Good morning! Writer’s Corner presents exclusive access to Karen White’s next book Dreams of Falling. Readers will get a chance to preview this upcoming book. Her next book will once again visit secrets from the past. Larkin must find out what happened in the past to save the future.
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Caol Ait: Thin Places.
Gaelic for where this world and the next are said to be too close. According to legend, heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places, that distance is even closer. Carrowmore, in County Sligo, Ireland, is one of many such thin places found throughout the world, a place where time stands still and the secular world brushes against the sacred.
Georgetown, South Carolina
I am dead. Yet I smell the blooming evening primrose and hear the throaty chirps and creaky rattles of the purple martins flitting home across the marsh. I see their sleek iridescent bodies gliding against the bloodred sunset sky, through the blackened Corinthian columns and crumbling chimneys of Carrowmore. The house is named after a legendary thin place, far away in Ireland. I can hear Ceecee’s voice again in my head, telling me what the name means, and why I should stay away. But as with most things Ceecee has ever told me, I didn’t listen.
Carrowmore and I are both in ruins now, with wrinkles in our plaster and faults in our foundations. It’s oddly fitting that I should die in this house. I almost died here once before, when I was a little girl. I wonder if the house has been waiting for its second chance.
The thrum of Ellis’s 1966 Mustang rumbles in the distance. If I could move, I’d run out the front door and down the walk before he can honk the horn and irritate Daddy. There’s nothing Daddy dislikes more than Ellis’s long hair and that car.
But I can’t move. All I remember is stepping on a soft spot in the old wooden floor, then hearing the splintering of ancient, rotten wood. Now I’m lying here, broken in so many pieces.
My brain reminds me that Ellis has been gone forty years. His precious car sold before he shipped out to Fort Gordon in 1969. Still, the acrid scent of exhaust wafts over me, and I wonder with an odd hopefulness whether it’s Ellis, coming for me after all this time.
There’s something soft and silky crumpled in my fist. My fingers must have held tight when I first felt the ancient floor give way beneath my feet.
A hair ribbon. I’d pulled it from Larkin’s dresser drawer. My sweet baby girl. The daughter who’d always desperately wanted to be just like me. Almost as desperately as I wanted her to be different. I wanted her to be happy. Not that Larkin is a girl anymore. She’s too old for ribbons, but I kept everything in her room just the same as she left it, hoping one day she’d come home for good. Decide it was time to forgive all of us. To forgive herself.
I remember now using a black marker to write down the length of the ribbon, the letters bold and big, shouting my anger with silent strokes. But that’s the only clear memory I have. I can’t feel that anger anymore. Nor remember the reason for it. I must have driven here, but I don’t remember. Just me writing on that ribbon, and then here, falling. My brain is playing tricks on me, recalling things from long ago with the clarity of hindsight, yet leaving what happened only thirty minutes ago in a dark closet behind a locked door.
Bright pops of air explode inside my skull. Streaks of light like shooting stars flit past my line of vision. I think they’re the purple martins of my past, constant as the moon and stars in my memories. And then the pain comes, white-hot and precise, settling at the base of my head, then traveling upward, a large hand slowly constricting my brain.
Then darkness covers me like a mask, and everything fades away. Except for the engine fumes of an old car, and the raucous chirp of a thousand martins coming home to roost.
The introductory notes to an old song distracted me for a moment, causing me to glance up from my computer and look around with an oddly satisfying appreciation. I loved my desk. Not because it was beautiful or rare—it was neither—but because of its simple functionality.
It was no different from the metal desks of the other copywriters at Wax & Crandall, the ad agency where I’d worked for the past five years, except mine was devoid of all personal effects. No frames, no kitschy knickknacks or rubber-band balls. Nothing tacked up on the walls of my cubicle, either, or mementos of my four years spent at Fordham earning my undergraduate degree. My one concession to my past was a gold chain with three charms on it that I never removed but kept tucked inside my neckline.
