden gate at the side of the house by the driveway, looking for anything that might have fallen from the sky, wondering what she’d do if she found something on fire. Wondering if she’d try to put it out with her son’s blanket. Or throw it into the house and watch it burn.
She studied her flower garden, her one hobby that Calhoun approved of, smelling the tea olives and lemon trees that almost eradicated the odd smell of fumes that wafted toward her in waves. The full moon guided her along the white-stoned path, past her roses and butterfly bushes that nestled closer to the house and where she imagined whatever had fallen from the roof had landed.
Her foot kicked something hard and solid, reminding her that she was only wearing her house slippers. She started at the sight of a disembodied hand, its fist enclosing a rose. She pressed her hand against her chest to slow down the heavy thud of her heart as she realized it was the arm from the marble statue of Saint Michael. He’d watched over her since she’d placed him there when she first realized she needed protection.
She spotted the rest of the statue lying face up on the path among broken branches from the oak tree, his sightless eyes hollow in the moonlight. When she stepped forward to assess more damage, her foot collided with something hard and unyielding, hidden in the shadows beneath the fragrant boxwoods.
More sirens joined in the cacophony of sound that had invaded her quiet town, but as Edith knelt on the rocky path she hardly seemed to notice, her attention completely focused on the brown leather suitcase that sat upright in her garden as if an uninvited visitor had suddenly come to call.
CJ began to stir as Edith deliberated what she should do. Unwilling to separate herself from either her son or the suitcase, she pressed CJ against her body with her left arm, ignoring the throbbing from the bruises that ran along her ribcage, then grabbed the handle of the suitcase. Gingerly, she lifted it to test the weight, finding it lighter than it appeared. Walking slowly she carried the suitcase up the back steps and into the empty kitchen.
After placing CJ in the playpen, Edith returned to the brown suitcase, noticing for the first time the large dent in the bottom corner, the hinge badly damaged but not broken. Judging from the relatively good condition, she realized the canopy of oak limbs had broken its fall before it landed on the roof. A nametag dangled from the handle, practically begging her to touch it.
She should call the police. Let them know that she had a piece of whatever disaster had happened in the sky that night. Perhaps some survivor would be looking for this exact suitcase that now rested on her kitchen floor. Still, she hesitated. She wasn’t sure why she felt the need for secrecy, but the thrill of the forbidden teased her senses, brought forth her rebellious spirit that she’d learned years before was best left hidden.
She pressed her lips together with determination. She’d push the button on the latch to see if it opened. It was probably locked, anyway. Or the lock could be too damaged from the fall to open. Then she’d call the police.
She heard a sound from the playpen and saw CJ watching her with his wide, blue eyes. “Mama?”
She smiled. “It’s all right, sweetheart. You go on back to sleep, all right?”
“Suitcase,” he said around the ever-present thumb Calhoun had been demanding she make him stop sucking.
“Yes, darling. “Now go on back to sleep.”
He remained standing, watching her intently. She knew his rebellious streak came from her and was reluctant to stifle it. “You can watch for a little bit, if you like. I’ll be right back.”
Edith kissed his damp forehead as she walked out of the kitchen and to the front door that she carefully opened to peer out. She was more afraid of her husband’s return than of the band of angry people she imagined marching toward her door to find the errant suitcase. The smells and sounds were stronger now, the sky glowing orange across the river over the fields of okra and watermelon as sirens screamed into the night.
Edith retreated into her house and closed the door, turning the key in the lock, then returned to the kitchen and the suitcase. After a quick glance at CJ who remained sucking his thumb and watching everything with his father’s eyes, she reached for the luggage tag and tried to read the name and address. Moisture must have seeped beneath the plastic cover and the cardboard nametag, making the ink run like tears. The address was nearly illegible, but she could read the name clearly: Henry P. Holden. When she flipped up the handle, she saw that a monogram had been boldly stamped in gold: HPH. She imagined a middle-aged man in a dark suit and hat, with a wife and kids at home, traveling on business. She thought of where they were now, and how they might be notified of the accident. Wondered if it were possible to survive such a thing as falling from the sky.
She pushed the button, and the latch popped open. It was a sign, Edith thought as her hands moved to the two latches on the sides of the suitcase. One opened easily, the one on the side with the dent taking a few twists and tugs.
Without pausing, she opened the suitcase wide on her kitchen table. She unlatched the separators on each side, folding them up and revealing neat stacks of starched and pressed dress shirts and suit pants, bleached white undershirts, boxers, and linen handkerchiefs. Everything had been packed so tightly that there’d been little room for movement as the suitcase had tumbled down to earth.
Edith recognized the scent of the detergent that wafted up to her as the same one she used, as if the clothes had come from her own washing machine. It had so obviously been packed by a woman that Edith almost laughed at the predictability of it, then sobered quickly as she pictured the faceless woman walking down a dark hallway to answer the ringing telephone.
