James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS: The Third Chapter

Continuing this peek at the opening 50 pages of MoHG, here we bring Devin’s sister Creedence, the third major character, into the picture.


MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS

Chapter 3

Devin, leaning over his balcony, morning sun peeking over the mountains to the west; bile like battery acid lapping at his uvula, tide-drawn waves hurling against a craggy shoreline in sprays of what felt like napalm.

The urge to hurl.

Again.

After the violence of the earlier purging, the stomach—a tender organ under the best of circumstances—now feeling as though he’d swallowed shards of pulverized glass. Feeling covered in glass. Glass returned to base elements, reduced, again, to beach sand. And like after a day trip to the beach, the glass seeming to be in his ears, in the creases around his eyes, in his navel, between his toes.

The phone, buzzing in his pocket. His sister, calling from back home—what a revoltin’ development. Creedence.

Horrors.

Devin, leaning his weight against the railing, taking a long slug of a cold, early-morning tallboy: “Dingleberry and Ass-ociates, LLC.”

“Devin . . .?”

A cheerful announcer’s voice, beyond deep. “At Dingleberry and Ass-sociates, LLC, we is proud to offer fully accredited full service dingleberry picking and squeezing and harvesting. For at Dingleberry and Ass—”

A cracking sound; the wooden railing, already splintered from being kicked one night long ago, gave way. The flat horizon and upside-down buildings appeared twice in his vision, and the morning air kissed his face: Devin, tumbling from two stories up, end over end and crashing to rest in a sitting position on the hood of a Toyota Corolla, starring the windshield and knocking out his breath. His teeth clicked together and bit into the tip of his tongue. Ouch. Devin, otherwise unfazed—this kind of crap happened to him with a fair amount of regularity. He’d been through so many close calls, the old boy’d begun to believe he couldn’t actually die at all.

His sister’s voice, tinny, coming from the phone still clutched in his hand: “Devin? Are you there? Hello?”

“Shith,” he lisped, stunned and dazed and spitting pink. “Thuck me.”

Hello?”

Stiff as hell, he slid down off the dented hood of the car. Maybe he was injured for real. That’d be dealt with, forthwith. More hurting, that is. Fuck healing.

“Creedence, hold on a sec. I fell off my balcony.”

“Devin—what, what?”

He looked around, said ah-ha: his beer can, sitting miraculously upright on the sidewalk, and nary a drop lost. God, watching out for him. He grabbed up the red, white and blue vessel full of foamy, yeasty breakfast. Cracked ribs aching, he slurped what little left in the can.

“Devin?”

“What, god-durn you. I’m here.”

“Is it really you?”

Devin, rumbling like an old pickup needing a tuneup: “Near as I can tell, sissy.”

Chitchatting, he cruised on back upstairs, going out on the balcony and kicking broken wood down to the ground below, all the while exchanging mumbled, uncomfortable pleasantries. Keeping his distance from the edge. Not interested in further tempting fate.

Then, from Devin’s sibling came an uncharacteristically forthright speech. Creedence, normally talking around things the way Southern families do, yet here precise and explicit:

“All right. Now that I finally got a hold of your skinny ass, here’s the news, mister. I’m telling you for the last time that you’ve just got to stop this. Mama—your mother,” as if necessary for Creedence to remind him whom she meant, “needs you.”

“‘Needs’ me? Bullcrud.”

“It’s more than the fact that she misses your messed-up butt. I don’t know why she does, not the way you carry on and carouse and don’t call us but once in a coon’s age. I don’t, and she doesn’t”—the Carolina girl sounded the word duddent—“deserve the way you traipse around half-lit, treating us all like dirt. We’re your dad-blamed family.”

Grunting, opaque. “That you are.”

“And now I need you.”

“I’m the last thing any of you rednecks need. And I thought you said twas her what needeth me.”

Silence. “How long’s this going to go on?”

Devin mumbled, shrugging, “That’s what I keep asking.”

“Do what? I can’t hear you.”

He recoiled from the telephone as though burned. Glancing up to the ceiling with exasperation. Then, with hand spread flat upon his chest bone: “Lookit: I’m touched to know I’m missed in this fine manner. Deep inside, like. But you can forget it.”

Creedence—Chelsea Colette, as she’d been christened, the other her lifelong nickname—replied dripping and caustic. “If it’s up to me? Just as soon you stayed gone.”

“Now there’s a wish that’s likely to come true. You must feel blessed.”

“Not unless you’re going to clean yourself up,” hedging her declaration. “But Mama, she says she can’t”—cain’t—“stand it no more, you not coming home for birthdays and Thanksgiving and Easter and everything in between.”

“Same old song and dance. Try again.”

Her tone changed. Small and grim. “There’s more: she’s sick inside. One day soon she’s going to be gone.”

“Sick?” Devin, grinning at the possibility. “You think?”

“Hush your mouth.”

“I ain’t coming.”

“She’s dying, Devin.”

