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Twice Shy: Chapter 2

CONTACTING VIOLET’S RELATIVES HASN’T been easy. So many of you aren’t on speaking terms with each other!” The woman chuckles uncomfortably. “I tried a number listed as Julie Parrish’s, but it’s out of service.”

“Yeah, she has a new . . .” My throat is suddenly dry. I don’t know why I feel like I might break down—I haven’t seen my great-aunt Violet since I was ten. I swallow. “A new number. I’ll pass the news along.”

Not that Mom will care that Violet’s dead. She was mad at Violet while she was alive, and she’ll stay mad at her now that she’s dead.

“Maybe we should sit down,” she suggests.

I lead the way to a table situated outside a Tim Hortons on the first floor. The seats are riddled with puddles of pool water. No one ever pays attention to the sign on the water park’s exit to towel off before leaving.

The woman is probably in her late fifties, Afro-Latina, with silver threads in her curly black hair, which is pulled tight into a bun. “My name’s Ruth Campos. I was your aunt’s home health aide for four years, and she gave me power of attorney ten months ago. Right now I’m here as the executor of her estate.”

Ruth Campos. I’ve heard that name before. I’m pretty sure she got into it with my mother over the phone one time, not too long ago, when Mom tried to pass herself off as the person who had Violet’s power of attorney in hopes of getting a little bit of money. It didn’t go so well.

Ruth lays out the details both kindly and matter-of-factly: Violet passed away in her sleep on Sunday morning. She was ninety years old. She remained sharp as a tack until the very end, and while her mobility had declined, she’d gotten highly invested in local outreach concerning the preservation of forests. Per her wishes, there was no service, no public fuss. Her cremated remains have been scattered all over her land, to be with her husband Victor’s ashes. He died right after I turned eleven. I heard about it but wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.

The whites of her eyes are a bit pink, mascara smudging as she blinks rapidly. “I’m gonna miss that lady.”

“I can’t believe she’s gone.” I can’t imagine her not being in that big house anymore, watering her pretty garden, humming as she dusts the spindlework around her living room doorway. All this time, even though I’ve certainly been a blurry speck in her past, she’s been a bright, stabilizing presence in the back of my mind, and my emotions are being crushed under that rock as it rolls away.

I haven’t seen her in twenty years. My summer at Falling Stars, Violet Hannobar’s late-1800s estate resting on two hundred and ninety-four acres of land an hour southwest of here, is my happiest memory. For a little girl who was passed from relative to relative and then cast out when Julie Parrish burned bridges, Violet’s friendly pink house was nearly as big as a castle and pure fairy tale. I never wanted to leave.

And according to Ruth, now it’s all mine.

She shows me a few papers from the envelope, but my mind is reeling and I can’t make sense of any of it. The splash of a water slide and shrieking children press in around my ears; a kazoo blasts from the loudspeaker whenever kids fire the water cannons in Rocky Top Tree House and my concentration fractures, life as I knew it this morning and life as it’s going to be slamming into each other like oncoming trains.

My gaze wanders over the lobby that’s functioned as my second home from the time I turned eighteen and joined Mom as a housekeeper. We weren’t the kind of family who could afford vacations, so being employed at a water park hotel was the next best thing. I remember walking beneath the giant statue of a bear strumming a banjo in the parking lot, which you can see from Dollywood, and feeling very adult.

Like being on vacation every day, my mother said. Living the dream. Now she’s in Atlanta, living a new dream. I’ve been stuck here, not remotely feeling like every day is a vacation.

“She said she was going to leave me everything,” I murmured, “but that was forever ago. I was a kid.”

“She loved you.”

“She didn’t love anybody else better than me, in the twenty years since we saw each other?”

“Those twenty years didn’t stop you from being her niece.” Ruth lays her hand over mine. “She understood why you didn’t return. Time away can make coming back awkward. And your mother held a fierce grudge.” She draws back, straightening the contents of the envelope. “You were the only apple on the family tree she liked, if you don’t mind my saying. Who better to inherit the estate?”

