There is no escaping the dead. On the slender peninsula that is Charleston, we cannot help being surrounded by them, packed as they are into ancient cemeteries behind ornate iron fencing. Beneath our streets. And under our homes and parking garages. Land is at a premium here, and it was inevitable that over the course of time the living and the dead would eventually rub elbows. Most residents of the Holy City are blissfully unaware of its former citizens who have passed on but whose names and homes we share and whose presence lingers still. Others, like me, are not so lucky.
It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always been such a light sleeper. Even before I became the owner of a needy, money-sucking historic home on Tradd Street, and then the mother of twins, I always slept half awake, anticipating a cold hand on my shoulder or a shadow by the window. For years I’d learned how to ignore them, to pretend I’d felt only a draft, had seen only a shift in the light as morning nudged the night. But that’s the thing with pretending. It doesn’t make them go away.
Which is why when the shrill of the telephone jerked me fully awake I was already reaching for the nightstand to answer it before I remembered that we no longer kept a house phone in our bedroom. Sitting straight up in bed, I stared at my nightstand, where my cell phone lay, its face glowing with an unexpected blue light, the ring tone not my usual “Mamma Mia” but identical to the tone of the now-defunct landline handset.
Fumbling to pick it up before it woke my sleeping companions, I slid my thumb across the screen and answered, “Hello?”
A distant, hollow sound, like a small rock being dropped into a deep well, echoed in my ear.
“Hello?” I said again. “Grandmother?” She’d been dead since I was a little girl, but it wouldn’t have been the first time she’d called me since then. Yet I knew it wasn’t her. When she called I always had a sense of peace and well-being. Of love and protection. Not the feeling of unseen insects crawling over my scalp. And somewhere, in that deep dark space at the other end of the line, was the sound of groaning nails and something being pried loose, and a tinny note, almost indecipherable, vibrating in the empty air.
I pulled the phone from my ear and hit END, noticing the local 843 area code but not recognizing the number. Placing the phone back on the nightstand, I looked at the video monitor, which showed my ten-month-old twins sleeping peacefully in their nursery down the hall, then turned to Jack. I was met with the wet nose and large eyes of my dog, General Lee. I’d inherited him along with the house and housekeeper, Mrs. Houlihan.
Despite my protestations that I didn’t like dogs, I now found myself the owner of three. Even in his advanced years, General Lee had proven himself quite virile and had fathered a litter of puppies, two of which had been given to us as a wedding present the previous year. With the addition of a husband, two babies, and a stepdaughter, I barely recognized my life anymore and had to pinch myself on more than one occasion to make me believe it was true.
Which is why the phone call unnerved me more than it should have. The restless dead had left me alone for almost a year. It had been a blissful period when I’d begun to settle into my life as a new wife and mother without the distraction of spirits needing me for something. I’d even begun to hope that the dead had forgotten about me.
General Lee crawled on top of my pillow, above my head, allowing me to see Jack’s face in the soft glow of the monitor. I still couldn’t believe that he was my husband. That the irritating, opinionated, overly charming, and irresistible bestselling author Jack Trenholm was my husband and the father of my children. He was still irritating and opinionated, especially where I was concerned, but that somehow added to his attraction.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he slurred, his voice thick with sleep. He reached over and pulled me toward him, spoon position, and I melted into his warmth. His lips found my neck, and the rest of my skin seemed to jump to attention, hoping to be next in line. “Who was that on the phone?”
“Hmm?” I said, forgetting what the word “phone” meant.
“The phone. It rang. Was it important?”
“Hmm,” I repeated, the sound coming from deep in my throat. I’d already started to turn in his arms, my hands sliding up his chest, any phone call long since forgotten.
“Because I was wondering if it was your boss, checking to see if you were still planning on coming in today. Before your maternity leave, you were always there by seven on Mondays.”
My eyes flew wide-open, his words the equivalent of ice-cold water thrown on my head. I jerked up in bed, receiving an unhappy groan from General Lee, and picked up my phone again. Five after seven. I looked across the room, where I’d set three different alarm clocks, all the old-fashioned wind-up kind, just in case the electricity went out in the middle of the night and my phone battery died.
I stared at them for a long moment before Jack sighed. “You really should keep your glasses nearby. I’ve seen you wearing them often enough that it wouldn’t be a shock.” He sat up so he could see better. “That’s odd. It looks like they’re all stopped at ten minutes past four.”
I leaped from the bed, not really registering what he’d just said. It was my first day back after nearly a year away on extended maternity leave. It was supposed to have been only until the babies were three months old, but our inability to find a nanny who would stay longer than two weeks had proven not only baffling but problematic.
I ran to the bathroom and turned on the shower, then retreated to my closet, where I had laid out my outfit—complete with shoes and accessories—the night before. I threw off my nightgown, a slinky silk thing Jack had bought for me that didn’t resemble the old high-necked flannel gowns of my single days, folded it neatly on my dressing table bench, and jumped in the shower.
Five minutes later I was brushing my teeth while simultaneously buttoning a blouse that didn’t want to be buttoned and zipping up a skirt with an equally reluctant zipper. I stared at my reflection in the full-length mirror, too horrified by what I saw to allow my gaze to linger very long. I could hope that everybody in the office had gone blind and wouldn’t notice my unfastened blouse and skirt, or I’d have to find something else to wear.