By claiming that they had to go to their real estate office to make sure they had copies of all their important documents, Cheryl and Troy managed to extract themselves from Nancy Muir’s proprietary sympathy and insistence that they eat breakfast with her. In just the few minutes that Cheryl had stood on Nancy’s front porch, watching Troy, the three ATF agents, and several firemen wade through the weeds of the empty lot where her house had burned completely away, she noticed with growing discomfort several of her neighbors staring at her with deep concern. She could tell that given the slightest social gesture from her, half a dozen people would scamper over and want her to explain what had happened. At that moment, she could think of nothing more exhausting than trying to make sense out of the previous twenty-four hours. So as soon as Troy returned from his tour of their empty lot, Cheryl all but pushed him toward their car while casting assurances to Nancy over her shoulder that she and Troy would get a hot breakfast somewhere.
As soon as Troy cranked the car, Cheryl said, “Don’t go forward to turn around.” She pointed at the group of neighbors gathered in a loose semi-circle gazing at them. “If we drive by them, we’ll have to stop and explain.”
“Explain.” Troy shifted the car into reverse. “The people who really want an explanation are all those men in uniform.”
“Thank you for dealing with them.” Cheryl squeezed Troy’s arm.
Before he had time to answer, Troy had to dodge a white WBTV news van cruising through the development. As soon as the van zipped around them, Troy finished backing up and hurried out of Cedar Run Estates. Once on the highway headed toward town, Troy glanced in his rear view mirror and shook his head. “I hadn’t thought about the news people showing up.”
“Will this sort of publicity hurt business?” Cheryl wanted to talk about anything except what needed explanation.
“If it were just the fire, we could look forward to sympathy and curiosity business.” Troy slid his palm from his ear to his chin. “But with the house disappearing, even the ashes, and ass-high weeds growing where there should be melted pipes and a charred foundation, I think a lot of people are going to be suspicious. Especially when the news is probably going to show the ATF standing in our vacant lot scratching their heads.”
“So the whole house has disappeared . . .” Cheryl studied Troy’s profile, looking for a twitch or a quiver.
Troy looked at Cheryl and his whole face sagged. “Even the foundation is gone. No sign there was ever a concrete slab poured. The water and sewer lines have disappeared.”
“Did the ATF men question you like they plan to come after us?”
“You know, Cheryl, in a way I wish they would take us to some cozy interrogation room and ask us a bunch of questions that might make me think they have some idea of what’s going on.”
“Did you say anything about Nadine’s house?”
“Do you think Nadine burned down our house?” Troy slowed down for a moment as if he planned to pull into one of the long gravel driveways along this stretch of highway.
“Of course not.” Cheryl stiffened her posture and frowned. “Her house starts losing its grip on reality, letting all these old pieces of furniture reappear which burned up when a fire gutted that same house years ago, and the same day that you and I go to see Nadine’s house performing its tricks, we come home to find our house on fire. How could I take that as suspicious?”
Troy rubbed the side of his face again, harder this time. “I don’t know. Even after seeing Nadine’s house shifting between furnishings—and that was pretty spooky, I’ll admit—if we had come home to our house on fire, I’d have been happy believing her haunting and our burning on the same day were just coincidences.” Troy struck the side of his head with the heel of his hand. “But when I walked around that weed-clotted lot where our house was burning to blazes not two hours earlier, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Nadine’s house wavered, and how I worried that if one of us stepped in those ripples, we might find ourselves being replaced by our grandparents or something.”
Cheryl nodded. “You know, if people start believing that real estate isn’t real, we will lose business.”
“If real estate hasn’t been real all these years, then I might lose my mind before we start losing business.” Troy reached over and rubbed Cheryl’s shoulder.
“So are we going to tell the ATF men about Nadine’s house?”
“Well, it is the responsible thing to do.” Troy exhaled deeply. “And they do want to talk to us again.” He reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out three cards. “Swanson, Ginn, Rourke.” As he spoke each man’s name, he handed Nadine the agent’s business card.
“I think we should tell them as soon as we can.” Cheryl shuffled the cards several times, wishing she felt more confidence in the government’s authority. “Don’t you think now would be the best time to tell them, while our credibility rating is still high?”
Troy barked out a short laugh and turned in his seat to take a long look at Cheryl. “Are you expecting to lose some credibility during this adventure?”
