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The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street

Smoky silhouettes of church spires stamped against the bruised skies of a Charleston morning give testament to the reason why it's called the Holy City. The steepled skyline at dawn is a familiar sight for early risers who enjoy a respite from the heat and humidity in summer, or appreciate the beauty of the sunrise through the Cooper River Bridge, or like hearing the chirps and calls of the thousands of birds and insects that populate our corner of the world.

Others, like me, awaken early only to shorten the night, to quiet the secret stirrings of the restless dead who wander during the darkest hours between sunset and sunrise.

I lay on my side, Jack's arm resting protectively around my waist, my own arm thrown around the soft fur of General Lee's belly. His snoring and my husband's soft breathing were the only sounds in the old house, despite its being currently inhabited by two adults, three dogs, a teenage girl, and twenty-month-old twins. I never counted the myriad spirits who passed peacefully down the house's lofty corridors. Over the past several years I'd extricated the not-so-nice ones and made my peace with the others, who were content to simply exist alongside us.

That's what had awakened me. The quiet. No, that wasn't right. It was more the absence of sound. Like the held breath between the pull of a trigger and the propulsion of the bullet.

Being careful not to awaken Jack or General Lee, I slowly disentangled myself from the bedsheets, watching as General Lee assumed my former position next to Jack. Jack barely stirred and I considered for a moment whether I should be insulted. I picked up my iPhone and shut off the alarm, which was set for five a.m.-noting it was four forty-six-then crossed the room to my old-fashioned alarm clock, which I kept just in case. Jack had made me get rid of the additional two I'd once had stationed around the room. He'd accused me of trying to wake the dead each morning. As if I had to try.

Since I was a little girl, the spirits of the dearly departed had been trying to talk to me, to involve me in their unfinished business. I'd found ways-most often involving singing an ABBA song-to drown out their voices with some success, but every once in a while, one voice was louder than the others. Usually because a spirit was shouting in my ear or shoving me down the stairs, making it impossible to ignore regardless of how much I wanted to.

I stumbled into my bathroom using the flashlight on my phone, silently cursing my half sister, Jayne, and my best friend, Dr. Sophie Wallen-Arasi, for being the cause of my predawn ramblings. They had taken it upon themselves to get me fit and healthy after the birth of the twins, JJ (for Jack Junior) and Sarah. This involved feeding me food I wouldn't give my dog-although I'd tried and he'd turned up his nose and walked away-and forcing me to go for a run most mornings.

Although I was more a jogger than a runner, the exercise required lots of energy that shouldn't be provided by powdered doughnuts-according to Sophie-and made me sweat more than I thought necessary, especially in the humid summer months, when bending down to tie my shoes caused perspiration to drip down my face and neck.

Barely awake, I pulled on the running pants that Nola had given me for my last birthday, telling me that they had the dual purposes of being fashionable and functional, sucking everything in and making one's backside look as if it belonged to a lifelong runner. I tried to tell Jayne and Sophie that these wonder pants made the actual running part unnecessary, but they'd simply stared at me without blinking before returning to their conversation regarding lowering their times for the next Bridge Run, scheduled for the spring.

I tiptoed back into the bedroom, noticing as I pulled down the hem of my T-shirt that it was on inside out, and paused by the bed to look at my husband of less than two years. My chest did the little contracting thing it had been doing since I'd first met bestselling true-crime-history author Jack Trenholm. I'd thought then that he was too handsome, too charming, too opinionated, and way too annoying to be anything to me other than someone to be admired from afar or at least kept at arm's distance. Luckily for me, he'd disagreed.

My gaze traveled to the video baby monitor we kept on the bedside table. Sarah slept neatly on her side, her stuffed bunny-a gift from Sophie-tucked under her arm, her other stuffed animals arranged around the crib in a specific order that only Sarah-and I-understood. I'd had to explain to Jack that the animals had been arranged by fur patterns and colors, going from lightest to darkest. I'm sure I did the same thing when I was a child, because, I'd explained, it was important to make order of the world.

