Asylum, Chapter One
Asylum ~ 1974 ~ October
MARGARET ROSA DELITO should have known the day would come to a grim end. She had a sense about things like that, important things, life and death things.
She lived a deliberate life centered on one purpose—to erase the memories of her dark days.
From the second floor of Delito, Inc.’s home office, Rosa descended the grand staircase with quiet grace, like she had nearly every day at 5:20 p.m. for more than sixty years. She paused at the atrium, sighing with a hypnotic stare through the lobby’s wall of glass. Wispy clouds, blushed scarlet, drifted across a clear New England sky. The low sun warmed her face.
Her fingers tightened around the scrap of paper clenched in her disfigured hand. The newspaper masthead dated 1900 had been left on her desk during the night … a cryptic message from someone connected to her past, someone employed at Delito. Secrets were bound to surface. Something wicked was sure to follow.
She’d sent her granddaughter to a meeting at their New York sales office and wondered how she fared. She had hoped to protect Laura, but if someone at Delito knew of its tarnished past, of the family’s complicity and the source of her shame, she had to tell her everything. And she would. Tomorrow.
Rosa stashed the torn newspaper into her purse before buttoning her favorite cashmere coat. Outside, dried leaves clattered across the sidewalk in a gusty wind. The American flag fluttered like a beating heart, like her heart, pumping faster in a rhythm gone bad. Pressure in her chest forced the wind from her lungs like when she slammed to the ground that day long ago, that day when it all began.
As her heels tapped across the lobby’s white marble tiles toward the exit, Rosa’s recall skipped through memories of those times, in that place, that had tormented her life and haunted her dreams, like a phonograph needle scratching across damaged vinyl … walk cold … cold … cold …
My feet walk cold stone floors. I wear no shoes.
I feel my way along a wall. Fingers scrape its gritty surface and sand sprinkles on my feet. I sense a tunnel though I see nothing but darkness.
Dampness veils my skin and a foul taste, musty and bitter, settles in my throat.
I sneak toward a distant line of light where a door is cracked open. Voices inside. Moaning. Sobbing. Fear tightens its choking grip as I stand alone, knowing I must look into that room.
A chill crawls up the back of my neck. Cold. My hands tremble. My knees weaken as I creep toward the door to see … Oh God … Oh God …
Be silent. Mustn’t scream.
Gray ghosts … Gray ghosts …
Shhh … They’ll see you.
Pain burned through Rosa’s left arm and her purse slipped from her fingers, landing with a thud. Her hand stretched out as if seeking support as she stumbled toward the sofa set against the wall.
I feel my way …
Light dimmed as Rosa’s skin grew clammy …
Dampness veils my skin … I hear voices …
The receptionist bolted from her desk. “Ms. Delito, what’s wrong?”
I stand alone … My knees weaken …
Clutching her chest, gasping for air, she collapsed to the floor in a dizzying yet elegant spiral. Her back braced against the sofa. Her legs sprawled before her like a rag doll propped against bed pillows.
Panic distorted the receptionist’s features as she screamed, “Help! We need help out here!”
The girl advanced toward her, seeming to move in slow motion as if wading against wild water.
Is this how it ends? …
Gray ghosts … Gray ghosts …
WITH THE NAME LAURA DELITO, my ego should have been bruised when the trades slammed Delito’s new line of costume jewelry as “mediocre,” but I was prepared for defeat. I’d lost my battle months ago when our COO Sam Bender, my stepfather, rejected my designs, which made me wonder why I’d been “invited” to a marketing meeting.
Our Manhattan sales office was the last place I wanted to be, but Gram had insisted. The office depressed me even on a good day. Nicks and scratches scarred the conference table. Chairs were lumpy and hard. A whitish rectangle framed by decades of grime marked the wall where a painting once hung. Something beautiful had been there, but now it was gone, like the short history of Delito, Inc. With an antiquated thermostat stuck at eighty degrees, coupled with last night’s restless sleep, I could hardly keep my eyes open.
As much as the trades had tainted my company pride, I had to agree that “mediocre” pretty much summed it up. Competitors Napier, Monet, and Trifari had to be gleaming. The best news today—it wasn’t my responsibility to sell the stuff.
I glanced at Michael Bryce who sat beside me. It wasn’t his responsibility either. As Gram’s right-hand man, he knew her daily routine better than I, though no relationship came close to the connection I shared with Gram. Michael had accompanied Sam and me from the home office in Barrows, Connecticut—and he was the only excitement in my mediocre life.
He leaned against me and whispered, “You look like you’re somewhere else.”
Even after a year of knowing him, his touch sparked fire. “Just wishing I were.”
I had been content in Chicago, working at the museum with my career poised to soar. Then Gram phoned, demanding I return. We didn’t even talk long, fifteen minutes at most. Her ambush challenged that I’d wasted enough time “finding myself” and if she didn’t find me back at the plant, she’d sell the business. Done deal. I returned within the week.