“Something this bizarre has to come with a scandal attached. Even if it’s not about us, we’ll be connected to it.” Cheryl reached over and gently guided Troy’s face back to the highway. “You know how people are about what they see on the news. If we weren’t up to something unsavory then why has our house disappeared? Clearly, we’re trying to hide something.”
“Let’s get something to eat, then. While we can still show our faces in public.”
“Let’s get it to go.”
“Already feeling like a fugitive?” Troy slowed down as he entered Hibriten’s main avenue of fast food restaurants.
“I just don’t want to be mingling right now.” Whether she was actually hungry or simply wanted the comfort of fast food, Cheryl didn’t care. All she was certain of was that she had to have pancakes and sausage patties. From McDonald’s. While they waited to place their order, Cheryl thought about turning on the radio, but then pulled her finger away from the power button. Troy always kept his presets tuned to the local stations. Surely somewhere on the local news, an announcer was sharing details of the mysterious and devastating fire that leveled a prominent real estate broker’s home.
As they pulled back onto the highway, Cheryl handed Troy his Egg McMuffin and opened the Styrofoam tray holding her pancakes, but as soon as she balanced the tray on her lap and tried to open her small package of butter, she knew that she didn’t want to eat in the car. That really would make her feel like a fugitive. “Let’s park somewhere to eat.”
Troy handed his McMuffin back to her. “You got a place in mind? We could go to the office, but I know Barry is having a staff meeting this morning.”
“I need a place that’s private . . . but familiar.” Cheryl felt desperate for comfort. If strange events weren’t unfolding right next to her childhood home, that’s where she’d like to eat her pancakes, but right now, she didn’t want to risk breaking into that house with all its pleasant memories, only to find it haunted like Nadine’s house. Then she realized that the last time she’d recently felt comfortable was at the Suddreths’ house. When Cheryl told Troy to drive toward Hibriten Elementary School, he didn’t act surprised. Considering the events of the last twenty-four hours, though, Cheryl suspected that her and Troy’s capacity for surprise had been stretched way beyond the elasticity of surprise. She wondered if they’d ever rebound from the previous night.
“Did you say you’d sold that house?” Troy veered off the main road, settling into his seat and taking a drink of his coffee.
Cheryl leaned her head against her fingertips, the back of her hand pressed against her window. “If I can trust the enthusiasm of Carl and Theresa Dula, they should be dropping by the office Monday morning to start their credit check.” She thought about the cool tile of the Suddreths’ central hallway. From somewhere, a memory drifted through her mind. She and Betsy Suddreth cleaning the house for a party. They’d been listening to an old record of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, The Lonely Bull album. Unexpectedly, the next record that dropped onto the turntable was Mario Lanza singing “Song of India.” For the two or three minutes that Mario sang and Cheryl damp mopped the turquoise tile of the hall, the house had felt like the Taj Mahal. As large and luxurious as their destroyed and vanished house had been in Cedar Run Estates, Cheryl had never been transported by it.
“Did any of our tile work survive the fire?” Cheryl tapped the dash to remind Troy of the partially hidden driveway.
“Cheryl, honey, you have to get it clear in your head.” Troy eased between the fat boxwoods that lined the driveway. “Nothing is on our lot. We don’t even have ashes. I have no idea how the insurance company is going to respond. And those ATF guys look at me like they want to take a chainsaw to my head.”
Alarmed by the dull throb in Troy’s voice, Cheryl leaned against his shoulder and took his hand. “That’s probably just what they want you to think.”
Troy lifted his and her hand into the air and shook them. “You mean they would standard procedure me in my dark despair?”
“Just think what those guys could do with a real estate license and a few next of kin a day after the will was read.” Cheryl patted Troy’s stomach. “Get some food in you. We’ll call the three Silly Goats Gruff and ask them to come by here for their interrogation.”
“Swanson, Ginn, Rourke.” Troy reached across the gear shift and stroked Cheryl’s leg, finally resting his hand on her knee. “We ought to get some people over here to trim these bushes.”
As she fished in her purse for the keys to the house, Cheryl realized some of the shrubs in the back yard needed trimming as well. It was a relief to worry about plants. She felt she could depend on them. She wondered if they’d had trees or bushes or flowers around their burned house would they have disappeared with the rest of the ruins. Maybe she could ask Swanson, Ginn, and Rourke what they thought. But no doubt they’d remind her they had come to ask the questions. Would they come expecting her to give them answers that made sense? If that was what they wanted, then she’d have to avoid telling them the truth.
