Authors: Bill Benners
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General
The casts on Martha’s arms came off first, then the one on her right foot. After five weeks, she was allowed to go home.
I want to show y’all something,” she said as she steered her new electric wheelchair into her bedroom.
What?” Mom asked pulling the bed covers back.
Watch.” Her left leg was still in a cast to the hip. She moved the footrests aside, took hold of the edge of the bed, and pulled herself up on her feet. We all applauded and praised her. Mom, Winston, and me.
Now watch,” she said looking down at her feet. We hushed and waited. After a brief pause, she shocked us all by moving the toes on both her feet.
DURING THE NEXT SEVERAL MONTHS, authorities recovered the money McGillikin had transferred offshore. It was divided by the courts among the thirty-seven clients whose funds he had stolen along with the insurance money from the beach house. Sydney received about 80% of what she figured Scott had taken from her savings.
In a statement to police, David Matthews described how Ashleigh, after taking a few courses in nursing, had drawn her own blood and stored it in her freezer until the night of the robbery hoping that by pouring it all over her house, everyone would assume she was dead and that Bonner would not go looking for her. He said that she’d picked Richard because he was right next door and always alone, that she learned about the beach house by following Scott, then only took what she figured he owed them from the insurance settlement. As the only heir to the Jackson’s estate, David took over his uncle’s turkey farm at Lake Waccamaw and shortly afterward began dating a girl that lived up the road.
The check Scott had written to pay for the sailboat had bounced and the title had never been transferred. Tiffany sent her father a post card from Greece and told him she was having a great time, that the boat was performing beautifully, and that she’d try to get home by Christmas—the following year.
By the end of summer, Martha’s recovery seemed to come to a halt as she became overwhelmed with fatigue, fluid retention, frequent headaches, and shortness of breath. She began dialysis every few days and was placed on a transplant list. We packed a bag for her and waited by the phone for word that a match had been found. Mom and I had both been tested and ruled out as donors, but as Martha’s condition worsened, Winston insisted on being tested, and—to my astonishment—was considered an exceptional match.
Martha’s surgery was performed at the
University of North Carolina Comprehensive Transplant Center
in Chapel Hill and went well. She recovered quickly and was soon back to rigorous physical therapy and working on her novel. Mom rebounded from the loss of her husband and life for the Baimbridge family was gradually returning to normal.
On a rainy Tuesday night in October, with all of us sitting around the TV keeping an eye on Hurricane Isabelle as it churned up the Atlantic coast, the investigative reporter in Martha surfaced again. “Mama, Daddy told Richie that Uncle Charlie was his father, but at the time you didn’t want to talk about it. Was he right? Was Uncle Charlie his father?”
Before she could answer, the power went off and the house got deathly still. Mom quickly rose. “Stay right here. I’ll light some candles.” A moment later she was back with a box of kitchen matches and—as wind whistled under the door and thunder rumbled in the distance—Mom gathered three large candles from around the room and moved them to the coffee table in the center of us.
So…” Martha began again. “Was Uncle Charlie really Richie’s father?”
Mom struck a match and held it to the first candle. “Yes, Sweetheart. Charlie Baimbridge was Richie’s father.”
And then he was killed in a car wreck just before you were to be married.”
Mom cleared her throat. “That’s right, Sweetheart.”
Gosh, Mom,” I said. “You must have been devastated.”
Mother exchanged glances with Winston as she moved to the second candle. “Charlie and I were…deeply in love…so
much in love.” Her eyes glossed over and I could see the reflection of the flames in them. “After the accident, I stayed in bed and cried for weeks. There was nothing anyone could do. Charlie was gone and I had nothing to live for.”
What did you do?” Martha asked.
Normally, Mom left the room when she was about to cry, but as she struck another match and touched it to the third candle, a tear rolled down her cheek. “The doctor left some tablets to help me sleep,” she said, her voice low. “And on the morning of June seventeenth—what was supposed to have been our wedding day—I took them. I took them all.”
Oh, Mother!” Martha gasped. “You didn’t!”
Mom waved the flame off the match and tossed the burned stick into the fireplace. “My heart was broken. I couldn’t imagine ever being happy again. Not without Charlie.”
As she took her seat, Winston wiped her tears away with his fire-shortened thumb. She took his hand and clutched it for support as a powerful wind whistled through the trees outside. We’d never heard this part of our mother’s history and I wanted to hear the rest.
But you lived,” I said.
Yes,” she said gazing into the candle flames. “Mama rushed me to the hospital where they pumped my stomach. And that was when I found out I was pregnant.” She dabbed a tissue at her eyes.
Martha’s mouth dropped open. “You didn’t know?”
Oh, the signs were all there. I was throwing up every day, but I just assumed I was upset over Charlie. I never imaged I was pregnant. But, there was never any doubt whose baby it was. Charlie was the only boy I’d been with.”
Oh, Mother,” Martha sympathized. “What did grandmother and granddaddy say when they found out?”
Mom chuckled nervously. “Mama and Daddy were as mad as ground bees run over by a plow. They wanted me to get an abortion, which was against the law in those days. But they said they knew someone that could do it, but
wouldn’t do it. I didn’t give a hoot about what people would say. It was Charlie’s baby and I was not about to let it go.”
Thank goodness,” Sydney said, planting a kiss on my cheek.
