Peggy Poe Stern, Mountain Author: Ever so common, ever so uncommon

Excerpt from #17, Served Cold
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First six chapters of Served Cold


Chapter 1

The Bible reads it is a sin to commit murder. There was a time when I would have agreed, but not anymore. Instead, I believe a greater sin may be committed in allowing some people to live. Jackson Winkerson is at the top of that list. He is a sublime masterpiece fabricated in the Devil’s workshop. Greed for wealth is one of his many sins. Another sin is his perverse need to see others suffer while he gets what he goes after. To be in control of other people gives him a god-like feeling of power and glee. I can state this as factual because I know from experience.

Jackson Winkerson is the first person I would take out if and when I choose to become a murderer. At this time, I don’t plan on murdering him, not in the standard way. The kind of murder I have in mind will leave him alive to suffer greatly, and in a way that will be debilitating forever. I want to be instrumental in seeing him become a poverty- stricken, broken man with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. I want him to bleed pure heart-blood for the rest of his life.

One might say there has been a slow poison brewing inside me, bubbling, and churning, and threatening to erupt for the major portion of my life. The only reason it has been contained so long is I did not have every ingredient I needed. I now have them all and I am ready for Jackson Winkerson. By the time I am through with him, he’ll regret what he did to me.

This brew has been gathering itself for over twenty- three years. Never once, not for one day, not for one hour, have I left my brew unattended or unwanted. Three months ago, it reached its most potent stage. My husband, Coleman Cottumn, died. I would have delivered my brew the day after he was buried, but I had to wait the standard ninety days before my attorney, Marshall Evans, declared me in full control over everything my deceased husband left behind, which to my delight, is far more than I ever imagined. He could have given Bill Gates a fair run in financial genius.

"Paige," Marshall said my name remorsefully as I entered his office on the day he had arranged for our grand finale meeting. "Take a seat."

I took a seat, wondering at the serious expression on his face and the tone of voice he had used to greet me. Something had Marshall unsettled and I didn’t think it had anything to do with his profession. It wasn’t as if we had not already had many meetings about my husband’s business and personal finances in the past ninety days. We had spent more time going over legal matters than we had expected. I could only imagine what a nightmare it would have been if Coleman hadn’t been a stickler for having his affairs in order.

Coleman had everything set up nice and legal. His two children, Coleman Jr. and Tessie, had received what Coleman had wanted them to have. Naturally, they were disappointed and tried to contest the will. The stipulation Coleman put into his will was a big help in cooling their greed. If anyone contested Coleman’s will and his wishes as to who inherited what, that person would forfeit their inheritance. Coleman had left the bulk of his business and wealth to me. To his children I was an interloper, even though Coleman and their mother, Teresa, had been divorced for years before I came into the picture.

Teresa died five years ago. She was almost Coleman’s age, his high school sweetheart whom he got pregnant and had to marry. I think Coleman’s children disliked me because I was much younger than them. They didn’t see me as replacing their mother when I married Coleman. They saw me as replacing them, which I most likely did to a great extent. Coleman doted on me much the way a parent would a favored child. He tried to give me everything he knew I’d never had in my earlier life. Which included an education in more things than the college he had me attend.

I had my fortieth birthday this past December. Coleman was ninety-one years old when he died. Fifty-one years separated us, but neither of us cared. He became more my father than my husband. I suppose I should be thankful the intimate part of marriage was low on my list of necessities. Actually, I might even say I have always detested it. Although Coleman and I did have relations occasionally the first years of our marriage. Coleman developed prostate cancer and surgery was necessary. He was no longer fully functional and I didn’t mind.

Marshall cleared his throat to bring my attention back to the present, and I knew something unexpected was to be presented to me.

"Paige," he said again and seemed at a loss for more words, which was unusual for an attorney who specialized in litigation. Coleman hired Marshall as our private attorney many years before and kept him on a retainer because Coleman declared Marshall was brilliant and loyal. I kept him on a retainer because he had always been there for Coleman, never once letting him down.

"Get on with it, Marshall," I told him in my no-nonsense voice. I have to admit I had become known as a ball-kicker. For the past eighteen years, I was the one who ran the Cottumn Empire, as well as running Coleman. Both needed me – my youth, as well as my abilities.

Marshall seemed to hesitate and then his eyes brightened as a thought entered his usually razor-sharp brain. "You know Coleman Jr. and Tessie wanted to fight Cole’s will."

This came as no surprise. "I expected as much," I told Marshall.

"They have no grounds to stand on. Their attorney simply took their money and bowed out when I presented him with the ironclad facts. They did not want to believe Coleman turned things over to you long before he died."

I have come to believe children of the extremely rich, who know they will always have their trust funds, seldom develop a fighting need to earn their own money. They usually prefer to spend their days enjoying the pleasures life has to offer.

It is those who have suffered through deprivation and hunger who develop the killer instinct of going after what they want with all the fight and fire they possess – those like me.

"Are they trying anything now?" I asked, knowing he had something far greater on his mind than Coleman’s children and their childish complaints. I and everyone else, including them, knew they did not want the responsibility of running Cottumn Enterprises even if they had the competency to do so, which they didn’t.

"If they do, I can handle it," Marshall assured me.

I nodded, but couldn’t resist a comment of my own. "If you don’t handle it, I will."

I had full control of the businesses Coleman Jr. and Tessie received their income from. I knew how to run a business without showing profit. No profit meant no income for Coleman’s sixty-some year old children.

"I’ll handle them," Marshall assured me. "They won’t need spankings from their step-mother."

"Just so they know I can still deliver spankings," I pointedly told Marshall. "I want them to realize I have more power now than I did when Coleman was alive."

"Everyone realizes that, Paige."

"Good. Now, why are you stalling? Neither you nor I have all day to waste."

Marshall took a key from his inside suit pocket, unlocked the mysterious bottom drawer of his desk, and drew out a thick manila folder. He held it as though its paper-thin walls contained a very poisonous snake – one that could break free and bite us both. I saw my name was written on the folder in Coleman’s handwriting. It must have been written a couple of years ago, for it was in a good script, not with Coleman’s shaky hand of the past year.

"Okay," I said as I held out my hand for the folder. "I take it I will not be pleased with the folder’s contents."

"I don’t know about your pleasure, but I fear I will be earning my retainer when I have been looking forward to retiring in the near future."

"So, you know what Coleman has in this?"

"Somewhat. Cole wasn’t always specific, but he did tell me it was his final gift to you. I did his legal work on most of these acquisitions, and I tried to guess at their importance in your life. Cole said you would most likely require my fulltime assistance once you had this, and if you chose to take action."

I took the folder from his hand.

"Paige," his voice was almost pleading. "I am not and never was sure why Cole put this package together for you, but use the good sense you have conducted yourself with for the past years once you digest the folder’s content."

The folder was sealed with clear tape and Coleman had signed his name on the tape. It didn’t appear to have been tampered with since Coleman closed it.

"Should I read it here, or am I allowed to take it home where I can digest, as you put it, Coleman’s gift in privacy?"

"I think it will be wise for you to open it in privacy. Coleman was very specific this was meant for your eyes only."

"Is this all you have for me at this time?"


I almost told him he should have sent the folder through the mail instead of calling me into his office only to give it to me. After all, I was a busy woman who didn’t like being called into his office without a very important reason. I could not imagine what was in the folder that warranted privacy or care.

I was wrong. What the folder contained was shocking, disturbing, and maybe even fulfilling in a strange sort of way. I had been waiting all my life for this folder and what it contained. On the other hand, it could be the second worst thing ever to occur.

I laughed and I cried, two things I seldom allowed myself to do. I hated Coleman for seeing into my soul and knowing how I had been hurt. I loved him for caring and trying to rectify my hidden sorrows.

He had knowingly given me the final ingredients for my brew. I had told him only a little about my past. He had accepted what I told him without asking questions. Now, I knew why. He had a thorough investigation done of me - for me. If I so chose, I could destroy Jackson Winkerson, and I so chose. No one in the universe could hate a person as much as I hated Jackson Winkerson

My hands shook; I shook as I laid each picture on the bed. They were already paper clipped together pertaining to information. Coleman Cottumn was thorough in everything he did. All he had given me was factual beyond question. It was as solid as the law of the land and private to the point of being scary. Coleman had hired someone to help him gather all this information. Someone somewhere knew things I didn’t want them to know.