I’m struggling to process this information, but it won’t sink in. If this means what I think it means, I can leave my living situation: a tiny apartment I’m being crowded out of now that my roommate’s boyfriend moved in and his friends are always sleeping over. I don’t know what I’ll do for a job, but with a house already paid for, it isn’t such a big risk to leave Pigeon Forge.

I can leave Around the Mountain Resort & Spa. I can leave Gemma.

“I can move in now?” I ask suddenly. I nearly pounce on her, I lean forward so fast. “Like, today?”

Ruth nods, eyes cutting to a herd of people decked out in their bathing suits, heading to the water park. The doors blast open and the roar and gurgle of water rides rushes out before the doors muzzle it again. “All ready to go. There are some dying wishes of Violet’s to run over with you, but the fine details can wait until after your arrival.”

A blue mist sweeps across hoods and trunks in the parking lot, swirling up in capricious spring winds. My heart lifts with new hopes, new plans taking shape, pumping ferociously.

“The property is mine,” I say quietly. My voice sounds strange, not like myself.

“The property is yours,” Ruth affirms. Minutes slip away as I sort through this reality, but Ruth shows no signs of impatience. She merely excuses herself to buy a coffee and croissant, then returns and eats in companionable silence.

“What’s the catch?” I ask. “There has to be a catch.”

She chokes on her croissant and gulps the coffee, wincing. “Went down the wrong pipe. Don’t worry yourself, it’s all in order. No debts, no mortgage. Violet thought of everything.”

I flatten my hands on the table. That’s all there is to it, then. “Okay.” Deep breath, Maybell. “I guess that means that . . . I quit.” It comes out sounding like a question. I quit? Can I do that? Is this really happening?

Christine is at the checkout desk, berating a temp for parking in her spot. I could stroll up to her right now and make a big, dramatic scene. A satisfying “I quit!” story for the ages.

I could throw my name tag in the pool.

Confidently lay out all my grievances and how she’ll be sorry when I’m gone. How many hours I’ve given to this company, only for them to stick me with a health insurance policy that’s riddled with holes, no paid overtime, and none of the bonuses I was led to believe I’d receive. I could point at the wet seats and say Clean. That. Up. Punctuating each word with an obnoxious clap of my hands.

Dark spots speckle the edges of my vision as I stare at Christine, who senses being watched and turns to give me a Why are you sitting down on the clock? look. God, how gratifying it would be to utter the magic words.

But when Christine taps her watch and frowns pointedly, old habits die hard. I’m a meek little mouse, rising to my feet as if I’m going to head straight back to the dorm-room desk behind a folding wall that is supposed to be my office, which I am never at because they’ve eternally got me shampooing gum out of the carpet.

No one’s around to bear witness when I carefully leave my name tag, key card, and lanyard in the break room. No one looks twice when I retrieve my purse from my locker. I almost take my stash of Mountaineer Tickets with me, good-behavior rewards I’ve been saving up to cash out for a large lemonade slushee. They’re useless in the real world, so I shove them into the temp’s locker. It’s surreal to be leaving, and just as surreal to be leaving so quietly. After more than a decade of dreaming I might be the type of person who goes out with a bang, I’m not even giving a fizzle.

My hand’s on the front door, ready to push, when Gemma shouts my name from up on the giant novelty rocking chair that families like to sit on and pose for a single picture that costs them $29.99. She’s taking a selfie. I quit even harder.

“Hey, Maybell! Are you going on break?”

This is it.

You suck astronomically and I will miss you the least. You screwed with my head, abused my trust, and had the audacity to be so nice that it will never not confuse me. You’re a rock in my shoe. An out-of-order bathroom stall. A traffic jam. A loose handful of gumballs in a trick-or-treat bucket.

Anybody else would say that—and worse. But unfortunately I’m me, a passive doormat who probably will miss her, so I wave back with a tight smile.

