The Book of James, by Ellen Green
Description: After a tragic car accident, moments before his death, Nick warns his wife that someone from his past may try to harm or kill her. “Go to Philadelphia to the house where I grew up. Find James. It’s the only way out…”
Mackenzie dismisses her husband’s warnings, assuming his words were a result of blood loss and morphine…until the things he had spoken of start to come true.
Her search brings her to a 19th century mansion in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia and face to face with a mother-in-law believed to be dead. Together in the same house the two women’s stories spin together, each with an agenda. Cora is desperate to protect secrets from the past. Mackenzie is determined to uncover those very secrets before time runs out. They circle around one another hunter and prey, but which is which?
A gallery of photographs in the bowels of the house holds clues to generations of abuse, treachery and possibly murder. Messages hidden in Nick’s childhood Bible within the Epistle of James have Mackenzie racing against time to put the pieces together, unearth the reasons her husband chose to vanish when he was sixteen years old, and locate the person mentioned in Nick’s dying breath.
When James is finally found, the results are more horrifying than Mackenzie could have ever imagined.
Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. James 1:15.
Nick was dead. The memories of the morning he was buried aren’t strung together in my mind in one long continuous chain, but more like a patchwork quilt stitched together loosely. Strange details remain vivid, like the fact that the sleeves on the simple black dress I had chosen were too long. They came down almost to my knuckles and irritated me. I yanked at the sleeves all day long but the material was slippery and fell back down within seconds. And my nose kept running, partly as a result of my nonstop crying and partly because it was cold outside. I do remember the cold. It was only early September but the stiff Portland air came in off the bay and poked at my face like needles, making my long wool coat feel like nothing more than a sweater. I also remember the shiny surface of the casket. If I close my eyes and concentrate I can still see the grain of the cherry wood. I watched as they lowered that polished box into the hole with my husband inside. One white rose was visible amongst the dirt that had been scattered across the top. I stared at that rose and found that I couldn’t look away. People were leaving but I didn’t look up to watch them go. I sat there in my black dress, thin coat, and runny nose until a cold hand took my wrist.
“Mackenzie, are you ready to go now? Everyone’s gone back to the house.” I looked up, always surprised by how tall Samantha was. She stood nearly six feet even in flat boots. Her blonde hair was pulled back tight; tiny tendrils had broken free and danced in her face.
“He gave me white roses on my birthday last year, remember?” I asked. I continued to stare at the freshly dug hole. “I need a few minutes alone. To say good-bye.”
“Okay, I’ll wait in the car for you. Take your time.” Her words were soft as she turned and headed for the gate.
I squatted near the gravesite and stared at his coffin. I should have felt some emotion. Something. And although there were tears, I was numb. It was like that black hole that would caress my husband’s body forever was really in me. I was the black hole. Hollow, echoing and empty. That numbness followed me from the grave all the way to the car.
The gray roughness of theCasco Baywas a blur through the window on the slow drive back to the house. I lifted my head to get a better look at the water as we moved along. It was cold, dark, ugly. A ship hugged the harbor, fishermen dressed in various shades of rubber busied about the docks talking in huddles, loading, unloading crates of lobster and shrimp. Once this sight would have made me feel at home, alive, content. It was where I’d grown up, where I’d spent most of my thirty-one years, it was where I belonged. So much time, hours upon happy hours, I’d spent inOldPortas a child, eating, walking by those docks. Now, as the car sped by, the smell of raw seafood, the sounds of seagulls fighting over bits of rotten fish and garbage, nauseated me. The harbor looked bleak, industrial, unwelcoming. The city hadn’t changed much at all but over time everything inside me had.
I closed my eyes briefly and took a breath, determined to erase that fatal drive toBostonfrom my mind, the argument we were having when the white truck slammed into us, the impact. Nick flying forward and then sideways across me. My face hitting the airbag. Blinding light, grinding metal and blood. So much blood. It covered his face, splashed across the dashboard. It was on me. All over me. Days later I would sit up in bed from the deepest of sleeps, screaming, still wiping at my arms trying to get the feeling of his blood from my body. That feeling would never really leave me, I knew.