Another ten years away would have been fabulous, twenty even better, but I couldn’t risk she might actually sell. Someday in the far future I wanted it, if only to prove myself to Mother and my stepfather. Gram seemed to be in a different time zone. A different zone. Period. Wanting everything done now. Her urgency escaped me because even after a year, my role remained unclear. Everyone had a title except me, and at twenty-eight, almost everyone thought of me as “the owner’s kid.” And far too many people were calling me Del, a name I reserved for those closest few, except Gram who was too proper to adapt to casual mores. The sixties damn near scared her to death.
Honking horns and traffic noise drifted from the street twenty stories below. Emergency vehicles sped by, sirens fading into the distance. The alarm switched my thoughts. Something was wrong and my muscles wrenched tighter than twisted sheets after a bad dream. I squirmed in my chair—a hard, lumpy chair—and accidentally bumped Michael’s arm.
“Del, what’s up with you?”
“I should be home.” I clipped an urge to cry out—has anyone heard from Rosa? The hollow cold in my chest warned something bad was about to happen … had happened. “Did you talk to Rosa, today?”
“After lunch.” Michael adjusted his Bulova. “Around two. Why?”
“Just a feeling. Anxiety, I guess. I resented that she had insisted I be here, so I didn’t call…” I glanced aside and downward as I confessed, “…To punish her.”
His eyes rolled.
“Guilty, I know. Shame. On. Me.”
“Anxious about what?”
None of the executives noticed that Michael and I spoke outside of their agenda. No surprise. They rarely noticed me at all. “I should be with her.” My neck and shoulders tightened. My fists clenched.
“Del, chill out. Take a breath or something, jeez. I know you can’t justify Sam’s choices for the line, but we’re almost done.”
“I’m not doing this again. I don’t care what she says. I feel trapped in a bad dream.”
He swiveled in his seat to face me. “A bad dream? You had that nightmare again, didn’t you?” Determination skewed his forehead as his eyes shot open. “Didn’t you?” He checked his watch. Again. “I’m not letting you off easy. We will discuss this later.”
Ugh, reluctant agreement. Story of my life. I focused on the pendulum of the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. Ten minutes after six. Its rhythm lulled my mind, breathing slowed, but last night’s dream replayed in my head, the type of dream that Gram and I often shared. No doubt, if I dreamed, she also dreamed …
… A dark dream … Of a dark place … A door cracks open …
Voices from inside … I must look into that room … I creep toward the door …
Be silent. Gray ghosts … Shhh … They’ll see you.
The clock chimed half past the hour and snapped me back to the worst meeting of my life. Frustrating. Hot and stuffy. I needed space, somewhere high and breezy. Maybe it wasn’t a Gram dream after all. Maybe this boardroom was the room I feared to enter. Our senior executives, the gray ghosts. A forewarning of this unpleasantness? Or something worse?
“Del. Hey!” Michael rattled my shoulder. “Are you ready to go?”
I nodded as Sam rose from his seat. Meeting adjourned. Hallelujah. The men gathered in the reception area leaving Michael and me alone.
He hoisted his briefcase and mine. “You should have told me you were having those nightmares again. I thought they stopped. Didn’t you tell me Chicago cured you?”
With a force that nearly popped a button, I fastened my suit jacket and grabbed my purse. “They did stop, but they’ve been creeping back since I returned to the business.”
“And to your family?”
“A failed attempt at discretion. About four months ago they got bad.”
“You’ve had them all this time?”
Silence. Nothing more to say, and he let it drop.
“We got a lot done today.”
I shrugged, not as convinced. “I’m drained. Let’s have a quiet dinner, in my room or yours, and not talk about work. You booked a separate room, didn’t you?”
“Of course.” A provocative smile curled his lips. “I can be discreet for as long as you want.” His hand slipped under my hair and rubbed the back of my neck.
“Mmm, yes. Right there.” The turn of my head guided his hand.
“Sam and I are meeting with the ad agency for breakfast at eight. Did you want to sit in?”
“I don’t. You can fill me in on the ride home.” I scanned the vacant boardroom and tucked the chairs under the table. An evening breeze carried the scent of light rain on concrete. I closed the window that had been propped open with a Lucite ad campaign award from 1968, then turned off the lights.
The room looked better in the dark.
The others were gone, and we were nearly out to the elevator lobby when the telephone rang at the reception desk.
“Let it go, Del.”
My hand froze in midair as I reconsidered for two more rings. I snatched the receiver and pushed the button for line one. “Laura Delito.”
Vinny Ferro, Sam’s second-shift executive assistant rattled words without a breath. “I’m sorry Miss Delito, but I have bad news. She’s okay, don’t worry, but your grandmother was rushed to the hospital, and they called here when they didn’t find you at your apartment. They said she’s been asking for you. You should go directly to the hospital.”
