The long dark road ahead offered her no solace. Passing the familiar areas that she had once known as a teen when she was in her “prime” so to speak was more painful now than it had ever been. She had watched the world transform while she desperately clung to the past. Finding her way through downtown Mississippi she was finally in the run down neighborhood that she had called home for the past 54 years. The street was quiet and dark. Everyone had turned in by now whether by choice or by medication. You see the residents of Lanier Street had grown with the city and once they had raised their children and sent them off into the world, only the elderly remained. But she had not gone far from home. Most of her life had been spent caring for her mother. Her only child lived far from her and refused contact. The years before had been cruel to them and the ways of the old south did not agree with the newer generation. So now she was the only child of that neighborhood that remained.
As she pulled into the drive she slowly turned off the lights and listened to the winter wind. She stepped out into the cold as a blast of its chill slapped her hard across the cheek. Suddenly she was back in the 60s. A memory of a happier time immersed from her madness. For a moment she held on to the night she was crowned Miss Bethel Baptist. She had been elegant and radiant. Her talent, music, was professed to be the most extraordinary of any of the other girls. That night she truly felt like a queen. Now, in the winter’s cold, she felt the reality of what she had become. Her moment of euphoria now gone, the memory began to fade. She breathed in the cold and slowly ambled up the stone steps as yet another memory clouded her mind. This time it was the day that she left home. The rumors of her disappearance would engulf the water coolers at the college, as well as the beauty salons on downtown Farish Street. Only she and her immediate family would know the truth about the unplanned pregnancy. The father had given her the money to leave town and to keep quiet. Once again she was slapped back into her harsh reality. She opened the door and she stepped into the quiet dark living room. A strong odor filled the air. Moth balls and incense were penetrating the night air in a blanket of sickly sweet. It only masked the smell of death. While she closed the door, the next series of memories would break her. The documents in her mother’s family album were the last straw and the flash of the bloodied glass ball in her hand was her final act.
She stood solemnly in place remembering better days while the acrid smell of gas filled the air. Taking in a few deep breaths she was ready to say goodbye. She walked into the back room and kissed the only woman she had known as mother goodbye. In moments the house bomb was ready. She raised the lighter that she had plucked from her jacket and slowly flicked it awake. Her eyes rose towards the heavens as a bright orange and red orb engulfed the room. The house went up in an instant. She was pummeled into an adjacent wall as flames licked at her body. Her cries were not only for the pain she endured but for the pain that her life had granted her for so long. She felt herself slip away until she was no more.
The neighbors awoke to a fiery blaze as they rustled from their slumber. Swollen arthritic limbs began reaching for telephones and dialing 9-1-1. The dispatch board lit up quickly and a fire unit was sent to the address. But by the time they arrived it was already too late. The house was completely engulfed in flames and the bodies had burned badly in its fury. The team worked frantically to douse the flames, but it was understood they were just saving the remains for the funeral home.
In the later hours of the morning there would be nothing left at 1444 Lanier Street. There would be ash where there were once rooms and pipes where there were walls. The old frame home was no more. It hadn’t been updated in years so it didn’t stand a chance in the hellish blaze. The cause of the massive blast would be blamed on a gas leak. To their knowledge it had been left on with an unlit pilot. The gas simply overwhelmed the home until a single catalyst ignited its blaze. That catalyst was the partially melted remains of a lighter that was clutched in Ella’s burned, dead hands. The question on everyone’s mind now was, why?
Viola Warren received the call of her parent’s demise later that day. There was only one person outside of the family that knew her number and that was her best friend, Laurin. She had seen the devastation on the morning news and could hardly believe her eyes. She remembered spending time after school with Viola and her grandmother. The tiles and antique furniture were vivid as if it had been yesterday. The smell of fresh apple pie filled every corner of the home. Now there was nothing but charred remains. When she arrived at the heap of ash, she began to weep as she made the tearful call.
“Hey you. I have something to tell you. Go somewhere where you can be alone.”
“Ok, I’ll head to the bathroom, what’s up?”
“I’m at your parent’s house, or what’s left it. There’s been a fire and they didn’t make it. You need to come home.”
There was a brief pause of disbelief. Viola leaned against the sink. It had been a while since she had talked to either of them.
“Vi, you there, you ok? Do you need me to do anything?”
“No, just get the room ready. I’ll be there tonight.”
“Ok girl, drive carefully and love you.”
“Love you too.”
