Author: Mignon F. Ballard
2013 Reissue Edition
Retail $14.95; 216pp
ISBN 978-1-62268-054-2 print
ISBN 978-1-62268-055-9 e-book
LCCN 2013953697

read an excerpt >>>
book details
larger view of cover
buy the book


Author: Mignon F. Ballard


Chapter One

She awoke to a still, gray dawn and a sense of something not quite right. At first she thought he was Father Christmas, an illustration from an antique greeting card, the tall figure in the scarlet cape. He stood at the far corner of the house in the frosty luster of a December morning with something—a basket?—in his hand and a garland of holly around his head.
     Shivering, Molly Stonehouse leaned on the windowsill. Except for the slight fluttering of his cape caught by the wind, he was as motionless as a statue. It was too dark to see his face, but his shoes, she noticed, were a bright green. He seemed to be waiting for something to happen, standing there with his basket held in front of him. But what? It was too early—or too late—for a costume party.
     Molly crawled back into bed and pulled the covers to her chin, reluctant to leave this rumpled island of security. She watched the quiet light loiter over dark oak floors and creep up the marble-topped dresser, where someone had placed a small white pitcher of holly: a festive token of Christmas, her first without Ethan.
     The wallpaper was the same: fading lavender flowers on a background of green, just as her husband had described it. Molly stretched in the big walnut bed that had been his in the room that had been his and felt the heavy awareness descend upon her as it had every morning since Ethan had died. With the weight of stone it pressed down on her, this dally awakening of her loneliness without him.
     Molly placed cold fingers over her burning eyes and counted to ten. It always calmed her. She was warm beneath the quilts, but her hands were cold. The touch of them shocked her into reality. She blinked. The flowers still zigzagged across the walls as they had when Ethan was twelve, the Christmas he and his friends had discovered a hidden message and buried it in a harmless childhood game—or so they had thought. Now, twenty-three years later, two of them were dead.
     Sitting up in bed, Molly looked again for the strange figure in red, but he was gone. That portion of the back yard was bare except for a thick row of dark green holly trees screening a garage that had once been white. Closer to the house, the huge oak where Ethan had built his tree house reached out dark limbs against a slate sky.
     I must be hallucinating from eating all that chocolate, Molly thought, padding across the cold floor in search of her suitcase. It was a five-hour drive from Charlotte to the small Georgia town of Harmony where her husband's aunts lived, and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Joy, had complained all the way. It had been a two-Hershey trip.
     Molly swore under her breath as she stubbed her toe on a rocking chair, then hobbled about groping for her shoes. What am I doing in this place? she thought. Maybe her daughter was right. Maybe she shouldn't have insisted they spend the Christmas holidays in this rambling old house with relatives they hardly knew.
     It had been years since she came here with Ethan, but she remembered the deep, rich redness of the soil; the gray stone columns that marked the edge of town; winding streets and generous lawns reminiscent of days of croquet games and ice cream socials. The "teacup" town, Ethan had called the little village nestled in the foothills of the north Georgia mountains.
     She sniffed, afraid to hope. The real thing, the smell of coffee, drifted from the kitchen below along with the spicy aroma of something sweet and warm—and probably fattening, but Molly didn't care. She could afford to put on some of the weight she had lost in the nine months since Ethan's death.
     Someone shuffled down the hall outside her door trying not to make any noise. She heard a door softly open and close; a heavy pan clanged on the stove, and the radiator beneath her window banged to life with blessed heat. The house was awake and so was she.
     Molly dressed quietly, trying not to wake Joy, who slept on a roll-away bed in the comer. Looking at her sleeping daughter, at the fluff of light brown hair around her face, Molly wanted to gather her into her arms as she had so many times before, but she knew the child who seemed so peaceful in her sleep would, at her mother's touch, draw into a cold, resentful shell. For the last few months, Molly had conditioned herself not to touch her own daughter because the rejection was more than she could bear.
     Joy slept soundly, looking even younger than her thirteen years, with one arm hugging Marjorie, the stuffed bear her father had given her when she was three. "Let's name it after your mother," Ethan had suggested, laughing. "She's always a bear in the morning." Molly smiled at her namesake. At least one of us is getting some affection, she thought. Joy clung to the bear as if it were a part of her father, and Molly knew she was almost as guilty. She gave her short blond hair a few strokes with a brush and pulled on the faded blue sweatsuit that had been her husband's. She told herself she wore it because it was soft and warm, but she liked the familiar touch of it on her skin and the small comfort it gave.
     A door slammed across the hall, and someone clomped down the stairs.
     "Emma Beth, for God's sake, you sound like a herd of buffalo. Do you want to wake the dead?" A male voice spoke in bored tones as if he had said this many times before. It was probably Asa Brown, Emma Beth's father and Ethan's first cousin, Molly thought.
     She followed the sound of voices to the dining room, leaving Joy to find her own way downstairs, and was immediately whisked into a seat at the table by a short, plump woman with curling gray hair who patted her shoulder with one hand and poured coffee with the other. The smell of bacon lingered about her, and Molly realized how hungry she was.