I set the receiver in its cradle on the third try and steadied myself against the desk. Surprise evolved to fear, then panic before changing to emotions that were all too familiar—new guilt for not being with Gram added to the shame I felt all day for not calling her.
Michael leaned against the door frame and snapped, “Now what?”
He stepped forward. Brow furrowed. Timbre softened. “Rosa? What happened?”
Did Vinny say she’d fainted? Was it her head or her heart? The message blurred, but my gaping mouth said it all.
“Never mind.” His hand rested on my shoulder. “We’ll leave now. I’ll pack and—”
I grabbed his wrist and checked his watch. “I’ve got forty minutes to get to Grand Central. There’s a train at seven forty. I’ll get home quicker if I’m on it.”
“That’s crazy. I’ll go with you. We’ll take the car.”
“It’s so late and there’s nothing you can do anyway. Go to your meeting. You and Sam take the limo. You’ll be back at the plant by noon. Pack my things.” I shuffled through my purse. “Here’s my room key. I’ll catch a nap on the train. This could be a long night.”
Did Vinny say her room was 314 or 340? The other day Gram assured me she felt “splendid,” and she had agreed to a full physical before Christmas. She had ordered me here. “Get involved, know the staff,” she’d said. I caught the train just in time, but soon regretted I hadn’t taken the company car. One hundred miles seemed so far and the ride too long for somber thoughts, and I regretted Michael wasn’t beside me.
I should have thought through my plan.
MY FOOTSTEPS ECHOED in the third floor corridor of St. Mary’s Community Hospital in downtown Barrows. My leather pumps danced along the gray and white checkered floor though I didn’t feel like my feet were in them. Even though Gram could afford the best private care, she had always insisted on St. Mary’s, as if she expected the Saint to relieve what ailed her. A faint sick odor escaped the disinfectant as I hurried to her room. Soft night lighting surrendered to the glare of the nurses’ station at the far end of the hall.
Cold chills my skin. A tunnel …
An eerie familiarity from my nightmare rolled shivers down my arms, then someone in a pantry whistled a cheerful melody, breaking the psychic connection.
In a few days, Gram will be home and all will be as it should. The idea tasted like a lie. Something was wrong and I knew exactly what it was, but if I allowed the thought to form for even a moment, my worst fear would be realized. Don’t think it. Too late. Gram will die tonight.
A five-foot statue of St. Mary posed on a pedestal was the only figure at the nurses’ station. Painted eyes and outstretched arms did nothing to soothe me. My pace quickened through the hospital’s east wing while I noted room numbers as I passed … 304, 306, 308 …. I brushed against the hallway handrail as I raced toward something grim.
I feel my way along a wall.
… 310, 312. The night nurse stepped out of room 314.
She scowled as she peeked at her watch. “May I help you?”
“Laura Delito. To see my grandmother.” My tone was polite but firm. Fully aware visiting hours had passed, I didn’t need to be patronized by some snooty nurse. I’d had my fill of pompous attitude in New York.
Her stance eased. “She’s been asking for you. Your office said you were away on business. We didn’t expect to see you tonight.”
“I want a doctor to explain her condition.”
The nurse wore a gold band on her finger. Black raised letters printed on a white plastic badge read Ida Sturm R.N. Always get their name right, and you’ll gain their respect. Gram had taught me. “Mrs. Sturm, you said she’s been asking for me?” If she’s talking, she’s alive.
“I looked in on her a moment ago. She’s awake.”
I see a line of light where the door cracks open. I stand alone, knowing I must look into that room.
I fluffed my hair and tugged my suit sleeves to my wrists to smooth the wrinkles.
My hands tremble. My knees weaken as I creep …
I eased open the door. A heavy floral scent stuck in my throat like the flowers that had surrounded my father’s casket, their smell so thick I’d nearly gagged.
Some foul taste settles inside me.
“Get rid of these. Clearly the office staff overreacted. She hasn’t been here four hours.” I pointed to two small bouquets on the granite sill. “Leave those and give away the rest. The room smells like a damned funeral parlor.”
“I’ll see to it myself.” She pulled the door closed, leaving Gram and me alone.
A fluorescent light mounted above the headboard bathed Gram’s white hair and the white bed sheets in an eerie glow, heavenly bright. I thought I heard angels singing. Maybe Gram was right about St. Mary. Mismatched paint covered the walls with hues of olive green. Water stained plaster buckled in a ceiling corner where a pipe once leaked. I sat on the edge of the bed. “Gram, I’m here.”
She smiled and attempted to push herself upright. “I’m so tired.”
“Shall I let you sleep?” I pointed across the room to a brown leather chair, a tuft of stuffing bursting from its split arm. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll sit there while you rest.”
“No, stay.” Gram smoothed her hospital blanket like she did when I was a kid and she’d fan my skirt, arranging a seat for my guardian angel. With the sweeping motion, her intravenous tube tugged at the pole beside her bed where a fluid-filled bag hung. Bruised flesh ringed the needle piercing her arm. She winced as she picked at the tape that secured it. “This is what tires me. I seem to be withering faster than those cut flowers.”