“Who ain’t.”

Creedence, clearing her throat and changing the subject, Devin thinking she did so readily for having delivered such heavy news. “You know I finally took and went through her check book.”

“So?”

“So, I seen how much money she keeps sending you. She’s been sending you money all this time. For years!”

“Never asked for a penny.”

“I’m sorry, but I think it’s the same as stealing. From her. From me. You ain’t no better than them gypsies who come through and scam old people.”

“Mind your own business, woman—I’ll have you know I donate half that money to a charity of my choosing. I don’t always cash them things anyway.”

“Bull.”

“I’m kinda with you, actually. That money ain’t hers to give in the first place. She didn’t do nothing for it. That’s daddy’s money.”

“I wish you’d shut your smart mouth.”

Scratching week-old chin stubble with one ragged nail, hand quivering with a tremor vibrating below the surface of his skin, Devin faked being drunker than he was, offering Creedence a string of curses and gobbledygook.

“Lord have mercy. Listen to you.”

Fighting to control laughter. Pinching his nose; tears running down ruddy cheeks. More sibilant shit, making his throat deliberately froggy and phlegmy, sounding like a man drowning in his own juices. Whimpering, pleading, apologizing. Saying how broke up inside he was. Insisting how he still couldn’t get over it all.

All the while trying not to bust a gut.

His sister, a hushed and shocked whisper: “I ain’t never heard you this bad.”

Devin, suppressed laughter changing into hot tears, merriment like an unattended pot of mama’s grits boiling over onto the hot orange spiral of the stove burner. Taking his shades off and putting them on the plastic patio table covered in cigarette burns. A cleansing laugh, healing. “Mercy. Let me catch my breath.”

Cooing, now, almost like a lover. “Devin. Sweetie. Honey.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Please. Come. Home.”

“Oh, what in the hale for?”

Sniffling. “Forget Mama, which considering how sick she is—I think it’s cancer, by the way, but I ain’t sure—she might not last long enough for you to make it home. So, do it to me.”

“Do what to you?”

For me, I said. Do it for me.”

Sick, was Mama? Snorting with mirth, and thinking of his own condition: in the last year or so the weight had really come off, probably having something to do with the fact that Devin rarely ate. Every third day or so he’d drink screwdrivers or Sea Breezes to get some vitamin C in him, a method thus far efficacious in keeping him in a minimum of nutrients. Otherwise, nibbling on dry toast once in a while, or on a real good stomach day maybe a fast food hamburger—plain, no cheese, no condiments, don’t drag it through the garden because that’s vegetables and that’s good for a body. If some croaker told him he was dying, Devin would weep not, but rather dance a jubilant jig.

Selfish selfish selfish, the Rucker women. “You self-centered little Edgewater County prick-tease. Mama’s a goner and it’s all about you? Damn if you ain’t just like her.”

Creedence, more or less ignoring what he hoped would be a lacerating insult. “I can’t sit here on the phone all day going back and forth with you. Okay?”

Silence, what he soon realized made for an indistinct indication of his feelings.

“So you’ll come home? For your baby sister?”

A flash of affection flitted in and out, a pale remembrance of love once held for her. The hardcase asshole exterior, crumbling. A sensation like actual feeling trying to claw its way out of the recesses of his abyssal insides. Maybe to commune with her—his blood—a positive notion: Devin, a besotted island unto himself, a vast, brackish sea of alone, but undeniable that his sister existed as the one and true life connection. The only one he’d allow.

Furthermore: Devin, thinking that to actually show up back home serving as the ultimate fuck-you to them all. A lark. A hoot. Home again could possibly end up being the funniest, most entertaining stunt since the last time he’d been back in the Carolina midlands, when everyone got their drawers all bunched up at the old man’s funeral over the Rucker ruckus he’d perpetuated. Devin, sensing then—and knowing now—that his father deserved a better farewell than what he’d been given, with his only son screaming and grabbing the widow around her shriveled throat right there beside the poor man’s open grave; if nothing else, a lack of decorum and respect, this. Devin, only remembering hazy details about the actual incident, like the strong hands of the men who had pulled him off Eileen Rucker—his own mother—as she’d coughed and screamed and wailed . . .

As it often happened in his life, a sudden sea-change, a thunderclap, the turning of a page. A plan; a destination. For once.

“Yes, yes,” his diction now clear and precise. “I believe that I will, dearheart. Yes indeedy. A trip home.”

“How and when?”

Devin, ready to get moving, but not about to give anything remotely close to resembling a firm ETA. “Don’t fret about the whys and wherefores, girlie. You’d get lost in the details.” Purring and oozing charm, his words now coming as a mellifluous, basso profundo Barry White incantation. “Just be glad big brother’s coming back to y’all. My women. My family. My peeps.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Thank god.”

