No Grits No Glory
The bitterest tears shed over graves are
for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.
~ Harriet Beecher Stowe
Brianna McNeil spent years talking to the dead, sharing secrets with those who passed through her family’s mortuary. But the day one talked back, everything changed.
It happened on her fifteenth birthday, at Declan’s burial. If only her big brother had been the first to whisper from the grave, she might have handled things better. But no, the first voice was creepier—threatening, even—and without a body attached.
Her Irish clan stood around the grave, huddled together under umbrellas. Uncles sipped Jameson and spoke of Declan’s bravery. Aunts sobbed and held each other.
Across the lush cemetery, Celtic crosses and winged cherubs loomed over gravestones, protecting the dead with their vigilant watch. Now they would protect Declan, her confidante and idol.
In the chilling drizzle, Brianna approached the coffin. An American flag cloaked the long box, almost like gift wrap. Maybe the stars and stripes were supposed to be comforting. They weren’t. She didn’t need a hero. Just her big brother back.
Leaning over so no one could hear, she whispered, “Your life was cut short, but I’ll make a difference with the time I have left. I promise.”
Lightning crackled across the sky, followed by an ominous voice. “Be careful, Brianna. No one breaks a promise to the dead without retribution.”
If only she’d listened.
Savannah, Georgia — Present Day
Lights flickered and cast sinister shadows across the vaulted ceiling. Brianna swallowed hard. Don’t panic. Faulty wiring could cause such things. She had chosen to rent an older Victorian in Savannah’s historic district. Old houses had their quirks.
Of course, the dead had their quirks, too—flickering lights being one of them. No. No need to be paranoid. There must be a logical explanation. That’s what her many psychiatrists would say. Back in Boston, shrinks outnumbered friends five to one.
Cool air snapped across her neck, sending a shiver down her spine. Coincidence, it had to be. She took a deep breath. Moving down South had been the right decision. The right time to embrace the living, start anew. Keep her promise to make a difference.
The only dead voice she wanted to hear was Declan’s.
Declan had loved Savannah, calling it a jewel on the South’s necklace. Here she could have a new life, a new beginning, in the city closest to her brother’s heart.
It wasn’t too much to ask. Was it?
Plato dropped his dog toy, sending it to the floor with a loud squeak. His short legs raced past her, every tendril on his sable and white coat flying in the wind created by his boundless energy. When he reached the recliner, he stopped short.
“What’s up, boy?”
He plunked his hindquarters onto the floor in a lopsided sitting position, and he gazed at the empty chair like it was the world’s largest bone. She watched his hind legs wiggle, no doubt struggling to remain seated. He never obeyed the ‘sit’ command for long. If she didn’t know better, she’d think someone was teasing him with a treat.
Yet the chair was empty.
Goose bumps shot down her arms. Relax. Everything’s fine. She had a new home, new job, and a new start. Most of all, there were no voices ringing in her ears twenty-four, seven.
Plato’s pupils swelled into black saucers before he broke the sitting position and proceeded to do what Shelties were known for: barking incessantly.
“Hush, boy. Nothing’s there.” Maybe she said the words to convince herself, too.
He ignored her. She turned back to the kitchen, ready to dismiss the strange occurrence as another one of his moods. Old homes tended to creak, settle, and make odd noises from time to time. There was a logical explanation. There had to be. The alternative was too frightening to consider.
Plato’s bark shifted, became a higher octave.
Her stomach cramped. This wasn’t his “I see a leaf on the ground” bark. It wasn’t even the “call 911” bark.
This bark was new—shrill, loud, and unending. To say it expressed panic was an understatement.
She grabbed the butcher knife and wrapped her pale fingers around the handle. Thank heavens she’d unpacked the knife set. So many boxes remained to be sorted.
“C’mon, Plato, we’re doing a thorough search. Then I’m calling the landlord. Begley has some explaining to do.”
She tiptoed through the house. Plato followed at her heels, offering choppy barks as his toenails clacked against the hardwood floors.