With a gentle hold of her wrists, I braced her arms still across her chest. Her skin felt like cold silk loosely hung on a wire hanger. Where was her vitality? When did this happen?
“Stop it Gram. You’ll tear out the needle and you’ll bleed.”
“No!” She shot me a clipped, frightened look. “No blood.”
She panicked at the sight of it, which was uncharacteristic of one who so fearlessly tackled life. She’d once explained it reminded her of “a wicked time,” but I couldn’t imagine Gram in such a state. And she wouldn’t elaborate. When she calmed, I released her wrists.
“Always remember who you are. Make me proud.”
She wouldn’t be proud that I’d almost thrown a tantrum at the sales meeting, or that my solution was to tune out, so I lied. “I’m trying.”
“Sweetheart, there’s something I haven’t told you …” Her words stalled in a timid smile. “You know how neither of us likes surprises?”
I grinned, and shaking our forefingers at each other like we’d done ten thousand times, we said in unison, “No surprises,” though her finger barely moved.
She struggled to point toward the bedside cabinet, the hint of a smile was gone. “There’s something you should know … must know ….”
“I only need to know you’ll recover.”
“… Something about my past … something a person might use against you …”
Don’t tell me. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. I had to be as strong as she expected me to be.
“A secret I’ve kept … about the family …”
If you confess now, you’ll die.
Gram moaned. “Give me a minute.” She pushed up on her elbows to sit higher on the bed and again pivoted toward the nightstand.
I spotted a plastic pitcher and filled a cup with water. “Is this what you want?”
She looked long at me before closing her eyes. She didn’t open them again. When her last breath escaped, she shook as if chilled and slipped into death so peacefully, it was difficult to realize it had happened. But I knew.
I ran to the hallway and called for help. Shock locked my steps. My arms slumped at my sides. Scenes from Gram’s life—of her and me and the business—flashed in my head. Colored beads, shiny chains, and delicate filigree stampings.
Everything was about to change. I knew days ago when she ordered me to New York and hours ago when I fled. I probably knew a year ago when I ditched Chicago. And she knew it, too.
Ida Sturm R.N. rushed into the room, felt for Gram’s pulse and shook her head.
“Do something. We can save her.”
“Your grandmother was quite lucid when she requested we not revive her. Why don’t you wait in the hallway? I’ll call again for the doctor.” She left the room.
Was there something proper to do? I needed roadside guardrails and painted lanes. I colored inside the lines. Boundaries and rules maintained my illusion of order, so where were the rules for this?
“Wake up, Gram. You didn’t finish telling me.” I shook her harder than I intended. “Damn it. Don’t you die on me!”
I looked toward the ceiling in a lame attempt to divert tears. I couldn’t leave. “You can hear me. I feel you near. We shared dreams and nightmares and knew each other’s thoughts.” I stroked her hair. She always looked her best and she’d want that now. From the bedside cabinet, I set her purse on my lap and twisted the clasp.
A crumpled newspaper masthead sat on top. I flattened it on the edge of the bed. The year was dated 1900, the month and publication title torn away. What the hell? Why was she saving this? I stuffed it into my suit pocket.
Her gold-plated hairbrush weighed heavy in my hand as I fluffed her thin hair. It once fell to her shoulders, thick and shiny with a slight curl, auburn like mine. It’s why they named her Rosa. I brushed it for the last time, like I did when I was small and playing at her dressing table with sparkling crystal bottles filled with scented lotions and exotic perfumes from the Far East. “I wanted to be like you and still do. You knew that, didn’t you?”
A middle-aged man in a lab coat entered and nodded indifferently. He pressed his stethoscope to Gram’s chest. “I’m sorry for your loss.” He never looked me in the eye, just checked his watch and wrote on the chart hanging at the foot of her bed. I didn’t even get his name.
It was official. Gram wasn’t coming back.
Uncapping the moisturizer in the hospital’s patient kit, I fought not to full-out cry while I massaged each swollen knuckle and finger, including the stub of her left pinkie. Gram had not been self-conscious about it, nor had she explained its loss. She was always there for my falls, my hurts. How did she lose her finger? When did it happen? What were the things in her life that made her hurt? Was I one of them?
My hand laid on her chest where her heart used to beat. “What was your secret?” When Gram pointed to the nightstand, I assumed she wanted water. Maybe she wanted her purse. An idea came to me as if Gram herself had replied—The newspaper will lead to answers.
“Rest in peace, Gram. I love you.” I removed from the wall a framed print of St. Mary and propped it on the nightstand to guide the soul of Margaret Rosa Delito, Beloved Grandmother. Beloved mentor. Beloved friend.
Now, I could leave. The worst had happened and I could leave.
Maybe it was Gram’s death I saw in my nightmare, her face pale like it was now—her life drained. A gray ghost.
