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Adam froze. “I know my mother.”
“Adam… things aren’t always what we think…”
“I KNOW who my mother is!”
“The woman who raised you was the only mother…”
“STOP! I don’t want to know anymore!”
“… you needed to know about, back then. And she didn’t tell you the whole story because…”
“Adam! It’s too late to stop now. Let her finish.”” Angelica didn’t want to get in the middle of this, but he had to calm down.
“ I don’t want to know anymore.” Now the tears were on his cheeks. “It’s bad enough not knowing who my father is. Was.”
“Adam, your father is dead,” said Marydell softly.
He clenched his jaw and swallowed hard.
“Who was he?”
Adam whirled to look at Marydell. “Billy’s dad?!”
“Yes. It’s a long, involved story, and… maybe that’s enough for now. You know who your father is now.”
Adam pondered this new information at arm’s length.
“How do you know?”
“I was there.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just that. I was there the night you were conceived.”
Angela went white. Marydell squeezed her hand for silence.
‘That’s weird.” Adam turned away. “That’s just weird.”
Marydell didn’t answer.
“That makes me and Billy half brothers. No wonder we fight. We were always trying to prove who was better.” Adam paused. “Does he know?”
“I don’t know. I left right after you were born. Has he ever mentioned it to you?”
“Hell no! I wouldn’t believe him if he did!” He paused again. “This is weird. Go get your ladies things, whatever it was we came here for. I’ll wait in the car—I want to think.”
* * *
“Billy Williams, I have some things to tell you.” Esther Morgan sat in her rocking chair in her room, the door shut. Billy Williams was standing, uncomfortably, just inside the door, fumbling with his hands. He was scared, of course. She was scared herself, almost as scared this afternoon as she was the night she found out what her husband had done.
She was not one to lie or withhold the truth, not normally, but that time, back then, she had no choice but to keep quiet or die. She wasn’t afraid to die now, but even if doing it killed her she would tell. It was the right thing to do, and the time was right
She had almost told him this morning when he walked her up to the house and up the stairs to her room. But when she saw what the graveyard was doing, she decided she needed to gather her strength first. She had laid down to nap but sleep had not come.
It had to be done today, the truth had to be told before anything else happened. She wasn’t afraid for her safety, unlike thirty year ago when she first found out. But she was worried how much harm would come to Billy, when he heard the truth.
Esther took a deep breath.
“I have withheld information from you. And I think this afternoon, right now, is the time for me to set things straight. Sit down on that chair. This is going to take a minute.”
“Oh, they believe it all right! But they’re scared. She knows something.”
“What could she know? She seems like a scared little girl to me.”
“Yes, that’s her. Always asking for help.”
“And soaking wet,” Mary interjected.
“But she’s not asking for help from them and she won’t ask anyone in the congregation. That is what scares them.”
“There are lots of theories, of course. But the main one is that she’s afraid of the congregation, that someone in the congregation hurt her.”
“Or murdered her? Maybe drown her in the spring?”
Marydell nodded but the look on her face spoke volumes.
Quietly, Angela asked, “Marydell, what was her name?”
Tears were already running down her cheeks. “Iris,” she managed to choke out.
“Was she one of the outcasts too?”
Mary shook her head. “She was pretty, popular, and… she was the Pastor’s favorite.” Marydell broke into sobs. “She… was… a friend!” She took several deep breaths to get herself under control. “We were friends, her and me and Celia.”
Very quietly Angela asked “How did she die, Mary? Were you there?”
Mary shook her head trying to throw the emotion off, but the sobs started again. It was several minutes before she could speak clearly.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!” she sobbed. “I never told anyone before.”
“No! I should have told. But I just ran. It’s been all these years…”
“There wasn’t anything you could do, was there?”
“I could have told! I could have… but they wouldn’t have believed me.”
“Who was it, Marydell?” Adam asked. His voice was gentle but very firm.
She choked and began coughing. Several time she began to speak and couldn’t.
