Authors: Jeanette Baker
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Contemporary Romance, #Adult, #Sex, #Law Enforcement, #Man Made Disaster, #Land Pollution, #Water Pollution, #Radioactivity Pollution, #Detective Mystery, #Rural, #Small Town, #Suburban, #Urban, #Wilderness, #Louisiana, #Maryland, #Christianity-Catholicism, #Science-Marine Biology, #Social Sciences-Geography, #Fishing-Fresh Water, #Fishing-Salt Water, #Boat Transportation, #2000-2010, #1960-1969
Those who saw her return and who'd been around long enough remembered the way she'd left all those years before, seated in the front seat of a Chevy four-by-four, her arm wrapped possessively around a startlingly handsome boy. Those who thrived on detail and gossip reported that the boy had been busy with the wheel, steering with one hand while the other dangled out the window, fingers clamped around a half-empty beer can minus even the pretense of a concealing brown bag. A cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth and Janis Joplin's classic lyrics, decrying freedom, blared from the radio at a decibel level outlawed long ago by the peace-loving citizens of Marshyhope Creek.
This time Libby was driving and a child sat beside her, a young girl with pale hair tipped with black, black clothes and a sulky pout to her mouth.
Libby and her child, squinting against the sun's glare, had crossed the Potomac by ferry, driven at reasonable speeds across the three-mile span between Kent and Annapolis, bought fresh corn and peaches from a dusky-skinned, carmine-lipped hawker near the brush-lined shoals of the Nanticoke River and reached the Creek by three o'clock that afternoon, more than two hours ahead of schedule.
Libby had planned it that way. She wanted time to look around, to settle in, to feel the familiar rhythms again. She turned off the road, ignored a sputtering Chloe and climbed out of the car to walk across a wooden bridge with a dual view of the bay and the town. The wood of the railing was smooth under her palms and the hot afternoon sun beat down on her unprotected head. It was foolish to be out without a hat in the heat of a Maryland summer, but she'd been too long in a place where the seasons all blended together, indistinguishable except for a few inches of annual rainfall that turned the gray-beige of the hills into green for a few, too brief weeks of the year.
The suffocating blast of humidity renewed her spirit. She was home. The tree-lined shore of the bay, bordered by a twisting ribbon of water, appeared metallic-blue in the sunlight, gray and coolly serene in the shadows. The sight of green trees and blue water and sun-washed sand was a welcome relief to her country-starved eyes. Here there was room for violent storms and clouds and brisk, cheek-stinging winds. Libby drank in the gentle, low-lying landscape of the woodlands, fields and marshlands, the timeless meeting place of eagle, heron, duck and osprey, with the grateful appreciation of a lost sinner who meets his savior after a long and difficult journey.
Chloe had followed her. “Why are we stopping?” she demanded.
Libby leaned back against the railing and pointed toward Marshyhope Creek. “Look over there. Nothing's changed in all these years. See that building holding up the boarding with the screen hanging on a hinge and the pale blue shutters? That's Horace's Mercantile and Dry Goods. The building beside it is Clayton Dulaine's diner and filling station.” The faded orange Open For Business sign was the same one Libby remembered. “Those white columns over there belong to City Hall, where the courthouse, jail and police station are.” Libby pointed to the north. “There's the library and the Catholic Church where I was baptized and had my first communion.”
“It looks like something out of a movie,” said Chloe.
Libby nodded. “They were all designed by the same antebellum architect. That white building used to be Doc Balieu's infirmary. The pharmacy is close by. I wonder if he's still practicing.”
“What's that?” Chloe pointed to a brick building sitting on a lush piece of green grass taken up by a slide and jungle gym.
“That,” Libby said, “is the school where forty-some heat-drugged kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students are, right this minute, looking out the long windows into the summer sunshine and wishing summer school was over.”
“I can relate,” replied Chloe.
