Return to Tradd Street
Facing her future as a single mother, psychic Realtor Melanie Middleton is determined to be strong and leave her past with writer Jack Trenholm behind her. But history has a tendency of catching up with Melanie, whether she likes it or not.…
Melanie is only going through the motions of living since refusing Jack’s marriage proposal. She misses him desperately, but her broken heart is the least of her problems. Despite an insistence that she can raise their child alone, Melanie is completely unprepared for motherhood, and she struggles to complete renovations on her house on Tradd Street before the baby arrives.
When Melanie is roused one night by the sound of a ghostly infant crying, she chooses to ignore it. She simply does not have the energy to deal with one more crisis. That is, until the remains of a newborn buried in an old christening gown are found hidden in the foundation of her house.
As the hauntings on Tradd Street slowly become more violent, Melanie decides to find out what caused the baby’s untimely death, uncovering the love, loss, and betrayal that color the house’s history—and threaten her claim of ownership. But can she seek Jack’s help without risking her heart? For in revealing the secrets of the past, Melanie also awakens the malevolent presence that has tried to keep the truth hidden for decades.…
My eyes flickered open in my Tradd Street bedroom, where splinters of light fed slowly into the room through the plantation shutters.
The gossamer curtains that my mother had thought would add a touch of femininity to the otherwise masculine space moved softly from cool air being blown out the vent hidden in the wide baseboard. A wet nose and furry ear pressed against my cheek as General Lee's tail fanned my face. Yet none of these creature comforts eased the tightening in my chest that had seized me upon waking as the reality of my life once again came crashing down on my head like an avalanche with no impediments. Despite a lifetime of being in control of my destiny, and what I thought was a fulfilling life of purpose as a successful Realtor, I found myself in the most incomprehensible and extraordinary predicament: I was forty years old, single, and-most baffling of all pregnant.
I glanced over at my bedside table to the small domed anniversary clock that had belonged to the home's previous owner, Nevin Vanderhorst. Like most everything else in the bedroom and the rest of the house, I'd kept it, although I wasn't altogether sure why. I liked to tell myself it was because the house would be easier to sell if I didn't put too much of a personal stamp on it. But sometimes, like now, I imagined I could hear Mr. Vanderhorst's voice telling me about the love he
had for his family's ancestral home. It's a piece of history you can hold in your hands. I hadn't really understood what he'd meant at first, but now
I was afraid I was beginning to.
I was wary of understanding that connection between history and family. Despite being a native Charlestonian with my own baggage of family trees and old houses, I'd done very well without it for nearly thirty-three years, after all. At least until my mother, who had abandoned me when I was six years old, decided it was time we reconciled.
I squinted at the round face of the clock, silently cursing my decision not to replace my electric clock with a similar one-except with even larger, brighter neon numbers I could read without my glasses. I fumbled in the bedside drawer before finding my glasses and sticking them on my nose. Seven thirty. I jerked up, mortified that I had once again slept in. Not that anyone ever got to Henderson House Realty before nine, but since I'd begun my employment there I'd been like Old Faithful, always at my desk by eight o'clock. It's what had put my name on the sales leaderboard in Mr. Henderson's office every single quarter since my first year. A record I'd kept until recently.
I'd begun to swing my legs to the side of the bed when the room tilted and the contents of my stomach left over from the night before began to jostle for attention. Groaning, I lay back down on the pillow, feeling no better despite a wet swipe from General Lee's tongue. A brief tapping on the door was followed by the appearance of Mrs. Houlihan, my housekeeper, entering the room carrying a plate of saltines.
"Seems I got here just in time. Your mama told me to have these
on your bedside table each morning. You're supposed to eat a couple before you even raise your head off the pillow."
I'd inherited Mrs. Houlihan along with the dog and the house. Although I was still having doubts about the benefits of the latter two, Mrs. Houlihan was worth her weight in gold. And, after studying her broad chest and ample hips, I realized that would be a considerable amount, indeed.
"Thank you, Mrs. Houlihan," I said as I took a proffered cracker and stuck it on my dry tongue. I left it there to dissolve, afraid that ifl moved my mouth too much my stomach would protest. I closed my eyes to keep the room from spinning and heard the sound again. It was what had awakened me, forgotten as soon as consciousness had claimed me.
"Did you hear that?" I asked, lying very still so I could both hear better and wouldn't throw up from any sudden movement.
"Hear what?" Her eyes met mine.
The sound was so small it would have been easy to ignore. Except that it was accompanied by a rush of frigid air, like the door to a tomb had just been opened.
"A baby crying," I said. As if he could hear it, too, General Lee jumped off the bed and ran out the door. I told myselfit was because he was hungry and was searching for food in the kitchen.
She smiled and moved to the door. "No babies in this house-at least not yet. Maybe you're hearing a cat on the sidewalk. Or your ears are playing tricks on you to help you practice for what's to come." She stopped and faced me again, her bulk filling the doorway. ''I'll make you some of that decaffeinated green tea Nola brought over for you. Just lay down and keep eating crackers until you feel like you can sit up." She pointed to the small handbell that my mother had placed next to the clock. "And just give me a ring if you need me."
