Charlotte MacKinlay was just climbing into her buggy when she heard the shout. “Doc Charlie–”
It was Simon Capps. Simon ran the town’s general store, still called Capps’ Feed and Seed, same as when his grand-daddy started it, but feed and seed was only half of what folks bought there these days. He handled the town’s mail too, through a little window with a wrought-iron grille squeezed between a stack of burlap bags filled with grain and the big pickle barrel.
He was outside, loading bags of feed into someone’s wagon. When he saw her look his way, he held up a crooked finger. “Got somethin’ fer ya.” Then he dusted his hands on his apron, made his excuses to the customer he was helping, and hurried back inside the store.
Puzzled, she started that way, getting almost to the door before stopping. One hand went to her mouth. Oh, could it be… could it be her answer? After all these weeks? She felt a sudden surge of excitement.
He was waving a white envelope and grinning ear to ear. “This what ye been lookin’ fer, Doc? Somethin’ from Boston?” He laughed, yanking it back as she tried to snatch it from his hand. “Ha! Not so fast, missy. I knowed this was impawtant when I seen that postmark. They be wantin’ ye to come to their hifalutin’ college, ain’t they? Let’s see, here….” He scooped up his wire-rimmed reading glasses. “Yup… Boston Female Medical College, right here on the backside.” He peered at her over his square-cut spectacles. “You ain’t fixin’ to go up there and get all fancypants now, are ye? If ye do, don’t fergit ol’ Simon knowed ye when ye was knee-high to a grasshopper. Yer about sixteen, right?”
“Eighteen,” she corrected. “…well, almost eighteen.” She tried to calm her suddenly racing heart. “Can I have it now? Please?” Oh, come one, Mr. Capps. Stop teasing me! You know I’ve been in here every week asking about it.”
“Ye turned out plum purdy, too. Purdiest doctor I ever seen, that’s a fact!”
“Now, Mr. Capps, you’ll make me blush. I’m not a doctor… yet.” She tucked a wayward curl behind her ear, then cocked an eyebrow and held out her hand, narrowing her eyes. “I’m waiting.” When he finally placed the white square in her palm, it was all she could do not to bolt from the store and dance out into the street. This was it! This little creamy-textured envelope held the key to all her hopes and dreams. She clutched it to her breast and closed her eyes in a silent prayer of thanks. Months had passed since she’d posted the application with her reference letters and grades, but now her patience had finally been rewarded. Her dream of dreams was coming true.
Simon scratched his ear, then tugged at his long, gray whiskers. His bushy eyebrows rose expectantly. “Well, ain’t ye gonna open it? We’re all waitin’ fer the good news.”
She blinked. What did he mean ‘we’? How many people has he told? Everyone in town knew she wanted to be a doctor, but no one knew she’d applied to the college in Boston. She’d kept that a secret, telling no one outside her family. At least she thought it had been a secret. Simon knew only that she kept pestering him about a letter addressed to her. She’d never mentioned Boston or the college to him–never. Of course, he might have peeked at the envelope before he sent it on.
She tucked her precious envelope into her bag and smiled sweetly.
“I’m really sorry, Mr. Capps, but this is something I want to open when I’m alone. You understand, don’t you?” She patted the old man’s gnarled hand. “Don’t worry… you’ll be one of the first to hear the details. Be a dear now and don’t tell anyone where the letter’s from, okay?”
Clearly disappointed, he grunted, but followed it with a wink. “It’ll be our secret… Doc. Ye won’t ferget, now, promise?”
Once outside, her spirits soared even higher, making her want to dance all the way back to the buggy, but she spotted Gwen Freeman sashaying along the row of stores, coming her way. It would never do to let that blabbermouth see anything, let alone someone dancing for joy. Gwen seemed to believe it was her sole purpose in life to make everyone look bad in order to make herself look good. That was the onlyway she could look good. Why, even though her daddy had those incredibly fancy dresses made especially for her and shipped all the way from Paris, France, it did little to impress anyone… especially members of the opposite sex. And this rankled Gwen to no end. It wasn’t just that she was a little… homely, it was her … well, Grace would say it was her pure cussedness that made her seem so ugly in spite of her beautiful clothes. And she seems to take a special delight in finding something…anything to make me look bad. Heaven forbid if she saw me dancing in the street. She’d march right over to the sheriff’s office and have me thrown into jail. I only hope the news will reach her last, but even if it does, she’ll most likely be the first to find something wrong with it. And she’ll probably line up a dozen of her gossipy friends and what a time they’ll have.
The sourpuss turned right into Capps’ Feed and Seed! A good thing Simon had agreed to keep the secret because he was a bit of a gossip himself. Then again, he’d often said he preferred the company of horses to Gwen. Horses were better mannered.
* * *
“Well, Mr. Capps… I do not agree. Women aren’t meant to be doctors. They don’t have the temperament. Men are much more suited for the position in my opinion. Women doctors! What’s this world coming to? Charlotte MacKinlay seems to think that just because her daddy’s rich and the town is named after him, she can thumb her nose at convention and do whatever she wants. There are other people in this town who are just as important–maybe more so–who know what’s proper and fitting in the eyes of society. It’s people like her who make the wealthy look bad. We have a reputation to live up to, you know.” She pursed her lips in that way Simon hated. “And besides that, isn’t she almost eighteen? She needs to find herself a beau, settle down, and forget this doctor foolishness. I think it scares them off!”
