Monday, December 12, 2011
by Sandi Jones
Rusty trucks and derelict boats sat neglected in front of houses along
the dark coastal road. “I swear, if your boss is one of those hoarders
who lives with auto parts in the living room and cows on the porch,
I’m calling Grandma.”
Mom chuckled and lifted a hand from the steering wheel to twiddle a
lock of blonde hair that had somehow escaped her tidy ponytail. Her
laughter was a relief from the apologies she’d been heaping on me
since we’d packed the Toyota and left Birmingham that afternoon.
The line at the corner of her mouth made a tiny upward wisp. “Ben’s a
nice man. British. Talented and intelligent.”
“Only kidding. I’m sure his house will be great,” I lied and sank
further down in the passenger seat.
Her gaze avoided mine, and my doubts climbed another notch. Yet things
couldn’t be any worse than back home with us living too near Dad, his
mental problems, and his skeevy girlfriend. Mom’s only escape there
I had nothing to lose. Except Dad. And my grandparents. And my best friend.
My only friend.
We turned the corner of another road, following a long white fence.
“This is it, I think.” Mom slowed as we neared a massive stone
entrance under dim lighting. “I have the code for the gate on my
phone.” She fumbled with one hand in her purse.
Headlights burst from the open gate, blinding me in a flash of white
as a vehicle flew out, headed in our direction. I flinched, reaching
for the dash. Seashell gravel pelted our Toyota like rain when the
oncoming car hit their brakes and veered to miss us. Mom swerved to
stop on the shoulder of the private driveway as the other vehicle, a
shiny black Vette with lots of chrome and dark windows, gunned the
“Idiot!” Mom dropped her forehead on the steering wheel.
My heart thudded. I craned in my seat, watching the guy’s thoughtless
retreat. A license plate reading “GEOFF” in reflective blue letters
disappeared into the gloom.
Mom released her breath and sat up beside me. “That was close.”
Rubber squealed in the distance as the other car spun onto the asphalt.
I scowled at her calm reaction. My own instincts told me to hang my
head out the window and call the driver the name he deserved.
“Was that your new boss?” I rubbed my palms on my jeans.
“I don’t think so.” She bit her lip as she steered the Toyota back
onto the gravel.
“At least the jerk left the gate open for us.”
We rolled past the entry’s digital keypad. The white bars closed
automatically behind us with a metallic clank as we left the lighted
gateway for the blackened woods ahead.
“I’m not sure it wasn’t my fault.” She offered an embarrassed smile as
she drove. “The guy didn’t expect anyone to be out here at night. He
was probably Ben’s—”
“Oh shit!” I clamped a hand over my mouth.
The driveway curved and a mammoth building emerged from the thick
trees. Ground lights lit ginormous pillars surrounding the white
“Chelsea Ann!” she scolded. We pulled up the circle drive where
ancient oak trees covered in elegant, gray Spanish moss reached over
us like twisting lace-shrouded limbs. Her eyes were wide and hopeful
when she glanced at me for my reaction and parked the car by the front
steps. “This must be Antonia. What do you think?”
I was out the door in a flash. Burning for my sketchpad, I walked
backward with my head back so I could take in the whole building. The
plantation-style house stood three stories high with balconies. More
outdoor lights highlighted palmettos and flowering shrubs hugging the
porch—an impressionist’s dream of soft and sharp textures competing
against each other.
Mom led us up the steps of a wraparound porch to the double doors of
what could’ve been the set of an old Civil War movie. Except the place
didn’t seem old with fresh white paint. I hoped it was new.
Surely she wouldn’t expect me to sleep under the roof of former slave-owners.
My stomach knotted as Mom rang the brass doorbell. My hands were still
trembling after our near miss with the reckless driver, but why did I
dread meeting Mr. Ramsey? I’d never heard anything bad about the
author. Lots of people I knew read his bestsellers. My grandma, for
one. His readers wanted to know more about him, but for whatever
reason, he couldn’t manage to write his own story. Too humble. Or too
boring. Mom had spent hours chatting with him on the Internet before
they’d decided to work on his memoir together in person.
The door opened and a man wearing a blue dress shirt and khaki
trousers blinked at us under metal-rimmed glasses. His expression
slowly smoothed from a look of utter disgust to dawning awareness.
“I’m sorry we’re late, Ben. I guess I should’ve called.”
“No. Not a problem at all.” His graying brown comb-over and wide smile
erased my unease about Mom finding the divorced author attractive. Too
nerdy. “Dinner’s still warm.”
“I want you to meet my daughter, Chelsea.” She nudged me closer.
Ramsey shook my hand in his cool grip. “I’m so very glad to finally
meet you. I’ll bet you’re both exhausted.”
His face didn’t register any of the shock I was used to when Mom
introduced me. Apparently she’d already clued him in about my father,
so my skin color came as no surprise.
I lifted a shoulder. “It’s not been bad. Well, except for just now.
Who was driving that Corvette?”
“Do come in,” Mr. Ramsey interrupted, widening the door. “We can talk
Paranoia prickled me as we moved through the foyer, but I’d save my
questions for later. Unlike Dad.
We washed up in the guest bathroom, where I was afraid to touch
anything for fear someone would smack my hand and say I wasn’t allowed
to handle stuff.
An arrangement of fresh tropical flowers sat in the middle of the
dining table before us. God, I’d love to capture those beauties on
paper with gouache paints. However, the aroma of fried food stole my
attention from the subject matter as a serving woman wearing a gray
uniform brought in a covered tray, and then lifted lids off the
“It was getting dark when we arrived but we saw lots of young people
leaving Hilton Head Island. It’s a popular place, isn’t it?” Mom said
Ramsey nodded. “Absolutely. I’ve made an appointment for Chelsea to
meet with the director of admissions at the prep school tomorrow.” He
lifted a piece of something covered in golden cornmeal batter. “Fried
She held out her plate. “Thank you.”
“Wait. A prep school for me? Why?” Alarm twisted the knot in my
“Lori—?” He hesitated.
“It’s on the island. Very prestigious.” Mom smiled, but her eyes were pleading.
My fork clattered on my plate. So that was the drawback to this gig?
Did he notice how I looked? I wore an old concert shirt, combat boots,
and my hair was still growing out the blue streak I’d put in it this
summer. Not to mention I’d probably be the only half-black student
there. They’d hate me.
“Thanks, but I’ve always gone to public schools.”
“Nonsense. My son will be attending Prep, too. You’ll ride to school with him.”
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