Libby pushed back her sunglasses for the full experience. As always, the residential district was divided by the Creek. Shacks with aluminum roofs and run-down tenements on one side and tall, gracious, white-pillared homes set back on enormous green lawns on the other. Standing off by itself, belonging to neither side, just out of sight behind a cluster of pine and sand dunes and set back on a full acre of beautifully manicured lawn, would be Hennessey House.
Libby smiled. “See that house, the white one with the wrap-around porch?”
“That's my old boyfriend's house.”
“You had an old boyfriend?” Despite herself, Chloe was curious.
Libby nodded. “That house has incredible memories for meâin the kitchen around the wide oak table, outside on the porch and in the tree house that Russ and his brother built all by themselves. Everything that was ever important happened to me there.”
Libby decided on the partial truth. “Russ dared me to eat my first raw oyster.”
“I had my first beer and smoked my first and last cigarette.” She'd also lost her virginity upstairs in the big, old-fashioned bedroom, but she wasn't about to reveal that to Chloe or the fact that she'd adored the Hennessey twins, Russ and Mitch, indiscriminately for as long as she could remember, first one and then the other. She'd sit around the old pine table in the kitchen and soak up the sharp-tongued love administered in equal doses of suffocating hugs and long-handled spoon slaps by Cora, the family matriarch.
Chloe ran across the bridge and down the embankment. Shedding her shoes, she dipped her toes in the marsh water. “Careful,” Libby called down to her. “There are leeches in the water.”
Chloe nodded, acknowledging her mother's voice, but she continued to dabble her feet.
Libby opened her mouth and then closed it before saying anything more. It wouldn't kill Chloe to come up against some unpleasant Maryland consequences. Shrugging, she returned to her musings.
The family that was so much a part of her youth was all gone now. Generations of black-haired, tight-jawed Hennesseys had wrestled on the lawn, drunk hard lemonade on the peeling steps of the wraparound porch, coupled and given birth in the cavernous big-house bedrooms. For as long as Libby could remember, Hennessey hospitality meant bourbon straight up, iced tea and peach pie for all those born within the confines of the small, picturesque community of French and Irish immigrants perched on the western side of the bay. No one ever bothered to knock. At any time of day or night neighbors would call through the screen door, stamp the sandy soil from their shoes and pull up a chair in front of the scrubbed pine table in the kitchen, prepared to wile away a goodly portion of the day. For the Hennesseys, who thrived on company, the inconvenience of unexpected visitors traipsing through the hallway on the way to the kitchen was a small price to pay for their uncontested position in the community.
By the time high school rolled around, Libby had developed a serious crush on Russ and remained uncharacteristically constant for four years until Eric Richards came to town. Russ graduated from some college out west and Mitch took over the fishing fleet and died a few years later. Libby lost touch after that. She'd heard that Russ married Tracy Wentworth, a girl from town, and they'd had a child, but the marriage didn't last. Not many did these days, she reflected, not even in Marshyhope Creek.
Twisting a strand of dark hair and tucking it into the knot at the back of her head, she took one last lingering glance at the view, committing it to memory before pulling herself away.
Get a grip,
she told herself.
It's time to go home.
She smiled at Chloe. “You're awfully quiet.”
“I'm trying to imagine you with a boyfriend.”
“Why is that so hard to imagine?”
Chloe shook her head. “You're my mother. It's hard to think of you as young.”
“Well, I was.” She took her daughter's hand. “Come on. It's time to go.”
ibby followed the road for several miles along the creek. At the fork, she turned the car into a carriage path that ambled in twisted, weed-filled profusion to the spacious green lawns surrounding her parents' home. A driveway of hard-packed earth canopied by ancient oaks led to a three-storied colonial of deep porches and white pillars that, even after seventeen years of semi-banishment, Libby called home.