Most likely, they’d come with their departmental response already firmly in place. Cheryl tried to imagine the three men sitting in a booth somewhere, Denny’s probably, lining up all the other cases where burned houses had disappeared and the lots had healed themselves of foundations and sewer lines in just a matter of minutes with firemen standing right on top of the process with their hoses dripping. And then at some favorable moment in her interview with the ATF agents, she was going to add her two visits to Nadine’s house.
Cheryl led Troy through the house to the back patio. The house seemed larger today than it did yesterday. She had noticed over the years that certain people, like Carl and Theresa Dula, seemed to suck up space more than others. She suspected that such people were the highly fertile members of society. On the other hand, she and Troy made the space inside their properties feel much larger. When the Suddreths lived in this house, it often felt crowded. Jammed with procreation potential the way it was. After all, the Suddreths did have five kids running around, and each of the kids had five to ten friends running around.
When she had first visited the house after she found out it had been listed with Blue Ridge Real Estate, she had been surprised by how much larger the house felt than she remembered. And all that marble tile in the hallways and living room and all that ceramic tile in the kitchen and family room.
If she could go walk through her childhood home right now, she wondered, how spacious would it feel? Compared to practically all the houses she was selling today, her parents’ house was small. The Suddreths’ house could easily accommodate three of her parents’ house. And no one in the whole town had the landscaping in the back yard that the Suddreths had. The view from her parents’ front porch was of the two-lane blacktop that ran by the elementary school, over the four-lane highway to Hickory, and past Nadine’s spooky house.
The back of her parents’ house stood inside a narrow circular driveway which bordered on the small field that her father always planted in sugar cane each summer. He grew enough cane to make maybe twenty gallons of molasses in the fall. More vividly than she could recall returning to school in the fall or going to football games, Cheryl could remember riding in the truck with her father with a load of sugar cane out into the woody outer edge of Hibriten, deep into some valley antiqued with the yellow and orange of maple trees, to drop their cane beside Marvin Poarch’s molasses mill. The air smelled so sweet that Cheryl thought her brain would turn to caramel.
As she unlocked the French doors that led out to the patio, Cheryl asked Troy, “Did you ever hear anything about Nadine’s house before she moved in?”
“Not a word.” Troy stepped out on the patio and let out a soft whistle. “Why don’t we just squat here until we decide what to do with our lot at Cedar Run.” He drifted around the full circumference of the patio then settled down on the rock wall next to where Cheryl stood. He pulled his biscuit out of the bag he’d carried from the car.
“I guess we could delay getting the keys to the Dulas.” Cheryl sat next to her husband and retrieved her three tubs of syrup from the bag.
“We have to do the termite inspection anyway.” Troy rested one foot on the top of the wall and leaned against his leg. “Nobody wants to rush the termite inspection.”
“This time of the year, we could stall them for at least a month with the termite inspection.” Cheryl poured her syrup. One tub per pancake.
Inspecting the back yard more carefully, Troy barely noticed his sausage biscuit as he ate it. “Why don’t we snatch this house ourselves? I could trade our lake view for this landscaping.”
It was harder to be careless with pancakes than with a biscuit, so Cheryl could just nod when Troy made his proposal. She let her eyes roam around the rhododendron and the magnolias whose white blossoms perfumed the whole yard. The master bedroom was at the back of the house. If she and Troy slept there, they could open the windows and spice their sleep with the scent. Cheryl’s mother had never liked the smell of magnolia trees. She complained that it was too heavy, too sweet. Those were the reasons why Cheryl liked the scent more than any other. It was the way she wanted her skin to smell. If she had to assign the odor of magnolia to one zone of the body, it would be the thighs. Unexpectedly, Cheryl found herself slightly aroused. She wondered if Troy might be feeling similar sensations.
Since they’d been going to the fertility clinics, the eroticism had drained out of their sex lives. The sexual appliances suggested by one of the clinic counselors struck Cheryl as offensive. Although she wasn’t active in her church, she had been profoundly indoctrinated as a child, and such obsessive catering to the mechanics of lust disturbed Cheryl, despite all the articles she’d read in Cosmopolitan and Redbook. She enjoyed making love to Troy. She slept naked. She encouraged Troy to sleep naked. In the great scheme of Hibriten bedroom activity, Cheryl felt she was as sensuous as anyone. She just didn’t want to introduce technology into her and Troy’s pleasure.
However, she hadn’t felt this stimulated in months. The odor of the magnolias seemed to make her skin more sensitive. Not just those spots that flushed or hardened or pulsed. The roughness of the rock wall pressing against her butt and against the backs of her thighs added their own set of quivers to her nervous system. She thought if Hibriten had an earthquake at this moment, they could probably trace it back to her lower abdomen.
“Do you really like the view here better than at the lake?” Cheryl couldn’t keep a slight vibration out of her voice.
“I do.” Troy stood up and walked to the edge of the patio. “It’s spectacular when you first see it, but the more you look at it, the more it kind of claims you.” Troy turned back and stood beside Cheryl. He rested his hand on her back, just below her neck. “And those magnolia blossoms are pure pornography. He moved his hand up to her neck.
Involuntarily, Cheryl arched her back. She felt all that was coiled inside her shudder into receptivity. Sitting the way she was, all she could do to return Troy’s caress was to reach out and cup her hand over his calf. But she was still balancing her pancakes on her left thigh.
Rather abruptly, Troy crouched beside Cheryl. “Will you join me out under the privacy of one of those weeping willows?”
“Don’t you want to help me finish these pancakes first?” Cheryl noticed a small tremor in both his legs.
“Let’s take them with us.” Troy lifted the plate from Cheryl’s lap. For a second or two, he studied her breakfast. “You’ve used all the syrup on the pancakes, haven’t you?”
“I wasn’t expecting breakfast to wind up under the willows.” Cheryl took the pancakes out of Troy’s hand and tossed the plate on the patio wall. Hurrying across the yard, mostly tugging at Troy to keep up, she picked the tree that offered the most privacy.
Once they had pushed through the outer branches of the willow, Cheryl couldn’t remember ever having been under these trees when she spent time with Betsy Suddreth. Of course, the trees had to have been smaller all those years ago, perhaps less accommodating. But apparently, at some point, Mr. Suddreth or someone had started trimming the inner limbs of this willow to make it feel more like a room partitioned off from the rest of the world with a bead curtain. The ground underneath the canopy of leaves was covered in a mossy grass that felt like shaggy velvet when Cheryl slipped off her shoes and unbuttoned her blouse.
When they finished making love, Cheryl and Troy tried to decide if they should call Swanson, Ginn, and Rourke. But before they could make any definite plans, both of them fell asleep. Cheryl woke first and could tell that she had taken a long nap. She felt rested but not overly energetic. If she had been in her bed at home—she corrected herself—if she had a home in which to have a bed—she would certainly roll over and aim for another hour’s sleep, just to make sure she’d gotten all the laziness out of her system. She let her wrist drift up to her eyes and saw that she and Troy had been naked on the grass for three hours. Still completely detached from any desire to move more than her wristwatch to her eyes, Cheryl tried to recall if either she or Troy had actually called the ATF men.
Regardless of how hard they might knock, Cheryl was certain she wouldn’t be able to hear them this far from the house. The agents would see Troy’s car in the driveway. But would they know the car belonged to Troy? Of course they would. No doubt, she and Troy already had a file fitted to them in some office down in Charlotte by now. Yes, a big house burns down—that’s already suspicious. But then its ashes disappear and all the plumbing. Of course, the ATG agents had arrived long before the baffling disappearance of the ashes. Oh yeah, Cheryl almost spoke aloud, as soon as those agents deduced that nobody was going to open the door to them, they’d start snooping around. Maybe not break down the door immediately. But wander around the sides of the house. Half asleep, Cheryl nodded. She could see the three men so clearly in her mind. Agent Swanson would wait in front of the house, probably right beside Troy’s car so he could keep an eye on the front door and the car at the same time.
Agent Ginn would circle around the left side of the house while Agent Rourke moved along the right side of the house, both of them intending to meet in the back yard. They’d see the back patio doors open. At the same time, they’d also see her half-eaten stack of McDonald’s pancakes. What would their ATF training tell them to do? Surely one of them would slink inside the house to give it a quick inspection and to open the front door for Agent Swanson. Cheryl gave a slight jerk and came more fully awake when she realized that all three men might have pulled out their guns as soon as nobody answered the door when they first knocked. And while Agent Rourke checked the house on his way to the front door, Surely Agent Ginn would be scanning the back yard for suspicious signs.