Viola’s co-workers were highly concerned for the loner and gave her their best as she packed up for her journey. She locked up her two-bedroom apartment and aimed for I-75. She called a close friend and told her that she was on her way home to a funeral. Renee was shocked at the news and asked her to wait so she could accompany her. Viola politely refused and assured her that things would be fine.
“I can take off and go with you. Don’t you think that’s best?”
“No, I really need to do this by myself. I’ll call you when I get there.”
Renee was highly upset but understood her friend’s strange ways.
“Just call me if you need me. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
For the past four years they had shared breakups with boyfriends, job loss, children’s birthdays and trifling family behavior as if they had been born as siblings. They were there for each other and even when time didn’t permit, they always found a way back to each other’s presence.
I-10 west stretched through Tallahassee, Pensacola and Alabama. This was her usual route home. The trip would take her through the small rundown towns in the back woods of Mississippi where having one red light to the entire town was the norm and if you saw a dollar store you were really uptown. She drove along trying to remember the exact words that Laurin had said. She had looked up the incident on the Clarion and Ledger’s website. She saw it for herself, but still couldn’t believe it. The memories of her granny were now all she had, but the truth of the matter was that was all she had before. She had made good on her vow to stay away. The memory of being left alone with only her grandmother to care for her was the only scene that seemed to play in her head. There just weren’t that many happy memories of anyone else.
Viola was now on I-55 and making her way to Laurin’s carport. She had been watching the street and waiting for her to arrive. She had taken off early as well in order to meet her. The news had devastated her as if it had been her own family. She stood quietly at the driver side door as it slowly opened. They were only able to look into each other’s eyes for a few seconds. The news really hit home this time. They stood and sobbed on each other’s shoulders. In the hours to come, they would get settled and discuss what new evidence had been found.
“For now they are not saying too much. The only thing that has come out is that the fire was gas related and from what I’ve heard, the question is, was it deliberate.”
Viola sat quietly on the edge of the bed. She knew that she would have to see it sooner or later. She decided to gather up her strength and go while the sun was still up. The two ladies loaded into Laurin’s car and headed to the site. When they arrived, there was still a police car and a few onlookers taking in the scene. She took a deep breath and stepped out from the Honda. As she walked pass the tape she was stopped by an officer.
“Hey, Miss, excuse me, you can’t go in there.”
Viola turned and looked at the large man in the blue uniform running towards her.
“This was my home for seventeen years. I just want to see if anything’s left.”
“Then you are the daughter. I’m detective Guilding. I’ve been assigned to this case and no there’s not a whole lot left. You will have to ID the remains at the coroner’s office. But before you do, I have a few questions for you. Are you up to it?”
She looked into the blood shot brown eyes of the tall man holding the tiny notepad. She reminded herself that he was just doing his job.
“What kind of questions?”
“Well for starters, did your mother have any enemies and where were you?”
“Well, I live in Gainesville, Florida. I got the call from my best friend this morning. She saw it on the news. As for my mother’s enemies, I can’t help you. You see we weren’t close. We didn’t talk much and we saw each other even less.”
He searched her eyes for loopholes and questionable behavior. He had heard rumors of her life story from some of the older members of the neighborhood. She just confirmed what he had already heard.
“Did you ever visit or hear anything when you were here?”
“About ten years ago I used to try to keep up appearances for holidays and such, but eventually I had to let it go. It wasn’t getting any better. She hated the fact that I did not stick around and live the life she wanted. She made it difficult for me to see my granny so I stayed away.”
Officer Guilding stood quietly taking notes and listening for ques. This was his second fire in six months and both of them had one thing in common, Ella Louise Warren. He wrapped up his brief interview by getting a number and address where she could be reached. He asked her to stay on the other side of the tape until they knew it was safe. For now she was blocked once again from her greatest memory, her grandmother. The wind whipped across her face chilling the tears on her cheeks. What a waste of hatred this life had been and now that chapter would come to a close. She was standing in the bitter winter cold when a hand appeared on her shoulder. It wasn’t Laurin, but an old family member.
“I know that you may not be up for it right now, but get with me and Bud on the arrangements.”
Maeron and Bud had been tied to the family thanks to a second marriage of her great grandmother. She had almost forgotten them until she saw Maeron’s frail little hand. It seemed that the only time that this family gathered was in death. The last death had been mourned at Maeron’s home. This one would be no different. They would get together in a day or two to finalize the plans.