“It was Pastor.” Adam said it in a cold, flat voice. “Wasn’t it!?”
Marydell nodded yes and began crying in relief.
When she could speak again, they were in the Walmart parking lot.
“There’s more,” she managed to say. “More details. And also something really important, Adam.”
They were parked now, the engine shut off. Angela had reached back, holding one of Marydell’s hands. Adam sat in the driver’s seat, looking straight ahead.
“You know who my father is, don’t you.” It as a statement more than a question.
“I do,” said Marydell. “But there’s more than that, even.” She took a deep breath. “I know who your mother is, too.”
“There you are!”
They had just finished their short goodbyes to Miss Esther and Billy when Marydell Piersol came around the corner of church.
“I was worried when I saw you both leave. Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” said Adam.
Marydell looked between the two, and let out a nervous laugh that sounded like a bark.
“Well, I was hoping for a ride to Wal-Mart. I need some, um, ladies things.”
Angela looked at Adam.
“OK with me,” Adam said.
“And we can talk on the way,” Angela said. “No interruptions.”
“You ok with missing dinner on the grounds here? Wal-Mart will take most of the afternoon.”
“I need to get away, Adam. I just need to be away from here.” Angela said.
“And I’d like to talk to the both of you, in private,” said Marydell. “There may not be another chance.”
As they rode out, the men were setting up neat rows of folding tables and chairs on the lawn in front of the Parsonage. Homecoming meant a dish-to-pass, all-day dinner on the grounds. The barbecue grills were already smoking and the teens were organizing water balloon games for the younger kids. One of the men, the Head Deacon Ed Wilson, flagged them down and asked if they’ll be back soon.
“Food will be ready in about an hour. Hate to see you miss out!”
“Not sure,” Adam said. “Emergency store run,” he nodded toward the women. “If we’re not back, start without us!”
“I’ll save y’all plates.” Then he caught sight of Marydell in the back seat. “Marydell? Marydell Piersol? Where have you been hiding?”
Marydell blushed. “Hello Eddie”
“Anything special I should save for you, Mary?”
“ You know what I like, Ed Wilson. I haven’t changed.”
The electricity between them was almost unbearable.
“I’ll try to get her back here for you, before too long” Adam winked.
“Thank you, young man! See you all soon. Mary? I’ll be waiting for you!”
Mary didn’t answer, and Adam let off the brake. As the car rolled down the dirt road, Mary was staring intently out the window. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance.
“Some things never change,” she said, softly. “I almost married him.”
When they got to the County Road, Angela turned around in her seat.
“Marydell, you haven’t been back here even once in all these years?”
“No. I have a past here. Adam knows what that’s like.
“Yes, I do!”
“Add to that I was friendly with your mother and Billy’s father, two more of the outcasts!” She halted, obviously wanting to say more. “Let’s talk about the girl, first, though.”
“The ghost girl you’ve been seeing.”
“How do you know about that?!”
“The tour guide said you saw her in the Chapel yesterday. The whole congregation knows about it by now.”
“What?! Why didn’t somebody say something?”
“Because nobody there has ever seen her. She only shows herself to strangers.”
“So they don’t believe it?”
“Oh, they believe it all right! But they’re scared. She knows something.”
Angela turned to Adam. He was sound asleep, a little drool sliding from the corner of his mouth. She elbowed him and looked back to the girl. She was gone. Impossible!
Angela put her hand on the pew, where the girl’s hand had been: it was still cold and wet. Beulah’s daughter looked over her shoulder at Angela and gave her a toothy grin. Adam touched Angela’s forearm, looking questioningly at her.
“She was right there!” Angela pointed to the spot next to Beulah Mae. “I felt the wet where she put her hand, and my feet…”
Angela looked down—the water was gone. The floor showed no sign of being wet nor did her sandals. All of it was gone, everything but the fact that she had seen the girl again, a third time.
“Are you sure you didn’t doze off?”