Martha leaned forward in her chair. “So when did Daddy come into the picture?”
Mom sipped her iced tea and, as our shadows danced on the walls around us, I could see the pain of remembering in her eyes. She swallowed and took a deep breath before responding. “I was about four months along when Gus and his mother showed up at the house. He looked awful. His beard was all grown out. His eyes were bloodshot like he’d been crying. His hair down over his ears. With his mother there holding his hand, he sat down before us and told us it had been his fault, that he’d messed up the brakes on Charlie’s car the day of the accident, and that he was sorry. He said he wanted to make things right, knelt down on one knee in front of me, his mother, and both my parents, and asked me to marry him. I was eighteen years old, pregnant, and had disappointed Mom and Dad enough. They all thought it was the right thing to do—and, truthfully, it guess it was. As far as I was concerned, if it couldn’t be Charlie Baimbridge, it didn’t matter
it was. At least with Gus I’d be
—and I liked that.
A few days later, on August 26th, we were married at Mother’s house with only our parents in attendance.” Mother blew her nose and wiped it oblivious to the sound of a shutter banging intermittently against the side of the house.
It sounds beautiful. What did you wear?” Sydney asked.
Mother wiped her nose. “I wore my Sunday School dress. It was…white with pink and blue crocheted flowers on it. And he wore a new brown suit his mother bought for him.”
Did you carry a bouquet of flowers?” Martha asked.
Mother crushed the tissue in her hand, closed her eyes, and rested her head against her fist as if it would help her remember. “The next door neighbors—the Cramptons—had a pink rosebush that grew along the fence between our yards. Daddy went out to it and cut every flower off it that came through the fence and made me a bouquet to carry. Mama added some honeysuckle blossoms, wrapped the stems with a piece of white ribbon she’d been saving for my wedding dress, and then pinned some honeysuckle in my hair.”
I’ll bet you were beautiful,” Martha said.
I was sick all morning and the air conditioner quit before noon. It was too hot to stay inside so we all walked out to the front porch where there was a little breeze and did it. Right out on the street with all of Carolina Heights looking at us. When it was over, Gus kissed me and then we went into separate rooms, changed clothes, and sat out in the back yard under a shade tree.”
The rain, which had paused briefly, began pounding the window glass again as if the house was being washed by a fire hose.
Where did you go when you left?”
We didn’t go anywhere. Not together. Gus went back to his mother’s house and I stayed home. We hardly saw each other until Richie was born and then we didn’t move in together until Gus got a job selling cars and rented a house for us.”
Then four years later I came along,” Martha said. “Which explains why Richie wasn’t all that good of a match for the kidney transplant. We’re only
brother and sister. But what I want to know is, how in the world could
have turned out to be the perfect donor for me, Winston? What are the chances of that happening? My mother’s boyfriend being a better donor than my mother or my brother—even if he is my
-brother? Are we related in some way?”
Winston looked to Mom for help. “What do you think, Pearl?”
A clap of thunder rattled the windows and as it faded into the distance, Mom massaged her temples with both hands. “There
a logical explanation, but you three have to promise me that you will
tell a soul.” She looked at each of us as she awaited our responses.
Martha looked at me, then back at Mom. “Okay! Of course. Tell us.”
I want to hear each of you
Sydney slouched a bit lower in her seat. “Yes. Sure. I promise.”
Yes. I promise.”
Mother! For heaven’s sake, I promise. Now tell us!”
Mom took Winston’s hand and flashed him a smile before turning back to face us. “A few years after Richie was born, I got a call from the church secretary. She told me that one of church’s mission cases happened to be the farmer that had been driving the truck that hit Charlie’s car. She said he’d suffered burns over seventy percent of his body and said that he’d asked for me by name. That he wanted to know if I’d pay him a visit. I had no idea why he’d asked for me, but I thought maybe he wanted to say he was sorry for what had happened. So I went.
I drove up to the farm where he lived and…when he opened the door…” Mom’s voice cracked and a tear rolled over her cheekbone. “…I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
What?” Martha uttered.
Mom turned to Winston, who nodded and flashed a reassuring smile.
Martha slapped her hands on the table. “Come on, Mama. Tell us!”
Mom cleared her throat. “When he opened the door, I knew instantly who he was. Even with the bandages and scars, I could tell he was Charlie Baimbridge.”
THOUGHT MARTHA AND I HAD FIGURED every possibility, but we
considered this one.
Winston is Uncle Charlie?
My heart skipped a beat.
Goose bumps rose on my arms. I’ve often heard that the first time a man sees his newborn child, an emotion of unconditional love sweeps through him like a flame on spilled gasoline. I was meeting my father for the first time and I felt something powerful sweep through me.
Sydney stammered like a child who’d just been tricked by a slight-of-hand magician at the county fair. “W—What did you do?”
Mother dabbed a tissue at her eyes, but looked as if she’d been relieved of a load she had carried her whole life. “All the feelings I thought I’d stowed away forever came rushing back. I went to pieces, burst into tears, and collapsed in the doorway. When he lifted me up, I grabbed hold of him, kissed him, and wouldn’t let go.” That loose shutter banged again against the side of the house. “We held each other for hours crying and laughing, and then made love. It was the most wonderful, most
day of my life. And when it was time to go, I didn’t want to leave, but Charlie insisted that I had to go home, that I had to keep his identity a secret.”