In the adjacent crib, Sarah's twin, JJ, slept on his back with his arms and legs flung out at various angles, his stuffed animals and his favorite whisk-even I couldn't explain his attachment to this particular kitchen utensil-tossed in disarray around his small body. My fingers twitched, and I had to internally recite the words to "Dancing Queen" backward to keep me from entering the nursery and lining up the toys in the bed and tucking my little son in a corner of the crib with a blanket over him.

It was a skill I'd learned at Jayne's insistence. She was a professional nanny, which meant-I suppose-that she knew best, and she insisted that my need for order was borderline OCD and not necessarily the best influence for the children. There was absolutely nothing wrong with my need for order, as it had helped me survive a childhood with an alcoholic father and an absent mother, but I loved my children too much to dismiss Jayne's concerns completely.

I would not, however, retire my labeling gun and had taken proactive measures by keeping it hidden so it wouldn't "disappear" as my last two had.

As I stared at my sweet babies on the monitor, my heart constricted again, leaving me breathless for a moment as I considered how very fortunate I was to have found Jack-or, as he insisted, to have been found by him-and then to have these two beautiful children. An added and welcome bonus to the equation was Jack's sixteen-year-old daughter, Nola, whom I loved as if she were my own child despite her insistence on removing my three main food groups-sugar, carbs, and chocolate-from the kitchen.

"Good morning, beautiful," Jack mumbled, two sleepy dark blue eyes staring up at me. General Lee emitted a snuffling snore. "Going to work?"

Before I was married, I'd always risen before dawn to be the first person in the offices of Henderson House Realty on Broad Street. But now I had a reason to stay in bed, and he was lying there looking so much more appealing than a run through the streets of Charleston. Of course, spending the night in the dungeon at the Old Exchange building was also more appealing than a run, but still.

"Not yet. Meeting Jayne for a run." I stood by the bed and leaned down to place a kiss on Jack's lips, lingering long enough to see if he would give any indication that he wanted me to crawl back in. Instead his eyes closed again as he moved General Lee closer to his chest, giving me an odd pang of jealousy.

I quietly closed the bedroom door and paused in the upstairs hallway, listening. Even the ticking of the old grandfather clock seemed muffled, the sound suffocated by something unseen. Something waiting. The night-lights that lined the hallway-a leftover from when Jayne lived with us and a concession to her crippling fear of the dark and the things that hid within-gave me a clear view of Nola's closed bedroom door.

She'd been sleeping in the guest room, as I'd decided right after the twins' first birthday party in March that her bedroom needed to be redecorated. I felt a tug of guilt as I walked past it to the stairs, remembering the shadowy figure I'd seen in Nola's bedroom window in a photograph taken by one of Sophie's preservation students, Meghan Black. She was excavating the recently discovered cistern in the rear garden and had taken the photograph and shown it to Jack and me. We'd both seen the shadowy figure of a man in old-fashioned clothing holding what looked to be a piece of jewelry. But I'd been the only one to notice the face in Nola's window.

Having recently dealt with a particularly nasty and vengeful spirit at Jayne's house on South Battery, I hadn't found the strength yet to grapple with another. Despite promises to be open and honest with each other, I hadn't told Jack, bargaining with myself that I'd bring it up just as soon as I thought I could mentally prepare myself. That had been seven months ago, and all I'd done was move Nola into the guest room and then interview a succession of decorators.

I stifled a yawn. Just one more week, I thought. One more week of working every possible hour trying to make my sales quota at Henderson House Realty, trying to put myself on the leaderboard once more. It was important not just for the sense of pride and accomplishment it gave me, but also because we needed the money.

Then I'd have enough energy and brain cells to be able to figure out who these new spirits were and to make them go away. Preferably without a fight. Then I'd tell Jack what I'd seen and that I'd already taken care of the problem so he wouldn't have to be worried. He had enough on his plate already, working with a new publisher on a book about my family and how Jayne had come to own her house on South Battery.