     "Afraid I woke you with all my clattering about down here! Hope you slept all right in that relic of a bed. I just can't abide a soft mattress myself." Ethan's Aunt Ivalee bustled into the kitchen through a swinging door, calling to her granddaughter at the table. "Emma Beth, come in here, honey, and give me a hand with these grits before they stick." She paused to meet Molly's sleepy gaze. "You do eat grits, don't you?
     "Asa, holler up and tell your Aunt Iris to come on down now." The door flapped shut behind her.
     Molly watched mutely as a large girl with her auburn hair in hot curlers crammed a biscuit oozing peach preserves into her mouth and followed her grandmother without a word.
     Asa Brown sat across from her. He merely grinned and took a swallow of coffee. "Aunt Iris will come down when she'd good and ready," he said. "It won't do to rush her." He unfolded the thick newspaper beside him and offered her a section, and Molly remembered with a shock that it was Sunday. She worked in the registrar's office of a small community college, and since they were closed for the holidays, she had lost track of the days of the week.
     Asa, munching a sticky bun while glancing through the entertainment section, wore a coat and tie, and the other two seemed to be in varying stages of Sunday dress. Almost as an afterthought, he passed the pastries to her. "Sorry. Guess I'm not used to having company. Have one—Mother's a wizard in the kitchen."
     When he smiled he looked a little like Ethan, Molly thought. There was something about the comers of his mouth and the way his eyes were set, although Ethan had dark hair and Asa's was reddish-brown; and he looked handsome in a brown tweed jacket and bronze silk tie. Though he and Ethan were about the same age, they had never been very close, but the two cousins shared expensive tastes in clothes, Molly noticed. She wondered if Asa Brown helped with the household expenses in the home he and Emma Beth shared with his mother and aunt. After his Grandmother Stonehouse died, Ethan had told her, the property was left to his aunt Iris, the youngest, who had remained single and stayed to care for her mother. Her sister, Ivalee Brown, had come home to share the house after her husband died. Asa, her son, had moved in when Emma Beth was small after the child's mother ran off with a rock group in Atlanta.
     "I'm afraid I forgot what day it was," Molly confessed, accepting the gooey pastry. "Do you think I should wake Joy for church?"
     "Nonsense. Let the child sleep; you both need the rest." Aunt Iris stood in the doorway, a tall, slender woman in a tailored green suit that matched her eyes. Molly thought she would have been stunning if her dark hair had not been so obviously dyed; and the bright pink lipstick she wore was not at all becoming to her. "With all the running around we do, it's a wonder we aren't all sick," she added with a faint little sniff. "Especially with the flu going around."
     Iris Stonehouse took the chair beside Molly's just as Ivalee and her granddaughter brought in steaming bowls from the kitchen. "We're so glad you and Joy could be with us for Christmas," she said with a smile. "I hope you slept well after that long drive." She spoke in a warm, cheerful voice, yet her eyes were serious, almost solemn, and her hand lingered briefly on Molly's as she passed the platter of eggs.
     Why, the woman feels guilty, Molly thought as Asa asked a tardy blessing. Iris must feel responsible for Ethan's death because he was on his way home from Harmony when he was killed.
     "I don't remember a thing after I closed my eyes last night," Molly told her. "But I did see something peculiar this morning—or I think I did." And she told them about the figure in the red cape.
     "Oh, that's just Sonny Earl Dinsmore," Asa said. "He lives next door with his mother. Let's just say he wasn't bit by Solomon's dog."
     "Now, that's not true, Asa!" Iris said. "Sonny Earl had as fine a mind as anyone in this room until he came down with that fever. Why, he could out-spell everybody in our class."
     "Poor Miss Eula," Ivalee said. "She's getting too old to keep up with him—even had to give up driving last year. Sonny Earl could wander off and get hurt; anything could happen. Where was he when you saw him?"
     "Standing out back." Molly smiled. "I thought I was having a vision."
     "That's his costume for the season," Asa said. "Probably found it in the attic. Last month he dressed like an Indian: went around wrapped in a blanket!"
     Iris cut her bacon into pieces. "Mama tried to tell Miss Eula he needed some kind of training, but she wouldn't listen. She never listens."
     Her sister laughed. "Eula Dinsmore quit speaking to Mama after they got into that argument about peeling tomatoes."
     Molly glanced up to see Asa smiling at her. "What about peeling tomatoes?" she asked.
     "Oh, they were slicing some for a picnic," Ivalee said, "and Mama told Miss Eula even a pig wouldn't eat tomato peel." She poured cream into her coffee. "She was right, of course, but Miss Eula's been distant ever since."
     Emma Beth stirred a generous portion of butter into her grits. "Daddy, do I have to go to church today?" she whined.
     "Do we have to go through this every Sunday?" Asa Brown spoke evenly, never taking his eyes from his plate. "Yes, you have to go; and if you don't hurry, we'll be late. Forget second helpings, Emma Beth; you don't need them anyway."
     The girl's flush was darker than the sprinkle of freckles across her face. She threw down her napkin and ran from the room. Molly supressed an impulse to run after her. She stared at her plate, her appetite gone. She and Joy should fit in just fine here.
     "High strung," Ivalee whispered aside to Molly.
     "Umm," Iris grunted, looking as if she wished she were somewhere else.
