STILL WE SEE THEE LIE
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
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STILL WE SEE THEE LIE
Author: Mignon F. Ballard
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 somethinga
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 earlyor too latefor a costume
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 gameor 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
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 warmand 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
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 oneMother'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
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
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 morningor 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
"Poor Miss Eula," Ivalee said.
"She's getting too old to keep up with himeven 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
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?"
"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
"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
"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 lifeor 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
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?"
"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 ita time capsuleand
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:
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 wronghorribly wrongand
it had begun right here in Harmony.
©2013 Mignon F. Ballard