“Yeah. See you in a bit.”

And then I’m out the door, my back turned to her. My last words to Gemma Peterson weren’t brave, but it lifts a weight off my shoulders to know they’re the last. A new smile, one that is small but one that is real, tugs at my lips. The last time I wore a real smile . . . it’s been long enough that I can’t remember it.

There’s a superstition about luck, and it goes like this: a run of bad luck is followed by a run of good luck. This is the silver lining, the softening edges. I spent my teenage years in dingy motels or on sofas belonging to whoever my mother was dating at the time, carted behind her all over Tennessee, missing chunks of school. I’ve picked all the wrong, cheating boyfriends and should have accumulated a hard shell of trust issues, but my heart’s too cowardly and still runs jumping into whoever’s arms will open for it. I’ve scrubbed toilets and been demeaned and ignored and promoted as a consolation prize, only to be shoved aside yet again. My best friend isn’t my friend at all. The love of my life doesn’t exist.

My heart has been humiliated. Pulverized. And here, right out of the sky, drops my run of good luck.

I’m making my fresh start at Falling Stars.

TOP OF THE WORLD is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it unincorporated community in Blount County with a population too meager to warrant a school or a post office. Growing up, I thought it probably wasn’t really called Top of the World—probably, it was just a local nickname—but then I found it in a phone book. And I thought that was simply the most enchanting thing ever.

The last time I was here I was wedged in the passenger seat of a blue ’91 Toyota Camry, ten years old and crying my eyes out. Mom couldn’t focus, she was so mad, lurching horribly in a stop-go-stop-go frenetic escape from town, checking the rearview mirror like a thief on the lam to make sure no relatives were on our tail. Part of me has never recovered from my disappointment that we weren’t followed.

Now I’m in the driver’s seat of that same car, and it all looks so unreal through rock-bottom Maybell’s grown-up eyes. Both different and the same, like the image has been flipped and I’m viewing the scene from the opposite side. A storage tote, three boxes, and a gym bag squished into the trunk and backseat contain all of my worldly possessions. You don’t amass too many worldly possessions when you work for minimum wage and you’ve spent most of your life with someone who helped themselves to whatever you had.

My GPS leads me through twinkling dusk back into nowhereland, trees breaking every now and then to reveal a breathtaking view of mountains. Headlights splash across a fluorescent dead-end warning that someone’s repainted to read Hannobar Lane, and my blood hums with awareness. We know this place, we know this place, my instincts sing, nostalgia too large to fit properly inside the brief time that spawned it, which couldn’t have lasted longer than four months. One familiar landmark jump-starts recollection of another, and another, and even though memories of my surroundings were obscured by grainy film fifteen minutes ago, this terrain has become back-of-my-hand in a snap. The Civil War–era smokehouse that leans at forty-five degrees and the cemetery with time-smoothed gravestones are old friends. I know where the dented guardrail’s going to be before it enters my field of vision, and I know who dented it.

Around one last bend, beams from a rising moon surge down like stalactites and I automatically slow, squinting to make out a succession of threatening signs. no trespassing. private property. beware of dog. beware of bears. you’re under surveillance. My heart beats in my throat. Tears spring to my eyes, but they won’t fall.

You should have come back long before now, I think. She might have needed youNow it’s too late.

And then I hold my breath, because:

Falling Stars sprawls grandly before me. The manor’s pink masonry is the color of twilight on a hydrangea sea, four chimneys jutting against a cold, black sky carved out of mountainsides. Every tree and flower, every blade of grass and stepping stone, is precise. Intentional. Short, neat hedgerows border an obsessively manicured lawn.