I loved that nobody asked me why I seemed to have no past. This was New York, after all, where people seemed to care only about where you were going, not where you’d been. They just assumed that I had no husband or significant other, no children or siblings. Which was correct. The people I worked with knew I was from somewhere down south only because every once in a while, a long consonant or dropped syllable found its way into my sentences. I never mentioned that I was born and raised in Georgetown, South Carolina, or that if I closed my eyes long enough, I could still smell the salt marshes and the rivers that surrounded my hometown. My coworkers probably believed that I hated my home and that was why I left. And in that assumption, they’d be wrong.
There are reasons other than hating a place that make a person leave.
I turned to see Josephine—not “Jo” or “Josie,” but “Josephine”—standing at the entrance to my cubicle. The lack of a door meant people had to improvise when they wanted to enter. She was one of our account executives, a nice enough person if she liked you but someone to avoid if she didn’t.
“Are you busy?” she asked.
My fingers were at that moment poised above my keyboard, which made her question unnecessary, but Josephine wasn’t the type to notice such things. She was one of those women who commanded attention because of the way she looked—petite, with sun-streaked brown hair, and perpetually tanned—so it had become customary for her to get what she wanted with just a smile.
I was streaming Pandora on my computer, and the song playing would distract me until I could name it. It was an old habit I’d never been able to break. “Dream On.” Aerosmith. I smiled to myself.
“Excuse me?” Josephine said, and I realized I’d spoken aloud.
I thought back to her question. “Actually . . . ,” I said, but as I began, the vague feeling of disquiet that had been hovering over me since I’d awakened exploded into foreboding.
Ceecee would have said it was just somebody walking over my grave, but I knew it was the dream I’d remembered from the night before. A dream of falling, my arms and legs flailing, waiting to hit an invisible bottom.
Ignoring my body language, Josephine stepped closer. “Because I wanted to ask you about a dream I had last night. I was running, but it felt as if my feet were stuck in glue.”
I let my wrists rest on the edge of my desk but didn’t swivel my chair, hoping she’d take the hint. “You can Google it, you know. You can find out a lot about dreams on the Internet. It’s handy that way.” I kept my hands poised near the keyboard.
“Yes, I know, but I just thought it would be quicker if I asked you. Since you’re the expert.” She beamed a smile at me.
With a sigh, I turned around to face her. I wasn’t an expert—only well-read on the subject after years spent trying to analyze my mother’s dreams in an attempt to understand her better. As my delusional childhood self, I’d thought knowing what was in my mother’s head would help me unlock the reasons for the sadness and restlessness behind her eyes. I’d hoped she would be so grateful, she’d include me in her various quests for peace and beauty. I’d failed, but in the process, I’d discovered an avid interest in these windows into our subconscious. It gave me something to talk about at the rare parties I attended, a parlor trick I could pull out when conversation faltered.
“There are probably a million interpretations, but I think it might mean that some ambition in your life, like your career or love life, isn’t progressing as you’d like it to be, and you feel as if something were holding you back.”
Josephine blinked at me for several seconds, and I wasn’t sure whether she either didn’t understand or was in complete denial that anything could ever hold her back. “Thanks,” Josephine said, smiling brightly again, any self-doubt quickly erased. “You going with the group from sales to the Hamptons for the weekend?”
I shook my head, eager to get back to work. I was at the gym every afternoon at five thirty, meaning I had to leave at five. Though it kept me in shape, the habit didn’t allow for much after-hours socializing. Not that I didn’t like my coworkers—I did. They were a fun, creative, and young group, including a smattering of millennials who didn’t act too much like millennials. I just found that I preferred socializing with them in an office setting, making it easier to escape back to my desk if any question went beyond which apartment I lived in and whether I preferred the subway or cabbing it.
“No,” I said. “I think I’ll stay in the city.” It never ceased to amaze me that people who complained about the crowded city always seemed to gravitate toward the same beaches at the same time with the same people from whom they were trying to escape.
“The water will be ice-cold, anyway. It’s still only April.”
Josephine scrunched up her nose, and I noticed how nothing else wrinkled. She said she used Botox only as a preventative measure, but from what I could tell, she was well on her way to looking like one of the gargoyle women I saw shopping in the high-end stores on Fifth Avenue. As Ceecee would say, it just wasn’t natural.