A loud, grinding motor started under my window, making me jump. "What's that?" I asked, spitting saltine crumbs into the neck of my nightgown.
"That contractor Rich Kobylt is here doing the cleanup from the foundation work. He said he'd told you last week so you'd know to park your car on the street so he could have access to the rear garden." Through a haze of nausea, I allowed my glance to fall on my BlackBerry and new iPhone-neither of which I'd turned on since yesterday, when I'd struggled in from work and fallen into bed around six p.m. I vaguely recalled a conversation with Mr. Kobylt, even remembered that I'd successfully avoided a full view of his rear cleavage from his ubiquitous drooping pants. I might even have put a note on my various calendars, none of which were any good to me with their power buttons in the off position. My desk calendar at the office was filled with doodles of He-Who-Would-Not- Be-Mentioned, showing him in crudely drawn vignettes in various medieval-type death throes, instead of carefully penned-in appointments. I closed my eyes and groaned.
Don't you worry. Your daddy came by earlier and moved your car so you could sleep a little longer. Take your time, and just holler at me if you need something. I'll go feed General Lee."
As if he'd heard his name, a sharp bark came from downstairs.
Before my pregnancy-induced morning sickness, he and I had shared a biological need to be fed at specific times throughout the day. Anybody could have set their clocks on either his barks or my increased whininess. Now the thought offood completely unnerved me. I hurled myself out of bed and barely made it to the bathroom in time.
An hour and a half later, I struggled downstairs. After rewashing the ends of my hair and replacing my makeup three times from subsequent trips to relieve my stomach of all its contents and then some, I'd given up. I'd swiped my hair back into a ponytail and put a little powder on my nose. I didn't bother with my glasses, as I was truly uninterested in seeing the results of my toilette.
Two slices of dry toast-gluten free, wheat free, and taste free-sat on a plate on the table next to the steaming cup of promised decaffeinated green tea. Across the table sat my mother, former opera diva Ginnette Prioleau-looking as if she'd just stepped out of an ad for Gwynn's department store. Although in her sixties, she could have easily passed for somebody at least a decade younger, or even a brunette version ofDolly Parton, without the accent and with a slightly smaller bust. My only consolation with this whole pregnancy thing was that for the first time in my life I had a reason to be wearing an undergarment that didn't resemble a training bra.
I sat down in front of the toast and tried not to picture a chocolate doughnut. "Good morning, Mother. What brings you here so early?" She took a short sip from her cup. "Do I need a reason? You're my only child, about to give birth to my first grandchild-isn't that enough?"
I eyed her warily. "Nola called you, didn't she? "
Nola, the teenage daughter of He-Who -Would - Not -Be Mentioned, and I had formed a bond after her arrival in Charleston earlier that year following the death of her mother, Bonnie, in California. She'd been living with my mother and me in my mother's house on Legare Street until recently, when my home was deemed fit to live in again after an enormous-and bank account-emptying foundation repair. She was quirky, funny, musically gifted, and smart, and if it hadn't been for her unfortunate choice of fathers, she would have been the perfect teenager.
"She's worried about you. She hasn't heard from you since you
moved back here, and Jack won't talk to her about you, either."
I glared up at her. "You know we don't mention that name around here."
I felt Mrs. Houlihan behind me and pictured her raising her eyebrows at my mother.
"Melanie, darling. You and Jack are going to be parents to the same baby. Sooner or later you're going to have to talk to him. And the ball's in your court, you know. He did ask you to marry him, and you said no. I think you at least owe him an explanation." Her look of expectation made it clear that she believed that Jack wasn't the only one to whom an explanation was owed.
With exaggerated patience, I said, "I told him no for the same reason Bonnie didn't tell him about Nola-because she knew that as a gentleman he would offer to do the right thing. Well, I don't want to be the 'right thing.' He's already made it clear that he doesn't love me, and I don't want to marry for any other reason." I felt those infernal tears welling again. "And I'm certainly not going to waste my time chasing after him to make him change his mind."
"But he does love you, Mellie. I know he does."
I tried to snort, but it came out as a half sob. "Right. Then why did he respond with, 'I'm sorry,' when I told him that I loved him?" I picked up a piece of toast and bit into it, if only to hide the telltale quivering of my lip. Pregnancy hormones coupled with a rejected declaration oflove and a marriage proposal based on pity had wreaked havoc on my self-confidence and backbone. I wasn't sure whether I could ever recover. Besides, I'd lived my life on the premise that if you pretended something wasn't there it would eventually go away. At least, it usually worked where dead spirits were concerned.
"It's all not going to go away, you know, if you ignore it." My Mother, apparently a mind reader as well as a psychic, arched one eye-brow at me.
I focused on my tea and toast, careless of the crumbs that fell on my navy blue skirt and jacket. The skirt was being held together with a rubber band and paper clips, the jacket buttoned strategically over it to disguise my handiwork. Unfortunately, the straining button was attached to the jacket with only thread and a prayer.