With each step down the long hallway, she braced for long-buried monsters to emerge from a side bedroom. Ridiculous, yes, but she couldn’t help it. At least the bathrooms were an easy check. All the homes in Savannah’s historic district came with miniscule bathrooms, their size only matched by those in Manhattan.
The next two rooms on the right, the office and guest room, weren’t going to be so easy. They had large windows and tucked-in closets, nooks and crannies where a burglar (or something worse) could hide. Why had she picked this house, again? The short walk to work didn’t seem so important now.
She approached the guest room. “Plato, forward.” She stepped aside for him to enter first. He didn’t, only looked up at her with a “Who, me?” glance.
“Forward. You’re the dog. You can sense things humans can’t.”
With a resigned snuffle, he trod into the room and sniffed the baseboards. After he returned to her side without any barking or strange behavior, she entered the room.
Nothing was amiss. The bed, dresser, and closet remained neat and tidy as when she’d set up the room two weeks ago. The clammy tingling at the nape of her neck began to subside. “Two more bedrooms to go, Plato.”
She stopped at the master bedroom doorway and took her first relaxed breath in ten minutes. Sunbeams slanted through the bay window behind the headboard and bathed the wood-accented room in a golden light. This was why she fell in love with the place, why she’d agreed to pay Begley extra money each month to eventually make the house her own.
Plato scurried inside and began to bark. Brianna’s chest tightened. Could something—or someone—be in her bedroom? She gripped the knife tighter, ready to strike. Not that she had any kind of knife training. What was she thinking? She didn’t believe in guns, so a knife and a swift kick to the groin would have to be her self-defense strategy.
She checked under the bed, behind the curtains, around the master bath. Nothing. Plato stepped toward the closet and barked at the closed slatted doors. “The closet?” she whispered.
Plato stuck his long narrow nose up to the door slats. Okay. She could do this. She thrust the closet doors open, revealing a thick, black smattering of ash on the floor. What the hell?
Ash belonged in a fireplace, not a closet. While her bedroom did have a wood-burning fireplace, it was at least twenty feet away. How did cinders get into the closet?
Plato wouldn’t put his nose anywhere close to the closet floor. Instead, he sat down and let out a piercing howl. A howl? Since when had he turned into a wolf?
“C’mon, Plato.” He looked up with big almond eyes and lay down to rest his head between his paws. He seemed to be—no, he couldn’t be—praying? With flattened ears and drooping brows, he continued to stare at the ash pile.
Brianna knelt down and checked the fireplace interior just to be sure, but found nothing. “I’m going to call Begley,” she said, standing tall and stretching her back. “It’s time for some answers.”
Two hours later, Brianna put Plato in his dog crate and opened her front door.
“Hello there,” Sam Begley said, his voice slow and smooth Georgian. The South specialized in drawl and leisure, a way of talking in addition to a way of life.
“Thanks for coming.”
Begley wiped his feet on the welcome mat. “No trouble at all.” He stepped inside, then winced.
“Are you okay?” For a man in his fifties, he seemed healthy enough.
He bent down to rub his left knee. “Too much football at University of Georgia, I’m afraid. No worries.” He stood back up to full form, about six-foot-two and a bit intimidating. “What can I help you with?”
Plato spotted him and began to bark. “Hush,” Brianna said.
When Plato obeyed, Begley arched a blond brow. “That’s a new one. I usually don’t allow my tenants to have pets, but yours is well-behaved.”
“Thanks,” she said, grateful Plato listened to her when it mattered. “Regarding why I called you today—”
“Yes. Is there a problem with the house?”
Depends on how you define problem.
“Please don’t think me crazy, but does anyone else have a key to the property? Perhaps the last tenant?”
Begley narrowed his eyes, their bright blue tint turning gray. “We change locks with each lease. Why do you ask?”