Now Cheryl raised slowly to her elbow. What if someone were standing at the back patio, inspecting the yard with a trained eye? Would he be able to see through the outer limbs of the willow? Holding her breath, Cheryl stared at the curtain of leaves concealing her and Troy. Although she could faintly see the outline of the house, she definitely couldn’t make out details, not even the stone contours of the patio. Almost certain they hadn’t made a definite appointment with the ATF agents, Cheryl lowered herself back into the mossy grass that still held a hint of her body heat. With little effort, she knew she could drift back to sleep. Even if Troy had called the agents at some point between entering the house and falling asleep under the willow tree, how could they be suspicious of a man and wife making love on the grass?
Before Cheryl could turn her fading attention to the flaws in her reasoning, a distant sound called her back to the world. Faintly, she heard a song played by a trumpet. One that she’d heard many times when she was in high school. “The Indian Love Call.” Coming fully awake, Cheryl sat up. She glanced at Troy to see if he had heard it. He still slept, his forehead resting on his arm, his cheek buried in the moss. Cheryl decided that she’d wait until she got dressed to wake Troy. But as she was buttoning her blouse, the song drifted through the air again, no closer, but definitely a trumpet and most definitely “The Indian Love Call.”
Kneeling beside her husband, Cheryl squeezed his shoulder and gave it more of a vibration than a shake. “How did you sleep?”
Troy lifted his head a few inches, slowly recollecting where he was. He smiled. “Now I’m ready to help you finish your pancakes.”
Instead of replying, Cheryl placed her hand over Troy’s mouth. The song had started again. “Do you hear that?”
Troy pulled Cheryl’s hand from his mouth but held onto it, borrowing some leverage from it as he scooted to a sitting position. After a second longer of listening, he nodded his head in rhythm to the music. “The trumpet?”
In relief, Cheryl leaned against Troy. “So it’s not just me.”
“No, I heard it.” Troy put his arm around Cheryl. “But you know, it could just be you and me who hear it.”
For a moment, Cheryl started to protest, but then she drooped back so far that she had to prop herself up by planting her hands behind her and locking her elbows. “Oh Troy, I know you’re just kidding, but after the last twenty-four hours, I’m afraid you might be telling more truth than I want you to.”
Now it was Troy’s turn to put his hand over his wife’s mouth. “There it is again. Plain as day. Distant. But not imaginary.” He started nodding in rhythm to the song again, staring into Cheryl’s eyes. “It’s a nice song. I know I heard it before. A long time ago.”
Nodding along with Troy, Cheryl figured she should fill him in on everything she knew about the song. “It’s ‘The Indian Love Call.’ From an old movie. The two actors were Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. He was a Mounted Police. I think he was supposed to be guiding Jeanette MacDonald through the Canadian Wilderness. Naturally, at some point, he has to sing this song to her.”
“Is this your favorite movie or something?” Troy shifted around so he could sit face to face with Cheryl. He slid a foot on either side of her hips.
“Not really. I’m like you—I know I’ve probably seen it a long time ago.” Cheryl hesitated. What she was about to say, she suspected, would pull them back into the interest of the ATF. “You remember I’ve talked to you about growing up with my neighbor, Knox Pritchard?” Cheryl took a deep breath. “At one point when we were in high school, he used to play that song on his trumpet. He’d go out in the way back of his house, next to Lucy’s Field, and practice an hour or two. Sometimes while he was practicing, he’d play that same piece of ‘Indian Love Call’ two or three dozen times. Once I asked him about it, and he told me all about the movie.”
Keeping his eyes on Cheryl, Troy pulled his knees up and hugged them. “And this is the same guy . . .”
The song visited Troy and Cheryl again.
“. . . this is the same guy, isn’t it, who lived in Grafton and Nadine’s house, back when it burned down?” Troy reached behind him for his underwear and pants.
“Do you really think all of this is connected somehow?” Cheryl got up and brought Troy’s socks and shoes to him.
“Strange as it sounds, so far that’s the most sensible possibility I’ve heard.”
“But what about the way our house disappeared?”
Not troubling to tuck in his shirt and buckle his belt, Troy fished his cell phone out of its small holster. “Let me see one of those agents’ cards.”