It was the kind of view that postcards are made of. No one who walked that gracious, leaf-strewn path and lingered at the base of the enormous oak to inhale the scent of mimosa and listen to the drone of bees could look up at the big white house, framed by acres of green lawns and gold sky and blue water, without experiencing that catch of breath, that tingling of the blood, that slight acceleration of pulse that envy inevitably brings. Libby was no exception.
Thirty-seven years ago Nola Ruth Delacourte had given birth to her only child in the large second-story bedroom she shared with her husband. For Libby, the iron-rich earth of her birthplace would always be home. Only here, in the house where she'd slept nearly every night until she'd married, could she be renewed. In the brick kitchen, with its hanging copper pots, she found the peace of mind that eluded her elsewhere, while stuffing herself on peaches and pecans and Serena's homemade cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. In the cool, dark library, in the gated pasture, in her mother's sunny drawing room and old-fashioned parlor were the roots of a heritage as graceful, as elegant and refined, and as necessary to Libby as California had been raw and crude and vital and exciting.
There was a time when the blood-stirring energy of the golden state had cast its spell over her. Loud and flamboyant, it pulsed with an energy that seemed unpretentious, alive, completely foreign to anything Libby had ever known. But the magic ended abruptly, leaving her aching for home.
Libby parked some distance from the house, unbuckled her seat belt and nodded at an unusually silent Chloe. Together, and yet apart, they walked up the long circular driveway. “My God,” the girl breathed, “it looks like something out of
Gone With the Wind.
I can't believe I didn't remember this.”
An old woman was asleep on the porch. She looked familiar and yetâLibby hesitated. The woman opened her eyes slowly.
Libby gasped and stared at her mother. “Mama?”
Nola Ruth smiled with one side of her mouth and held out her arms. “Libba Jane?” she said, carefully forming the words. “Is it you?”
Libby nodded, struggling to hold back her tears. Carefully, she sat down beside her mother and drew her into her arms.
“Baby. My baby,” Nola Ruth crooned, stroking her daughter's silky hair. “So pretty. Still so pretty.”
After a minute, Libba sat back and looked at her mother. “God, Mama. You must have had a terrible time. I'm so sorry.”
The unaffected side of Nola Ruth's mouth turned up in a smile. “I'm better now.” She looked up at Chloe and held out her hand. “Come here, child. Let me look at you.”
Chloe approached her grandmother, careful not to touch the outstretched hand, trying not to shrink back. One side of the woman's face was pretty, nearly perfect, like her mother's, sculpted by the same fine sharp bones, the round dark eye framed by thick lush eyelashes. The other side drooped grotesquely, pulled down to such a degree that the red rim of the eye was painfully evident.
Nola Ruth looked her fill at her daughter's child, taking in the girl's fair hair with those dreadful black streaks, the heart-shaped face, the defiant chin, the startling Siamese-cat-blue eyes, the fearsome slimness of her long, thin legs and the clothing that looked as if it had come from a poor-quality thrift shop. The child was a hybrid, combining the best of the Delacourtes and Eric Richards, not a pretty child, definitely not pretty, but with the promise of something more than prettiness to come. “You're a lovely thing,” she said softly. “Do you know that?”
was the usual reply, but somehow it didn't fit here. The woman had simply stated a fact instead of offering up a compliment.
“Have you anything to say for yourself, child?”
Nola Ruth nodded. Her eyes twinkled. “I thought so.”
“I wanted you to know.”
“Thank you.” She couldn't look away. The girl was so self-possessed, so earnest.
Chloe shifted uncomfortably and Nola Ruth collected herself. “You'll want to see Coleson.” She reached for the bell on the small table by her side and shook it.
Footsteps sounded in the hall and a black woman of indeterminate age stepped out on to the porch. She looked at Libby and her face broke into a smile. She lifted her hands to her cheeks. “Thank the Lord. Libba Jane, you're home.”
Libby stood and reached for the woman to hug her close. “Serena, you never change.”
The black woman stepped back, keeping both hands on Libby's arms, and searched her face. “Neither have you. You're still as pretty as a billboard poster.”
