The Dead Room

Page 3

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Just a year. A year since she had buried Matt. Buried her life…

With a shake, she forced her attention back to her work.

Despite her determination to call it an early night, she found herself dragged to a celebration dinner. They didn't opt for anything fancy-budget would always be important in field work-just a chain pancake house on the main highway. But when the group decided to go on to a local tavern for a few drinks, she at last managed to bow out.

She returned to the residence provided for those higher up in the echelon. She, Laymon, Brad and a few others were housed in a Colonial plantation that was now a charming bed-and-breakfast. Their hostess, a cheerful septuagenarian, rose with the rooster's crow, so she went to bed early. She happily saw them off each morning, and since she was a bit hard of hearing, she was also happy when they came in late at night, because she never heard a thing.

Very tired herself, but feeling a comforting sense of satisfaction, Leslie helped herself to a cup of hot tea from the well-stocked kitchen left open for the help-yourself pleasure of the guests. She took a seat before the large open hearth that dominated the room and sipped her tea from the comfort of the rocker to the left of the gently burning fire. Within a few minutes, she knew she was not alone.

She glanced slowly to her side, a smile curving her lips as she looked at the man who had joined her. He had a rounded stomach, emphasized by his plain black waistcoat and the bit of bleached cotton that protruded from his waistband right where it shouldn't. His wig was a bit messy, but in the style of his time, and the tricornered hat he wore sat perfectly atop it. His hose were thick, white and somewhat worn; his shoes bore handsome buckles. His cheeks were rosy, his eyes a bit dark and small beneath bushy brows. He looked at her and returned her smile with a sigh of satisfaction. "Well, now, it's good and done, eh?" he asked her.

She nodded. "And you mustn't worry, Reverend Donegal. It's true that some of the bones will be boxed and sent for analysis, but the people at the Smithsonian are very careful and reverent. They'll be returned, and we'll see to it that all the dead are reinterred with prayers and all the respect that's due them. And I believe that once the significance of what we've found here has been verified, the Park Service will have its way. A lovely memorial and a facsimile of the church will be built, and generations of visitors will be able to enjoy the beautiful countryside and learn about everything that happened here during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars." Her smile turned slightly rueful. "I know you did a great deal to help refugees during the Revolutionary War, but this very house was a stop for escaping slaves during the days of the Underground Railroad. There was also a Civil War skirmish in the front yard here. It's amazing the place is still standing."

"Solid construction," Reverend Donegal said sternly. "Folks to care for her. Why, I remember, years and years ago, of course, when I came many a Sunday to this house for my tea following services…ah, lovely then, it was. So much excitement and fear. A new country." His eyes darkened, and he seemed troubled for a minute. "Pity…one war always leads to the next. It hurt me to be here…to see so many fine men die, North and South, believing in the same God…. Ah, well, never mind. There's always hope that man will learn from his mistakes." He paused, his old eyes clouding, and she knew he was looking back to his own time, firmly fixed in his mind.

Of course, she knew his story. He had worshipped the hostess of his very house from afar, always entirely circumspect, but enjoying every opportunity to be in her company. He had faithfully served his flock of parishioners; a good man. His one pleasure had been his Sunday tea. And so, one day, he had come here, had his tea…and then died of a heart attack in the arms of the woman he had secretly adored for so many years. Leslie had thought at first that he must have been a very sad ghost, seeking the love he hadn't allowed himself in life. But that hadn't been the case at all. She had discovered that he had been at peace with himself; that his distant and unrequited love for Mrs. Adella Baxter had in actuality been a pleasant fantasy but not one he had truly hoped to fulfill. He had enjoyed his life as a bachelor, administering to his flock. He had stayed all these years because he felt so many of his flock needed to be remembered. In short, he had wanted the graveyard found.

