The hollow feeling in her stomach didn’t dissipate during the kids’ baths or story time or tucking in. She sat cross-legged in the landing between Little Ayers’s bedroom and the girls’ bedroom and sang Sweet Baby James until all three children stopped rolling around and their breathing came in soft, unsynchronized puffs. Only then did she let the tears come.
She climbed into bed without washing her face or brushing her teeth. What am I doing? she asked herself, or maybe she asked Granna, but Granna didn’t answer. Besides, she’d asked herself that question a million times over the last year. She had good days. She got up every morning, and hugged her kids and did what she had to do and laughed when things were funny. But the sadness over her failed family— her failed life— never left her. Ayers had known her a long time. He’d stood in the wings, a somewhat interested observer, while she wrestled her postpartum depression into submission. He probably sensed melancholy churning under the ice sheet of her can-do attitude.
She lay there in the dark, on her children’s first night in Miss Callie’s house. Pros. Cons. What if this. Maybe that. She’d never been able to consider staying in her old house herself. She couldn’t pay the mortgage. She could have forced Ayers to sell it, but she’d chosen the divorce. It had seemed heartless to take his home, and the only home her kids had ever known, in the neighborhood where all their friends lived. At this point, even if she pushed for him to sell, she knew he’d fight her. She didn’t have spare cash for lawyers and court battles.
He would never really take the kids. He’s just blowing smoke, like he usually does. She tried to convince herself, but foreboding swelled inside her. Ayers would say ten things—good or bad— and nine of them would fall by the wayside, never to be heard of again. He’d choose one, however, and vehemently see it through until the end. She could only hope this wasn’t unlucky number ten.
She had about twelve thousand dollars left from Granna’s life insurance policy, enough to keep her going for a few months, as long as she didn’t pay rent. By the time Jimmy put Miss Callie’s house on the market she’d be past this worry, one way or another. The only scenarios she didn’t actively consider were prostitution and returning to her marriage. As devastating as the ramifications were, Ayers’s vengeful behavior since their separation had only justified her decision. She pictured him, earlier that evening, smug in his ability to pay the bills, which in his mind, made him the superior parent. She’d never buy that man another pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint, much less sleep in the same bed with him.
The tears kept coming, but she didn’t cry out loud. Olivia Grace slept lightly. God forbid she wake to her mama having a meltdown on her first night in her new home.
Is there any point in calling it home if Jimmy is going to sell it within a year?
She must have fallen asleep, but it seemed that only a moment passed between crying and waking up to Jane Mott’s pale face. In the dark Jane looked less solid. She emitted a kind of bluish glow, like a dying flashlight.
“I would find a way to ease your mind, for you seem to have many preoccupations,” Jane said. “But I cannot bring you a glass of tea. That’s what my mama would have recommended.”
Tipsy propped her head on her elbow and sniffed. “She sounds like my Granna. Sweet tea solves all problems.”
“That gloomy large round man. Is he your husband?”
For some reason the description struck Tipsy as both hilarious and accurate. She giggled. Soon the ghost smiled back at her in a way that wasn’t spooky at all. “Ex-husband,” Tipsy said. “We’re divorced.”
The grin left Jane’s face—as if Tipsy had declared Ayers to be a leper and herself a carrier of the bubonic plague. Jane blinked in exclamation points of dismay. “How truly awful.”
“It’s not. Or, maybe it is. Hell, I don’t know.”
“Mama and Daddy would have sent me to a lunatic asylum or a convent before allowing that. Were you unhappy for a spell before your…” Jane lowered her voice. “…divorce?”
Tipsy thought of her years of tiptoeing around Ayers’s temper, the conversations like pruning roses. She needed to find just the right grip to avoid the thorns. She nodded. “He was, too, but for different reasons. Were you unhappy?”
“Most obviously, since one doesn’t kill one’s wife and oneself in a fit of joy.”
“Many people are unhappily married. They don’t commit murder.”
“Henry killed me for my inheritance.” Jane’s fingers spun in her lap, just as they had during Tipsy’s first conversation with her. As if she were knitting together her explanation.
Tipsy frowned. “You couldn’t have been struggling too badly. Y’all lived in this huge house.”
Jane oozed rationality and blinkiness. “Many people live in large houses but have modest bank accounts. I knew families who lived on South Battery and barely put food on the table, bless their hearts.”
“You’re right,” said Tipsy. “Look at all the people who took out interest-only mortgages and are upside down.”
“Never mind. Were you due a large inheritance?”
“When my parents passed on, yes. Not Vanderbilt standard, but a decent sum.”
“Were they ill?”
“Heavens, no. I come from hardy stock.”
“It wouldn’t do Henry much good to kill you and wait twenty years for your parents to go, too. Besides, you think he killed himself, too!”
Jane’s face darkened from translucent blue to a shade reminiscent of anti-freeze. “Have you been speaking with him?”
“I did. Yesterday, for a few minutes.”
“Ha! I knew it!”
Tipsy sat up. Her bedroom glowed with Jane’s blue anger. “I can look into what happened. Maybe check the old newspapers?”
Jane shook her head. Her black bob whipped back and forth like the ears of a wet spaniel.
“Maybe Henry didn’t do it,” Tipsy said. “You’d have no reason to hate him—”
“You’re convinced of his innocence!”
“No! Listen to me.” Tipsy threw back the blanket and climbed out of bed. “If we can find proof that he did kill you, he’ll have to admit it and apologize. If you have to haunt this place for all eternity, at least you’d do it in peace.”
Jane paced the bedroom. Her effervescence pulsed as she faded and solidified. As she slowed, the room lightened. Her blue anger faded away in a cold dawn. She stopped in the far corner of the room, near the tiny closet. “Thank you for your thoughtful sentiments. And I’m sure Henry beguiled you, in his Henry way of beguiling.” A wry smile twitched the corners of her purplish lips. “But I have no desire to turn over stones that have long since anchored into the ground.”
Tipsy plopped down on the edge of the bed. “Jane, that’s ridiculous. How can it hurt to know—”
“Goodnight, Miss Tiffany-Tipsy.” Jane strode toward Tipsy with her hands clasped before her chest, like a high priestess approaching a sacrificial altar. A dismissive, irritable noise from the back of her throat—“Hmmph!”— and electric blue light shone from her pallid face. Tipsy held one hand before her own face. Her eyes scrunched shut of their own fruition.
Before she could open her eyes, she fell backward. Tipped right on over, like a spilt glass of tea. And in those seconds— or minutes? or maybe hours? — between her eyes closing and her head hitting the mattress, something happened. Something supernatural, the likes of which had never happened to her before.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish