Read The Twelfth Child Online

Authors: Bette Lee Crosby

Tags: #General, #Fiction

The Twelfth Child (7 page)

BOOK: The Twelfth Child
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E
lliott, who could always make worse of a situation, contrived a slew of accusations as to what Destiny had done; then he handed the detective a typed list of family heirlooms which, according to him, had been stolen. “And,” he said, “my great aunt’s silver tea service is missing as well.” He carried on like every one of those things were treasures of great sentimental value, but I knew what he was really after.

Detective Nichols read down the list of items. “Antique sewing cabinet, mahogany lamp tables, sterling silver ladle, cameo brooch…hmm. This is a pretty extensive list, you
sure
it’s all missing?” 

The way Elliott carried on, anybody would have thought me richer than the Queen of England. The truth is, that so-called tea service was nothing more than a coated over piece of tin—why, I got it with six books of the green stamps they used to hand out at the Bountiful Basket. And the sewing cabinet belonged to my mama, it had a broken hinge and any number of scratches, it meant a lot to me but other than that it wasn’t worth a nickel; still, Elliott led the detective to believe it was something valuable. That was the way he was; he’d take some ordinary circumstance and blow it way out of proportion to fit his grandiose scheme of things.

“Oh, it’s all missing,” Elliott swore. “Every bit of it!”     

It was hard to know for sure, but I thought the detective had a suspicious glint in his eye; he seemed a man well-acquainted with lying snakes.

“I’ve the suspicion,” Elliott said, “that if you searched the Fairchild woman’s house, you’d find it all—I know I’ve already
seen
her driving my great aunt’s car!”

“Destiny Fairchild? She’s the neighbor you spoke of?”

“Yes.  I’ve only met the girl a few times, but right off I suspected she was out to swindle my poor aunt. I warned Aunt Abigail, but she was not one to listen.”  

“This is a pretty serious accusation,” the detective said. “Are you certain you want to file a complaint?”

“Absolutely!” Elliott answered, “Absolutely!”

“Okay.” Detective Nichols eyed Elliott with a look that gave me reason think he doubted the truthfulness of the entire story. “Now,” he said, “let’s go through this from the start. Tell me what happened, as best you can recall.”

 Lord God, I thought, the world has come to a sorry state when a thieving conniver such as Elliott is a person to be listened to. If Destiny had slammed the door in his face, that man wouldn’t know if I was dead or alive. Right then I started wishing Destiny had been called something else, like Lucky or Happy, some more positive name that didn’t leave such an open-ended issue of her future.

 

I
still remember the day I first met Elliott; it was back in nineteen-eighty-six, two years after Will sold the farm and moved to Culpepper. Dear sweet Becky was still alive then and she was the one who telephoned and invited me to Sunday dinner. “Will wants you to come over to meet this Elliott person,” she said. “Supposedly his grandma was a descendant of the Lannigan family.” I caught on to that
supposedly
and right away knew Becky had certain suspicions. Will’s wife was a good woman, down-to-earth as they come, but at times she could be a bit priggish if a person didn’t strike her just so. “Okay,” I answered, “but I’ll want to start back early.” Culpepper was a good two hours away from Middleboro and I had already reached the point where my eyes didn’t adjust well to nighttime driving.    

Well, if that don’t beat all, I thought as I hung up the receiver. Just when I’d resigned myself to the fact that Will, Becky and I were the last of the Lannigan family, another honest-to-God relative pops up. Not being of a suspicious nature, the idea of more relatives pleased me and right off I started imagining Elliott Emerson to be a man like dear old Mister Callaghan—round-faced and happy, playfully tossing sons and daughters in the air as they laughed and laughed. It was barely September but there I was, picturing a Thanksgiving dinner with a thirty-pound turkey on the table and a whole slew of nieces and nephews calling out for Auntie Abigail. I even considered that for Christmas I’d get a
real
tree, a big one, tall as the ceiling. Of course, I didn’t dwell on how I’d get such a thing home or where I’d get the trimmings for it. 

When Sunday rolled around, it was a gray morning with a thick layer of black clouds threatening to let loose a downpour. Anyone could tell this wasn’t going to be a drizzle, it was going to be the kind of driving rain that makes it impossible to see the road even when the windshield wipers are set to their fastest speed. This all happened just after Ben Meyerson had moved away and the place was still empty. If I’d have known Destiny at that time, I could have gotten her to go with me. She was good that way; always willing to drop whatever she was doing to lend a hand. Why one time, she got behind the wheel of my Buick and drove all the way over to Virginia Beach just because I had a yearning to smell the ocean. 

Anyway, I fretted about making the trip alone and twice I even dialed Will’s number to tell him I’d come some other day, after the weather got better. Both times I hung up before he answered; probably because I was pretty eager to meet this Elliott. Finally, I started reasoning like a person with some sense—just stay in the right lane and go slow, I told myself, which is a laugh because in those days I rarely drove faster than forty miles an hour anyway. Once my mind was made up, I outfitted myself like a person visiting with the President of the United States—straw hat, silk dress, fancy bloomers, even a brand new hankie tucked into my purse.    

As it turned out, the rain clouds drifted off to the east and I got to their house almost an hour early. When Will opened the front door he had this big wide smile on his face. “Come on in,” he said. “Meet Elliott Emerson!”

I had barely stepped through the door when Elliott said in his smart-alecky way, “So,
this
is Abigail Anne.” A gentleman would have shown the courtesy to stand but Elliott sat there with his lanky frame stretched across the sofa and waited as I walked over to him.  “Ah yes,” he said, eying me top to toe, “Abigail Anne, the twelfth child of William Lannigan. As Will here knows, my grandmother was the
first
.”  

Everyone knew Papa had other wives before Mama, but I wasn’t about to give this Johnny-come-lately  the upper edge, so pretending that such news was of small consequence, I answered, “Do tell.” Right away, any hope for chubby-cheeked nieces and nephews was gone. It’s funny how you can take measure of some people from the very start; not just by their looks, but things you can’t even put a finger on—a lack of expression, eyes that look right past you, a hollowed out laugh. Elliott had all those, plus a bushy mustache that hung like an awning over his lip and hid the sneakiness of his mouth. When he spoke my name, he gave one of those hollowed out laughs, I suppose it was meant to sound friendly-like, but I could tell behind that bushy awning he had gritted-together teeth. 

“Emerson?” I said, “I’ve no knowledge of any Emersons in our family.”

“Emerson is my father’s family name, but my mother was most certainly a Lannigan,” Elliott stated emphatically. “William Lannigan was my great grandfather.  Bertha Abernathy, his first wife was my great grandmother.”

To my way of thinking, having a blood line that could be traced back to Papa didn’t say much for anyone. I was of a mind to say so but Will seemed to be taken by the man so I kept my opinion to myself. Of course, Will was the kind of person who could never see the bad in anyone. Once we were watching the television news and there was this story about a man who’d murdered his own mother—I said they ought to string him up; but my brother felt sorry for the guy. “Just think how troubled that poor soul must have been,” was all Will had to say. I’ll grant you Elliott and me might not have gotten off to such a poor start if I’d have been a bit more pleasant natured, but from the minute that man opened his mouth there was something about him that rankled me. 

“Elliott telephoned, just after I sold the farm,” Will said. “Imagine, him having the where-with-all to track down a Lannigan after all this time.”

“Imagine,”  I echoed apprehensively. “How exactly did that come about?” 

“With my Lannigan heritage and given the fact that Margaret Louise, my Grandmother was the
first
child of William Lannigan, I always considered the possibility that Will would call upon me to take over the farm. When I heard the place had been sold, I knew I should get in touch.”  

Will nodded. “He’s right about his grandma.  Margaret Louise was Papa’s first born.  Eighteen-seventy-seven. Her name is in the Family Bible.”

I didn’t much care if the woman’s history was carved into the side of ThunderhillMountain; Elliott Emerson’s pretentious mannerisms had already convinced me that I had no desire to be related. “Margaret Louise Lannigan?” I repeated, “That name still doesn’t ring a bell.” Even then it struck me how Elliott was going to great lengths to establish the fact that he was blood kin to Papa and the Lannigan family.

“My grandmother, Margaret Louise, married Fred Potter,” Elliott said. “He was the youngest son of the Piney Creek Potters. My mother, Madeline, she was their only daughter, married Walter Emerson. Madeline and Walter Emerson were my parents.”  

 “Well you certainly have a sizeable amount of history,” I said. “It must be hard to keep track of all those Lannigans, Potters and Emersons.”

