Excerpt from Vestiges
OPPORTUNITY SQUANDERED AND TRUST MISPLACED are dreadful schoolmarms. Neida Graham shrunk under their reprimands the moment the taxi stopped in front of her childhood home. Hopewell’s gabled roof pierced the late afternoon sky and cast the dormer windows into angled shadows like two reproving eyes.
“You’ve been away far too long,” the house seemed to nag. And as if the abode wagged a reprimanding finger at her, it rose up to flog her conscience, satisfaction sieving through the holes in the broken staircase, its weed-infested lawns, empty porch, and rusted and sagging fixtures, finally settling in a frumpy huff.
Well, she was here now. That stood for something, didn’t it? Besides, she wasn’t to blame for her father spiriting her away from the place as a child.
Nor was she responsible for the neglect of this once grand estate. Such disrepair might have appeared out of place except for the fifteen-foot-high, leaf-strewn, Native American mound that rose from the backyard beyond the balustrade. The Adena and Hopewell cultures had built hundreds of thousands of these pre-Columbian tumuli throughout what was now the United States and Canada, and for almost thirty years now, the uniqueness of this particular hill had attached a primeval thread to Neida’s heart. She had always intended to return home, regardless of her grandmother’s summons. Just not yet, and not under these circumstances. With a sigh, Neida stepped outside the vehicle to a blast of warm air, reluctant, though anxious, to renew her association.
The taxi driver retrieved her two small bags and plopped them on the top step. Neida hustled to where he stood and handed him his fee plus a little extra. He frowned at the offering in his hand then whirled around the vehicle, hopped into the taxi, and peeled out down the drive. She stared after him until the front door opened and a man appeared on the porch—no doubt, her grandmother’s lawyer, Mr. Warren.
The man picked up her bags, one under his arm and the other dangling from his boney hand. He motioned her up the stairs. “Your grandmother is waiting, Miss Graham. As I said on the phone, we have little time. I’ll show you to her room.”
He guided Neida across the threshold. Light from several sconces pointed ochre triangles toward the oaken stairwell, spiraling down like a grand twister from the second floor. Out of courtesy, she plodded up the staircase after the man, although no one needed to show her the way or which room to enter. Still vivid in her mind, her father, in a contemptuous rage, had dragged her from Gran’s bedroom and down the stairwell when she was just six years old. Such emotion against a woman who had shown her kindness and love had incited confusion in her young heart, and every detail of that time and place still lodged deep in the recesses of her brain.
Mr. Warren stopped at the familiar paneled door and set the bags near the wall. He peered down at her with a shrug of eyebrows. “Althea asked that I wait here. She’ll speak to you alone first.”
The weathered handle squeaked as he opened the door, and the ancient hinges protested. On cue, a nurse sitting in a bentwood rocker in the corner rose and breezed past them. Mr. Warren nodded, and Neida bit her lip and tiptoed inside. She barely noticed the door closing behind her.
For over two decades, the memory of Gran’s image had lingered as a pleasant dream—the woman’s smile, her kind eyes, her mahogany-colored braid, especially her robust body that had squeezed love into Neida each time they were together. Yet, sadness seemed to lurk in her eyes, the remnant of some deep-seated mystery that Neida had been too young to understand. And now, here, on cloud pillows, Althea Graham lay pale and withered. Her hair, a tangled web of gray, splayed across the embroidered silk. As if the woman sensed herself a spectacle, she fluttered open her paper-like lids and squinted up in confusion.
Neida managed a smile. “It’s me, Gran. I’m here.”
Recognition transformed the woman’s features. “Oneida Woodward Graham . . . about time you came home, young lady.”
Her friends called her Neida now, but Gran’s use of her full given name sounded right somehow—as though the things that mattered most never changed.
“Come closer, child. Let me look at you.”
Neida obeyed, bent to look into Gran’s blue eyes that communed a silent language of love.
The old woman’s shaking fingers brushed Neida’s cheek and touched the end of her French braid that had swung forward over her shoulder. “You’ve grown into a beauty,” she said. “Your grandfather will be pleased, but why didn’t you come back to us sooner?” Her breath came harder now, her voice weaker.
Neida hesitated. “I’m sorry. Papa said . . .” What should she tell her? That Gran’s own son had sworn to everyone his parents were dead?