After her brief visit with Maeron, she checked in on Ms. Davis. She had lived in that neighborhood since she could remember. She was one of the first to call 9-1-1. She offered her condolences and let her know that if she needed anything to give her a call. She offered the two ladies some hot chocolate and a place to sit while she recanted last night’s events. They gladly accepted and took their seats on the heavily plastic covered furniture.
“Viola, I remember when you were just a little girl. Your momma was a card, but you and Mrs. Warren shoved on. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
The ladies sipped their cocoa and Viola began to ask some questions of her own.
“Ms. Davis, what happened? Do you know anything?”
“Well, I’m afraid not, you see since you left your momma hadn’t said two words to me. She kept your gramma up in that house like a recluse. I remember one time when your momma was gone and your gramma was outside trying to catch the dog. He ran outside one day past her she had to go get him. She said your momma would be so upset if he got out. I helped her find the little booger. I tell ya, she looked bad. She was all stooped over and frail. She told me that Ella didn’t allow her to answer the phone. I just shook my head.”
Viola took in the story. She knew that things had deteriorated since she had left, but there was nothing she could have done. She would’ve been sucked down with them if she had stayed.
“A detective stopped me just a moment ago, he asked me some questions there was nothing much I could tell him.”
“Well that’s what I told ‘em. I couldn’t tell ‘em much cause of the way your momma treated me. But the truth is she treated everybody in this neighborhood like that. I don’t know what happened, but it had to be pretty bad for things to turn out this way.”
Viola sipped the last of her chocolate with a questioned look on her face.
“What do you mean?”
“I suppose they haven’t told you. The rumor is that the gas line wasn’t broken. The stove’s pilot wasn’t lit, but it was on.”
Viola felt her heart drop.
“You mean she planned it and killed the both of them?”
“It’s possible dear.”
After finishing their cocoa, they left Ms. Davis and headed back to Laurin’s. Viola had no appetite after the conversation. Laurin tried desperately to get her to go out. She could feel her friend slipping into an anger that she had no cure for. She finally talked her into going to their favorite little dive. It was a place called the Big Apple Inn. They sold these quaint little sandwiches that they both adored. Laurin felt that a quick trip downtown would help to ease her mind. She felt she needed the time to think.
Just as the winter sun began to set, they were entering Farish street. It used to be a local hot spot in the sixties. Now it was just another rundown community filled with drugs and prostitution. But even in the middle of the turmoil some of the local businesses had managed to stay. Their drive to keep their stores in the African American community outweighed the negative aspects of the neighborhood. The local barber shops, corner marts and candy stores remained faithful as did the Big Apple Inn and Style’s Funeral Parlor.
As they made it to the parking area, Viola noticed that the funeral parlor was closed and taped off. It had burned to the ground. She asked Laurin what had happened.
“Girl, that place burned about six months ago. They said something about faulty wiring and the formaldehyde. It was in all the papers. They say it was a good thing that owner had died a month before. Seeing her life’s work go up in flames woulda killed her.”
Viola was stunned. She remembered going there so many times when she was small. Her mother would drag her along to see the owner, Mrs. Styles. She figured they were close or something. Sometimes Mrs. Styles would even acknowledge her and give her $5.00 for being so polite and well mannered. Other times, she would sit in the parlor and wait while her mother and Mrs. Styles talked. Now she was gone and her business was in ashes. There was something that wasn’t right, but she didn’t understand quite what it was.
The ladies ordered their meals and grabbed some wine on the way home. They would talk about their old college days and wish for brighter futures. It would be the wee hours of the morning before they went to sleep. Tomorrow would be spent with funeral homes and family. The phones would have already started ringing to the folks up north. Ms. Maeron would have seen to that. She always made them feel comfortable and welcomed. She prepared her extra room and bought extra groceries for the wives and husbands that would soon be there. All Viola had to do was show up.
After taking a hot shower and a half a bottle of wine, Viola turned out the lights and went to bed. Her only thoughts were of what had happened. What in the world had gone so wrong that death seemed the only option? This was the question that ruled her thoughts until she finally dozed off to sleep.
The next morning was fresh and new. Yesterday’s events still loomed heavily in her mind. Viola decided to take on the day’s journey alone. Laurin was not pleased with her decision. She wanted to be there in every aspect of her best friend’s life, but she felt like she was being shut out. She was right. Vi had a knack for pulling inward when she felt obstacles that seemed insurmountable. She would go on without her today.