Years one through nine of my life were a blur of “Don’t touch that” and “You can have the sofa tonight, but tomorrow you have to find somewhere else to go.” I was the burden in guest rooms, top bunks, and at kitchen tables, the kid without a seat belt because the car was already packed with cousins we had to cram into the back of a sedan. From years eleven to seventeen Mom and I couldn’t depend on family anymore, having alienated them all by asking for help so many times, so I roughed it with my mother and grew up fast. When I think about the dozens of roofs I’ve ever had over my head, there is one to rule them all, to which I have compared every other roof. Nothing can live up to it.

For one glorious summer, I was welcomed and wanted. We established our own unique family rituals straightaway: bird-watching in the morning, stories before bed. I helped water the violets that burst along pathways, feeling like the little girl from The Secret Garden, learning the names of all sorts of plants I’ve since forgotten. I wasn’t merely being cared for, I was building a life.

The reason my imagination is such a runaway is because no matter what’s happened and where I’ve gone since then, in the back of my mind I’ve always known a place like this has been allowed to exist. Well maintained and ageless, a world locked inside a snow globe.

Except it isn’t.

What used to be rolling hills with an edge of woods is now overrun by them, that once-distant forest so close that it’s now in danger of eating up the house as well. Vines have overtaken the manor. They crawl the walls, chipping stonework away. My headlights pour through ground-floor windows, smashed out, blades winking like shark’s teeth.

Strips of black-spotted plaster hang from ceilings. The walls peel. Strange, dark shapes rise all the way up to the chandeliers. Falling Stars has been consumed by disease, more like Sleeping Beauty’s castle after the curse took hold. The house isn’t even pink anymore: it’s silver gossamer.

I exhale a sharp denial. “No.” Violet took such amazing care of her house—daily dusting, vacuuming, mopping. Never a burned-out lightbulb left sitting in a fixture, never a book put away crookedly in the library. Beds were made as soon as you woke up, plates were washed right after you ate off them, and you folded your clothes when they were still warm from the dryer. This estate was her pride and joy. She ran it like a queen.

My attention is drawn to two squares of light tucked into nearby trees. Windows. And attached to them, a triangular cabin. It used to be Uncle Victor’s work shed, but when I went exploring as a kid all I found inside was a hot, dark mess of rusted farm equipment and spiderwebs. Now the lights are on and somebody’s pickup truck is parked outside.

I make my way over cautiously, the path rough and uneven where tree roots have ripped up asphalt, nature reclaiming its territory. I mentally skim through everything I know about squatter’s rights as I approach, car keys poking from my balled fist like Wolverine’s claws. The pickup truck isn’t the only unexpected company here: on its other side sits a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, just like the one Ruth Campos climbed into as we said our goodbyes.

The same Ruth who’s swinging the front door open to greet me.

“Maybell! Wonderful, you’re right on time.”

“Right on time for what?”

She answers my question with a question. “How was the trip?”

Is it me, or does she seem nervous? “I just saw the house. It’s bad. It’s real bad. I didn’t expect to see you here . . .”

I peer around her, grabbing a fleeting glimpse of a rosy, low-lit living room that contains no rusted farm equipment or spiderwebs. Instead, I find a plaid couch and a table lamp with mustangs galloping around the shade. Split-log walls. Bluish light flickers at random intervals, a television glowing somewhere within.

“Who’s out there?” a different, deeper voice inquires. I straighten.

A man abruptly fills the frame, blocking my view. I stumble and his hand shoots out on reflex, as though to help me, but I’m already backing up.

A man, and not just any man. The man. In my deepest, darkest dreams, still the only man.

He is tall, broad shouldered, strong jawed. Dark blond hair falls in short, tousled waves that make me think of a fallen angel who almost drowned, thrust out of the sea by Poseidon and made alive again with a lightning strike. His eyes are brown topaz, a glass of root beer held up to the light, widening as he fixates on my face. Every thought that’s ever swept into my head in the thirty years I’ve been alive blows away. There is dust in my throat, my eyes, my ears.

The windstorm inside me shrieks and pulls and shakes its head no. Impossible.

Impossibilities are all coming true today. It’s Jack McBride.


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