Sometimes, when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. At other times, the lemon juice just gets into old wounds and stings like hell.
It was only fitting that it would be raining on the day I returned to Salem. The roads were just as muddy as I remembered them. I wasn’t used to driving on slippery mud roads, however, since I had spent the last seven years in Atlanta, Georgia. Riesa Grimshaw, City Girl, that’s me. I couldn’t believe that I was giving up my well-earned vacation time to come to the Alabama backwaters.
I threw a quick glance at the manila envelope in the passenger seat. My late grandfather had left me an allowance of three thousand dollars a month for the next five years, until I turn thirty. I can’t say that I was entirely happy about being left an allowance, but since I had expected nothing, I can’t complain. Besides, the entire bank account would revert to me once I hit 30, anyway, and he left me a house as well. One home in Salem, Alabama. I grew up in that house. It was a four bedroom and two bath home with a ground floor master suite, attic, wrap-around porch, and four acres of mostly wooded land. I didn't need that much space, and the idea of living out in the woods of Alabama again scared the daylights out of me. The retail therapy there was bound to be dismal, no matter how nice the house was.
I finally pulled into the drive and my heart stopped at the sight of the house. It was the complete opposite of everything that I remembered. Now staring in the face of this decidedly intimidating colonial home in the middle of nowhere, on what was probably the dreariest and most overcast day of the entire fall season, the only positive thing that I could find was that the rain had stopped. It was downtrodden: the exterior paint was peeling away; there was a shutter on the second floor that had fallen off and another on the first floor that was hanging on by a single hinge; the lawn had not seen a mower in more than a few months; and I think that there were creatures living on or around the porch. Something was rustling the overgrown vegetation, and I wasn’t keen on the idea of finding it. My heart sank. This was going to be the worst vacation time ever spent. Whatever my grandfather had been doing for the past seven years, he hadn’t been doing it here.
"God, please let there be running water," I mumbled under my breath as I put my little Ford Focus in park. I got out of the car and popped the trunk to get my bag. I was dismayed that my cotton candy blue car was now a ghastly shade of orange. I was certainly going to be chiseling off southern clay for the next few days. I made a note to myself to find the water hose- if there was one- and again prayed for running water. I pulled my overnight bag out and closed the trunk. I left finger marks in the red mud that was now smeared on my fingers. I made a disgusted noise and shook my hand as if that might get the offending substance off of my fingers. No such luck. I sighed and brushed them off on the side of my blue jeans. If the outside of the house was any indicator, I was certain that I was going to get even dirtier before the day was up.
I only stumbled once as I walked up the pebble path to the front steps in my three inch heels, which I thought was rather impressive. I yelped when I stumbled, fearful that I might have scuffed my favorite Mary Jane pumps, and startled a bird that had been nesting under the eaves of the porch, confirming my suspicions that the porch had become a habitat for local wildlife. I glanced up into the rafters as I tromped up the steps to see if it had left a nest, and indeed it had.
It was at that moment that my phone decided to ring. It was nice and loud, obnoxious even, causing me to nearly jump out of my skin with a shriek. I wasn't the only one, apparently. A stray cat came careening out from under an old rocking chair and tore off right past me. I yelped again, dropped my bag and grappled for the phone. After the third round of Aerosmith lyrics, I finally managed to answer with the customary, "Hello?"
"Hey, baby! Did you make it to Salem alright?" I grinned. It was nice to hear my boyfriend's voice. Greg had one of those great voices that sounded like a deep purr every time he talked. I think he could have read me the phone book, and I would have listened intently. He was pretty cute too. Luxuriously thick brown hair, baby blue eyes, tight ... well you get the point.
I'm a sucker for blue eyes. I think it’s because I have blue eye envy. I was born a dirty blond with muddy brown eyes. I can bleach my hair, but the eyes? I can't really do much about them.
As for Greg, he always reminded me of an urban cowboy every time I saw him. In the six months that we've been dating, I think he has turned me on to the leather vest and tight pants look. He pulls it off fantastically. Just hearing his voice now made me wish I was there, within touching distance of his tan muscles...
I caught myself daydreaming about things that we had never done before. “Riesa? Baby? Are you there?”
I managed to answer in a flushed voice, thankful that he couldn’t see my blushing. "I'm here. The drive was hell, and the house is a wreck, but I'm here."
"You are at the house already?" He asked. "I'm surprised you were able to find it at all. My GPS didn't even recognize the address, so I figured you'd be lost for at least another hour." I could tell by then that he was picking on me. Jerk.
