Mothers’ Day Weekend at the Misty Wolf Inn Blacksburg, Virginia
Taylor stood at the bottom of the stairs and held her breath. It only seems like a hundred steps, she told herself.
As she planted her foot on the first tread, Eli whispered “You really goin’ up there this time?”
His hand, warm and small, fit perfectly into hers. “I’m seriously considering it,” she said, nodding.
The echo of his gasp floated up and disappeared around the first bend of the long, spiral staircase. “Can I come with you?”
She followed his line of vision to the half-door leading into the turret. It had been a source of fascination for him from the moment he’d moved into the Misty Wolf Inn, nearly a year ago.
“Please, Taylor? Please?”
Oh, how she loved the boy who reminded her so much of her brother! Peering into his trusting green eyes, Taylor wondered which excuse would work this time: it’s dirty and dusty up there. There are about a hundred ways you could hurt yourself. That big bare light bulb has probably burned out by now.
But Eli beat her to the punch.
“If you let me come with you,” he said, sandwiching her hand between his, “I promise to be careful and not touch anything without asking first. Promise.”
He’d been with her slightly more than a year now, and she could probably count on one hand the times she’d told him no. “Well,” she said, pointing at his bare toes, “but only if you put on your sneakers.”
He did a little jig, then fist-pumped the air. “You’re the best, best, best aunt a boy ever had!” He ran toward his room, stopping at the halfway point. “You won’t go up without me, right?”
“I’ll wait right here. Promise.” If she didn’t know better, Taylor would have said Eli’s smile had inspired the “face lit up like a Christmas tree” adage. Grinning to herself, she sat on the bottom step and said a silent prayer. Please don’t let me blubber like a baby—not in front of sweet Eli. He’d lost as many loved ones as she had, and certainly didn’t need to see her fall apart. Besides, if she allowed self-pity to distract her, even for a second, he could pick up a splinter, or trip on a loose board, or topple a stack of boxes. How would she explain that to his grumpy uncle?
The familiar sproing of a doorstop broke into her thoughts, followed by thuds and thumps that inspired a grin. She could almost picture Eli, tossing shoes and boots over his shoulders as he searched for his favorite sneakers. But so what if he made a mess in his own room? The last guest had checked out last evening, and she didn’t expect the next until Monday. Helping him re-tidy his closet was as good an excuse as any to give him her full, undivided attention.
He ran toward her, the soles of his shoes squeaking on the hardwood as he came to a quick stop.
“See?” he said, showing her one foot, then the other. “Shoes!”
“Yep,” she said, laughing, “shoes.” Not the bright red high-tops she’d bought as his reward for mastering the art of tying his own shoes, but a pair of his old Velcro-closure sneakers. That he’d chosen to save time by wearing them told Taylor just how excited he was about exploring the turret’s attic space.
“Well,” he said, snapping on the light switch, “are you ready?”
Ready as I’ll ever be, she thought as he darted up the stairs. She’d been putting this off far too long. It was long past time to face her past—the good memories and the sad ones too.
When she caught up with Eli, she found him grunting and grimacing as he wrapped both hands around the cut-glass doorknob. “It’s . . . it’s stuck.” Rubbing his palms together, both brows disappeared into blond bangs. “Or maybe it’s locked.”
Taylor hadn’t been much older than Eli when her grandfather helped her hang the old skeleton key from the hook he’d hidden along the door jamb. She reached for it, then scooped Eli into her arms instead. “Quick, grab the key,” she ground out. “You’re heavier than you look!”
It took a second or two for him to wiggle it free, and when he did, Eli shouted “Got it!”
Taylor gave him a little squeeze before turning him loose.
Eli held it up to the light. “Never saw anything like this before.” One eye narrowed suspiciously, he looked up at Taylor. “You sure it’s a key?”
Down on one knee, she showed him how to insert it into the keyhole. “I’m sure.”
After a moment of wiggling and jiggling, the lock went clunk, startling Eli. “Whoa!” he said, giggling as he handed Taylor the key, “bet Tootie heard that all the way over at her place!”
He grabbed the doorknob again, but this time, his hand jerked back so quickly that she couldn’t help wondering if a chip in the glass had scratched him. Taylor was about to inspect his fingers when Eli said, “Is it okay if I open it, or do you want to?”
So, he’d been sincere about his promise not to touch anything without permission. Smiling, she said, “No, you do it.”
