Archive for August, 2011

The Lady Slipper
August 19, 2011

Chapter One:

Other people’s flowers…

Hannah didn’t notice the swift crunching of gravel that briefly echoed from the opposite side of the house. She was much too intoxicated by the scent of awakening soil and all that it promised. With her face so close to the ground now, she could inhale great, long drafts of it, prickly and laced with greenery. It still felt like winter by her standards, but there was a subtle balminess in the morning air today that whispered, don’t give up.

A fresh breeze rustled the plastic grocery bags behind her, nestled heavily in last year’s dead grass. She estimated the size of the bulb cluster by its foliage and plunged her spade, scraping into a protective fortress of roots and stones.
Dammit!

One of Hannah’s weaknesses was an unwillingness to stop something once she had started, going at it with singular focus until she was either finished or defeated. The winner here would ultimately be the fragile narcissus, although in its now mangled condition it probably wouldn’t agree.

The slam of a car door reminded her that Sophia and the girls were waiting, probably growing impatient by now. She glanced over at the station wagon parked on the street. Sophia’s head was slumped back against the headrest; no sign of movement inside.

One more slam.

“Oh my God, get the car started! Hurry!”
“What?” Sophia called out from the driver’s side window. “What is it?” She adjusted the rear view mirror for a better look as Hannah forced up the hatch door and slung in the bags.
Natalie was awake now and wrestling with her safety seat. Paige only flinched at the noise, her sleeping face still mashed hard against her seat belt.
“Start the car!” Hannah shrieked. “Someone just pulled up.” She slammed the back and ran to the passenger side, hastily brushing the dirt from her hands and clothes.
“Mommy!” came a cry from the back. Natalie’s huge doe-eyes bulged with alarm.
“Okay, Nat. It’s okay,” Sophia shushed over her shoulder as she turned the ignition.
“Come on. Get out of here!” Hannah pleaded, pulling the door closed while Sophia edged the station wagon across the road. “Turn right! Turn right!”
Hannah twisted in her seat to get a better view as Sophia eased away from the corner. A tall, suit-and-tie businessman with a clipboard looked toward them from the front porch. He watched for just a glance and then continued with his mission, apparently unconcerned.
“We are so friggin’ lucky he didn’t come from the other direction. Man, that scared the tar out of me.”
“Jeez, calm down. He’s a real estate agent or something.”
Natalie continued to struggle and pull at her restraints. “Mommy!”
“Okay. Just a minute,” Sophia answered. “Stay in that seat, Natalie Rose!”
“Nattie wants out,” Paige grumbled, still half asleep. Her peachy right cheek bore an angry indentation from the shoulder strap. “Paige wants out, too.”
“We’ll get out in a minute, girls. Hold on,” Hannah said. She reached into the back and patted them each on the knee. Natalie pulled her leg away, looking back at Hannah with you’re not my mommy contempt.
“What if someone noticed us coming around there?” Hannah speculated. “What if they’ve noticed the holes?”
“Nah. They’re probably selling the place or something. Anyway, we cover up pretty good. Right? He’s only checking on the house. He won’t care about the yard.”
“Maybe,” Hannah mumbled, scrubbing at her face and neck with a baby wipe. She flipped down the vanity mirror for a quick look. “I don’t want to have to explain myself to anyone. That would freak me out.”
“I wish someone would do something with that cute little house,” Sophia mused. She had already dismissed the recent danger and moved on. “It would look so sweet all fixed up, with the outside painted and the gingerbread repaired.”
“Yeah, well, whatever. We should stay away from it for awhile.”
“You think?” Sophia said, crinkling her nose. “Oh, never mind.” She waved her hand in the air. “I have enough from there anyway.”
“Seems like all the older yards around here have the same plants. Have you noticed that?”
“Yeah. They probably shared with each other. Don’t ya think? I mean, you and I have the exact same things.”
“I wonder if they used to have places to buy plants. You know, like a hundred years ago. Garden centers or something,” Hannah said, settling back in her seat.
“Gee, I don’t know. They could have, I guess. Or, they bought from salesmen. Maybe mail order?”
“I wish we could find something different.”
“Right, ya know?” Sophia agreed. “We need some new places to look.”
Hannah scanned the landscape from the passenger window as they sped past the everyday fields and trees and houses, catching brief glimpses of green emerging here and there among the brown. “It’s out there somewhere,” she said. “We’ll find it.”