I consoled myself with the assurance that Coleman was a careful man. Whoever he hired to help gather information on me could be trusted to keep things secret.

I chose the pictures that were most important to me to look at first. From birth through her twenty-second year were pictures of a little girl slowly turning into a woman. I tried to see myself in those pictures, but I couldn’t, except in a close-up where she was about seventeen. There was something in her eyes, those wistful, sad eyes that tore at my heart and my memory. They were almost a reflection of my own eyes and I imagined they held an image similar to my sorrows.

It took me most of the night to digest all Coleman had placed in the folder. I surely experienced every emotion a woman could experience as I went over and over each article, deed, business transaction, and snapshot. The top of my queen bed, plus a portion of the floor were covered with documents. Coleman had done a remarkable job in his departing gift.

Never, in our twenty-some years of marriage, had I realized he knew so much about me without ever saying one word. There were things I had tried to bury deep in the past and pretend they had never happened. I owed him big time for the help he had given me when I needed it, as well as for his silence and secrecy when I needed that too. I only hoped having me as his wife repaid him a little. I knew nothing I ever did for him had come close to the gifts he had given to me.

Chapter 2

Springtime on the Platinum Coast of Florida is hot. Summer is sweltering. The rest of the time is rather tolerable. That’s why Coleman chose Naples Florida as a place to live fulltime after his eightieth birthday. Old joints hurt. They require excessive heat to ease their painful swelling. At first, he claimed the gentle salt water of the gulf helped keep him nimble and moving – if one could call the ability to walk upright nimble. He chose a high-rise on Park Shore to live in. High-rises and old men don’t compute. He sold it and built his retirement house on a five-acre tract in Port Royal. He had a beautiful old estate house torn down to enable the building of his house. I thought he made a mistake in tearing down the beautiful old house, but it mattered little. I remained silent and kept my objections to myself because a good man like Coleman deserved having what he wanted. Also, Coleman needed wide hallways, even flooring, and wide doors for him to get about with his walker and occasional wheel chair.

Coleman was a businessman and didn’t notice the things about Naples that I did. Being a country girl at heart, I loved to drive out into the Everglades and take airboat rides with the Wootens. We often glided through the dark water swamp and watched the birds being busy with their nesting and preening as they filled the branches of trees. Alligators would glide by the airboat, only a hand’s distance away, hoping for bits of food to be tossed into the water.

"Aren’t they dangerous?" I would ask.

"Only if you fall into the water," was the answer I got. "You become familiar with those gators and learn to respect what they can do to you."

I didn’t think I would ever get used to those gatoreyes looking up at me from the water as though they were considering how plump and tasty a meal I would make.

One of the policemen told me about riding in an emergency medical helicopter to transport a seventy some year old lady to the hospital. The lady ran a fish and bait business in the Everglades. She had taken a bait bucket to the water’s edge planning on dipping up a bucket of water when an alligator attacked her, grabbing her by the arm and then rolling in the water.

The policeman said the woman was lucky to be so brittle and birdlike. When the alligator grabbed her by the arm, the bone snapped in two, which kept her from being pulled into the water. He said the alligator was killed, cut open, and the arm retrieved, but the bacteria inside the alligator made it impossible to reattach the arm. The woman’s age was a factor, as was the abundance of bacteria in the remaining stub.

"A gator’s mouth is nasty," the policeman pointed out. "It’s difficult to get a gatorbite to heal."

However, the frail old lady did heal and took her missing arm in stride.

"Such things happen," she told the policeman. "I lived a blessed life out there in the Glades and I wouldn’t change a thing about my life."

Unlike the old lady, Coleman wasn’t satisfied with his life. He hated being old and unable to do the things that once came easy and natural. Old age did wicked things to the human body. Watching and knowing how hard Coleman tried to retain his abilities made me suffer right along with him. That is why I stayed as close to Coleman as possible, especially during the long and difficult nights. I had to be gone during the day to see that Cottumn Enterprise ran efficiently.

Cottumn Enterprises owns private jets and pilots. I used a jet often as I flew from Naples to other parts of the United States. Jet travel enabled me to conduct business and still stay close to Coleman. He liked having me near him, especially when he became less mobile and finally bedridden. Near the end, I think having a young wife confused his brain until he thought he was also young and would not die for a long while.

I believe people always die before they become satisfied with their life accomplishments. Once a degree of wisdom, along with experience, seeps into their old age, they have the greatest need to go backward in time and relive their lives over again, making sure they rectify the things they regretted not doing, as well as all those things they regretted doing.

Once Coleman took me under his wings, he wanted everything perfect for me. He did a fine job of giving me the tools in order to live in comfort and satisfaction.

On this trip, a jet would not be required or wanted. I had no need to rush back to Coleman, for he lay shrouded in marble. He would be there for a very long time, and I suspected I would remain where I was, determined to go for a long time. I now had plans.

I chose to drive the midnight blue Maserati sports car I usually preferred. I did want to show up in Boone, North Carolina in the Maserati. Jackson Winkerson wouldn’t be expecting to see me after all these years, especially in a Maserati.

Most likely he thought the miserable little girl I once was had wiled away her days in an institution, or faded away in death. At the very best, he would suspect me of having fallen into a life of poverty, marring some high-school dropout, having a house full of snotty-nosed kids, and was barely keeping body and soul together. I knew he wouldn’t recognize me, not after almost twenty-three years had passed. He certainly wouldn’t be expecting to see me arrive, much less arrive in style.

I had left the sultry morning warmth of Naples at five o’clock in the morning. Birds had come to life and the seagulls were calling. Mornings were my preferred time; everything is awakening with a sweet calmness in the air. Mornings are almost like a promise of good things to come before the intense heat burns the promises away.

There is something about driving the interstate when not many cars are on the road that appeals to me. The morning air is always sweet with a salt twang, and the rising sun touches something inside me. It gives me a kind of contentment that stirs up feelings and emotions – usually good ones.

This time those feelings and emotions weren’t good and I tried to make my mind go blank as I drove. It didn’t work. I realized I was letting my hatred for Jackson Winkerson get a renewed hold on me. I did need memory though. I needed to take a good look at my early life and what happened from the prospective of an intelligent forty-year-old woman. If there were heartache and tears inside me, they needed to be purged by the time I reached North Carolina. I should go back in memory, go back in time, rake up all the old hurts and deal with them. I had a thirteen-hour drive to do it in.

I suppose I should start my purging from the beginning – or the end, at least the end of my parents. I was twelve when my parents were killed in a car accident. Ashe County was a dry county at that time, but Wilkes County wasn’t. Folks drove Highway 16 to the county line to get and drink their alcohol. It was a drunk driver who hit my parents’ car. We were coming back from a Christmas shopping trip in Winston-Salem. Mother loved all the decorations, songs, and brightly colored lights that are shown during night shopping. I can still remember how she smiled and how she softly hummed the Christmas carols as though they held some sort of miracle. I now realize they made her feel excitement and joy instead of the everyday endurance of the humdrum, hard, continuous work of a mountain woman.

The stores were open late and Mother had stayed longer than Daddy wanted. He wasn’t happy about having to drive the narrow road of Highway 16 late at night. I had fallen asleep in the back seat of the car. Falling asleep saved my life. Had I been sitting, my head would most likely have been decapitated too.

I woke up in the hospital. A woman dressed in white was saying my name. "Katie, Katie Paige, can you hear me? Open your eyes, Katie. Open them."

Everything was white and hazy. I was afraid, and I hurt all over. I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing in such an unfamiliar place.

"Where am I?" I asked and found my head ached worse when I spoke. My throat was dry and my voice raspy, but I had to ask questions. Panic was growing in me along with the need to know what had happened.

"Here’s your grandmother," the nurse told me.

I saw the saddest face ever looking down on me. Tears were silently sliding down her cheeks and her usually neat gray hair was untidy.

"Ma?" I pleaded. "Why am I here? Where’s Mother and Daddy?"

"You were in a car accident," Ma told me as her soft hand reached out and touched my cheek as though her fingers could give me comfort.

