Honestly, I was not surprised at all to discover that Jule Ann was Ms. Skully’s sister. But I was shocked that Jule Ann appeared to be her maid and cook. Ms. Skully changed the subject before I had a chance to comment, although I wasn’t completely sure what I would say in regards to what she had told me anyway.
I felt sorry for Jule Ann and her predicament. A tiny bit of me felt sorry for her because Ms. Skully had laid all her dirty laundry on the table. Maybe that’s why she didn’t speak and she had that stern look on her face. It didn’t matter anymore what her dead husband had done to her. That was in the past. But she knew, while spooning the hot food she’d slaved over onto my plate, that Ms. Skully loved to tell guests how Jule Ann got her scars.
And that’s what really pissed her off. Only in the South does our perplexing pasts make good dinner conversation. Ms. Skully had disregarded telling me about her own past because her sister’s was much more entertaining. Now, she wanted to hear about me.
“Well, enough about us. Tell me all about you, dear. What brings you to Monroeville?” Ms. Skully said, looking at me with a great big smile on her face.
Because of the confidentiality I was bound to by law since Cotter was under the age of eighteen, there wasn’t much I could actually share with Ms. Skully about what had brought me to Monroeville. Instead, I told her I was a social worker in Monroe and was delivering a child to Monroeville to live with his sister since his mother had passed away.
“The poor dear,” Ms. Skully said shaking her head. She hung on every word I said like she was a small child listening to a bedtime story.
“The state requires an interview of the relatives and a full inspection of their home to make sure the family is capable of accepting custody of the child,” I explained.
“Where is the child now?” she asked.
“He is with his sister at her residence. I’m continuing my interview tomorrow.”
“I see,” she said, turning her head away and looking off in the direction of the kitchen door, pondering something.
This last inquiry seemed to concern or worry her after I replied, or perhaps I had mistaken her reaction as that and it was really just her pondering my story. I fell silent and turned my attention back toward my food for a bite or two, dismissing her expression, but then she spoke up again.
“Do you like what you do?” she asked, turning back toward me.
I don’t remember anyone ever asking me that before. My job had never been about me before. I was always about the children.
“Yes. Very much,” I replied.
I wasn’t be vague on purpose. I was just too tired to construct a more appealing answer.
“You were a child of the state once?” Ms. Skully asked, raising her eyebrows and smiling at me gently, letting me know she meant no offense.
I put my fork down, clinking it against the side of my plate. It was loud and seemed to echo, creating quite an effect as an upsetting response to her question though I had not intended it. I carefully reached for my tea, afraid I might tip it over and spill it across the table. I drank slowly so as not to elude that her question had upset me, though it had certainly caught me off guard.
Putting my glass down gently, I spoke,”Yes m’am. I was at one time. That was a long time ago.”
“Your reason for the work you do now?”
“You could say that.”
I picked up my fork again and returned my attention to my meal. I avoiding eye contact with her and hoped my brusque reply was enough to stop her curiosity into my past. It wasn’t.
“Isn’t there an old saying about those who are living in the past are destined to repeat it?” she said.
“I believe it’s those who forget the past are destined to repeat,” I corrected her. “I haven’t forgotten.”
“Yes, indeed. Something like that,” she said, dismissing it. “Are you ready for some cobbler and coffee?”
I had barely finished half the food on my plate because of all the chatter about Jule Ann.
“No m’am. I believe I’ll retire to my room after dinner if you don’t mind. It’s been a very long day, and I’d very much like to get some rest,” I said. I wasn’t about to subject myself to more of Ms. Skully’s attempt at exploring my past.
“Of course, dear. I hope you have enjoyed dinner.”
“Very much so. Thank you.”
We finished in silence. Jule Ann returned with her cart to clear the table. As she picked up my plate, I made an effort to speak to her. “Dinner was quite lovely, Jule Ann. It reminded me so much of home, and I appreciate that. Thank you.”
She did not smile, but gave me a quick nod instead and carried on. I had a feeling she would return to the kitchen and once the door was closed, she would smile there in private. It would be a great big smile, worthy of a photograph. She might even shed a tear.
Working with children, often emotionally and physically battered, much like Jule Ann herself, I knew the importance of a verbal compliment from time to time. That need doesn’t change as we get farther away from our childhood, and I bet Jule Ann had not been given a compliment in a very long time.
I was damn good at my job and though the appreciation of my efforts might often go unnoticed, I knew something as simple as praising a sad cook for her wonderful meal probably cheered her heart up a little. It was something Ms. Skully was not capable of doing. She was old and set in her ways, and preferred to be entertained by her guests bestowing stories of their past, good or bad, upon her over dinner conversation. I was not about to give her that pleasure.
I left Ms. Skully sitting at the table as I excused myself and went upstairs to my room. I paused briefly in the hallway to look at some of the family photos on the wall. I was searching for Jule Ann, a happier unscarred face, but she was not there.
I reached for the knob of the door to my room and began to turn it just when I spied a photo in a frame sitting on the hall table. I stopped and picked it up. It was a sepia colored photo in a wooden frame showing three small girls posing in frilly Easter dresses. They must be sisters because they resembled each other a bit.