“I did, but the water was cold on my feet and woke me up.” Even as she said that, she realized how foolish it sounded. Angela stood up.
“I need some air.” Her words coincided with a lull in the loud preaching and the whole congregation—as many as were awake—heard her. With all eyes on her, she walked the aisle back to the door and out. Adam waited about three minutes and with whispered apologies, followed her.
Outside, Adam found Angela leaning against an oak tree, out of the line of sight of the Chapel front door and windows.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Adam said. “I was half awake.”
“I know. But Adam, it was real! That was no dream! My foot and my hand were wet, cold wet, not sweat! And was crying, and asking for help! Adam what do I do?!”
“If it’s just a dream, you don’t have to do anything. If it’s real….”
“It’s REAL! Don’t doubt me!”
“Ok, well, what can you do? How do you help a, a… ghost?”
“I don’t know! I don’t even believe in ghosts. Except for this one. This is different!”
They both laughed at that, and they held each other.
“I’m so glad you at least try to believe me, honey!”
“Yeah, well, it’s my old ghosts that brought me back here anyhow. Speaking of which, let’s go see what’s new and different in the graveyard, see if any more stones are turned.”
The graveyard was on the opposite side of the building and as they rounded the corner Billy and an old woman were examining the straightened stones.
From where they stopped, they could hear him reading off names as he walked the old woman down the aisle, sometimes the family names, sometimes just the first name. Each time she nodded. Once in a while she would murmur a few words, once she stopped and pointed, as if stunned at what she saw.
“That’s the Pastor’s wife. I didn’t think she was still alive. She has to be ninety-something by now.”
Adam led Angela over to introduce her. Esther Morgan was a gaunt, silver-haired scarecrow in a shapeless cotton gingham dress. Piercing blue eyes and hawk nose warned you to keep your foolishness and your distance or pay a price. But she was fragile now, leaning heavily on a cane or on Billy’s arm. When she recognized Adam, she smiled.
“Adam Brown. It’s been too long.”
“It has. It’s good to see you, Miss Esther. Didn’t see you in church earlier.
“Last time I attended, I had to be carried back to the house.” She paused only for a moment. “Was it you who pointed out to Billy here that the gravestones have been turned around?”
“Yes’m. My mom’s is one of them.”
Miss Esther looked at Billy. He nodded. “We didn’t get that far yet, but yes, Adam pointed it out to me.”
“Hmph. And who is this?” Esther kept her eyes on Adam.
“This is my fiancée, Angela Williams.”
“When’s the date?”
Adam blushed. “We haven’t set that yet.”
“Well, do it. I’d like to be invited while I’m still alive.” A shadow of a smile crossed her face and Adam laughed an easy laugh.
Miss Ester turned to Billy. “I see what’s happening here, Billy. It’s about time. I’ll have something to say about this to the congregation tonight, before the hymn sing. Tell the deacons. Right now I’m wore out and I need to go back to the house.”
As she took Billy’s arm to go, she turned and looked Angela square in the eyes. “I understand you’ve been seeing someone here, young lady. Don’t let that spook you. Stick with that boy—he’s worth it. And we need him!”
Angela smiled, unsure of what to say.
“Remember that!” Esther’s voice was emphatic, almost angry.
“Yes Ma’am! Angela replied.
Miss Ester nodded and turned to Billy. “Let’s go. I’m tired and my bones ache. I feel a storm comin’.”
EXTRA PART TODAY!
Adam pulled off the dirt driveway and parked on the grass, parallel with the other cars. Their shiny-new rental looked out of place in the lineup of mostly ten year old sedans and pickup trucks. There were a lot of cars—it was Sunday Morning, the climax of Home Coming. The weatherman was not cooperating, however. He warned of the possibility of a strong thunderstorm all day, maybe even a tornado that evening. He promised to keep everyone informed.
As they made their way to the door, the words of the hymn floated out through the open Chapel windows to Adam and Angela.
“…And the joy we share as we tarry there, None other has ever known!”