She stared down again at the clothing, taking note of the quality of the thread count in the shirts, the high quality linen handkerchiefs, the fine gabardine of Henry Holden’s trousers, at the thickness and brightness of the undershirts. Each handkerchief had a perfectly stitched monogram on the corner in bright, bold, red: HPH. It all made sense for a man traveling on business. But as she stared at the suitcase’s contents, something bothered her, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
Calhoun had once told her it was her analytical mind that had attracted him to her first. As the only child of a widower police detective, she’d never known any other way to be. So when the handsome lawyer Calhoun Heyward had come to her small town of Walterboro to try a case, she hadn’t known that she would have been better off pretending to be a simpering female without opinions. Because in the end, that’s what he’d really wanted.
CJ was sleeping standing up, his head cradled on the top rail of the playpen, his thumb in his mouth. Edith glanced nervously at the round metal clock over the sink. Calhoun could be home at any minute to find a locked front door and a man’s suitcase on the kitchen table. She didn’t stop to think where he’d been or with whom, or if he’d seen the airplane explode and had thought to worry about her and their son.
She quickly refastened the separators, the fasteners slipping through her fingers because she was going too fast and her hands shook. It was then that she realized what had been bothering her. The Dopp kit. The ubiquitous men’s toiletry kit was missing. No man traveled without one. She pulled the cloth separators back again, looking at the neatly packed clothes, studying the side where the clothes had shifted slightly more than the other. She reached in to shove a stack back to the side, revealing a small pocket where a Dopp kit would have fit during the packing. She pursed her lips, thinking. Could Mr. Holden have removed it before boarding his plane, believing he might have need of something inside it during the flight?
Edith smiled to herself. These were the questions her father had taught her to ask until her inquisitiveness had become a part of her. During the years of her miscarriages and Calhoun’s growing disappointment in her, it had become her saving grace. It had been what had made her ignore the censure of her friends and husband and reach out to the local police department and offer her services as an artist with an unusual talent. It had kept her whole.
Forgetting the time and the sound of an approaching siren, she reached into the suitcase and carefully began to shift the clothing, searching for the missing Dopp kit. She searched the top half of the case first, and then the bottom, almost giving up before her fingers brushed against something that didn’t feel like cloth. Careful not to disturb anything further, she gently pushed away three pairs of neatly rolled up dark socks to find a crisply folded letter.
She only hesitated for a moment before taking it out. It was expensive stationary, thick heavy linen, the Crane watermark visible when Edith held it to the light. It wasn’t sealed but had been tightly folded as if the writer had pressed their fingers along the creases many times. When she flipped it over, a single word was written in thin black ink with elegant penmanship.
She paused, wondering how many boundaries she could cross, quickly deciding that she had already crossed too many to worry about one more. With steady hands, she unfolded the letter and began to read the short lines written in the same elegant script as the word on the back.
She stared at the words for so long that they began to blur and dance off the page until the letter fell to the floor as if the weight of the words were too much for Edith’s fingers. She let it go, watching as it slipped beneath the new white refrigerator that had been delivered the previous week as an apology from Calhoun. She didn’t try to retrieve it, wishing that the words could disappear from her memory just as easily.
She wasn’t sure how long she stood there, staring at the small crack between the black and white vinyl floor tiles and the bottom of the new appliance, but she jumped when the hall phone began to ring. With a quick glance at the sleeping boy, she ran to answer it.
“Edith? It’s Betsy. I’m so glad to hear your voice. We all ran to the river, but Sidney and I got worried when I saw that you and Calhoun weren’t with us. Is everything all right?”
Edith was surprised at the calmness to her voice. “I’m fine. Calhoun is working late so I was here alone.” It never surprised her how easy the lies spilled from her mouth anymore. “I didn’t want to leave the house because of CJ. He’s been sick and was sound asleep. Didn’t even wake up at the sound of the explosion.”
“It was an airplane,” Betsy said, her voice higher pitched, usually reserved for neighborhood gossip. “They’re saying it exploded—just like that. Sidney said it was probably an engine catching on fire. You know how dangerous airplanes are. I took a train to visit my parents in Jackson last Christmas even though Sidney told me I should fly instead, so he can’t tell me I was wrong now, can he? It’s just tragic, though. All those people…” her voice trailed off.
“How awful,” Edith said, her hands still remembering the feel of the stranger’s clothes, the image of a ringing phone in a dark hallway. The elegant handwriting in the letter. Her throat felt tight, as if the fingers of the letter writer were pressing against her windpipe. “Are there any survivors?”