I laughed anyway. I can giggle at my own expense on occasion, though I was willing to drive all the way back to Atlanta just to give him the evil eye if he picked on my navigational skills again. I would much rather have been looking at him than the monster project before me, anyway.
"This house really is a mess, Greg. You should see it." I picked up my bag and dug through my purse, balancing the phone on my ear until I found the key to the front door. "This is going to be more than a one-week job. I may have to hire someone with the inheritance money."
"Give me a few days and I'll be there. I'm almost finished with the project that I'm working on, and then I'll be able to take some personal time."
I unlocked the door and tried to open it. It stuck, sending dust flying up into the air when I jerked it open. I coughed into the phone. "Sorry, sorry," I apologized. "God, did Grandpa even live here? This place is like a haunted house." I stood in the doorway for a bit, watching the sunlight reflect off of the dust particles in the air while I waited for my vision to adjust and the dust to settle.
"It can't be that bad, baby." I knew that he was trying to console me, but I wanted to reach through the phone and smack him. Apparently, death stares don't travel well over long distances since he continued. "I'm sure that he had a den or something that he spent his time in. He probably couldn't get around all that great. He was in his 70's, after all."
I laughed. "Oh, please. He died of a heart attack on a mountain in Tennessee. I don't think that not getting around was his problem."
My eyes had finally adjusted to the dim sunlight shining through the dust on the windows. I looked around and flipped a nearby switch. I was relieved to see that the power was actually still on. The entry hall was barren of all but dust. All of the pictures and decorations had been removed, leaving ominous silhouettes on the aged walls. "It’s like he abandoned this place," I told Greg. "When I was living with Grandpa, everything had to be neat and tidy. Everything had its place. I just don't see him letting his house get like this if he was actually living here." I opened a few doors as I passed them so that the rooms could be airing out while I checked out the kitchen. Now that power was confirmed, I was anxious to see running water. "This just isn't the house that I remember. Yeah, I hated living with Grandpa, but it's weird to see everything run down like this." I opened the door to the formal dining room. "He has sheets over the nicer furniture," I noted. "He wouldn't have done this if he still lived here. I'm betting that he tidied up and protected what he could before he left. Maybe he had a hobby, or a bucket list, or something."
I could hear Greg harrumphing on the other end of the line. "I still think it's odd that you don't know what was going on with your granddad before he died."
I felt a bit miffed by that statement. "You know, I really don't appreciate that. You know that we didn't talk after I moved out. It's not my fault that he didn't call to let me know he was gallivanting around kingdom come for God only knows what reason."
"You could have called him," Greg said with his nice purr of a voice. He was right and I hated him for it in that moment. It was horrible when he sounded all reasonable like that.
I turned away from the dining room and its ghostly furniture covers. I walked past the stairs, to the end of the hall, and into the kitchen. I didn't like talking about my grandfather, or my teenage years for that matter, at all. I vaguely remember the blow-out argument that we had before I left home for good, and I don't even remember what it had been about, but I had said some nasty things to him. I couldn't forgive him for making my life hell after my parents died.
I walked to the sink and turned on the faucet. "Thank God, there is running water," I exhaled as I changed the subject. I needed to get into a happier head space. "I think I'm going to start excavating this place today. The sooner I can get it livable, the sooner I can put it up for sale or rent and come home." I turned the water off and had to wrench it a bit to stop it from leaking. I added this to my mental list of things to fix.
He was silent for a few moments, and then I heard him sigh. "Well, have fun, Reece's Pieces! Call me if you need anything, okay?"
"I don't like that nickname, Greg," I replied with a half-hearted scowl. I really didn't want to encourage him, but after six months of dating I was started to get used to it. "Love you."
"Love you too." He hung up.
I snapped my phone shut and picked up my bag. I took one last look around the kitchen. It looked a bit cleaner than the rest of the house, and I was glad to see that the cabinets were empty, except for a few pots and pans. Having hand-me-down food in the pantry did not appeal to my delicate sensibilities. It reinforced my theory that my grandfather had cleaned house before he left. He had known that he wasn't coming back.
Even though we weren't the closest family, I felt a stab of regret that he hadn't wanted to call me and let me know that he was leaving, as if he hadn't wanted me around him. It was just like how he didn't want me around eight years ago when he put me in a cab and sent me to Atlanta. Sure, he paid for my tuition at college and he paid for my apartment, but in the end I think he was simply paying me to stay away.