“Not any colder than usual,” Josephine insisted. “Come on. It’ll be fun. We’ve got a huge house in Montauk. There’re two queen beds in my room, if you don’t mind sharing with me. You could analyze everyone’s dreams.”
I was tempted. I’d never been part of a group or hung out with girls who rented houses together and took trips on the weekends. For a brief time in elementary school, I’d had a cluster of friends my age, but by the time we reached middle school, they’d formed their own smaller groups, none of which included me. I’d always had Mabry and her twin brother, Bennett, though. Our mothers were best friends, and we’d been bathed in the same bathtub when we were babies. That right there made us best friends, whether or not we ever acknowledged it. At least until our senior year in high school, when we’d stopped being friends at all.
The memory made it easier for me to shake my head. “Thanks for the invite, but I’ll stay home. I might rearrange my furniture. I’ve been thinking about it.”
Josephine gave me an odd look. “Sure. Oh, well, maybe it’s for the best. I don’t want to be the one standing next to you wearing a bikini—that’s for sure.”
“For the record, I don’t own a bikini.” I was more a T-shirt-and-boy-shorts type girl. “But thanks for asking. Maybe next time, okay?”
My cell phone buzzed where it lay faceup on my desk. I didn’t have a picture or a name stored in the directory, but I didn’t need to. It was the first cell phone number I’d ever memorized. When I didn’t move to pick it up, Josephine pointed to it with her chin. “Aren’t you going to get that?”
It was oddly telling that she didn’t excuse herself to give me privacy. I reached over and silenced it. “No. I’ll call him back later.”
“Him?” she asked suggestively.
“My father.” I never took his calls, no matter how many times he tried. When I’d first come to New York, the calls were more frequent, but over the past year or so, they’d tapered down to about one per week—sprinkled across different days and times, as if he were trying to catch me off guard. He wasn’t giving up. And neither was I. I’d inherited the Lanier bullheadedness from him, after all.
“So, you have a father.” Josephine looked at me expectantly.
The phone started buzzing again. I was about to toss it in my drawer, when I noticed it was a different number, another number that I knew and received calls from frequently, but never when I was at work. It was Ceecee, the woman who’d raised my mother, who was pretty much my grandmother in standing. She was too in awe of my working in New York City to ever want to interrupt me during office hours. Unless there was a good reason.
I picked up the phone. “Please excuse me,” I said to Josephine. “I need to take this.”
“Fine,” Josephine said. “Just know that if your body is ever found behind some Dumpster in Queens, we won’t know who to call.”
Ignoring her, I turned my back to the cubicle opening. “Ceecee?” I spoke into the phone. “Is everything all right?”
“No, sweetheart. I’m afraid it’s not.” Her voice sounded thick, as if she had a cold. Or had been crying. “It’s your mama.”
I sat up straighter. “What’s wrong with Mama?” I tried to prepare myself for her answer. Ivy Lanier was anything but predictable. But anything I could have imagined couldn’t have prepared me for what Ceecee said next.
“She’s missing. Nobody’s seen her since yesterday morning. Your daddy said when he got home from work yesterday that she and her car were gone. We’ve called all of her friends, but nobody’s seen her or heard from her.”
“Yesterday morning? Have you called the police?”
“Yes—the minute I heard. The sheriff has filed a report, and he’s got people looking for her.”
My mind filled and emptied like the marsh at the turning of the tides, enough stray bits clinging that I could form my first question. “Where was she yesterday morning?”
A pause. “She was here. She’s been here just about every day for the last month, refinishing her daddy’s old desk out in the garage. She’d come inside—I only know that because she left the kitchen a mess, the drawers yanked out. Like she was looking for something.”
“And you have no idea what?” The thread of panic that had woven into my voice surprised me.
There was a longer pause this time, as if Ceecee were considering the question. And the possible answer. “I thought she might have wanted more spare rags for the refinishing. I keep a bag on the floor of the pantry. It’s empty, though. She must have forgotten she’d used them all.”
“But she was looking through the drawers and cabinets.”
“Yes. When I saw her car pull away, I thought she was just running to the hardware store. But the police have checked—she didn’t go there. Your daddy and I are beside ourselves with worry.”