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Spilled dirt and paranoia…
August 18, 2011

Excerpt from Chapter Four:

The next morning, Austin got ready for work with all the enthusiasm of a spoiled monarch, keeping life in stasis until he was finally gone. Hannah and Paige had been dressed and ready to go outside for hours, pacing and watching while the cool dawn slipped away. As soon as his car was out of sight, they rushed to the back door and out into the yard

Hannah held Paige steady while the toddler balanced along the rock wall of one of her raised garden beds, allowing a quick chance to peek at some of her perennials in their developing stages. Their anticipated emergence from the ground each year was a micro-holiday. They gave her something reliable to look forward to. Another reason to be thankful.

She chased Paige across the lawn and checked for her rescued Jack in the Pulpits and Wake-robins under the trees, but there were no signs yet. The snow drops and crocuses were finished blooming and their leaves were turning brown. The alliums and the hyacinths were getting old and their flowers were spent and raggedy.

Other than the fading early bulbs, everywhere there were signs of life, bright greens, shining new leaves, shoots pushing from the soil. The air was moist and clean, the grass still wet with dew. The hummingbirds were out taking turns at the feeders and she held her breath while she watched them. They would remember her soon and ignore her like she wasn’t there, but at this time of year they were still skittish.

Paige was now busy collecting twigs from the grass and stacking them a pile. To her it was all play, and Hannah was glad that she was occupying herself with something entertaining and helpful. When the pile was as high as her ankles, Paige leaped on it with her rubber boots, snapping and crunching the twigs into smaller bits.

“What are you doing?” Hannah asked, forever amused by Paige’s antics.
“Gathering wheat to make bread,” she answered seriously, without looking up.
Hannah chuckled to herself. Things are so rarely what they seem.

She walked out next to the road to see if the previous year’s day lily transplants were starting to push up. There was a nice clump of green shoots, almost five inches tall. They looked strong and healthy, like they had been there for years. On her way back through the little wooded area she met up with Paige.

“Here, Mommy,” she said proudly, holding the plastic pot containing the slipper orchid.
“Oh, Honey, I haven’t decided where to put it yet,” Hannah said as she bent down to take the pot. “Thank you,” she offered as she reached out for it, not quite getting a grasp before the youngster let go.

The pot fell to the ground with a thud, spilling its contents out across the stone path. Paige glanced up at Hannah with a look of surprise and stepped back, kicking dirt from the tops of her black rubber boots. “Uh, oh. Mommy drop it.”

With an exasperated sigh, Hannah bent down to put it back together. The slipper orchid rested on its side, its stiff, spindly roots comically poised. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’ll be okay. Guess this flower needs a new home, huh?” She picked up the plant, carefully placing it to the side, and began to scrape the dirt together. Something oddly shaped, like a small pebble, caught her eye. She picked it out and examined it. It was pale brown and more lightweight than a stone. She set it on the stool for later. As she continued, she discovered more pieces of similar size and color and set them aside as well.

“Look, Paige, I think these are little bones,” she said, pointing to the bench. “It must be from some little animal.”
Paige looked at them and squatted down over the empty pot, sifting through the remaining dirt with her tiny bare fingers.
“Another one,” Paige said and placed it with the others. “Another one, another one, another one,” she continued with each find. “Something,” she said. “Look, Mommy.”
Hannah looked up at the child’s hand. She had a small ring around her dirt covered thumb. The comprehension of what she was looking at took a few seconds to assemble. 
“Let me see, Honey,” she took the ring off Paige’s finger. “It looks like gold.”

Realization of something not quite right swept over her like a gust of hot wind. Her hands began to shake and she felt light headed as she stood up to look on the stool. What she saw sent her back down to her knees.

“Pretty ring,” Paige said. The toddler reached out to take the ring from Hannah’s limp fingers, dropping it accidentally into the leaf litter.
“Oh, my goodness!” Hannah sifted frantically to find it.
“Here,” Paige said, plucking it from between the leaves. “Paige finded it. Paige’s ring.”
“Let’s go wash it off,” Hannah said, trying to sound calm. “Maybe we should go inside.” She carelessly gathered the plant back into the pot and shoved it back between the tree roots. “Come over here to the spigot,” she commanded, grabbing Paige’s hand.
Hannah turned on the water and roughly rinsed Paige’s hands, causing her to cry out when she tried to dig dirt from under the little girl’s nails. She rinsed the ring and looked at it in her palm.
“Mommy is mad,” Paige said.
“No, Honey. Mommy isn’t mad. Mommy is worried about this ring.” Hannah quickly kissed her on the forehead.
In the kitchen Hannah found an old toothbrush under the sink and scrubbed the ring vigorously with Bon Ami and then threw the toothbrush away. She washed it again with a handful of soap, holding it several minutes to rinse under the running water while she contemplated the possible reasons for a gold wedding band to be in the roots of a shallow growing plant.
She got out a magnifying glass and held the ring up in the light of the window over the sink. It was about five millimeters wide and made of pinkish gold. It had a design of alternating ivy leaves and wild roses engraved all the way around. Inside, there was a three word inscription that wasn’t in English, along with a few jewelry hallmarks.
Paige had been watching her, curious at her mother’s behavior. “Can Paige see?”
Hannah bent down, holding it out in her wet palm. “See the little flowers and leaves? They go all around. Isn’t that nice?”
“Nice,” Paige agreed, nodding her head. She stuck out her finger and touched it. “Paige can hold it?”

Hannah stood up and looked out the kitchen window. She could partially see the painted stool in the wild area. This is real, she thought. This ring is in my hand and it’s real. It was in the roots of that plant. She looked back out at the milking stool, scarcely able to grasp what was there.

“Paige can hold a ring? Please?”
“Not right this minute, Honey,” Hannah answered. She rinsed the ring again and placed it in the windowsill. A small puddle formed around it. It was a normal thing to see sitting in a kitchen windowsill over a sink. She put rings there all the time. Only, this one wasn’t normal.
“We need to go back outside right now and water that plant,” Hannah said. She grabbed a zippered sandwich bag and headed for the door. “Come on, Sweet Pea.”
Paige followed to the edge of the trees and stood watching curiously as her mother put on her garden gloves and carefully scraped the little pale brown pieces toward the open baggy. She dropped her doll and rushed to Hannah. “Paige help. Paige help, Mommy.”
Hannah swiftly raised her arm to block and the collision caused a few pieces to roll off the stool. She quickly sifted through the leaves for them, staying on guard.
“Careful,” Hannah said, trying not to sound irritated. “Go stand by your dolly.”
“Paige help Mommy,” the child insisted, stomping her foot.
“Get your dolly off the ground, Darlin’. I’m going to water this flower now.”
She gently pushed Paige away with the back of her arm, feeling as if she would explode. She wanted to get this done and get back inside. She couldn’t think straight. She searched through the leaves over and over, horrified that one piece could be loose on the ground.
She got a seed tray and dumped the plant out onto it. Spreading the dirt out in the tray, she spotted two more pieces and placed them in the baggy. After quickly re-potting and watering the orchid, she threw her gloves into the grass and ushered Paige to the open back door.
“Go on in and take your shoes off, sweetheart.”
She held the baggy up to the light and looked at what was inside. The shapes were distinctive, though she didn’t want to believe what she was seeing. It was, however, undeniable. Clustered together in the bottom of this plastic bag were the tiny bones of a human hand.

Outside looking in…
August 16, 2011

Excerpt from Chapter Six:

“What do we do now?” Sophia asked.
“Do you still want more of these flowers?”
“Oh, my God. No!”
“Me either.”
“Let’s go, then,” Sophia said, turning away.
“God bless your poor soul,” Hannah whispered.
Sophia turned back around. “It feels awful just turning away, doesn’t it?”
“I feel responsible, somehow,” Hannah whispered, glancing up to the clouds.
“We could call in an anonymous tip from a pay phone. Or, maybe Gary wouldn’t rat us out if we tell him.”
“Maybe so.” Hannah scooped up a dropped a glove and paused for one last look at the house as Sophia followed behind the girls toward the driveway.
The windows were silvery reflections of the metal gray sky. Her eyes followed down the contours of the shingles and shutters to the thick stone foundation below. She hadn’t noticed before, but there was a cellar door directly beneath one of the windows at the first floor. The window had rotting curtains that were pulled to the side and the shade was rolled up.
She approached the window and carefully stepped up onto the left side of the double wooden cellar doors. The frame was squeezed between two bays, the larger one topped at the second story with a hipped dormer, and the other with a gable at the third floor. The tall, angled doors reminded her of an old children’s song her mother used to sing. ‘Hey, hey, hey, playmate, come out and play with me…’
A large metal flue pipe emerged from the wall to her left, indicating there must be a stove on the other side of this bay. She reached for the window sill and pulled herself up, one foot on the door frame and one beneath the window.
Sophia stopped and looked back, calling out for the girls to wait. She put her hands on her hips in protest. “What in the heck are you doing?”
“I’m just looking.”
“Looking for what? The murderer?”
“Hush, you! It’s just an empty kitchen. It looks like no one’s been here for years.”
Hannah peered inside at a wall of white painted shelving and bare wood counters, illuminated yellow through the shades of the other windows. The room was large and essentially uncluttered, with cobweb draped dishes and bowls neatly arranged on the shelves as if on display for Halloween.
Across from the window was an open archway leading into a dark space, and then, like at the end of a hallway, she could see an open door to dimly lit room beyond. She knew this room had triple hung sash windows because she had seen them from the outside. Something in the room was covered with a white drop cloth, like an enormous bed. Beyond that, there were only dark, shadowy shapes and the reflection of a mirror on the wall.
She turned to look for Sophia. “You really should come see. I wish I had a cam…”
A sudden burst of wind whipped through the trees and a sharp metallic clatter came from somewhere up inside the house. Like a knee under the hammer, Hannah jumped, yelping a mix of several words put together that came out something like a dog’s bark, and she put her foot down hard on the doors to push away.
Instead of propelling her off as she intended the doors groaned and gave way slightly under her feet, and with an ear splitting crack the entire surface crumbled away. Her eyes caught a glimpse of every millimeter of progress as she crashed down through the splintered wood.
She heard a scream above her, but she didn’t know where it came from. It was as though she were outside of herself, watching it all happen through a wide angled lens. She knew when her head cracked against something unforgiving, but she didn’t exactly feel the blow. She felt her shirt catching on splintered wood and nails as she went down, tearing her sleeves and scraping her skin, but the pain only marginally registered. Nothing, none of it compared to the panic that burst inside her as she hit the stone floor at the bottom, landing in a pile of rotten wood from a long decayed staircase.
There was a sharp pain in her leg and the blow to her head blinded her with white sparkles behind her eyes. She reached down and felt something protruding from her left thigh. With a wave of nausea, she ran her fingers over it and around it and then timidly looked. It was a nail driven in through her jeans, rusty and still attached to a sliver of wood. The blurry sight of it stole what was left of her consciousness and she slumped back into the debris.

Digging into the past…
August 16, 2011

Excerpt from Chapter Eleven:

Hannah followed the back wall behind the stacks, peeking into every opening as she passed. At the corner, she was forced to turn toward the front of the building where she found a closed door with a small brass plaque that read, New Milton Historical Society.
She tapped politely and heard the high, thin voice of a woman call out for her to come in. The door opened into what looked like a large, unorganized storage room. There were boxes, newspapers, and piles of books stacked everywhere on the tables and floors. She searched the room for the source of the voice.
“Can I help you?”
Across the room, behind a table towering in old photo albums, was a small elderly woman with a silver-white bun piled high on her head. She wore round, gold rimmed glasses and her cheeks were tastefully rouged. Only her face and hair could be seen above the pile of albums. Hannah made her way over to where she sat.
“Yes, thank you so much. First of all, I’m supposed to say hello from your grandson, Roger. You are Mrs. Hathaway, correct?”
“Oh, yes. Roger is a lovely boy, isn’t he? So much like his father was at his age. He is forever willing to put up with me and my rambling. He keeps me young. Or, I make him old. One or the other!”
“Yes. We met him at the café and he was very nice. He told us about you.”
“Us? Is there someone with you I can’t see?” Mrs. Hathaway looked around and behind Hannah.
“Oh. No, ma’am. My friend and our little girls are in the children’s room. We were hoping to both speak with you, but once the girls got a look at that wonderful room, it was hopeless. She sent me on to find you alone.”
“Well, it sounds like you are looking for something in particular.”
“Yes, ma’am. I am. My name is Hannah Foster.”
“Well?”
“I was wondering if you know anything about the New Milton Garden Club.”
“Well, of course. My mother was one of the founding members. They used to meet right here in the library every Thursday, until it was disbanded sometime when I was still a child. The library was much smaller then, you know.”
“Yes. Mrs. Morgan told us about the vestibule.”
“Mrs. Morgan told you? Well, now, that’s a surprise,” she chuckled to herself.
“Your mother was a founding member?” Hannah cut in too quickly. “Was that back in the late eighteen-hundreds?”
“Yes, it was,” Mrs. Hathaway looked at her with more curiosity now. “Eighteen hundred and ninety-five, to be precise. Why does this interest you?”
“Because, we’re hoping to find some of their records, or maybe the minutes.”
“Why?”
“We’re researching one of their members, Maiya Whiting.”
“Where did you get that name?” Mrs. Hathaway stood up, leaning heavily on the table in front of her for balance. She hobbled around to where Hannah stood and looked into her face with piercing, steel blue eyes.
Hannah cleared her throat to give herself time. “I just… happened to come across it recently.” God. What a lame answer, she thought.
“I see. You don’t want to tell me. Well, no one knows for sure what happened to Maiya Whiting. That’s what I’ll tell you.”
“I… thought maybe if I could see the minutes or the records of the garden club, that maybe there would be a mention of her.”
“How do you think, with your limited knowledge of what happened in this town back then, that you could look at those minutes and uncover the truth to a mystery that has been a part of New Milton for almost one hundred years?”
“I… I didn’t realize that,” Hannah stammered, embarrassed that she had been naively too bold.
“Obviously, you have discovered something and it has piqued your curiosity. You think you might be able to figure out what she did? What happened to her? Where she went? Why? Is she a relative of yours?”
“No ma’am. I just don’t know how to explain right now.”
“Are you seeking money?”
“No ma’am. I’m just trying to uncover the story. I know something about it. A little.”
“Well, I’ll not have you bothering that family, if there are even any of them left. They went through enough over that, not to mention my poor mother and Mrs. Culver.”
“Mrs. Culver?”
“Yes. I suppose you came across her name somewhere, as well.”
“Well, yes, I may have. Is it possible that your mother was named Nina?”
“Where did you get this information?” She smacked the table with her knuckles. “There are people who have lived in this town all of their lives, and their parents lived here all of their lives and they don’t remember or care about these names.”
“I read about them recently in a book,” Hannah said.
“A book. Just an ordinary book. And, where did you get this book?” The old woman was good. No wonder she was the town historian. She stepped closer without taking her eyes off Hannah’s face, clearly assessing her in every way.
“It’s a…journal, actually.”
“A journal. Whose journal?” Mrs. Hathaway commanded.
“If you want to know, you must promise to keep it a secret or I won’t tell you anything else,” Hannah declared, standing straighter and looking stoically back at the tiny woman whose countenance seem to tower over hers. Mrs. Hathaway continued to analyze her with razor sharp intuition, intent on cutting through the pretense.
“Yes. My mother was named Nina,” she finally answered.
After a long moment of silence Mrs. Hathaway seemed to relax, or wanted to appear relaxed, and she turned to find her seat. “Go get a chair and sit down with me.”