I drew in a ragged breath. I really wanted to cry at that moment, but I refused to succumb to that hurt again. Instead, I walked up the stairs and went to my old room to put away my things and change into some clothes that I didn't mind ruining with mud. I had a lot of work to do, and the first order of business involved finding the water hose.
By noon the next day, I had washed the mud off of my Focus, physically and mentally. My car was now clean and I felt a bit clearer headed for the good night’s rest. I had a physical list of all the things I needed to fix around the house compiled and sitting in my purse. I had removed the dust covers from the furniture, swept the floors, and had gone to the store and restocked the kitchen with the few things that I would need for the week. I found a few places that needed repainting, a section in the living room ceiling that needed replacing, and a loose step on the staircase. I was at least pleasantly surprised to find that the upholstery did not smell like dust and mildew and that the overall integrity of the house was still good. However, I was not so surprised to see that my grandfather had not upgraded a single piece of furniture in the preceding years. Now that everything was cleaned, it was like walking into a time capsule for me.
I stood in the door way of my grandfather's small library and remembered the day that I had first come to live here. I was ten years old when my parents died in a car accident. At first, I went to live with a great aunt on my Mother's side of the family, but that was short lived. She was checked into a nursing home two months after my arrival. I then spent about a month in a foster home while the social worker tried to find a new placement for me. I had never met my paternal grandfather before. In fact, I hadn't even known that I had a living grandparent until the social worker introduced us.
That day, I walked into my grandfather's house for the first time. He didn't know what to do with me, and I didn't know what to do with him. That never really changed. He made one thing clear, however. We stood in front of these double french doors, and he told me quite sternly to never go into the library, even if he was in there. He was always working on something important, though I never did know what his projects were.
Now was my chance to finally see what the library was all about. My first step was intrepid, but I became more anxious as I entered deeper into my grandfather’s lair. The ghost of a memory danced at the back of my mind. I had entered this room before, and read my grandfather’s journal while he was out on an errand. What I read frightened me, though the more I tried to remember, the more the memory slipped away. My heart was racing from the almost-memory, but it was so odd and far off that I had to wonder if it had just been a forgotten nightmare. For now, I shuddered and retreated, trapping the old books and that first memory of my grandfather behind the closed doors.
My list of things to do included finding the missing finials from the bedposts in my bedroom. The sturdy oak frame just did not look right without the ornate knobs. Why they had been removed was a mystery, but I was certain that they were around somewhere. My grandfather hadn't been one to throw things away. With that in mind, I headed into the attic.
I loved my grandfather's attic. It was almost like a third floor. There were windows on the front and rear sides, providing natural sunlight. It was what people dream of when they think of nice attics, spacious, bright, and filled to the hilt with antiques. Even though I wanted to find the finials, I got a bit excited over just searching through all of the things in the attic. My grandfather had never allowed me up here, and I had always itched to do just this. I walked through the stacks of boxes, antiques, and furniture, touching every relic of my past that I could reach.
I felt like an archaeologist who had just singlehandedly discovered a lost civilization. I found cedar chests, large and small, filled with old clothes, letters, and keepsakes. There was an old sewing machine that must have belonged to my grandmother, who had died before I was born. There was also an antique dress form with strands of fake pearls and measure tapes strung across it. It still had push pins stuck into it.
There were old games in wooden boxes, a toy box filled with toy soldiers and cast iron automobiles, which I took as proof that my father had actually existed and had once been a child in this house. I don't remember my Dad ever talking about his childhood. He was a loving father, but a lot like my grandfather in that he never shared anything about himself. I gently closed the lid to the toy box and ran my fingers across where the name Samuel Grimshaw had been carved into it.
The evidence that I had once had a real family made me feel nostalgic and more than a bit regretful. I hadn’t had a real family for long and the memories of them were faint and far away, like a dream. I was surrounded by things that had once belonged to my close relatives, people who were so close to me and yet I never knew them. Every family member that I had ever known was only in my life for a decade or less.
A glint on the top of an old record player box caught my attention. I stepped closer and noticed that it was the corner of a silver photo frame buried underneath an old woven blanket. The picture was covered in dust and grime. Looking around, I grabbed the woven blanket and found a silver necklace underneath it. I left it there and used the corner of the blanket to clean off the picture. I couldn't believe my eyes. The photo was of my grandfather and me.
We looked so close, and smiling, which was impossible. I didn't remember ever being that happy the entire time that I had lived with my grandfather, and I definitely didn't remember ever smiling like that before moving out of this house. In the photo, I was about thirteen years old, wearing a long blue jean dress. A long chain with a round silver pendant hung around my neck. My birthstone was set into the middle: an opal for October.
