Almost two years after her ex-husband moved out, Tipsy Collins was still trying to figure out her life. She’d learned some handy lessons, for sure. When it comes to personal revelations, divorce is the gift that keeps on giving. For example, as her dating life collapsed around her like a house of unpleasantly prophetic tarot cards, she reached the liberating yet disheartening conclusion that she would never understand men, living or dead.
Like most women in their thirties, Tipsy had plenty of experience with the behavior of living men, but she only understood that dead men were just as flummoxing because she lived with one. After a lifetime of avoiding spirits, she’d inherited ghostly roommates when she had the good fortune to move into Miss Callie’s house in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant, across the Ravenel Bridge from Charleston. Thanks to her former brother-in-law’s generosity with his late mother’s home, she didn’t pay rent, but she had to share space with two cantankerous, kooky phantoms. Jane and Henry Mott hadn’t escaped their miserable marriage with ‘til death do us part, but with Tipsy’s help and the mystery of their century-old murder solved, Jane had done the sensible thing. She moved on. A year later, Henry still lingered in Ms. Callie’s house, as confounding as ever.
On this morning a few days after the Fourth of July, Tipsy brushed past him as she hustled her three children—Ayers, Mary Pratt, and Olivia Grace—out the door for camp. “Morning, Henry,” she said under her breath.
Henry sat at the dining room table. He whispered to himself as he wrote in the air with one pale finger. His dark blue eyes followed his imaginary penmanship. Bright red, tousled hair hung in his face. He smiled, as if he’d just noticed Tipsy wrestling her three boisterous kids into submission in the foyer. “Good morning, Miss Tipsy,” he said, “Where are y’all off to today?”
Dropping them at summer camp. Tipsy spoke in her mind. Henry would hear her as clearly as if she hollered through a bullhorn.
“Of course! How could I forget? I apologize, but this chapter of THE GREAT STORY is terribly demanding of my attention.” Even when he was grinning like a fox in the early stages of rabies, Henry cut a dashing figure at Ms. Callie’s antique mahogany table. In the age of kitchen islands, such edifices of formal meals were going the way of the flip phone. Meanwhile, neither Henry nor the furnishings had changed much since he died in 1923.
Which chapter now? Tipsy asked, although she pretty much knew the answer. Henry was compiling his mysterious magnum opus at a speed approximating that of a drunk slug crawling up a slippery wall.
“I’m nearly finished with chapter two!”
Another voice rose in Tipsy’s mind. Her Granna, who had died years ago but shared her talent for seeing the dead and hence some of her headspace, spoke up with her usual country forthrightness. It’s taken him a year to finish two chapters, said Granna. He wants you to transcribe for him, but you’ll have joined me in the afterlife before he’s finished. Why doesn’t he move on now that he can?
I don’t know, Granna, but if he wants to hang around haunting this place, that’s his choice. She looked at the eccentric ghost like her own errant offspring. Besides, I’m used to him at this point, bless his crazy ass heart.
“Y’all have a nice day now,” said Henry. “I’ll take the basket of clean clothes to your room.”
Tipsy gave him a subtle thumbs up. Henry’s telekinetic powers definitely came in handy around the house.
He’s more helpful than Big Ayers was, said Granna, in reference to Tipsy’s famously self-centered ex-husband.
If I have to live with a man, I think I prefer a dead one. Living men drive me to drink.
Still getting the heebie-jeebies from Will?
That’s as good a way as any to describe his vibes lately.
The kids’ arguing recaptured her attention. Little Ayers had typical nine-year-old boy morning energy. He was singing a borderline inappropriate rap song he’d heard on YouTube at his father’s house. He tugged one of Olivia Grace’s curly brown pigtails while bouncing his soccer ball on his knee.
“Stop it,” said O-liv.
“Ayers, stop it. Hold onto the ball. What’s that song? I don’t like the sound of it.”
“It’s the clean version, Mom.”
He’d lately switched from Mama to Mom, reminding her that there was a lot more YouTube in her future.
Tipsy helped Mary Pratt sling her camp backpack over her shoulders. “Your bathing suit and towel are in—”
“Where’s my lunchbox, Mama?” asked Mary Pratt. “Did you put fruit snacks in there?”
“Ayers, staaaaap!” Olivia Grace was about to lose it. While she was often the most compliant member of the Collins Kids Triad, she’d been known to clobber her siblings when they pushed her.
“Ayers Lee! You’re almost ten years old, for heaven’s sake. Leave your sister alone!”
“She started it! She called me a poophead!”
“Oh lord, are we revisiting poophead? O-liv, no more poophead.” Tipsy reached for M.P.’s lunchbox. She planned to head straight to Sullivan’s Island to discuss a new painting commission after drop off, so she wore wedges and a long sundress. As a freelance artist, commissions were her most important source of income. She always dressed up to meet a potential client, but her outfit was not kid-friendly. As she handed over the pink rectangle, she stumbled on her hem and stepped on her own toe.
“Damnit!” she yelled. “Shit!”
The kids shut up mid-complaint.
“You okay, Mom?” Ayers flipped his shaggy blond hair out of his eyes.
“She cussed,” Mary Pratt whispered to Olivia Grace. Olivia Grace grimaced in acknowledgement. The two girls, as identical at seven-years-old as they had been as newborns, didn’t need to talk to communicate any more than Tipsy had to speak to talk to Henry or Granna.
Tipsy looked in the hallway mirror and straightened her dress. A tall, slim woman with wavy brown hair and gray eyes stared back at her. She appeared only mildly frazzled. No parenting induced eye tick yet, but hell, it wasn’t even eight in the morning. Still plenty of time for her hair to stand on end and her mascara to run. She smiled at her reflection as if practicing for a television interview. Money was always tight in her post-divorce life, and she needed this commission.
Her phone dinged insistently as she gave Little A his water bottle. “Yes, buddies. I’m fine. I’m sorry I cursed, but y’all are driving me batty. Let’s all try to chill out, okay?”
“Sorry,” said Ayers. “Sorry, O-liv.”
“S’okay,” said Olivia Grace.
“I don’t need fruit snacks,” said Mary Pratt.
“All good, y’all. Please get in the car.”
They meandered out the front door, chatting and laughing with the abrupt conviviality of children, while Tipsy grabbed her purse. She looked at her phone.
Will Garrison Text Message (2)
It’s about time, she thought. He’d been distant the past week and hadn’t texted a good morning. She swiped across the text.
Will: Did you go to Pamella’s about the commission yet?
Tipsy: No, I told you, I have to drop off the kids first. Driving to Sullivan’s after.
The question irritated her. Will had connected her with Pamella Brewton, as he’d done carpentry work on her house. His sporadic communication of late harped on this meeting.
Tipsy: Why do you keep asking?
She stuck the phone in her purse and walked down Ms. Callie’s front steps with the July sun baking her shoulders. She checked the kids’ seatbelts and got into her old faithful Tahoe. Her phone dinged again as she buckled her belt. She tried and failed to ignore it. She couldn’t stop herself. Her arm might as well have belonged to someone else.
She swiped across Will’s next text.
Just let me know how it goes. And can I come over tonight to talk?
Tipsy’s heart sank. Will Garrison was no chatterbox. If he wanted to talk, it couldn’t be good.
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