Hannah looked for the closest chair that she could drag over. It was an antique oak school chair, not at all comfortable, but heavy and sturdy as a rock.
“My mother was Maiya Whiting’s closest friend, along with Mrs. Rebecca Culver.”
Hannah took a deep breath. It was almost too good to be true. This woman could actually have all the answers she needed.
“Will you promise not to talk about this to anyone? I will tell you about the journal, and one day soon, hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you even more.”
“I don’t have much time left to wait for the answers to cryptic riddles,” Mrs. Hathaway said. “You understand, don’t you? I’m old.” She folded her hands in her lap and sat straight up. “Yes, I promise not to tell your secret. I do have a right to know what you have discovered, however, as Nina Blakeslee’s daughter and the town historian, and I expect to be the first to whom you disclose any findings.”
“I found the journal of Maiya Elise Neville Whiting,” Hannah blurted out.
A gurgle came from Mrs. Hathaway’s throat as though she might choke. She coughed several times and daintily dabbed at her eyes with a lace edged handkerchief. “Where’s my water?” she croaked, reaching for an insulated mug decorated with a picture of two smiling children. Hannah watched, ready to run for help, while Mrs. Hathaway took several long gulps and cleared her throat.
“Her journal?” she responded weakly. She cleared her throat again and leaned in towards Hannah. “And, how do you come to have this journal? How can you be sure it is hers?”
“Oh, it’s hers alright. It’s written in French and we’ve been deciphering it. That’s where I learned your mother’s name and the name of Mrs. Culver.”
“Were there any other names mentioned?”
“Yes. A Monsieur Yves Delaflote.”
This seemed to energize Mrs. Hathaway, as though a window had been flung open and a breeze of cool mountain air had whisked itself around her. She sat up, arrow straight.
“As I suspected. And what did she say about Monsieur Delaflote?”
“She said he was her friend and that he was leaving. She told about a luncheon that the garden club gave for him, so they could say goodbye. Evidently he belonged to the club and was well thought of. Her last entry was the day before he was to leave. June eighth, nineteen hundred and ninety-nine.”
“Indeed. I’m not surprised.”
“Why?”
“Because Maiya Whiting disappeared the day that Monsieur Delaflote departed for France.”