I entered the kitchen, my stomach rumbling as I reached behind the granola and quinoa boxes in the pantry for my secret stash of doughnuts. But instead of grasping the familiar brown paper bag, I found myself pulling out a box of nutrition bars-no doubt as tasty as the cardboard in which they were packaged. Taped to the front was a note in Nola's handwriting:

Try these instead! They've got chocolate and 9 grams of protein!

Happy visions of running upstairs and pulling Nola from her bed earlier than she'd probably been awake since infancy were the only reason I didn't break down and weep. The grandfather clock chimed, telling me I was already late, so I gave one last-minute look to see if I could spot my doughnut bag, then left the house through the back door without eating anything. If I passed out from starvation halfway through my run, Nola might feel sorry enough for me to bring a doughnut.

I stopped on the back steps, suddenly aware that the silence had followed me outside. No birds chirped; no insects hummed. No sounds of street traffic crept into the formerly lush garden that my father had painstakingly restored from the original Loutrel Briggs plans. When an ancient cistern had been discovered after the heavy spring rains had swallowed up a large section of the garden, Sophie had swooped in and declared it an archaeological dig and surrounded it with yellow caution tape. Several months later, we were still staring at a hole behind our house. And I was still feeling the presence of an entity that continued to elude me but that haunted my peripheral vision. A shadow that disappeared every time I turned a corner, the scent of rot the only hint that it had been there at all.

Walking backward to avoid turning my back on the gaping hole, I made my way to the front of the house, tripping only twice on the uneven flagstones that were as much a part of Charleston's South of Broad neighborhood as were wrought-iron gates and palmetto bugs.

"There you are!" shouted a voice from across the street. "I thought you were standing me up."

I squinted at the figure standing on the curb, regretting not putting in my contacts. I really didn't need them all the time, and not wearing them when I ran saved me from seeing my reflection without makeup in the bathroom mirror this early in the morning.

"Good morning, Jayne," I grumbled, making sure she was aware of how unhappy I was to be going for a run. Especially when I had a much better alternative waiting for me in my bedroom.

I was already starting to perspire at the thought of the four-mile jog in front of me. Despite its being early November, and although we'd been teased by Mother Nature with days chilly enough that we'd had to pull out our wool sweaters, the mercury had taken another surprise leap, and both the temperature and the dew point had risen, as if summer was returning to torture us for a bit.

Even though Jayne had already jogged several blocks in the heat and humidity from her house on South Battery, she was barely sweating and her breath came slowly and evenly. We'd only recently discovered each other, our shared mother having been led to believe that her second daughter, born eight years after me, had died at birth. Jayne and I had grown close in the ensuing months, our bond most likely accelerated by the fact that we shared the ability to communicate with the dead, a trait inherited from our mother.

"Which way do you want to go this morning?" she said, jogging in place and looking way too perky.

"Is back inside an option?"

She laughed as if I'd been joking, then began to jog toward East Bay.

I struggled to catch up, pulling alongside her as she ran down the middle of the street. Dodging traffic this time of day was easier than risking a turned ankle on the ancient uneven sidewalks. "Will Detective Riley be joining us this morning?" I panted.

Her cheeks flushed, and I was sure it wasn't from exertion. "I don't know. I haven't spoken to him in a week."

"Did you have a fight?"

"You could say that." Her emotions seemed to fuel her steps, and she sprinted ahead. Only when she realized she'd left me behind did she slow down so I could catch up.

"What . . . happened?" I was finding it hard to breathe and talk at the same time, but I needed to know. I'd introduced Jayne to Detective Thomas Riley, and they'd been a couple ever since Jayne, our mother, and I had sent to the light several unsettled spirits who'd been inhabiting her house earlier in the year.

The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street
by by Karen White

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0399584986
  • ISBN-13: 9780399584985