Simon turned away so she wouldn’t see him roll his eyes. Dang it all, she had a lot of nerve to say something like that against Doc Charlie. Why’s she so worried whether or not Charlie has a beau? Probably wants to get her married off so she won’t have the competition. What was she… twenty-two, twenty-three? Practically an old-maid. She oughta be worrying about herself! Horse-faced little…. Hmmpf! Wealthy citizens look bad, indeed. She didn’t need anyone helping her to look bad. She handled that just fine by herself. “Now, Miz Freeman, Charlie’s been doctorin’ fer so long it’s really jest a f’mality anyways. Besides, our town of MacKinlay needs it a doctor, wouldn’t ya say? Closest one we got is Doc Fletcher way over in Hendersonville, and he’s a good hour away even with a fast horse.”
She gathered her packages after counting out her money and dropped the coins one by one into a little black drawstring purse. “Yes, the town does need a doctor, Mr. Capps, but we need a real one, not a woman.” She nodded once, firmly, as if punctuating her remark with her sharp chin. “Especially not Charlotte MacKinlay.”
* * *
She couldn’t recall getting out of the buggy or entering the house, yet here she was–alone–standing in the living room at Golden Apple Farm with the answer to her dreams held in her trembling hands. She took a deep breath; then gently slipped her finger under the flap, easing the envelope open. Another deep breath did little to calm her racing heart. If only there were a way to capture moments like this so she could look back sometime in the future and relive her feelings.
The folded letter inside was the same expensive, creamy-colored paper. She smiled as the letterhead came into view–Boston Female Medical College, all in a deep blue, with a lovely red shield. Wow! A shiver ran down her spine.
Then she unfolded the remainder.
* * *
Maybelle cringed when she heard that loud, nasally whine that seemed to reach–like bony fingers–from the front porch to the kitchen where she was busily preparing dinner. Oh, how she hated that sound! If she hurried, maybe she could keep from having to hear it again. She grabbed a towel and nearly sprinted toward the front door, drying her hands as she went.
“Daa-ddy, where are you?”
Too late. “He ain’t here, Miz Gwen. He say he had ‘portant errans’ he hadta do. He be back direckly.”
“Another errand, Maybelle? Did he say what it was? I neeeeed him.”
Maybelle clenched her teeth together and fought the urge to roll her eyes, choosing to stare at the floor instead with what she hoped was a submissive expression. She’d learned over the years–the hard way–that her mistress wanted people to bow and scrape for her; all people were considered inferior. Especially servants. “No, ma’am. He just say it was ‘portant. He be a busy man, that’s a fact.” She snuck a peek through her lashes; watching the young woman stop in front of a large gilded mirror to adjust a curl or two so they would lie just so. Gracious! That woman couldn’t be any more stuck on herself if she was covered with honey poured over top of long sweetnin’! No wonder Massah Freeman stays away so much of the time since Miz Phoebe died. Cain’t say that I blame him, but he’s a reapin’ what he’s sowed now.
Gwen sighed, “I know, I know. It’s one of the many trials of our being so wealthy.” She sighed again. “Oh well, it can be discussed later. I’m going to lie down for a few minutes before dinner. Something I heard in town has given me a splitting headache. Maybe a rest will help.” She started up the stairs. “You’ll let me know the minute Daddy arrives, won’t you Maybelle?”
“Yas’m, Miz Gwen.”
* * *
“Oh no! No, no, no!”
Charlie crumpled the thick, expensive paper to her chest then flung it to the floor in disgust, giving it a stomp for good measure before sinking dejectedly into a nearby chair. She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, shoulders drooping; her eyes fixed on the wadded up missive. Her world… all her hopes and dreams… had just crashed down around her. She should at least be able to see it–to reach out and touchthe pile of rubble, but the only thing to show for it was this stupid piece of trash. Her entire future was represented by a single sheet of embossed stationery lying at her feet. She felt a tear zigzag down her cheek to the corner of her mouth. The tip of her tongue tasted the saltiness.
No! She reached up a hand to angrily dash away the tear. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. But her eyes kept filling in spite of her determination and she finally gave in, crossing her arms over her lap and dropping her head on them in misery.
Why? Why? All she’d ever wanted to do was study medicine… to be a doctor. A real doctor, to not just have the nickname ‘Doc Charlie’, as the people in town called her. What was so wrong with that? For as long as she could remember she’d dreamed of it. As a little girl she’d doctored pets, her doll, family members, her friend, Hannah…. At first they’d just humored her, thinking it was a passing phase, but after years of unwavering interest, they’d finally started taking her seriously. She lifted her head and stared dismally at the letter, then reached out to retrieve it, smoothing the wrinkled mess as best she could. Her slender finger traced the embossed seal at the top of the paper. How could something as simple as this single sheet represent the end of a dream?
Dear Miss MacKinlay… The words suddenly blurred and she blinked away new tears. …Thank you for your application to Boston Female Medical College. Although you have not only met, but exceeded our entrance qualifications and your references are flawless, we regretfully must deny your acceptance into our program. Our roster has room for the twelve best-qualified women in the country, but unfortunately, the positions have all been filled. We encourage you to re-apply in two years….