I didn’t remember a car accident. All I remembered was falling asleep in the warm comfort of the car while Christmas music played on the radio. The vibration of the car engine had been such a soothing thing in the warm darkness.

"I want Mother," my voice whined without my consent.

"I know," Ma said and patted my hand while her tears ran down her jaws unchecked and dripped on the bedclothes. "Pa, will be here in a little while. He wants to see his little girl."

Four days later, I was released into Ma and Pa’s care. I did not get to attend my parent’s funeral. It was almost a year later, at a family decoration, that I saw their graves, side by side, with the huge marble monument bearing their names, date of birth and date of death carved on them. My grandparents had been trying to protect me from the horror and pain of the accident, but there had been no closure for me, only the memory of them in the front seat of the car before I fell asleep. I had felt so comfortable, so safe with them there making sure all was well in my life. When my eyes opened again, they were gone and my entire world had changed.

Ma tried to replace my mother, and Pa was nothing short of wonderful. He was an old-timey farmer. He loved land and everything that grew from it. He made a point of buying every acre of land he could obtain. Ma often commented that Wilson Henry Green was land poor.

"If it wasn’t for what he grows on it," Ma often said, "we’d be in the poor house or starved to death, one."

Pa would laugh when she said that and pat her skinny hindend. She’d quickly push his hand away and glance at me to see if I had noticed. She didn’t believe in showing affection in front of anyone. I’m not sure about in private, but they did have one child, my father.

Ma was the salt of the earth kind of woman, and Pa was hard-working and honest. He would do anything he could to help a neighbor, except for the things the neighbor should be doing for himself. Pa believed every man had the responsibility of taking care of his own family. He didn’t believe in the government taking money from those who worked and giving it to those who wouldn’t.

Ma and Pa lived modestly, to say the least, in a little white farmhouse with a tin roof. I still remember the sound of rain falling on that roof. It was a contenting sound, one that almost made me feel safe and cared for, even now.

My room had an iron bedstead with a real down-filled bed tick for me to sleep on. I can close my eyes and bring back the comfort of my bed as I sank into the fluffy feather tick. If it was particularly cold, Ma would warm two rocks on the wood stove, wrap them in towels, and put one near my feet and one near the middle of my back. She saw that I never had to crawl into a cold bed during the winter months.

Ma had a flock of white, long-necked geese that made a point of biting strangers. Twice each summer, I held their necks so they wouldn’t pinch a hunk out of Ma as she plucked them. After the plucking was finished, Ma would put the feathers in a cloth sack and bake them in the stove oven to kill any vermin hiding in the feathers.

"One thing we don’t need is chicken lice," Ma would say.

"Chickens have lice?" I asked.

"Most all animals do. Lice can might nigh plague them to death."

I shuddered at the thought of being plagued to death by a bunch of little blood-sucking lice. I knew even back then there ought to be a way to kill off things that plagued other things might nigh to death.

Pa had a tractor, a team of mules, a nice Ford car, and a worn Chevrolet truck. He taught me how to run a tractor, handle a team of mules, and drive the truck when he was loading produce such as hay, corn, or potatoes. The one thing I refused to do was drive the car. The car was a vivid symbol of death to me. It was the thing that had deprived me of my parents – that and men who drank liquor. I hated them both with fervor beyond description and reason. Neighter Pa, Ma, nor I ever traveled on Highway 16.

Ma and Pa seldom left the farm for any reason and I was glad. I would break out in a cold sweat when we drove to the store in order to buy a month’s supply of flour and sugar. Even riding on the school bus gave me the willies. I expected the young bus driver to wreck at every curve. Night trips were something I avoided.

I was strong and capable on the farm, but I was weak and afraid of the outside world. I trusted no one, made friends with no one. Ma and Pa were all I needed, and I was even afraid to allow myself to love them too completely in case they were taken away from me. It hurt too deeply to be stripped of those you loved. No emotions were better than raw, hurting emotions. Not having was better than losing.

I stayed to myself and became a silent child. I gave no one problems and did as I was told. I was a straight A student and the teachers said they wished all their students were like me. Such praise helped the other students to dislike me instead of simply ignoring me. I didn’t have one friend out of all my school years of acquaintances. I ate alone, walked alone, and stayed alone.

If Ma noticed my withdrawal or lack of friends, she didn’t acknowledge it or seem to think I was strange in any way. She often referred to me as a refined little lady. She often pointed out how other children were rowdy and vulgar, but not me. I was perfect with correct manners and respect for my elders. I knew it was a sin against God to say a bad word or even raise my voice, so I didn’t do it.

Pa praised me and called me his little tomboy. "You’re gonna be worth a million dollars to a man," Pa told me often. "You’ve not only got a head on your shoulders you can use, not to mention staying stamina in every inch of your little body." The praise of Ma and Pa satisfied me enough – almost.

There was still a need in me for friends and their approval. I sometimes dreamed of being the prettiest and most popular girl in school, but I knew neither would ever happen. Therefore, I assured myself that such things didn’t matter.

Something much greater and much more traumatic was kept hidden inside me. I had a huge, icy fear that froze up my insides. No matter what I did, I couldn’t free myself from it. I didn’t know what it was or how to cure it. I just knew a great fear hovered over me.

Ma and Pa were so proud of me that they didn’t realize something was wrong with me. They never saw that I was terribly afraid. The therapists Coleman sent me to finally made me realize I was abnormally frightened that all the bad things in life were going to happen to me. My fear couldn’t allow room for anything positive. If I allowed one good thing to enter my life, I was sure a dozen bad things would follow right on its heels.

"You refuse to trust," one therapist told me. "You’ve been hurt so badly, you refuse to take a chance on feeling anything other than anger. Even that, you hold inside without ever expressing it."

I did a fine job of it too. No one ever saw the anger silently boiling inside me, but I knew it was there.

The therapist would look at me and her eyes would try to bore into my very soul. "What happened to you, Paige, that caused this fear, this distrust, and hurt?"

"My parents were killed in a car accident. I wasn’t," I would tell her.

She would frown. "Your problem goes far deeper than that. Paige, you do realize I can’t help you unless you are totally truthful with me."

I realized it, but there were some things I would never tell anyone, not even Coleman.

"What else is there?" she probed gently as though she was a conspirator in my secret.

"My grandparents died when I was in high school."

"What else?" she insisted.

"I was deserted all over again."

"Did they die in an accident?"

"No, they died within weeks of each other. My grandfather didn’t want to live without my grandmother. It seemed I wasn’t reason enough to keep him alive. After his death, I was left completely alone and afraid." I told her and then was silent because I didn’t want to bare my life to her.

I had buried my sorrows deeper than the only four people who ever loved me were buried.

"And then what happened?" the therapist prodded me to continue.

I told a small portion of my story, but what I told was only a drop in the bucket with little resemblance to what really happened.

Her brows raised. "Did the truck driver who left you at the rest stop rape you?"

I wasn’t sure she was asking the questions for my benefit or for her own curiosity. Whatever her reason, I didn’t like her asking. Some things in a woman’s life should remain private, but I could answer this question of hers truthfully – almost.

"No, he didn’t rape me, although I think it crossed his mind before he got scared of getting caught."

How good I was at telling a little of the truth while leaving out all the details she wanted me to confess. I could have told her things that would have raised the hair on her head instead of her brows, but I wasn’t going to do it. I couldn’t do it, not now, not ever. I couldn’t tell anyone about the things that happened to me.

It was those things that started the poison building in me, and I couldn’t reveal my poison brew to anyone. It was what kept me going, kept me alive and determined. I had to give the poison back to the man it belonged to, and I had to give it back a thousand fold.

I was never a devoutly religious person, but I did believe the Old Testament was a reasonable and logical part of the Bible. It fit life and how people lived their lives. Especially the part about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

I was glad when she glanced at the clock on the wall and saw that my hour of time was up. Coleman had prepaid for a certain amount of visits and she wasn’t about to give me five minutes more.

"It’s time for my next patient," she announced. "I want you to think about our conversation and be willing to elaborate more fully on the events that transpired. We’ll go into greater detail at your next session."

She was wrong about that. She had all the details from me she was going to get. I kept all my sessions only to please Coleman. I never went into greater details, not the details that were really important.