Libby motioned toward Chloe. “This is Chloe, my daughter.”
Serena nodded politely. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Chloe. I baked a chocolate cake for you. It was your mama's favorite.”
Chloe smiled her first genuine smile of the day. “Call me Chloe. I love chocolate cake. It was very nice of you to think of me.”
Serena's eyebrows lifted. She looked at Libby. “You've done a fine job, Miss Libba.”
Nola Ruth spoke up. “Serena, will you tell Mr. Delacourte that Libba Jane and Chloe have arrived? I think we'll give everyone a chance to settle in before you serve supper.”
“It'll be my pleasure, Miz Delacourte. He's out back in the gazebo, just waitin' to hear.” She hurried away.
Libby turned to her mother. “I expected you to be much worse after Daddy's phone call. Are you really better, Mama?”
Nola Ruth shrugged. “I never did care for hospitals. My mama said to avoid them, that people go there to die. I couldn't get any rest with all those nurses poking me and waking me to check my temperature and my blood pressure. I'm much better now that I'm home.”
Cole Delacourte came running around the corner of the house, his shirt unbuttoned and flapping in the breeze. “Chloe Megan Richards,” he shouted, “come and hug your granddaddy.”
Instinctively, Chloe responded to his joyful command. She laughed and danced down the steps, skipping across the lawn to meet him. He lifted her in his arms and swung her around and around until they collapsed in a tangled heap of arms and legs and laughter.
Libby's eyes filled. “I should never have stayed away so long,” she said.
Nola Ruth wiped the disapproval from her face and smiled indulgently. “Sometimes we don't know what to appreciate until it's gone.”
Libby shrugged. “Or sometimes we realize we never needed it at all.”
Her mother didn't ask what she meant. Nola Ruth didn't believe in prying. She knew that everything she wanted to know would come out eventually. It always did. Patience was all that was required.
Grandfather and granddaughter, arms clasped, walked back to the porch. Libby smiled and walked into her father's arms. “Hi, Daddy.” Still holding his hand, she stepped back. “So, what do you think of the grown-up Chloe?”
“My goodness.” Cole took both of Chloe's hands in his. “This gorgeous young woman can't possibly be my granddaughter.” His eyes twinkled. “Are you the one who locked herself in my bathroom when you were three years old?”
“Mom!” Chloe turned on her mother. “Did I really do that?”
Libby laughed. “You had an independent personality very early.”
“I was three. That has nothing to do with now.”
“You're still independent.”
Chloe loved the look of this tall, lean man with a webbing of wrinkles around his fine blue eyes. “Don't worry, Granddad,” she assured him. “I won't be locking myself in any more bathrooms.”
“I'm relieved to hear it.” Her grandfather winked at her. “But I wasn't especially worried.” He looked at his wife. “Shall I carry you into the back? If we eat outside, we can watch the sun set over the bay.”
“I have a wheelchair, Coleson. There's no need to be so chivalrous.”
Ignoring her protests, he scooped her up into his arms. “I enjoy being chivalrous. Libba, if you'll open the door, we'll be on our way.”
For a fraction of a second, Libby waited to see her mother's reaction. When there was no more than a slight pursing of her lips, she hurried to open the door. A blast of cold air propelled her backward. “You've installed air-conditioning.”
“We have it,” said her father, “when your mother allows us to turn it on.” He stepped in front of her and continued down the hall. “It should have been done long ago.”
“An idiotic notion,” her mother called back over his shoulder. “This house has stood for nearly two hundred years without it. We've become soft people, Libba Jane, not nearly as strong as our ancestors.”
Libby motioned Chloe into the house. “After you.”
Chloe sighed and preceded her mother down the long hallway. “Why would I want to look at a bay?” she whispered furiously. “I have the entire Pacific Ocean at home.”
“This isn't just a bay,” answered Libby. “It's the Chesapeake Bay, the protein factory of the East, if not the entire country. It's beautiful and humbling and, just now, in terrible danger.”