She needed to be honest, even if she sounded ridiculous. “I’ve noticed some…strange occurrences. Lights flickering on and off, peculiar smells fill the air on occasion, usually cinnamon and rose hips. It reminds me of my uncle’s pipe tobacco.”
Begley blinked once. To his credit, he didn’t laugh. “These old windows sometimes let drafts in, I’m afraid. Plus, the historic district is a tight-fit for all the houses. Maybe your neighbor was smoking at the time?”
“I considered that,” she said. “But sometimes, even from the back room without any windows, I smell charred cheese.”
“Charred cheese?” This time, he didn’t bother to hide a sarcastic smile, the kind men in white coats give mental patients. She should know. She’d seen that expression enough. An ache throbbed in her chest at the memory.
“There’s also the black ash covering the master bedroom closet.”
“What did you say?” The vein in his neck bulged and pulsed with a Conga beat.
“The large stain in the master closet. I noticed it this morning.”
His ears glowered red. “Show me.”
She took her time walking down the hall, with him practically bumping into her. The ash was obviously significant—but why?
She opened the closet door and stepped out of his way. “There.”
“I thought you said there was a stain,” Begley said, not bothering to hide his accusatory tone.
She glanced into the closet. Only the hardwood floor looked back. No ash. No nothing. She knelt down to avoid passing out. “I don’t understand. This morning, all the area was black. Honest.”
Have I gone crazy? Is it happening again?
Begley glared around the room, eyeing every corner and joint. “Did your dog accidentally play in the fireplace?”
“No. Plato wouldn’t even put his nose close to the floor, and I checked the chimney already.”
After a long moment, Begley slicked back his perfectly-gelled hair with his hands. “Perhaps there are some remaining pest control issues. I will, of course, take care of this promptly. Will you be home tomorrow for my exterminator to come out?”
“I work until three, but I’m home after.”
“Good, I’ll set it up.” He smiled again, the happiness of a man who had solved a problem—even if he hadn’t.
“Can I do anything else for you, while I’m here?” He stepped into the hallway and examined the moulding and baseboards. No sense hurrying anymore, now that he’d solved the problem. He moseyed to the kitchen. Until that moment, she didn’t even know what moseying looked like, but he perfected the practice.
Guess she’d have to figure out things on her own. Was this a Yankee’s purgatory?
“I’m fine, thanks. As long as you are quite certain no one else could possibly have access to the house.”
He plastered a smile across his face. “Don’t you go worrying about your security. Why, in Savannah, especially in my properties, you’re safe as a baby in its mother’s arms.”
“Hogwash,” a male voice said, its deep tones bouncing off each wall before echoing in her ears.
Holy hell! She spun around, her heart beating ten times faster than usual. No one was there.
“Shh…did you hear that?” she asked. Breathe. Just breathe and calm down.
Begley’s brows narrowed at the interruption. He’d been in the middle of an arrogant litany of his business goals, how he’d be the one to put Savannah on the big map, how he’d become the pillar of the community. Obviously he hadn’t heard anything.
She dug her nails into her palm to keep a decent poker face. “It must be my imagination.”
Don’t let on. Never let on about the words without faces. Voices equaled Thorazine and a bed in psychiatric. She wouldn’t go back there—ever.
“Carpet bagger!” another voice said, this one female.
No, no, no! This couldn’t be happening. Two voices with no source. Shit. Brianna’s knees gave way, and she stumbled backward into a chair.
Begley reached out and helped her stand. “You sure are a lightheaded little thing, aren’t you?”
“I guess I didn’t sleep well last night.” A lame excuse, but fortunately Begley didn’t seem to care.
“You just wait,” Begley continued, “I’m going to improve this town, and everyone will know my name.”
She nodded politely but ignored the rest of his speech. Utter hopelessness ripped through every vein in her body. When it reached her heart, her chest ached.
This move down South had gone terribly wrong. How could she have been such an idiot, thinking she could escape? The voices were back. All hopes of a normal life—gone. What other calamities awaited her in this Southern city?