Chapter 3

I didn’t stop for breakfast or lunch. I only stopped for gas and bought a quart of chocolate milk and a plastic pack containing a beef stick and cheese. I left Jacksonville and was almost to the Georgia line.

Georgia peach kept running through my mind. I remembered all the warm summers when I helped Ma can peaches. I remembered the freezing cold of working on the farm during the winters, and the wonderful aroma of Ma’s peach cobblers as Pa and I came into the warm house from doing up the work. How good the smell was, but not even comparable to how good the eating of Ma’s peach cobblers was. My heart started to ache for those two people I had loved dearly. If only I could turn back time and be their little granddaughter again, I would never let them out of my sight. How I would hug them and tell them how much I loved them – something I was too shy to do back then.

I found it difficult to believe I was going back to Boone, North Carolina and then back to Ma and Pa’s farm in Ashe County. I had done neither since the day I was forced to leave. I could have gone back thousands of times, but I chose not to do it. I wanted to leave that part of me far behind, bury my head in the sand and forget I lived before I married Coleman. I was ashamed of the person I was back then – the weak, frightened girl who didn’t know anything about life or how to fend for herself.

Slowly, very slowly, things had changed. My head came out of the sand and I began taking a different perspective on things. Maybe all those hours spent in the counseling sessions Coleman made me sit through were paying off. On the other hand, maybe I was finally maturing enough to see life as it really was, and had been back then. I blamed myself for being stupid and trustful. What happened was because of my lack of intelligence.

Regardless of the cause, things had changed and so had I. That girl had finally grown to be a zealous ball-kicking woman. One who took crap from no one; one who stood on her own two feet no matter what was thrown at her. Finally, after many years of self-inflicted torture, I became whole. I was proud of myself. But – and it is a very large but, it had taken a lot of hard work to change me – not to mention a caring man whom I had married.

I let my imagination drift backward to a more pleasant experience and felt my face smiling as I saw Pa in his bibbed overalls and sweat-stained black hat. The overalls were faded by the sun as well as from many washings in hot, soapy water. His hat had been worn for so many years it flopped in all the right places. Pa’s hat band was sweat- stained and greasy. I now loved that old hat because it smelled exactly like Pa. Back then I wasn’t as loving toward it.

"You need a new hat," I often told him.

He’d shake his head. "Girl, there’s one thing in life you need to learn right off. You’ll never have a dollar in your pocket if you waste money on things that don’t need replacing."

"You were so right, Pa," I said into the silence of the Maserati. "I took your advice and I have never replaced things when they didn’t need replacing, nor did I ever go backwards – until now. Today I was going backward to a place where I would be digging up dried bones when I knew good and well I should leave them buried. If I continued, I should face the fact right now that I would be opening up old wounds I had never allowed to properly heal.

Something happened to a woman after she spent years dreaming of revenge. She developed a need to fulfill those carefully laid out plans.

There was also something powerful about a brew that had come to a head. It screamed of the need to be used immediately. It had taken Coleman’s death and his final gift to put a strong, powerful head on my brew. I had to use it now or it and I both would explode.

I reached out and rubbed the leather on the Maserati. I was no longer afraid to drive a car. I was no longer afraid of anything. Time, education, and Coleman had taught me how to face problems head on and come out the winner. Because of this quality, I now had almost everything I had ever wanted, plus one thing more. I had absolutely nothing I cared enough about to be fearful of losing it.

I stopped at the Georgia Welcome Center, used the restroom, and drank a free sample of peach juice. I grinned as I tossed the paper cup into the trashcan. The Georgia peach was now competing with the Florida orange. I wondered if there was such a thing as an orange cobbler.

Georgia was not as hot as Naples. Her spring season was in full swing with an abundance of people in the Welcome Center’s parking lot, along with an abundance of flowers in bloom.

"The peach trees are pink, the air is sweet with pollen, and Paige Green will be arriving back at the farm before darkness has claimed the mountains," I proclaimed out loud as I got back into my car.

The sound of my voice in the cool enclosure of the car put chills on my flesh. It seemed impossible for me to be at Ma and Pa’s place within a number of hours. It seemed equally as impossible there was still a farm instead of a subdivision with dozens of people cramped together in cookie cutter houses. Jackson Winkerson was famous for ripping land into little pieces he referred to as his profit margins. The more margins he could create the more profit he made.

According to the deeds, Coleman had bought the bulk of the twenty-six hundred acre farm soon after he had met me, and before we were married. The parcels Winkerson had sold off were acquired throughout the past twenty years. Coleman had restored my grandfather’s land legacy, every lock, stock, and barrel of it.

I thought Jackson Winkerson had destroyed everything Pa had loved. I suppose that was one of the reasons why I never wanted to return to Ashe County. I didn’t think I could stand to see Pa’s farm after it had been subdivided into little square pieces belonging to hundreds of owners. That vision was one of the nightmares that had haunted my sleep.

I smiled because the tough ole broad who thought she had shed her lifetime supply of tears many years before, almost cried again.

When I turned off the interstate onto Highway 221 and finally left Chesnee, South Carolina behind, the air changed. No longer was there the memory of salt air and sun-baked sand in my nostrils. My ears no longer listened to the sound of sea gulls screeching. Now I was catching the faint wisp of chilly winds and rain-kissed mountains in the far distance. I was hearing the soft whisper of continual endurance, something that was bred into a true mountain person.

I longed to shove the gas pedal to the floor and fly, but I knew no cop would take compassion on a woman driving a Maserati sports car. Besides, I was just as hesitant to reach the place, as I was anxious to get there. I was both eager and apprehensive, fearful and excited.

I continued to long for what I could not have. I longed to return to the arms of Ma and Pa and be surrounded by their love. The few years I had spent in their care had not been nearly enough. I needed more time with them, needed to absorb more of their love so I could become a better person. Somewhere deep down inside myself, I knew it was wrong to be coming back with the intent of destroying a man, but a brew of poison was a strong thing. Its existence should be used to destroy him instead of me.

As I thought about returning home, I recalled books written by Thomas Wolfe: "You Can’t go Home Again" and "Look Homeward Angel". I knew those titles held way too much truth for me. The farm would never be home without Ma and Pa there. I couldn’t go back expecting things to be the same. The place would have changed just as much as I had changed, I warned myself in an attempt to kill my eagerness. If not kill, at least not to allow myself to expect too much. I had learned long ago never to trust good expectations. As for "Look Homeward Angel," I was going home, but I certainly was not returning as an angel – unless it was the black-clad angel of revenge.

By the time I reached Marion, North Carolina, I no longer wanted a heavy foot on the accelerator. The brakes were wearing heavily on my mind and under my foot. I could stop here, spend the night in a little motel, and return to Florida tomorrow after a night’s sleep. I didn’t have to go on. I could put my brew on hold – indefinitely if I so chose. At this point, I was the only person who knew what I had planned. The only other person who had guessed at what I wanted to do had died three months before. I would not lose face if I changed my mind and did not proceed with my plans.

Life could go on simply and quietly. I would remain the scared little girl who had vanished as Jackson Winkerson had planned. I would not return to haunt Jackson Winkerson the way an unwanted tomcat, who had nine lives did. I would not be the ghost who came back to torment the deserving. I would not see that death would be a pleasure for Jackson Winkerson. I would not become Jackson Winkerson’s biggest nightmare.

He could continue to be the big man of Watauga County. He could continue maneuvering people until he got them in a bind, and then take advantage of them until their hearts and souls were destroyed – the same way he had done with me.

Yes, I assured myself, I really could turn tail and run back to my now secure and privileged life, but I had other plans and those plans were pushing me hard.

I left Marion, drove through the little community of Woodlawn, and then began the climb up the mountain. I was shocked to find a golf course had been built while I was away. I was also shocked to find the Holstein dairy still in operation. I wondered how they managed to stay in business during today’s economy. I hoped they could continue. Not everything should be forced to change. It didn’t seem right that even the milk we drank be ultra-pasteurized and shipped to America from some foreign country. Small businesses, as well as small farms, should continue to survive no matter what powerful forces tried to stop them. I was once small while Jackson Winkerson was big. Goes to show that small things just might grow up to become big and powerful.

