Three years ago, when she was only ten, Penn had become enamored with the Brenau Academy, the only all-girls college preparatory boarding school in Georgia, grades nine through twelve, a few hours from us. We'd just entered the war, but her daddy had enlisted immediately and gone overseas to fight. She was restless and worried and fed up with the dull education she was enduring in Helen, where local kids often dropped out around seventh grade to farm. Even though she wouldn't even be eligible until high school, she'd called the school for an admissions packet and started writing an essay with a determination that could have won awards, begging to apply early to ensure her chances of a slot. The waiting list was years long. But I'd refused. I'd made excuses. I had reasons that were personal, secret reasons that reached beyond the financial challenge or Penn's chances of acceptance.
But then I'd watched Penn forget her dreams. And her heartbreak was worse than anything I had feared. Last night, while everyone slept, I'd dropped her packet in the mail. Out of caution for her feelings, I wasn't sharing the extent of my plan until I knew for sure that I could pull it off.
It was now the spring of 1945 and my husband, Finch, had been killed in Italy two years before. The war had crept into the small rooms where we lived above the motor garage my daddy had owned on the outskirts of Helen, Georgia, a remote and failing logging community on the verge of becoming a ghost town with less and less traffic on the highway. The change was so quiet we hardly felt it at first, but with so few travelers, the need for our services was all but obsolete. Rations limited the food on our table and, although Penn didn't know it, the savings in our account.
We were like almost all the other families around us. The sorrow of neighbor women shone in the gold stars flying on flags outside our doors and we mourned the ordinary lives we once believed we would live. Mysteries were the meat on our tables. We didn't long for the unknown but fantasized about full pantries, dirty boots by the door, and the soft snores of sleeping men who would never breathe beside us again. Finch had been headed for a POW camp, but then the army learned later from an Italian POW who'd been present at the execution that he'd been shot and rolled into a mass grave in some farmer's field. The prisoner's memory surfaced only after Italy declared itself an ally in 1943, more than six months after Finch's capture, and amounted to only a vague location, no other details. When the news finally came by way of a very young officer standing at our door, we'd been given hope that at least they might find remains and he'd be brought home. It would have been better had Penn not had that expectation, for it consumed her, though it appeared less and less likely the more time that passed. Whatever his dreams had been for himself or his family, Finch had taken them with him, and hers, too, it seemed. His pension was all that was left now, barely enough for us to live on. Not that it was any excuse for the choices I was making, but I'd been working hard to be both mother and father to Penn, and I was exhausted long before we'd ended up on this roadside in southern Georgia at the edge of night.
The service station was all we had, and all Penn had of her father, and I knew what it was to lose your home. For a while, I'd bartered rubber patches for fresh vegetables and took in wash to get cloth for Penn's clothes. I'd made do every way I knew as long as I could. And I had been foolish enough to think our lot couldn't be any sorrier, but then my daddy had died.
The church had still smelled of leftover lilies from the service a full week before. Barely a dozen people had been there for us. Afterward, Penn and I walked alongside Imegine through town, filing into the bank to collect the contents of my daddy's safe deposit box. At first, everything was orderly, sorted, exactly what we'd expected from my daddy. There'd been no sentimental notes, no official will and testament to be read, only an envelope for each of us, containing short lists divvying up his scant belongings. Imegine inherited Merely's and what monies he had saved, enough to keep her comfortable into old age. For Penn, there was his truck. No surprises.
Only my envelope remained. What I found there hit me between the eyes—the deed to Evertell, along with the antique key to the rambling old estate.
When I pulled out that paper, the key clattered to the floor. I'd grabbed it up fast, like I might have a sharp knife. It was maybe six inches long with an ornate handle and large teeth on the end of the shaft, and I'd closed both hands around it, my thoughts rushing back to the memory of Evertell. Days after they'd buried Mama, I'd whispered in Daddy's ear something to comfort him, sweet enough to make us forget. '"I'm nothing like her. I never want to go back."'
But now he'd left me with the choice. "I thought he sold it years ago."
"I guess it never was his to sell, Alice," Imegine said.
"Of course not."
Imegine was the one I should have been comforting. Instead, she'd squeezed my hand as I stood there, dumbfounded.
"What's Evertell?" Penn had asked.
The unknown was powerful. It was the monster in the dark, the secret in the box, the poison in the wine. We'd kept everything about Evertell a secret, like so many things I'd never intended to tell Penn. But here was a question that would have to be answered. One she would never stop asking. I'd stared at the deed and felt my hands tingle.