Her first stop would be to Maeron’s. They set the time and day for the wake and service. Wednesday and Thursday seemed to be good for everyone. Viola would have to call Wright’s Funeral home to go pick up the bodies and prepare. It would definitely be a closed casket ceremony. She remembered that her grandmother had insurance through that company as well as through Style’s, but since the latter was burned down she went with the competitor. They were able to look up the policy with just the name. They had heard of the event and were looking to hear from someone soon. She gave them her cell number where she could be reached in case there were any problems.
About an hour later, she was sitting in front of the charred remains once again. This time she was on her own. She sat quietly in her car trying to make sense of the whole thing when she noticed that her mother’s car had been taped off as well. She wondered what that was about. That was when her cell phone rang. It was Wright’s funeral home. There had been some issues with picking up the bodies. She had to get to the coroner’s office.
When she arrived, she noticed that detective Guilding was outside with the funeral home and the coroner. He was explaining the case. She pulled up just in time to find out what the hold up was. She walked over to the group and asked what was going on. Guilding was the first to speak.
“The coroner had to finish running a toxicology test. That is why they couldn’t pick the bodies up right away.”
“What’s the tox test for?”
“Let’s go inside.”
The group strolled through the glass doors and once inside Guilding began to speak.
“It was discovered that your grandmother was already dead before the fire. Mike here turned up some drugs that were not a part of her prescription. She had been given a large dose of valium.”
Once again the absolute unknowing was causing even more questions. She spoke slowly to make sure she heard correctly.
“She was already dead and had valium? What was she doing on valium?”
“We don’t know, but from what we have found out, the prescription was your mothers. This is now a homicide/suicide. I’m truly sorry.”
Viola felt herself finally coming unglued. The tears welled up in her eyes as her face transformed into a picture of sorrow and pain. She turned away from the two men. She couldn’t help but begin to cry. She was angered even more at the new evidence. She would have to get to the bottom of this mess before she left. Guilding motioned to the other men to move on while he offered her a cup of water from the cooler. He had more questions for her but understood that she might not be the person he needed to talk to. He still had to do his job.
“I know this isn’t easy for you. I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this, but you’ll learn soon enough. We found something in your mother’s car. It’s one of those glass ball paperweights and it’s covered in blood. We had it analyzed and found it was not your mother’s or your grandmother’s. We don’t know where it fits. Once again I have to ask, do you know anything about that?”
Viola now sobbed heavily. The story that was unfolding was taking more twists and turns than she could stand.
“No sir, I don’t know anything.”
He handed her another cup of water. Just as he did, a call came in on his radio. There had been a murder. An old woman was found dead in her living room. She was an obvious loner, but she always checked her mail. The mailman noticed it piling up and made the call. Guilding wondered why they called him as he headed to the scene. The woman on the radio said it was Mrs. Style’s sister. Before departing Guilding handed her his number.
“If you think of anything call.”
She took it with a nod and asked when could she have the bodies. The coroner had agreed that they were done. Wright’s took possession of the remains. There were still so many questions and no answers in sight. She now just prayed for resolution. Just then her phone rang. It was Renee. She had not heard from her and was beginning to get worried. She spoke with her briefly not really going into all the details. She promised she would update her when she got back. Renee could hear the tears in her voice. When she got off the phone, she felt even worse that she was not there by her side.
Wednesday finally rolled around. The wake had been carried on with many questions and speculations. The gathering of family members was one of the biggest she had seen. Everyone had loved her grand mother she had been considered a backbone of the Warren clan. As for Ella, she was remembered as vibrant and strong. She had survived a lot of hardships in the south but never seemed to let them get her down. Viola sat and listened. It always seems that no matter what a person does in life, they are remembered at their best in death. Then finally the whispers began to thrive. The newspaper leaked the coroner’s report and the dead woman in Vicksburg kept coming up as well. This lead to the dead funeral home owner as well as her burned business. By the time Thursday came, she was relieved to know that at least the bodies would be at rest.
After the service, they all gathered at Maeron’s home for the dinner. Although everyone tried to comfort her, there was no consoling Viola. She felt as if she had not known anyone in her family. She had not been close to them and as far as she felt, she did not belong there. She had picked over the plate of food that Laurin had brought her and didn’t talk much to anyone. Instead she listened to the muffled sound of voices in the rooms nearby. When she decided that she had enough, she threw her plate in the trash and headed towards the door. On her way out she was stopped. Ms. Berna Mae Towers had attended the service and was looking to speak with her. After offering her sympathy, she whispered in her ear.
“I have something for you. Come on back to my house.”