     Molly wished she were somewhere else, too, but she was here for a purpose and was determined to make the best of it. She had promised herself she would try to find out the reason for Ethan's death. Ignoring their protests, she insisted on washing the dishes while the others got ready for church. It would give her time to be alone, time to think, and maybe she and Joy could agree to some kind of acceptable truce to get them through the holidays.
     Molly knew that in some irrational way Joy blamed her for her father's death. The child had worshipped Ethan— and why not? He had given her everything she asked for and left the discipline to Molly. A few days before he was killed, he and Molly had argued loudly, emotionally, and she had accused him of being selfish and impractical. Ethan had put a lot of money down on a pleasure boat without even consulting her. It was a luxury they couldn't afford, and she had been furious. She was tired of being the tight-fisted money manager while the family bank account stayed drained and anemic from her husband's extravagances. But what did it matter now?
     The house was quiet after the others left for church, and still Joy slept, or pretended to sleep, upstairs. Molly filled the kitchen sink with hot sudsy water. The simple task of washing the breakfast dishes was relaxing in its dullness, and she was glad to delay the disagreeable chore of waking her daughter. What an awful way to feel about your own offspring, she thought, swishing a rose-patterned plate in the foam. If ever they needed one another, it was now.
     Last year the three of them had spent Christmas skiing in Colorado, and Molly had shut her eyes to the expense and had a wonderful time. Now she scraped the egg from a fork and stared out the window at brown leaves skidding across the floor of the deserted summerhouse at the far end of the yard. It looked as bleak as she felt. Her happiness of the year before seemed distant, unreachable, as if it had happened to someone else. Then Harmony had been just a pleasant place in Ethan's childhood and the secret message had made a fascinating story about a game of "buried treasure."
     Although he grew up in Florida, Ethan had spent part of each holiday at his grandparents' home in Harmony. The Christmas he was twelve, his best friend Neil Fry had come with him, and they, along with a third child, Gus Duncan, had discovered to their delight a secret "mailbox" for love letters in a hollow tree on the back path to town.
     "We had been to the Saturday morning movie," Ethan told her, "and were ambling along the back way home when we saw this paper sticking out of a tree." Her husband had laughed. "Of course we read it," he admitted. "It was written to a girl named Rowena Sterling, who lived just outside of town. She was a pretty girl, home from college for the holidays, and Grandma said she was 'fast,' so of course that made it all the more interesting."
     Ethan never said who had written the letters, or if he did, Molly had forgotten, but the three intercepted several messages after that, always putting them back where they found them before Rowena came along.
     "We decided they were left there in the early mornings and picked up after dark," he explained. "Rowena had a part-time job at Murphy's drugstore about a block from where the letters were hidden."
     But one morning the envelope had contained airline tickets as well as a curious message. "Fly away with me," the note read. "Meet me tonight at the usual place and time." The three weren't familiar with the names on the tickets.
     "Well, you never saw any kids more excited than we were!" Ethan's eyes had sparkled as he told her the story, and Molly felt a little jealous that she hadn't been there, too. "We were planning to follow Rowena that night and discover the facts of life—or so we hoped. But before we could put the envelope back, Grandpa came along on his way back from town and insisted we ride home with him."
     The children's families had other plans for them that afternoon, so they didn't get back to the tree. "The next day," Ethan continued, "we learned that Rowena had run away with some drifter her father had hired to work on his farm. He had fired the guy after an argument that day, and the night Rowena left, the Sterlings' stable burned. Everybody thought this man had done it for spite."
     "What did you do with the tickets?" Molly asked.
     "We really felt guilty about that," Ethan confessed. "We were afraid somebody would find out what we'd done, so Gus suggested we bury them. And we all made a promise we'd never tell a soul."
     "But bury them? Why?"
     Her husband grinned. "We were twelve years old, remember? We made a game out of it—a time capsule—and buried the tickets, message, and all out in the yard somewhere. Heck, we even drew a treasure map, planning to come back the next summer and dig it up."
     "Well, did you?" Molly asked.
     Ethan shook his head. "No. Gus moved away, and Neil and I went to camp; then Grandma died when I was about fourteen or fifteen, and I never went back much after that.
     "You know, I worried about that for the longest time," he admitted, "about that silly letter and those tickets. I wonder if they're still there." He shrugged. "I guess everybody has forgotten about it now."
     But everyone hadn't. Molly let the water drain from the sink and sprinkled cleanser on the enamel, rubbing it in widening circles. Her husband had shared this childhood story soon after they were married, and aside from an occasional reference, he had never discussed it again. If she had not run across a hasty note from Neil while sorting Ethan's papers the month before, she might never have suspected her husband's death was anything but an accident.
     The two men had remained in touch throughout the years, but Molly had been so overcome with grief when Ethan died that she had neglected to get in touch with Neil. It was not until she received a Christmas card from Neil's family that she learned of his death from a hit-and-run accident in April. He had been jogging early one morning on a sparsely traveled road, and the police had never apprehended the driver. Still, Molly didn't connect the two deaths until she remembered Neil's warning note:

