Seeking Carolina

 

Chapter 1

Twelve Drummers Drumming

 

Snowflakes do not fall; they dance. Will-o’-the-wisps in Les Sylphides. White on black. The poet wind scatters them and they twirl amid the tombstones—stately guardians dressed in gray—and fall, at last, to sleep.

Disturbing that slumber is a sacrilege, I know, she cannot not bring herself to commit.

No matter the cold.

No matter the dark.

No matter she is trespassing after cemetery hours. She will stand perfectly still until she is another guardian among the stones.

 

Rough hands chafed warmth back into Johanna’s hands, her arms.

“Are you crazy?”

The masculine voice mumbled words she did not care to decipher. He was right. She was crazy. Crazy as a loon. Mad as a hatter, as a Cheshire Cat. Crazy as…

She closed her eyes, unwilling to finish the unkind, if accurate, thought. Trembling, drifting, all she wanted was to sleep.

“Oh, no you don’t. Get up. Walk.” He jammed a shoulder under her armpit and hefted her upright.

Johanna’s feet moved of their own accord, half-dragged, but they moved. “Where am I?”

“Bitterly Cemetery,” the man answered, “doing your best impression of a snowman…woman.”

Oh. Right. Farts. She pushed feebly out of his arms. Her knees buckled, and she was grateful he hadn’t let go. “I can walk on my own.”

“I’m sure you can. Normally. Come on. I’ve got the heat blasting in the truck. Get warm, and I’ll take you home.”

Johanna let him help her. Bitterly, Connecticut was way too nice a town to allow miscreants. Everyone knew everyone and had most of their lives. This was no one to fear, even if he did frequent cemeteries after hours rescuing would-be popsicles from certain frostbite.

Her head began to clear. Memory edged around her trembling, the cold, her grief. The man scooted her into the truck, closed the door and came around the driver’s side. “There’s coffee in the thermos next to you.”

“No, thanks.”

His cell blipped and he turned a shoulder to answer it. Charlotte someone. She apparently wanted pizza.

Johanna tuned out, instead warming her hands in the hot air blasting from the heating vent. She thawed. Her trembling eased. Two days trying to get there in time, and she’d failed. Again. Was there no end to the ways she would fail her grandmother? Her sisters? She fought the tears rising up like rebels and failed at that too.

He handed her a crumpled tissue.

She snatched it from his hand, relieved it was only crumpled. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

“I wasn’t trying to freeze to death or anything. I was just paying my respects. I missed the funeral.”

“I know.”

“I’m sure the whole town knows.” Johanna yanked off her hat, tried to smooth down static curls. “Well, the snow isn’t my fault. The whole Northeast is covered. My car wouldn’t make it and I couldn’t rent an SUV and I’m damn sure not going to attempt these roads in anything else, so I had to take a train and then no one answered their cell phones. I had to walk from—”

“Jo.”

She startled silent. Squinted. He pulled off his snowcap and a flop of auburn hair tumbled out. His beard lit a brighter copper than his hair. Eyelashes and brows arched over hazel eyes. A face she knew, despite the years. Johanna’s heart stuttered. “Charlie McCallan? For real?”

“Took you long enough.”

“You…you don’t look…” She pulled at his beard. “You’ve grown up.”

“It happens to boys when they turn into men.” He laughed. “They get hairy.”

He wore thick workman’s overalls and a down jacket, but he was obviously and most certainly no longer the bony kid she’d once shoved into the lake.

She flexed thawing fingers. “It has been way too long, Charlie.”

“I thought maybe you’d show up for the twentieth reunion.”

“Twentieth?” Johanna slumped. “Really?”

“Last Thanksgiving. You should have come. Fifty-eight of the…what was our class? Ninety-something?” He shrugged. “Whatever it was, we had a good turn out.”

“I don’t remember getting the invite.”

An eyebrow lifted, but Charlie only shifted into gear.

Tires crunched in the snow. The packing sound reminded Johanna of riding with Poppy in his ancient plow, making safe the streets of Bitterly through the long, snowy winters. Outside the warm cab, in this new winter, flurries drifted.