I closed my eyes, anticipating her next words.
“Please come home, Larkin. I need someone here. I’m afraid . . .” Her voice caught, and she was silent.
“Ceecee, you know Mama is always off in one direction or another. You’ve always called her a dandelion seed—remember? This wouldn’t be the first time she’s run off without explanation.” The words sounded hollow, even to me. My dream returned to me suddenly, jerking me backward as if I’d finally hit the ground, the air knocked from my lungs.
“She always comes back the same day,” Ceecee said fiercely. “They’ve checked all the roads within a hundred miles of here. Your daddy’s driven Highway Seventeen all the way up to Myrtle Beach, as far south as Charleston.” She paused again. “I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I had a dream last night. I dreamed I was falling.”
I stared at the black letters against the white background on my computer screen, lines and symbols that suddenly meant nothing at all. “Did you land?” I asked.
“I don’t remember.” There was a long silence and then, “Please, Larkin. Something bad has happened. I feel it. I need you to come home. We need you to come home.”
I closed my eyes again, seeing the place I was from, the creeks and marshes of my childhood that fed into the great Atlantic. When I was a little girl, my daddy said I bled salt water; it was in my veins. Maybe that was why I didn’t go back more than once a year, at Christmas. Maybe I was afraid I’d be sucked in by the tides, my edges blurred by the water. There was more than one way a person could drown.
“All right,” I said. I opened my eyes, disoriented as I imagined the brush of spartina grass against my bare legs, but saw only my metal desk under fluorescent lights. “I’ll take the first flight I can find into Charleston and rent a car. I’ll call you to let you know when to expect me.”
“Thank you. I’ll let your daddy know.”
“And call me if you hear anything about Mama.”
“Have you called Bitty?” I asked.
Her voice had a sharpness to it. “No. I’m not sure if she’s really needed—”
I cut her off. “Then I’ll call her. If something’s happened to Mama, she’ll want to be there.”
“She’ll just make a fuss.”
“Probably,” I agreed. But despite her own flurried wind, Bitty always helped me find the calm in the eye of whatever storm I found myself. “But she loves Mama as much as you do. She needs to know what’s happened.”
I could hear the disapproval in Ceecee’s voice. “Fine. Call her, then. But please get here as soon as you can.”
As soon as I hit the “end” button, my phone buzzed with another incoming call. I recognized the 843 area code, but not the rest of the number. Thinking it might have something to do with my mother, I answered it. “Hello?” A deep male voice, almost as familiar to me as the sound of rain in a flood-swollen creek, spoke. “Hello, Larkin. It’s Bennett.”
I quickly ended the call without answering, and put my phone on “silent.” I felt as if I were back in my dream, falling and falling into a dark abyss and wondering how long it would take before I hit the bottom.
Ceecee stood halfway between her kitchen door and the detached garage, retracing Ivy’s steps and trying to figure out what Ivy had been searching for. She’d studied the antique desk, now stripped of its finish, the drawers pulled out and stacked—a gutted fish with only skeletal remains. She reexamined the pantry and the open kitchen drawers, trying to see whether anything was missing. To find any message Ivy had been trying to leave her.
The more Ceecee didn’t see, the more worried she became. She’d turned to head back into the garage when she heard the cough of an exhaust pipe and saw a plume of black smoke billowing down her long driveway. She knew who it was before she caught sight of the outrageous orange hair reflecting the afternoon sun, or the faded and peeling paint of a once–powder blue Volkswagen Beetle, circa 1970.
Bitty had been too old to own a Beetle in the seventies and was definitely too old for it now. She’d always said it was the only car built to her small scale, but she looked ridiculous, especially with that hair and her penchant for rainbow-hued flowing robe things that made her look like she’d been in a preschool finger paint fight. Perpetually single but with a swath of brokenhearted suitors left in her wake, retired art teacher Bitty lived her bohemian lifestyle on Folly Beach, earning her living as a painter, with occasional intrusions into Ceecee’s life.
They’d known each other too long for the intrusions to be all unwelcome. Once, according to Ceecee’s mother, they’d been thick as thieves, she and Bitty and Margaret, inseparable since they were schoolgirls in smocked dresses and patent leather Mary Janes. But time changed all things, oxidizing friendships like old copper pots, so they no longer saw their reflections in one another’s faces.
