Home > In the Middle of Hickory Lane

In the Middle of Hickory Lane
Author: Heather Webber

 


Chapter

1

 


January 13, 1962: Levi and I found ourselves a ten-acre piece of land near US 98 in Sweetgrass to build our first home. I knew the moment I stepped foot on it that it’s real special. I’m right proud these days at how far Levi and I have come so quickly. Newlyweds. New town. New house. New job for Levi. I’m living my dreams.

 

 

Emme


In the middle of Hickory Lane grew a neighborhood garden, a circular patch of vibrant land that fit snugly into the footprint of the wide dead-end street, a cul-de-sac. The landscaped island rose from the surrounding asphalt road, lush and verdant, beckoning for a closer look, a long stay. It was impossible for me not to notice, however, that among its gravel pathways, trees, shrubs, planter beds, trellises, and flower meadow, a secret had once been planted as well. One that was slowly being exposed with each thrust of a shovel into rich soil as a newly discovered grave was unearthed.

As I made my way on foot past police tape that roped off the top of the lane, I adjusted the strap of the backpack slung over my shoulder and kept tight hold of the large wheeled suitcase that trailed loudly behind me as it protested a missing wheel with loud scraping and a constant tug on my arm, as if begging me to turn around, that nothing good could come of being here.

It had taken every ounce of my courage and determination to make this trip south to Sweetgrass, Alabama, so I hoped the suitcase was wrong, that it was simply used to nothing good coming from anywhere I went.

While that had always been true, this move was my chance to start over and make something good of my life. I longed to plant roots, even if they were shallow ones, and I was willing to overlook a lot to make that happen, including an apparent grave site.

Pulsing blue and red in the warm mid-April afternoon were the emergency lights of six police cars, two fire trucks, and an ambulance, and surprisingly there was plenty of space for the vehicles to park. As I glanced around, it seemed to me that Hickory Lane was a misnomer. This street felt more like a quaint residential boulevard, one that had been stretched long and wide to accommodate the garden island.

I kept my chin up as I walked, trying to hide my dismay that tiny bayside Sweetgrass had such a considerable police force. If I’d known ahead of time, I might’ve had second thoughts about moving in with my grandmother, Glory Wynn. Police had a habit of looking at me apprehensively, as if knowing with a sixth sense of sorts that I was bad news.

Shading my eyes against the bright sunshine with my hand, I searched for house numbers along the tree-lined street, looking for number seventeen. This was an old-fashioned kind of neighborhood, built up with the best materials, and it had aged with pride, grace, and beauty. Mature trees shaded large yards, roses bloomed in colorful hope, and lawns were neatly kept with clean edge lines. This was the type of street where people cared. These were the types of homes where doors were left unlocked. It was the kind of place where no one anticipated anything bad ever happening to them and theirs.

Fools, all of them.

As I half rolled, half dragged the reluctant suitcase, I collected bits of information from the crowd gathered, flutters of words caught on the wind, dispatched by sincerity and sympathy and fellowship.

A human bone if I ever saw one.

Early this morning. Sinkhole. Near the gazing pool.

Took almost sixty damn years, but still.

May she now rest in peace.

I took a moment to wonder about the woman who’d been missing for so long and how she’d come to rest in the garden. I felt a twinge of sympathy, empathy, for a person I’d never known—and a surge of camaraderie for this neighborhood, which on first glance had looked picture-perfect. But now? Now I knew I’d fit in here just fine.

Hickory Lane had a dark past.

Just like me.

“Needing some help, miss?” a deep voice asked.

Up a brick walkway, a man stood on the top step of a wraparound porch, his shoulder resting against a wooden column, his arms folded, his curious gaze narrowed on me. The house, 5 Hickory Lane, was a large cottage, painted pale gray green with creamy trim, the colors perfect for a community like Sweetgrass, a speck on a map alongside Mobile Bay, just north of Fairhope. The cottage’s only visible flaw was in the emerald-green grass, where a half dozen or so shallowly dug holes marred an otherwise lovely lawn.

I took quick stock of my new neighbor. Inquisitive, I instantly surmised, noting to keep my distance from him. In my world, inquisitive meant dangerous. He was especially more so, because he didn’t look like a threat on the surface. I guessed him to be early to midthirties, and he stood a bit taller than average, with shoulder-length sandy-brown hair, a high forehead, slightly off-center nose, deep tan, and five-o’clock shadow that was just a hint lighter than his hair color. His lanky body was dressed in jeans and a tight white T-shirt. His feet were bare.

With the easy-breezy way he leaned against the porch column, everything about him screamed that he was comfortable in his own skin, confident. Approachable. Maybe for others, he was. But I knew better. I pegged him as some kind of law enforcement straight off—criminals, even somewhat reformed ones, had a sixth sense, too.

On the porch next to his feet, a white shepherd watched me with bright brown eyes, and I suspected I’d found the source of the strange holes in the lawn. A faded, ratty green tennis ball was in its long mouth, and a furry tail thumped loudly against the porch’s floorboards. The dog’s friendly gaze was the first bit of welcoming warmth I’d felt since arriving, and it melted away some of the ice-cold dread that had followed me southbound.

I lifted my chin and forced myself to meet the man’s questioning gaze. “I’m looking for Glory Wynn’s house.”

Something that looked like suspicion flared in his eyes but he shuttered it quickly, instantly revealing that he was used to—and good at—hiding his thoughts. Slowly, he uncurled his arm and pointed toward the heart of the cul-de-sac. “The middle house.”

I could practically hear his thoughts as he sized me up, much as I’d done to him.

What he saw was trouble, plain and simple.

He wasn’t entirely wrong.

I squinted against the sunlight at the house that felt like it was still a half mile away. “The white one?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thanks kindly.” I smiled as innocently as I could. My mother always said a smile was one of the best weapons of distraction. She had deployed it religiously.

Giving the dog a wistful glance, I pushed on, threading through the people who’d collected on the sidewalk to gawk and gather gossip, hoarding it with the thoroughness of birds lovingly collecting twigs for nesting. These people were my new neighbors, and I was grateful that they were too occupied with being busybodies to pay me much mind. It had been a long, hot trip from Louisville, Kentucky—eighteen hours on a bus to Mobile, then a forty-minute taxi ride across the bay—and I was in no mood to field questions about myself, my raising, or my parents, all topics that deserved to be questioned.

Eleven houses—a mix of cottages, bungalows, and transitional farmhouses—lined the lane, and Glory’s place was located smack-dab at the bottom of the street. With its hip roof, three dormer windows, and wraparound porch, it sat like an old Southern lady, dolled up and ready for visitors to come calling. An American flag flapped in the wind and hanging ferns swayed in the breeze. There was a pair of white rocking chairs near the front door and another set near the side door, and suddenly I longed to sit and rock for a while.

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