Charlie-freaking-McCallan. Of all people.

She had known him as unavoidably as she did everyone else in Bitterly—the ghost-white kid whose parents were caretakers of the town cemetery. They’d grown up together, largely circled in and out of friendship, until the summer they were seventeen.

The heat in the truck was becoming oppressive. Johanna unzipped her coat. “Working the graveyard shift? Pun very much intended.”

“I don’t really work the cemetery anymore. Mom and Dad retired, turned it over to the town. I fill in once in a while, doing maintenance.”

“No one knows this place better than you.” Johanna blew her nose. “And Gina? How’s she?”

“In Florida with the yoga instructor she left me for.”

Again her heart stuttered. Johanna loosened her scarf. Gina had been nice enough, pretty enough, and got pregnant senior year and ruined everything.

“And your…daughter, wasn’t it? You had a few more, too.”

“Charlotte,” he answered. “She’s good. I’ve got five kids. Two daughters and three sons.”

“That’s a lot of kids.”

He chuckled, his eyes straying from the road to look her way. “It is. They also require a lot of pizza. Mind if I stop on our way past?”

“Oh, sure. No problem. Thanks, by the way, for…”

“No worries.”

They drove in silence, the ineffectual wipers slapping a rhythm to go with the crunching tires. He pulled into town following the same trek Johanna had made from the train station. She hadn’t earlier noticed the faux-gaslights wrapped in pine and holly, the trees lining the Green, the candles in every window. Neither had she absorbed the olive oil boutique or the wine bar on either side of the pizza place that had once been the only restaurant in town. She’d been too furious that none of her sisters picked up her call. Her numerous calls.

Johanna sighed. The window fogged. Charlie was nice enough not to ask what was wrong. He could guess, and he’d probably be right. He pulled up in front of D’Angelo’s Pizzeria, and left the truck running.

“I’ll be right back.”

She waved him away. The waft of cold air he let in made her shiver, but it felt good. Bracing. Clarifying. She opened the window and let the falling snow hit her face. Remembering. Johanna hated to remember. It was her number one reason for staying far away from Bitterly. The door opened and reason number two slipped into the truck, stretching nearly across her to set the pizzas down on the back seat. His jacket fell open. He was definitely not the skinny kid she’d pushed into the lake. He smelled good. Pizza and something musky.

“Sorry. They’re hot.”

She closed the window. “Does your father-in-law still make the pizza?”

“No. Gina’s parents sold the place and moved to Florida about six years ago. But the pizza’s still good.”

“Smells it.”

“You want to—”

“No, no. Thanks. I have to get home. My sisters will be waiting.”

“Okay.” He put the truck in drive, pulled carefully back onto the road. “It was good to see Nina. I see Emma and Julietta around town, but I don’t think I’ve seen Nina, well, probably since I’ve seen you. Your grandfather’s funeral, right?”

Eight years. Had it really been so long?

“I suppose so,” she said. Eight years since she’d seen Gram and Emma in the flesh. She had nephews she’d never met. Cyberworld made staying in touch so easy. Video-chatting, instant messaging, texting. Nina lived in Manhattan. They met now and again for dinner or a show. Julietta had come down to Cape May a few times to help out with the bakery. But Gram…?

Tears again. She hated them, fell victim to them more often than she could count and they never did her any good. Ever.

“Hey, it’s all right.”

“No. It’s not. But thanks.”

Charlie fell silent.

Johanna blew her nose on the now-shredded and soggy tissue he’d given her for all the good it did. Covertly wiping her fingers on the inside of her coat pocket, she hoped his kindness held out and he’d pretend not to notice. “Town sure has changed a lot.” She cleared the frog in her throat. “I never thought it would happen.”

“It’s all because of the expansion up at the ski slope. Slopes, now. Five different trails. Remember how rinky-dink it was? Bonfire in an old garbage can? Bales of hay as stops at the bottom of the hill?”

“And the tow rope that shredded our gloves.” Johanna laughed. “I vaguely remember one of my sisters telling me about the changes.”