The one in the middle had tight shiny curls of hair and a big grin on her face. She was very sassy looking. The girl to her left was not even looking at the camera, but gazing off at something that had caught her attention instead. Though not as curly as the girl in the middle, her hair was pulled back and still quite wavy, and the same bright color. The girl on the right had obvious dark black hair pulled straight back. She was not smiling either. Her mouth was a tight smug line.
The two outer girls appeared almost uncomfortable, as if they were embarrassed at being photographed with the prouder sister in the middle. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see them roll their eyes if the picture came to life right there in my hands.
It was the dark hair and the blank look in her eyes that made me think the one on the right had to be Jule Ann, and surly Ms. Skully was the one in the middle loving the camera. Even in childhood, Jule Ann must have hated her sister. It made me wonder where the third sister was, but I wasn’t going to ask.
I put the photo back down on the table and opened the door to my room. Shutting the door behind me and locking it, I kicked off the slippers and shrugged the robe from my shoulders. I pulled back the blanket on the bed and crawled in. Its feather mattress and plush pillows were like slipping into a warm bubble bath. I reached over and turned off the bedside lamp. The room was pitch black, but slow moonlight began to filter in through the window giving the furniture in the room shape and shadow.
I tried desperately to clear my mind of Cotter, Mr. Sook, Madam Miller, and Ms. Skully, and all of this trip to Monroeville in general. I needed to go to the one dark space in the back of my mind that allowed me to rest peacefully without thinking of any of the kids from my cases. It was a door marked private at the end of a long hallway somewhere inside my head, and only I had a key. Some nights, it took longer to get there than others. It wasn’t long till I felt myself drifting off to sleep. That’s when my cell phone, which I had left on top of the dresser across the room, woke me.
My eyes popped open as it startled me. For just a second, I thought of letting it just go to voice mail. Who would be calling me now? Then, I thought it could be Cotter. I threw back the blanket and pulled myself out of bed, running across the room in the dark to answer it, guided only by the light from the screen on the phone flashing at me. I checked the screen but no phone number had registered on the caller I.D. It was probably going to be a wrong number. I answered it anyway.
“Hello?” I whispered, customary to answering the phone in the dark though there was no one else I was endanger of waking up, had the loud ring tone of my phone not already disturbed them.
“Hello, it’s Miriam Miller. Is this a bad time?”
“No, not at all.”
“I’m so sorry if I disturbed you.”
“It’s okay. What can I do for you Madam Miller?”
“Please, call me Miriam now.”
“I forgot to ask you if you needed a place to stay tonight.”
“That’s very nice of you, but Mrs. Faulk, Cotter’s sister, rented a room for me.”
“Oh, how nice of her,” Miriam said with a condescending tone.
I actually acquiesced with her given what I had learned from Madam Miller tonight, but Mrs. Faulk still might have been completely in the dark about all of the business between Mr. Faulk and Mr. Sook, despite her signature being on those checks. My meeting with her tomorrow would hopefully help me to figure out just how much she knew, if anything, and how she really felt about her own mother. For Cotter’s sake, I wanted to believe that Mrs. Faulk was completely unaware of it all. She was just another unsuspecting housewife intended to keep peace and order at home while her husband was away and to be a social trophy on his arm when he was in town.
“Yes, I was a bit surprised myself at her gracious hospitality, but I took her up on the offer. I’m in my room now. This bed and breakfast isn’t so bad out here, and tonight’s dinner was superb.”
“Did you say bed and breakfast?” Miriam asked, sounding worried.
“Yes. She reserved a room for me at Skully’s Landing. Have you been here before?”
“Oh dear, I don’t want to cause you any alarm, but you really need to leave there right away. Get a room in town tonight, or come back here and stay with me. Just get out of there and quick!”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Believe me. You don’t want to stay there,” Miriam whispered as if she were afraid someone might hear our conversation.
“Why? Miriam, please explain.”
“Ms. Skully is Mr. Faulk’s mother! She went back to her maiden name after her husband, Joseph Sr., died.”
“You mean Ms. Skully is Cotter’s grandmother,” I whispered, now fearing someone might be outside the door listening.
“Yes, she is. Did Mrs. Faulk not tell you that?”
“No, she never said a word about it.”
“Then I’m afraid you might be in trouble. Get out of there! Quick! Call me once you are on the road. Come here. I’ll be waiting.” With that, she disconnected the call.
“Miriam? Hello?” I said, but the line went dead.
Just then, there was a peck on the door behind me. Someone was knocking. It startled me. I turned to see if someone was coming into the room. The door know rattled, as if someone was trying to open it but thankfully I had locked it. The knocking came again.
“Who’s there?” I said sternly.
No one answered me. More knocking. I ran over to the side of the bed and turned on the lamp. I put my hand on the knob and put my face up close to the doorway.
“I said who’s there,” I called out.
Just then the door unlocked and was forcefully pushed in. Catching me off guard, it smacked my cheek. It startled me and knocked the cell phone out of my hand which crashed to the floor. I jumped to avoid it landing on my toe. But I should have been more worried about the fact that someone had unlocked my room and was now trying to come in.