Gray ghosts … Gray ghosts …
Finally my nightmares would end. I was sure of it.
Falling from a high place. Dark clouds. A sinking sun slashes red across the horizon. Field grass sways like ocean swells.
Thunder cracks and hard rain stings.
MY BODY SLAMMED TO THE BED as if it had fallen from a roof or a tree, or that place from where dreams come. For a moment, I wondered where I had landed. My bedroom seemed to roll like a ship in rough seas. Salty sea air had drifted twenty miles inland from Long Island Sound to permeate the room. Gulls squawked as they soared over dumpsters in the parking lot. Cold to the bone and shivering, I rose from bed and closed the windows.
Seven miles across town from Gram’s High Hill estate, my two-room apartment felt more like a hotel suite than my home. No favorite paintings adorned the walls. No family photos posed on my dresser. A set of twenty-dollar dinnerware didn’t fill one shelf in the kitchen cabinet. I’d lived here a year and unopened boxes from Chicago remained stored at Gram’s. Half my clothes hung in her closets. Neat classic clothes. Average. Straight skirts across the knee, not minis. Stovepipe slacks, not hip-huggers or bell-bottoms. Herringbone and tweed jackets, not satin or velvet, and definitely not polyester. Wardrobe colors topped out at black, white, gray, navy, camel, and hunter green. Not trendy, but safe, always safe. Not the edge of average, but the smack dab middle of it.
Last night, I’d made a dozen or so calls from the hospital until my best friend, Marcia, drove me home. I’d talked to Michael in New York, then I crashed. Clothes on. Windows open. At least, I fell onto my bed.
I awoke feeling alone, not the live-by-yourself-alone that I cherished more times than not, but the singular loneliness you feel when you’ve lost your grandmother, your father—or yourself. I wish Michael were here. He should have insisted on staying with me.
My suit jacket hung over the back of a chair where I’d tossed it last night. While coffee brewed in the galley kitchen, I pulled the newspaper from Gram’s purse and laid it on the counter. The title was missing, torn away and impossible to trace. Not even the library’s microfilm archive could help. On the reverse side, a curious diagram had been drawn with a felt tip marker, a similar stroke weight to markers in Delito’s design department and in Gram’s office. The crude drawing indicated a large rectangle near the center. Straight lines like wheel spokes connected six scattered smaller boxes back to the middle box. A wavy line scrawled along one edge of the paper, and a bold circle highlighted an X that marked intersecting lines inside the large rectangle. Great. What do I do with this? It must have been important to Gram. Pointing to it cost her dying breath. I folded the paper and slid it into my Buxton billfold for safekeeping.
Today’s reality was worse than my nightmares could ever be. Yanked from my Chicago adventure into Gram’s grand Delito vision, but without her propping me up, who the hell was I?
Vague dream images lingered in my head like faces of forgotten friends. I tried not to presume the meaning of the falling ocean dream. I tried not to decipher what Gram had drawn on the old newspaper. I needed to be at High Hill, so I hurried to shower and dress and be with people as soon as I could—even if they were my family.
HIGH HILL WAS LOCATED at the maximum elevation on the outskirts of the blue-collar town of Barrows and offered the finest view of central Connecticut’s countryside, though today I didn’t notice.
Why great-grandfather Antonio Delito withdrew from the jewelry capital of Providence to settle in these quiet hills was a family tale learned long ago. He preferred a closer proximity to New York’s business opportunities. And High Hill’s stunning views had bewitched his young bride. She’d said it would be a grand place to live and a peaceful place to die, though no one could have predicted she would die so young.
I loved this house where I was raised, and even now, had spent more time here with Gram than anyone, more than in my own apartment. A Tudor structure had been added to the original stone and timber home, tripling its size to twelve spacious rooms, plenty big enough for Gram, Dad, Mother and me without stepping on privacy. Crawling ivy framed the front door and on each side, bright yellow mums filled large wooden planters. Inside, hand-woven carpets from Kashmir, Cappadocia and Iran adorned restored parquet floors. Eclectic furnishings from across the globe graced every room, making High Hill the Delito historical museum. Who wouldn’t want to live here?
The family was due to arrive at nine to schedule Gram’s wake and funeral, arrange for flowers, food, lodging for visitors, and all the small things that busy a mourning mind. Gram’s housekeeper brewed coffee and tea, and organized doughnuts and muffins on paper doilies set on silver trays.
I lit a half dozen bayberry candles and sat on an antique church bench in the foyer, staring at my fingernails, with Marcia by my side. We didn’t speak, nor did we need to. As different as we were, she and I had been best friends since the second grade. Though I had little interest in local news, I was aware of the daily price of gold and silver, and the political situation in every country, at least the nutshell version. Marcia couldn’t distinguish between Cairo and Calcutta, but she could tell you who was married, headed toward divorce, and who had garden tools on sale.