I glanced over at Samantha. She’d been quiet during the ride; her eyes were partially shut. She’d been my closest friend for as long as I could remember, kindergarten maybe, and had endured each blow in my life with me. This particular loss seemed to take a toll on her. She looked exhausted, spent.
“It’s going to be fine, Sam,” I murmured.
She rubbed her forehead and nodded. “I’m sure it will. But you can’t hold everything in like this. It makes me nervous.”
My silence and steadfast refusal to discuss the accident had upset her. I tried but I couldn’t. The graphic details were mine and mine alone and right now I had them mostly where I wanted them. Tucked carefully in the back of my head in an airtight compartment. Until I tried to sleep and then like Houdini they escaped captivity and danced provocatively before me making me weep and scream until my voice was a whisper. I could only control my conscious thoughts and I refused to give up that teeny pretense of power over my own mind. Not now.
Nick had extensive abdominal injuries as well as a crushed spine when he was finally extracted from the wreckage and rushed to the nearest hospital. A team of doctors with long serious faces told me they needed to try and stabilize him before they could take him into surgery.
Nick wasn’t going to live. I knew it when I looked at his misshapen form connected to tubes and hoses. I knew it when he started mumbling what seemed to be death bed confessions to me quickly, as if his time was about to run out. What began as fragmented lucid conversation twisted into morphine inspired cycles of self disclosure.
In the five years I had known him, he had been resolutely silent about his past. He told me both of his parents died when he was sixteen, within months of one another. Family friends took custody and moved him toMaineto finish high school. He said little more. It had been a strange uncomfortable void in our relationship but I never pressed him because I assumed it was all so painful.
I didn’t leave his side during those hours before he was finally rushed into surgery to repair the constant bleed from his pancreas. Each time he opened his mouth, I leaned in to listen to the whispers that escaped on exhaled breath. It was an elaborate maze of disjointed thoughts about a house inPhiladelphiawhere he had grown up. Whenever he drifted off, he would wake and begin again to describe the stone structure, the woods that surrounded it, filled with twisted paths and a swimming hole. He told me he could never go back again because something terrible had happened there. In the end it was just a hash of stories without endings. This house had haunted him in some way, if only in his dreams.
The doctors told me not to pay too much attention; he had suffered severe internal injuries, and his concussion might have impaired his thought, speech and reasoning centers. But it was in these scattered moments that I felt closer to my husband than in all the moments that had come before.
“You have to go. Find the house. Just don’t trust them. None of them. No matter what, don’t trust them,” he’d said.
“Why? Where is this house?” I leaned down near his mouth to catch his words.
“Promise you’ll go. On your mother’s grave.” He was becoming visibly upset.
His face was unrecognizable, almost twice its normal size from impact against the dashboard. His eyes were two purple balloons. I could see only a hint of a pupil through one of the bloody slits. “I want you to bury me here, inMaine. NotPhiladelphia.”
I choked back tears. “Nick you aren’t going to die.”
“No. This is important. After the funeral someone will contact you, to go toPhiladelphia. It will all make sense. But when you get there, you have to go to the house. It’s the only way.”
“The only way to what?”
“If you don’t, as soon as they know I’m dead, they’ll come after you.”
“What are you talking about?” I squeezed his hand.
“They’ll come after you. Hurt or even kill you. The only way to end this is to get to them first. Stay there. Find James.” These last words floated off into the air as he was wheeled from the room.
Nick died on the operating table a half hour after his last utterance. But grief pushed his words out of my mind. I chalked his ramblings up to blood loss. Drugs in his system, nothing more. In the days following the funeral I occupied myself by reading cheap mysteries from the used bookstore. My eyes ran over the words but I didn’t really comprehend them. I’d wake up in the morning and immediately make a pot of coffee. Then I’d wander back to my chair, mug in hand, and flop down with a book. Coffee and Oreos, that was my sustenance. That and an occasional Bloody Mary because I thought it created a nice balance of salt and sugar in my blood stream and it numbed whatever emotions that made their way to the surface.