The old woman’s mouth puckered, flattened into a smile. “Written me off, has he?”
“Papa’s gone now, Gran, Mama too. They died in a traffic accident out of San Francisco this year. A reckless, drunk driver . . .” The words caught, trailed to a whisper.
The old woman’s forehead shriveled into a network of lines. “I am sorry, dear one… for the both of us. Though why didn’t you come back to us then? Your grandfather and I have waited far too long for your return.”
Grandfather Graham had gone missing years before she was born; that much Mr. Warren had reminded her over the phone. Yet, her grandmother made it sound as though he still lived, as though if she’d turn around, he’d walk through the bedroom door.
“I didn’t even know you were alive, Gran. Not until your lawyer called me yesterday.”
Her grandmother’s chin quivered. She sank further into the pillow and closed her eyes. Several seconds passed before she opened them again. So long, in fact, that Neida jumped when she spoke.
“Grudges are poisonous bedfellows. We’re all vulnerable to their infestation, I suppose. But there’s no point in sleeping with them, Oneida. They’ll only taint you, eventually bring you to do things you wished you hadn’t. Your father refused to accept that—never even made an effort to understand.”
“What happened, Gran? Why did Papa take me away from Hopewell . . . and you?”
“That tale takes too much energy to tell. What matters is the Good Lord preserved me . . . until you could come back to claim what’s rightfully yours. This house, this land, are your legacy, Oneida. A trust . . .” Her eyes opened saucer-like to emphasize the last two words, narrowed as she finished her thought, “and I’m leaving everything to you, in your care.” She groped for Neida’s hand. “Promise me, right now, you’ll accept what your father could not.”
Gran’s puzzling words, the way she clutched her hand, pierced Neida’s heart. She couldn’t refuse her.
“Promise me . . . use my money . . . find the sacred, stone box and bring it back. The relic is the key to a past you—and the world—must respect and acknowledge. Not for fame or glory. Or to pad one’s ego. But for honor and regard of those who have paved the way before us. Edward never understood such things, and it’s why he was murdered.”
“Murdered?” In the abbreviated stories her father had revealed about Grandfather Graham, he had never shared with her such a portentous scenario. Nor had Mr. Warren mentioned it in any of his conversations with her.
Gran struggled to lift her shoulders toward Neida and, with a last gush of emotion, pled, “Remember . . . remember . . . you are The Awaited One, the blood of He Who Watches. Please… honor and reveal the truth.” She shuddered and collapsed into the pillow. By increments, her grasp lessened until all pressure dwindled to nothing.
“Gran? Gran!” Neida gasped and fought back the grief rising inside her. Why had her father deprived her of this woman her entire life?
As though she had witnessed the scene through the wall, the nurse bustled into the room. Her shoes squeaked across the floorboards as she passed to the bed. She delivered a consoling nod, checked for a pulse, then closed Gran’s eyes and placed the woman’s shriveled hands inside the covers. John Warren watched Neida from the doorway, then turned to look at Gran. His face sagged with the tenderness of a long, now severed, association.
Confused, betrayed—no, cheated—Neida escaped the bedside for the window. A large, orange moon had risen over the crest in the short time of her arrival, and it bathed an eerie glow over the ruin behind Hopewell. How could such a glorious beacon ignite the horizon just as fate snuffed out her grandmother’s light forever? The thought urged hot tears to slip down her cheeks.
Movement near the hill startled her. She blinked and pawed at the moisture in her eyes and focused just east of the mound, toward the base of the trees. A blurred figment took shape, a form as real as her grandmother lying on the bed behind her—a stooped, old man. He stared up at her then leaned back his head and bayed at the moon. The sound penetrated all barriers, vibrated through her core.
She shrieked alarm and turned to the nurse and John Warren, their wide eyes questioning. By the time Neida turned back to the window, the man’s somber tune silenced, and, like magnified tunnel vision, his gaze pierced hers, seemed to chop the distance in half . . . sent a shiver up her spine.
The nurse rushed around the bed, John Warren joining her, but before they reached Neida’s side, time seemed to suspend. For in the interlude, the stranger nodded at her and, like some ghostly presence, drifted between the trees and vanished from view.