Charlie paused at the red blinking light at the edge of town. “Now it’s the Berkshire Lodge with ski lifts and instructors and a lodge where you can buy a seven-dollar hot cocoa. Tourists love it. After the expansion, the whole town started to surge. Remember the lake?”

How could I ever forget? “Yes.”

“It’s a country club now, one most residents in Bitterly can’t afford to join. Pisses me off I can’t bring my kids to swim there.”

He drove out of town and into the farmland where the house Johanna and her sisters grew up in straddled the county line. Snow-humped fields and white woods preserved the country feel of her childhood, even while quaint road signs boasting names like Country Farm Lane and Flirtation Street indicated new developments set back from the road. There had been nothing out here when she and Nina first arrived at the house on County Line Road. She’d been just shy of four, and now remembered little of the children’s home in Massachusetts, or adjusting to the doting grandparents she came quickly to love. But Johanna remembered New Hampshire. Mommy. Daddy. When there were so few memories to hold on to, it wasn’t hard to hold them tight.

“Don’t go into the driveway,” she said as he was about to do so. “It doesn’t look like it’s been shoveled.”

“My truck can make it.”

“No.” She grasped his arm, gave it a friendly squeeze. The windows in the house were dark, all but the one around back. The square of light on the snow peeked around the corner, a crooked finger beckoning. She imagined her sisters gathered at the table in the kitchen. Drinking tea. Or wine. Trying not to speak unkindly of their errant sister who missed Gram’s funeral.

“Thank you, Charlie.” Johanna looked for the door handle. “I don’t know what I’d have done if you didn’t show up.”

Charlie reached across her, flicked the perfectly integrated handle she wouldn’t have found in a thousand years of trying. The door swung open, letting the cold swirl in.

“Lucky for me I did.”

“For you?”

He smiled. “You’d have come and gone before I ever knew you were in town. I’m glad I got to see you, Jo.”

“Same…same here.” Johanna stepped out into knee-deep snow. “I’ll be in town a few days. Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Kind of hard to avoid it, in Bitterly. Get inside before you freeze again.”

Johanna scooped up a handful of snow and tossed it at him before slamming the door. He laughed and waved and pulled away. The light was still on in the interior of his truck, alighting on his hair like sunshine on a copper kettle. She watched until the curve in the road took his taillights from sight.

“It really is good to see you, Charlie,” she said to the falling snow. Whether she was pushing him into the lake or he was chasing her with a dobsonfly, they’d been friends first. Johanna turned aside those thoughts, and to the house instead.

Home.

The word sent disparate shivers into her core. White with black shutters and a red door. The farmhouse porch, empty now but for the ring of firewood between the front windows, usually boasted a number of rocking chairs and porch swings. She and her sisters never complained about summer assigned reading. Afternoons spent on the porch, Gram’s lemonade popsicles melting down their fingers, was one of their joys of summer.

Wrapping her scarf more closely around her neck, Johanna trudged down the driveway and around to the back of the house. She hugged the wall, peeking through the window from the shadows, her heart hammering. There they were, just as she imagined them, sitting around the table as they had so many times during those years they all lived happily there.

Nina, a Wagner dream of Valkyries—blond and bold and brutal, her hands wrapped around a teacup as if she would crush it, or hold it together.

Emmaline, who, like Johanna, had inherited dark curls and cocoa-brown eyes from their mother and, unlike Johanna, was spared her frenzy.

And Julietta.

Johanna’s brimming eyes overflowed.

Awkward even when sitting still, as blond as Nina without any of her beauty, Julietta was a sprite straight out of a fairy story, all arms and legs and ears. Thick glasses accentuated the enormity of her pale eyes. Perpetually childlike, ridiculously brilliant, Julietta was the one. And they all loved her best.

Johanna wiped her eyes with her scarf, her nose with the back of her hand. She gave up trying to pretend she hadn’t been crying, hadn’t been frantic and furious and ready to at last succumb to the madness always looming like tomorrow’s shadows. Stumbling to the back door that would be open because the lock had broken when she was fourteen and never been fixed, Johanna Coco went home.

Seeking+Carolina-highres

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