I awoke startled, sitting up in bed. I was breathing hard and had broken out into a heavy sweat. I immediately looked across the room through the moonlight and I saw my cell phone still sitting on the dresser. I had not dropped it. It had all been a dream, which meant no one was trying to get into my room either. I threw back the heavy blankets and got out of bed to walk over to the dresser. I picked up the phone to check to see if anyone had called. There were no missed calls, which meant the call from Madam Miller had been in my dream too.
But maybe there was a message in there that I was supposed to get, and if so, it had to be that Ms. Skully was Mr. Faulk’s mother. If so, why had Mrs. Faulk not told me that today? Why had Ms. Skully not mentioned it either? For that reason alone, it couldn’t be true. Or could it? I knew I was not going to be able to get back to sleep. I’d lie away the rest of the night obsessing over the dream and why neither of the women had disclosed their relationship to one another.
That’s when a light but quick knock came at the door behind me, almost sounding like those woodpeckers I’d heard out in the swamp earlier today when I first arrived. It made me jump but I tightened my grip on the phone and laid it gently back down on the dresser. I wasn’t about to let the dream start coming true. I turned around and approached the door. The knob did not start to turn like it had when I was asleep. Instead, the knock came again, even lighter than before, as if someone was intentionally not wanting to be heard by anyone else in the house but me.
“Who’s there?” I whispered. I stuck my face up to the door frame and said it again, “Who’s there?”
No one answered.
I let out a deep breath and tried not to think of what always happened to all the B actresses in horror flicks who nonchalantly opened a door even after the unseen person who had been knocking didn’t answer their inquiry as to who it was. Would it be Ms. Skully wielding a chain saw? Probably not. She was too fragile and would probably have trouble managing any heavy piece of machinery. Maybe it would be Jule Ann with a butcher knife. Or even the third unknown sister with an ax. Or maybe even a ghost with a candlestick.
“Who’s there?” I said again, louder and firm, trying to block out all my guesses that had begun to sound like suspects from a game of Clue.
I wasn’t going to open the door unless someone answered.
A soft voice finally spoke. “It’s Jule Ann, m’am.”
I unlocked the door and opened it. Sure enough, Jule Ann was standing there with her arms behind her back, still dressed in the uniform from dinner. It was the same stance she had taken on while standing next to the dining table, that of a typical servant waiting for their next order. The only difference was her face looked kinder in the soft light of a table lamp that filled the hallway outside my room, reflecting in the framed glass of the photos on the wall like a hundred church candles. Even the scar on her face looked much more amiable in this light.
“Did I wake you?” she asked in a kind motherly voice and with a worried look to her face. It was not the barbarian “Helga” voice I had expected from such a large bitter looking woman whose appearance practically scared me at dinner.
“No, not at all. I had laid down, but I was still awake,” I said with a smile.
“I won’t keep you, but I wanted to just say thank you.”
“Yes, for helping Cotter. He’s such a sweet, dear boy. So shy. When I learned of his mother’s passing, I felt so sorry for him.”
“You know Cotter?”
“Yes, I am his great aunt. Ms. Skully is his grandmother. I thought you knew that,” she said.
She could probably tell by the look on my face that I had not known that. I was more perplexed by the fact that what she said confirmed what Madam Miller had said on the phone in my dream. Mrs. Faulk had sent me here on purpose for some strange reason unknown to me.
“Oh yes, of course,” I lied, shaking my head as if to clear it, acting like I had just misunderstood her. “So you’ve met Cotter?”
“Oh yes, it’s been about a year though. He and his mother used to stay here when they came to Monroeville for the Faulk family reunions.”
Jule Ann’s pleasantry baffled me. She was a completely different person standing before me now. It was obvious that in the presence of her sister, she was merely a servant and nothing more. I assumed this also because she continued to speak in a heavy whisper, as if not wanting Ms. Skully to be able to hear her from down the stairs.
“Jule Ann, may I ask you something?” I said, changing the subject.
