Cold Waters (Normal, Alabama) by Debbie Herbert
The tingling in my ear was the first omen.
Everyone knew an itchy ear meant people were talking about you, so I glanced out of the corner of my eye at the few people leaving the bus station. I didn’t want to be spotted. But they paid me no mind, casting anxious looks at the slate sky before scurrying away, eager to escape the impending summer storm. Thunder crackled from afar.
A crow cawed, and I sought its form. The bird perched on a power line, a sleek black silhouette against the heavens. A lightning bolt speared the sky, forming a chiaroscuro of gray and black shadows in its momentary flash. The crow cawed again, the cry raucous and haunting.
Most people would have counted this as the second omen, but I wasn’t most people. I welcomed the storm and the darkness and the crow. It all served to divert the good folks of Normal, Alabama, from noticing me and possibly recognizing my face—which was eerily similar to my dead mother’s.
Old Willie Crenshaw pulled up close to my bench in a battered Plymouth Duster. He rolled down the window and motioned for me to enter. It was a welcome stroke of luck that he had happened to be dropping off his grandson at the station. He was, perhaps, the only person in town who would pay me a kindness.
I gathered up the large box beside me with one hand, resting it against my right hip, and lifted my solitary suitcase with the other. I kept my face forward, not daring to veer it an inch to the right or left as others brushed past me. Quickly, I threw the luggage in the back seat and opened the passenger door, grasping the box in my hands.
“Hold on now,” Willie cautioned. “Careful of that there spring.” A wicked coil of metal stuck out of the faded, threadbare upholstery.
“Thanks for the warning.” My left ass cheek would have been punctured without it.
“Been meanin’ to tape that up.”
Cautiously, I slid in and shut the door, holding the box in my lap. Its solid form, which housed its strange but precious contents, made me feel more secure.
“You’ve had this car forever,” I noted. The vehicle had been ancient before I’d even left Normal. A miracle of engineering had kept the motor running.
Willie slapped the dashboard. “This thing’ll be a valuable antique one day.”
Was he joking? I suppressed a smile. “Right.”
He threw back his head and laughed, a breathless rasping that shook his shoulders. “Your face,” he managed to gasp. “The same look my Cora has when I say that.”
“How is she?” I asked politely.
“Fair to middlin’. Like always.”
Which communicated much of nothing. We fell into an easy silence as he pulled out of the station and onto the road, driving at least ten miles an hour under the already slow speed limit.
The second omen appeared as Willie crept the battered Duster through downtown. An ambulance rounded the corner from Barefoot Avenue and pulled onto the main drag just ahead of us, lights blazing. I pinched my nose straightaway to ward off bad luck.
Less than a minute later, the third sign—everything always came in threes, didn’t it?—occurred as his car rumbled over the railroad tracks. I lifted my feet and raised both arms to touch the car roof. For a split second, Willie did the same, as I’d known he would. You couldn’t be too careful. I mean, nobody wanted to die young when you could have prevented it by merely lifting your feet while going over tracks.
He stole a glance at me. His weathered black face held both curiosity and compassion, just as it had in the old days when he’d done the occasional odd job around the house for my dad.
“I’m sure Delaney was puttering round the garden, and the time just got away from her,” he said.
I bet. I hadn’t believed him the first time he’d offered up that lame excuse. Delaney had left me stranded at the bus station. If Willie hadn’t happened by and seen me sitting on the bench with my luggage, I might have lingered there another two hours or more, sending off increasingly agitated texts to my sister, who apparently wasn’t carrying her cell phone.
My silence must have made him uncomfortable. “And yer daddy can’t drive no more,” he offered. “You’ll find everything’s . . . changed. That’s why I wrote you. Figured you’d want to know.”
His letter had been brief and to the point: Your daddy is doing poorly. Might want to pay a visit while you can. I’d debated for days over whether to return. I didn’t have many fond memories of a loving father, but duty pressed its relentless grasp on my conscience, overriding my logical objections. Besides, this homecoming might help me address the two ghosts of my past that refused to stay dead and buried—Mom and Ainsley Dalfred.