Devin, his stomach dropping like an elevator shorn of cables, an emotional caveat: Back home meant Libby. Libby, her very name an implication of wickedness and abandonment not unlike that of his own wretched mother, and all of her ruinous and pernicious foolishness. Still having a score to settle with both of them, but especially Libby—maybe once there in Edgewater County he’d track her down. Finally have matters out with his ex.

For keeps.

Here, now, a really real and true and good-ass reason to go home—scare up Libby and that son-of-a-whore Dobbs Vandegrift, Devin having his say and at last receiving the spiritual recompense he craved, owed him in exchange for suffering the depraved, amoral duplicity his ostensible lover and blackhearted ‘best’ friend had pulled on him. Devin, feeling small and lost, the betrayal still holding a pervasive, injurious influence over every waking moment. Despite all the years, the concept of Libby and Dobbs together drove Devin headfirst into an oncoming truckload of revulsion and misanthropy.

Maybe even see Billy, too. Get caught up. Maybe Billy would come along, hold Dobbs while Devin beat the snot out of his ass, if snot came out that way. Beat that fucker so hard it’d come out that way whether it wanted to or not.

Billy. Dobbs was a cunting little scumbag and a scoundrel and a villain, but something about the memory of Billy Steeple felt wrong, too. Icky.

Was there anyone? Anyone who hadn’t pulled some shit on Devin Rucker?

Steeling up, burying the pain and hate and galvanized by notions of justice and retribution, Devin slapped his knee with all due enthusiasm and announced in his cheerful Carolina brogue, “How’s this, sister a mine: Greyhound. I’ll try to get going, let me look here in my Daytimer, hmm, yes, yes . . . tomorrow, next day, something like a-that.” Devin, spitting a green lunger against the stucco of the balcony wall and watching out of the corner of his eye as the mucus crept downward like a headless slug. “Be hard to leave this beautiful home of mine here at the foot of the mountains, though. That’s for dang sure.”

“Call when you know what day we should expect you. Dusty’ll pick you up in Columbia if he needs to. Don’t worry us by not calling, now—we don’t deserve to be treated that way.”

“You don’t? Maybe,” Devin granted.

Creedence, telling him to hush.

Devin, cringing at the thought of her husband Dusty. He’d warned his sister to move away, far away, before something like Dusty happened, but Creedence, not heeding his valuable and studied advice. And now? Stuck married to that little sad-sack Wallis turd, the only boyfriend she’d ever had, running over the same old sandy, pine needle-strewn ground and probably so bored out of her mind she couldn’t think of a blessed goddurn thing to do but call and monkeywrench his perfectly cozy and comfy trajectory of unrepentant alcohol consumption by the tankard-full. “Don’t need no one to pick my sorry ass up, especially not old Dustball. Maybe get round yonder by the weekend. Hell, what day is it?”

“It’s Monday. Monday afternoon. Call me, now, when you get a minute. Let me know where you are. That you’re okay.”

“I’m okay, goddamn you.” His actual voice; a true lie. Devin, a vaporous wastrel, silvery spots boiling before his eyes, a man on his last legs—he hoped—considered in amazement a serious plan to load up the car and head back east, with the wind at his back and home in his sights.

Could he do this?

Should he?

The siblings paused, neither hanging up, until at last Creedence continued. “Wait—I got some other news too. I’m,” holding the payoff a beat, “we’re pregnant, finally. Dusty’s so happy. We both are.” Sucking in a shaky breath. “And so I want to say that I’d like to believe my baby’ll have an uncle to play with one day, and to love. And who loves her back. Just think about it like that. Please,” voice cracking.

Scowling with distaste, Devin, waving to the college kid stunned by the mysteriously cracked windshield of his Toyota, whipping his head around and looking everywhere but up. The kid hollered, “You bastards.” He stalked away stabbing at his phone.

“Whoa, that’s great, Creed. Another squirting anus for the world to feed. So, y’all know who the daddy is, and all?”

“Devin, you hush that smart mouth before I—”

“Settle down now. I’m just funning you.” Ruminating. “Dang if you don’t sound just like Mama with all them threats.”

Creedence, cussing and spitting mad over that one.

Then, calming down and saying she had to go. But first: “So I been meaning to ask, how’s little Prudy? I wish you could bring her with you . . . she could visit with my kitties. Is she still—is she okay? It’s been so long, now. She’s really getting on.”

Devin, flipping shut his phone without saying goodbye, cutting the line of communication between the siblings, vicious, abrupt. Prudy wasn’t Creed’s fault, and furthermore, his sister couldn’t have known, but still. Fuck her for invoking the cat’s name, unbidden and out of the blue like that. What, was she trying to kill him?

Truth: He’d sooner die than go home to South Carolina. That’d show their disloyal cracker asses but-good. Change in which they could believe.

Offended and annoyed and needing a good strong dose of what he considered his medicine, now Devin had to go and get extra superduper intoximacated. Thanks for nothing, Creedence.


Next: we conclude this sneak-peek at MoHG by meeting Creedence in person.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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