Every woman and half the men were fanning themselves as Adam and Angela stepped into the back of the meeting room. The congregation was sweaty, the pews crowded and the seats were hard. The final ‘A-a-a-men-n-n’ died in the thick air as a weather-beaten Deacon in a short-sleeved plaid shirt escorted the two of them to seats in the second row. In front of them, in the very front row, sat Beulah Mae, her unlucky daughter on one side of her and an empty space on the other. Beulah twisted around to see who was so late, and managed a nod of recognition. Adam smiled and she quickly turned back to the front.
The Preacher was new to the Congregation, according to the announcements. He was young and fresh out of school; his most prominent qualification seemed to be that he was loud. Angela was unimpressed and Adam more than once got elbowed for nodding off. The congregation, however, loved him and encouraged him with amen’s and applause. He was slowly stumbling his way through the Founding Pastor’s favorite sermon, ‘these memorial stones’, from Joshua chapter four. From the sound of it, he was almost reading the original sermon.
In the drowsy heat, Angela let her eyes close once. She shifted her sandaled feet and they touched water so cold it made her gasp. She looked down. Her feet were surrounded with a puddle of water that was spreading from under the pew ahead of her. She looked up. The girl, the one from the Spring, was sitting next to Beulah Mae in what had been the empty space. She wore the same cotton dress, the same wet, straggly long hair. She turned around, one wet hand on the back of the pew, and looked at Angela. Tears filled her eyes and she silently mouthed the words, “Help me!”
Angela whirled, ready to run and almost ran into Adam.
“What’s wrong?! Are you alright? What happened?”
“I saw her! The girl in the spring! She’s right here in the back!”
The three of them—Adam, Angela and Mary—rushed into the Chapel.
The back corner was empty, the floor dry. Light from the front window made a bright spot on the worn, painted floor boards.
“Right HERE!” Angela marched over to the spot of sunshine and stomped her feet. “She was standing here, wet and shivering, and crying! I swear to God!”
The tour guide walked in then. “Young lady, do not use the Lord’s name in vain! Especially not in His House! I must ask you all to leave right now!”
As if to emphasize her words, the bell on the Parsonage porch began to clang.
“It’s time for the noon meal, anyway. Please!” Her voice took on a note of pleading. “I have to close this door and get up to the kitchen.”
As they emerged from the Chapel, the whole crowd was moving toward the house for the noon meal.
“Would you be interested in lunch with me in town, rather than here?” asked Mary. “I think we have a lot to talk about, even more than before…” She didn’t finish the sentence. “And, to be honest, I’d rather not ride the church bus back to town this evening.”
* * *
It was just after the noon hour when the three of them got out of the car in front of Smitty’s Diner, the only diner in town.
“It’s not the Ritz but its wholesome food,” Mary said. “I had breakfast this morning, and I’m still alive!” She laughed.
As they reached the door, two women approached and greeted Mary.
“Why, Mary! Marydell Piersol! Is that you? ” One of them laid a hand on her forearm. It might have been a claw, for Marydell’s reaction.
“Is it still Piersol, Marydell? Or have you found yourself a willing man?” The venom in the second woman’s voice was unmistakable.
Marydell went almost white and seemed to shrink. Whatever enemies these two had been, nothing had changed in the intervening years, for Marydell.
She looked at Adam and Angela.
“I’m not feeling well. You go ahead and I’ll catch up with you later. It was good to meet you two.” She looked in the direction of the other two but didn’t meet their eyes. “Sorry, ladies. I’m not feeling well.”
“Oh Mary! We were just going to have lunch. We were hoping you’d sit with us and catch up on things. You’ve been gone so long. Why it was… what? Day after High School graduation when you left town so suddenly. So much to talk about…”
Without another word, Mary turned her back and walked away toward the Shady Rest Motel, also the only one in town. The two women looked at each other and smirked.
“She always was a queer duck!” They tittered, just like the movies, and then continued down the street, arms linked, each with a large purse on her free arm. After a few steps, one turned around.