Two years! Two whole years! It might as well be twenty for all the good it did her. This had been her only chance. She’d bargained, cajoled, and pleaded to convince her daddy to let her send in her application. Thankfully she hadn’t had to get on her hands and knees and beg, but she would’ve if necessary. Daddy had the old-fashioned opinion that a woman’s job was to marry, have children, and keep the home fires burning… in that order. But her dream was so much more. Why couldn’t a woman be just as good a doctor as a man? That hogwash about higher education in women resulting in decreased reproductive capacity was only a straw at which some men grasped tightly in order to keep women at home… where they belonged. Well, she believed differently. It wasn’t that she didn’t want a husband and children of her own. Of course, she did. It’s just that she believed in her heart–fiercely believed that God had something more planned for her. He’d given her this ability and she wanted to use it to help people. But the only medical school that accepted female students was in Boston–so far away from MacKinlay, North Carolina. And now….
That the all-too-familiar ‘bang’ didn’t follow the screech let her know who was coming–Mama! She hastily wiped the telltale streaks from her cheeks and tried to smooth back her hair. Finally giving up, she tucked an unruly strand behind her ear then folded the sheet of paper and hurriedly stuffed it into its envelope. Under a fold of her skirt it went, just in time. Her mother glided into the room looking cool and beautiful. Her mother always looked cool and beautiful… serene… nothing ever ruffling her feathers. She’d never seen her look otherwise. The very qualities she’d given up ever attaining.
“Charlotte, honey, what’s wrong?”
She sighed. Why on earth had she thought she’d ever be able to hide anything from those all-seeing green eyes? Slipping the letter from under her skirt, she held it out, her hand trembling slightly as she did. She watched as her mother read the return address and dropped her eyes, waiting for the ‘I-told-you-so’ that would come next. Her mother always seemed to echo the opinion held by her father… a woman’s place is in the home…. Hadn’t she tried time and again to teach Charlie all the typical female-type skills with little to show for her efforts?
A long silence stretched between them. It seemed to draw tighter and tighter with each tick of the grandfather clock. Why didn’t Mama say something? What was taking her so long? Finally, when her nerves were stretched as taut as the interminable silence, she heard the swish and rustle of Mama’s skirts as she moved to sit in a chair opposite her. Okay, here it comes…. She glanced up and was surprised to see a glimmer of unshed tears making her mother’s eyes look even more like emeralds. Tears? Had she been mistaken about how her mother felt about all this?
“Charlotte, I…” Her mother insisted on calling her by her given name.
“Mama, please don’t try to tell me that this proves that I’m not supposed to be a doctor, I can’t accept that. No… I won’t accept that. And I’ll never be like Elizabeth no matter how badly you and daddy want me to be like my sister. There’s something more for me. I can just feel it. To my way of thinking, any woman can be a homemaker, but it takes a calling… a… a touch from God, if you will, to be a doctor. It’s a God-given gift. Can’t you understand that?”
“I understand more than you think, Charlotte. Sometimes I believe you were born a century too early.”
A century too early? Sometimes Mama said some really strange things. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She shook her head and handed the envelope back. “Nothing. Forget I said that. Charlotte, you know life here on earth is like looking at the backside of your needlework. The knots and color changes aren’t too pretty from the back, are they?”
“No, and mine’s not even that great from the front. It looks more like a tangled mess. Maybe Elizabeth’s….”
Her mother smiled. “Elizabeth’s needlework is an exception. She prides herself in having the back as neat as the front. What I’m trying to say is the under-side–the tangled part–is what we see in this life. But the Lord has a different vantage point. He’s looking at the whole picture from above. He knows when we need a ‘color change’ in order for our lives to be the most beautiful picture possible. Color changes aren’t very pleasant, they look really ugly and tangled to us, and sometimes they’re downright painful, but they make a more beautiful picture of our lives from the Lord’s perspective. It would be a pretty boring scene if it was all one color, wouldn’t it?”
“Let me get this straight… you think this …” she indicated the letter. “…is a ‘color change’ from God?”
“Yes, I believe it is. Your job is to wait and see what color He’s going to pick next. And that might be hard because our timing and God’s can be so different from each other. Think you can do that without fretting yourself to death?”
“Good girl. I…uh… what did you say?”
“I said no! You’re telling me that God did this? You mean the God who’s supposed to love me?” Her tears were back–hot and angry–streaming down her cheeks.
Charlie jumped to her feet. “God knew how much I wanted to be a doctor. All my dreams since I was a little girl… for as long as I can remember… have revolved around being a real doctor. He knew how utterly and completely I wanted this, no… needed this. And now you’re telling me He did it because He loves me? If that’s how He shows love, then maybe He’s not the God I thought I knew after all!”
She whirled, rushed from the room and was nearly out of the yard before the door banged shut.
* * *
Emma’s sigh was lost in the slamming of the door.
Grace shuffled into the room. “Does that slammin’ mean Miz Charlotte’s run off to doctor somethin’ again?”