It was the same pendant that was sitting on top of the record player.
I put down the blanket and picked up the pendant, running my thumb across the stone. It was milky and iridescent, like a polished sea shell. Even though I was holding it in my hand, it felt like a distant memory, something that I barely remembered but at the same time didn't. Looking back at the picture, I remembered the dress, and it wasn't a distant memory. I had seen it in a cedar chest just a few minutes ago. I carefully hurried over to the other side of the attic and rummaged through each cedar chest until I found the right one.
It was next to the sewing form, sitting on top of a cast-away night stand. The silver name plate on top of it was covered in dust and grime. I rubbed it with my sleeve to reveal, in slanted cursive, Theresa Marie Grimshaw. It was my given name, meaning that this small cedar chest had once belonged to me.
The blue jean dress sat neatly folded on top of a few other outfits in the chest, but it mostly contained letters, diaries, and other things that I did not remember. I riffled through until I saw a couple of things that I did remember. The first item was an old Fleetwood Mac vinyl record. I remembered this record because it had belonged to my dad when he was young, and I would listen to it for hours at a time while I tried to remember my parents. The other was a small porcelain jewelry box that my grandfather had given me for Christmas one year. It was strange because I could clearly remember getting the jewelry box, and I know that I had opened it, but I couldn't remember what was inside it. It was something that I hadn't thought of before now.
My head hurt. There was a whole box full of items that had my name, my handwriting, and my face all over them, but I couldn't remember a thing about them. The more I tried to remember, the more my head hurt. I struggled to think of an explanation for it. Perhaps I was so unhappy living with my grandfather that I had intentionally forgotten everything when I moved away. That is how I remembered my grandfather: a stiff curmudgeon who didn't have time for me at all.
But I couldn't ignore that the objects in this box were telling me an entirely different story. An entire photo album depicted me with a grandfather that I did not remember, in places that I had no recollection of ever going to, doing things that I did not recall doing at all. It looked real, but it wasn't anything at all like I remembered.
Who were the people in these pictures from fifteen years ago? What about the ones from ten years ago? The faces were mine and my grandfather’s. The photos were old enough to have been us. Barring the advent of me having an identical twin that I knew nothing about, I couldn't wrap my mind around it.
I put the photo and the pendant in the cedar chest and picked up the whole thing and carried it downstairs to my room. I came back for the record player that my photo and pendant had originally been sitting on. Surely, this was all a huge cosmic sign telling me that I was actually going insane, was suffering from selective amnesia, or was the brunt of a huge cosmic joke. Either way, me, myself, and I had some catching up to do.
After I had plugged in the record player and started it off streaming a scratchy rendition of Black Magic Woman, I sat on my bedroom floor and began going through the items in the cedar chest. I took everything out, wracking my brain for memories with each piece I handled. I had put the pendant around my neck and the photo frame on my dresser.
My floor was covered with things from the cedar chest, most of them completely alien to me. It was odd how much all of this clashed with every memory that I had. I laid down on my bed with several diaries that I had apparently written. I couldn't dispute that the writing was mine, but reading them was like reading the diaries of a stranger. I wrote at length about spending time with my grandfather, playing some of the wooden boxed games in the attic, making snowmen and decorating Christmas trees in the winter, celebrating birthdays, going on trips, and other things that I had absolutely no recollection of. There was something else that was upsetting me, and that was the missing pages. In every diary dating to the time that I had spent with my grandfather, there were pages missing, sometimes even whole sections. Most of them were cut out, leaving a straight edge behind in the journal. I couldn't help but wonder if those missing pages held the answers to all my questions.
Every now and then, the diaries would mention a bad day, like the time that Derrick Green cut a chunk off of my hair, and I had to have the rest of my hair cut ridiculously short to match. This was before pixie cuts were cool, mind you. I could remember that incident like it was yesterday. Almost every crappy day mentioned, I remembered. It was as if all of the happy details of my years with my grandfather had been stolen from me. I couldn't help but feel robbed, even violated, topped with the niggling guilt that I had unfairly hated him all these years.
I wondered, did my grandfather know about this? If something had happened to me so traumatic as to erase my happy memories, then why didn't my grandfather tell me about it? If he was such the wonderful grandfather that he was in these diaries, then I'm almost certain that he would have said something to me.
I closed the diary that I was currently reading and put my head in my hands, lacing my fingers in my hair as an act of sheer frustration. I could feel my heart beating in my throat and I had a momentary episode of nausea.