As Bitty drew near, the clownlike horn of the car beeped twice, making Ceecee jump, as she was sure Bitty had intended. She heard the crank of the parking brake, and then Bitty was running toward her, nimble as a teenager, her arms outstretched. It wasn’t until she was in Bitty’s embrace that Ceecee remembered the security of an old friendship. Like an ancient sweater with moth holes that you still wear because you remember how it once kept you warm.
Bitty looked up into Ceecee’s face. “You look tired,” she said.
“And you smell like cigarette smoke.” Ceecee frowned at the bright blue eye shadow and round spots of rouge on Bitty’s cheeks. Her makeup hadn’t changed since the sixties. “If I wore as much makeup as you, I’d still look awful, but I’d at least cover up my tiredness.”
Bitty dropped her hands. “Good to see you, too. What do you think has happened to our Ivy?”
Our Ivy. Those two words stirred up the old anger. Ivy didn’t belong to Bitty, no matter how much she wished she did. Some would argue that Ivy didn’t belong to Ceecee, either, but Ceecee disagreed. She’d raised Ivy, and Ivy called her Mama. That was as much proof as she’d ever need.
“You’ll be wanting coffee, I suspect,” Ceecee said, walking back toward the kitchen and leaving Bitty to handle her bags. Bitty was the only person their age who still drank fully leaded coffee and could fall asleep and stay asleep at will. She’d been that way since high school, when they’d all started drinking coffee just because Margaret did, and it was as irritating then as it was now. “And no smoking inside.”
She was at the kitchen door before she heard the sound of another car. “It’s Larkin,” she said, although it was obvious from Bitty’s vigorous arm waving that she’d already recognized the driver. Ceecee said it again, as if to claim ownership, and moved to stand next to Bitty. When Larkin’s tall form unfolded from the driver’s side, she wished she’d kept walking toward the car so she didn’t seem to be making Larkin choose between them.
Then Bitty was running toward the beautiful young woman with the honey gold hair that was just like her grandmother Margaret’s, and both Bitty and Larkin were laughing and crying, as if at a joke Ceecee hadn’t been part of.
But then Larkin turned toward Ceecee and smiled, and Ceecee put her arms around her before holding her at arm’s length and shaking her head.
“You’re too thin,” she said. “A strong wind might blow you away. I’m going to make some of your favorites while you’re home—my sweet corn bread and fried chicken.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Ceecee. Any word from Mama?”
Her bright blue Darlington eyes searched Ceecee’s face, and again Ceecee felt like she was looking at Margaret. Dear, sweet, impossibly beautiful Margaret. Never “Maggie” or “Mags” or “Meg”—always “Margaret.” Margaret Darlington of Carrowmore, the former rice plantation on the North Santee River. The Darlingtons were as shrewd as they were good-looking, their luck legend. Until it wasn’t.
Ceecee squeezed Larkin’s shoulders, feeling the bones, sharp as blades, beneath her hands. “No, honey. I’m so sorry. Nothing yet. Let’s go inside and get you something to eat, and I’ll call your daddy to let him know you got here safely.”
“I’ve already eaten, but can I have some coffee?”
Bitty came up on the other side of her and slipped her arm around Larkin’s waist. “A girl after my own heart. I knew I taught you something.”
Larkin leaned her head against the top of Bitty’s. “You taught me a lot. Like how to drive a stick shift—remember?”
Their strained reminiscences did nothing to hide the worry they all felt about Ivy. Her Ivy. Without checking to see whether they followed, Ceecee let herself into the kitchen and made a strong pot of coffee. Then she picked up the phone to call Mack to invite him to dinner. She knew Larkin would stay with her and not her daddy. Not that she blamed her. It was hard to forgive a father who’d fallen rapidly and spectacularly from hero status in the eyes of his only child.
She held the phone absently, still scanning the tidy kitchen counters and her pretty antique teacup collection, which she dusted daily. She bent to straighten the dish towel on the handle of her oven, but stopped.