I gritted my teeth and took my mind away from Jackson Winkerson. There would be time for him later. I was going home after twenty-three years and I didn’t want to spoil it.

I had almost forgotten how crooked and narrow that section of the mountain road was, how sheer rock cliffs rose up from the narrow valley; how the Blue Ridge Parkway ran along the top of the rocky cliffs. I felt compassion for the road construction crews who built the road, and hoped no other crews would come in and rework the curvy little road. This road was a masterpiece that should never be destroyed – even in the name of progress.

I looked down the steep banks into the clear-running water that had cut a small gorge until it hit rock-bed. Its own special kind of beauty was touching my heartstrings. Some things had a God-given right to exist without being contaminated by so-called progress.

I had a renewed surge of hatred for Jackson Winkerson.

Chapter 4

When I was in the eighth-grade, our little school decided to have an eighth-grade graduation. Why? I never knew. I did know the county was in the process of building one large high school for the entire county, but it was not to be completed for three more years. I would have understood if our class was going into the new high school the next year, but we weren’t.

"They’re practicing on us," Billy Miller, a neighbor-boy who was older than me, but in my grade, told me. "This school will have an eighth-grade graduation every year once the new high school is built."

"They need three years of practice?" I questioned.

"Our school is the least progressive school in the county. They’ll mess up twice before they get it right the third time."

I supposed he had a point.

The girls were to wear white dresses and white shoes. I feared Ma and Pa would scoff at the idea of an eighth-grade graduation and forbid me to attend. I wouldn’t have argued, but I really did want to attend. I wanted to be like the other kids even when I wasn’t. They had parents and brothers and sisters while I only had Ma and Pa. The other kids were living in modern times, where I had been thrown backward into my parents’ time by being raised by my grandparents. It was evident that my grandparents ideas were not of modern day or modern ways. Ma still dressed me in clothes similar to the ones she wore as a girl.

Ma surprised me by having Pa drive us into town. She took me to Blackburn’s department store in West Jefferson. The sales clerk was well acquainted with the graduation. She had already sold six white dresses and knew just what I should get. Ma thought the dress was risqué, but she bought it anyway. I am still thankful to the sales clerk. The new dress made me feel and look almost beautiful. I was so happy with my new dress that I was laughing all over during the graduation. Several of the boys even noticed me with what I thought was admiration.

Ma and Pa both went to the graduation. When the graduation was over, tears were in Ma’s eyes and Pa had a strange expression on his face. I think they realized their little granddaughter was growing up no matter how hard they wanted to stop her.

Almost fifty years before, they had raised one son and I suspected they were at a loss at how to raise a girl child, especially when they were in their late seventies. I have to give them credit for doing the best job they knew how.

I now realize I was overprotected and kept in the dark about human relationships. They made sure I was never around farm animals when it was mating time or birthing time. I had no more idea what conception and birth consisted of than a crow had of the operation of a radio. All I knew was occasionally a rooster would hop on top of a chicken. When I asked Ma what he was doing, she said "fightin’" and left it at that.

I don’t blame them for my youthful ignorance. They protected me and gave me everything they could give. I only wish I’d had more time with them, time to grow up before I came into contact with Jackson Winkerson.

A young girl thinks about life to come, not about death to come. It never occurred to me that my grandparents were getting old and feeble. To me they would always be there even if my parents hadn’t been. I was devastated when I learned people died from things other than a car accident.

The sun was setting by the time I reached Boone. I considered driving straight through Watauga County into Ashe County, but I didn’t want to reach my grandparents’ place as dark was settling. I wanted to arrive in the morning when the sun was first rising. I remembered waking up of a morning and looking out the bedroom window. I would know what time it was by how far sunlight was shining down the mountain.

Many a morning, I would open the window and listen to the sound of Ma calling old Pink, her milk cow, to come to the barn. The sound of her voice let me know my world was safe and all was at peace. I swallowed hard and pulled in at the first hotel I came to. Oddly enough, it was Green’s Hotel. I knew they were a different set of Greens than my grandparents, but the name still touched my heartstrings. Deep down inside I was still Katie Paige Green and my grandparents were still as strong and powerful influence in my life as they ever had been.

Once I had checked into the hotel, and carried my small overnight bag into the room, I found the telephone book and started searching through the W’s. I half feared and half hoped there would be no Jackson Winkerson listed. There was, Jackson and Julie Winkerson. Of course, I knew he was still married to her. Coleman’s reports were thorough. Also listed was Winkerson Enterprises Inc.

I smiled. Jackson Winkerson didn’t know what was coming. However, my smile felt bitter upon my face.

Much to my surprise, I slept well and woke early. I bathed, checked out, and went to Golden Arches for a breakfast of pancakes and hash browns. I didn’t know if I would be staying at my grandparents’ place that night or not. If I decided against it, I could always check back into the hotel.

I found myself excited, and also hungry, as I placed my order. There was something vigorous about the mountain air that stirred my appetite. Across the street was the bank I would be doing business with, the one of whose stock I was the major holder. In other words, Coleman saw at his death, I all but owned that particular bank. I smiled. Coleman had also arranged for High Mountain Bank to always give easy loans to Jackson Winkerson, both personal and business. If that wasn’t assurance enough, Coleman had been the one to buy the bank loans on Winkerson.

Once I had finished eating, I stopped by the bank. It was a typical bank with mostly women employees. Only the bigwigs, or vice presidents, were men. It didn’t take but a moment to spot the head honcho. He sat behind his desk in a large glassed-in room. He was overweight, with dark thinning hair, beady little eyes sunk in folds of flesh, and lips a little too large and slightly protruding. It was easy to tell by his appearance that he had an overabundant appetite as well as an over abundant ego. Two people sat in front of his desk while he busily talked on the telephone, ignoring the nervous couple. The chairs in front of his office were also filled with anxious looking people waiting their turn with the important man. A gold-plated sign on his door read: Ron Jenson.

"May I help you?" asked a woman at a desk sitting in the middle of the room.

"I would like to open a bank account."

She nodded toward a smaller cubical without vice presidential glass. "Mrs. Early will take care of you. Just have a seat in front of her office."

I had about twelve-hundred dollars cash on me and decided I would open an account under my maiden name of Katie P. Green. That was the name on my social security card, which I still carried with me.

Mrs. Early allowed me to sit for ten minutes before she called me into her office. It was customary to keep clients waiting in order to make them think the person they were waiting to see was important and busy. I knew. I had done the same thing during my business ventures.

"How may I help you?" she asked after I was seated.

"I would like to open a checking account."


She seemed disappointed. I wonder if she expected me to be seeking a high interest loan. Loans were a lot more profitable for a bank unless the small checking account customer bounced a lot of checks. Bounce a five-dollar check and the bank got thirty-five dollars. Rather high interest in my opinion.

"I’ll need you to fill out these forms."

I filled out the forms and deposited five hundred dollars cash. She looked at the amount and seemed disappointed all over again as she thanked me for my business. I had an urge to remind her that banks made more money off poor people than they did from rich people. Poor people paid a lot more fees and overdrafts. The rich demanded and got special deals. Of course, the wealthy depositors did provide loan capital.

Today I had taken special care to dress in worn blue jeans and flannel shirt. Even my tennis shoes were scuffed and dirty. I was just another mountain woman without make-up, jewelry, or pretense. I knew I would be instantly forgotten.

It was Ron Jenson who lifted his head and eyed me as I crossed the bank lobby and exited the building. I could feel his gaze burning hot and curious. I knew he would have me checked out in the next ten minutes if not sooner. I didn’t go straight to my Maserati. I went around the corner of the bank where Ron Jenson couldn’t see me and waited. A man of middle age was getting into his truck and took time to say hello to me in the mountain-friendly custom. I quickly smiled back. "Do you know Ron Jenson?" I dared to ask.

"Everybody knows him. You new in town?"

"Yes, arrived yesterday. Why does everybody know him?"

The man grinned slightly. "Ron’s got his hand stuck into everybody’s pie. He’s Boone’s Godfather. The big daddy of the banking business. The know-it-all of everything that goes on or will go on in this town. If there’s a good thing going, he wants his cut."