Looking out the window, I noticed that the sun was starting to set. The day had escaped me and I couldn't help but laugh at the irony in that thought.
I looked back in the cedar chest to see if there was anything that I had missed, and noticed a piece of brown ribbon, sticking out of the crevice in the bottom of the chest. It blended in so well with the wood that I almost missed it entirely. I gave it a tug, and the false bottom came up, revealing one last diary.
I carefully picked it up and turned it over in my hands. It was a bit different from all the other diaries. For one, this one seemed fairly well put together. The binding was only slightly broken, and there were bookmarks throughout the pages. The cover was a type of leather, dark brown, with the word "Journal" embossed across the front in gold.
This journal was also locked, unlike the others. I stared at it for a moment, then fiddled with the lock. It didn’t budge. I resolved that I was going to have to find something to break it open with in the kitchen. My stomach was growling anyway.
I picked up the journal and took it downstairs with me to the kitchen. I hadn't eaten in eight hours and was starving. I gave the library a quick glance as I passed it on the way, and made a mental note to check in there later for the missing pages, or more diaries, perhaps even some of my grandfather's journals, if he had kept any. But I needed a sandwich first.
I took the bread, peanut butter, and honey out of the cabinet and placed them on the counter, then started to look for the plates. I found them in the overhead cabinet by the back door. While I reached for one, I heard a scratching and a faint meow at the back door. When I opened it, the tabby cat that had dashed out from under the rocking chair yesterday came right on in through a pet door installed in the outer screen door. He brushed against my legs and meowed.
"Well I guess you aren't completely a wild stray, then," I said to the cat. "I'll bet you want some food, too." I love cats, it’s no mystery. They've been my favorite creature since before I can remember. Sorry, poor choice of words, seeing as I’ve apparently forgotten most of my childhood.
The cat answered me with more of his begging meows. I took down a can of tuna and opened it out onto one of the plates, put it on the table and got down another plate for myself. The tabby jumped up on the table and went at the tuna like he hadn't eaten a good meal in a while, and I went about making my peanut butter and honey sandwich. I poured myself a glass of milk and with another thought got a bowl down and gave the tabby some of the milk too.
I could hear the cat purring while he ate. "I'm glad you like it," I said a bit sarcastically. "I guess this means that I won't be getting rid of you anytime soon now." I added buying cat food to my list of things to do. I took a moment to wonder if he was a finicky eater or if dry cat-food would work just as well. I scratched behind his ears and he bumped my hand with his head, purring. It was a nice distraction. "Cat, you have earned that tuna, just for making me feel a bit better about this whole day," I told him. He just purred back at me as he devoured the tuna. He finished and scampered off, leaving me to finish my sandwich alone.
After cleaning up from mine and the cat's lunches, I began looking for things to pop open the lock with. I found an ice pick in the utility drawer that seemed sturdy enough to do the job.
I picked the diary back off the counter and gave it a good glare before sliding the ice pick inside the hoop of the lock and twisting, snapping the weaker metal of the lock. I opened it to the first bookmark and was thoroughly confused. As if the day couldn't get any weirder, now I was looking at a page full of pentagrams, Latin words, symbols, and other strange doodles. I flipped to all the other bookmarks and found the same type of writings. I had no idea what I was looking at, but it didn't look sane or normal.
If my other journals had looked anything like this, it would certainly explain why pages were missing from the other diaries. On further inspection, I noticed that several of the pages were manually glued in, evidencing my suspicions, though it still didn’t account for all of the missing pages. I was perfectly convinced that someone had played a cruel prank on me. It was not an explanation that I could ever have guessed, and it left me a little furious. It was the only sane explanation, other than the explanation that I was, or had been, insane. With that revelation, I threw the diary back down on the table and paced across the kitchen, back and forth a few times, fuming.
On the third pass, I noticed a folded paper sticking out of the loose binding of the cover. On the outside, it had just two words, written in scroll: I'm sorry. "Aha!" I exclaimed to the empty kitchen. I looked at the little folded piece of paper and said, "I sure hope you are a confession letter." I opened it up, and was again sorely disappointed. It was not a confession letter, but had only one word written on it, which, I was sure to regret, I read out loud. "Dimittam?"
The book flew from my hand and landed open on the floor, the pages turning rapidly as if caught in a wild wind. The room filled with the smell of smoke and ashes, and my head blossomed with pain. For a split moment, I saw a dark figure form on the other side of the book, and in that moment, I passed out.