I felt like a Catholic schoolgirl outside Mother Superior’s office, a common feeling when Mother came to call. I stretched my knit dress to cover my knees.
A car door slammed and my gaze snapped to the window. A chauffeur stepped out of the black Lincoln Continental and opened the passenger door with precision, as if his passengers would accept nothing less. I met them at the door while Marcia stood a safe distance behind me.
“Hello Mother. Sam.” She and I touched cheeks, as if it meant as much as a hug or a kiss.
Fragrances of perfume and hair spray trailed Virginia Bender through the foyer, into the parlor and back, as I dutifully tagged behind. She inspected every corner of the room, chin up, head rigid as her eyes scrutinized every minute detail until her attention fell on me. “You must do something with that god-awful hair. Let me fix it.” She lifted her hand to straighten my part.
“Lovely to see you too, Mother.” I brushed her hand away.
“Call my salon, dear. I’m sure they’ll squeeze you in, considering—”
She gripped my arm as if I was five and tugged me back to the foyer away from the others. “That everyone in town will see you at the wake. Don’t embarrass me.” She nodded at Marcia as if her scolding applied to both, and returned to the parlor. I did not.
“Embarrass her?” Marcia’s eyes rolled. “You lost your grandmother and that’s what she’s worried about?”
I said to her, “I haven’t lived with her for ten years. When will she treat me like an adult?”
“They never do.”
The grandmother clock, partner to the grandfather in New York, chimed Aaron Schaeffer’s arrival. As corporate attorney for Delito, Inc., he had been Gram’s closest friend for as long as I remembered. Believing he was a blood member of the family, I’d called him Uncle Aaron until my teen years when I discovered he and Gram were also lovers. Oops.
Sam entered the foyer. “Good to see you, Aaron.” The clock chimed on. “Now that we’re all here, let’s get to work.”
I interrupted, “Aaron, thanks for coming so soon.”
The housekeeper took his coat.
Sam grabbed a coffee and took a seat beside Mother.
Aaron held my hands to his heart for a long time, his eyes puffy as if he’d been crying. “She was dear to me. More than a client and friend, she was—”
“I know she was.”
Aaron nodded at Marcia, then greeted Mother.
When I saw the company car, a white limousine, enter the long straight driveway, I hurried to the door. Michael stepped from the rear seat. Thank God. He draped his overcoat over one arm and carried his briefcase with his other hand. Vinny Ferro exited the opposite side and followed Michael up the gray slate path. Dried crimson leaves cracked beneath their feet. I waited by the open door. Weathered and worn, it looked the way I felt. But Michael was here now. No detail would be overlooked. No mistake would slip by. He would watch my back.
After setting his case in the foyer and balancing his folded coat on top of it, I expected an embrace, but he merely kissed my cheek, no more affectionately than he’d greet an acquaintance—no more than Mother and I had greeted each other.
He leaned closer and whispered, “Virginia and Sam are watching in the mirror.”
Vinny scanned the foyer furnishings. “I’m sorry for your loss, Miss Delito.”
His condolence acknowledged, I gestured that he enter the parlor and leaned toward Michael. “Stay until plans are complete, then you should go to the plant. I can’t think about business right now. I don’t remember my schedule or where I’m supposed to be. It frightens me that I can’t concentrate. My mind seems to be slipping away along with confidence to make decisions.”
“Don’t worry about business, I’m here. I’ll see that Vinny is useful, too. He insisted on coming. I hope you don’t mind.”
As Vinny followed the housekeeper toward the kitchen, I shrugged. A low-level employee didn’t belong at an intimate family meeting, yet I realized Gram was also Delito, Inc. and vital to more people than only me.
Michael ran his hand down my back, following me to join the others. I sat across from Mother and Sam, and Michael took a seat next to me, but not too close. The sides of opposition were clearly defined. He recorded funeral particulars in his ever-present notebook then tucked it into an inside jacket pocket. Now I could be sure everything would happen precisely when it should. The full itinerary was determined within the hour.
“I’m taking a room at the Regency for a few days,” he said. “It’ll be more convenient than driving from Hartford, and I’ll be nearby if you need anything.”
My fingers brushed against his hand.
“Sam, come ride with me to the office. I’ve got the car.” He also signaled Vinny to exit and discreetly winked at me.
Sam mumbled, “Exotic flowers, more limos. Too much money. The Old Lady is gone after all.”
He always called her that, The Old Lady. Gram never minded, but I did. I bit my tongue.
“You couldn’t wait two minutes. You had to say it in front of her.” Michael nudged him outside.
“I didn’t mean anything by it. It was a joke between us.”
I barely heard Sam’s halfhearted apology. A joke? They’d no sooner passed through the door when a sudden gust of wind slammed it shut. Its chill swept through me and roamed the house like a familiar spirit.
Gram had just said goodbye.
The limo vanished from sight and I couldn’t help but smile. Michael, the perfect man, takes out the trash without being asked.