There's discord in Harmony, and I think it has something to do with the name on the message we found. Call me pronto. It's important! I'll try to warn Gus.

The letter was dated a week before Ethan's fatal accident. Had Gus been warned, or had he been murdered, too? Molly didn't know how to get in touch with him.
     She dried her wrinkled hands and rewarded herself with another cup of coffee. Steaming cup in hand, she strolled through the downstairs rooms. The dining room was elegant-threadbare; the oval mahogany table and chairs that had belonged to Ethan's great-grandmother shone with years of polish, but the needlepoint cushions were faded. A hand-carved whatnot stand in the comer was filled with fragile china figurines. Molly felt sorry for whoever had to dust them.
     A half-filled coffee cup sat on the living-room end table; The Atlanta Constitution, carelessly folded, awaited the family's return. Molly noted a scattering of Christmas cards displayed on the mantel, and there were candles in the windows. A few blocks away church bells chimed "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful."
     Molly held the warm mug in both hands. She was among relatives her husband had loved in the town where he had spent his happiest times, but something was wrong—horribly wrong—and it had begun right here in Harmony.

copyright ©2013 Mignon F. Ballard


Author: Mignon F. Ballard
2013 Reissue Edition
Retail $14.95; 216pp
ISBN 978-1-62268-054-2 print
ISBN 978-1-62268-055-9 e-book
LCCN 2013953697

read an excerpt
book details
larger view of cover
buy the book >>>

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