An unidentifiable object had fallen in the space between the oven and the edge of the cabinet and was peeping out at her from where it had wedged itself near the floor.
Ceecee left a brief voice message, letting Mack know about Larkin’s arrival, then ended the call. Her knees popped and cracked like breaking glass as she squatted. Reaching her fingers into the small space, she grasped the object and pulled it out.
“Are you stuck?” Bitty asked, standing over her, one of the rare occasions when Ceecee had to look up at her friend.
Ceecee started to say something but stopped, the thought lost the moment she realized what she held in her hand. Holding the counter, she pulled herself up, ignoring Bitty’s outstretched hand.
“What is that?” Bitty asked.
They both looked down at the white cardboard spool, the Hallmark price tag faded but still legible. A small section of gold foil ribbon was stuck to the inside, held in place by yellowed tape. Their eyes met in mutual understanding.
“What are you looking at?” Larkin asked.
Ceecee and Bitty turned toward Ivy’s daughter, unable to speak. Larkin stepped forward and took the spool. “Is this for ribbon?”
Finally, Ceecee found her voice. “Yes. I think it might have been in the kitchen junk drawer. Your mother must have dropped it.”
Larkin screwed up her face the same way Ivy did when she was confused or angry. Margaret had done the same thing in her day. “So, what? Why are you both looking like that?”
Bitty spoke before Ceecee could. “We think we know where your mama is.”
“Come on,” Ceecee said, grabbing her flip phone and the keys to her Cadillac off the counter. “We’ll tell you about it on the way.”
“On the way where?” Larkin plucked the keys from her hand. “I’ll drive—you talk. Just tell me where we’re going, and I’ll get us there as fast as I can.”
The three girls—or “women” as Ceecee’s mother insisted on calling them now that they were all eighteen—sat on top of the eyelet bedspread on Margaret’s four-poster rice bed, a fluffy tulle petticoat and three manicure scissors between them. Graduation from Winyah High School was only a month away, and Margaret had invited Ceecee and Bitty to Carrowmore for the weekend, promising a big surprise.
“Won’t your mama mind?” Ceecee asked, knowing with her whole heart that her mother would mind—very much. As the wife of the Methodist church’s pastor, Mrs. Tilden Purnell was all about doing her best to be an example of piety, propriety, and poverty. Not that they lived in poverty, Ceecee’s father would never have allowed that, but Ceecee and her two younger brothers knew their mother took frugalness to a level her Scottish ancestors would have greatly admired. Her proudest achievement was reusing the same soup base for an entire week, adding scraps from previous meals each day. Lloyd, the older of Ceecee’s brothers, insisted that only her husband’s position with God allowed all five Purnells to get through that particular week without dying of food poisoning.
Her frugalness extended to her shows of affection toward her children, although Ceecee and her brothers never doubted that their mother loved them fiercely. She simply had a quiet way of showing it—a squeeze on the hand, a smile behind their father’s back as he was sermonizing after some small infraction, an extra slice of cake when no one was looking.
Margaret arched her eyebrow over her left eye—the only one of the three best friends to accomplish that feat. They’d practiced for hours in a mirror after watching Gone with the Wind. It made her appear even more regal and aristocratic than usual. “Mother wants me to do whatever makes me happiest. Even if it means cutting up a petticoat I haven’t worn yet so we have something to send to the Tree of Dreams.”
Ceecee and Bitty exchanged a glance, then picked up their scissors and began cutting the undergarment into strips. Nobody—including Margaret—knew when or how a narrow opening in the trunk of an old oak tree on the river at the edge of the property had become known as a special place for storing dreams, a kind of thin place that acted as a conduit to the other side. All Margaret knew was that it had been called that since the Revolutionary War when the first Mrs. Darlington had placed a ribbon in a small opening in the tree’s trunk with messages for her absent soldier husband. It had been used in the Civil War (their history teacher refused to let them refer to it by any other name, even if this was South Carolina and Margaret’s recently passed grandmother had refused to call it anything besides the “Late Unpleasantness”) and ostensibly for any crisis in which the Darlingtons had found themselves since.
