Two things came to mind as I followed the stranger into the Broome house and neither one of them was very comforting. The first was a hazy memory of Hansel and Gretel going into the old witch’s cottage, which to the best of my recollection ended okay for those kids but not before a whole heap of trouble. The second, more frightening thought was just how much dang trouble I was going to be in if my parents or, heaven forbid, Clarry ever found out about this. I wouldn’t be able to sit for a week. If I survived my trip inside the house, that is.
Still, my curiosity to find out more about the stranger, coupled with my desire to be the one who finally cracked her mystery, overrode any sort of reluctance, fear, or as my sister was to say later–good sense–I had, so I followed the woman right up the back steps and into the kitchen. Once I was inside the house, I realized my imagination had been working double time ever since the woman came to town. Without really thinking about it much, my mind had conjured up an image of her living on a couple of milk crates situated under a bare light bulb in an otherwise empty room, like someone being held captive in one of the gangster movies. However, the truth of her living situation was quite different from my fantasies because not only was the house full of things, it was full of nice things, if the stuff in the kitchen were any indication. I’d never seen a refrigerator that big in all my born days and the table and chairs in the middle of the room–where she’d told me to sit while I waited for my piece of pie–didn’t have one scratch on them and were waxed and polished until they shone like a new penny. Since no one in town had reported seeing a moving van pull up and drop off a load of furniture, I reckoned that everything I was seeing inside the house once belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Broome.
After she sat down at the table and we’d both had our first bites of pie, she put her fork down, sat back in her chair, and looked at me with her head cocked to one side. Suddenly, she did something that hadn’t happened up to that point–she smiled.
“Why you’re Billy Gibson’s boy, aren’t you?”
Well, that caught me by surprise, I don’t mind telling you. Here I was trying to solve her mystery and she’d gone and turned the tables on me. “Yes ma’am, I am,” I replied, “but how do you know that?”
“Because you look just like he did when he was around your age,” she said, still smiling. “How old are you? Nine? Ten?”
“I’m ten,” I answered, a little unsettled because so far she was dead on with all her guesses. She was almost better at knowing stuff about folks than Clarry was, and that was saying something.
“And what is your name?” she asked.
“Grady, ma’am. Grady Gibson.”
She nodded, smiled, and went back to eating her pie. “Named after your grandfather, I see.” There she went again, knowing stuff she shouldn’t know. “This is just about the best apple pie I’ve ever had, Grady. Did your mama bake it?”
“Yes ma’am. Mama’s the best cook in town. Everybody says so. Well, everybody except for Aunt Beulah who doesn’t say anything good about anybody.”
“Of course,” she said, no longer smiling. “Beulah would be your aunt. Sounds to me like she hasn’t changed much since she was a girl.”
“You knew Aunt Beulah too?” I asked, trying to conjure up an image of my aunt as a girl. I couldn’t. It was impossible for me to picture Aunt Beulah as anything but old and mean. “What about Mama? Did you know her?”
“If she’s from here, I’ll bet I did. What’s your mama’s name?”
“Evelyn Gibson,” I replied. “Well, before she married Daddy her last name was…”
“Windham,” she said, completing my sentence in a voice that had turned into a whisper. “Evie Windham is your mother.” She stared at me, managing to look both happy and a little sad at the same time, if that’s possible. Maybe I was wrong but it seemed to me that she was about to start crying.
“Are you okay ma’am” I asked.
She nodded and dabbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her dress. “I’m fine, Grady. It’s just that…your mother and I were good friends–best friends, I guess you’d say and I can’t quite believe I’m having a conversation with her son. That’s all.” She took a deep breath, stood up from the table, and gathered the plates. “Now, you should probably be getting home before your parents start to worry, don’t you think?”
“Yes ma’am, I suppose.” I got up and slowly made my way to the back door. The truth is, I was reluctant to walk out on one of the most interesting conversations I’d ever had. “Ma’am?”
“What’s your name?”
She took a moment before answering. “My name is Charlotte. Charlotte Mayfield,” she said finally. “But once upon a time, my name was Charlotte Broome.” She looked around the kitchen. “And I grew up in this house.”
“You’re the Broome’s daughter?” I asked, a little mystified. “I didn’t even know they had a daughter.”
“They did. Once.” She looked like she was going to cry again.
It wasn’t until that moment I realized I hadn’t asked the most obvious question in the world. “Ma’am, if you know my parents and my Aunt Beulah, why haven’t they recognized you? Why does everyone in town think you’re a stranger?”
The woman I now knew to be Charlotte Broome took another deep breath before answering me. “Because that’s the only explanation that makes any sense to them, Grady. You see, I suspect your parents, your Aunt Beulah, and just about everyone else in Endurance attended my funeral. They all think I died 25 years ago.
(to be continued)
Categories: Story in Progress