The old brass hinges squealed as the door swung into the hallway. “It’s kinda like the door on the Keebler elves’ hollow tree, isn’t it?”
“You know, you’re absolutely right!”
Hands on his knees and shaking his head, he stooped and peered into the darkness. “We can’t both fit through at the same time.”
Translation: I’m scared to go in first, but I want to be first to see what’s on the other side of this strange little door.
“I have an idea,” she said, taking his hand. “I’ll go in just far enough to turn on the light, and that way, we’ll both see what’s in there at the same time.”
Side by side, they ducked through the opening. Their entry stirred a thousand dust motes that danced like microscopic ballerinas on the beam of sunlight that poured in through the front-facing window.
“Wow,” Eli said, straightening. “Wow.”
She knew exactly how he felt. As a girl, she’d spent hundreds of hours here, spinning dreams when the sun was up, wishing on the stars when moonlight painted everything— especially that gigantic old steamer trunk—a strange and eerie shade of silver.
He turned in a slow circle. “Just look at all this stuff!” Then he noticed the rugged wood steps that led higher still in the turret, and pointed. “What’s up there?”
“Oh, just more stuff.” Taylor smiled, remembering how after Nonna’s stroke left her unable to sew, Grampa stacked boxes of material and spools of thread as high as his arms would allow.
“Lots more stuff.”
“Man-o-man-o-man. It’ll take days to see it all!”
Yes, it probably would—if she had any desire to rouse gloomy memories.
Eli flicked a wooden whirligig, and while giggling at its comical dance, blew the dust from a red metal fire truck. “Whoa. C-o-o-ol,” he said, picking it up. “Whose was it?”
“Careful, now,” she warned. “There are lots of sharp edges on toys that were manufactured way back when.” She held out her hand so that he could see the bright white scar in the web between her thumb and forefinger. “I got this playing with an old car that belonged to Grampa Hank’s dad.”
Nodding, he said, “I’ll be careful.” He touched the tarnished key on the side of the fire truck.
“What’s this thing do?”
“It makes the siren work. At least, it used to. It’s an antique, and nobody has played with it in years.”
He gave the key two quick cranks and grinned when the toy emitted a tinny, high-pitched wail. Down on his hands and knees, he rolled the truck back and forth. “Vroom-vroom!” he said, oblivious to the tracks its tires left in the dust.
Taylor knelt too—in front of the cedar hope chest that had lured her up here in the first place. A wedding gift from Taylor’s maternal great-great-grandparents to their only daughter, it had been handed down through the generations until, on Taylor’s sixteenth birthday, it became hers. For years, it stood at the foot of her bed, pestering her to look inside. Two days after hiring Isaac, she silenced the nagging by asking him to carry it to the turret.
And it had been here ever since. Would she have the courage today?
Eli put the truck back where he’d found it and went to the window. “Gosh,” he said, using the heel of his hand to rub dust from the bubbly glass, “you can see all the way to the creek from up here.”
“On a clear day,” she said, tracing a burl in the trunk’s rounded lid, “you can see even farther than that.”
“Bet Uncle Reece would love this place. Wonder what he’d say if he came up here and saw all this.”
Taylor harrumphed. No doubt he’d say something like, The boy should be outside, playing in the fresh air, instead of inhaling all this grit and grime. There are probably millions of dust mites up here, along with a hundred ways he could hurt himself!
With most people, Taylor gave people the benefit of the doubt. Why not Reece?
Maybe, she thought, because he acts more like a grumpy old codger than the thirty-something man he is.
But that wasn’t fair, and she knew it. Eli might as well be Reece’s only living relative after the way his parents treated him. It couldn’t have been easy, finding out the way he did, that his sister hadn’t named him Eli’s guardian.
She remembered that day in the lawyer’s office, when Reece’s expression went from stunned to angry to anguished as the attorney read the paragraph in Margo’s will that gave Taylor total control of the boy. The news had shocked and puzzled her, too. For one thing, she’d only known Margo since shortly before her marriage to Eliot. For another, Reece had changed his entire life to help out after Eliot was killed in Afghanistan.
Eli’s excited voice pulled Taylor’s attention back to the here and now. “Oh, wow,” he said from his perch on the window ledge, “I can see our horses! There’s Millie. And Alvin and Bert. And Elsie, too!” With each one he pointed out, Eli left a tiny fingerprint on the dusty glass. “And a whole bunch of deer. Taylor! Come see! There must be fifty of ’em!”
