When I first started writing Kept Secrets I didn’t know what I was doing. My instincts were good, but I didn’t understand all the things a writer needs to understand to put a book together and make it work. In my world, point-of-view was simply a person’s opinion, tension was a bad headache, voice was what came out of your mouth, conflict was to be avoided and a climax belonged in the bedroom or on a bare-skin rug in front of the fireplace or perhaps even in one of those storage shed they keep on display in the parking lot of Home Depot. (The Home Depot location isn’t based on personal experience but I’ve heard stories)
After more than a few self-indulgent tears, quitting writing forever because it’s just too hard and I hate what I’m writing, a whole lot of coffee, numerous helpful suggestions from my critique partners in the Arizona Novel Writer’s Workshop and three rewrites, I’m in the process of a final edit of Kept Secrets. The storyline spans over 130 years, beginning with the American Civil War and ending in the late 1990’s. The majority of the novel takes place on or near the Virginia property I wrote about in my Adventures in Hoarding post.
In this first excerpt, Confederate Captain, Jonathan Turner is spending a few days with his married lover, Abigail Stephens, while his troops are camped several hours away. In the first half of Chapter 4, he has promised her he’ll return and take her away from her husband once the war is over, knowing he might not live long enough to keep that promise.
Kept Secrets (last half of Chapter 4)
… His mind returned to the present, but as he lay in her bed, the memory of that promise plagued him. There was no way to guarantee his survival or his return. Yet, he had survived two years of fighting. Perhaps, God would grant him this.
The sweetness of a nearby mimosa tree floated in the cool dampness and he found himself drawn to the partially opened window. He carefully eased out of bed and stood by the window watching the night. After the brief pounding rain, it was strangely quiet, insulated by moonlit trails of a pearly mist that hung low and swirled among the rows of vegetables in Abby’s garden. The moon emerged from beneath black clouds and stalks of corn glistened like icy fragile flowers emerging from the pale mist. The night had turned her labor of love into an enchanted garden.
He heard the rustle of movement among the stalks of corn. A show of antlers told him that several deer had been also enjoying Abby’s labors. Food was much too scarce to share with the forest creatures and fresh venison would help stretch out Abby’s dwindling supply of victuals. He quickly pulled on his clothes, grabbed his rifle and went outside.
By the time he reached the garden, the deer had disappeared. He was surprised to see Amos standing close by keeping watch over the corn stalks.
“Did the deer run off, Amos?”
“Yes, Suh. I come soon as I heard ‘em ‘n shooed ‘em away.”
Turner sighed. “Deer meat would have been welcome.”
A low sound of regret escaped Amos’s lips. “I wouldna scared ‘em off if I’d known you was comin’ out. I was ‘fraid they would strip the stalks. Ain’t got no way to bring one down so I didn’ think of it.”
“It’s alright, Amos. Maybe another will come along. It appears I’m not the only one who can’t sleep. Are you having a restless night?”
“Don’t much like sleeping with Willie. He snores somethin’ fierce. ‘Bout rattles the roof off. But my Rose ain’t feeling too kindly ‘bout me right now so’s I best stay out o’ her way ‘till she does. Least ways, if I want to keep on breathin’.”
Amos sounded so forlorn, Turner couldn’t keep from laughing. “I don’t think Rose much cares for me, either.”
“But that ain’t true, Suh,” Amos protested. “She likes you fine.”
“Oh, no. You can’t convince me of that. She won’t even speak to me. If her eyes flashed real daggers, I’d be cut to ribbons by now.”
“She’s a onery one, my Rose. Likes to fuss ‘bout everthin’. Worries a heap ‘bout Missy Abby. You keep makin’ our Missy smile and Rose’ll be settlin’ down soon. You been right nice to Willie, too. Won’t be long ‘fore she’s fussin’ over you ‘stead o’ fussin’ at you.”.
“Time will tell,” Turner said doubtfully. “In the meantime, I’ll have to take your word for it.”
Amos grinned broadly. “Might not do everthin’ the Good Lord wants me to, but I don’t never lie. Least ways, not very often.”
Honeysuckle mingled pleasantly with the fresh damp air. They stood for some time in contented silence before Turner spoke. “Rain makes things seem new again. It’s so peaceful here. Hard to believe there’s a war going on.”
“I don’t never forget it. Times is changed too much.”