"Sure. If you don’t believe me, just ask him." His grin widened as he got into his truck and drove off.

After a few minutes, I returned to my car. Waiting did no good. Mr. Jenson was watching to see who drove the Maserati. Oh, well. He would find out who I was soon enough.

Once I was on Highway 421 heading for Ashe County, I dialed my office in Naples.

"James," I greeted my secretary. "I need you to check someone out for me."

"Okay, but I thought you were on vacation – no business and all that."

"I am on vacation, but it doesn’t mean I’m brain dead. Thoroughly check out Ron Jenson for me. He’s the vice president of High Mountain Bank in Boone."

"It’s done."

"I’ll get back to you this afternoon," I told him and snapped my phone closed.

James had been my secretary for years. At first, I had referred to him as my assistant, but he quickly put a stop to that. He informed me he was a secretary and proud of it. I wasn’t to belittle what he did by trying to give him a fancier title.

I was surprised to find that most of Highway 421 had been four-laned. Twenty some years really had made a difference in Watauga County. At least the road between Deep Gap and West Jefferson hadn’t changed as much until it neared town, and then it too was four-laned.

I found myself dreading my first sight of my childhood home. The nearer I got to Pa’s place the more my hands shook. Goodness, if Coleman’s children could see me now they would attack instantly. Their animal instinct would know when their opponent was at the weakest point.

The road that once had been gravel was now paved. I knew Pa’s driveway to his twenty-six hundred acre farm would be paved also. Jackson Winkerson would have arranged for the state department to pave it for him. Winkerson was good at such political maneuvers.

I was gritting my teeth as I turned off the paved road and hit a chug hole. I didn’t believe it. The chug hole was there. Pa always hit that hole and Ma always fussed at him for doing it.

"Looks like you’d remember that hole as many times as you’ve hit it," Ma would say. "You’re gonna break the springs yet."

"Goes to show I’m no mule," Pa would tell her.

"Humph!" she would grunt.

I knew mules never stepped in a hole twice. A workhorse always did.

"Reckon you’re as stubborn as a mule," Ma would gently tell him.

"Strange, how I was gonna say the same about you."

Ma would grunt again and Pa would chuckle. I thought he hit that chug hole just to make her quarrel at him.

Hitting the chug hole now took me back with clarity I hadn’t expected. The dirt drive was exactly as it had been. Even the split rail fence still ran with the road where the fields of pasture grass were turning a pale green, but there were no cattle to be seen. Pa used to run fifty or seventy-five head on the pasture. He grew acres of corn and alfalfa hay. I learned to ride the tractor during planting and mowing; I was also good at spreading fertilizer. I could almost feel the bounce of that old tractor and the heat of the sun shining down on my head.

The trees growing on both sides of the road seemed to be the same and their limbs were still reaching over the road trying to meet in the center. Their early spring buds were just turning a pale green. I rolled down the window and breathed of the good earth. I could almost see Pa out there in the field turning the ground with his horse and plow. He always said his horse was far better to work with than the tractor. I think he loved that old horse like it was a person. I could all but feel the coolness of the soil on my bare feet as I walked the furrows behind Pa.

I forced my eyes to look away from the fallow fields as I took a sharp curve to the right. I hit the brakes and killed the car engine. There in the distance was their house. Nothing had changed, nothing at all.

The house was still small and painted white. The tin roof still glistened in the early morning sun. Even the lilac bushes were growing at the corners of the front porch. Still, there was a path leading to the barn. Nothing had changed. It was still there just as it had been over twenty-three years ago.

I fumbled getting the car started and gunned the engine so I could reach the house faster. I stopped the car in the front yard next to the steps. I jumped out and ran up the steps, onto the porch, and grabbed the doorknob. I expected the door to open and I would call out to Ma that I was home.

"I’m in the kitchen," she would call back.

I could smell supper cooking. Potatoes, pinto beans, cornbread baking, ham frying would fill the entire house. She would be putting three plates on the table without looking up as I entered. Her hair would be gray and fastened at the back of her neck. Her dress would be over-big and reaching her mid-calf. A clean, faded, bib apron would be around her neck, reaching to her knees, and tied at her back.

"Call your Pa. Supper’s ready," she would say.

The door was locked when I turned the knob. I wondered why. Ma never locked a door. There wasn’t any need when neighbors trusted each other.

"Ma, I’m home," I called out before I realized I had opened my mouth. I expected her to answer me back. She didn’t.

I jerked the doorknob hard out of pure disappointment.


I let out a whine and burst into tears. I had wanted her to be there so badly I was having difficulty accepting I wasn’t a girl any longer and Ma and Pa were long gone. Once realization hit, I sank down onto the porch and buried my face in my hands.

I don’t know how long I sat there crying, but my legs had gone to sleep and my nose needed wiping. Like a child, I rubbed my nose on my sleeve and slowly stood, reminding myself that I was a forty-year old woman and Ma and Pa had been dead since I was sixteen.

I remembered the keys Coleman had put in the folder and went back to the car to get them. I suppose the neighborhood had changed since Ma had been gone. I suppose doors needed to be locked against neighbors as well as strangers. The door may have even needed to be locked against Jackson Winkerson. I wished he had been locked out when I was young. I wished I had never set eyes on him, ever. But, as Ma always said, "It’s water under the bridge. We can’t go back and change what happened. We can only learn to live with it."

One of the keys fit the lock and the door opened with a squeak. The inside of the house was exactly as I had remembered it, except it now smelled musty and closed up. The wonderful aroma of Ma’s cooking no longer filled the air. The wood-burning cook stove was still there with the black pipe running into a red brick chimney. The little table we ate at was sitting where it always sat, but everything had dwarfed. There was a cold, lost feeling to the place because Ma and Pa were missing.

I wandered through the little house: the living room, the two bedrooms. Coleman had done a good job making sure it was the way it had been when Ma and then Pa died. I wondered how much trouble he had in doing so? My heart had a renewed pang of love and gratitude toward Coleman, the man – the husband, who had done so much for me.

I saw the two worn rocking chairs sitting together in their bedroom. I took each chair and returned them to the porch where they belonged. Occasionally on Sundays, if the weather was good, Ma and Pa would sit on the front porch and do nothing but rock for an hour or two. They wouldn’t talk; they wouldn’t nap. They would simply sit there together and silently rock as they looked out over their farm.

Ma had died first. She and Pa had gone to bed one night, but only Pa woke up. Two months later, Pa followed her to the grave. He seemed to have died when she did. It took the two months for him to stop breathing.

I wanted to stop breathing too, but I couldn’t. I lived in the house alone and continued going to school.

"A child needs to graduate from high school," Ma always told me. "For some reason, it helps you get a good job. Reckon employers think if a body was determined enough to stick it out through twelve years of schooling, they’ll be determined enough to stick out a job."

I could still hear her voice in the lonely little room. I had to close my eyes to get an image of her standing there. Ma and Pa could never be dead in my mind.

I sat down in one of the chairs and started rocking, simply rocking backing and forth.

Chapter 5

Pa came into my bedroom, something he had never done before. I opened my eyes to the darkness knowing something was terribly wrong. The wrongness hovered in the air as though it was smoke. I could smell it and taste it.

"Wake up, Paige," Pa said softly. "You best be gettin’ up now."

"What is it, Pa?" I lifted my head from my pillow in alarm. I thought the house must be on fire for Pa to enter my room and wake me up. He had a firm belief in privacy.

"It’s your Ma," he said and walked out of the room closing the door behind him.

Ma? I jumped up while listening for her morning sounds. There was no fire being built in the wood stove, no rattling of pots and pans, no calling for Pink to come to the barn to be milked. Desperately, I looked out the window hoping to see the sun coming down the hill. Everything was still dark.

I put on the first things I could grab hold of and hurried into the kitchen. Pa had turned on the electric light. He was sitting at the kitchen table beneath the naked light bulb with his head sunk into his big hands. His big raw-boned shoulders were shaking ever so slightly as he tried to control himself. Ma was nowhere to be seen.