Emma shrugged helplessly. “Grace, what in the world am I going to do with that girl? She didn’t get accepted into that medical college. Even worse…she’s blaming God. Claims that the God she thought she knew wouldn’t hurt her like this. I know Gavin will look at this as God backing up what he’s thought all along–that her place is in the home, but she can’t do the simplest of ‘homemaking’ projects. How on earth can she sew such a neat seam on people, but not cloth? She can’t make the simplest of garments! She can cook only to the extent of mixing up her medicines, and I’ve given up on teaching her to spin or knit. How is she going to function in her world when she balks at every skill I try to teach her? She has absolutely no interest in any ‘womanly’ arts. Her only interests have to do with medicine, and well, I guess being outside with Gavin and her brothers working in the orchard or gardens because she likes hunting for plants she can use as remedies.”
The housekeeper chuckled good-naturedly, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with her a’ bein’ in the garden, Miz Emma. It’s only natural… seein’ as her daddy loves his land and growin’ things so much. And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with her wanting to doctor people either. Massah Gavin’s just got to understand that his little girl ain’t little no more and she inherited the MacKinlay stubborn streak that’s even wider than his. As for her bein’ mad at God… well, Miz Emma, you done raised that girl right. She’ll figure it out; jest give her a little time.”
“I know, I know. I just hate to see my children hurt. She’s strong, but is she strong enough to get through this?” Emma’s finger traced the outline of the floral print of her skirt. “But back to her wish to be a doctor… she’s a girl. And this is 1849. Girls are supposed to do girl things. A doctor? Grace, women can’t be doctors–that’s a man’s job in this day and age. Well, I guess a select few are finally getting trained for that field now, but she’d have to wait two more years to reapply, if Gavin would even let her reapply. Which I doubt. He made that promise to Ian, you know.” Another sigh escaped her. “Now, if she lived in a different time, her attitudes wouldn’t seem so outlandish, but…” she shook her head. “…people talk….”
“Let ‘em talk, Miz Emma. Let ‘em talk. You can’t make her be something she ain’t,” she replied in her philosophical manner as she turned back towards the kitchen.
* * *
All dressed for May in their cottony white blossoms, row upon row of apple trees wafted their sweet perfume through Emma’s open window, turning her mood pensive as she savored the luscious scent she loved so much. Sometimes it was difficult to believe everything was real even after all these years. Yet there stood the gate–mute testimony to things beyond all understanding. It had been rusted shut another lifetime ago, stained with time and neglect.
Her thoughts drifted back to Charlotte and Grace’s words of wisdom. You can’t make her be something she ain’t. Eight simple words that spoke volumes of truth. Maybe Grace was right after all. Charlotte had a right to pursue her dream–even if it was becoming Doc Charlie. If things didn’t work out, well then, at least she’d tried, and thanks to that letter from Boston, it looked as if she’d have to wait anyway. Things always had a way of working out in time.
* * *
Daddy didn’t need any help in the orchard, but that’s where Charlie was heading. He and the boys would all be out in the sapling area inspecting the young trees at the far end and planting new ones. Oh, well, she could always take the longest possible path out there, wandering among the trees while she dealt with her thoughts.
She stopped briefly to pinch off a leaf from some wild bergamot and popped it into her mouth, enjoying the tang. How resourceful those early settlers had been, bucking the English oppression and coming up with a clever alternative for English tea rather than paying the king’s unreasonable taxes. Good for them! She felt the corners of her mouth tilt upward, ever-so-slightly.
Pink and white blossoms were drifting down like confetti from the tall, old apple trees surrounding her. How could the same God who created such beauty, who gave such attention to detail in nature, seem to have utterly forgotten her? Her eyes drank in the scene thirstily, as if it could assuage the pain of the betrayal. Long minutes of meditative silence brought a slight calming to her spirit. How could anyone despair in such a setting? No matter what the future held, it was wonderful to be alive and enjoying the Lord’s beautiful world! Oh the fresh, sparkling air of her beloved mountains!
Not at all like those unpleasant visits to Raleigh. And Boston? Why the very thought of living there for two years would have been worse than awful. The noise, all those people, the feeling of being closed in–oh, if only there were a medical school in Asheville. How heavenly it would be if she never had to leave her home with its cool breezes, wide open spaces, and the hazy, blue mountains in view from every direction.
This is where my heart is… right here in MacKinlay, North Carolina!
* * *
Despair had begun to lift just a bit, like the fog that morning. The rising sun had been barely visible through the gray mass, but once it warmed the air, the fog swirled and lifted, finally burning completely away. What at first seemed a complete barrier was now no more than a memory, so maybe the barrier blocking her from her dream would disappear too, if she’d only be patient. Patience didn’t seem all that easy at the moment, but her mother’s example of life being like needlework held a semblance of hope, and hope in any form was enough for now.
The sun was going down and now was the perfect time for seeds, starts, and saplings. They were always planted before sunset to assure a good night’s rest before sprouting the next day, a secret she’d learned as a little girl. Daddy learned that and other such secrets from his own father. Not secrets, really, just things most folks never learned, like the potato birds that had been set out just yesterday. Just potatoes on a stick with feathers stuck into them, poked into the ground, but they did a neat job of deterring pesky crows intent on stealing the newly sown seed. She hadn’t given it a thought when she’d passed the kitchen garden earlier, they were so much part of her world now. Silly things, really, when you came right down to it.
Well, there wouldn’t be any of those in Boston, either.