“It sets my mind at ease to know that you and Rose are looking after Abby.”
“We been with Missy since she was born. I could get strung up for sayin’ this, but she be like our own. Our Willie was born ‘bout the same time. Then Missy’s mama died, so Rose done took care o’ them both.”
“I’m coming back to Abby for good once the war is over, but if Mr. Stephens returns we’ll have to leave here. I’m sure you can understand that. You, Rose and Willie must come with us.”
“My Rose ‘ll have a fit ‘bout that. You knows how stubborn she is, and me, well, I’m an old man.” Turner could see him shake his head. “Don’t much like Mr. Stephens. He’s mean to colored folk. He don’t see no difference ‘tween us and the darkies that worked the fields. We never been treated bad here ‘fore he came.” He tilted his broad face up to the sky, his dark skin almost blue in the misty moonlight, then let out a long, low sigh. “Don’t think we could bear t’ see Missy leave us. I reckon we go with you, if need be. Where would we go to?”
“Tennessee. I have a farm there.” He paused. “At least, I did before the war started. We might have to go further west. I suppose we won’t know until the time comes.”
“Ain’t never been to Tennessee. What’s it like?”
“It’s pretty, Amos. Just like here.”
“Times ‘ll never be the same again.”
“No, they won’t. It’s not going to be easy. When the war ends, thousands of men will be on the road headed home. Anything could happen. I want Abby to be kept safe from harm.”
“You know we do anythin’ for Missy. Anythin’.”
“My men and I will remain camped nearby for about a month. After that, I’ll have to leave again. God knows I don’t want to go, but we can’t just sit here and wait for it to be over.” He stood silent a few moments before continuing.
“This damn war has unleashed the devil in many of us. Made men different. I’ve seen them do unspeakable things. Men I thought were gentlemen. Even I…” He shook his head to push away the memories. “If you ever feel that Abby’s in danger from anyone, even Mr. Stephens, bring her to the camp. I’m going to make a map that will show you how to get there. It isn’t difficult. The camp is primitive, but she should be safe there. That way, I’ll always know where to find her.”
“I promise you that.”
“Thank you, Amos.” Turner could hear the relief in his own voice. “I’ll bid you good-night.”
Turner began the short walk back to the house. Suddenly he could not wait to get back to Abby’s side, if only to watch her sleep. But when he opened the door to her bedroom, he heard her stir. She was awake.
“Jonathan,” she said softly. “Come to bed.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said. “There were deer in your garden and…”
“Don’t be silly. I’m glad you woke me.” The smooth edge of her face lowered into the shadow, then reappeared as she pushed her hair back. He saw that she was smiling. She held out her hand. “Just come to bed, Jonathan. Please.”
* * *
The following excerpt from Kept Secrets takes place in the late 1990’s and revolves around Kate Burke and her first look at the house she has inherited from her late-husband’s Aunt Sadie. (The house is built on the same land where Turner asked Amos to take Abby if she were in danger.) Kate’s accompanied by her sister, Christine, and Matthew Kettering, the attorney who is handling the estate.
“Oh, My God.” Kate wasn’t sure what to say. “It’s so… It’s so strange.”
“I hate to tell you this.” Christine came up beside her. “But, we’re going to need a bulldozer. Or a match.”
“I didn’t know how to prepare you, so I didn’t even try,” Kettering said in an apologetic tone.
The object of their attention was a structure that appeared to have wandered aimlessly though both time and space. An odd combination of walls and windows built over the course of more than a century, all sprawling in different directions until they connected at random, united by a pitched tin roof that held a row of various sized dormers. One could easily see where one century left off and the next one started.
The longer Kate stared at it, the more disjointed it appeared. “The way it’s put together doesn’t make any sense.” She glanced over the attorney. “Do you know anything about it?”
Kettering laughed. “It doesn’t make any sense from the inside either. Rooms were added on as the need arose and not much consideration was given to appearance or function. As far as the history goes, most of what I know comes from what Sadie told me. Stories tend to get embellished with time. I guess you can pick out what you want to believe.”
He walked across the drive, toward the stone porch, and pointed at a section of the house about twenty feet wide with a small window in the center. “The logs and mortar make up the oldest part. It’s believed to have been an outpost built during the early seventeen-hundreds. Narrow steps ran along the outside of it and from the top you could see anyone coming for miles.” He waved his hand in the direction of the mountain top view and continued, “During the Civil War, Confederate troops camped in this area between skirmishes. Possibly right here, because of the spring that runs down along the side of the house and the protection the outpost offered, though we don’t know that for sure.”
