The usual three-hour drive to Thornhollow is dark and rainy, filled with road construction and a washed-out bridge, causing it to take nearly five. Arthur is bedded down in the passenger seat, Lancelot in my lap. I focus on the road and give into my grief, listening to a variety of late-night radio talk shows, while I weep.
As I turn off the highway populated with signs for peaches, boiled peanuts, and the various wineries in the area, the sorrow comes rolling back. My chest tightens, hot tears build in my eyes. I haven’t been home in months, but it feels like years.
Victorian era street lamps softly illuminate Main Street, the numerous buildings from another time period, stately and regal, as I wind my way north to Mama’s. At the far end is the crossroad where The Wedding Chapel—Aunt Willa’s home and business—occupies the corner. She owns over an acre, the ground sloping toward the creek at the back, with limestone hills and woods on the side.
As I pass her large painted lady, I see light seeping from an upstairs window—the bedroom I used to call my own.
Another spasm hits my chest, and a tear slides down my cheek. It’s as if Aunt Willa has left a light on for me. Silly, of course, and yet I almost stop to see if someone is inside. Probably Rosie, her assistant, accidently left it on.
I don’t think I’m ready to go in and see my beloved aunt’s things, smell her perfume, or speak to anyone yet, so I keep going, chilled and exhausted.
Arriving at Mama’s, all the lights are on. She lives in a mid-century craftsman. This is not the house I grew up in, but it suits my mother. She thrives in this space filled with thick oak, stained glass windows, nooks for her endless books, and multiple beautiful fireplaces. The deep front porch showcases stately rocking chairs, pumpkins, and fall mums.
Since she’s mayor and my aunt’s death is big news in our town, reporters—all two of them—are camped outside wanting a statement. As I exit the car, both speak to me on my way to the front door, offering sympathy since they knew Aunt Willa as well.
They don’t ask me to make a comment, but I see the way they take in the pajama legs under my trench coat, my red nose and swollen eye. I did nothing more than throw a few clothes in an overnight bag, grabbed the cats, and headed here. Thankfully, neither of these two is interested in taking my picture.
The front door flies open as I climb the steps, and Mama grabs me off the porch. My hands are full of the cats, so I’m not able to hug her back as she embraces me, crying softly. Once inside, with the door shut, I put down Arthur and Lancelot, and Mama steps back to look me over.
“Why Ava,” she chastises, “what in the world are you wearing? Your picture will be all over the Thornhollow Tribune tomorrow.”
Even at this time of night, she’s dressed in conservative attire, somewhere between a casual suit and silk pajamas. I can’t quite decide which. Her hair is in a perfect coif of graying blond curls, and her makeup is demure but perfect.
“I imagine the Trib has more important news to report on than the state of my clothes in the middle of the night after my aunt has died.”
She clicks her tongue, and that’s the message that the state of my dress could affect her upcoming campaign. I’m not sure she even realizes she’s in that mode all the time, even when her sister has just died, because running for office has become her life.
Her eyes are bloodshot, her nose chapped. Her voice hitches as she talks a mile a minute while directing me to the kitchen. She doesn’t even ask if I would like a cup of tea, simply starts heating the water and pulling cans of loose flavors from the cabinet. As the cats roam, getting reacquainted with her house, I shed my coat.
“They think Willa’s heart stopped and she fell into the creek,” Mama says, dashing at the tears springing to life again and rolling down her cheeks.
Dropping dead from a heart attack is not the worst way to go, I think, but of course I can’t speak it out loud. Wilhelmina Duchamp was too young to die. Falling in the creek, though…
I shiver, thinking about my poor aunt.
“She was having a few issues, you know, but Doc thought it was angina. Panic attacks.” She places a cup on a saucer and digs out a flowery sugar bowl from the pantry to place on the table. “Ever since we were kids, she fought with buckets of anxiety. I just don’t know.”
I pull out a chair and sit. “Don’t know what?”
She waves a hand through the air as the kettle whistles. She doesn’t ask what flavor I want, picking one for me. “I can’t believe she’s gone.”
I can tell there’s more to this, but Mama’s having a dose of understandable anxiety herself and that’s why her mind isn’t tracking straight. “I never realized Aunt Willa had heart problems.” I try not to sound annoyed no one bothered to tell me. “When did this start?”
She brings the tea and sets it in front of me, steam rising. “You haven’t been home in a while.”
This is an accusation, a condemnation, and an explanation all in one. She fiddles with her fingers, rubbing each in turn, her gaze skittering around the kitchen. “I was there.”
Her eyes bounce to me then away. She peers into her lap. “I think I heard her arguing with someone right before it happened.”
I reach over to still her nervous finger twitching. “Mama, what are you talking about?”
She grips my hand like a steel vise and sighs audibly. “We were going out for an early dinner. I had a city council meeting and Willa had a bridal appointment, but she wanted to talk to me about something. Said it was important. When I arrived, she wasn’t in the house. I figured she was out back, prepping something for the bridal appointment. You know how she loves to show the place off, so the bride gets a feeling for what it would be like to marry in the gardens. I went out on the back porch and…”
The tension in her body washes through me. I see fear in her eyes. Her grip grows stronger still.
“It’s okay, Mama,” I cajole. How many times in my life have I had to do this? Talk her off the ledge so I can get into her head long enough to figure out what’s going on in there. “Just tell me what happened.”
“I heard her voice, and it was that argumentative tone that she likes to take. I figured someone was already back there with her. They were too far away to actually hear what was being said, and it seemed to be coming from the old Thornton Homestead.”
The homestead is the original home of Sam Thornton and Tabitha Holloway built on the creek bank. My distant ancestors founded this town. The home is a historic landmark at the edge of the property but fell into disrepair long before I was born.
Mama’s tension seeps into my central nervous system. I gently urge her to continue again.
Another deep breath racks her body. “I didn’t hear the other person. It was odd, but like I said, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Really, all I heard was Willa Rae. She was upset, though. And then I got a phone call from Queenie and went back inside to answer it. When I was done, Willa Rae was still outside, so I went to look for her. I never saw anyone…and then I found her.”
The way her voice softens and trails off, the way her eyes look so sad, I realize the truth. Mama found Aunt Willa dead in the creek.
“I’m so sorry.” I give her hand another squeeze. “That must have been terrible for you.”
Tears wash down her face as she meets my eyes. “She was face down in the water. If I’d gotten there a little sooner…”
“There was probably nothing you could have done, Mama, even if you did get out there sooner.”
But I can see in Mama’s eyes that she’s thinking the same thing I’m wondering in the back of my head. “I told them about the arguing.” Her voice drops to a whisper. “What if she didn’t have a heart attack, Ava? What if…”
“Who did you tell?”
She gets up as if she can’t sit still a minute longer and paces to the sink. There, she begins washing out a dirty glass. “The police promised to look into it. But since I didn’t hear anyone else or see who it might have been, they’re not concerned about it. Everyone loved your aunt, so maybe they’re right. Who knows? Willa Rae often talked to herself. Maybe there wasn’t someone else there.”
Conflicting emotions war inside my heart. Snatches of the letter float through my brain.
Danger is afoot.
Oh, Aunt Willa. What happened?
It’s nearly sunrise before I get the reporters to leave and soothe Mama enough to get her to bed. Doc has prescribed some gentle sleep meds for her, and once those kick in, I know there’s not much else I can do.
I gather up the cats, and we head to Aunt Willa’s.
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