“Not at all,” he answered. “We Lannigan men take considerable pride in our heritage, don’t we, Will?” He looked over at my brother and winked like there was some secret to which only they were privy. 

At that point I’d had about enough of the pompous Elliott Emerson, so I excused myself and trotted off on the pretext of lending a hand with dinner. Becky was hiding out in the kitchen and from the look on her face I knew she’d already had quite a few tipples of sherry. “Isn’t that man awful?” she said, then poured herself another sherry and set out a glass for me.

“Arrogant, for certain,” I answered.

“A month now, he’s been hanging around here; keeps following Will room to room, talking about how he’s always loved farming—claims it broke his heart when we sold the farm.”  Becky took another gulp of sherry which, no doubt, was how she’d found courage to speak up as she was. “Just look at that man’s hands, why he’s never done a lick of work in his life. Certainly not
farm
work.”

“Could be he’s lonely for some kinfolk,” I said. True, I’d already developed a dislike for Elliott Emerson, but I felt I ought to make an effort for Will’s sake.

“Lonely?” Becky sneered, “Hah! More likely he’s looking to get something out of that farm. Mark my words, he’s a man who’d chew a person’s skin off then start on the bones—a scavenger, worse than a river rat!” She took a real big swig of the sherry then said, “I worry about your brother, Abigail. He’s too trusting.” She heaved a deep down sigh, like the weight of the world was square on her shoulders, then she switched over to her secret-telling voice. “If something happens to me,” she whispered, “you keep an eye out for him.” Becky wasn’t one for crepe-hanging conversation, so I probably should have realized something was wrong, but I didn’t. Many a time I’ve thought back to that day and wished I’d asked what she meant by such a thing. 

All through dinner Elliott went on about how he was so successful and had all these bigwig contacts. When I’d had my fill of it, I asked, “And, just exactly
who
do you work for?” You’d guess a chicken bone was stuck in his throat the way his face turned bright red, but I knew the question had flustered him. Maybe I should have left it at that, but I didn’t—I stared him right in the eye, and waited for an answer.

“Well actually, I’m self-employed. I do
consulting
,” Elliott finally said. 

That answer didn’t surprise me one bit. Consulting is what most people claim to do when they don’t really have a job. Elliott struck me as the type of person who was looking to avoid work rather than find it. He was a sly one all right. Thing is, you don’t get to be my age without having a few tricks up your own sleeve. While we were having the butterscotch pudding I brought up the subject of Margaret Louise. “I trust your grandma taught you to be a good and faithful Baptist, like Papa taught us.”

“Yes, indeed.” Elliott answered. “And I am a devout Baptist to this day.”

 Will’s eyes opened real wide and Becky sniggered quietly.

“That’s nice to know,” I said and took another spoonful of pudding. The rat was in the trap as far as I was concerned. Everybody knew Papa was a staunch Methodist and the only thing he hated more than vagrant Negroes was Baptists. Papa always claimed that the Baptists were a bunch of rabble-rousing hillbillies using the house of God to cover up their sins. Papa had more than a few sins of his own, but in his mind being a God-fearing Methodist equalized any transgressions.   

After dinner, I helped Becky do the dishes then took my leave. On the drive home I turned the car radio to the Revival station and added my voice to those of the Gospel Singers. Each time they’d bellow about the Lord God lifting them across the river of sin, I jumped in with a chorus of
Amens
. I felt right good about what I’d done.

 

D
ear sweet Becky died three months later. Looking back, I’m certain she knew about the cancer that day in her kitchen. I suppose it was pretty far gone by then and she probably thought telling me wouldn’t have made any difference. If I’d known, I’m sure I could have done something—but, maybe not.

Will fell apart after that. He’d sit in the chair and stare at the television, not even taking notice of whether it was turned on or not. When I came over that Saturday, two weeks after the funeral, he was sitting there watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I snapped the TV off and said, “When’s the last time you took a bath?” You could actually
smell
him as soon as you came through the front door.

“I forget,” Will answered.

“Did you also forget to change your underwear? Eat dinner?” I knew I was being a bit harsh, but when someone’s grieving the way he was, you have to do something to help them snap out of it. When nothing seemed to work, I told him; “Will, you’re gonna have to come to Middleboro and stay with me.” 

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