“What about the rest of the house?” Kate asked.
“I guess you could say it has evolved over the past hundred years.” He stepped onto the porch. “The next occupants that we know of were mountain people. The frame portion is their contribution. There was a fire, but the family rebuilt. Years later, Sadie had part of it redone and added on the brick portion. She said she needed more room for all her things. She has things stored in the barn, too. There’s a greenhouse on the other side of the house, the pool is down the hill, behind that vine-covered fence, and there’s a two-story playhouse at the edge of the woods.”
“Why would she have put in a pool?” Christine asked. “Did she actually use it?”
“Not at all. She didn’t like the water.” He glanced over at Kate. “I believe she actually had it put in for Mrs. Burke’s husband.”
Kate frowned. “That’s odd. Thomas never mentioned a swimming pool. I do remember his telling me about a playhouse, though. It always seemed strange to me that she would have a playhouse built. He only visited her a couple of weeks out of the year.”
“It’s used for storage, now,” Kettering said. “I’m not sure what’s in there.”
“This is much larger than I thought it would be.” Kate felt a slightly hollow sensation in the pit of her stomach. She wasn’t sure she even wanted to go inside. “Is the entire house really as full as you said?”
“It’s incredible. Now, brace yourselves,” he warned. “It’s time to go inside. The only entrance is right here through the kitchen door.”
The overpowering smell of mildew and mothballs hit Kate as she stepped into Sadie’s darkened kitchen. Kettering flicked on the light switch beside the door and a dim fluorescent ring of light buzzed and flickered over her head, casting a grim glow throughout the room. The sight was worse than she imagined. The knotty-pine paneled kitchen looked as though it had been ransacked. In keeping with the exterior of the house, there appeared to be no logical explanation for where things were placed, and the vast quantity of it all was so astounding that she couldn’t quite take it all in. Dishes, pots and pans, and small appliances covered every available surface. Jars of crystallized jams and jellies, home-canned peaches, tomatoes and beans were stacked up against the wall and on chairs and boxes. Dozens of bundles of silverware and cooking utensils held together with rubber bands were scattered about. On one side of the kitchen, a large brick oven was piled high with an assortment of food in boxes, cans and cartons. On the other, stacks of newspapers and magazines formed the edge of a narrow path that led to three separate doorways.
“This is a disaster,” Christine muttered. She went over to the brick oven and picked up a box of cereal. “Expiration date 4/15/83,” she read off the label. “Good God. Did she really eat this?”
Kate shook her head. An unexpected wave of guilt came over her. “I didn’t know she was living like this. I should have done something. Someone should have told me.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. You couldn’t have done anything,” Kettering said. “I tried to get her to hire someone to come in and clean up the place, but she wouldn’t do it.”
“Couldn’t you have insisted? Was she competent?”
“She was difficult, stubborn, obsessive about her possessions and her privacy, but legally she was of sound mind. Having someone declared incompetent is not as easy as most people think. Besides, it would have been a major headache for you.”
“She named you as her power-of-attorney.”
Kate lifted her eyebrows in shock. “You’re kidding.”
“Robin should have mailed you a copy of it.”
“I didn’t get….”
“Kate, look at this,” Christine interrupted. She had lifted the corner of a printed daisy plastic tablecloth and was examining the base of the kitchen table. “Carved mahogany, inlaid burl, claw feet and porcelain casters. And the sideboard is fantastic.”
Kate knelt down to look at the table. “It’s wonderful,” she agreed. “But why would she hide it under this awful tablecloth with all this junk piled on top? From what Thomas told me, she always seemed a bit eccentric, but this goes way beyond eccentric. This is… I don’t know what this is. An illness, I guess.”
“It’s so gloomy in here. We need more light.” Christine yanked back the curtains covering the only window in the kitchen. The material came apart in her hands and the curtain rod fell to the floor, stirring up a cloud of dust. She sneezed then looked over at her sister and grinned. “A little sunlight cheers up the whole room, doesn’t it?”
* * *
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from three other books I’ve written; The Bewitching Hour, The Devil’s Own Luck and The Tattooed Angel.
Have a great week!