"No," I gasped as I turned and ran into their bedroom. It was dark and silent. I fumbled for the string that hung from the center of the room where the light bulb was. Pa had never gotten around to wiring a light switch in this room. I was afraid of what I would see and didn’t want to fill the room with light, but I had to do it. When I did, I saw Ma lying in bed with the covers pulled up to her chest. At first, I thought she was sleeping. Her hair was spread out from her bun all gray and straight as it lay on the pillow. Her face was peaceful as though she was experiencing a wonderful dream. Her lips were smiling, but her face wasn’t right. There wasn’t any color in her cheeks and her lips were touched with a blue hue. Her face appeared powdered as white as the pillowcase she had so carefully washed and hung in the sun to dry before she had ironed it.

I jumped on the bed, grabbed her, shook her, tried to make her wake up and talk to me, but it couldn’t be done. Although her eyes were slightly opened, Ma’s body was cold and becoming rigid.

I got off the bed, went back to the kitchen, and started building a fire in the cook stove. If I got the fire hot, maybe Ma would warm back up and come into the kitchen to help me. Nothing could stop Ma from cooking Pa and me a good warm breakfast, nothing.

I ignored Pa, pretending he wasn’t sitting there with his head bowed as though in prayer. His hands still covered his face. His shoulders still shook.

Ma didn’t come when the stove was hot.

Finally, Pa lifted his head as though he had finished with something important. "I’m going to do the milking for Rose," Pa said. "I’ll be back after a while."

What about Ma, I wanted to ask him. Something needs to be done for her. It didn’t seem right to let her lie there in bed alone while things went on around her, but I couldn’t get a word to come out of my mouth. I only nodded at what Pa said.

He stood up without wiping the tear-streaks from his bearded jaws, got the milk bucket from behind the stove, and went outside while it was still dark. It wasn’t time to milk yet but it didn’t matter this morning.

I started fixing breakfast just the way Ma had taught me to do. When it was done, Pa still hadn’t returned from milking. I sat down at the table, put the same amount of food on my plate as I always put, and ate.

I was still sitting there when Pa returned from milking. "Strain this," he said as he looked at the food congealing on the table. "It’s time I be going to the preacher’s house."

He left without eating.

I strained the milk and put it in the new refrigerator Pa had gotten Ma just last year. I washed the strainer and milk bucket and then sat back down at the table.

That’s where I was sitting when Pa returned with the preacher and his wife. The preacher’s wife stayed with me while Pa went into town to buy a coffin for Ma. A short time later, several women arrived. I recognized them from church. They had been close acquaintances of Ma’s and were there to do what was right by her. They would wash her, dress her, fix her hair, and then have the men place her in the coffin.

They said a few words to me that were supposed to provide condolence and sympathy. They wanted me to know they commiserated with how I was hurting and they were sorry for Pa’s and my loss. One or two of them even hugged on me. That was when I decided it was time for me to leave the house and the care of Ma to these women. I went to the barn loft and buried myself in the hay, completely except for a tiny little tunnel the size of my fist where I could breathe fresh air.

No one came to find me, not even Pa. He had his own hurt to contend with. I understood his loss was as great as mine. I drew my body tighter in on itself as I listened to the hushed voices of neighbors coming and going. I had no idea what all those people were doing, but I couldn’t force myself to leave my hiding place. While I hid, I could pretend nothing had changed.

I didn’t want to see people, didn’t want to be talked at, didn’t want to be hugged. All I wanted was to hear Ma’s voice as she talked to her chickens while she scattered corn for them to eat. No one had fed her chickens today and Ma couldn’t abide for them to go hungry.

Chapter 6

"Who are you?" a man’s voice asked.

I nearly jumped out of the chair. I think I made some sort of startled sound.

"Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you," the man told me. "I’m Billy Miller. I was hired to look after the place. I was standing on yon hill when I saw your car arrive; I thought I best come down here and check things out."

I looked at him in astonishment. This couldn’t be the Billy Miller I went to school with. This was a squatty little man with his belly hanging over his belt buckle and his hair parted funny and combed over his thinning crown until it fell down onto his forehead. Years ago, Billy Miller had been slightly taller than I had been, along with being as skinny as a beanpole.

"You can’t be Billy Miller," I said. "Not the one I went to school with."

He ignored my remark as though he hadn’t heard it.

"Are you a real estate agent? Has Mr. Cottumn decided to sell the place after all these years? Can’t say as I blame him. No need to allow land to sit idle forever. It’s only costing him money. He must be getting on up in years. Gone plum eccentric, I expect. Old age does that to a body."

"Coleman hired you to look after this place?"

"He certainly did and I’ve done a fine job of it if I do say so myself. It wasn’t easy making the place look like it did before the old folks died, not to mention keeping it that away. Why, that old man had me searching three counties trying to find the original furniture when he could have afforded to buy new stuff for less."

I was still looking him over in disbelief. The years had not been kind to Billy and yet I couldn’t help expressing what I was thinking. "You’ve changed," I finally said as he paused to draw a breath.

"Changed?" he looked at me as though I was talking a foreign language. "How would you know? Don’t recall ever seeing you before."

"I’m Paige . . . Katie Paige Green."

"No, you’re not," he told me firmly. "You can’t be the Green’s granddaughter, not the one I went to school with, not little Katie Green."

"I suppose we have both changed a lot during the years," I said after I realized how different I must look to him.

He shook his head and moved a few steps toward me, leaned his weight on a porch post, squinted his eyes, and took a closer look. "Your face is different. Even your hair color is different. Everything about you is different including your voice."

I smiled. Everything about him was different too, and I hated thinking he had changed for the worse, but he had. Maturity had turned him into one of the homeliest men I had ever seen. To top it off, he wasn’t as tall as I was. He must have stopped growing in height about the time I left, when we were both approaching our seventeenth year on earth.

"I wouldn’t have recognized you either," I told him gently. "Time works her own kind of magic doesn’t she?"

He seemed confused as to what I was talking about.

"I’ve been gone a long time," I added. "I hadn’t expected the place to still be the same. It’s as though Ma and Pa should be here doing up the work."

"Like I said, I have worked hard to keep it the same, and I’m here to tell you, it hasn’t been easy."

"Mr. Cottumn insisted it be restored to its original condition, and what that man wanted he got."

Billy was right about that remark.

He frowned. "By the way, what are you doing here? I thought you left this place for good a couple of decades ago. Didn’t think you’d ever be coming back this way again. Heard you sold the place for a fortune, and then left town so fast your heels were smokin’ in the wind. Everybody got the idea you hated the place and couldn’t wait to leave it behind."

"I own the place," I told him.

"You bought it from Mr. Cottumn?"

I supposed he could say that, especially when I didn’t want to tell him I was Mrs. Cottumn.

"I didn’t hate the place, Billy," my voice was soft with emotion. "All these years I’ve wanted to return home," I told him truthfully.

The only problem was it wasn’t home without Ma and Pa here, but this was where I spent my childhood; and it was the only place special to me in the entire world.

"Couldn’t understand why you sold everything and lit out in such a hurry unless there was some young man involved."

I didn’t deny his statement or confirm it either, and he continued.

"I figured you cared more about this place than that. Take me now; I’ve never wanted to leave here. It’s where my roots are. I’d most likely die like a fish outta water if I was taken away from here."

I could have told him he wouldn’t die, but I didn’t say anything on that line. This place was where my roots were also. I had left them buried deep in the soil along with Ma and Pa.

"We all do foolish things." I told him without blinking an eye.

That was an understatement for me, at least when I was young. I wasn’t referring to my foolishness of today or tomorrow, or the poison I had brewing inside me. There was no doubt I would have been better off staying away. There was no doubt coming back served to open up old wounds. I just hoped I wasn’t also opening up new ones.

"When did you buy this place back?"

"It finally came into my hands a few days ago."

"You bought it from Mr. Cottumn?" he asked. It was easy to tell his curiosity was running over.

"He died about three months ago," I said as though I hadn’t known him at all, much less was married to him. "When his estate was finally settled, I got my home place back."

"I bet he asked a pretty price for it, or his estate did," he looked at the way I was dressed and then at my car as though those things would allow him to determine the status of my bank account. I understood his curiosity. He was trying to sum up my life by what was visible, just as I was doing with him.

"I would have spent my last dollar to get Ma and Pa’s place back," I told him.