Whenever I did get up, I would inevitably stumble upon some remnants of my life with Nick. A dirty coffee cup he’d left on a shelf, his belt carelessly thrown over the towel rack in the bathroom, the sneaker he’d been looking for tucked under the couch. The emotions I’d kept under control finally burst. Tears and more tears.
The thought of returning to work loomed over me; I just kept putting it off. Everyday in the weeks following the funeral, I really did think that before the day was over, I would call work and maybe just stop in for an hour or so. Not to actually see any of the walk-in appointments at the Portland mental health clinic, but to just sit at my desk, to smell the hint of disinfectant that was always in the air, to rifle through my old charts, and talk to the people who’d shared my office for over five years. I did try to adjust my frame of mind to make myself want to go, but sometime around one in the afternoon, I’d give up the pretense and shuffle back to bed. I didn’t have the energy to do therapy with the disadvantaged and downtrodden. As far as I was concerned there wasn’t anyone more disadvantaged and downtrodden than me right now.
One afternoon I passed by the mirror in the foyer and inadvertently caught a glimpse of myself. Something that I had not done in weeks. My wildly curly reddish hair jutted up every which way, seeming to defy gravity. Clumps were matted to my scalp where I had slept on it. Purplish bruise-like marks spread out beneath each eye; the rest of my skin was just about the color of Elmer’s glue. I stared, aghast
I pulled at one cork screw lock that was hopelessly tangled. “I’ll never get this out. I’m going to have to shave my head,” I whispered.
That revelation had passed through my lips when my front door flung open with such force that it whipped around and hit the wall. Light poured into my living room; I squinted and backed up. Samantha was there with the day’s mail in her hand. She looked almost superhuman with the light at her back and her form nearly filling the doorway. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a French twist. Her tweed suit was chic and form fitting. I wasn’t really prepared for company. I didn’t want any, not today, not even Samantha.
I knew she’d show up. She always did. She’d been my school yard play mate, my side-kick all through my school years, my confidant, my ally against the world and in the end, my family when I no longer really had one. She’d been by my side in first grade when Tommy Evans pulled my red curls hard calling me Ronald McDonald. She’d fought my battles with me, distracted me with chatter during study hall when I was trying to read Return of the Native, and held my hand when my mother was dying. Now here she was again when I was dying.
She’d been with me after the accident and at the funeral, but I’d discouraged contact since then. I wanted to be alone. She gazed at me for a few minutes and then took a breath, trying to choose her words carefully.
“I wanted to come by and see you. I’m going on vacation tomorrow.” She hesitated. “This can’t go on, Mackenzie. You did the same thing when your mother…”
“Don’t talk about my mother,” I snapped.
My years had never been measured by faded hatch marks against a white wall, but by the significant losses I’d suffered as a child. My grandmother died when I was nine, followed a year later by my cousin Bobby. His death was tragic, a motorcycle accident. He was only eighteen. But my mother’s diagnosis of breast cancer shortly after had nearly been my undoing. The two years that followed were a nightmare of hospitals, surgery, chemotherapy, and sickness ending with her eventual death. Cancer. The word doesn’t mean disease to me. It means grief, despair, empty aching lonely sadness. It ripped my family apart and left nothing in its wake.
My father disappeared into himself after her death and I haven’t seen him since. He shuffles about, hands in his pockets, a vacant stare in his eyes, refusing to reengage in life. In the absence of a parental figure, a bloody anarchy reigned in our home between my brother and me reminiscent of the Lord of the Flies. It continued until the day I left for college. My mother’s death was not just another hatch mark against that wall of losses in my life. It was three furrowed slashes that had taken out my whole family.
“Here. I’m going to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.” She hugged me, handed me my bundle of mail and disappeared.
Flipping through the pile quickly, one stark white envelope stood out amongst the assorted junk mail. My address had been scrawled across the back with black magic marker. The return address was from a law office in Philadelphia. Davis, Lupinski & McBride. The words blurred across the page. A lawyer in Philadelphiawas requesting my presence at the reading of Nick’s will on Tuesday. Someone will contact you after I’m gone. They will want you to go to Philadelphia. I could almost feel Nick’s breath in my ear. My hands started to shake and the envelope slipped to the floor.
The Book of James, by Ellen Green