“You did the right thing, Willie. Thanks. How’d you get my address?”
I squeezed the bloodstone clutched in my right palm. My thumb fit neatly into the indentation at the top of the tumbled rock, as if it had been custom fitted for my touch. The lady at the Green Fairy metaphysical store had promised it warded off negative energy. I needed all the armor I could get.
We passed by the old oak, whose canopy twisted sideways, reaching all the way to the other side of the road. Willie beeped his horn as we drove under the tree, so—as tradition mandated—I made a wish.
Don’t let it be as terrible as I fear.
We’d be at the house in minutes. This called for a heftier charm. Trusting the old more than the new, I reached into my jeans pockets, tucked in the bloodstone, and replaced it with the glass chip I always carried.
When I was nine, the crows had brought me their first gift—this chip of cobalt-blue glass that had glittered in the dusk like a fairy bauble. Or maybe like a frozen sliver of ice from the sea. So blue it hurt my heart. That azure chip had stood out amid the ash-and-bone-colored landscape of home. A promise of a magical land where the muddy Alabama River flowed down to the Gulf of Mexico and transformed into a turquoise sea that lapped against sugar-white beaches.
My fingers brushed against its smooth, cool surface, and calm flowed through me like a slow-moving stream.
“Whatcha got there?” Willie asked, glancing sideways as he maneuvered the car down the bumpy dirt road.
I shrugged. “It’s like a worry stone,” I replied with elaborate casualness.
“You ain’t got nothing to worry about. I know yer folks are”—he stumbled a heartbeat—“dying to see ya.”
Yeah, dying wasn’t a good word choice, considering my past history. My nervousness returned.
I held the chip in the hollow of my palm, wishing I were my fourteen-year-old self, who could trust that it was a magic talisman to keep me safe. But despite my compulsion to ward off bad luck, I didn’t much believe in magic anymore.
A twist around the bend, where white oaks towered and the spanish moss waved in the wind like an old friend, and we were near. Excitement warred with my worry. This was home, after all. The only one I’d ever known.
My heart thundered, and I leaned forward in the seat, taking it in all at once.
It was as familiar to me as my own face and had an eternal quality. Generations of the Henderson family had lived here. But where once it may have been just this side of majestic, its years were now showing like a matronly grande dame’s. It was nevertheless substantial, with an air of decayed gentility.
Wisteria vines climbed on either side of its frame, the wild encroaching on the domestic shelter. The white paint had worn thin on the south side of the house, and the wraparound porch had a subtle sag in the middle. The windows were large and dark—no need to bother with curtains when there were no nearby neighbors. The haint-blue shutters—painted that hue to ward off evil spirits and ghosts—hung crooked and were missing a few slats. But at least the massive antebellum columns remained impressive.
The forlornness of the slightly shabby structure was offset by Delaney’s gardens. Purple hydrangeas, azaleas, cemetery roses, confederate jasmine, and hostas lined the home’s foundation as well as the driveway.
“Bet you’re glad to be back, eh?” Willie stopped the car and openly studied me, his old, wrinkled fingertips tapping the steering wheel.
“Sure.” I crammed the blue chip back in my pocket and opened my purse. “I really appreciate the lift. Thanks for—”
He held up a hand. “Keep yer money.”
“But . . .” A twenty-dollar bill fluttered in my fingers. Willie and his family could use the money, unless their circumstances had vastly improved during my years away.
“No way,” he insisted. “Glad to help out. Yer sister’s got her hands full with yer daddy. You’ll be a blessing to them.”
I frowned and stuffed the money back in my wallet. “Okay, then.” I took a deep breath and opened the car door, retrieving my suitcase from the back seat. Willie gave me an encouraging nod before I closed the door. I watched him drive off in a trail of red dust. If everyone in Normal were this friendly, coming home might not be so bad.