Viola turned to Laurin and asked her to come along. They drove to Berna’s home, which was around the corner from her grandmother’s place. When they arrived Berna produced an envelope that was filled with answers. Berna began to tell her about that special day.
“I was cleaning up, you know when you’re retired there’s not much else. I moved that lounger that you’re sitting in and found that on the floor. Your mother left it here. She had come by one day last week. I want to say it was Thursday. Something wasn’t right. She just sat there quiet for a while and then she asked me something strange.”
“What did she ask you?” Viola curiosity was peeked. She knew that Berna held most of the secrets of her past, but she never could get close enough to ask her when her mother was alive.
“She asked me did I think she was a bad person. Of course, I told her no. But I did tell her that some of things she did caused a lot of unnecessary pain to others. That’s when she asked for some coke. I went to get it for her and I didn’t think nothing of it. She had been carrying that envelope and when I returned it was gone. But like I said I just didn’t think. I gave her the coke, we talked a little more and then she left. Then the house burned down and I felt even stranger. I just didn’t know why. When I started cleaning and found that, it all fell into place.”
Viola began to open the envelope and asked her if she had read its contents. She responded that she had. She also had to add.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had always heard the stories. People had said they were lies. But what truly was done in the dark has now come to light.”
She began to thumb through the papers. There were a number of old laminated documents. There were signatures of deception on every page. There was even a birth certificate to verify the truth. She called officer Guilding and told him to meet her at Berna’s she had the answers they both needed.
When he got her call he dropped everything and raced to the address. Berna was there to usher him in and offer him a seat on one of the plush sofas in her living room. Viola sat quietly holding the envelope and shaking. But before she began, she asked him a couple of questions.
“The lady in Vicksburg, what was her name and how did she die?”
He answered quickly.
“Julia Dianne Harving, blunt force trauma to the head.”
Viola looked him in the eyes and spoke the words that pieced it together.
“The glass paperweight.”
Guilding looked pale. He radioed in and asked that the blood from the paperweight be checked against the blood from the victim.
“Julia Dianne Harving was Mrs. Jackie Styles’ sister. My mother went to see Jackie when she got sick. She wanted absolution. You see Jackie was her real mother and she refused her every day of her life.”
“Do you have evidence of this?”
“Yes, but you can’t have the original. You see when Jackie was dying, she sent for Ella. Maybe this time she felt that things would be different. Instead she denied her yet again and told her to let sleeping dogs lie. Before she died, Jackie gave this envelope to her sister. She decided to hold on to it for a little bit and somewhere along the line she called Ella. By now the funeral home has burned, Jackie is obviously gaining all the glory and money while Ella’s secret is dying away with the only people who knew. And let’s not forget the money, Jackie was a very rich woman. So when she arrived at Julia’s home she was probably thinking that this was it. Julia would be the one to tell the world the truth. But instead Julia mocked her. She gave her the folder and told her that no one would believe her anyway. She had built a life of lies and deceit and even if she had the papers people would think they were forged. That was when she turned her back on her and laughed. That was when she struck her with the paperweight. It’s all here in her diary.”
Officer Guilding assembled the remaining pieces.
“So she took the envelope, wrote up the confession and left it here last Thursday. She went to a casino and left the gas running in the house for Friday. When she returned she lit the lighter and said goodbye. She gave up.”
The room was quiet. Everyone was still in shock over the extraordinary story.
“So in the end she took them all with her. The only one she couldn’t have was her mother, Mrs. Styles, the cancer killed her. She took her anger out on the one thing that she had cherished, the funeral home. We found that evidence also when we searched the car.”
They flipped through the papers and found a copy of the will naming Julia as the soul heir. There was also one other note it read:
Mrs. Warren and I agreed that this child would be hers once it is born. I have no intentions on changing my mind. I have already consulted Dr. Mills on the arrangements. I am not a woman who wishes to raise children. My plate is full with my business, Julia, Momma and my beloved Ruth. And although momma doesn’t approve of the relationship with Ruth or my decision to give up this baby, I have made my choice. My marriage to Johnny is over and his child will be with a loving family. That is all I can assure for now.
Now that it was all over. Viola could close a painful chapter in her mother’s life. The woman she had known as her grandmother was really a kind stranger. This had suited her fine and her life had gone along as she had planned. But her beloved mother could not get over the deception as easily as that. The pain and wanting to be a part of something bigger had eaten away at her over the years until nothing was left. At her grave she placed a special bouquet of flowers.
“Rest in peace, for the world now knows your true story.”