WITH HIGH HILL EMPTY of guests, the housekeeper tidied up and left for home. I lay on the sofa and pulled a blanket over me. It was nearly four when I awoke and dusk was near.
Wandering from room to room, feeling only the stillness, hearing only silence, I sensed Gram’s presence. Are you here? You’re in my thoughts. I recalled the things I should have said to her, but didn’t. All the things I wanted to say and needed to say, but never could say.
You appeared to have everything a person could want, yet when you smiled, your eyes seemed to weep. You thought I didn’t notice, but I did. I wanted to ask why. But I couldn’t. This thing was always between us—between you and everyone. Did you never beat your demons?
In a bedroom Gram had reserved for my overnight stays, I removed my knit dress, pulled on a cable knit sweater and jeans, and tucked them into knee-high leather boots.
Passing through the den and out the French doors to the rear flagstone patio, my hands punched into my pockets. Stomping around the perimeter of the grounds, I was angry at Gram for dying, like I had been when my father died. The stone wall dividing the fields was a natural place for separations and farewells. Alone, abandoned and lost, I sat numb on the largest boulder, hammering my fists against my legs in a rhythmic mantra that wooed me into a trance. My stare locked toward the horizon. Blue and lavender splashed the sky like a watercolor wash. Tendrils of the old weeping willow in the far west field swayed like a forest of seagrass turned upside down. The field’s tall, dry vegetation waltzed in glorious waves in a crisp breeze. Golden sun bathed the meadow, making it appear more like the sea than the earth, an ocean mirage from another time. Or a recent dream?
Red slashed the skyline as the sun died in dark clouds. The wind smelled electric. Rain stung like ocean spray. I raced the storm back to the main house, bolted the doors and drove across town to my apartment.
COVERAGE OF GRAM’S DEATH dominated the news for three days. By the time of her wake, the feeling of loss in town had reached a fervor. Four patrol officers directed traffic at the funeral home parking lot and nearby intersections. The line of mourners stretched to the street as community leaders and curiosity seekers arrived to pay respect. Though my immediate family was small in number, Gram’s influence had impacted business and government across the state. And though the Delito fortune was a distant memory, we remained Barrows’ royal family.
Marcia and I sat quietly until public entry began. Our high school acquaintances would likely attend, and she seemed eager for reunion.
When the crowd filed in, Aaron Schaeffer and I joined Mother and Sam in the viewing parlor. Michael was somewhere nearby.
A pleasant scent of lilies competed with roses. People knelt at Gram’s open coffin to mutter prayerful farewells, then greeted the receiving line saying how sorry they were, how wonderful she looked and how much they’d miss her. I didn’t mind that their words of sympathy were likely superficial, they eased my pain.
Marcia stood behind me, ready to remind me who was who. Small clusters of guests gathered in various parlors for conversation. After an hour and a half, the steady line of strangers made me realize that outside of business, I had few good friends. Then I saw him. Jimmy Cassella, my first love, and he needed no reminder. We were the couple everyone had envied. “Sure to be married,” everyone had said. Marcia still hoped.
He caressed my hands as we spoke. “Need a break? Walk with me and I’ll find some coffee.”
Marcia poked me from behind until I consented. “I’d love a cup of coffee … served with fresh air.”
We passed through the outer parlor where Michael conversed with Vinny and other Delito employees. Their contrast stark, Michael was meticulously tailored—smooth, polished and perfumed, while Jimmy was earthy and rugged with thick brown hair that needed trimming. What was likely his only suit, fit snugly across his broad shoulders.
“You look great, Laura. Tired, but great. This has to be hard on you.” Jimmy rushed the words. Then turned his head before I could see him blush. It was something he’d done for as long as I’d known him, like calling me Laura. Being near him felt like slipping on worn loafers, marred and scuffed, but broken in and comfortable. The circumstance was wrong, but I couldn’t deny our physical attraction, even though I wanted to.
The son of the funeral director delivered foam cups of strong coffee from a service room. Jimmy and I were soon out the door and strolling down a footpath narrow enough to force us close. We sat on a wrought-iron bench that felt cold against my legs even through my wool skirt.
“Marcia tells me you’re in the construction business.”
He roared a deep belly laugh. “Yeah, she keeps me up-to-date about what you’re doing, too.” He slid closer and rested his arm on the back of the bench as if we were still teens at a drive-in movie. “Isn’t it funny we never run into each other?”
“I don’t see anyone in town. I’m in and out of the office and rarely go out. My small apartment at Victoria Towers is adequate for now with minimal furniture, no pets, and neighbors I’ve never met.” My hand landed on his knee in an automatic and natural motion until I realized what I’d done and jerked it away.
He swiped his chin. “I know the Towers. They’re well-built.”
At the entrance of the funeral home, another group of visitors had arrived—my cue to remove myself from increasing discomfort. “I should go. It was nice to see you.” My words sounded unconvincing and I didn’t want them to be. “I mean it. I’m happy to see you.”