At first, he hadn't trusted her. He'd tried a dozen tricks, moving her brush around, locking her suitcase, hiding her keys. He hadn't expected her to see him, and he certainly hadn't expected her to get angry, yell at him and demand that they talk. Once they had, he'd become an absolute charmer. Through his eyes, she'd seen the house as it had been in his day. She'd experienced his passion as he'd spoken of what he and so many others had gone through to establish a new country; his fear that he might be hanged as a traitor-something that had been a distinct possibility many times during the brutal years of the Revolution. He was deeply disturbed that so few of the people who passed through the old house were aware of just how precarious the struggle for freedom had been. "You can't understand," he had told her. "We almost lost the war. In fact, it's a miracle that we won. And all those men who signed the Declaration of Independence? They would have been hanged! So many risked so much. Ah, well, God does show his will, against all odds."

Right now he seemed lost in thought.

"Thank you for your help," she said very softly to him.

He nodded, then wagged a finger at her. "I expect you to play fair, young lady. You see that the right thing is done by my people. Especially little Peg. You did find her grave, didn't you, right where I sent you?"

Leslie nodded, then stared at the fire for a moment, as lost in the past as he had been. It was strange. Before the blast, she'd had intuitions, like the one that had helped her find the homeless man. As if she could close her eyes and imagine something of a life now gone, then home in on it. Logic? Instinct? Something more? She couldn't have said. But now…

Now ghosts came into her life.

"I will see that Peg's story is told," she assured Reverend Donegal. She repeated what he had told her before about the girl. "Peg, aged ten, walked the ten miles from town through a pouring, freezing rain to bring the men from the county together when she knew an attack was coming. She rallied the local troops, and they successfully defended the river and the plantation here, all because of her bravery. She died of the fever that came on her that night, after her journey through the rain and cold and enemy lines. And after the war…well, people were poor. She was given the best burial they could manage."

He nodded in satisfaction. "A statue would be very nice. You will get someone to pay for a statue?"

"I'll pay for a statue of her myself, if need be," she assured him.

He looked at her indignantly. "A statue of me!" he declared. "Oh, well, of course, Peg must be honored, too, I suppose."

"You'll have a place when they rebuild the church, and Peg will be honored in the graveyard. How's that?" she said, glad she could smile.

He nodded, staring at the fire. "There's a chill in here," he said. "Ah, these old bones…"

"It is chilly tonight, but I don't think you're really feeling your old bones," she teased. She set her cup down and rose, walked to the fire and let it warm her hands. When she turned to speak to the reverend again, he was gone.

She sat back in her chair. In a little while she heard the others returning. It had grown late; she assumed they would head right up to their beds, but she sensed someone behind her, and this time she heard breathing.

She turned. Brad was there, just inside the doorway, staring at her.

"Hey," she said.

"Hey," he echoed, still staring at her.

"What?" she demanded.

"Laymon really didn't say anything to you yet?" he asked, looking surprised. "I thought he called you."

"About what?" she asked.

"They're researching another site in Lower Manhattan," he said.

She felt a streak of cold sweep along her spine, as if she'd been stroked by an icy sword. She looked at the fire, trying to speak perfectly calmly. "I'm sure that at any given time, someone is always digging somewhere in Lower Manhattan."

"This is going to be a major project." He was quiet for a minute. "Near Hastings House."

"Great," she murmured, still staring at the flames.

He hunkered down by her chair. "You know, only the one room was severely damaged. They've pretty much got the place back up and running now."

Her fingers tensed on the arms of her chair. "Glad to hear it."

"What happened there was a tragic accident, Leslie."

She stared at him-hard. "Yes, I do know that, Brad."

"The point is, you don't seem to get it, to understand what that means. I'm not trying to be brutal here, Leslie, but Matt died. You didn't."

She stared blankly back at him for several moments.

"I almost died there."

"But you didn't."

"I know. And I'm grateful to be alive. I truly appreciate every day."

"It's time to go back."

"Time to go back?" she repeated.

"You need to accept the past, and move into the present and then into the future. No, you'll never forget Matt. But you have to accept that he's dead. You've been…well, kind of weird since it happened. Maybe you need to confront your memories."

Again, she stared at him.

Oh, Brad. You don't get it, do you? And I will never, ever explain, I can assure you of that.

"We still have work to do here," she said flatly.

He waved a hand in the air. "We're the pros-there are lots of worker bees. Thanks to you and your amazing instincts, all that's left is the grunt work. We can move on."

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