Margaret’s mother called the tree divine, placed on the property as a gift from their Creator, a symbol of the family’s good fortune. After all, the Revolutionary War ancestor had come home to father fourteen children, and the family and property had seen nothing but good health and good fortune ever since, even being spared during the Civil War because the Darlington at the time was a Mason.
Ceecee’s father called it pagan, this writing notes on ribbons as a sort of good luck token instead of good on-your-knees prayer. But Margaret stubbornly called it the Tree of Dreams, the place she went when she needed some of the Darlington good fortune to shine on her.
Whatever people called it, it seemed to work. Everything the Darlingtons touched turned to gold. Their men were handsome, their women beautiful, their children brilliant. They were always a little bit more than others. If Ceecee hadn’t loved Margaret so much, she might have hated her.
And Ceecee’s mother knew that, and that’s why she’d tried to discourage their friendship. Jealousy was one of the seven deadly sins, and whether you disguised the green-headed monster with admiration or friendship, it would always be a sharp-toothed beast waiting to pounce.
“I brought my paints and brushes, like you asked,” Bitty said. Her father was the school principal, and her mother the art teacher. Ceecee was pretty sure that neither her parents nor Margaret’s approved of their friendship with a girl whose mother worked, but the bond that had formed in first grade couldn’t be broken, no matter how much their parents tried.
“Good,” said Margaret, sliding off the side of the bed. “After we’ve thought long and hard, we need to paint our dreams on our ribbons. Whatever you want your life to be.”
She smiled beatifically. Ceecee looked at the ribbon in her lap and frowned. Bitty’s parents were allowing her to study art after graduation, and Margaret had been bombarded with marriage proposals from eligible young men with pedigrees and social standing since her debut the previous season. She’d been accepted at Wellesley, too, but only because a senator’s wife (her goals at least were hand-in-hand with her parents’) needed a good education.
But Ceecee’s future hadn’t been discussed. Not because it didn’t matter, but because it was a forgone conclusion. She would marry, hopefully someone she could tolerate, someone who wasn’t too hard on the eyes—and not the overeager, Brylcreem-slicked Will Harris who was ten years older and already giving her meaningful glances during Sunday church services. But so far, he was the only potential candidate, any other possible suitors being shy of approaching the pastor’s daughter and passing muster under the hawkish eye of her mother.
Margaret must have seen Ceecee’s frown. She leaned forward, put her hand over hers, and squeezed. Ceecee’s mother called Margaret superficial, but at times like this, Ceecee knew it wasn’t true. Just because a person was born perfect didn’t mean she didn’t see or sympathize with the imperfections in others. “Don’t think of the realities, Ceecee. Think of possibilities and dreams. Of things you can’t even imagine yet. And write those down.”
“That’s easy,” Bitty said, uncapping a jar of red paint and settling herself on the wide-planked pine floor, a ribbon stretched out in front of her. They watched as the tip of her brush formed precise red letters: I dream of being a significant artist.
“Don’t you mean a great artist?” Margaret asked, the bridge of her perfect nose wrinkling.
“No,” Bitty said. She was never afraid to disagree with Margaret. Despite her stature, she’d been raised to have an opinion and not to be afraid to voice it. And Margaret was smart enough to realize that she needed someone like that in her life.
Bitty continued. “‘Great’ is subjective, and I’d never know if it were true. But if my art has meaning to me and to others, then it will be significant.” She balled up two blank petticoat strips and slid them away from her. “That’s all I want.”
Margaret turned to Ceecee. “Then it’s your turn. Think hard. Remember—consider the possibilities of the rest of your life.”
Ceecee stared at her friend, pinpricks of anger tightening her jaw. It was so easy for Margaret. She was a Darlington. Their world was a tidal basin full of oysters, each containing a perfect pearl. Ceecee, no matter how much she might choose to dream, had been born into a life as predictable as the tides.
With a smug burst of defiance, Ceecee began to paint the words with the brush Bitty handed her, keeping the letters only as big as her dreams allowed.
I dream of marrying the perfect man—handsome, kind, and with good prospects, and my love for him will be endless.
Ceecee placed the brush in the empty jar Bitty slid in front of her, then glanced up at Margaret. Her friend gave her an odd look but didn’t criticize. “It’s your turn,” Ceecee said.