Jimmy walked me back to the door and paused, turning the moment delicate. “Laura, I’d like to … Call me … I mean, if I can do anything.” He kissed my cheek, lingering a little too long. Breathing a little too deep. Squeezing me a little too tight.
I backed away.
Michael stood outside the door. I didn’t know how long he’d been watching. “Del, someone’s been asking for you. She said you don’t know her, but she must see you.”
His arm around my waist guided me through the viewing parlor to a corner sitting area where the woman waited. She appeared to be well into her seventies, maybe eighties, with blue eyes, gold framed glasses, and a light wool coat that smelled of mothballs.
“Laura Delito, this is Emma Collings,” he said.
The woman’s gaze shifted from Gram’s coffin. Her head tipped upward as she stared.
“You have her eyes.” Her expression lightened with a hint of a smile. “Can we talk alone?”
Our conversation might need a quiet place. A simple look toward Michael was enough. I didn’t need to ask.
“There’s a vacant meeting room off the outside parlor.” He helped Emma from her chair. After seating us in the private room, he left, closing the door behind him.
“You knew my grandmother?”
“We were close friends. More like sisters.”
I slumped backwards in the Queen Anne chair. I knew little of Gram’s early years. She’d never spoken of them, and I was sure I hadn’t heard of Emma Collings. I’d have remembered the name. “How did you know her?”
Emma remained focused on my features. “It was a long time ago.”
I’d often wondered if the cause of Gram’s pain was rooted in her childhood. Part of her had been closed. Isolated from everyone. Whatever her secret, it didn’t deserve the misery it had inflicted, especially after so many years. I’d often wondered, if she had shared her burden, would I have said, “Is that all?” I knew enough about Mother’s side of the family, but on the Delito side, all I’d been told, apart from the typical press release version, was that Gram was born and raised at High Hill. Emma Collings might add color to that sketchy picture.
“We were both near twelve when we lived at The Farm. I loved Maggie and cherished her stories. I know it sounds, ah, odd, but I enjoyed our time there.”
Her pauses were laced with confusion and her most conspicuous error was that Gram was called Rosa, not Maggie. Yet, she said the name so definitively. Either she’d wandered into the wrong funeral parlor or Gram’s past hid more secrets than I suspected.
“She told stories of her father’s travels and the places he would take her one day.”
That much was probably true and consistent with Delito’s growing business.
“We had great fun, milking cows, drawing pictures, dressing up. I remember like it was yesterday.”
Gram milking cows? This woman is freaking me out.
“Play was a wonderful escape.” Emma reached into the small purse she clutched on her lap. “I kept something that belonged to her. You should have it.”
Inching closer, I brimmed with the expectation of new information.
“I had forgotten about it until I saw her obituary in the newspaper.”
Fetching the treasure, Emma dropped the bundle onto my open palm. A lace border framed a linen handkerchief. The old woman’s eyes encouraged me to unfold the loosely wrapped gift. A three-inch golden key hung on a gold chain. Pinched between my thumb and forefinger, I examined the unusual design. “It’s lovely.”
She snatched my wrist with unexpected strength. Her voice rang with sudden urgency. “Maggie begged me—”
Her eyes had a faraway look as if she were glimpsing another time, as if she were there, a child again, not hesitating as before, but swept to her past like driftwood torn from a riverbank by spring floods.
“She begged me—to guard it with my life.”
With hands trembling, her expression changed as if memories from decades ago surged into her. Her eyes exposed a troubled soul. Same as Gram’s eyes. I was lured by them. What had they seen? They’d seen that part of Gram’s life never shared.
Grandmother. Someone wonderful.
A knock at the door startled me, and yanked us back into real time.
“Sorry to interrupt.” Michael leaned in. “Your mother is preparing to leave.”
“Damn.” The word escaped my lips before I could stop it. I covered my mouth. “Please excuse me, Emma. I’ll be right back. There’s so much more I need to know.”
Only a few minutes passed, but when I returned, Emma was gone. Perhaps she’d traveled too far into her past, too deep into her mind. Maybe she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, allow herself to remember. Or perhaps she remembered more than she could bear.
A disconcerted feeling that nothing was as it seemed to be was all that lingered of the old woman’s visit. My world turned on end. I’d been doubting my career as jewelry designer and questioning my life’s purpose. I was a guest in my own apartment, suffered a dreadful relationship with my mother and worse with her husband. And I was unsure of how Michael and I fit together. Now, all I had known about Gram, the one person I trusted, was gutted.
The gold chain of the antique key slithered between my fingers as it fell into a graceful swag, swaying like a clock’s pendulum. But even time seemed warped as I faced the fog of my family’s past and of my future. Guardrails were torn off my road, outlines erased from my story and my colors were spilling out.
I closed my hand and held tight to the only truth I could grasp—a golden key wrapped in soiled linen.
~ end of chapter one ~