“I hope we will we see you at the Hymn Sing tonight? It’s always such a good time!” It was more an inquiry than an invite.
“Probably not,” Adam answered.
Both women shrugged and continued their stroll.
The bell on the porch of the parsonage began clanging. A beefy, white-haired man in a long-sleeved shirt with a string tie announced that The Official Home Coming Grounds Tour was about to begin. The Spring, the Grove, the Chapel, then the Barn and ending up back here at the house for food. Angela wasn’t particularly interested: Adam had already shown her around, but there wasn’t anything else to do.
“Why are they so interested in our relationship? They were getting way too personal!”
“My mom was a single mom and around here—back then—it was big news. They want to know how bad I’ve turned out, to prove their point.”
“There’s more.” He paused, embarrassed. “Mom never told me who my father was.”
“Did she know?”
“She did. She told me she couldn’t let that secret out, took it to her grave. She wouldn’t talk about him beyond saying he was a good man. She said ‘We made a mistake, he and I, and we paid for that mistake. After that, you came along, a gift from God to me, a sign that He still loved me.’
“And thirty years later they still haven’t forgiven YOU for her ‘mistake’?”
“Nope. Around here, it’s a life sentence.”
“That’s why I moved away. Let’s go see if they have anything to add to my tour!”
At the Spring, the tour guides—two older women with clipboards—droned on. Angela broke away from the crowd, walked up to where the pipe fed the spring, and looked down into the clear water.
“Anybody there?” Adam had walked up beside her.
“No. Not now, anyway.”
* * *
Just before they were all herded into the Chapel, a woman approached.
“Adam? Adam Brown?”
Adam held out a hand to shake. “Ma’am?”
“You don’t know me, but,” she looked over at Angela, “I’m Marydell Piersol. I was Adam’s Mom’s best friend.”
She looked back and saw the puzzled look on Adam’s face.
“You probably don’t remember me. I left town after high school, soon after you were born. I never came back until today.” She smiled nervously, now looking back and forth between the two of them.
“Well, you’re right, I don’t recall meeting you,” Adam smiled.
“I went by just plain Mary, back then.”
“Oh yeah. Ok. Mom talked about you. Good things,” he added.
“Nice to meet you, Mary…” Angela fumbled with her name.
“Marydell. You can call me Mary if you want. And your name is…?”
“Excuse me for not introducing you two,” Adam jumped in. “Marydell, this is my fiancée, Angela Williams.”
“Come along, stragglers! It would be a real shame to miss this!” The second tour guide stuck her head out of the chapel door and spotted them. Her too-cheery voice implied Divine Disfavor on anyone who missed even one word of the narrative.
“We need to talk, Adam. Later, though. And not here. Your mother and I… talked a lot about you.” As they walked in, Angela raised one eyebrow as Adam and Angela traded glances.
The notes on the clipboard were the very complete history of the chapel, the pastors, the absolute necessity of Baptist teaching and traditions, and more. The two tour guides took turns reading it, frequently stumbling over technical terms and correcting the other person’s pronunciation. A half hour later, after scattered applause, there was a rush for the door. Adam, Angela and Marydell stayed seated. The barn was only thing remaining on the tour and they weren’t interested.
“Come on, dearies! We’re running late! You’ll miss the Barn tour!” The one tour guide was impatiently waiting at the Chapel door.
“Sorry, I’m allergic!” Angela almost shouted.
“Well… I need to shut the door here!”
The three of them stood to oblige her. The tour guide held the door from the outside as Adam and Mary stepped into the late morning sunshine. Just before she stepped out, Angela heard a noise. She stopped and looked one more time around the Chapel.
There in the back corner a puddle of water lay on the floor. A girl with long blonde hair stood in the middle of it. She was silently crying, her dress and hair were dripping wet. With one hand she was holding her stomach and with the other, reached out to Angela.
“Adam! Mary! Oh my God! Come quick!”