Chloe was interested. “Why?”
“Pollution from farms and factories to the north have killed huge numbers of fish and blue crabs. Chemicals have destroyed hatcheries and spawning areas. Limits have been set for fishing and crabbing and harvests are down. But it will be a generation before the bay returns to its previous prosperity.”
“How do you know all this?”
Libby shrugged. “Everyone who lives here knows it. It's all we talk about, our only debate. Sides are taken and lines drawn. There's no faster way to begin a fight than to take a stand and state an opinion.”
“Nice place you've brought us to, Mom. I can't wait to get clubbed to death some dark night because I'm a tree-hugger.”
Her sarcasm barely registered with Libby. She looked around curiously, noting the changes, the refurbished windows and new upholstery, the fresh paint and updated window hangings. For the most part the house looked the same, only better, old-fashioned, rich and warm with colonial colors uniquely different in every room, harvest gold, robin's-egg blue, Indian red, reflecting the tastes of seven generations of Delacourte ancestors.
She opened the back door and gazed out at the wide expanse of water, the Chesapeake at sunset. The smell of it assaulted her senses and stopped her short. She breathed deeply and clung to the pillar on the back porch. Had she forgotten that it smelled this way, brackish and metallic, pungent, a mixture of fish and salt and pine and dirt, teeming with underwater life? Or maybe she'd never noticed because she'd grown up on its shores and known nothing else?
Chloe passed her and looked back curiously but didn't stop. Libby drank in the view; the rich green grass sloping gently downward to the bay; blue water, glassy beneath the setting sun; a lone trawler, silhouetted against a copper-penny sky; a single blue heron circling in the distance; the white gazebo and lawn chairs; her father depositing her mother in one of them, her daughter flopping down at their feet as if she'd done so a thousand times.
Emotions surged through her body, overwhelming, threatening, more than frightening. Libby sat down on the porch and rested her head against the pillar. Her stomach lifted and the sky spun drunkenly.
“Libba Jane,” her father's voice called to her. “Come along, honey. Have some lemonade.”
The command steadied her, turned her thoughts toward her father. He'd changed, become confident, assertive, more present than she remembered. She'd always adored him, but her memory was that of a remote, soft-spoken, apologetic man, content to leave the raising of his child to his wife. She walked across the lawn, accepted the sweating glass of lemonade and sat down in an Adirondack chair. “This is beautiful,” she said softly. “I'd forgotten.”
Cole Delacourte nodded. “I can't think of another view that compares with this except for Hennessey House.”
“Where is that?” Chloe asked.
“Across the water, set back a ways from town,” said her grandfather. “It was closed up for a while, but Russ Hennessey's had it opened up again. He's coming back home to run his daddy's business.”
Libby's cheeks burned. “I thought he moved away years ago.”
Nola Ruth spoke up. “He's coming back. Beau Hennessey left the business to both boys. After Mitch died a few months ago, Effie Blair kept on working the office. She said that Russ was moving back. Working a fleet of trawlers is a young man's job.”
Cole shook his head. “Mitch's death was a tragedy. He was all set to marry Sue Ellen Cavendish when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He went quickly, thank God.”
“Leukemia?” Libby frowned. “That's unusual, isn't it, for a man his age?”
“The townspeople here have had their share of illnesses,” said Cole, “but I don't know that it's unusual.”
“Has anyone else in the area come down with leukemia?” asked Libby.
“As a matter of fact, I think we've had several cases. No one we know personally, except for Mitch. Why do you ask?”
“Leukemia is found in adults who've had exposure to radiation or chemicals. Is anyone investigating the cause?”
“There's been some rumor in town. The Environmental Protection Agency has opened an office. I never put much credence in blaming the water, although that's what some folks are saying. We've had problems with overfishing for years. More than likely the federal presence is here to enforce commercial fishing limits.”