Voices? Well, of course, since Daddy and her brothers were just over the hill, but angry voices loud enough to be heard from this distance? What on earth–why, it sounded like a confrontation of some sort. Thomas and his temper again? Maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to appear on the scene just now, not until she learned what it was all about. She detoured around the last curve of old trees, then squatted into the grass, straining her ears to catch more of whatever was going on. Eavesdropping was the only way, since the men never told her anything on their own. Besides, how could anyone blame her for overhearing something spoken in the middle of an orchard?
She could almost hear the words. Maybe if she crept closer… a little at a time. If the men weren’t looking her way….
There… Thomas, stood shoulder to shoulder with William, Michael and Douglas, and in front of them stood Daddy. Careful…they were all facing partly her way, confronting an obviously irate man who happened to be shouting at that very moment. His back was turned, but she could see her father’s face, and the elder MacKinlay would have appeared unaffected by the furor to anyone who didn’t know him well.
She knew differently. That hard glint in those sapphire eyes… she could see it even this far away… and the line of that infamous MacKinlay jaw whenever he was exercising restraint. Her brothers looked grim as well. Thomas was as red-faced as his hair! But who was the man they were all facing? And why was he out here in the orchard for Heaven’s sake? He’d ridden out there on horseback, coming in from the back way, and his horse was tied to one of the saplings; that in itself was enough to earn the man more than a few hard words… and yet he was the one shouting.
He jerked the tether off the young tree and got back on his horse.
“I’d hoped you’d be a reasonable man, MacKinlay. I can see I was mistaken,” he sneered. As a final shot at the group–was it a warning?–he twisted in his saddle and shouted, “You’ll be hearing from me again!” With that, he savagely yanked the reins, dug in his heels, and the surprised horse barreled past her so closely the sudden rush of air whipped her hair into her eyes. Shivers rippled up and down her spine. Whit Freeman! She should’ve guessed. The very thought of that man made her skin crawl. Oh, he pretended to be a fine, upstanding citizen of MacKinlay, but he was as crooked as the day was long. A man without a conscience. Whit Freeman operated a very lucrative side business… moonshining. And everyone knew the sheriff was just as crooked–probably on Freeman’s payroll–so the ‘shine’ just flowed on and on, poisoning everyone it touched. Most often those least equipped to resist its horrible effects were the very souls tempted. Freeman never cared about all the people it hurt–wives who got beat up when their husband came home drunk, hungry children who’d cry themselves to sleep because their daddy spent any money he had on liquor instead of food.
But what in the world could have brought Whit Freeman out here, and why was he so furious? Her brothers were all speaking at the same time, each trying to drown out the others like so many angry geese. Geese might even be better mannered.
She got to her feet and placed her fingers to her mouth the way she’d been taught, producing an ear-splitting whistle. It worked. The male members of her family turned in shocked silence.
“There! That’s better.” Satisfied, she smiled. “Now, can one of you calmly tell me what’s got Mr. Freeman’s knickers in a twist? He nearly rode me down on his way out here. Daddy?”
Her father gave the others a quick, warning look before answering. “It’s this simple, Charlie. Mr. Freeman has made me an offer for some of our land and doesn’t understand the word no.”
“What? He wants to buy our land? Why? He doesn’t even grow apples.” He wants to grow more corn and rye, that’s what.
“He says he wants to extend his horse farm. He’s just back from Europe and it seems the demand over there is for something called planned equestrienne communities. He wants to bring ‘culture’ to MacKinlay, in his words. Seems that he has a vision of how he wants MacKinlay to be.”
“But he’s not the one to decide that, is he?”
“He is if he’s got the sheriff in his pocket,” Thomas muttered.
Her father gave him a sharp look; then seemed to choose his words carefully. “It’s just that Mr. Freeman thinks everyone has the same love for money that he has, Charlie, and he can’t understand someone who doesn’t. Anger is his way of coping with what he doesn’t understand. Deep down, he must be a very unhappy man.”
“A kick to the seat of his britches would help,” Thomas muttered again. His comment got him one of said kicks from Michael.
“Boys, you know better than that.” It was Daddy’s usual tone of stern admonition, which produced the expected downcast looks and some mumbled ‘yes, sirs’. Then William snuck a sly glance at Thomas, or was it the other way around, and suddenly the orchard echoed with loud guffaws and thigh slaps. Gavin’s sober mood evaporated as well, yielding a smile at their antics.
But even though she halfheartedly joined in, she couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder. Everything about Whitcomb Freeman the Third seemed evil. She’d seen it in his face, heard it in his voice, but he was right about one thing and it wasn’t something to laugh about.
They hadn’t seen the last of him by any means.
* * *
Whit placed his hand on the thin shoulder of the young man who bore his name. The gesture was an uncomfortable one for both men; there’d been little physical contact between them for years.
“Whitcomb… son… I know this seems like an extreme measure to take, and I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t feel it was absolutely necessary–distasteful as it may be. You know as well as I do that MacKinlay is a stubborn man. I feel the only way to make him see reason is by going through his children. My attempt at discrediting that wife of his sure backfired on me, so maybe this route will work instead. You understand, don’t you?” Without waiting for a reply, he forced a smile and patted his son’s shoulder. “Now, let’s go over the plan again….”