"What did you have to pay for it? I bet it was a lot more than you sold it for," he flat out asked, obviously tired of beating around the bush.

I had no intention of telling him what price I had paid for it, even if I could have. The price was far greater than money.

"That’s something you’d have to discuss with my attorney and investment broker," I gave him the only answer possible.

His expression became incredulous. "You really don’t know?"

"No, I really don’t know, but I doubt it came cheap," I told him honestly. Coleman had been the one to foot the monetary bill.

He gave me a look as though he couldn’t believe a person would not know the price they paid for something.

"You’re telling me you allowed an attorney and an investment broker to determine what you paid for this place?"

"I thought it was the prudent thing to do, as they are far more knowledgeable than I am in such matters."

"I’ve been thinking about selling a part of my folk’s place," he told me. "I mentioned it to that real estate man, Winkerson, and to Mr. Cottumn. They are both interested, or were. I don’t suppose Cottumn still is, being he’s dead."

"What are you asking for the place?" I certainly didn’t want Winkerson to buy it. Then, on second thought, maybe I did if he intended to finance it through High Mountain Bank.

"I’m not sure. That’s why I was asking what you had to pay to get your old place back."

I didn’t want Billy to sell his land for a deflated dollar, even to me, so I told him what I was thinking.

"The economy has taken a downward spiral. It might be more feasible for you to wait a few years before you sell it."

He frowned. "I don’t know about that. I heard on TV there might be a double-dip recession in the making. Folks aren’t liking our president one little bit," he grinned. "Serves them right. It’ll teach ‘em who to vote for."

"I take it you voted against Obama?"

"Nope, I voted for him. Wanted to see what the man could do. Thought he might set things up to help out a poor man being he wasn’t exactly the political type, but I reckon I was wrong."

"Those who aren’t political types don’t go into politics," I told him. "Besides politics aren’t played by the person running. That person makes a good façade in hopes the general public will vote for the party’s man. Especially if he has a smooth voice and winning smile. The real politicians are behind the scenes pulling the strings of their marionette."

He seemed a bit bewildered at my little speech so I didn’t dwell on it.

"Oh, well, enough of that talk. I’m not one to go on about politics," he said as he looked me over again, and then took another inspection of my highly polished car. "What kinda car is that?" he asked.

I might as well tell him. After all, I didn’t drive the car to pretend I was knee deep in poverty.

"It’s a Maserati sports car."

"It looks expensive."


"How much did it set you back?"

I smiled. "A base price is around a hundred-fifty thousand."

His eyebrows shot up until they disappeared under the hair hanging down on his forehead. "You can afford to pay that much for a car?" he said in astonishment.


"If that don’t beat all. I reckon you must have married money," he looked at my left hand to see if I was wearing a wedding ring. I wasn’t. He wanted to ask more questions, but I didn’t want to provide answers.

"Enough about me. What about you? Are you married? Do you have children?"

I could tell he wanted my financial spreadsheet plus my life history presented before him, but the opportunity to talk about himself was still strong enough to induce him to leave me for a while.

"I’ve got a wife and one girl. We wanted us a boy too, but Pam couldn’t have any more kids. Something wrong with her insides. Had to have an operation after Kelly was born. Doctor said we were lucky to get Kelly. You got kids?"

I felt a stabbing pain that I hadn’t expected. "I’m afraid my husband and I weren’t so lucky. We didn’t get even one," was all I could or should tell him.

"Too bad."

"I have two stepchildren," I couldn’t resist saying, although I almost laughed at the thought of referring to Tessie and Coleman Jr. as my children.

"How old?"

I knew that was coming. "They’re grown," I said and hoped it was enough explanation to satisfy him.

"Kelly is grown too. She has one son. At least we got us a grandson to help raise."

"I bet you spend a lot of time spoiling him."

"Oh, yeah. That’s why I’m thinking about selling a parcel of my folk’s land. When he gets old enough for college, I want to have money in the bank to send him. I don’t want him to be stuck here on a farm doing maintenance work for rich old men the way I’ve been forced to do. What I want for my grandson, is to grow up and become somebody."

I tried to figure out how old his daughter would be. I’d been gone twenty-three years and Billy was my age. "How old is Kelly and your grandson?"

"Kelly is twenty-one and Willy is almost three," he said with a grin. "Kelly named him William after me, but we call him Willie instead of Billy."

I listened while Billy told about his grandson. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to have my very own daughter and grandson to brag about. It had to be really special.

A renewed surge of hatred for Jackson Winkerson shot through me. I wanted to jump up from the porch and return to Boone with my guns-a-blazing, so to speak. I wanted to hurt Jackson Winkerson in the worst sort of way. I forced my anger to go inward where I could store it along with the rest of my brew of poison. I didn’t want Billy to see anything other than a sweet woman who had returned home after her husband died.

"Are you gonna move back permanently?" he asked.

I suspected what he was getting at but was hesitant to come right out and ask. He was wondering if I was willing to hire him to take care of the place the way Coleman had.

"I’m not sure," I told him honestly. "I doubt I’ll be able to stay here fulltime for a while. I still have to work. Most likely I’ll need you to continue with the maintenance."

"What do you work at?" He seemed relieved with my answer but his curiosity sparked again.

"At an office in Naples, Florida," I told him hurriedly.

"Oh, I see. You’re a secretary."

I didn’t argue with him or correct him. "Where do you work?" I asked, wanting to change the subject from me back to him.

"I retired last year from the Electric Factory. Put my twenty years in and told them I’d been there long enough. Don’t draw much being I took early retirement, but me and Pam can get by if I do odd jobs and such. Thought about taking up farming but it cost more to farm than a man can make. Can’t even afford to raise cattle anymore. Fertilizer and lime are too expensive to spread on the grass and this land has been worn out years ago. It’s as poor as Job’s turkey. " He shook his head. "Life sure is tough on a poor man. At least Pam raises a garden and grows most of what we eat. She still works the night shift at the hospital."

"Is she a nurse?" I asked.

"Nurse’s Aide. She takes care of Willie during the day so Kelly can work at the Electric Factory."

"What does Kelly’s husband do for a living?"

He seemed a bit hesitant to answer, but he finally did. "Right after the baby was born, he took off and left her for a sixteen-year-old girl who liked to drink and party. Can you believe that? Left his wife and baby. Didn’t care nothing for either of them. She divorced him and sued for alimony and child support, but he’s a bum. Don’t work half the time. Dribbles her only enough money to keep himself out of jail. That’s why she lives with us."

"I’m glad you stopped by," I said wanting him to leave. I needed to be alone with my thoughts and memories. I wanted to reach out and touch Ma and Pa’s spirit if that was possible. I needed to feel them in the house and on the land. I feared during the time Jackson Winkerson had owned the place, it had somehow become contaminated, making Ma and Pa’s spirit feel unwelcome in their own home.

"I still can’t believe it’s you," he looked me over again. "You’re not the same Katie I knew. You’re, well, if you don’t mind me saying it, but you seem all citified and sophisticated," he grinned. "You even transformed from the ugly duckling to a swan."

"I don’t mind you saying it," I told him. "After all, I’ve spent a lot of time in cities. As for the ugly duckling, I’m afraid it’s still with me, deep down inside. I’ve always heard beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes all the way to the bone. Being ugly never seems to let us forget." I stood up from my seat. "Right now, I think I’ll lie down and rest for a while. I drove about a thousand miles and I’m feeling every one of them. Do come back soon and bring your wife and little Willie to see me." I said hoping to dismiss him in a neighborly way.

"I sure will," he said. "I know you’re tired. You look dead on your feet."

I gave him my sweetest smile before I went inside and left him still standing beside the porch.

I closed the door, crossed the living room, and went into the bedroom. I was unusually exhausted, although I had slept well enough in the hotel. I turned the covers back. It was the same bedspread, same quilt, same sheets that Ma had made for me. I touched them with loving hands, needing the feel of Ma upon my flesh. I slipped off my shirt and pants and crawled in bed much the same way I did as a child.

The softness surrounded me, the feather tick nestled against me, the covers tucked me in much the way Ma always did at night or during the day when I was sick. It was mid-day and I was sick all right, heartsick to my marrow, heartsick because I couldn’t go back and change what had already been.

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