I felt my mother's gaze on me and slowly raised my eyes. "I also had a dream," she said quietly.
The room fell silent except for the sound of Mrs. Houlihan washing something in the sink and General Lee slurping up his food. My mother didn't have normal dreams, and we both knew it. She had "visions." The last vision had brought her back into my life to save it. For her to be having another could be no less monumental.
"What was it about?" I asked as I swallowed dry toast with my tea.
"A crying baby."
The food stuck in my throat. "A crying baby?" Her eyes narrowed. "You've heard it, too, then."
I rolled my eyes, realizing too late that I probably looked like Nola. "Can't I have any secrets from you?"
She smiled softly. "Not really, no." Pushing her cup away, she said, "It might not be related to you and your pregnancy, though."
I stared back at her.
"I felt something when I heard the crying. Something powerful, and not necessarily good. But it felt detached, like it wasn't connected to me exactly, but wanted to announce its presence." She paused-a pause that, in another situation, I would have called a pregnant one. She continued. "And maybe ask for help."
I shivered as my mother watched me closely. I already had too many complications in my life and I wasn't eager to introduce one more. I'd been telling myself!'d imagined the sound, that it had nothing to do with me. That one more person, living or dead, wasn't asking something of me that I wasn't prepared to give.
I looked down at my empty plate. The ability to communicate with the dead was something my mother and I shared. Our ability was something she referred to as a gift but that I'd always considered a goiter on my neck. Although I'd been unaware of it at the time, it was what had torn us apart when I was a child, but was also what had brought us together again. I was thankful for that, and thankful that we'd been able to send a few troubled spirits into the light without calling too much attention to ourselves. But my own spirit was too troubled to concern itself with things that went bump in the night. Or cried out in the early-morning hours.
With forced conviction, I said, "I've owned this house long enough to know its ghosts. We sent Louisa Vanderhorst and Joseph Longo to their just rewards and I haven't seen them or Nevin Vanderhorst since. There are a few contented spirits lingering and we are mutually happy to leave one another alone. There's definitely no baby, or reason for a baby to be here."
"That we know of," my mother added.
I was about to argue when there was a knock on the door, and my mother and I locked gazes, feeling the same knot of dread in the place where the heart meets the soul.
Mrs. Houlihan went to the door and let in my plumber/contractor, Rich Kobylt. Since I'd originally inherited the house on Tradd Street, Rich had become as much a fixture here as the falling plaster and cracked foundation. I often wondered whether I should keep a room for him and charge him rent. Anything to help support the neverending restoration work on the house.
He stepped into the kitchen, then hitched up his drooping pants before he spoke, and I shrank back. That was always a sign that he had bad news for me, and was always accompanied by the imaginary sound in my head of a cash register cha-chinging as more money was sucked out of my bank account.
"Mornin ', Miz Middleton, Miz Prioleau." He nodded to both of us. Mrs. Houlihan brought him a large mug of coffee, two sugars and one dollop of creamer, and placed it in his hands. I should charge
him for that, too, I thought. I didn't ask him to sit down, mistakenly believing that the less time he spent in my presence, the less money I'd be forced to spend. Once again, the image of a parking lot on this particular spot on Tradd Street loomed in my head in an enticing way.
"What's wrong?" I asked, speaking the two words that always followed my greeting to him.
He held the steaming mug but didn't drink from it, and I noticed that he was paler than usual under his hat. I'd realized shortly after he'd begun to work on the restoration of the house that he was sensitive to restless spirits and that they sometimes made their presence known to him in disconcerting ways. I still couldn't tell whether he was in denial or if he really didn't realize that when paint cans kept emptying themselves, there was more to it than just pranksters or his inability to remember using up all the paint.
He looked at me apologetically, and I let all the air in my lungs expel in a long wheeze. "It's not another foundation problem, if that's what you're thinking," he said.
"That's a relief" I kept my gaze on his face, trying to determine whether he was telling me the truth. "So what is it?"
He jacked up his pants again, as if stalling for time, and it seemed that he was as reluctant to tell me as I was to hear. "Well, you know we've been making a big pile of mess in your back garden as we excavated the old foundation and replaced it. We didn't really pay much attention to the stuff we yanked out, because we knew we couldn't use it again. Well, today I've got a dump truck and a loader to clear all that stuff away, and in the middle of the second load that's when we saw it."
If possible, his face went a bit paler.
My mother stood, and I saw that her hand was shaking slightly. She reached for me and touched my fingers, an electric current seeming to jolt between us. I grasped her hand in mine, remembering our shared mantra as we 'd faced our most adversarial spirits: We are stronger than you.
"Saw what?" I asked, my voice surprisingly normal.
He glanced behind him, as if he were afraid that whatever he'd unearthed had snuck up behind him. A shiver went through me and I half suspected that he might be right.
"Bones. In a small wooden box. Definitely human." His hand shook a little, sloshing coffee over the side of his mug. "A baby."
My mother grasped my hand harder as our gazes met, the weight of the world pressing down on me as the thought ricocheted through my brain and rained down on my already ruined life: Here we go again.
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