The hillsides were covered with blossoming trees and that light green seen only in spring. And the air was so fresh and invigorating. So unlike the urban sprawl and smog-filled skies of Atlanta. A girl could get used to this in no time. The thought brought a smile. There, the second apple-farm in a row, all in bloom, and ahead, another of those bronze signs with historical information. Time to slow down again. Some of them were interesting.
This one was more than interesting. It was intriguing:
Half-Way Tree: (a.k.a Hanging Tree) named by Cherokee
Indians as the mid-point between the Asheville trading post
and the settlement of Nowhere. Early settlers knew it as the
Hanging Tree; referring to its leafy boughs as
“half-way between Heaven and Hell.”
The sign gave no mention of the tree’s location, although such signs were usually posted fairly near the site of interest. She’d have to ask someone in town where it was. If the tree were picturesque, she might use it as the subject of a painting. The prospect of discussing such things with her new neighbors was exciting.
MacKinlay, the town named after her ancestors, was five miles ahead–a matter of a few minutes. What would it be like? All she’d been told was that it was a typical small town. Typical of what, and to whom? People like her attorney Anthony who lived in Atlanta?
But half a dozen minutes later she’d have echoed the word “typical.” MacKinlay was charming and small, with antique shops and quaint restaurants, a florist shop, the typical hardware store displaying gardening supplies in the window. And there, next to a Norman Rockwell-type barber shop with the red-and-white striped pole by the door, a drug store, complete with a bench out front for old men to sit, whittle and gossip.
Everywhere she looked there were window boxes brimming with the riotous color-of-spring blossoms. The only things missing were horses. Somehow, cars seemed out of place on the streets, which should have been dirt, not asphalt.
It was the real-life version of fictional Mayberry, USA. Where were Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife? The thought brought a smile.
She drove completely through the main section, going around the town square twice. Picnic tables were sprinkled there, along with a small playground, a gazebo, and fountains. And in the center, standing proudly, was a statue. Statues usually represented one of the town’s revered heroes. Who would this little town have for their hero? She had to see.
She swerved impulsively into an empty parking spot. No one was there in the square; no children playing in the playground, no adults feeding the squirrels that scampered across her path, unnoticed. No one sat in the gazebo; no one admired the fountains or sat at the picnic benches even though the morning was glorious.
It seemed somehow strange, but then maybe that was how small towns functioned. Perhaps people came out only on Sundays, or maybe all the kids were in school. At least there were people on the sidewalks. At least the town had sidewalks!
The massive bronze sculpture was at once so mesmerizing that everything else in the square became a blur, merging into a long tunnel with the statue at the end, bathed in light. Something was pulling her forward, or was that a gentle shove from behind? Either way, the sensation was dreamlike. Was she actually walking? It was more like floating.
Then suddenly a bronze giant was staring down at her, looking almost as if he were waiting for her to come up and shake his hand. Time stood still.
Her eyes dropped to the plaque.
Presented in Appreciation toOur Town’s Namesake –
Gavin Douglas MacKinlay
May 15, 1827
So this was Gavin MacKinlay. If one generation were taken as twenty years, that would make him G-Jane’s–she counted on her fingers–great-grandfather, which made him her great-great-great-grandfather. Was that right? Well, give or take another “great.” Wouldn’t it be something if any kind of resemblance remained after all those years?She moved to one side and studied the bronze head, but there was nothing significant in the profile. Maybe the other side? No, that was the same as… Wait! The chin and jaw-line… were they? Yes, they werethe same as G-Jane’s! If she squinted a bit, she could almost place her grandmother’s profile against Gavin MacKinlay’s and that portion would be a perfect match.
And I resemble G-Jane the same way she resembles him.
It had always been referred to as the “that Thomas chin.” Sam had teased her about it, said he could always tell when she was ticked off about something because it jutted out when her teeth were clenched. She had inherited it from her dad who had gotten it from his mother, G-Jane.
They’d all thought it began with Jane, but it must have been dominant trait a whole century earlier. No longer the Thomas chin; it belonged to the MacKinlay name. It was the MacKinlay chin, and she owned it.
* * *
What am I doing back in the Jeep? And how did I get here? Are those women staring at me? Oh no! Did I do something weird back there at Gavin’s statue?Like remembering a dream upon waking, her efforts to recall were futile. She yanked her hands away from the steering wheel and reconstructed her steps one at a time, but faltered about the time she’d approached the statue. The rest was a blank. Almost certainly people on the sidewalk had been looking at her, but now they pretended to ignore her. Somehow she’d returned to the Jeep, but it was all a complete fog. The engine was running, but she couldn’t even remember starting it. How long had she been sitting there? That, too, was impossible to know.
Oh, well, there was still a lot of the town to see, and then she’d buy groceries. On second thought, both activities would have to wait. First she needed gas; the low fuel light was on. She’d passed a gas station earlier, just a few streets away. For now it would do.
The station belonged to another time. It was an old, shingled building, added onto over the years–obvious from the hodge-podge architectural style. The advertisement, encouraging her to “See Chimney Rock” was painted along one side. No canopy shaded the two pumps, which looked rather like twin soldiers standing at attention in the sunlight. Neither was being used, and except for a single car parked near the front door, the place looked like it was closed. The mechanic’s bay was empty.