“Of course, dear.”
“Did you and Ms. Skully have a third sister?”
“Oh yes, indeed, we did. Her name was Leigh. How did you know?”
“I had stopped to admire the photos in the hallway when I came up from dinner and saw the photo of the three little girls. I recognized you and Ms. Skully immediately, but I wondered who the third little girl might be.”
She stepped away from the door to reach for the photo, showing it to me. “Yes, that’s our dear Leigh. God bless her heart. May she rest in peace.”
“If I may ask, what happened to her?”
“I’m afraid she passed away a few years ago. Terrible thing,” she said nodding her head in sorrow.
“I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“She was poisoned, ya know?”
“Yes indeed. Horrible tragedy,” she said shaking her head as she looked down at the photo. A heavy frown fell upon her face, almost mirroring the sad arch to her facial scar.
Without even being invited in, Jule Ann stepped past me into the bedroom. She sat lightly on the edge of the bed, keeping both feet on the floor, still clutching the photo. And she began to speak. She told me how Leigh was the “wild child” of the trio and completely boy crazy. She’d proudly lost her virginity even before graduating high school. She cavorted around town with different men every weekend and liked to get drunk and hang out in bars. She was a disgrace to the family, and their father did everything in his power to keep her out of trouble but to no avail. The town easily labeled her a slut and ridiculed her parents for her behavior.
Leigh had met a man that she started seeing regularly. She moved in with him and surprisingly became pregnant. She lost the baby though. Everyone believed the man had probably caused the miscarriage because it was known that he frequently beat her. But Leigh loved him and refused to leave him no matter what everyone advised her to do. And she refused to listen to the advice of her parents who offered to help her if she’d just leave him. Still depressed over the loss of her baby, she went on a drinking binge. She drifted around town and eventually ended up disappearing for a few days. Her body was found days later upriver. An official autopsy said she had been poisoned.
“Was it alcohol poisoning? Drugs?” I asked.
“No. Her blood showed signs of arsenic. Someone had killed her,” Jule Ann said, still in a heavy whisper though I had shut the door behind her when she came in.
“Was it the man she was living with who did it?”
“He was arrested, of course, on suspicion but he had a solid alibi so all charges were dropped. Of course, my parents believed he was the one responsible.”
I nodded my head in disbelief. This entire family had experienced so much pain and tragedy. It wasn’t anything I had not witnessed before in other cases that I worked, but it still unnerved me. The discovery of Leigh’s body upriver made me think of what Ms. Skully had said about Jule Ann’s husband. It made me wonder how many other disappearances or murders in this town could be mysteriously blamed on the alligators or that dark Alabama river right outside my window.
“Well, I’m sorry to bother you with my story. I hope you sleep well,” Jule Ann said, getting up from the bed and showing herself to the door.
“It’s quite alright. I’m glad we actually had a chance to talk with each other.”
“Yes, Sis likes to uphold a certain persona when entertaining guests at dinner. She doesn’t allow me to speak, wants me to look like hired help.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“It’s alright. She always was the bossy one,” Jule Ann said with a nervous laugh.
Jule Ann’s past was indeed sad, but now being at the mercy of such a dominate sister was no way to live out the rest of her life after such horrible things had happened to her. I felt very sorry for her and reached out to give her a reassuring pat on the back. I opened the door for her as we said good-night.
She had just stepped into the hall and was putting the photo back when I thought of something else I wanted to ask her. I don’t know why, but I was curious about the man who had been Leigh’s lover.
“Oh, Jule Ann?”
“Yes, dear?” she said, looking back at me.
“One question. Whatever happened to the man who Leigh lived with? Does he still live around here?”
“Yes, dear. I believe he does. I’m not really sure.”
“What’s his name if you don’t mind me asking?”
“It’s Sook, dear.”
“Sook?” I repeated.
“Yes, dear. Mr. Sook.”
And with that, she turned and quietly walked down the stairs.