“I’ve already done mine,” Margaret said with a sly grin.
She waited until Bitty and Ceecee were once more sitting on the side of the bed, the paint on their ribbons drying on the floor. When she was sure she had their full attention, she cleared her throat dramatically. “And now for my big graduation present for both of you.”
She watched their faces with her bright blue eyes, until Ceecee couldn’t take the suspense anymore. When the three of them went to the movies, she was always the one with her hands over her eyes during the scary parts.
“What, Margaret? Tell us!” she shouted.
“I’ve gotten permission from Mama and Daddy and my aunt Dorothy for us to stay with my aunt and uncle Milton for a whole two weeks at their house in Myrtle Beach the day after we graduate! Mama said she’ll smooth it over with your parents—you know how good she is at that—and we can take her Lincoln Cosmopolitan convertible!”
They squealed with excitement and jumped around the room, avoiding the wet paint, their arms thrown around one another. This would be the trip to say good-bye to their girlhoods, Ceecee thought. To embrace the women they’d someday become. And maybe have some fun along the way.
Margaret ran to her dresser drawer and pulled out a rolled-up ribbon. “Hurry, y’all. It’s going to rain, and we need to get this done before Mama makes her phone calls.” She stopped, facing them with a solemn expression. “This marks the beginning of the rest of our lives. I want you both to always remember this moment.”
They raced down the curving front stairs, through the wide central hall to the back door, which had been left open, a screen filtering in the scent of rain and the tidal river at low tide. Angry clouds sat on the horizon, casting out the sun and dulling the colors of the river and marsh.
As they ran, Ceecee looked back—just once. She loved seeing the great house of Carrowmore from a distance and never tired of its graceful lines and perfect symmetry. But the clouds had dimmed the vivid brightness of its white paint, making the old house and familiar landscape appear as a fading memory.
Hollowed-out gourds hung from the limbs of the river birches, elms, and oaks that dotted the lawn past the formal gardens. It was near sunset, and a large flock of purple martins dipped and swirled as they returned to the gourds, their nests for the night. Ceecee stopped for a moment to look up, hearing the chirps and rattles. She realized she’d never hear them again without remembering right now, this threshold they were all crossing.
The ancient oak tree, with its sweeping drapes of moss, waited at the end of the lawn near the river, its arms seemingly outstretched in welcome. Margaret walked right up to the opening in the trunk and stuck her ribbon inside.
“Hurry—the rain’s going to start any minute, and I’ve just washed and set my hair.”
“But won’t somebody be able to reach in and take ours out and read them?” Bitty said.
Margaret shook her head. “The birds will come and take them and use them in their nests. Granddaddy used to say they were the go-betweens from this world and the next.
You want them to take your words and bring them where they need to go.”
“What does yours say?” Bitty said.
As she spoke, a streak of lightning flitted across the sky, and a fat drop of rain landed on her cheek.
“Hurry,” Margaret said, already taking two steps back toward the house.
Bitty and Ceecee rolled up their ribbons and stuck them inside the tree, neither indicating how crazy this was. Margaret Darlington had the kind of power that made sane people do insane things.
The sky opened up with a sudden, drenching downpour as they ran back across the lawn to the old white house.
“What did you put on your ribbon?” Ceecee called again, her voice nearly drowned out by the loud bark of thunder above.
Margaret laughed her laugh that always turned heads, throaty and melodic like a movie star’s. “The same thing you did!” Her long legs helped her overtake her two friends, so that she made it to the back porch first, her blond hair darkened by the rain to the color of sea oats in autumn.
A strong wind pushed at Ceecee’s back, and an odd sound floated through the rain toward her. She stopped and turned, saw the birdhouse gourds swaying from their tethers, their round holes like tiny mouths opened in surprise as they keened in the wind.
Shivering, Ceecee began to run again, spotting Margaret on the porch, dripping with water. She looked more beautiful than ever, her hair slicked back, revealing the fine bones of her face. Ceecee felt anger again, at the “more” Margaret always seemed to achieve without trying. Angry, too, that the wish she’d carefully written on the ribbon had to be shared.