She pulled up to a pump, her tires causing a bell to ring somewhere inside. Ding-ding. Ding-ding. A real “service” station still in operation? She hadn’t known they still existed. After a few minutes, it was apparent that the bell had just never been disconnected; no one was coming to fill her tank. Hmmm… no credit card slot. A small sign above the pumps said “Pay Inside.” Good. The attendant might be an old timer who knew the whole area. It would be a great start.
While her tank was filling, she gazed in every direction, mentally framing different scenes she’d like to paint. She’d do a whole series of MacKinlay prints. Her agent would love it. Certainly the statue, perhaps an upward shot against the sky. She might even set up her easel and paint it there in the square. That would get her some new acquaintances. People always stopped what they were doing to peer over an artist’s shoulder while the work was in progress.
She hurried in to pay for the gas. The aisles inside were so close, she had to squeeze by a man in coveralls, picking out a pack of gum. The magazine rack was half empty, and most of the things on the shelves were items a person would need every century or so: safety pins, eyeglass repair kits, duct tape, assortments of screws and nails, purse-sized tissues, toenail clippers. She didn’t bother with the rest.
The tiny checkout counter, dominated by racks of cigarettes and tobacco, was literally blocked from view by the man in the coveralls who was in the middle of telling a story, and seemed to have all the time in the world. When he finished, the station operator handed him back his credit card and launched into one of his own childhood remembrances in excruciating detail, while the smiling patron kept saying, “Yup, yup.” Maybe he’d heard this story before? She found the waiting tedious, but at least people in the town loved to talk. It was a good sign.
Finally it was her turn.
“Hi-Emma Franklin,” she offered her hand. “Jane MacKinlay Thomas was my grandmother. I’ll bet you’ve heard of her. I just moved into her house yesterday, and I need to find a grocery store. Oh, and I need some poison ivy sprayed. Would you know anyone who could do that for me?”
“Thutty dollars, twenty-seven cents.”
“That your Jeep over there at my pump?”
“Why, yes I….”
“Thutty dollars, twenty-seven cents.” He picked up a cardboard box and began opening it, not quite glancing at her. Was he trying to ignore her? She swallowed, dropping her hand. “I… did I… oh, of course. Here you are.” She held out her credit card.
“Cash,” was his reply.
“But you just took that man’s….” His scowl stopped her. “Okay, then here’s thirty-one dollars. Now can you tell me where there’s a grocery store? Please?”
“Sixty-three cents is your change.” He slapped the coins down on the worn counter instead of handing them to her; then glanced back toward the garage portion as if he’d just heard something. “Comin’!” he bellowed over his shoulder.
There’s no one there. That bay was empty! “But….” She stopped. He’d already turned away. It should have been seventy-three cents, but she was almost afraid to correct him.
“Gotta go… business.” He turned abruptly and shuffled through the door to the back. A moment later she heard the bay door being lowered.
Too late, buster. I saw your empty bay. Clearly she’d done or said something to offend the man, but what? He’d been all smiles while telling his story to that man, even joking with him, then suddenly turned on her like she was some sort of tramp. He hadn’t even looked at her directly, not once. No doubt he was waiting for her to leave, maybe even watching her. She didn’t dare look to see. Maybe it was the man’s personal problem; maybe he was just uncomfortable talking to women. Some men were like that, and she was fairly attractive. Maybe if he’d been younger….
At any rate, it was far too nice a day to let one little incident spoil her mood. She’d ask someone else directions to the store, or else just drive around until she found it.
There! Two middle-aged women across the narrow street were looking her way, almost as if they were examining her. She waved and wore her best smile. They were probably curious about the new face in their little town. If they waited, she’d have time to swing the Jeep around, drop the window, and introduce herself. She started the engine and glanced again in their direction, hoping they had read her intentions. But they’d already spun on their heels and started off in the opposite direction, jabbering. One was shaking her head. What was going on? Was it her Jeep? Were these people mistaking her for someone else, maybe someone with the same kind of car? Wouldn’t that be something? Of course, she’d be able to correct that, once a few townspeople knew who she really was, and yet she’d mentioned her name inside the gas station, and it produced the same kind of reaction.
Besides, those two women didn’t know her name. Wait, maybe there was a woman named Franklin, and… but no. Pooh! A sour note, the first of what had so far been a glorious day, but now it was behind her. The gas station and the two women had already disappeared from her rear view mirror, and she was on her way again. Her smile was back; she checked in the mirror to be sure. She turned left past the post office and the First Baptist Church, and there it was: MacKinlay Grocery. Imagine the looks she’d get when she pushed two fully loaded shopping carts up to the checkout counter. That’s how much she’d need to fill the pantry and stock all the kitchen shelves. Plus all the bathroom things, and cleansers.
It might even take three carts.
“Oh, you’re Jane Thomas’s granddaughter? Yes, we were all so sorry to hear about Jane….” She could hear them now, all the usual comments, along with the typical invitations to join this church or that, or to drop in at some social event.
She pulled into the parking lot, careful to park with the back of the Jeep toward the store entrance. That would make things easier. There was no one in the parking lot. Even so, she felt prickly, as if someone were staring at her. She slowed her steps and looked quickly around, but there was nothing. Who’d be staring at her anyway?