“Sidney said he didn’t think so. He was outside walking the dog when it happened, and he says it was pretty high up in the sky. But the authorities are handing out flashlights to all the men to go search the fields, the river, and the marsh for survivors. A solid beam for any sign of life, and a flashing light to indicate a…” Her voice caught. Betsy Williams was Edith’s bridge partner, and they were neighbors. And Sidney Williams was their family lawyer. That’s where their similarities ended. Betsy was content to live on the surface of life, to avoid any sharp edges that might force her to open her eyes a little wider. Betsy would tell people that she and Edith were best friends, but she couldn’t tell them anything about her except for Edith’s favorite flower and that she disliked chocolate.
“A body,” Betsy continued. “That was a while ago. Sidney sent me home, but I’m too restless to do anything. I thought maybe you could use some company.”
“No,” Edith said, a little too quickly, thinking of the suitcase in her kitchen. “I’m exhausted from taking care of CJ, and I think I’m just going to go to bed. I’m sure Calhoun is out there searching, too, and can fill me in on the details when he returns.”
There was a brief pause and Edith pictured Betsy’s small mouth tightening with disappointment. “All right. But call me if you get nervous and need me to come round.”
Edith said goodbye and carefully replaced the phone back in the cradle, suddenly aware of the sound of voices from her front lawn. She’d already started back toward the kitchen when the doorbell rang. She stopped, unsure of what to do. It wasn’t Calhoun. He would have banged on the door when he’d discovered it locked. With an eye toward the closed kitchen door, Edith smoothed down her skirt and carefully tucked her hair behind her ears before opening the door.
Two police officers stood on her front porch, their hats in their hands. She wondered if she would be sick all over their polished black shoes that reflected her porch lights or if she could make it to the side railing. How had they known about the suitcase?
“Mrs. Heyward?” The young officer on the left spoke first. She thought she recognized him but she was having a problem focusing.
She smiled, forcing the bile back down her throat. “Yes?” She struggled to suck a breath into her lungs, the air now thick with the scent of rain. While she’d been in the kitchen, the moon and stars had disappeared as if ashamed to illuminate the scene beneath them. The splat of raindrops hitting her front walk and the leaves of the oak tree that shaded most of the front yard almost obliterated the sound of her heart thrumming in her ears. “Can I help you?” She knew she should invite them inside, just as she knew she could not.
A figure moved from the shadows of the porch, and she recognized the police chaplain as he stepped inside the arc of light. She blinked in surprise, wondering why he was there with the officers.
A flash of lightning lifted her gaze from the three men to the scene across the river, and she found herself holding her breath. Dozens of blinking flashlights came from the shore and from boats on the water like hovering fireflies, spots of light marking the souls of the departed.
“Edith?” The chaplain stepped closer so she could now see his kind eyes and the deep creases around his mouth placed there like scars during the war. “I’m afraid we have bad news.”
“Mama?” CJ called from the kitchen.
Edith turned to the chaplain in a panic. “I’m sorry, I have to see to my son…”
He reached out to take her hands, his fingers as icy as hers. “There’s been an accident. Calhoun’s car was found off of Ribault Road up against a tree. An eyewitness said it looked like he was distracted by the explosion.” He paused. “He…he didn’t survive.”
She felt as if she were free-falling from the sky, the lack of oxygen making her lightheaded and strangely calm. She felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. “Was he alone?”
The men shuffled their feet in embarrassment, but it was the second officer who finally spoke. “Yes, ma’am.”
Edith nodded, feeling inordinately relieved that they hadn’t come because of the suitcase. Her son called out from the kitchen again, distracting her from the sight of the blinking lights. She knew she needed to say something, to pretend that she cared that Calhoun was dead; to pretend that she felt anything except relief. She thought instead of the feel of her mother’s cold hand in hers, and her father’s voice saying something about her being free from pain. Edith let out a sob, then pressed her knuckles against her mouth.
The chaplain spoke again. “Can I get you anything? Or can I call someone to come stay with you?”
She shook her head, blinked back the tears. “No. I’ll be all right. I just need to be alone right now with my son. I’ll be in touch in the morning to see what needs to be done. Thank you, gentlemen.” She closed the door on their surprised faces, her last glimpse that of the chaplain’s knowing eyes.
The storm outside intensified as she pressed her forehead against the closed door, feeling guilty that instead of thinking of Calhoun dying alone on a darkened road, her thoughts were occupied with the letter under her refrigerator and the woman who’d written it. Edith felt an odd kinship with the unknown woman, a bond of a shared secret the other woman would never know she’d shared. A secret Edith knew she’d take to her grave.
Before she turned from the door a gust of wind pushed at the house, unfastening a shutter on an upper story and slamming the limbs of the old tree against the roof of the porch. As she began walking slowly back toward the kitchen, she heard the wind chime cry out into the troubled night like a prayer to accompany lost souls to heaven. She shivered despite the humid night, then closed her eyes for a moment, hearing only the sound of glass.