Perhaps time had softened their hatred.
My fingers clutched and unclutched the leather handles of the suitcase that held all my worldly possessions. I wished I had more. I wished I had a hefty bank account and could live anywhere in the world but here. But wishes and magic had died for me eleven years ago, and the clean beaches of Gulf Shores were merely a spot on the map, as foreign as the Taj Mahal.
I slowly turned and walked to the house. Would have been nice if they’d at least been on the porch to greet me. Then again, Dad might be too feeble and Delaney too busy. I climbed the concrete porch steps, careful of the crumbly spots and cracks. At the door, I hesitated. Should I knock or just enter? It was my home, but one I hadn’t visited—couldn’t visit—for all these years.
A loud screech, and the door opened. The decision had been made for me. Through the screen, a gray-skinned and gray-haired man clad only in his underwear studied me with hostility etched in his heavily lined face.
“Dad?” I asked, uncertain. Of course, it must be, but the wrinkles and thinning silver hair threw me.
“Did ya bring me my Jack?”
I’d know that rough voice anywhere. It was him, all right. I stiffened. Should have figured that would be his first question.
“If you mean Jack Daniel’s, then no, I didn’t bring any.” I took an involuntary step back, out of striking range.
“Hey,” a voice called from within. “Get away from the door, Dad. Jeez.” Footsteps clomped across the room, and Delaney appeared behind the screen. Her mouth opened and shut as she stared.
I shifted from one foot to another. “It’s me.” A heartbeat ticked by, and I hurried to fill the void. “Violet.”
“Oh shit . . . I mean, sorry.” Delaney shrugged and gave a breezy smile. “I was out in the garden, and the time slipped away from me. How did you get here?” She stuck her head out the door to peer at the driveway.
“Willie Crenshaw. I waited for two hours and sent you a dozen texts and phone calls.” I couldn’t help the accusatory note in my voice.
“Like I said, I was in the garden. I didn’t think to bring my cell with me.”
I pinched my lips together before I could say something I’d regret. I mean, seriously? She couldn’t have missed one day of digging?
Delaney cocked her head to the side, studying me. “I knew you were coming, and yet it’s still such a shock to see you. Imagine—after all these years, you’re finally back home.” She pulled open the screen door. “Come in.”
Long thin arms embraced me, her warm hair pressed against my cheek, and I inhaled the clean scent of baby shampoo, lilies of the valley, and something herbal. A deep, unanticipated longing crept over me to be a kid again, talking and laughing with Delaney before the events of That Night.
She withdrew, and I stepped over the threshold. Large bouquets of flowers in crystal vases did their best to cheer the gloom of the old place and offset the underlying smell of sickness—a combination of disinfectant and urine and mentholated cream.
Dad, thankfully, had already disappeared, but I could hear him shuffling about upstairs, mumbling. I pointed to the staircase. “How bad is he doing? Dad didn’t even recognize me.”
She relieved me of my suitcase and shrugged. “Some days are better than others.”
Which didn’t tell me much. I suspected the bad days outweighed the good, and I wondered how she stood it.
Delaney maneuvered around me, heading for the stairs, the right side of her body slightly leaning from the weight of my suitcase.
“Let me get that.” I tugged at her arm, surprised at the strength of her resisting, muscular biceps. Presumably earned from all the gardening, I guessed.
“It’s no problem.” Her voice was firm. A woman used to running a household and giving orders. “Besides, you’ve got that box to carry.”
I followed her up the creaking stairs, past the familiar portraits of grim Henderson men and women of past generations that lined the right wall. Ours was not an inheritance of cheerful dispositions. I could see a resemblance in Delaney. My older sister was serious. Not glum, but calm and matter of fact, meticulous in her bookkeeping job and family responsibilities. Or so I gathered from her infrequent visits to me at my various hospitals.