Look at you, Emma. You’re just jumpy because you’re excited; you’re eager. So you were a little disappointed at the gas station guy and those two women, but you’re still on an anxiety kick and you won’t lose it until you meet a few people. Give yourself time. It’s a small town, with small town people. It won’t take you long to make friends
She could practically hear Sam urging her to get out, join all sorts of groups. She squared her shoulders. “Look at me, Sam. I’m doing it.” Yet she glanced one more time at the half-dozen cars in the parking lot before going inside. That feeling was still there.
The store was mid-size, but ample enough. Her first cart was half filled in no time, but the more she smiled and greeted others, the more they ignored her. At least ten people were shopping, but not one of them would make eye contact with her. Twice she asked where to find this or that, and got no more than shrugs. Not a single word. Worse, with each person she passed, she got the creepy feeling they’d turned and were staring at her. She didn’t dare twist around to check, but the sensation actually made her skin crawl.
What was there about her that these people all sensed? Did she look like someone else? Did they think they were seeing a ghost, or something like it? Surely no one in the store was aware of the two women back there at the gas station, but the reactions were the same. In fact, everything about MacKinlay had been weird so far, starting with Gavin MacKinlay’s statue. What was it about this town? She wanted to ask, but people seemed to evaporate before her eyes. They were avoiding her.
Well, one cart full would have to do until she got to the bottom of whatever it was. She flung a couple of frozen pizzas on top of her pile and wheeled up to the check out counter, where a young cashier was chatting away with a customer. Excellent! She’d be just the person to explain the strange reactions coming from the townspeople. It wouldn’t hurt to listen in, either. It was just gossip, but you never could tell. Maybe the whole town was on edge about something, which could explain all the sullen attitudes.
It wouldn’t do to have either woman catch her staring, or listening for that matter. She parked her shopping cart a comfortable distance back and began browsing the book and magazine rack facing the register aisle. The topics and titles were typical, but she wasn’t really reading them. They were just a distraction. The covers on some of the romance novels reminded her of the old adage about putting cheap chocolates in the elaborate box, expensive ones in the plain box. If that rule applied, most of the books she’d seen in racks like this one wouldn’t be worth the time it would take to read them.
Whoa! What’s that? She whipped back to a cover she’d skipped without a second thought. The grainy black-and-white photo was her house! She grabbed a copy and quickly stuffed it into her cart, not even looking at the title, just as the woman ahead of her moved away. Finally! They’d been talking for five whole minutes. She took a deep breath, feeling almost like she was about to walk onstage in a high school play. Her smile was one of her best. Surely it would work here.
The cashier completely ignored her, choosing that moment to open the cash drawer and riffle through some papers under the tray. She seemed irritated, when moments before she’d been all smiles. Finally she put the cash tray back in place and closed the drawer. Now was the moment.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
She began moving items from her cart to the counter, but there was no response. Nothing. The girl seemed to be looking down one of the aisles, as if searching for someone.
“I’m Emma Franklin-just moved into the old MacKinlay place.” That didn’t work either. Her counter pile kept growing. There had to be something she could say to evoke some sort of reply. Finally the girl reached for the first item and ran it across the scanner.
“I wonder-would you happen to know anyone who could teach me about farm animals? Chickens, goats, sheep… like that? I don’t mean big animals, just smaller ones. My grandmother–you probably heard of her–Jane Thomas? Jane MacKinlay Thomas? I don’t know how often she got into town, but the property has a barn and there were animals there once, and I just thought….”
“What is going on here? Has this whole town taken an oath of silence against me?” The words came tumbling out before she could stop herself, and her nervous little laugh only made things worse. She bit her upper lip and almost looked away, but the cashier suddenly raised her head and smiled. At last! Maybe the direct approach was the way to go.
“You see, I haven’t been able to….” Wrong again! The girl wasn’t smiling at her, but at the woman next in line.
“Well, good morning, Mrs. Johnson, and just how are you today? Isn’t this the nicest weather we’re havin’? And how are those grandbabies of yours? Growin’ like weeds, I bet.”
She barely stopped long enough for the woman to start a reply, before she was rattling on non-stop. “Oh, I know what I wanted to ask you. My mama said for me to ask you for your recipe for cauliflower casserole next time I saw you. You know my mama just loves anythin’ with cauliflower in it.”
“But she says your casserole is the best she’s ever put in her mouth. She hopes that it ain’t some secret family recipe or somethin’ like that. Is it?”
Beep. Beep. Mrs. Johnson was either nodding her answers or simply unable to get a word in edgewise.
“Well, good. Maybe you could jot it down for me to take to her while you’re waitin’ in line. Yes, ma’am. I’ve got a pad right here….”
It was amazing, all of it! They were talking around her as if she weren’t even there. No eye contact, no acknowledgement, no answers to her questions. Even the beeps had stopped while the conversation shifted to other topics. A church bazaar, the next rummage sale, Leona Phillip’s son’s troubles in school.
There was nothing to do but stand there and fume in silence. She glanced at the book she’d snatched from the rack: From Nowhere to MacKinlay-A History of MacKinlay, North Carolina.
It was time for a little afternoon reading. I’ll get to the bottom of this yet!