She loved how he called everything at the Misty Wolf “ours,” from the big house itself to the land surrounding it. Taylor went to him, and hugging him from behind, said, “That is a big herd, isn’t it! And you’re right . . . we can see the horses from up here.” It still amazed her that, almost from his first day here, he’d started referring to the Misty Wolf Inn as home. Even more astounding was how quickly he’d accepted the fact that his dad had been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and a car crash had taken his mom. Oh to have the pure, unquestioning faith of a child, she thought, thanking God for the green-eyed blessing who stood in the circle of her arms.
“Can we go riding later?”
“Maybe . . . if there’s time. It’s Friday, don’t forget.”
“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. An Uncle Reece Friday.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Uncle Reece Fridays . . . her least favorite nights of the month.
“Can I call him, see if he can come get me a little early, and maybe go riding with us?”
“I don’t see why not. As my grandpa used to say ‘It never hurts to ask.’”
One of two things would happen when they got downstairs: Eli would get busy doing little boy things and forget to make the call, or he’d get his uncle on the phone only to find out that Reece still had patients to see and wouldn’t be able to leave the office early.
Turning to face her, Eli looked up into Taylor’s face. “So what’s in the ugly ol’ trunk over there?” he asked, using his thumb as a pointer.
Taylor kissed the top of his head. “You know, I honestly have no idea.”
“Whose is it?”
“Whoa. No way. It’s yours, and you don’t know what’s in it!”
Smiling, Taylor shrugged. “ ’Fraid not.”
“But . . .” His eyes widened as he looked at the trunk. “Why not? Did somebody say you weren’t allowed to?”
“That you’d get in trouble for opening it?”
“No, nothing like that.”
Frowning, he said, “Then . . . then why haven’t you opened it!”
How could she explain to this bighearted boy—who’d lost both parents in less than a year’s time—that she didn’t have the guts to look at reminders of the people she’d lost?
“I don’t have a good reason.” In truth, Taylor didn’t have any reason.
“You know that’s just weird, don’t you?”
“Yes, yes, I suppose it is.”
Eli crossed both arms over his chest. “So, what do you think is in there?”
“Oh,” she said with a sigh, “probably just a bunch of old junk. A few things that belonged to my mom and dad, and to my grandparents, maybe even your dad.”
Eyes narrowed slightly, Eli said, “Oh. I get it. You don’t want to see all that stuff ’cause you’re afraid it will make you sad . . .”
“. . . and remind you how much you miss them, right?”
She pictured Eliot’s gap-toothed grin, her dad’s playful wink, her mom’s loving smile. “Right.”
He took her hand, gave it a little squeeze. “You know what I do when I miss my mom?”
Taylor didn’t know if she had the self-control to keep her tears at bay if he continued.
“I hug their pictures re-e-eal tight.”
“. . . because that’s all I have left of them,” Taylor finished. Stirrings of resentment swirled in her heart. She’d never forgive his mom for giving away everything that might have reminded Eli of her and his dad. Makes it real hard to believe your death was an accident, Margo, Taylor thought. But bitterness quickly gave way to a blush of shame as she realized what Eli was really telling her: you should be thanking God that you have these things to help you remember your loved ones.
“It’ll be okay,” he said, patting her hand. “I’ll be right here with you. Don’t worry, if you get sad, I’ll give you a hug.”
With that, Eli led her over to the trunk. “There’s nothing in there to be scared of,” he said, getting down on one knee. “There’s probably nothing in there but old lady underwear!”
He giggled at his little joke as Taylor marveled at the depth of his perceptiveness. “Bummer!” he said, tugging at the big padlock. “Did your grampa lock everything up?”
“Pretty much,” she admitted, picturing dead bolts on the tool shed and barn, the garage, and the slanting doors leading into the basement.
“Oh, cool!” Eli said, pointing at a tarnished skeleton key. It dangled from a yard-long strand of twine that had been tied around one of the trunk’s leather handles. “Must be something pretty good in there,” he said, inserting it into the keyhole.
Her heartbeat doubled when the latch went click because now, she couldn’t turn back. The sound bounced from sun-faded bureaus, threadbare chairs, framed photos, and fading portraits that stood like somber sentries against the turret’s curved walls.
Eli sat back on his heels. “Well?”
Taylor might have said, Well what? if she could have found her voice.
“You want me to open it, or are you gonna do it?”